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Optimize to Get the Most from Search Engines

One of the most cost-effective ways to drive traffic to your Web site is to optimize it for search engines. Many of them use automated programs called "crawlers" or "spiders" to create an index of the Web, which they use to determine what sites are most relevant to users' queries. These programs essentially visit Web sites, read the pages' content, and follow any links to other pages, repeating the process on the sites where they end up. By also retrieving information on link destinations and frequency, among other things, the search engines are able to better "understand" Web sites than if they only took site text into account. Therefore, the key to better placement in search results is making sure it is easy for crawlers to gather useful information about your site. Search engines particularly take into account the location and frequency of keywords on your pages in determining your site's relevance. Here are some specific things you can do to optimize your Web site:
  • Get yourself a good domain name. Not surprisingly, URLs containing clear keywords generally perform better than those that appear random or are excessively long. And in addition to getting you higher placement in search results, having its own domain name gives your site added credibility. You'll want to make sure the name you choose logically pertains to the subject matter of your site, isn't too long to remember, and isn't easily misspelled. Use keywords that a crawler will understand, and try to avoid numerals or abbreviations.
  • Choose keyword-rich titles for your pages. The [TITLE]; element that appears in your page headers is often used by search engines as the text for their link to your Web site. (As an example, the title of http://www.amazon.com/gp/browse.html/?node=11091801 is "Amazon.com: Musical Instruments.") When you just use "Home Page," your company name, or something similarly uninformative, you are missing an opportunity to drive traffic to your site, since search engines weight [TITLE] elements heavily when determining the relevance of a page to a user's search. Therefore, try to make your titles easy to understand and rich in the keywords that your customers will be searching for.
  • Add META elements to your site. Make use of description and keyword properties in your headers' META elements. META name="description" content="[a brief description of your site]" is often used by search engines to determine what your site is about. META name="keywords" content="[a list of relevant keywords]" is used less frequently by search engines, but can also help boost your site's relevance in their eyes. In writing a description and choosing keywords, think about how customers will be looking for information on your site, and choose specific terms that will attract traffic. You may want to use research tools like Wordtracker to help you in this. Avoid using the same set of keywords on every page of your site, however--they should be tailored to each page's specific content.
  • Content matters. You will also benefit from providing rich content on your site. It is important that you include at least a few paragraphs of copy that is visible to crawlers and full of keywords, which will enable search engines to better classify your pages. Use the keywords you included in your <META> elements, and don't be afraid to use them many times within your copy. But, of course, what you write should make sense and be easy to digest, as readability is vital. You should also display text on your site as text, not as images, which crawlers cannot read. Use <ALT> tags for pictures you do use, so that crawlers can get some information out of them, and incorporate HTML navigation wherever it is possible, even if this means adding redundant navigation at the bottom of your pages.
  • Leverage links. Web sites that are linked to from lots of other sites are often deemed more popular and get a higher ranking in search results. However, more important than the number of links is the quality of those links. Contact owners of other Web sites that score highly for key phrases related to your content, and ask them if they will provide a link back to your site. Make sure, too, that the content on your own site is properly linked together. Crawlers will often start with your home page and then follow links from there to other areas of your site. Therefore, if you fail to provide working links to all your pages, some of your content may end up unindexed.
  • Register your site. Once you've built and optimized your Web site, it's best to manually register your site with major search engines, like Yahoo!, Google, the Open Directory Project at DMOZ.org, LookSmart, and Ask Jeeves, or have a partner like Submitnet to do it for you. Registration doesn't take long, but do be careful to follow the instructions provided by each engine, as they are all a little different. Careless mistakes could keep your site from being indexed properly, or at all.
  • Avoid pitfalls. Your goal is to increase your search-engine rankings, not to decrease them, but there are some things you can do that will accomplish just that. For example, some search engines don't index dynamic content on framed pages. If this applies to your site, therefore, think about ways to modify it so that it can be more easily indexed, or create alternate, crawler-friendly versions of your pages. Also, keep in mind that many search engines are familiar with common spamming techniques, like hidden text and irrelevant metadata, and will take appropriate action when pages using them are detected in their indexes.
  • Be patient. Above all, remember to be patient! There's no magic bullet for getting the top spot in search engine indexes. If you've spent a lot of time optimizing your Web site and you still aren't seeing results, it may not make sense spending more time tweaking it so it will surface higher. There are other ways for you to drive traffic to your site on which your time would be better spent.