Internet search engines are some of the most powerful marketing tools in the world today. No reseller can afford to ignore their potential, and it pays to be at the top – literally.
“If your site isn’t found within the first three pages of search results, you might as well be putting up a billboard in the woods,” said Robert Murray, president of search engine marketing specialist iProspect. “Users’ expectations have risen. They know exactly what they want, and they want to find it immediately.”
To prove it, iProspect sponsored some research by Jupiter Research, which found that 41 per cent of users give up and look elsewhere if they cannot find what they want on the first page of search results, and 88 per cent do not look beyond page three.
Jupiter has also found that 87 per cent of commercial clicks take place on the ‘natural’ (those not sponsored or pay-per-click) search results, and more than a third of users believe that companies who come top in the search results are the top brands in their fields.
In the early days of the web, boosting your search engine ranking was easy. Just pack your pages with keywords (often hidden from ordinary surfers), beg or buy as many cross-links as you could, set up dummy pages, virtual host names and multiple copies, and the punters would come running.
But as searching has become big business, the search engines have become more sophisticated at spotting the cheats and more Draconian in dealing with them. “We ban – either temporarily or permanently – sites that try to distort their rankings,” a representative for Google said. “Once a site has been removed we’ll only re-include it if we’re sure that they’re no longer trying to manipulate search results.”
The major search engines update their indexing software every few months, and trying to cheat them is becoming a mug’s game. Honesty really has become the best policy, but that does not rule out using legitimate design and content to achieve the best possible ranking. “We encourage webmasters to optimise their sites,” said Google’s representative.
Search engines are cagey about exactly how they rank pages, but all are looking for relevant content, good design and worthwhile links pointing to the site.
The starting point, said Simon Trigg, managing director of search engine optimisation specialist dgm, is to define the key phrases that users are likely to search on: “If you don’t get the keywords right, you’re wasting your time and money.”
Two-word phrases are most common, but if users don’t find what they are seeking they will increasingly expand their search into a longer phrase. It is worth asking friends and customers what they would search on, as well as looking at searches listed on search engines. If the keyword is popular, being more specific may help, for example, ‘wireless networking for accountants’, ‘SANs in East Sussex’, and it’s worth including both technical and non-technical terms, such as ‘colour printing’, as well as ‘offset litho’.
Search engines use software ‘crawlers’ or ‘spiders’ to index and rank web pages, assessing the design and content and following up all the links. These aim to emulate human web users, so a design that’s easy to navigate and read should score highly.
“Structure and design affect the ability of a search engine to crawl a site, and we recommend that no page be more than four links away from the home page or more than four directories deep in the file system,” John Riccardi, a representative at Yahoo! Search, said. “This increases the probability that pages will be indexed [by the crawler]. Keep in mind that the crawler behaves much like a text-only browser. Adding features such as alt text for images and text navigation, in addition to graphics and flash, will increase the site’s ‘crawlability’.”
Private areas the spider can’t access will not be indexed, and the way that pages are linked within the site can be important, said Trigg. “Because the spider will follow all the links it can, the further up the hierarchy it can find the search term, the more relevant it will consider it.”
Complying with the Disability Discrimination Act can also make a site more crawler-friendly. Blind people, for example, will use a speech interpreter, so links need to contain explanatory text, not just an icon and ‘click here’.
Web designers should try to theme pages around the particular search term or product they want people to find, and focus on one per page. This could be included in the page title, header text and URL, and also in the meta description that often provides the snippet of text that search engines display. If you don’t code the meta description, the search engine may pick a random snippet.
The ‘meat’ of the page should have at least 400 words of text that uses the search term in a natural way. The search term shouldn’t account for more than five or six per cent of the text, otherwise the crawler may mark it down for ‘spamming’ (deliberate over-use of the search term).
“The higher up the copy you put your relevant keywords and phrases, the more weight the spiders tend to give them,” Trigg said.
Content can have a more fundamental impact on improving a site’s position, as Riccardi explained: “The key to improving rankings in search results is building a site that’s genuinely valuable to users. Great content will improve ranking by virtue of its presence and by virtue of the links that will follow from it.”
In other words, you’ll get more click-throughs from the search results and more links from other sites, both of which will gain you points.
Wherever practicable, the content of the page should be updated regularly. This will encourage other web site owners to link to you, and encourage more users to visit the site. How frequently this should be done depends on the market you’re in. Search engine optimisation is a straight competition between you and your rivals, so you need to have better and more relevant content than they do.
“The more often the content of a page changes, the more often it will be re-crawled and re-indexed,” Riccardi added.
Links from other web sites are vital to success with the search engines. “If you’ve got a web site that’s not positioned very well, you need to look at the number of relevant sites linking into it,” Earnshaw said. “Without that you’ll never get a high ranking.”
Google’s representative explained how it works: “We rank stories using PageRank, which objectively measures the relative importance of a web page. Instead of counting direct links, PageRank interprets a link from Page A to Page B as a vote for Page B by Page A. PageRank will then assess a page’s importance by the number of votes it receives.
“PageRank also considers the importance of each page that casts a vote, as votes from some pages are considered to have greater value. [So] Google’s technology uses the collective intelligence of the web to determine a page’s importance.”
The most valuable links will be from body text, not banners or images, Earnshaw said, and will be relevant and occur naturally within the text, not look as though they have been planted there. They should also build up at an ‘organic’ rate, not suddenly mushroom as you ask all your friends and trading partners to link to you.
Indeed, search engines can now actively penalise links they suspect are fishy. “A small number of illegitimate links will simply be ignored, but a large number may actually damage a site’s ranking,” Riccardi said.
Top of the hitlist are so-called ‘link farms’, where unsuspecting site owners pay a third party to set up zillions of web pages with links to its clients’ sites. “Avoid them like the plague,” advised Earnshaw.
Straight reciprocal links sound good, but may not do much good, Trigg said: “People think they can swap links in the same industry, but this tends to be less valuable than a one-way link in either direction.”
Instead, according to Earnshaw, try asking companies who know that your product or service will add value to their own customers (such as a travel agent if you sell PDAs or roaming agreements) to link to your site.
There is no hard and fast rule about how many links you need, according to Trigg. Again it comes down to competition: “If you’ve got two good links and your competitors have one, then you are the best.”
Search engine rankings are determined purely from online criteria, so an organisation’s real-world status counts for nothing, something on which many startups and small firms have capitalised.
The status of the hosting company does not matter either. “We don’t discriminate against cheap or free hosting services,” Riccardi said. But reliability can have an impact, because if a site is frequently unavailable it will be visited less often by the crawlers and web users.
A good way to hasten the crawler’s visit, especially for a new web site, is to use the submission services that are offered by several search engines. Automated submission is best avoided, however, advised Earnshaw.
Once you reach the dizzy heights of a first or second-page listing in the search rankings, you might think the hard work is over, but it isn’t. “You’ve got to work to stay there,” Earnshaw said. “It’s like a garden – you’ve got to keep watering it.”
This means not only refreshing your content and ensuring your links remain valuable, but monitoring your site’s performance and measuring its effectiveness, Trigg said. You can see for yourself what your site’s ranking and position are, and the search engine web sites provide statistics and information on how people found your web site (eg via Google Analytics or the Yahoo! D eveloper Network Application Programming Interface). Consultancy firms provide more sophisticated monitoring services.
Don’t expect to rise to the top overnight. “Search engine optimisation is a slow burn,” said Trigg. It can take six weeks just to define the keywords, another fortnight to implement them, and up to six months to see the full benefits. For instant results, firms should consider pay-per-click, Trigg added.
On the other hand, if the optimisation campaign is successful, resellers need to be able to cope with the resulting increase in traffic. “Even if you’re not a well-known brand, you can suddenly get a lot more interest,” Trigg said.
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