Ten Top Tips for Search Engine Success

Written by Dave Collins, SoftwarePromotions Ltd.

One of the less appreciated aspects of computer technology, and one that few periodicals seem to acknowledge, is the way that it allows our to do list to grow without limits.

In days gone by we’d be restricted to how many items could be scribbled on a single sheet of paper, or how many yellow sticky notes we could fit around our desks. But that’s all changed. Many of us now work according to the schedule that we enter into our PCs, and this has enabled the previously humble to-do list to grow into a virtually infinite list of work-related tasks that we have very little hope of ever conquering.

For many of us, it’s a safe bet to assume that Search Engines are in there somewhere, probably just below the “check Y2K compatibility” chore. As they fall below the top five or so, they constantly get dragged from day to day, still looking as fresh and as good an idea as the day that they were created.

The truth is that optimising your website for the search engines is a fairly large and daunting task, but like any other, it can be broken down into a series of fairly simple steps. Doing something is infinitely better than doing nothing, so with that in mind, I’ve put together a list of the ten most important points for preparing your website for the search engines. Follow them through, and you’ll then be ready to submit to the engines.

Tip Number One
Use techniques, not tricks. We’ve all seen the adverts and articles pushing the “Secrets they don’t want you to see”, and the “Top Ten Positions Guaranteed” services. They’re everywhere. The confusing thing is that while one site suggests one trick, another will invariably explain why this doesn’t work, but that trick number two is guaranteed to succeed. So how do you know which one is right?

It’s actually quite simple. As a general rule, good technique has a far better chance of working on the search engines than any cunning trick you may hear or read about. The general consensus by those who understand the workings of the engines is that above all, content is king. If your website pages contain relevant information, and are set up in the correct way, this is likely to be far more beneficial than any “invisible text” type of black-magic trick you’re likely to hear about. More of these in tip ten.

Tip Number Two
META tags; useful, but not the be-all and end-all. When web users are identified according to their expertise in search engines, there are three distinct groups. Those who know nothing and accept the fact, those who know nothing and refuse to believe it, and those who actually do know something about the subject. Can you guess which is the largest group?

Group two seems to be full of people who proudly illustrate their in-depth knowledge by brandishing a few impressive-sounding phrases, the most common of which is META tags.

It’s true that META tags are useful, and to some search engines they’re even quite important. However, other search engines completely and utterly ignore them, and will look at the actual content of the pages themselves when evaluating the relevancy and subject areas of your site. So pay attention to the META tags, as they can still be useful. But they’re not everything.

Tip Number Three 
Identify your keywords. The fact that you need keywords in your web pages shouldn’t come as a great shock to anybody nowadays, but to know how and where to use them is quite a different matter. But before you can use the keywords, you first of all have to identify them. And there’s a lot more to this process than you may think.

The first thing you have to do is work out what it is that people are looking for when they find your site. The fact that you sell a graphics utility, for example, doesn’t mean that all your visitors are searching for the phrase “graphics utility” on the search engines.

Instead, they may very well be looking for image optimisation, JPEG compression, graphic formats, save pictures, camera software and so on.

That’s before you start taking into account regional variations (such as color and colour) and a whole host of different synonyms and misspellings that people may enter into the search engines. So how do you go about finding them?

One way is by using Overture’s Search Suggestion Tool, which allows you to see how many people are searching the Overture site for any given word or phrase. Better yet, it shows you similar and related words and phrases at the same time.

If you want to take this one step further, then the Wordtracker.com website allows you to see the same sort of information from a wide variety of different search engines and directories. It also includes a far more in-depth analysis than is available on Overture’s free tool. However, it’s not a free service, but prices (at the time of writing) start from as low as $6 per day.

As well as saving an enormous amount of research time, it’s really the only way to accurately understand what people may be searching for, and the results are almost guaranteed to surprise you, one way or the other. If you’re serious about identifying your keywords, then this is truly money well spent.

Tip Number Four 
Use the keywords throughout the text. Once you’ve identified and prioritised your keywords, the mistake that many people make is to assume that they only need to be placed in the KEYWORDS META tag. This is wrong.

Most of the search engines also take into account the use of the important keywords in the body of the page itself; in short, what the visitor actually sees when they read your page. So make sure they’re in there. This doesn’t mean that every single keyword needs to be there, or that they should be showing in each and every sentence, but they should at least be reasonably visible, if not prominent.

Tip Number Five 
Watch your logs. Another often overlooked source of information is your website’s referrer logs. If you’re lucky, these will be detailed enough to let you see not only how many people are coming from each of the engines, but also what words and phrases they’re using when they find you. Useful information indeed.

Tip Number Six 
Overture; if you can’t beat ’em, pay ’em! Overture, formerly known as Goto, offer the most popular and useful Pay-For-Performance system on the web today. Advertisers choose to bid on a given word or phrase, and are then charged this amount for each click they receive. Results from each search are then listed in relation to other bids. The real power of Overture lies in the fact that the top few listings are used in AltaVista, America Online, Terra Lycos, Yahoo and more.

Assuming that you’re prepared to pay enough to stay in the top two or three listed sites for your chosen keywords and categories, your bids will then be displayed when these same searches are carried out on the other search engines too. It costs money, but provides an immediate way into most of the major search engines. You truly get what you pay for, and again, this is money well spent.

Tip Number Seven 
ALT tags. A lot of people find an image’s ALT tags useful for while they wait for the images to download, and most people know that they are also useful for the visually impaired. But a lesser known fact is that they can also be useful for how you rank in some of the search engines. Some (but not all) of the search engines do take this into account when they spider your pages, so it’s one more factor to add to the checklist. Just remember not to go overboard, as the partially sighted visitor and/or slow downloader will need to make sense of them too.

Tip Number Eight 
Link to everything; you never know where your visitors will appear! A commonly made mistake is to assume that every person visiting your website will start at your main page. Most will, but not everyone. It’s important to make sure that every single page on your website has links to the rest of your site as well. A search engine’s spider may also find their way to one of your inner pages, and if they have no links to follow to the rest of your site, this may be all they ever see and spider of your site. Never trap a spider.

Tip Number Nine 
Leave your JavaScripts outside. If you have to use JavaScripts on your web pages, then remember that search engine spiders won’t use a browser when they come hopping around your pages. They read the source.

The heavier use you make of these scripts, the more space they take up in your document’s source. Bear in mind that some spiders may limit how far they’re prepared to look through your code. As most JavaScripts are placed in the document head, it’s a very good idea to take the script and place it in an outside file.

Fortunately this is easily done, with the use of a .js file that allows you to store any JavaScript statements and function definitions outside the page itself. Details of the technique are available all over the web, but suffice to say that it’s very easily done, and can make a serious difference to how the spiders view, index and consequently rank your pages.

Tip Number Ten 
Don’t SPAM, and don’t worry too much about being banned! Everyone seems to be very scared of getting banned from the search engines, but the truth is that it’s a lot harder than many people think.

As mentioned earlier in the article, the easiest way to avoid being banned is to avoid the tricks that are all too often hailed as the secret to search engine success. Stuffing your pages and META tags jam-packed with keywords is pointless and possibly dangerous, as is using “invisible text”, very small text, duplicate pages, multiple title tags, a META refresh tag and so on.

Today’s new tricks are tomorrow’s over-used tickets to having your listing removed, so avoid the temptation to use them at all costs. Most are relatively harmless, but a few may land you in real trouble. Stick with content, and steer clear of the latest cunning tricks.

Getting a good position on the search engines isn’t easy, especially if you’re competing with many other sites when you try to do so. But if you follow these ten tips, you’ll at least have a serious head start over the vast majority of the pages and sites that are out there. Be seen, be sold!

Written by Dave Collins, SoftwarePromotions Ltd.