Seek and ye shall be found

Written by Dave Collins, SoftwarePromotions Ltd.

When it comes to search-engine work, there are more myths out there than in the average Ancient Greek library, and so many of them can lead to tragedy. In this first of a series of articles, I’ll be breaking down some of the myths, and trying to answer some of the more commonly asked questions about the search engines. With a little bit of information and a few hours work, you too can seize the opportunity of the search engines.

It’s probably safe to assume that most of the people visiting your website are interested in the product or service that you provide. Many will look at what you have to offer, and a certain percentage of these will then buy what you’re selling.

If you can increase the number of people that find your site in the first place, you should also be able to boost your sales.

So how do people find your website in the first place? At least some of them should be coming from the search engines. We all use them from time to time, and there are bound to be an awful lot of people out there who haven’t heard about you or your software, but may well be looking for what you sell.

While search engines are probably the most widely used resource on the web, they are also the least understood, and that’s just from the perspective of the end user. On the other end of the chain, getting listed on the search-engines is remarkably easy, but being found once you’ve done so is a different matter altogether. You can certainly read the instructions on each of the search-engines, and there’s more than enough information available on the web, but beware. Bad information abounds, and for every good tip that you’re likely to come across, there are four or five tricks that just don’t work, and plenty of misconceptions, mistakes and bad ideas. This article will steer you around some of these.

METAs – The Mother Of All Myths
META tags are one of the most misunderstood and neglected aspects of a website’s setup. The majority of website owners (‘webmaster’ sounds too suspect to my ears) either choose to ignore them entirely, or spend countless hours fine-tuning them. Both of these are bad strategies. META tags are remarkably simple to setup, but for some reason an air of great mystery and misunderstanding always seems to surround them.

The most important META tags are the title, keywords and description, all of which are placed in the <HEAD> of the document.

How long should each of these be? It varies from engine to engine, but keeping the keywords down to 1000 characters and the description to 200 is a good rule of thumb.

Will exceeding these figures get you banned? Not at all. The worse thing that might happen is that the search-engine may ignore some of your excess tag content. Another popular myth is that the TITLE has to be at the very top of the <HEAD>. Also not true – even though I too believed this for some time, having read about it on the Microsoft website. The order of your META tags doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference; only the content.

What about the keywords – the more the merrier? No. While some people go for the approach of a massive list of keywords, I prefer to go for the tightly focused strategy. And remember that keywords can also be phrases as well as individual words.

What about commas and spaces? Both should be used, as without them, the search-engine spider can’t separate the individual words from the phrases. Treat the phrase “hot dog” as two separate words, and you get the idea.

Is it safe to repeat your keywords? The answer depends on the actual usage. Having the keywords “free, free, free, free” is generally not a good idea, but having a word repeated within different phrases is quite acceptable – for instance “sales strategy, increase sales, measuring sales performance”. As long as you don’t push this to the extreme, you will not get banned for this sort of behaviour.

Do you need to use the ROBOTS META tag? Not really. Unless you want to keep specific pages out of the search engines, then there’s no need to use this tag at all. While we’re on the subject, the REVISIT tag is as harmless as it is ineffective. The spider will come back to your site according to its own schedule, or from your own submission to the search engine. Not according to the interval specified in this tag.

Do you need to use plurals and singulars in your keywords? What about case? While the technical answer is that this depends on the individual search engine, the practical answer is that as a general rule, you don’t need to worry too much about this. Most people will search using the singular form, in lower case. So it’s a fairly safe bet that you’ll cover most searches and search-engines in this way.

Frames – Bars Or Benefits?
The two schools of thought on frames and search-engines argue that frames make no difference to the search engines, or that a framed site cannot possibly rank well. Both of them are wrong.

Framed sites can rank extremely well in all search-engines, but only if setup correctly. The article “Search Engines: Doorways, Hallways, Robots and Resources” in the April 2000 issue covered the specifics, but the general idea is that the pages have to make use of the NOFRAMES tag, and that the designer has to take into account the fact someone visiting one of these pages without going through the frames structure might not see the content or material as you’d expect them too. Although there are ways around it, the easiest solution is simply not to use frames at all.

Turning tables to your advantage
Many web designers overlook the fact that the search-engine spiders do not see their site through a web browser. They see the source code. If you view your pages in their raw HTML form, you’ll more or less see them in the same way as a visiting spider.

If you use tables, you might be surprised to see that even though the table appears to have all your carefully chosen keywords at the top of the page, this actually comes a long way down the document’s code, and has effectively been hidden by all those tags, images and code items.

Does this mean that tables are bad for the search engines? No, but you do have to work around these problems. The simplest solutions are to put a graphic (logo) at the very top of the page, and ensure that the ALT tag is keyword rich. You can also put comment tags at the very top of the page as well. And make sure that any buttons or images in the table also have suitable ALT tags. You don’t want to lose the spiders or the vision-impaired visitors.

Spam, bam – Thank You Mam?
Never forget that solid content is better than all and any tricks, and that the ever-thinning line between tricks and technique covers a surprising amount of grey area. While there are no hard and fast definitions of what constitutes search-engine SPAM, there are a few tricks that are well worth avoiding like the plague.

Don’t cram mass-repetitions of your keywords at the bottom of the page, and don’t even consider making it the same colour as your background. It just doesn’t work.

And if you have to forward a visitor to a different page, use JavaScript. It’s a lot safer than a META refresh, and is less likely to raise any search-engine eyebrows. Using a server-side redirect is the safest method of all.

Have you been banned from the search engines? Probably not. It’s nowhere near as easy as people seem to think, and unless you’ve been using some very questionable methods, chances are that you haven’t. If your site has vanished from a search engine, try resubmitting it, and make sure that your robots.txt file is setup correctly. If after a reasonable amount of time, your site still isn’t listed, then contact the search engine, but don’t go mentioning blacklisting or doorway pages – just tell them that your site seems to have been lost in their listings.

How often should you submit? While there’s no rule as such, a good rule of thumb is to resubmit when your site has been dropped, and/or when you have new content. In general, avoid submitting any single search-engine more than once a month.

A Final Few Questions
Can you submit subdomains separately, or are they treated as the same domain? If by subdomains you mean and, then the good news is that these are treated as separate sites, and so can be submitted separately.

If you change to a new webhost will you Iose your search-engine position? No. As long as you have the new account setup before the transition is made, then the process should be seamless, and will not affect your search-engine positions.

When you go through your referrer logs, there are so many visitors marked as NO REFERER. Why? Check with your webhost that their logs are setup correctly, but you should also understand that some browsers simply don’t pass-on this information. In general you should use your logs as a good overview of your site traffic, but never assume that they are particularly accurate.

In conclusion, the search engines are a much-neglected area of marketing, but when wading into the waters for the first time, it’s best to tread with caution. Go through the information available on the individual search-engines, and look around for advice. If you stick with tried and tested techniques| as opposed to clever tricks, then you can really only gain from your efforts. Search engine optimisation is slow and tedious work, but almost always pays off in the long run. Be seen, be sold.

Written by Dave Collins, SoftwarePromotions Ltd.