NETSENSE: How to make search engines work for your site

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For this issue, I'll focus on a few questions that probably cause the biggest frustration among Web site marketers -- and the biggest source of misinformation.

How do search engines really rank search results?

The eight largest search engines -- AltaVista, Excite, HotBot, Infoseek Corp., WebCrawler, Lycos, OpenText and Northern Light -- each use their own collection of algorithms for ranking and indexing pages. Each has a spider or crawler that accesses and downloads your site's pages, and each can tweak these algorithms anytime they want.

This is why if you did a search on the phrase Business Marketing magazine at each of the search engines listed above, the results would be different.

What can Net marketers do?

Some Webmasters try to make changes to their HTML coding to improve search rankings.

Here's the NetSense approach: A search engine looks at a combination of five things on any page it visits: The title tag of the site, the first paragraph of the site's HTML text, the rest of the text on the pages, the number of and occurrence of specific words and, for some search engines, the text within meta keyword and meta description tags. There are some other variables to it, but none is as crucial as these five.

Where it gets crazy is that the importance of each of these five elements varies from engine to engine, and also can vary from month to month for all of them.

How can you improve your search engine ranking?

You can improve your site's rankings, but you have to be careful how you do it.

The NetSense approach: Before you hire any third-party firm, see what you can accomplish on your own using the following advice:

  • Include keywords and/or phrases in your title tag. The title tag text is displayed at the top edge of your browser software, across the top of your monitor at the edge of your screen. Most folks miss it because they are looking at the page in the browser window, but search engines don't miss it. Search engines give high priority to title tags and expect that your title will be descriptive of the content at your site.

    Sadly, many sites use title tags like "Our Home Page" or "XYZ Company Home Page," which is meaningless to a search engine.

  • Make your pages text-based with key phrase-sensitive content. Sites that are nothing but images are nearly invisible to search engines, yet artistic designers with non-Internet backgrounds make this mistake all the time.

  • Include key phrase-sensitive meta and image tags. Meta tags are important, but are not in any way the magic solution everyone thinks they are. Some search engines don't even support them.

    Besides the basic advice above, there are many other techniques even more sophisticated, such as gateway pages, bridge pages, buoy pages, all of which are primarily designed to attract searchers doing specific searches, and then redirect them via various methods back to the main site. u

    Eric Ward began the Internet's first third-party Web site awareness building service in 1994. He also publishes the URLwire, a private e-mail based news service for new-media editors, writers, reporters and reviewers who cover the Web.

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