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Tweak design for search-friendly site

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Search engine rankings. Those three words send chills down the spine of most Web marketers. Conventional wisdom holds that in order to compete with other sites for high search rankings, you have to hire a high-priced search engine optimization firm, or use pay-per-click search engines such as Overture.com and bid your way up the search results page. Either way, the bottom line is you now have to pay to get your site to show up in the search results, right?

Not necessarily. Many sites are designed using techniques that make it hard for search engines to understand their content. I call these design choices "roadblocks." There are several basic and easily implemented search engine optimization techniques that you can do in-house—a concept known in search engine optimization circles as building a search engine-friendly site. Removing search engine roadblocks from your site won’t necessarily vault you up the rankings, but depending on your industry niche, it very well could.

So, before paying a SEO firm, sit down with your site design team and check to see if your site is following the guidelines below for search engine-friendly design. These guidelines range from the obvious to subtle, and all can be fixed in-house.

•Search engines crawlers cannot follow image-based navigation elements. In other words, if the only way to navigate your site is by clicking on images rather than plain text links, you’ve got trouble. The good news is you don’t have to toss out your whole site; just be sure to offer a text link-based navigation option to go along with the images.

•Your site should use succinct title tags on both the main page and several key sub pages. Don’t waste the power of the title tag by using words like "Our company home page."

•Your site should use meta keyword and description tags to control descriptions returned with search results. These tags no longer affect rankings, but they do affect site descriptions shown to searchers.

•If your site uses JavaScript, make sure all meta tags are located above the JavaScript code.

•Do not use frames at all, or if you have to, do not implement them until after the main homepage, and follow the suggestions at www.search
enginewatch.com.

•Do not use dynamically generated pages, or if you have to, make sure the generated URLs are free of punctuation. If this isn’t possible, the only search engine that can index dynamic content is Google, so you’d better focus on submitting your dynamic content to it.

•Make your site as flat as possible because search engines mostly crawl the top three levels of a site. Don’t build your site like this: www.yoursite.com/section1/section2/section3/section4 (which is a five-level-deep site). Instead, you should build it like this: www.yoursite.com, www.yoursite.com/section1, www.yoursite.com/section2, and so on. This way, each sub-directory is given the same position as the others, and all are only one level deep.

•Make a site map page with text links to every page of your Web site. Submit this site map page to the search engines. This will help the search engines locate pages within your Web site.

The above guidelines can have a surprising impact on where your site ranks in search results. Most optimization firms would charge you plenty to redesign your site following these guidelines, so why not do it in-house first? If you don’t see improvement you can always hire an optimization firm, and you will have saved yourself some money.

Eric Ward is an online marketing and PR practitioner, and the publisher of URLwire. He can be reached at eric@ericward.com.

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