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How to win the search engine wars

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Studies show it's more likely a customer will click on a link to your site from a search engine than on a banner ad, so it's critical your company be ranked high on the lists generated by these engines.

But search engines don't like giving away their secrets and they make it difficult to code your site so it stays consistently at the top of the list. So how do you win the search wars?

A growing subculture of journalists, software developers and marketers want to help. Their businesses depend on keeping clients on top of the lists and they wage a continuing battle with the search engines.

Code site properly

How do these companies keep your site ranked high in the lists? Mainly by using common tags found on most Web pages:

  • Titles: The descriptive name of the page in an HTML tag near its top.

  • Meta tags: Identifiers placed on a Web page, not displayed in Web browsers, describing the content on the page. Common meta identifiers include "description," "keyword" and "path."

  • Alt tags: If you have images on your page, these are the captions that will appear before the pictures display. Some search engines index these tags.

  • Body text: The actual headlines and words used on the page, especially the headlines, are often indexed as well.

    Most search engines -- including the big six: Excite, Infoseek Corp., WebCrawler, Lycos, AltaVista and HotBot -- index pages based mainly on these codes. While you'll want to submit your pages to these sites, experts say their software will often find you.

    Yahoo! no search engine

    Yahoo!, the most popular search engine is a special case because it's not a search engine at all. It's an index written and updated by editors.

    "Yahoo! gets over 8,000 submissions a day," says Ken Wruk, president of Web Promote, a Libertyville, Ill., Web promotion company. "Their staff can only select a few hundred."

    Consultants and newsletter writers who follow the search engines offer basic suggestions to get the best placement.

    "Start with a good heading," says John DeUlloa, president of PromoteOne newsletter, San Diego. "That encompasses the words you want to be found by almost verbatim" and is displayed in users' browsers, he says.

    "Use three to five variations of your business in a meta tag, like golf clubs, golf shoes, golf apparel -- most engines think that's appropriate," suggests John Schick, a consultant for Submit-It, Chicago.

    Tricks of the trade

    If you're doing all you can with your tags and still don't like the results, there are other tricks you can try that are on the border of legitimacy.

    One good technique, Mr. DeUlloa suggests, is to create different key pages with the same content as your home page, optimized for each of the major search engines. Codes on that page might then redirect users to your main home page.

    Most search engines don't want other people selling placement on their indexes and pocketing the money. So the techniques they use to index the Web are constantly changing. Some tricks that used to work no longer do.

    For instance, keyword flooding, in which a keyword is repeated many times on the page, no longer works, says D.R. Peck, CEO of Green Flash Systems, San Diego.

    Beyond the basics, companies like Client Direct, Did-It, Web Promote and Green Flash are guaranteeing results by using more out-of-the-norm techniques.

    Redirection

    Perhaps the most controversial involves redirection. A promotion company designs a page with tags designed to hit the top of a search engine in response to certain keywords, and when an engine hits that page the user is redirected to the promotion company's client's page.

    Entrepreneurs like David Pasternack, president of Did-It, Rockville Centre, N.Y., defend what they're doing, noting that users are far more likely to click on a search link than an adjacent banner ad.

    But search engines know this and are signing what they call positioning partnerships with advertisers, says Danny Sullivan, who publishes the SearchEngineWatch newsletter. "Search engines now get more from positioning partnerships than banner ads," he says.

    There's one more option. A new search engine called GoTo.Com from Idealab is holding auctions for prime placement on keywords. The company calls its real-time keyword auction technique a method for "empowering the marketplace."

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