Make your site search engine friendly

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We’re nearly one quarter of the way through 2003; have you optimized your Web site lately?

Today, as marketers pay for placement in search engines or for the privilege of having their sites crawled, it takes significant efforts to make sure your site appears in the first two or three pages of search results.

Don’t fall for the myth that search engine listings don’t matter, said Dana Todd, the co-founder and principal of SiteLab International, an interactive agency based in La Jolla, Calif. "We’ve had clients drop off a search page, and their phones literally stopped ringing," Todd said. "Search engine placement can make or break your business."

If you want to make sure your site receives priority placement, hire an analyst or an interactive agency to do search engine optimization for your Web site. However, if you think you can do this on your own, there are steps you can take to give your site a better chance of snaring customers. Most importantly, Todd said, remember that you can’t achieve search engine greatness with one or two optimization tricks.

"There are no magic bullets," she said. "Every search engine is different, so you really have to revisit your site on a monthly basis and make sure you’re taking advantage of everything that’s out there."

Tips for search success

Here are some tips from successful Internet marketers:

• Don’t forget the basics. Purchase the most effective domain name. If you select a new URL, make sure previous users are linked to the new site from any others that your company has. Also, make sure your site uses tags for its title and description (search engines will use these tags to classify your site). It’s funny, with so many high-tech options available, sometimes we forget that search engine crawlers are reading, interpreting and cataloging HTML code.

• Take advantage of your sphere of influence. Last year, it was all about whom you knew virtually. The more sites you had linking to your site, the higher your search engine placement would be. This year, don’t think so much about whom you know; think about how relevant those links are. If you provide tax information to small businesses, for example, your site will have more credibility in a search engine’s electronic eyes if a site links to you with the words "tax information." "The number of inbound links is less important than the importance and relevancy of the sites that are linking to you," Todd said.

• Forget the frames (and Flash). Although many sites eschew frame-based design (a structure that allows a page to be divided into independent parts), there are still many of them out there. So remember: Frames can cripple your search engine placement. Most search engine crawlers won’t catalog every frame they find on a site. Generally, they choose one frame and move on. This is a problem if your content is sitting in your main frame, while the search engine crawls your navigation frame. If your site just doesn’t work without frames, make sure the design puts enough context and content in every one so it doesn’t matter which one is crawled. Flash pages, which are falling out of fashion, also can’t be crawled. So if you have a Flash-based design, make sure you have an HTML version, too.

• The keys are outside the box. Your keywords—the words you place in your site’s description and title—will affect your placement significantly. That said, don’t always go for the obvious, advised Matthew Berk, a senior analyst with Jupiter Research. Choosing keywords that everyone else uses will make you a little fish in a giant pond. Do some research, asking customers and partners how they describe your business. Chances are, Berk said, you’ll be surprised at what they respond. "Don’t just use your brand names. For example, if you sell Zoloft, you might want to include the phrase ‘happy pills’ instead," he said. "There’s too much focus on the popular keywords. The market has a vocabulary of a child."

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