Search engine strategies

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Two years ago, Katherine Lo, an office manager who also handles sales and marketing, didn’t think her company needed the Web, much less a way to be found on it.

Germfree Laboratories, a Miami-based manufacturer of biological safety equipment, sold its products directly to hospitals, pharmacies, universities and the government. Business customers, Lo thought, wouldn’t use the Web to find clean room equipment and hoods with HEPA filters. So up until last year, the company used trade magazines as a way to reach potential customers.
"We relied on ads for exposure, but we weren’t getting as much as we liked," Lo said. "We realized that people were searching for products on the Web, but we didn’t have much visibility. We had a nice-looking Web site but people would type in a search and not be able to find us."

Germfree contracted with, a search engine optimization provider, in a bid to expand its Web reach. analyzed and optimized the site, making it easier for search engines to find it. The investment paid off. Today, the company has 50% more initial customer contacts via its Web site than it did a year ago. And that’s not just because of Sept. 11, Lo said. "In the beginning, pre-Sept. 11 customer contacts kicked up 20% to 30% right away."

While Germfree’s experience may not be typical, analysts and Web marketers agree that Web site optimization can mean the difference between the second position on the first page of search results and the first position on the 10th page. And considering the fact that a customer who finds you using a search engine is probably more qualified than someone who stumbles onto your site by accident, getting your page search engine exposure should be part of your overall marketing effort.

Fortunately, getting better placement isn’t difficult or expensive. It just takes a little work. Here are a few tips to maximize your Web site’s potential.

Tag your site wisely

One of the biggest mistakes companies make is also the easiest to rectify: not using the correct HTML tags, said Chris Sherman, editor of SearchDay, a free daily newsletter.

There are three tags—title, description and keyword—in a Web site’s HTML code. These tags help search engine spiders (programs that automatically read and index Web sites) create weight-based rankings. The title, which is the word or phrase at the top of your browser, lets spiders and visitors know which site they’ve arrived at. Description tags function as a 250-character mission statement, while keywords give search engines a way to instantly categorize a site.

"A lot of Webmasters overlook a well-designed title tag and good text on their sites," Sherman said. "If your site is lacking these things it buries the site [in search results], and that’s if they can be found at all."

Sometimes, even sites that do use keywords lose out anyway. Many businesses choose the wrong keywords—for example, "tools" instead of the more specific "hammers." Unless the customer generalizes, the company may not show up in a query response.

Don’t be too Flash-y

Sites that use Macromedia Flash or dynamic content generators look snazzy but may do more harm than good in the long run, especially if the site uses minimal text. Search engine spiders are designed to read and index text—not images or applications. If a spider doesn’t see text on a page, it may skip the site or index it without a description or title. This seems to happen often.

Last year, search engine optimization provider iProspect conducted a study of Fortune 100 companies and their use of Flash and other dynamic content. The study found 97% of respondents used technology that would damage their chances of being indexed by a spider. "It’s like spending
$1 million on a billboard in the woods," said Fredrick Marckini, iProspect’s CEO.

The way around this is fairly simple, although slightly more costly: Create a text-only version of your site. If that’s not an option, you can make sure you add a clear text-only mission statement. Dave Michaelson, an e-business manager who handles Honeywell International’s, said his company did just that. "We’ve really made our site, which is very database heavy, into a true keyword-rich site," he said.

Avoid hocus-pocus

Although most search engine optimization providers employ fair techniques to boost your site’s Web search rankings, there are some that aren’t as ethical. These providers use search engine optimization tricks that may work in the short term but in the end could get your site banned from the very search engines you’re trying so hard to impress.

For example, last year unscrupulous Web marketers tried scamming search engines by placing white text on a white background. Although human visitors to a site didn’t see the text, the engines did. Within a few months, the search engines caught on.

Today, "cloaking," which is the equivalent of an Internet bait-and-switch, is gaining in popularity. Companies create a page on their site specifically for search engines. When spiders come crawling, the search-specific page or site is indexed. When search engine users click on results, however, they are forwarded to an alternate site, which many times has little if anything to do with the original. Most engines take a strong stand against cloaking. and others actually ban sites that use this optimization method.

Exchange links

Some search engines use external links as ranking criteria. The more external sites the spider sees linking back to your site, the higher your site will appear in its rankings. You can boost your standings by asking partners, customers and suppliers to exchange links with you, said Barbara Coll, CEO of WebMama Inc., a Web optimization provider. "Anyone who touches your business probably has a Web site. You can write link exchanges into your contracts," she said.

But a word of caution: avoid scams such as link farms, which are sites that list hundreds or thousands of URLs, one after the other. Search engines use algorithms to seek out fake links. "You need to link to sites that have lots of other sites linking to them," Coll said.

Consider paid placement

There are ways to circumvent having to change a site to improve your position on a search engine’s results page. The most notable alternative is paid placement.

If you do a search on any of the main search engine sites, you’ll see featured links and ads at the top of your results page. These ads—which come in two flavors, pay-per-click and flat-fee—show up first and can provide a boost to your site’s traffic. Pay-per-click placement can cost between 5 cents and $7.50, depending on the keyword that your site is associated with. Unfortunately, once you stop paying, your site will drop off the first page like a stone. Overture is one of the largest paid-placement sites.

Another paid option is the yearly crawl subscription. For a fee, which is usually under $50 per page, the search engine spider will crawl your site regularly so you’re sure it will be included in the search engine’s results.

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