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Search Engines: What's Happening?

By Bob McElwain
Posted Thursday, September 25, 2003

For some time, I've been building a new site with my partner, Mary Holzrichter, All this activity went on behind an index page that said, "Coming Soon." There were no links off this page into the site itself.

We sell fast paced action novels in several electronic formats and as trade paperbacks. However, since we needed books to sell, the "Coming Soon" home page remained as we searched for acceptable titles.

We invited friends and associates to report our needs to authors who might visit the sites. Links, however, were to
<http//> because these are the pages explaining to authors how we can help and what we need to make it happen.

When Is It Time To Hit The Search Engines?

This is always difficult to answer. But since it takes time for listings to become available, we decided even though we only had a half-dozen titles, we should begin the process.

The first step was to move our temporary home page to index.html, thus making the site live for all visitors. We did so in the second week in November, 2002. On 11/14/02, we paid the $299 and submitted to Yahoo in order to get a popularity boost for pages submitted to search engines.

We waited until December, then began submitting site pages to the major search engines. I personally cling to the notion of submitting only 5 pages/day to avoid any suggestion of spamming. So this took several weeks.

Surprising Results

We had not been paying much attention to stats, for we had only a few inbound links attracting authors. When we did begin doing so, we started with August. Here are the results through December. September is missing because the log file is corrupted.

Referring Source
Visitors Yahoo Google AltaVista
Dec 11,992 314 141 42
Nov 16,581 680 74 106
Oct 10,752 331 117 36
Aug 5,511 12 13 4

So what's the surprise? We got 331 hits from Yahoo in October *before* we submitted our site. The bulge to 680 the next month, following submission, is probably explained by the temporary "new" tag beside the listing.

Chances are those 331 hits in October came from Google results used to compliment Yahoo directory listings. Fine, but where did Google get these pages? We had no home page. And no pages had been submitted.

What Does This Data Demonstrate?

Nothing, really. It's far too small a sample to provide relevant information about search engines. And it certainly says nothing about the Web as a whole.

It does raise one question. Where did Google and AltaVista find our pages? I've only a guess, completely unsupported. Given the pressure on search engines to "cover" the Web, some robots may be following links off site. This is the only way I can explain how they found our site. For as mentioned, we did have several inbound links drawing authors.

What Does The Above Really Mean?

Ten years back, it was easy to tackle a search engine such as InfoSeek, figure legitimate ways to get pages to rank well, write them, and submit them. Hits were forthcoming.

All I labored to learn back then has long since become history. I follow half-a-dozen search engine oriented newsletters, and read them with care. Still I am fuzzy about the search engine game today. And I remain confused about contradictory statements and opinions from well qualified people.

Two Observations

First, I don't believe it's possible to run a business and still have time to master the use of search engines.

Second, I no longer see mastery of search engines usage as a significant goal.

To put this differently, search engine related traffic continues to become ever less significant to small businesses. This may not be so with your site, but it is for many. As a consultant, I see a lot of site stats in addition to my own. All I have seen suggests this decline, and that it will continue.

Buying Your Way In

Yahoo recently bought Inktomi. I can only guess as to why, but they may plan to replace Google search results on their site with those from Inktomi. At this writing, Google seems to have nearly eaten Yahoo alive. If so, Yahoo could reasonably want to see changes.

The catch? You pay per page to be listed in Inktomi. $38.95/year for the first page submitted, and $24.95/year for each additional page. And Yahoo itself is $299/year.

So before you rush out and join in this parade, do the math. Few small businesses can afford these fees.

Reality Check

If you don't have good data, or enough of it, you may not have been able to accurately determine the value of a hit to your site. That is, you may not be certain how much a new visitor is worth to you. Yet you must know this figure in order to evaluate results, as in an advertising campaign.

If you don't have a fix on this number, use a guesstimate of a penny. At least you won't go too far wrong, too fast.

With one cent as the value of a hit, you'll need 29,900 hits from Yahoo to cover the cost of their annual fee. Only when you exceed this number, will you begin to make a profit.

$38.95/page for Inktomi means you need 3895 visitors from this page to cover costs. And more to make a profit.

The Major Change In Search Engines

Ten years back, search engines needed your submissions in order to grow their database, to be in a better position to deliver what their visitors needed.

Today, whether with popularity rankings or fees, the listings that load first are paid for in one way or another. And quite frankly, until the value of a hit to you approaches a buck, you are not likely to win. Yahoo can easily deliver 299 visitors and Inktomi can as easily deliver 39. Since they can be expected to produce many more, these costs are minimal, provided each hit is worth a dollar to you.

Costs Are Prohibitive To Many Small Businesses

Be certain you have loads of good data and that your math is accurate before giving thought to paid submissions. For most small businesses, the path to success leads through advertising, links, and interaction with related sites.

While it's wise to continue submitting new pages to those search engines that accept them, it is unwise to expect significant results.


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