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Be friendly to search engines: 8 ways

Posted Saturday, October 18, 2003

If your business has a name that doesn't say anything about what your business does, you're losing potential new clients and you don't even know it.

I know, I know — it's a family name passed down from two or three generations. Or it's a business you recently bought, with a brand awareness in your community that you want to keep. Go ahead and keep it.

But don't emphasize the name on your home page — at the expense of more important wording — if it doesn't really describe what your business does.

Why? Because unless your company's name is Starbucks or Nike or some other household name that people right away associate with a line of products, search engine users won't find you. Studies have shown that 75% or more, on average, will be looking in search queries not for you, but for what your business does. So you may miss out, because the search engines likely will provide them with other companies' names.

Granted, this may sound like Online Marketing 101. But it's advice not heeded by a huge number of small businesses, says Shari Thurow, a leading expert on search engine-friendly Web sites. Thurow provides a wealth of tips on improving search results in her 2003 book, "Search Engine Visibility."

Why should you care? Because search engines and directories average more than 300 million searches a day and are the main way Internet users discover Web sites, Thurow says in her book. Estimates vary, but roughly 42% to 86% of Internet users rely each day on search engines and directories to find the Web sites they seek. Getting good listings is no longer just a bonus, it's a necessity for companies serious about doing business online.

So, more important in the title tag (the words in a browser's title bar) than a business name such as "Cameron, Wilson & Boone," Thurow says, would be the words "Intellectual Property Law" or "Handmade Leather Goods" or "Financial Planning for Baby Boomers." The reason is simple: That is what most search engines look for in selecting placements in their listings.

"Put your specialty in your title tag and make it very prominent on your home page," she says. "Focus on what your audience is looking for." If you must include your name, do it after you've mentioned what your company does.

Thurow is marketing director and webmaster for Grantastic Designs, a Web design and search engine marketing firm based in the Chicago area. She's found that while many businesses make this mistake, law firms are among the worst offenders. "They put their law firm names in when they should be putting in their specialties," she says. "Oftentimes, it's simply an ego thing."

Company names do have a place — in logos, footers and the "About Us" section of a Web site. That way, most companies won't lose the small number of people who actually type in a company name in a search query. The users will go straight to the company's "About Us" section.

Here are seven other simple tips that Thurow offers in her 300-page book.

Use keywords that match what users are typing into search queries. Thurow says she's baffled at seeing "Welcome to our home page" in big letters on a business Web site, or home pages with only Flash or graphics and very little text. If your business is selling help-desk software, say "Help-desk Software" on your home page; that is what search engine users will be looking for, she says. "You need words, and the right words," she says, adding that Flash sites and graphics-only sites do not perform as well on search engines as HTML sites. Don't know what search queries are being used to reach your site? Do keyword research through various search engines.

Worry more about getting keywords into title tags and body text than in meta tags. Meta tags have two components: a brief summary description of your site and a series of keywords that you'd want people to use to find your site. Together, they provide a framework for search engines to know where to list your site. Many people, however, spend more time strategizing on keywords for meta tags than for their Web site content, which is a mistake, Thurow says. "The title tag is far more important than the meta tag," she says. "The meta tag is important, but for different reasons." Some search engines, such as Inktomi and Fast Search, will display your meta-tag description on their search results pages. Again, concentrate on getting keywords on the text on your site.

Put your most important keywords on the first part of your Web site. People shouldn't have to scroll or surf very far to find the keywords they're seeking on your Web site. Many users won't have the patience. You want them to land on a page that provides what they are seeking, but also offers a representative view of what your site is all about. Thurow urges that you model a newspaper's traditional "inverted pyramid" style of reporting, where the most important information goes at the top of every story, with more details and secondary information as you descend further into the story. Also, don't be so consumed with having Flash images on your front pages, Thurow says. You're better off with keyword-rich text.

Submit your site to human-based directories first, then to spider-based engines. First thing to know is the difference between "human-based" directories and "spider-based" engines. Search directories such as Yahoo!, Open Directory Project and LookSmart (which powers MSN Search) are edited by humans. Search engines such as Google, AltaVista, Fast Search and Teoma employ high-tech "spiders" that crawl across the Web to collect keyword matches. All measure link popularity — meaning the number of search engines, directories and sites linking to yours — in determining rankings. But getting your site listed first on reputable directories (such as Yahoo!) can boost your chances for quality links and stronger overall search rankings, Thurow says.

Design pages that provide search engine "spiders" easy access to your keywords. This is where a "search engine-friendly" site design comes in. "A search engine-friendly Web site design has at least one navigation scheme that search engines can follow," she says. It's not that hard to do. Nine out of 10 times, she says, just adding text links at the bottom of all the pages on your site is all it takes.

Do your directory submission right the first time — you usually don't get a second chance. Don't file your submission at 3 a.m., when you're half-asleep. You need a factually accurate site description that contains as many keywords as possible. If your description contains little or no keywords, the editors aren't likely to change it — in other words, they usually won't go back and change a description just so a site owner can add more keywords.

Constantly monitor your site statistics, to see what your visitors prefer. For example, if you find your "Human Resources" pages are among the most popular, you might want to consider adding more of those pages. Or if you spell "healthcare" throughout your site as one word, but your users' queries are consistently "health care" as two words, you might consider making the switch. You need to update your site constantly, based on what your audience prefers and which of your pages delivers the best return on investment. Focus your efforts on those pages, Thurow says.

For additional research to get the best keywords for your site, several search engines and directories list "related searches" or terms "people also searched for." A few, such as Overture and Google, offer free search-term research tools.


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