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Common Sense Search Engine Optimization

By Jill Whalen
Posted Friday, September 17, 2004

When you think of search engine optimization, in all likelihood, gateway pages, doorway pages or informational pages probably come to mind. For years, these have been the method of choice for many Web marketers. If you're a search engine optimization specialist, many clients may even come to you requesting these types of pages.

They think they need to use gateway pages because they believe the following statements to be true:

1. Every search engine has a different algorithm (formula) to determine the ranking of a Web page, and therefore no one page will rank high in all of the engines. Therefore, we must create totally different pages for each search engine.
2. Keyword-rich copy that the search engines will like, is not text I can visibly put on my site where people can see it, especially not on my front page!
3. Our site needs to be on the cutting edge and use Flash animation and/or lots of graphics. Since the search engines can't index these very well, I have to use gateway pages.

Although there is a grain of truth to these statements, there are good reasons why gateway pages aren't the most effective method for getting high rankings in search engines.

Dealing with differing algorithms

Yes, it's true. Search engine algorithms are varied and do change. There's even a new breed of search engine optimization "specialist" out there whose job is to "crack" those algorithms. Algo-crackers spend many hours poring over search engine results and statistics, trying to figure out each search engine's current formula for high rankings.

Once they have "cracked" the algorithms they create different gateway pages for each search engine. Using this method, as soon a new algorithm is in place, these carefully crafted gateway pages will often drop out of sight in the rankings. The new algorithm must be cracked again, and new gateway pages must be created. Sounds like a never-ending, time-consuming, and expensive process to me.

The truth is, that even though search engines do have slightly different algorithms (and they do change them at times), basically all engines want to see the same things in a Web site:

* A simple, clean design,
* Easy navigation,
* Well-written, keyword-rich copy that clearly states the benefits right up front,
* Titles and Meta Tags that help identify possible, relevant keyword phrases.

Pretty common-sense, don't you think? Web sites with these features usually don't need to crack algorithms. These sites have the potential to achieve high ranking for many key words in all major search engines for many years, regardless of ever-changing algorithms

Writing Keyword Rich Copy

Those involved in creating gateway pages often tell me that it's an oversimplification to say that you can put search engine friendly text on your actual Web site's pages. They claim there's a difference between good copy for search engines and good copy for visitors to their site. Therefore, there is no other choice other than using gateway pages. In my opinion, that is simply not true. Good marketing copy can be written that sounds great, has calls to action and also utilizes keyword phrases. There's definitely an art to it, and you have to be a good copywriter, but it most definitely can be done. I cannot stress enough how crucial keyword-rich copy is for search engine success.

Use of Flash Animation and Graphics

Over and over again, we hear from companies that want high rankings, yet refuse to forfeit their LUGs (large useless graphics) and Flash animation, in favor of adding the copy necessary for high rankings. This is quickly becoming one of the biggest barriers we see for not being able to optimize actual pages of a Web site. Companies spend a LOT of money creating LUGs and Flash presentations, and are reluctant to remove them and replace them with keyword rich marketing copy.

Apparently, they think that visitors WANT to watch a cool animation before they find out what a site is all about. Or maybe they think it makes their companies appear to be on the cutting-edge of technology. But stop and think about it for a moment. The ultimate goal of most Web sites is to sell a product or a service. When you see a Flash presentation on a site, does that make you want to purchase their products or use their services? Sure, it might appear cool the first time you view it, but thereafter it only serves as an annoying diversion and/or waste of time. And if you're on a dial-up modem, you probably didn't wait around to view it anyway.

Common sense tells me that most people would rather be presented with information on the types of products or services offered in clear, concise language, right on the main page of the site they're visiting. Luckily for us, that's exactly what the search engines want to see also!

Optimize your actual site

For those companies that are willing to simplify the pages of their Web site, they truly can own long-term high rankings. Many of the best search engine optimization consultants use this approach, and have proven that it works. Convincing companies of this fact is one of the most important, yet difficult jobs a search engine optimization specialist has to do.

If you or your client are still not convinced that this is the way to go, here's another good reason: With thousands of new sites being created every day, search engines are having trouble keeping up with them all. Forcing search engines to index extra gateway pages is seriously starting to put a strain on them. Just as email spam strains the resources of ISPs, who have to constantly fight it, gateway page spam does the same thing to the search engines. Even highly relevant gateway pages can be a thorn in the side of search engines who ultimately have limited resources.

If you still don't believe me, you might want to read AltaVista's new FAQ for Webmasters. AltaVista comes right out and tells you what it takes to get a high ranking. (Not surprisingly, they don't mention creating gateway pages!) I leave you with a quote from their FAQ:

"Spend your energy and money making your pages as useful as possible to your target audience. The quality of your site is an important ranking factor! Part of improving the quality of your site is thinking about what your audience wants, and the terms your audience might use to search. Write your text so your pages are better matches for specific queries."

And that, my friends, is straight from the horse's mouth!

I welcome your feedback, particularly suggestions for future columns. Please also send me your questions to answer in the RankWrite Roundtable newsletter. You can e-mail me at with your questions or column ideas.

About the Author
Contact Jill Whalen by e-mail at

Jill Whalen of High Rankings is an internationally recognized search engine optimization consultant and host of the free weekly High Rankings Advisor search engine marketing newsletter.

She specializes in search engine optimization, SEO consultations and seminars. Jill's handbook, "The Nitty-gritty of Writing for the Search Engines" teaches business owners how and where to place relevant keyword phrases on their Web sites so that they make sense to users and gain high rankings in the major search engines.


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