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Improving Rankings via Server Side Includes

By Robin Nobles
Posted Monday, September 20, 2004

Recent changes in Google's algorithm have caused sites to disappear or to shift in rankings this month. Many searchers have complained that Google's relevancy has declined from the changes. Therefore, don't be surprised if they continue to tweak their formula causing ranking to bounce up and down for awhile.

One observation regarding the new formula appears to be a greater preference for pages that change often. "Fresh" pages are thought to be more valuable than old, "stale" pages. The question is how do you make your page appear "fresh" every time a search engine chooses to spider it?

You could try to update all your pages in some small way everyday, but who has time for that? Luckily, you could take advantage of a feature of many Web servers called Server Side Includes (SSI). SSI's are simply statements in your HTML that tells your Web server to include a certain block of text when the page is served to a Web browser or even a search engine's spider. There are other ways to dynamically generate content on your Web site such as using JavaScript or VBScript. However, these require the search engine spider to execute the script in order to see the new content. Most search engines will not do this since they take a more simplistic approach when reading a Web page.

With SSI's, the content is transparently merged into your page by your Web server before the search engine's spider ever sees it. Therefore, the spider does not have to even know you used a server side include. Using this method, you can merge in today's date on your page giving your Web site an up to date look not only to your visitors, but to an engine checking for new content since its last visit. To merge in a date on a Unix server, you'd simply insert this command into your HTML:

<!--#echo var="DATE_LOCAL" -->

The above will display the default date format of your server on the location of the page that you place the tag. To specify an alternate date format, include something like this near the top of your page:

<!--#config timefmt="%m/%d/%y" -->

where the above would display the date in month, day, and year order.

Changing the date alone may not be enough for a spider to consider the page as being "new." Therefore, you should create a text file with various sentences or paragraphs appropriate to your page and then use a script to randomly merge in a different block of text each time the page is served. For example, you could have a "news" box on your page that displays various news clippings about your industry. You can find one such random text script by visiting this script archive resource page.

Most servers by default will only support SSI on pages ending in .shtml. However, some search engines may not give you the "freshness" bonus if they see the .shtml extension. Ideally, you should use SSI on pages with regular .html or .htm extensions. You can do this by creating an .htaccess file in your site's root directory (or edit the existing text file) and add the following line:

AddHandler server-parsed.html

The above will tell your server to support SSI on all files ending in .html, assuming your Web host supports it. The drawback with SSI is that not all Web hosts support it because it exacts a performance penalty on their servers. That's because the server must read each page and look for include statements. Before getting too far into SSI, contact your Web host (or your system administrator if you host your own site) and ask them if they support SSI for your domain or whether they can activate it. Also inquire about what level of SSI they support.

Unfortunately, I don't have the space here to take your through all the in's and out's of SSI, but there are many good reference guides on the Web. If you're a novice user still struggling with HTML, then you may want to focus on the optimization basics for now. However, if you're ready to move onto something more advanced, SSI is an excellent way to gain a competitive edge while enhancing the value of your site.

SSI Resources:

* SSI Tutorials & Reference Guides
* SSI Tutorial for Apache Web servers
* Free Scripts
* SSI on IIS Windows NT Servers
* Planet Ocean (Requires password)

Planet Ocean has one of the best SSI tutorials I've seen for the search engine optimizer, taking the user through many relevant topics in a non-intimidating manner. However, they do require a subscription for $97. This entitles you to their vast library of SEO articles plus their monthly newsletter for six months. They offer some of the best optimization advice on the Web, so if you are not already a current subscriber, I would highly recommend becoming one.

Other SSI Resources:

(http://hoohoo.ncsa.uiuc.edu/docs/tutorials/includes.html)
(http://www.oltronics.net/ssifaq.html)

About the Author
Robin Nobles is the Director of Training of the Academy of Web Specialists, which teaches online training in search engine marketing. She is also a trainer with Search Engine Workshops, which presents on location workshops in search engine marketing at various locations across the country. Please visit our site for more information about online training and other resources.
(http://www.marketposition.com/)