Posted Tuesday, October 19, 2004
Although all of my clients are happy that they now have a website and can view it on the Internet, many of them are initially surprised to learn that their site cannot be found via the search engines—even if they search on the domain name itself! If you have decided to invest in a website for your business it is important that you have some understanding of the Web terrain.
So Now You Have a Website
When a website is built for your business you must register a "domain," which is the address of your website on the Internet. Technically speaking, the actual address is a set of numbers, but just imagine how impossible it would be if your prospects and customers had to remember a 12 digit number in order to visit your site! To make this easier, a system was devised that allows you to choose a word or phrase to represent these numbers. For example, "(www.yourcompany.com)" is a whole lot easier to remember than "218.19.351.43."
After your website has been built and published to your domain, you can visit it and you can let others know how to visit it by giving them your domain name. However, the search engines, such as Google, MSN Search, etc., need time to learn about your site. It's roughly the same situation as when you move to a new city and get your new telephone number. Your friends and family can certainly call you on the new number, but it isn't in the current phone directory, and won't be until the new directory is published.
The good news is that unlike your local phone directory, you won't have to wait until next year for your site to get listed. Even if you take no action at all, the search engines will discover your site, although it will probably take several months. The bad news is that even when the search engines finally list your site, it may be so far down the list that it doesn't matter anyway.
What do I mean by "down the list?" If you search for "cars" using a popular search engine, such as Google, over 25 million listings will be displayed. If your company sells air fresheners for cars and your website is listed after 24 million others, it just isn't likely that anyone will locate your website by these means. In fact, the likelihood of anyone finding your site drops off sharply if your site is not in the first 30 or so listings displayed by a search engine.
There are two main methods by which your odds for visibility can be improved and the remainder of this article will explain these so that you can understand what your options really are.
Search Engine Positioning & Search Engine Optimization
Search engine positioning mainly consists of 1) identification of optimum keywords (or search terms), 2) optimizing your web pages for those keywords, 3) getting links to your website added to as many other websites as possible and 4) submitting your site to the search engines. I'll take each of these actions and describe it a bit more.
Identifying Keywords. Your business, no doubt, sells specific good and services, and the obvious keywords, or search terms, would at first seem to be the name of those goods or services. Such as "mortgage" if you are a mortgage broker. While it is important to include these obvious terms, there are easily millions of other websites also selling mortgages on the Internet, and your site needs to distinguish itself from the others as much as possible. The key here is to find a word or phrase for which, per statistics, there are lots of searches being done, but for which there are not millions of other websites being listed as a result of those searches. To make this clearer I'll give you an example. On Google each day there are over 2200 searches for "mortgage" (very good), and the search engine will display around 17 million listings for this keyword (not so good). This amount of competition seriously lowers the chances of getting your listing near the top.
Instead, using professional analysis tools, we will identify related keywords and phrases that lots of people are searching on, such as "todays interest rates." If it turns out that there are relatively few other sites that contain the text "todays interest rates" in their pages, this would be a good keyword to use. We repeat the keyword identification process until we have a sufficient number for use in the next step.
Optimization. Now that we have identified a number of keywords, what do we do with them? For each keyword, we will either already have a web page that primarily discusses that topic, or else we will create new pages for the purpose. Each of these pages is then carefully looked at in terms of where the keyword appears, how often, how near the top of the page, etc., and changes made to the page so that the keyword usage is optimum. This is the actual process of "optimization." Furthermore, there is also an optimum amount of text for a page—usually around 300 to 400 words—and if the page has too little text it will not really be possible to do much to optimize it.
It is important to note that there are certain web design choices that can make future search engine optimizing difficult or impossible. These include:
·Excessive use of graphic images instead of actual text. The title of this article is actual text. However, if a fancier-looking title had been produced as a graphic image, it would make the page less optimum in terms of search engine appeal. When it encounters a graphic image, a search engine is unable to "see" what the image represents—it just knows that there is an image in that space.
·Anything contained in a Flash animation. Flash can create real pizzazz on a site, but similar to graphic images, the search engines are completely shut out of the picture (in fact quite literally). This doesn't mean your site shouldn't use Flash, but not to the exclusion of a sufficient amount of real text and other page elements.
·Web pages that use frames. You've probably visited sites where the pages were divided into separate areas, each with its own scrollbar. Those sites use frames, which in most cases completely stymie the search engines and prevent them from discovering the content of your site.
Links From Other Sites. In the good old days (a year or two ago), it was sufficient to add keywords in a few places on your web pages, submit them to the search engines and voila, top listings. However, with the explosive growth of the World Wide Web in recent years, the search engines have become much more smarter in figuring out which search results would best satisfy a particular query. One criterion that is currently very important is the number of other websites that have links to yours. From the perspective of a search engine, lots of links coming into your site make your site more important, and therefore more likely to provide the information needed by the searcher. Why would another website want to link to yours? The best reason is that your website content is so outstanding that other sites will link to yours as a service to their visitors. But, this is not as easy as it sounds, since there are so many sites out there, many with dozens (sometimes hundreds) of pages of useful information.
A commonly used method of increasing links to your site is to offer to swap links with another site. This is known as a "link exchange." It takes a bit of work, but is generally the quickest route to improved search engine listings.
Search Engine Submission. After all the above has been completed, it is time to for your web pages to be submitted to the search engines. Although there are numerous submission firms that claim to be able to submit your site to "thousands" of search engines, there are only a few engines that actually matter, such as Yahoo, Google, MSN Search and AOL (not an exhaustive list). After working hard to get your website designed, built and optimized...now you wait. It generally takes 6 - 10 weeks after submission for the results to start to be seen. And it is vital to understand that your position in the search engine listings is dynamic. There are other websites also using these techniques to improve their position, and there is absolutely no way to guarantee a particular position in the listings, or how long your site will stay at that position. Even so, the difference these steps can make for your site's visibility makes it a worthwhile investment.
If you want immediate placement on the search engines, plus a better measure of control over your listing's position, you should consider pay-per-click, or sponsored, listings. If you do a search on any major search engine you will see listings at the top or along the side of the page that have the notation "sponsored listing." They may also be set apart with a colored background, which is the case on Google.
These listings are really paid advertisements. The way they work is a bidding system. You, the advertiser, bid on the search terms for which you want your listings to be displayed. The amount of your bid indicates how much you're willing to pay for a click on your link. You only pay when your listing is displayed for a particular keyword and the searcher clicks on your listing to visit your site. The highest bidder gets the first listing on the results page, the second highest bidder gets the next highest listing, and so on. Bids can be as low as 10 cents, and go as high as 10 dollars or more for a really hot keyword, such as "mortgage." Quite often you can bid on very effective keywords for 25 to 50 cents.
There are advantages to the pay-per-click system. The most obvious is that in just a day or two your website can be displayed at the top of the search engine listings. If you've invested a lot in getting your site up and running you may not want to wait 2 months for your customers to be able to find you. Also, sponsored listings are targeted to those who are really searching for the information available on your site, unlike "banner ads," which you have no doubt seen on many sites. (A banner ad is more like a billboard. The advertiser pays to have it displayed regardless of whether viewers actually click on it.)
The big downside to pay-per-click listings is that you may have lots of idle visitors who are just surfing around the Net and don't intend to buy. If they click on your listing, you pay, regardless of whether or not they become your customer. The business owner (you) must decide what you are willing to spend for customer acquisition.
I hope that this discussion has been helpful to you. If you are investing in a website or search engine positioning, you need to understand at least the basics of the game, and that is what I have hoped to achieve. It's not as complicated as it sounds ...although the unfamiliar terminology in the field of computers and the Internet often make it seem so. Never be concerned about seeming ignorant to your web designer or other Internet service providers. Before meeting you they probably had even less understanding of your field!
About the Author
Debra Bellmaine is President of Bellmaine Associates (http://www.bellmaineassociates.com), a web design & development firm providing website solutions for small and medium-size businesses. She is a software professional with broad experience creating custom business applications. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Information Systems, as well as various certifications, including Sun Certified Developer for the Java 2 Platform.