Monday, February 28, 2005

A Search Engine Primer

The Internet is a vast repository of information without a uniform system for filing, access or storage. The most effective search engine can locate 60 percent of the existing content. The smallest can only find a mere 2 percent.

Why do you care? Because search engines drive traffic to your site, quality traffic… people actively seeking something related or relevant to what you’ve published.

Being prominently listed in a search engine’s results presents your site to prospects and customers immediately after they express a direct interest in your topic. This is the moment direct marketers live for. You deliver the right message at the right time to the right audience. It is as close as we get to the chemical formula for conversion. There is no greater kismet moment in cyberspace.

Yet these magical moments don’t come early or often. In fact, achieving consistently favorable search engine results requires the instincts of a cryptographer, the focus and intensity of brain surgeon and the insights of a psychic. That's because search engines play a complex game of cat-and-mouse with those seeking “search optimization”. To properly make the continuous moves and countermoves necessary to be ranked among the top 10 results above the fold is a full time job.

To guide you through this changing array of algorithms designed to tag, sort, file and retrieve your site and its content, here’s a guide to the basics of search optimization. Search engines are digital reference librarians. There are three garden varieties.

I. Spiders

Spiders are computerized robots who automatically pull up pages and tag, sort and file by machine, based on pre-programmed assumptions. They are necessary because we are creating new web pages much faster than anybody can count or catalog them. Different spiders take different things into account. And just to make it interesting, they change their matrices all the time. That’s why a site can rank in the top 5 one day and in the top 50 the next day.

Search engines are moving targets. You have to monitor them constantly to be successful. Natural search engines automatically retrieve documents from the Web and follow all built-in links. The “bot” leaves a catalog trail of both.

They can start anywhere and, like natural predators, they move according to their own rhythms. Spiders feed pages to the search engines which, in turn, feed them to searching surfers. The best way to influence spidered results is to focus on 4 critical variables:

1. Domain. A strong component of the search engine algorithm is whetherthe keyword is in the domain name. For example, if you are searching for books, is a sure bet. The closer your domain name mirrors what you are or what you do – the better.

2. Title. Does the search term appear in the page title? Every page on the Web has a title slug. If the name is in the title, the bots pick itup easier. Placement of the title is also important. Large title words repeated often at the top score best.

3. Links. Search engines look for the number of links and the relevance of the sites linked together. Google counts and ranks the number of links to assign your position when the search results are presented more links imply more relevant and used content.

4. Meta Tags. Meta Tags are keywords and characters or phrases embedded in the HTML code that users do not see. They are critical tools in the battle for optimizing search results, even though not all engines use them and some are programmed specifically to ignore meta tags.

While not visible to the viewer, the spider searches the meta tags and often ranks a site based on the number of times the keyword appears in the meta tag. In the old days site designers loaded up the meta tags with theword “sex” ( the most searched term ever) till search engines got wise to the practice. Today you must be careful that the word is not repeated too many times, or the engine’s spam detectors might automatically exclude the page.

If a keyword is important, it should be repeated a minimum of seven times, preferably in large fonts at the top and in the title of each page. The two most important types of meta tags and phrases for search engine indexing are:

A. Descriptions. Each web page has a brief, unseen summary description.If you don’t create it, the bot will. If you write a description of thepage in place of the summary the search engine would ordinarily create,you describe and categorize yourself. This substantially increases the chance of being ranked high in searches for your topic.

Descriptions must be less than 25 words. Search engines use a set amount of characters in the descriptions they return. If yours is too long, it will be cut off and so will your chances to optimize results.

B. Keywords. Each page can be coded with keywords to direct how your site in indexed or sorted. If you provide key words for the search engine to associate with your page, you self-define when and who will find you. Search engines don’t make judgments they find the key words. Less than 50% of web pages use key word and description metatags, so using both works in your favor.

II. Directories or Indexes

Directories or Indexes depend on humans to do the tagging, sorting and filing. Yahoo! is the largest one. They have editors reviewing content and determining whether to add sites to their database. When indexes search for key words, they take four metrics into account:

1. URL: Is the keyword in the URL?

2. Title: Is the keyword in the title?

3. Description: Is the keyword in the actual description of the site that the viewer sees? The description is usually written by an editor, but the editor often uses part or all of a description provided by the site. Because the index is scouring the content of these descriptions for keywords, controlling the description is crucial to search success.

In the index game conforming to emerging norms is the best bet.Remember that human editors are looking for the easiest, fastest way to get the job done. Piggy-backing on trends simplifies their job. Look carefully at descriptions on other sites and conform as much as possible to the style and length that prevail within the index. Unfortunately each index has its own editorial norms so you have to do this for each major index.

4. Traffic: Some indexes and some pure engines take traffic into account when determining rank. They rank your site based on the number of times people click through to it on their engine. If your site is getting more clicks than the site above you, you move up in the order of presentation.

III. Paid Search

Most search allow you to jump the line for money. There’s not much more to it than deciding which words you want to buy and how much it’s worth to you. The results are usually displayed separately and are graphically separated from natural search results. Nonetheless people searching are clicking on paid listings.

The key aspect of the pay-per-search game is avoiding terms that get bid up in price quickly and identifying key words which you can own or which will deliver a high percentage of customers to you and not to your competitors.

If you are the kind of person who, in Walter Mitty moments, imagines yourself in a musty, airless room cracking the Japanese “Purple” code, then search optimization work is for you. Ensuring top rankings is a continuous process of monitoring and making refinements based on Web site modifications and changes to search engine criteria.

For most marketers, it is almost impossible to keep abreast of the mercurial changes engines and indexes make to determine rankings. You need expertise and time to even have a shot at doing this right. The smartest marketers are outsourcing this to specialist agencies. My favorite is Acronym in New York.


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