Improving Search Engine Results

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Hundreds of search engine optimization companies promise tens of thousands of people a top-10 slot in a search engine. Is this possible? You do the math.


These "Guaranteed Top 10 Placement" ads are getting the ring of the infamous "Lose 10 pounds in five days" campaigns. Those dieting fads are treated with great skepticism and so should these search engine placement promises.


Suppose 11 plumbing companies go to different "Top 10" placement firms. All 11 request to be in the top-10 based on a search for "plumber." How can you guarantee everyone top 10? And if you do get such a placement, how long will it last?


These SEO companies may be able to land a Web site in the top 10 for a particular keyword phrase in a particular engine, but most businesses can't be summed up in just a couple keywords. I seldom encounter a business that can find just two or three words that are definitive for their business, and when they try, it is nonspecific to the point that searching returns a million results.


In theory, what these companies do is help you devise a keyword phrase that represents your business. These companies will try to optimize your site so that the search engines will find it in its first 10 results based on those keywords.


For instance, an electrician in Bergen County, NJ, may ask to be optimized for "electrician Bergen County." Search engine optimization companies will try to find the most often searched terms to try to get the most amount of traffic.


Many of these companies rely on methods to outsmart the engines. They try to crack the algorithms that engines use to return results, as well as other tricks. Some of these tricks, such as cloaking and doorway pages, have a ring of deceit to them, just as the names would suggest.


Contrary to popular thinking, you don't need a top 10 ranking for a specific keyword phrase to get good exposure. The key is to treat a Web site like a business process that is incorporated into your marketing plan.


It's all in the content. Optimizing a site for specific keywords is far less important than building a site with solid, relevant content. A Web site should contain all the information you would tell someone if you met them while exhibiting your products and services at a trade show:


o What's unique about your business?


o What does your business do best?


o What advice can you give to someone seeking your services?


Add these pages to your site in a manner that suits your business, and you will find relevant keywords getting incorporated into your content. Additionally, the wording will probably flow more smoothly and effectively if you speak from the gut than if you wedge keywords into a single paragraph for the purpose of getting a better search engine position.


One of our clients, an aviation company, contacted us because they had a low visit rate. After much conversation, we added pages describing all the steps needed to get a charter flight to its destination. The new pages described tips to keep costs down, a glossary of terms that are used in the air charter business and a frequently asked questions section. Recently, this company received business from people searching on keywords such as "fuel consumption" and "air charter safety."


Had we followed standard practice, we would have optimized the site for "air freight" and "air charter," as sites like www.wordtracker.com tell us that these are the most popular searches on keywords. What would have happened? If the law of supply and demand holds true, there would be an abundance of Web sites returned in the search results.


Standard SEO practice says the answer to this problem is to pick as specific keywords as possible to optimize for. I disagree. Remember, www.wordtracker.com can tell you only how many people searched on a certain keyword, not why they searched the term or what they were really looking for. Trying to guess exactly what keywords an individual will search on when they are looking for a specific product or service seems futile.


Good site design. Quality content is only half the battle. The rest is ensuring that you designed the site in a search engine-friendly way. Here are tips for maximum compatibility with the engines:


o Put your salient words in text, not in graphics. Search engines cannot read the words in graphics files. They can read only HTML text. If you have the text of a site in a graphics file, the search engines will be unable to find it. If you are using Flash, you may end up with a great looking site that search engines can't do anything with.


o Don't use frames. Not only are frames dated and make the site look ugly, frames also make it hard for search engines to read your content. Recent articles indicate that some engines have gotten better at parsing through frames, but you still risk having content missed by the engines.


o Limit Java and Javascript. Java applets are generally ignored, and too much Javascript risks making the engines confused and unable to access all of your content.


o Be careful of the tricks of the trade. Search engines get smarter all the time. The people who maintain the engines are becoming more sensitive to spam daily. Tricks like repeating the same keywords in meta tags or putting hidden text on a page may get you kicked out of the engines.


Also be wary of doorway pages and cloaking. In doorway pages, Webmasters set up a different page optimized for each engine and submit that page to each engine. Cloaking is when a Webmaster keeps a simple HTML page loaded with content that tries to match the algorithms of the engines. The pages are usually not geared for a person to read for information, but are designed purely to get a higher ranking.


o Links go a long way. SEO practice tells us to get lots of sites to link to your Web site. It says that the more links we have, the better our rankings. Though most engines will give you better rankings based on the number of people linking to you, that's not the main reason for a link campaign. The main reason is that you will get click-throughs, and from our experience, they tend to be quality click-throughs.


o Pay per clicks. If you are bent on getting in the top 10 for particular keywords, consider the pay-per-click engines. Yahoo, Lycos, MSN and AOL are in a joint venture with Overture. If you go to Yahoo and search on a term such as "Web development," you will see a section at the top and bottom of the results page called "sponsored matches." These sponsored matches are people who signed up with Overture. When you sign up, you select keyword phrases you want to bid on. The highest bidder is displayed in the first position, the second highest in the second position, etc.


Google runs a similar service as Overture with its "adwords" campaign. Google's service is not a pay per click. With adwords, you pay per impression, i.e., a flat rate per number of displays of the ad.


If you're cynical about pay-per-click engines in the shadow of the failures of banner ads, I have this to offer: Pay-per-click engines are the exception to Internet advertising in that they work. When someone searches for a specific keyword it is because they are looking for a specific product/service or information. Seeing your entry not only will place you as a valid entity in the customer's mind, but also will help pre-qualify your leads.


Alta Vista and some other search engines offer a paid service that will spider your site every few days and update their content. Lots of people signed up for that service assuming it would get them a better ranking in the engines. It doesn't. Those services are meant for sites with constantly changing content.


Proper representation in search engines must be planned before the site is built. This will give you time to examine the best technical practices for building the site as well as a plan to incorporate it into your marketing. It's time that we redefine what search engine optimization means, and try to restructure the process to meet the needs of an overmarketed, fiercely competitive Internet.


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