Make Search Engines Work for You

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Online marketing gets more complex every day, with new tactics and technology. CRM, opt-in e-mail, automated personalization, affiliate program management and channel optimization are everyday words of today's online marketing professionals. Each of these requires training and experience to master. One very important, yet very misunderstood, marketing tactic is the practice of maximizing a company's placement of its Web site in the search engines.


A January 1999 survey conducted by Forrester Research, Cambridge, MA, asked Web users what they rated as the most effective way of getting them to a Web site in the first place. Fifty-seven percent said search engine positioning, 38 percent said e-mail, 35 percent said external links and 28 percent said word-of-mouth.


Much of the time, marketing managers accept the poor placement of their Web sites because in their minds they are victims of bad luck of the draw, of complex algorithmic equations that the search engines use to decide a Web site's ranking, or they think they need to pay the search engine company for better placement.


Too often, these managers end up spending money on software that promises to submit the Web site to 3,500 search engines and maximize the site's position in any given engine. However, massive submission doesn't necessarily yield results, and all too often the software is unsuccessful in its claims. As you know from your own surfing patterns, if your page doesn't come up within the top 30 of the major search engines, these services will have very little effect for you.


Many search engine optimization service providers say they will submit your site to more than 3,500 search engines. Though this tactic of widespread submission sounds impressive, there are really only 14 search engines and five directories that are worth focusing on. These 19 boast the majority of search traffic while the remainder either feed from these larger engines or are niche players.


The search engines are AltaVista; AOL Search; Excite; Google; Hotbot; Infoseek; Lycos; Iwon; MSN; Netscape; FAST; Northern Light; GoTo; and WebCrawler.


The directories are LookSmart; Open Directory; Snap; Inktomi; and Yahoo.


The difference between search engines and directories is this: A directory is like a grocery store with all the products on the shelf. You are like a search engine. You have food at home, but if you don't have what you want, then you go to the store.


At the store, you go aisle by aisle with a list of things you want, looking for things that will fulfill your list. It's important to keep both directories and search engines in mind and make sure that you are listed with all of them.


Combined, these search engines and directories have more than 1 billion pages indexed. The only pages that really matter are your competitors' that come up in the top 30 places for a search that you want to be found in. But why do these pages place higher than yours? The reason is that for whatever reason, their pages look like a better match to the inquiry.


There are some key elements used by search engines in figuring out how relevant your Web site is relative to an individual search term. Each search engine has its own criteria that it uses in making up its rankings, but if you want your page to have universally good placement, you need to ensure that you have all the bases covered. Just as important as it is when searching for a book in a library, the title of your Web page factors into your positioning.


Obviously, if someone were to type in "apple" into a search field, that person would come up with a wide variety of possibilities from computers to orchards. Search engines also look at the description and keywords of the site.


If you're unfamiliar with these terms, open your Web browser to a competitor's site, click "view" on your tool bar and scroll down until you hit "source." By doing this, you will be able to see the code of that page. Around the top, you will see the word "meta" followed soon after by either "description" or "keywords."


These keywords are the mythical meta tags that many people think is the key to prime search engine placement. These words are hidden to the normal person's eyes, yet many search engines read these tags and, if a search query matches the keyword, then that page is listed in the findings.


The content on your page is another factor that search engines use to determine if your page would fit the query's criteria. To combat bringing up pages that may have strong keywords or content but not be widely useful, some search engines have now begun to judge a page's likely usefulness by the number of other pages that have links to it. The thinking is if many have linked to it, it's got to be good.


How do you do it? How do you put these pieces to work for you? As previously mentioned, each search engine has its own magic recipe for how it decides to rank a listing. The biggest thing to think about is what words your customers would use when trying to find a company that offers the same product as you do. Make a list of these words and make sure you use them over and over in every place you can think of. If you only mention a topic once because you think people would type that to find you, where do you think you'll rank against a company that mentions it twice? Is it better to come up 75th under 10 search terms, or 10th under three?


Think about the pieces above and how they fit together for your entire Web site strategy. We've all heard of people who know how to "trick" the search engines. That is, putting volumes of keywords in text color that matches the background at the bottom of the page or repeating a keyword or phrase over and over. The truth is, search engines know these tricks and monitor for them. If a search engine catches you doing this, it could either rank you lower or even go so far as to ban you from the engine.


Search engine optimization has proved to be an essential Internet marketing tool. It is a time-intensive and laborious process, but it can reap tremendous traffic increasing results. Your options are to build a core competency inhouse or outsource your needs to a search engine-positioning specialist. Whatever your choice of methods, if you do not take search engines into account when running your Web site, you could lose a lot of visitors to your better-ranked competitors.


Andy Sweet is e-marketing manager of e-marketing services firm Vizium, Framingham, MA.
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