Not a creature was stirring, not even a customer's mouse

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Those who hope they can wait until the last minute to optimize their Web site for the holiday season will be left with little holiday cheer.

Since I'm no Scrooge, let's talk about a few SEO tactics that can be done immediately, ones that won't take two months to show in the search engines. I'll assume that your Web site has at least some visibility on branded terms and popular products. Aside from sitting on Santa's lap and telling him you'd like your site to be optimized, what can you do?

Tree ornaments. Minimal lifting can accomplish these on-the-site tactics:

• Targeted copy. Add seasonal-related copy to well-ranking pages or bolster pages around keyword phrases that are less competitive.

• Meta data. Update title tags on top-level pages to focus on particular keywords and make meta descriptions a call to action.

• Internal linking. Put a few links to key pages in the global footer. If an important page is not linked to directly from the home page, put a link on there: include it in a "hot products" or "top searches" box. The home page typically has the most link value to lend to a destination page. Add some in-line text links from strong pages to destination pages.

• Access. Ensure your site has a comprehensive map, especially if you have a deep or dynamic site. Ensure search engine spiders can access your deeper pages. Double-check your robots.txt file to ensure spiders are allowed access to all important areas of the site.

Lawn decorations. This stuff on the outside requires no changes to your site:

• Paid inclusion. This is the quickest way to affect organic results in Yahoo.

• Directory listings. We've seen instances where new directory listings in Yahoo and niche directories lend credibility to pages within a few weeks. It's not guaranteed, but this is an important variable in the algorithms and worth a shot. If nothing else, your site benefits in the long term from enhanced presence.

• Product feeds. Give engines every potential way to expose your products, and use Google Base and Yahoo Shopping. MSN has launched a beta version of a similar offering called Agora.

• Local feeds. If you have bricks-and-mortar locations, entering your information into local feeds in Google and Yahoo will show consumers where they can go touch a product.

• Google Webmaster Tools. This is a great diagnostic for understanding how Google crawls and indexes your site, and it provides information about any access issues.

Gift cards. Though some quick hits can improve your site's holiday performance, organic search should not be considered a short-term solution. Anything you do to optimize your site for the season will continue to benefit you after the holidays are over.

One reason the post-holiday season is so important for retailers? Gift cards! Because retailers typically carry a liability on their balance sheets until the card is used, they don't get to recognize revenue until a purchase is made with the card, not when the card is purchased. According to the National Retail Federation, $18.5 billion worth of gift cards were sold during the 2005 holiday season. What fills stockings in December can provide a revenue boost the next quarter.

Three reasons I love gift cards: (1) They're easy. Nothing says "I want to get you something that you'll use, but I have no idea what you like" better. (2) They're easy. I cannot properly wrap a gift to save my life. (3) Gift cards drive search. This may be only anecdotal, but don't you go online to see just how far that $25 or $50 plastic currency will go? Many people go right to the site the card is from (make it easy and put your URL on the card). Those who don't go directly to the site may perform a branded search to find the correct site. And shoppers who already know what they want may even include the brand and the product, such as "Circuit City iPod."

Try to put up as many "ornaments" and "lawn decorations" as you can. But be prepared: A pre-holiday code freeze or limited resources might necessitate a holiday bribe to your IT group. Then you'll want to use whatever is left to cover keyword buys in paid search. And next year, start thinking about optimizing for the holiday season when you fire up the grill for that Labor Day cookout. Do that and on the night before Christmas, you'll be sleeping all snug in your bed with visions of online sales dancing through your head.
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