Tips that get clicks, Part II: Creating Web pages that are search engine-friendly

The second part of an interview with Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch.com.

If you manage a Web site, your primary goal is to attract more people to visit your site. Part of that formula is to know how to create search engine-friendly Web pages, and then submit your URL to all the major search engines. If you know these statistics, then you know how vital search engines are to your Web site’s bottom line:
– There are over 1 billion Web pages on the Internet (Source: Inktomi/NEC Study);
– 91 percent of Internet users use search engines to navigate the Web (Source: American Internet User Survey);
– 9 out of every 10 searches are done from the top 20 search engines, and;
– 85 percent of search engine users do not look past the first 40 search results (Source: Jupiter Research).
Site promotion is really not that difficult. It just takes a little bit of effort, a little bit of thought, and a fair amount of patience.
Danny Sullivan is editor of U.K.-based SearchEngineWatch.com, considered by many to be the destination site to get the final word on search engine issues.
Sullivan continues his discussion from last week’s column on how to tweak your site for the search engines, why your Web site is like a library, and how having good title tags is the single best thing you can do.
Q: So are the days of submitting a deep link – or a page within your Web site – gone?
Sullivan: Yes. If you’re trying to do it for free and you think to run over to the “Add URL” page at FAST (AllTheWeb.com) and submit every page from my Web site and that will get it listed…it won’t. It’s much more likely to happen because people are linking to you. It still may work to some degree at Alta Visa, but you have to play their little code game where, after you submit five URL’s, you have to read this little graphical code, type it into their submit form, then go do another five URL’s. It’s not much fun to go through that – and even then it’s not guaranteed.
Q: Would you run through the top five techniques you think are important to have within your Web site to make sure you get indexed correctly.
Sullivan: One thing is every page on your Web site should have a unique title tag. That’s the html title tag that is in your header. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, find someone technical to tell you. That’s not the title that is on your Web site. It’s the tag code behind it. Your html title tag should be different and specific to each page and summarize, as a newspaper headline would, what each page is about and, ideally, contain the keyword that you want the page found for.
Still today I hear people say that all they did was make sure their pages had good titles and that alone helped them get better traffic. In many ways, your title tag is like the title of a book. So if your Web site is like a library and you have lots of books in your library, so your web site has lots of pages. If you went to a library and every book had the same title, nobody would ever find what you want them to find. If a search engine comes to your web site and every page has the same title tag, there is no distinction for it to index what it is about.
Q: What word count should you be thinking about for your title tag. It’s all over the map. Some put in different keywords, some write a sentence, or one word like “Home.”
Sullivan: If you ever want to see what NOT to do, type in any porn term into a search engine and you’ll see these really long titles that are just chock full of keywords. That’s not what I would recommend.
I usually tell people somewhere between five-to-15 words. That is a good amount of space for you to write a snappy, attractive headline-style type title that is going to contain your key term and is going to make people want to click on your link. When people read your listing in a search result, you want them to follow through and click on your Web site. I wouldn’t use a giant sentence. That’s what your description could do for you.
Q: Should you keep your title tag less than 15 words since it seems that some of the search engine results cut it off at the end?
Sullivan: They will cut it off, but it’s more of a character-based thing. What I find is they might actually display somewhere between 100-200 characters in your title tag. You definitely want to pay attention to the first portion of your title. If you put your action words toward the end, maybe the content will still get indexed by the search engine, but the user won’t see it displayed.
Q: What other techniques do you recommend?
Sullivan: Try not to put up roadblocks. The kind of things that are roadblocks to search engines is when you build your site completely out of frames. Many people have said that as soon as they abandoned frames, their traffic went up from the search engines.
Another is over-reliance on graphics. You build a site completely using Flash or it’s all .jpg’s or .gif files, that’s not actually text a search engine can read. Search engines can only read something you can highlight, copy and paste into Notepad.
Avoid databases. If you’re using a dynamic delivery system, you may be blocking search engines. Usually the sign will be that the only way your pages get served out to anyone is if they contain a question mark symbol in the URL, usually followed by some coding or parameters. That doesn’t always block them. Google is getting better, but it can often be a stop sign to them.
Q: Do you see Flash sites becoming indexable in the future?
Sullivan: No, not at all. Search engines keep saying it’s not something they can do very easily. When you think about it, Flash doesn’t usually contain anything you could index. With Flash, you see a lot of things coming at you, but there usually isn’t any text in it. What are they going to index anyway?
Q: How important is the description tag and the alt tags?
Sullivan: There are all kinds of elements a search engine will look at. Some engines use them all and some pick and choose. The one element most people know are meta-tags, in particular the meta-keyword tag and the meta-description tag. The meta-description tag lets you list the kind of words you’d like to have displayed with your listing on the search engines that honor it. I think these days only Alta Vista and Inktomi are honoring meta-description tags.
Q: Which are the most relevant search engines?
Sullivan: Google is still acknowledged to wear the crown. AllTheWeb.com attracts a lot of attention as well. It’s relevancy has gone up and people like it. Of course, Teoma attracts attention because it comes on to the scene and immediately looks like it has good stuff. Its coverage of the web is a lot smaller than AllTheWeb.com or Google, with only a tenth of the pages. Having the most pages isn’t the most important thing for a search engine, but it is helpful. Surprisingly, people forget about MSN Search. They do a lot of work to make sure when you do a query for something that is very popular, you’re going to probably get something good, because editors at Microsoft have picked sites and it isn’t just stuff that is Microsoft’s own content.
Q: What about sponsored links?
Sullivan: Sponsored links – or another phrase for it is paid placement – is simply where someone is paying to be guaranteed to show up for the terms they want to be found for. So if search engines have been a big headache for you and you never seem to show up in them, the search engines will run an ad for you. I don’t have any problems with the concept of them. I think it is a great way for search engines to make money. Sometimes ads are very relevant to people.
I think one good example of this is after September 11, we had millions of queries for “American Flag.” If you had gone to Google and searched for “American Flag”,” you would only find sites about the history of the flag. But what people wanted to do was buy the things. There was a shortage of them. In that case, the ads were actually very relevant, because in a few days, people who had flags could say, “Hey, look. We’ve got them in stock.” It was a case where the ads were more relevant than the regular results.
The full audio interview with Danny Sullivan is available for listening anytime at webtalkguys.com.
Dana Greenlee is a Web designer and co-host of the WebTalkGuys Radio Show, a Tacoma-based talk show featuring technology news and interviews. WebTalkGuys was just named the top “Hidden Gem” in PCWorld Magazine’s August 2002 issue. It is broadcast locally on KLAY 1180 AM Saturdays at 11 a.m. The show is also on CNET Radio in San Francisco and Boston, on the Web at www.CNETRadio.com, www.WebTalkGuys.com and via the XM Satellite Network , on IM Networks’ Sonic Box and on the Mobil Broadcast Network. Past shows and interviews are also Webcast via the Internet at www.webtalkguys.com.

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