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website management

Driving traffic to your website
What to do to boost your website hits
by Stephan Spencer

Part one of a two-part series

A company's website should not be a well-kept secret. What's the point of spending money on a great website if no one visits it? In part one of this two-part series, the basics are covered: making the most of domain names, directory listings, and search engine rankings to improve a website's traffic.

The first step in improving traffic is to secure intuitive, easy-to-remember domain names. Countless major companies have obscure website addresses--who would ever guess that Deloitte & Touche's website is at www.dttus.com? Not only is a memorable, guessable domain name a must, but there should also be more than one. Hewlett-Packard, for example, has secured both hewlett-packard.com and hp.com (but, unfortunately for them, not hewlettpackard.com). After covering the relevant company-specific domains, product-specific domains should be considered (e.g. laserjet.com), as should domains that are industry-specific (e.g. laserprinters.com), image-specific (e.g. bestprinters.com), and geography-specific (e.g. paloalto.com). These domain names could also come in handy for hallway pages (defined next month). Domain names can be registered with Network Solutions (www.networksolutions.com) or, better yet, by TotalNIC (www.totalnic.net), which will register domains at half price.

The second step is to create a network of sites that link to one or more of the domains. First, submit a listing for your website to the major directories such as Yahoo!, Open Directory (www.dmoz.org), LookSmart (www.looksmart.com) and Snap (www.snap.com). Also request that niche sites and vertical portals in your industry link to the site. Sites that already link to competitors are good targets. Many of these sites can be found quickly by using the AltaVista search engine and entering "link:competitor.com" as the search query. Avoid automated submission bots that promise submissions to hundreds of search engines and directories--why pay for submissions to dozens of defunct or completely irrelevant websites? Within a reasonable website promotion budget, consider using Eric Ward of NetPost (www.netpost.com) to announce the site to the relevant directories, search engines, portals, and niche sites.

Directories are easily (and understandably) confused with search engines: Search engines are adding directory features, and directories are adding search engine features. Directories group websites into categories and provide short site descriptions, sometimes including editorial comments. Search engines periodically explore all the pages of a website and add the text on those pages into a large user-searchable database. With a directory, picking the right category and composing a keyword-rich description will ensure maximum visibility. With a search engine, publishing webpages that incorporate relevant keywords prominently positioned in specific ways is the key.

The next step is to try for a top position in the major search engines. Expect that a website's traffic will be directly proportional to its position in the major search engines. It's not uncommon for the major search engines to account for more than half of a highly ranked website's traffic. If the site doesn't appear on the first or second page of search results, it might as well not be in there at all. Few people look further than a page or two of search results on a regular basis. It's not enough to merely submit a site to the search engines. Its ranking must be optimized.

What makes or breaks positioning in a search engine? The simple answer is content. Consider how a search engine works: The search engine user enters keywords into the "search" box and hopes to be directed to relevant websites. If those keywords do not appear within your Web pages, there is almost no chance that your website will be displayed.

The most important step in the process of search engine optimization is to choose the key words or phrases that are most relevant and popular with the target audience. Stick to two- or three-word phrases rather than individual words. Because of the staggering number of Web pages that are indexed by the major search engines, competing for a spot on the first or second page of search results using a single keyword is a losing proposition. Thousands of websites vie for that top position. Further, Internet users eventually learn to refine their searches in order to get more efficient results. Someone searching for "discount furniture Toledo" instead of "furniture" will get a smaller but more useful amount of search results. Fortunately, achieving a top ten position for a search phrase such as "discount furniture Toledo" is a much more attainable goal, and will yield a much more qualified prospect.

There are a number of resources today to assist in identifying the most popular relevant keywords, one of the best being GoTo.com (http://www.goto.com/d/about/advertisers/othertools.jhtml). On this page, click on the link "Search Term Suggestion List." A new window will appear which lists how many times a particular key word or phrase was used for a search in the past month. Consequently, a car manufacturer or dealer will discover that "car" is more than five times as popular as the keyword "auto."

Once effective keywords that best suit a website are chosen, the quantity and quality of their appearances within the web pages must be ensured. Avoid the use of splash pages and the excessive use of graphics in lieu of text, tables, frames, and dynamic pages that contain a question mark in the URL--these foil the search engines in their quest for keyword-rich content on specific sites.

The website element arguably most critical to search engine position is the title tag. The title tag sits inconspicuously on the perimeter at the top of the browser window, and is often overlooked by users and webmasters alike. The majority of web page titles don't contain the most important keywords. These keywords should be placed near or at the beginning of the title, to increase the keyword's prominence and, consequently, its relevance. Don't repeat the keyword more than once in the title (although there are exceptions to this rule depending on the search engine). This tactic will be misconstrued as "spamdexing" by the search engines, and the search engine may issue a penalty in the form of a lower position or, even worse, complete removal from the search engine.

The second most important location for keywords is in the body of the document. Placing the keyword higher on the page increases its prominence, and repetition of the keyword throughout the document increases the "keyword density." Careful though--too high a keyword density could flag the site to the search engine as a spamdexer. Keywords within hyperlinks, H1 heading tags, and an image's "ALT" text will further enhance the ranking, though.

Finally, the most important keywords should also be included in the meta keyword tag, which is hidden behind the page, out of view of Internet users. Meta keywords tags are overrated--they are not magic bullets, and won't make up for poor content. It certainly wouldn't hurt to include a meta keywords tag on the Web pages, but be aware that Excite, Lycos, and Google completely ignore meta keywords. Don't go overboard with a meta keyword tag that's hundreds of words long or that repeats keywords; there may be penalties by certain search engines.

The meta description tag provides an opportunity to override how a website is described in the search results of some of the biggest search engines. The most effective meta description is a call to action that compels the user to click through, yet it also provides a brief, meaningful, and keyword-rich description of the website to which it belongs. Altavista, Go, Inktomi, and Excite all support the meta description tag. If it's not defined, the search engine defaults to using the first dozen or so words on the page. Everyone has seen poor machine-generated descriptions such as "Home | Search | About Us | What's New | Customer Service Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved"--a missed opportunity that is easily corrected.

When optimizing web pages for high rankings, use the eight or ten most popular search engines. Disregard all the bit players. The most popular search engine is also the most popular directory: Yahoo! Following it are AltaVista, Excite, Lycos, Go, Inktomi, and, to a lesser extent, Google, Snap, Northern Light, and GoTo.com. Not all search engines are created equal: Each search engine uses its own proprietary algorithm to determine relevancy (and thus rankings) for search results, and these rules are subject to change without notice.

Empirical evidence is the only way to uncover the basis for rankings on a given search engine. Fortunately, there are some invaluable newsletters (e.g. Searchenginewatch.com and Marketposition.com), software packages (e.g. WebPosition Gold, available from www.webposition.com), and books (e.g. Secrets to a Top Ten Position, bundled with the WebPosition software) containing the latest on the constantly changing rules, tips, and guidelines of each search engine.

Search engine optimization is a significant and ongoing challenge, but one that can produce huge rewards in the form of increased website traffic. Part One merely scratches the surface, so stay tuned--Part Two will cover advanced tactics for search engine placement, including doorway pages, hallway pages, positioning software, re-submission and "deep submission," RealNames (Internet keywords), and some meta tag tricks.

About the Author

Stephan Spencer is the founder and president of Internet Concepts LLC, a website development company. He is a frequent speaker at Internet conferences worldwide. He may be reached via e-mail at sspencer@netconcepts.com.

   
 
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