By Eric Ward for Ad Age Magazine, ~ 1998
Could there be a topic with more contention? More misinformation? More hype? Probably not.
Here’s the skinny.
The 7 or 8 largest search engines most people use daily (AltaVista, Excite, HotBot, Infoseek, Webcrawler, Lycos, OpenText, Northern Light) each use their own collection of algorithms for ranking and indexing pages. Each has a spider or crawler that actually accesses and downloads your site’s pages, and each can tweak these algorithms anytime they want. This is why if you did a search on the phrase Ad Age magazine at every one of the search engines listed above, the results would be different for every one of them. Completely different results for the same exact search term.
Like a pharmacist mixing an elixir, the amount of each of these 5 ingredients and the weight given to each of them varies from engine to engine, and also can vary from month to month for all of them. These are not static hard-coded algorithms.
What can you do about it? Some webmasters try to make changes to their pages HTML to improve search rankings. Yes, you can imporove your rankings. But how much, and and what cost in time and effort varies for whatever search words or phrases you are hoping to improve for. If the search words or phrase is a competive one, you may be better off forgetting about it. Someone somewhere has likely spent thousands of hours doing the same thing.
A search engine looks at a combination of five things at any page it visits: the <title> tag of the site, the first paragraph of the site’s HTML text, the remainder of the pages text, the number of and occurrence of specific words, and for some search engines, the text within Meta Keyword and Meta Description tags.
Use this Category Navigation List to quickly move through my site
There are some other variables to it, but none are as crucial as these five. Where it gets crazy is that like a pharmacist mixing an elixir, the amount of each of these 5 ingredients and the weight given to each of them varies from engine to engine, and also can vary from month to month for all of them. These are not static hard-coded algorithms.
So yes, it is in fact true; you can improve your site’s rankings for any or all of the search engines. A cottage industry has sprung up over the past year to help you do just that. While some of the claims they make are downright lies, others use techniques which are dangerous, and some tactics can even land you in a sort of ‘search engine jail’, where you are removed from a search engine or even banned. There is no independent reviewer of these services. It is 100% buyer beware.
Most folks completely miss the <Title> tag because they are looking at the page in the browser window, but search engines sure don’t miss it
So what should you do? Before you hire any third party firm (and there are plenty who will take your money), see what you can accomplish on your own using the following advice.
1). Include keyphrase sensitive title tags.
Title tag text is displayed at the very top edge of your browser software, across the top of your monitor at the edge of your screen (I made the title of this page “Search weenies use tricks to fool search engines)so you can see what I mean”). Look for that title way up at the top of your browser right now.
Search engines give high weight to title tags, and expect that your title will be descriptive of the content at your site. Sadly, many sites use title tags with text like “Our Home Page” or XYZ Company Homepage, which is meaningless to a search engine. If you sell golf equipment and your company name is Golf Paradise, then don’t have a title tag that just says ‘Golf Paradise’. Since your title tag is searchable, your title tag should include important search terms or phrases. An example of a better positioned title tag is:
‘Golf Paradise – online shopping for golf equipment, golfing apparel, golf clubs and supplies”
2). Make your pages text-based with keyphrase sensitive content.
Sites that are nothing but images are nearly invisible to search engines, yet artistic designers with non-internet backgrounds make this mistake all the time.
3). Include keyphrase sensitive Meta and image tags.
Meta Tags are important, but are not in any way the magic solution everyone thinks they are. Some search engines don’t even support them. Think learning about Meta Tags or any of the above-described ideas is impossible or too time consuming? It’s not, thanks to one unbelievable resource, available free online at http://www.SearchEngineWatch.com. Danny Sullivan’s awesome site covers all the above and more.
Besides the basic advice above, there are many other techniques even more sophisticated, such as gateway pages, bridge pages, buoy pages, all of which are primarily designed to attract searchers doing specific searches, and then redirect them via various methods back to the main site. Sounds like a topic for the next NetSense column.
This article is from my column in Ad Age magazine’s NetMarketing, called NetSense.
Copyright (c) 1998 by Eric R. Ward