Findable Sites:  Creating Websites For People and Search Engines

Optimizing Your Web Page's Location in Search Engine Results

Sitemap for Findable Sites/Web Help

by Laurie D. T. Mann

I want my page to show up first!

How many times have you looked at a search results page and not understood why your page isn't first?

Contrary to what some search engine consultants will tell you, there is no magic bullet. Anyone who promises that your Web page will show up first (or even early) on a search engine results page is selling the ever-popular silicon snake oil.

Each search engine works differently. There is no standard way to determine search string relevance in a search. Some engines have determined relevance only by the user-visible text on the page. Some analyzed links to the site or Web traffic to the page. Some only used keywords. Most use a combination of analysis tools. There are also intelligent agents out there that use who knows what to index on.

Several different factors influence how a search engine page is generated. These factors include:

That's a lot to consider. But you really don't need to know about search engine algorithms when you're writing a Web page. When you're writing a Web page, think:

Journalism 101

Back in the "olden days," we were told to think about the following five issues of any news occurrence:

These five aspects of a news happening were supposed to be worked into the first paragraph of an article. No matter what fancy graphics or applications you're running, a Web page with any kind of content at all can be easily described in these terms.

So what's the very first thing to do when writing a Web page?

Always use title tags at the beginning of the page.

Probably every search engine or directory uses the contents of the title tags. And this is your opening shot to add relevant content to your page. So write a brief, descriptive title. Keep the title reasonably short, but be sure it has something to do with the Web page itself. A title like

Joe's Place

might be fine for a home page title, but if it's a business, add more information. Consider:

Joe's Place - Best Thin Crust Pizza and Brewpub in Peoria

By adding a more information, you've given the search engine spiders a little more content to include in the catalog. Not to mention the fact that since the contents of a title line appears at the top of the browser window, you are helping people running multiple browsers find your page again.

Once you've written the title, go on to add some meta keywords in the Web page head. If you haven't used keywords before, try META Tag Builder for a good general description.

Once you've finished with the title tags and the meta keywords, be sure to add headings to the file. Most search engines are looking for h1...h1 and h2...h2 and give them extra weight in determining search results relevancy. Use them appropriately in your file.

Let's say you've written a Web page about Bill Clinton, so you've mentioned his name a few times in the page. You've registered your page with the major searchers, and it's in the various catalogs. When a user starts a search and types in "bill clinton", your page will probably be returned somewhere on the search results list.

Perhaps your site is titled "Musical Appearances by Bill Clinton", and you discuss each time he's played the saxophone on television. When a user enters a search on "clinton saxophone television", your "Musical Appearances by Bill Clinton" page is more likely to appear near the top of that search results page. However, if someone is looking up "clinton foreign policy", your site is less likely to be returned on that search results list.

It's very important to understand that the more frequently words are found in Web pages, the more difficult it is to find any particular page containing those frequently-used words. If your company's name is "Computer Software Products", it's tough for any search engine to return your page in response to those words being entered because those words appear in tens of thousands of other Web pages. Your page might appear as number 10,939 on the search results list of 32,000 Web pages that all three of those words appear in.

Try to use a unique combination of words, or combine a word and a number. Avoid using words with punctuation in them, especially hyphens (-) and question marks (?). Don't start a coined word with a numeral. Some search engines have a real problem with terms such as 3M, C++, or AT&T.

So, if search-results page position really matters to you, put the title of your page in title tags at the top of your Web page. Don't add extraneous text and keywords to the title. Use h1..../h1 near the top of your home page to restate the the page's title. It's fine to put an eye-catching logo at the top of the page, but a logo means nothing to a search engine. Consider using both a logo and the h1.../h1 heading. Be sure there are links to your site from outside your server. And always use a brief ALT tag in every IMG SRC definition, to briefly describe what is contained in the graphic.

If you want your Web page to be found using certain search words, be sure to include those words near the beginning of the Web page. If you don't want your site to be found using certain search words, make sure they are not included on the Web page. The spider makes determinations about relevant words based on how the words are used on the page.

If you do not want your site to be cataloged at all, follow the instructions on robots.txt files. The robots will ignore your site when this file is found.

If your home page has lots of graphics or Java scripts, if you use page redirection, or if most of your site is contained in databases, ColdFusion, Perl and CGI, create at least one text-only Web page that describes your company/organization/Web site. A text-only page is a huge help to people searching for specific information, for the visually impaired who use ASCII-to-voice systems and for people who use text-based browsers like lynx. Put this text-only page in your top-level directory, link it to the home page and submit an ADD SITE request for the text-based page to the search engines. A sitemap listing links to all static pages is an extremely useful tool, for added navigation help and for search engines to catalog.

Search engines evolve over time. Some "portals" started off by being good search engines and lost interest in that important Web service. Luckily, they've been replaced by superb search engines like Google. Google, at times, spiders news sites in real time, and spiders most other sites within days or weeks rather than months. Google's results pages are relatively immune from unfair search manipulation practices (keyword loading, et.c.).

Let me repeat my earlier warning: Some search engine consultants are trying to make a buck by claiming they can always get you first on a search results page if you buy their serves. This is bull of the highest order. These people tend to find whatever weakness the search engine currently has and exploit it (like spammage). Many search engine developers do not like seeing that their search engines are giving unfair advantage to people who play stupid games rather than write coherent pages.

Many companies buy the services of search engine consultants who didn't even have the companies do basic things to their pages, like making sure there are h1s on them and adding unique titles and meta keywords! Let basic common Web sense be your guide.

If you want to learn even more about the workings of search engines, I highly recommend reading Alta Vista added some useful information describing why some pages are not added to its engine at the bottom of its submit URL page.

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