Search Engine Positioning
How to improve the positioning of your site on the major search engines, without it taking over your life
Updated January 15, 2011
This guide covers all aspects of search engine positioning and optimization. It can be used as the basis for planning an online campaign that will have a significant effect on the visibility of a website.
For more detailed information, particularly about search engine algorithms, there is a Search Engine Marketing FAQ in preparation.
If you have any feedback, please do get in touch at danny AT sofer.com.
Search Engine Positioning : Summary
1. Define your business
A successful search engine marketing campaign starts not with the engines, but with your own site and with the site's users (i.e. your customers). There is not a lot of point attempting to seed the engines with links to your site unless you are clear about the services that you offer and who those services are aimed at.
Once you are clear about who your site is for and what it offers, you are in a position to start.
2. Set targets for your campaign
Before embarking on any marketing campaign, online or otherwise, you should have a clear idea of what you hope to achieve. It may be to increase traffic to your site, to receive more enquiries from site visitors, or to increase the value of new orders.
Regardless of the size of your budget, costs should be commensurate with results, so you should have some idea of the value of achieving your business goals. As a minimum, it will be useful to set a maximum value for each new visitor to your site.
3. Translate your business definitions into search phrases
Well-chosen keywords are the pivotal part of any search engine marketing campaign. The aim is to accurately anticipate the search phrases likely to be used by potential users of your site.
Think about what defines your site and also what differentiates it from other sites; what words define your content, your service, it's location, potential users, and their interests.
Make a list of words and phrases that describe your service. Try them out in search engines to see what sort of results get returned. View the sites of leading competitors in your field and look out for useful words in the text of their pages.
4. Structure your site around your search phrases
Separate content into clearly defined pages and sections that are representative of your site's most important themes, as identified by your search phrases.
Sketch out a map of your site, with pages categorized into sections. Each page should be given a title that reflects the search terms that you are targeting for that page. This map can act as the basis for your site.
Try not to bury content too deeply within your site. Create navigation links that minimise the number of clicks required to get from one page of a site to another. For sites of, say, a hundred pages or so, it should be easy to ensure that no page is more than two clicks away from any other.
Add a site map to your site with links to every page (for larger sites this can be broken up into sections).
These measures will make it easier for search engine spiders to find all your pages (it should help your users, too).
If your site contains content that is unrelated (perhaps because the site is used for two separate businesses, or because it is used for both personal and commercial use), then split it up into separate domains.
If your site offers services to users in geographically disparate regions, consider country-specific domains. This will make it easier to target the appropriate categories of Yahoo and other directories.
5. Design your pages to attract search engine traffic
The document TITLE has the most significant effect on the visibility of a page. Not only will it have a direct effect on the ranking of a page, but it is the text that will be presented in search results. Make it short and relevant. Use words that reflect the theme of the page (i.e. the search phrase) and that will make your title stand out. Avoid prefacing your title with the words "Welcome to..." and resist the temptation to place your company name in the title of every page. Aim for the editorial brevity of a newspaper headline.
Use the DESCRIPTION meta-tag, because by default this is what will accompany your entry in the results of many search engines. Make it short - about 150 characters or so - to ensure that it does not get truncated in search results, and make it interesting. Reiterate the TITLE and expand on the search phrase that you are targeting.
Use the KEYWORDS meta-tag. Not all seach engines will use it, because of the potential for abuse, but its inclusion is strongly recommended on each page of your site. It should be used to reiterate the words used in the title and description, including synonyms, plurals, regional variations and even common mis-spellings. Use all lower case (because most searches do); don't use commas (they are unnecessary); and don't repeat words more than once or twice (because some search engines penalise excessive repetition).
The over-enthusiastic use of search terms in your TITLE, DESCRIPTION and KEYWORDS tags is self-defeating and is likely to dilute the rank of your site; it is usually better for a page to appear near the top of one search query than for it to appear lower down on several.
The first content that appears on every page should be a heading that reiterates the text of the TITLE. This should be followed by a repeat of the DESCRIPTION, and then the text that describes the main theme of the page. For all search engines, and particularly those that ignore meta-tags, the use of relevant text is essential. If you keep your pages on-topic, mindless repetition of keywords should not be necessary, although it is important that the key search words appear frequently in your text, particularly in the first couple of hundred words, and particularly in permutations that echo likely search phrases.
Make sure that navigation links and other text do not appear above your main text in the HTML source of your pages. If pages are designed with supplementary text in the left margin, then the rowspan tag can be used to move the main text to the top of the page. Alternatively, use a style sheet to get a similar effect.
When linking to a page on your site, use the TITLE of the page as the link text. For search engines that measure the relevance of links, this is likely to help reinforce the relevance of the page to the search terms used in the TITLE.
Images will be largely ignored by search engines (although some will recognise ALT tags), so you can safely use them anywhere on the page. You may want to use images for top-level navigation, but don't use them for links to important content pages (e.g. product descriptions); use text instead. This helps the search engines; it also makes it much easier to add new pages to your site over time.
Don't use frames. Some indexing agents will still ignore your frameset and go straight to the "your browser does not support frames" message. Furthermore, if you do manage to get your pages indexed, visitors to your site are likely to be referred to an orphaned frame lacking the navigational structure carefully constructed for it.
Likewise, although not essential, consider using a linked cascading style sheet to determine the way your text looks (see Effective Use of Style Sheets). It will make the page source cleaner and may make a significant difference to site maintenance, as well as making it easier for search engines.
Every page is a potential gateway to your site, so apply these guidelines to all pages on your site.
If you already have a site, then mapping existing content onto a new structure and undertaking a major re-design, may take time and resources. Get advice from your site designer about costs before committing to widespread changes. In the short term, you may prefer to concentrate on optimizing just a few pages, until you have evidence of the effectiveness of the approach outlined above.
Also, be wary of tampering with the content of existing pages that already bring traffic to the site, either through search engines or through other external links.
6. Submit your site to Directories and Search Engines
Before submitting your site to any directories, you should be satisfied that the TITLE and DESCRIPTION of your home page reflect your most important search terms and that they convey the right impression of your site. This should be the text that is submitted (if you've already submitted a different description to Yahoo, it is very unlikely that you will be able to persuade them to change your listing).
If you have any sort of budget for web marketing, paying for an entry in Yahoo (and possibly LookSmart) is likely to be good value for money. For advise on how to submit to Yahoo, first read the Yahoo guidelines, then check out How to Get Listed in Yahoo!. LookSmart also encourages submission of more than one page per site, which you may wish to consider if you are offering several different services on one site.
You should also add an entry to dmoz, the Open Directory Project. Dmoz is now used by several search services, including AltaVista, Hotbot, Lycos and Google, and it's free. Re-submit your site if it doesn't appear on dmoz within a month.
In addition to submission, you should also create a link to your new site from a page on an existing site that is already indexed. In many cases, this will be a more effective method of getting a site indexed than submission.
The value of submitting multiple pages and of using automated submission services is limited. This is becasue a very high percentage of submitted pages received by search engines come from automated services. As a result, the engines are developing strategies for preventing automated submissions and are also becoming less reliant on submissions, in general; links from existing pages are of increasing importantance. So, use automated submission services with care and even if you submit manually don't expect amazing results.
for information on paid submission, take a look at the Search Engine Marketing FAQ.
Increasingly important for many users are pay-per-click services, such as Google's AdWords and Overture, which charge advertisers for clickthroughs from searches. Costs and traffic volumes for a phrase will vary significantly and fine-tuning your campaign can be time-consuming, so which of the many such services might be worth using will depend on which phrases you are targeting, which part of the world you are operating in, what your budget is and, not least, how much you value your time.
Finally, you should look into industry- and country-specific search engines. The overall traffic levels on these are likely to be orders of magnitude less than on the major engines, but they are likely to be considerably more targeted. Yahoo is likely to be the best source for identifying these.
7. Get your site linked from other sites
Identify other sites that offer complementary services which are likely to be of interest to users of your site; link to them and invite them to reciprocate.
In particular, do this with popular sites and do it with those sites that appear near the top of searches that use the keyword phrases that you are targeting.
If your industry or interest area is served by specialist directories, get listed in them. Pay for entries if it is cost-effective to do so (a good comparative measure is the cost of click throughs from Overture).
These efforts will have the two-fold effect of driving traffic directly from those sites and of building the ranking of your own site on those search engines that measure the number and quality of inbound links (and an increasing number do).
8. Monitor the results
Check your ranking on the major search engines for your most important search phrases and your site coverage (i.e. the number of your pages indexed) on the major search engines.
You can use the search engine positioning reports provided by me at Site Cook to help with this. This free service allows you to check the positioning of a domain on selected search engines and also allows you to track the effectiveness of your campaign over time.
Check your logs to see which search engine queries are sending traffic to your site. In particular, check that the most popular search terms match your expectations. Look out for any unexpected search terms that might be worth including in page titles. If you can't read your logs, then change to a hosting service that provices log reports or get help.
Whenever content changes or new pages are added, it may be helpful to re-submit the changed pages. However, don't get hung up on site submission. Over 90% of unpaid submissions to search engines are what is generally regarded as spam, i.e. automated and repeated submission of existing sites by submission software. Increasingly, search engines are ignoring these submissions and basing their indexing on: a) paid-for submissions; b) the number and quality of links from other sites; and c) the scheduled re-indexing of existing sites. Unless your site changes significantly from week to week, scheduled indexing may well be sufficient for your needs. You should be able to tell which indexing spiders have visited your site recently by looking at your logs. Re-submit to any that don't appear to be giving your site due attention.
Seeking professional help
ClickZ have two articles that you might find useful: Selecting a Search Engine Optimization Agency and What to Look for in a Search Engine Optimization Specialist.
There are several sites on the web that offer more background information, from which much of the material on this page is drawn. These include the Web Search section at About.com, the Search Engine Marketing page at Wilson Internet, the Submission Tips at the truly comprehensive Search Engine Watch (you may also want to subscribe to their newsletter), the Search Engine Optimization articles at ClickZ, and a useful tutorial, How AltaVista Works, which contains guidelines that can be applied to most of the major search engines. Pandia also maintains a useful page of search engine optimization links and search engine news.
For a discussion of why you should not use frames, see Framed No More on the net.Opinion site.
© Danny Sofer 1996-2003