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While creating a Web site for yourself, you spent weeks dealing with a cranky Web designer, shelled out gobs of cash for Web hosting, and pulled your hair out perfecting your copy. Finally -- tired, broke, and hairless -- you sat back and waited. And waited. And waited.
Where are those darn visitors who should be beating a proverbial path to your proverbial door?
Chances are, if you didn't register your site with the search engines, those MIA visitors don't even know that they're M-ing your A. Before you start submitting your site willy-nilly to every search engine that ever coughed up a URL, try these tricks -- they're guaranteed to make your site rank higher than Robert Downey, Jr.
Note: If you hire a Web designer to code your site instead of doing it yourself, the first five items of this column may mean nothing to you. If this is the case, ask your designer to read this column and help you carry out my commands.
When a user types words into a search engine, the engine hunts for these "keywords" on all the sites in its database; the more often the keywords appear on a site, the higher that site will rank in the search results.
This is where "meta tags" come in. Meta tags are pieces of HTML code that the search engines can see but your site visitors can't, and they can include keywords that will help the search engine rank you.
What keywords should you include in your meta tags? Well, using words like "hooters" and "hoochie mama" will get you high rankings in search-engine results, but the people doing these types of searches probably aren't the folks you want as clients.
Instead, play a little game of pretend. Ask yourself, "If I were a prospect, what words would I enter into a search engine to find a [enter your profession here]?" "Don't limit yourself by thinking 'What do I sell?'" says Dean Kennedy, an IP marketing consultant/designer and owner of Terrabyte Communications in Melbourne, Australia. "Instead, put yourself in your customers' shoes and ask yourself, 'What problems do my services solve?'"
Another thing: You may be tempted to repeat a single word over and over in your meta tags, like "graphic designer, graphic designer, graphic designer, graphic designer, graphic designer." This is called "spamming" -- for the same reason that unsolicited bulk email is called "spamming" -- and most search engines will penalize or ban your site for it. So don't even think about it.
More than Meta
Kennedy suggests using hidden comments as well as meta tags on your site. "I use HTML comment tags to replicate the keywords and description I use in my page meta tags," he says. "Although the comment tags are only indexed nowadays by Inktomi, it's a little extra help without extra effort -- especially since the Inktomi index exceeds one billion documents and is used by a number of portals." Another place you can stick keywords is in the ALT tags of your images, which is the descriptive placeholder people see if they can't or won't view graphics on their browser.
Chock Full o' Keywords
Nowadays, many search engines pay less attention to your carefully crafted meta tags and more to the concentration of keywords within your actual site. Make sure that the site is stuffed with keywords in your titles and copy. And don't even think of repeating your keywords over and over in the same color as your background in order to boost keyword density. Do this, and the search engines will toss your butt right out of the database. If you can't write persuasive copy yourself, hire a good writer (ahem) to pound out text rich in keywords.
Most search-engine users are regular people searching for plain old words -- not super sleuths using Boolean operators and doing power searches -- so you should do the same. See which sites come out on top using your keywords, then check out their source code (by going to "Source" or "Page Source" under the View menu in most browsers) to find out what meta tags they used to rank so high. Or spend a little time at a site like MetaSpy; this cool site lets you see the search terms that other users enter into the search engine MetaCrawler. "This helps analyze other ways of keyword input that you might have overlooked," says Kennedy.
The last thing you want to do is submit your site to the search engines and then learn that you (or your faithful designer) messed up the meta tags. Meta Medic is a free service that will check for errors like tags that are too big and keywords that are repeated too many times. And Web Site Garage offers a free tune-up that will check your site's search-engine readiness.
The Main Event
Once your site is so tightly tuned it hums, it's time to submit your URL to the search engines. You can find a listing of the top search engines at Search Engine Watch. Go to each of the sites and read the directions for submitting your site. Some will ask for your email address. You might want to get a "throwaway" free account from Hotmail or Yahoo! to plug in here so that your business account isn't deluged with messages saying, "By submitting your site, you have agreed to receive twenty million messages from our affiliates. Bwa ha ha ha!"
Some search engines want you to choose a category your site best fits into, such as Internet or Business. Others ask for your contact information. Just follow the directions and you'll be fine.
Cool Your Heels
The next step: Wait and see what happens. It took me more than six weeks to get my new site listed on Fast, and I've heard of poor suckers who have been submitting their site to Yahoo! for two years with no results. If you haven't been listed in the search engines after a couple of months, go ahead and submit your site again. Don't do this too often, though -- that's called (all together now) "spamming." Many of the search-engine sites will tell you how often you should resubmit; for example, Lycos says three weeks and Go says nine weeks.
Eyeball Your Logs
Once you're listed in the search engines, one way to see what keywords are working for you is to check your logs. If your ISP doesn't offer Web logs (or if they make you fork over money for the service), you can get one gratis from services like TheCounter.com or eXTReMe tracking. I use the latter, and it lets me see how many visitors have surfed to my site and what keywords they used to find me in the search engines.
"Look through the actual 'referrer' addresses [the URLs that led the user to your site] in the logs and paste the URL back into your browser," says Kennedy. "This will bring up the same search in the same way the user saw the results. For example, a user may have come to my site through the URL http://search.yahoo.com/search?p=the+best+writer+ever. If I plug that URL into my browser, I can see the results first hand (and become angered that Stephen King somehow ranked above me). I can see exactly what the user saw when he ran a search on the keywords "the best writer ever" and compare my site to others that came up on the same page.
What's more, says Kennedy, "You can use the report to identify which of your keywords aren't getting you visitors to your site." Remove these keywords from your meta tags because they're diluting the strength of those that remain.
Stay in the Loop
Stay vigilant, my stout and stalwart readers; search engines sometimes change their ranking systems to provide a more accurate picture of who ranks where. To keep up on search-engine trends, you can check out sites like WordSpot and Search Engine Watch. They're sure to keep you at the top of the charts. I guarantee it.
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