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Wednesday, May 07, 2003

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Get noticed!

Pratap Ravindran

Here you are, building up your Web site and waiting to be noticed but the search engines simply seem to go past. The point is all about positioning, like the car hanging out of the hotel. Get savvy on getting spotted.

IMAGINE, for a moment, that you have pots and pots of money to invest and that you're pretty certain that boozing is the Next Best Thing. In fact, you know that boozing has always been and will always be a very Big Thing indeed.

And so, you decide this Web site structured as a resource for all those who believe that boozers, in view of their significant contribution by way of excise and other taxes, should be insulated from inflation which, as every one knows, is just another form of taxation. In other words, a site for people who are reluctant to pay for their booze.

You register the name, StaggerInn.com, and you put up with a whole lot of gobbledygook from confessed Web designers who know all the reasons why something can't be done but fall into a morose silence when asked to do something specific and you finally have this absolutely stupendous site up and running, crammed with ads featuring establishments that seem to offer happy hour rates from eight in the morning till eight the next day morning and you sit back and wait for all those bloodshot eyeballs out there.

And nothing happens. In despair, you check out the buzz on the Net and realise that you haven't caused any...

Well, that could be because the kind of people you're reaching out for are hardly ever in any condition to manipulate a mouse. And then again, it could be that you need to go in for a bit of search engine optimisation (SEO).

Let's back up a bit before we try and figure out what exactly SEO is. We need to start with search engines... .

Quite simply, search engines help people find the kind of information that they're looking for on the Internet. The established search engines maintain huge databases of Web sites that users can search by typing in some text. And how do they put together these databases? Well, they basically use computer programmes called `robots' or, more specifically, `spiders.' These programs `crawl' across the Web by following links from one site to another, indexing each one.

Different search engine uses their own sets of criteria to determine what should be included in their databases. Thus, some search engines index every page in a Web site, while others index only the main page.

Search engines also organise information for their users in different ways. Some lists search results on the basis of which sites have the most links from other sites - it's known as link popularity. Others prioritise search results according to the summary information contained in the sites' meta tags. Yet others keep an eye open for common themes. These days, most search engines use a combination of all of the above.

A lot of people tend to confuse directories with search engines. Actually, they're completely different. Directories like Yahoo! and Open Directory Project don't use spiders to crawl the Web but have human beings to review and index links. Invariably, they require Web sites to follow pretty rigid guidelines if they want to be included in their indexes. Obviously, directory indexes tend to feature fewer high-quality links.

The trend these days is towards what are known as hybrid search engines. In fact, think of a top search engine and the chances are that it's a hybrid operation. These hybrids usually combine a directory with a search engine to give people better results.

If you want to improve your search engine rankings, you'll just have to learn the criteria used by them.

Link popularity

More and more search engines are beginning to use link popularity in their ranking algorithms. Google, in fact, uses it as the single most important criterion in ranking sites.

Contrary to what most people think, link popularity is a tad more complicated than a simple measure of how many links point to a site. However, in general, link popularity is heavily influenced by the following factors:

  • Number of Links: Obviously, the more, the better. They may be pretty irrelevant, but that doesn't really matter because outfits like Inktomi still count links.

  • Relevance: It's not as if relevance doesn't matter at all. Many search engines do prioritise incoming links from pages that are relevant.

  • Link text: The text used to describe a link can also impact rankings. Search engine spiders figure that any words other sites use to describe your site are relevant. It follows that if a bunch of sites linking to you use keywords in their link text, search engines will push up your ranking for those keywords.

    There are many ways to improve your link popularity. Let's set aside a link popularity campaign for the moment because it can get pretty tricky - and cost you an arm and a leg.

    Link popularity can be tweaked by submitting new links to search engines. A search engine assesses link popularity by examining its own unique database and so, all sites linking to your site must be indexed by that engine if you want a high rating.

    Search engines, of course, have no way of automatically finding out every time you develop a new link. As link popularity is search-engine specific, you'll just have to make sure that the linking to you is indexed by every engine. Therefore, you must submit pages with links to your site to search engines so they can be indexed. In certain cases, you might have to ask for permission.

    Make your sites tick

    A word about site design. For one reason or the other (usually sycophancy), most web sites maintained by Indian corporates are utterly appalling in their design. Those who put them up obviously believe that it's just fine as long as it contains ample pictures of an even more ample chairman. Obviously, not many people are going to stick around as site design is central to a user's decision whether to stick around or continue surfing.

    Graphics, layout, load time, fonts and ease of navigation can all influence users.

    Sites, in order to be sticky, must be fast, clean and pleasant. Incidentally, do bear in mind that your site design is critical for search engine positioning as well. Directories, such as Yahoo!, will review your site before accepting it. Directory editors are people too and look for sites with good design to add to their indices.

    If possible, follow the golden rule of site design - allow your visitors handle it. Honestly - try and give your visitors a chance to specify your site's design. You can do this by finding out more about your visitors through a Web traffic monitoring service.

    In the meantime, you could check out the following points while trying to fine-tune your site:

  • Connection speed: Keep in mind that connection speeds are not all that great in this country and avoid fancy Flash intros and heavy graphics and humongous stuff like that. Go in for simple pages that your visitors can actually read without going blind.

  • Browser compatibility: Browser technology is improving rapidly but some problems persist. Try and verify how your pages look in different browsers.

  • Construction areas: Avoid them. Any directory editor will tell you that a site using "This page is under construction" messages just won't make it.

  • Doorway pages: Optimise them, bearing in mind that it's quality that counts. These pages stand on their own, separate from the rest of a site. They usually feature a logo, some text and a link that encourages visitors to enter the site. In the case of sites put up by Indian corporates, this is where you'll find the chairman's mug shot and where you'll have to click on his nose or something to get into the site.

    As these pages are important for SEO, you would do well to study each search engine's ranking formulas before creating a unique doorway page for it, keeping in mind parameters such as keyword frequency and keyword weight/density.

    There's one thing you must avoid if you are to achieve effective SEO. Spam. Search engines don't like to be fooled into awarding high rankings to totally irrelevant pages. And spam messes up the indices they use for ranking. Some webmasters figure out the criteria used by a search engine and then create spam intended to make it give a higher ranking. Key words, for instance. Webmasters have come up with a way to add more keywords without wrecking a site's appearance by using invisible text. The problem here is that search engines now know of this little gimmick — and define it as spam. In fact, sites that use invisible text are banned from most of the major search engines.

    The other things categorised by search engines as spam are meta refresh tags, overuse of tiny text, irrelevant keywords in the title and meta tags, excessive repetition of keywords, excessive use of mirror sites (same sites that point to different URLs), the submission of too many pages in one day, identical or nearly identical pages, the submission of inappropriate categories for directories, link farms, and frames, dynamic content and Flash intros. Search engines will not actually blackball you if you use frames, dynamic content and multimedia files - but they'll have a tough time indexing them.

    pratapravindran@hotmail.com

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