Search Engines: Tips and Strategies on Getting Listed and Ranking High for Newbies

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You've got a website. You've put countless hours into it, tweaking the look and feel and making sure all the links work. The bad news is there are a gazillion other websites out there. The good news is there are many things you can control to make sure your site isn't lost in the morass of dot coms.

One of the most important is showing up in the search engines, and getting listed in the top 20 for your subject. This article covers the steps you can take within your site.

First things first: Just like there's no "get rich quick", there's also no "get listed quick" (unless you pay for it).

Getting top listings in the search engines is an accomplishment. It gets you traffic and it gets you credibility. You can buy sponsored listings ? you can't buy credibility.

Always Remember: Search engines base their usefulness on the quality of the results they give. You want people who are searching for your product to find your site; they want people who are searching for your product to find relevant sites. SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is all about making sure you both get what you want.

SEO requires many steps. They pay off, but not immediately. Once you're "spidered" you'll see the effects of changes you make pretty quickly, but getting "spidered" (sorry to all the arachnophobes) can take awhile.

Spidered: Search engines search sites throughout the entire World Wide Web (if that sounds a lot like Sally searching for seashells by the seashore, it's intentional). But, to search for your site, they have to know you're there. So, these benevolent spiders send their hairy arms searching through the Web and whatever sticks to their spindly legs they keep.

If you create a web these spiders might want to visit, this process gets you a more desirable string on their web. You want to create a spa for spiders.

Keywords, Keywords, Keywords

Think about it: how do you search for something on the Internet? You put in a few words that say succinctly what you're searching for, i.e. downtown Chicago restaurants.

So, when you design or revamp your site, consider the keywords anyone would use to find what you offer.

The beauty of the Internet is the ability to target niche markets. You don't need a gazillion hits a month. You need people who are searching for YOUR product to find YOUR site. To illustrate the above example: if you search for "downtown Chicago restaurants" in Google, is the first listing. If you look for "Chicago Restaurants" it's aways down the list. But that's perfect. Because The Local Tourist only lists restaurants in downtown Chicago.

If The Local Tourist had a high listing for Chicago Restaurants, then someone looking for a place to eat in one of the outlying neighborhoods would be disappointed, and we don't want that.

By focusing on your niche keywords, on your target market's desires, you're forced to evaluate what you have to offer and the best way to present it. When you designed your product or service, you (hopefully) had the end-user in mind. So you know what they want.

As you're starting out, don't use the most popular keywords; use ones that don't get as many searches because there won't be as much competition. You're just trying to establish a presence. A good resource to find the popularity of keywords is Type in the keywords you think people would use to find your work and this tool will show you how many people have searched for it in the previous month through Overture. Google searches are approximately 12x that number.

Scope Out Your Competition

Go to your favorite search engines and type in your chosen keywords. Now visit the top three for each set of keywords from each search engine. Try to figure out how they got such high listings.

An easy way to keep track of this reconnaissance work is to create a simple spreadsheet and use a different worksheet for each search term. You'll want to have a row for each of the following:

1. Search term

2. Search engine

3. Your ranking:

a. If I'm not in the top 50, I simply write that.

b. Add a date next to the ranking so you can track your movement up the listings

4. Overture traffic (number of times term was searched for last month)

5. Repeat the following 3 times, for the top 3 listings:

a. Listing URL

b. Title

c. Description

d. Keywords

When you visit each of your competitor's sites, you're going to use a wonderful tool called Source Code. Copy and paste their URL into your spreadsheet, then in your browser click on View?Source. A new window opens with their HTML. (I always feel a little dirty when I do this, like I'm a voyeur or a spy, which I guess I am. That being said, it's completely legit.)

Now that you're seeing all their dirty laundry, you're going to look for their Meta Tags, which will be at the top of the code.

Meta Tags are the code in the HTML that visitors don't see but search engines do. They used to be the main way to get listed, but search engines have gotten smarter since abusers were loading up their tags with irrelevant keywords. They aren't nearly as important as they used to be, but the Title and Description tags are still vital. Many search engines use the title for the listing and the description for, well, the description. If your tags are relevant to your content, they don't hurt and do help with some.

Find the tags for Title, Description, and Keywords. Simply look for "title", "description" and "keyword" at the top of the source code.

1. The title uses the main keywords potential customers use to find sites. For example, TheLocalTourist's home page title is "Downtown Chicago Restaurants, Bars and Nightclubs, Shopping, Events, Things To Do". This title highlights the areas of the site where I want to receive search engine rankings based on the number of searches on those terms.

2. The description is where sites give their metaphorical "sound-byte". The trick is to pick keywords and write a compelling, succinct description without sounding like you're trying to use all your keywords. Gee, it sounds so easy.

3. The keyword meta tag is simply a listing, separated by commas, of all the keywords people would use to find a site. They should be different for each page because the content is different. ONLY use keywords that represent your content. Don't go crazy and don't use the same ones too many times.

Copy their tags and place them in the appropriate rows in your spreadsheet.

Now go back to the page itself and read through it. Take note of how they use their keywords in their content. It's a good idea to print each one.

Finally, gather your spreadsheets and your competitor's site print-outs and pull the keywords and descriptions that reflect your site's content. Analyze how they present their information.

This process is time consuming, but it forces you to take a look at your competition. It also, of course, makes sure your site is search engine friendly and therefore potential-visitor friendly.

Step By Step Optimization

Now it's time to really get down to business.

Change your file names to include the most relevant keywords for each page. You can't do that with the home page since it has to be something like "index", but you can name the other pages on the site with the relevant keyword for each page. Believe it or not, it does make a difference. Pick one or two so the file name isn't too long.

Write a title (not a meta tag, a real title) for each page as close to the top of the page as possible using the best keywords to describe the content. Format it as Header 1. (Most HTML editors have an easy way to format text without going into the code if you're unfamiliar with HTML.) You're putting it at the top of the page because search engines read like we do: left to right, top to bottom. This placement and the header formatting is a flag stating that "This is what the page is about".

Within the content of each page, include a blurb that uses as many keywords as possible without being annoying or redundant. Make your keywords bold, but only once. A good, brief example is the Things to Do page This is one of the most frequently visited pages on The Local Tourist from search engines.

Make sure every picture has an "alt tag" (alternate). That's the text that shows up while the picture is loading. Search engines can't "read" pictures, so the alt tags show them what the picture is about. On most HTML editors you add the alt tag in picture properties.

Use your hard-earned knowledge from spying to create your own meta tags. Tailor your competitors' usage for your own site. (Learning how to implement meta tags is beyond the scope of this article, but you can do a web search for "meta tag tutorial" to find plenty of help.)

Ta da! You now have a website that's ready to be submitted to the search engines. It's a good idea to check your rankings on a regular basis and track them with your spreadsheets. Remember, this is not an instant process. The absolute best way to get impressive rankings is to have a content-rich quality site that addresses your target market's needs.

Theresa Carter is the creator, publisher, and search engine optimizer of The Local Tourist, a free online guide to downtown Chicago. Find restaurants, bars, spas, salons, events, attractions, shopping, media, transportation, articles about Chicago and more.

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