Search engine optimization is the most effective way to make sure your web site gets the visitors it needs

By Chris Freeburn

There's no avoiding the Internet these days. Even the smallest businesses need some sort of web presence to compete in today's marketplace. But while creating and maintaining a web site - or even a web storefront - has become easy enough for the average small business owner to handle with the help of the right Internet Service Provider (ISP) or web hosting company, many fledgling ecommerce entrepreneurs soon discover that it's one thing to get your company on the web, and quite another to draw customers to your website.


"Steering web traffic to your site requires some thought and planning," says New York-based computer and network consultant Kevin Freeman. "First, you need to understand how people actually find web sites on the World Wide Web." Freeman says that most website traffic is generated by search engines like Yahoo, Alta Vista, Excite, Ask and the now household name, Google. "People begin looking for a product or service by throwing the product name or a few descriptive phrases into a search engine and seeing what comes up," he explains. Most of the time, for any product or service search, the first results the search engine returns will be ecommerce websites. Depending on the product or service, there may be hundreds or thousands of such online vendors willing to sell their products to the first consumer who clicks through to their site.




That means that in order for your website to stand out among the legion of possibilities that any of the major search engines are apt to turn up, you need to try and get your website somewhere near the top of the listings. "People are much more likely to click on the first dozen or so sites the search engine provides them," Freeman says. Any shopping decision they make will likely be made on one of those websites. If your site is the eightieth or hundredth site listed, potential consumers are much less likely to ever click on your link.


So, to improve your website's chance of landing relatively close to the top in any search engine's listings, here are a few tips.

Develop strong keywords and key phrases that accurately describe your business and repeat these words and phrases all over your website. Search engines deploy specialized programs called spiders that "crawl" through the web, scanning millions of web sites a day, and indexing them based on certain criteria, including words and phrases that appear often on their web pages. If your business caters to a specific city or region, make sure the name of your area of operation appears repeatedly too. Putting your keywords near the top of your websites' pages is important, since search engine indexing programs give priority to content at the top of the page. Search engine giant Google offers a free online tool that helps web site builders determine which keywords to use on their website (**).

Getting Meta
Meta tags are short bits of text that are encoded into a web page in the HTML language that computers use to create and read documents on the web. Meta tags provide a description of the web page's content that can usually only be seen by search engines. In the early days of the web, most meta tags consisted solely of keywords and phrases; however, since the beginning of the decade most search engines have moved away from simple meta tag keywords for indexing since the method is considered unreliable and open to misuse by spamming websites. Many search engines now favor Meta tag descriptions. A meta tag description is a short piece of text describing - as concisely and accurately as possible - the web page's content. Meta tag descriptions should be no longer than 200 characters of plain text.

You can enter meta tag information in the HTML framework of your web pages using any one of several available website creation programs. In the event that your web-hosting company (which maintains your website on its servers) has created your website for you, simply inquire what meta tags have been added into the website's pages and add any descriptive meta tags you think are necessary.

Update Your Site Often
A number of search engines periodically re-index websites in their directories based on the number of changes they notice when they scan the websites. A frequently updated website will be considered more "current" than one less often updated and will receive a higher ranking in the search engines results.

Keep It Easy
It should be easy for customers to view your website. It should also be easy for the spider programs that search engines use to scan websites. Some of today's flashier website display technologies, like JavaScript and Macromedia Flash, may add visual interest to your website, but only if potential customers have the correct plug-ins for these subprograms already installed in their web browsers. "Nothing will stop a potential customer from looking at your website faster than getting an error message saying they need to install something in order to view it," Freeman says. Worse, search engine spiders usually scan websites in text format, which means that they are unable to read data contained in JavaScript or Flash. If they can't read it, it doesn't get indexed.

Additionally, some search engine spiders have trouble reading websites that use frames. Frames are a way to divide a webpage so that multiple documents can be displayed simultaneously. Search engines including Excite, Hotbot, and Alta Vista will not fully index frame-laden websites, thus reducing your website's chances of appearing on their search results.

In order to see if search engine spiders can fully read your website, you can examine it they way they see it - in text format - using a free text-based web browser like Lynx (

Submitting Your Site
In addition to loading your site with keywords and adjusting your HTML meta tags, you can also submit your website directly to search engines for their consideration. All of the major search engines provide a submissions process for website owners, which usually involves filling out and submitting an online form in which you provide your website's URL and various kinds of descriptive information. Resubmitting your website on a periodic basis - say, every few months - can help increase your ranking. There are also a number of web-businesses that promise to submit your website to a variety of search engines for free, or for a price. Paid web engine submission services can cover a larger number of search engines via an automated process.

Paying for Attention
Many search engines - who are always looking for revenue, just like everyone else - will offer preferential search results positions to websites that pay for it. Depending on the search engine, there are several levels of placement offered, with increasing fees for better search results placement.

Get Linked
Among the things search engine spiders take into consideration when indexing websites is the number of times a particular website is linked to by other websites, especially high-traffic websites. In short, the more people, organizations or other businesses who link to your website on their websites, the higher your ranking will be with search engines. You can increase you website's number of incoming links through a variety of methods. Involve your business in local civic or charitable events. The websites for these organizations or events will likely list your business as a contributor or sponsor and provide a link to your website. Make sure your business's website is listed in professional or industry organization online directories or the local chamber of commerce website. Locate other businesses - presumably non-competing businesses - with which you can trade links, or try a site like LinkExchange ( that will help you find websites willing to link to your own.


Chris Freeburn is an associate editor/writer for Priority magazine.