Jul 01 2006

Search Warrant

If you want would-be customers to find you on the Web, try these tips to make your site search-engine friendly.

Photo: Andrew Kist
Kevin Brickner, Senior Director, Franchise Sales and Development at Wyndham

It's the dreaded question that inevitably comes from a senior manager with some spare time and a Web browser: "Why aren't we No. 1 in Google?" The landscape is competitive, but if the Web server falls into your area of responsibility, you're most likely accountable for ensuring that your Web site shows up prominently when prospective customers or clients type keywords into the popular search sites, a pursuit known as search engine optimization, or SEO.


While the blame often lands squarely in the lap of the Webmaster or IT manager, creating a site that ranks well for relevant search results requires an orchestrated effort from copywriters, developers, designers, public relations and other teams. But there are a few things an IT manager can do. Lay the groundwork for a concerted team effort by checking how thoroughly your site gets explored and indexed by the search sites, testing rankings regularly, addressing common SEO inhibitors and improving the site's links, URLs and site map.


You should first determine how thoroughly your site is explored by the automated Web crawlers, also known as spiders or searchbots, that search engines use to find and index Web sites. In the Google search bar, type the command allinurl: followed by your site's URL (for example, allinurl:biztechmagazine.com) and you'll see how many of your site's pages are indexed. If your Web site has roughly 200 pages and Google has just 12 in its index, something is clearly inhibiting Google's ability to index your pages.



Another quick test is to see if Google ranks your pages in their proper hierarchy using its PageRank function. PageRank is simply Google's measurement of the relative importance of your site pages (based largely on links pointing to the page). You can see PageRank using the Google toolbar. In a typical tree-structure site, you should see PageRank dropping by a few points for each tier of your site. For example, if your home page is a PR 5, the top tier is a PR 3 and the next tier a 2. If a page registers as "unranked" by PageRank, it has not been indexed by Google. Bouncing through your site while monitoring PageRank is an excellent way to determine where a searchbot may be missing valuable content on your site.


Flash in the Pan


Adobe's Flash takes a beating in SEO circles because sites that use a lot of Flash animation often aren't indexed well by search engines. While the search engines appear to be making improvements in dealing with Flash, sites built with straight HTML generally do better in search engine rankings. With Flash development, you can embed an entire site within one .swf file (rather than a set of separate HTML pages). This means that your home page is indexed but none of the other pages are, because search spiders typically cannot follow the Flash equivalent of links to underlying pages. However, if you embed your site text and Flash animations in an HTML template, you can have the best of both worlds — Flash animation that delivers a strong brand impression, indexable HTML text and links that search spiders can follow.


An example is the Wyndham Hotel Group, the owners of popular hotel franchise brands — including Ramada, Days Inn, Travelodge and Howard Johnson. The group's initial, stylish, Flash-driven site attracted search-engine traffic only on the home page. By reworking the site into an HTML template, with some Flash animation on the page, the Wyndham team was able to preserve the slick look and get all site pages indexed by search engines. Search referrals began landing deep within the site and search traffic increased 77 percent within the first month after the redesign. Today, the site ranks well in highly competitive search terms, and online lead generation is up 600 percent from last year, according to Kevin Brickner, senior director of franchise sales and development at Wyndham.


Many hotel operators who are potential franchisees conduct research online, he says, and with Wyndham's strong brands, the company just needs to be visible to them to be considered. "By taking the right steps to position us well for search engines, we're acquiring a high volume of quality leads at a very low cost compared to other sales channels," Brickner says.


In addition to Flash animation, there are several other development techniques that may stall your search engine rankings. Here are the four that, after Flash, fill out the top five inhibitors that do the most damage:


Javascript: If you're using Javascript to pull in page content (such as a news feed) it's highly unlikely that the on-page content generated by Javascript will be indexed by the search engines. Google reads HTML text and follows links; it will not parse through code in a deductive manner. This can be a particular problem when using Javascript for navigation menus.


Dynamic sites: If your site's URLs have multiple parameters (often demarcated with a ? symbol), your pages may not get indexed. Generally, two variables are fine, but with three or more your page might not be indexed. The following multi-parameter URL is asking to be overlooked:
http://www.fourmilab.ch/cgi-bin/uncgi/Earth?imgsize= 1024&opt=-l&lat=52.7917&ns= North&lon=38.5833&ew=West&alt=149151162 &img=learth.evif


Embedding text in images: Words displayed as a jpeg or gif image (rather than HTML text) will not be indexed. Navigation menus designed this way (See Figure 1), and even some stylish-looking sites will include multiple paragraphs of text as an image to preserve a consistent look. The aesthetic appeal is costly, as such pages will be less relevant than others that include similar wording as text. Cascading style sheets make it easier to apply a consistent style to the look of the text throughout a site without using images.


Figure 1. The text in these buttons is saved as image files. For a search engine to index these words, they should be displayed as text, on top of a colored background image.


Pulling Rank


Now that you know what not to do, here are five simple steps to improve your site's SEO:


1. Use a sitemap: A sitemap is a wonderful tool for SEO. If a searchbot can get to this page, it will follow all the text links on it and index all of the underlying pages. A link to the sitemap should be on the home page, and should contain text links to all sections of the site. (See example.)


2. Add text links: Optimization problems arising from Javascript or Flash-based navigation can often be easily addressed by adding text links to your main site pages in the page footer. When creating text links, your keyword strategy should guide the link text you use. For example, if you wanted a page to be relevant for searches with the terms "SEO best practices," then consider using that as link text. The anchor text of inbound links is an important relevancy factor for search engines.


3. Use full URLs: Google will consider url.com, www.url.com and www.url.com/index.html as different pages, even though they all host the same page content, so avoid URL canonization on your site. This reduces your page's impact by sharing PageRank among the three URL variants instead of one. Use the full URL in all links rather than abbreviating the domain.


4. Create SEO-friendly URLs: A typical Web administrator or producer doesn't have control over page content, but often controls the folders and file names of the pages. Search engines will derive relevancy from these, so use words that accurately describe the content and that fit with the keywords someone might use to search for this content. For example, the URL www.yoursite.com/services/june27article.html would rank better for the search terms "creative design" and "logo development" if named: www.yoursite.com/services/creative-design/logo-development.html.


5. Rewrite complex URLs: If your site suffers in search results because of long database-driven URLs with several parameters, consider using a URL rewrite engine such as Apache's mod_rewrite to create more search-engine friendly URLs.


Indexing aside, users' understanding of content and navigation within a site can't be aided by a URL, such as: www.website.com/sfd2/sfd2_tpl_genericpage/ 1,2947,bGFuZy1lbmdsaXNoX3NpdGUtc GZzMl9lbnYtbGl2ZV12mam4tZ 2VuZXJpY19zZWMtNl9zdGF0LV9lZ C1fbmF2LTY2MjU4,00.html.



Frame-based sites: When I began working with the digital signage agency Digital Display & Communication, Inc., we found that their site was getting indexed a little too well. The 25-page site had more than 400 pages listed in Google, a symptom of a frame-based site. Instead of indexing pages as a whole, Google treats each frame as a page, reducing the site's search relevancy by diluting each page's content. By moving out of the frameset, the whole proved much stronger than its parts and DDC gained valuable search engine results, tripling site traffic and generating 85 percent of its traffic from search engines.


"We made a decision to use a SEO-driven strategy to get in front of new North American prospects, and while it took some time and effort, that decision is really paying off," says Steve Harris, vice president of sales and marketing, Digital Display & Communication Inc. "We're getting 12 times the volume of leads from our previous site, and the bulk of our new leads come from the Web."



CEO takeaway
• Typing keywords relevant to your business into the major search engines such as Google, Yahoo! and MSN will tell you at a glance if your Web site is optimized for search. If a link to your site appears near the top of the results or at least within the first few pages, you’re in good shape.
• Creating a Web site that ranks well in search results for relevant keywords that prospective customers or clients might use to find your business requires an orchestrated effort from multiple departments within your organization.
• Make sure your site has a good site map with a link to it on the home page and that your Web team uses text links liberally and Flash animation judiciously to keep your site optimized for search results.


Dan Skeen is the director of search engine marketing at Quarry, an integrated communications agency headquartered in Waterloo, Ontario.