Human Internet Makes
Peace with the Search Engine Robots
By Andrew Goodman - July 20, 2000
About.com's 800 guide sites was a daunting challenge for search
engine marketing guru Marshall Simmonds. He is helping About guides
make peace with search engine spiders.
One of the
most popular online destinations today is About. Its slogan these
days is "The Human Internet." Wouldn't you know it, though; until
recently these humans were being foiled by a bunch of robots. Search
engine spiders weren't giving the rich content created by About's
human guides the time of day.
As if that weren't
enough trouble, human editors like those at Yahoo! gave the About
Guide Sites the short end of the stick.
from Yahoo editors
On several occasions,
About (formerly About.com) CEO
Scott Kurnit has complained about the limited number of Yahoo! listings
for About's 750+ "guides." The Yahoo! situation has now largely
improved. Evidently, the argument that most About sites are "in
the top ten in their category" has penetrated the consciousness
of the Yahoo! gatekeepers.
But as every
webmaster knows, good listings in Yahoo! are just the beginning.
There are dozens of major search engines and directories, and careful
needs to be given to the many aspects of optimizing a web site for
successfully pulling in more search engine traffic.
engine optimization guru to the rescue
Simmonds, search engine optimization guru, and now Manager of Search
Engine Relations for About. His job: get those search engines to
send more traffic to all that great content! Simmonds' task was
a daunting one, but on the other hand, it must have been a dream
assignment for someone with his talents.
What needs to
be kept in mind is that About sites are set up as more or less independent
web sites under the direction of their Guides. Optimizing About's
vast content - 860,000 pages - is far different from making sure
the web site for a single company such as Mitsubishi,
Ford, or Intel makes it into the search engines. Simmonds' job would
be to work with all 750+ About.com Guides to ensure that they began
to work on optimizing their sites to get the placements they often
to Simmonds, one realizes that the task of search engine optimization
is more "granular" than many suspect. His first task was to get
some guides to stop "frantically submitting" their pages to search
engines. While this might have caused a temporary dropoff in traffic,
Simmonds' task was to get Guides to focus on what makes a page suitable
for search engine placement.
by page, not by site
All Guide sites
are stand-alone subdomains of About.com, and, importantly, until
recently, they were static HTML sites with no database component.
This meant that a Guide was free to optimize any page on his or
her site, but many Guides didn't realize that optimization is page
specific, not site specific, so they created metatags, titles, and
descriptions with the same text on page after page. This unintended
duplication was perceived as a mild form of spamming by some engines.
(If this sounds familiar, then it may be time to get busy overhauling
your company's site!)
his teeth as an independent marketing consultant and points to some
1997 training by Danny Sullivan, Editor of Search Engine Watch, as a significant
step forward in his learning process. He has consulted with Intel,
Lawyers.com, BigWords, and Hughes Digital on the proper design of
web sites for search engines. He also started the i-search list,
a popular discussion list on search engine optimization techniques.
pleased that About knew enough to ask for help. What they probably
didn't bargain for was that the whole About site - which was massively
overhauled to install a new database system - would need to be designed
carefully with an eye to search engine friendliness. Simmonds
worked with About's developers to assure that content in the database
was both search engine friendly and avoided technical no-nos.
aren't so receptive to the needs of basic search engine optimization.
After all, getting the free traffic that comes to a site from search
engines like Hotbot and Altavista is in the realm of guerrilla marketing,
something that some blue chip firms may see as beneath them. Until,
of course, they see some small-time vendor's product listed first
in "their" category.
a naive attitude" on the part of larger companies, argues Simmonds,
"that 'we own this online space'". While large brands like Nike
may have overwhelming brand awareness, if they ignore basic Internet
awareness techniques, who knows if the brand will erode over the
long term? A site like the Nike site - to use one example - will
tend to have poor rankings at Google, in part because Google rewards
sites for linking to related resources. Linking out to other sites
is something that many corporations are reluctant to do, but this
is precisely what many have come to expect from the Internet: a
resource to go along with a product pitch.
the About Guide to Web Search, is a bit more vocal in his indictment
of many top-tier firms for their lack of effort on the
search engine optimization front. Site design, the experts will
tell you, needs to build in search engine friendliness from the
beginning. Designers may be insufficiently cognizant of the
main purpose of a site - for most companies, it's a marketing tool
- and create pages that are unindexable, or will rank so poorly
that they are almost invisible. "I'm talking about basic blocking
and tackling," says Sherman. "Optimizing for maximum ranking is
an order of magnitude beyond what most companies should be doing
as just a bare minimum, but much to their detriment, simply aren't
doing at all."
are your secrets, Marshall?
So what makes
a web site pull more traffic? The first thing is to avoid irking
the engines. Don't spam them with repeated, irrelevant submissions.
Beyond that, as mentioned above, it's really about working on individual
pages as opposed to the whole site. A properly optimized page has
appropriate keywords in the title and meta tags. Beyond that, creating
content and headings (as in the h5 headings contained in the present
document) that also contain appropriate keywords can lead to more
recognition in search engine rankings. Simmonds paints all of this
as little more than common sense. But if it were common sense, it
would be more common.
A company the
size of About can do a bit more than tweaking its pages. Beyond
the CEO conducting a PR campaign to get better directory listings,
it's also possible to meet with staff at the search engines and
explain that your site's rich content needs to be given its due
rather than treated as spam. "We're not looking for special deals.
We just want to make sure their engine knows how to spider us,"
Sherman plays the nice cop
been "a wonderful advocate" helping Simmonds to work with the Guides.
Since many of them were laboring under misconceptions as to how
to pull in search engine traffic, says Simmonds, "Chris has helped
to confirm what I'm saying so they're more likely to comply."
For his part,
Sherman believes that Simmonds is a significant asset for About
and has "carried out his task with the calm but no-nonsense authority
of a skilled diplomat." In effect, this is a monster-gig, consulting
to the creators of 800 individual Web sites, "run by talented, often
wilful people who are used to working with minimal supervision or
guidance apart from some fundamental style and formatting directives,"
far from finished with this task, but already he's seen some Guide
sites tripling or quadrupling their search-engine-referred traffic.
The next step will be to analyze server logs and metrics to do more
While this tale
shows us one major media company in the act of responding to
the needs of marketing on the Internet, it seems as if many of
the world's largest companies are still ignoring the steps
required to allow each of their sites' pages to pull in a respectable
amount of search engine traffic.
for the little guys
For the time
being at least, this means the guerrilla marketing advantage accrues
to the smaller webmaster who is willing to learn how to create search-engine-friendly
pages. Enjoy it while it lasts. And remember the simple formula.
First optimize, then submit.
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