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 The Search Engines

Oh, to be number one! Isn't it everyone's dream? To punch in a set of keywords and see your site rise to the top of the heap, of 101,896 hits... you're number one! Or, at the very least, in the first page. Being number one, of course, translates into more hits. In July of 2002 Professor Oren Etzioni of the University of Washington went on record as estimating that search engine users are three times more likely to click on the top sites, as opposed to those four or below.

If you have a brand new site you'll need to announce that site to the various search engines. How you do that will depend on how much you'd like to spend. Almost every search engine on the web now charges a fee for prompt listing. Although some allow you to submit your site for free, there are no guarantees your site will be included in the rankings in anything even vaguely approximating a timely manner. Some sites, like "Yahoo" charge an annual fee (around $200 per year as of this writing) others a one time $35 fee. All in all it adds up quickly.

Submission services have sprung up to bundle submission to multiple sites into a single fee (and form). The fact that a service promises submission to "thousands" of engines means nothing if Google, AOL, Netscape, and MSN are not included in those thousands. For that reason we suggest you get your site listed on Excite.com a one-stop submission service. Remember: a submission service is NOT a bid-for-placement service. All the submission service does is check your site for errors, and then announce it to the search engines. Now the engines know you exist, but existance does not guarantee good ranking.

The king of the engines is Google. Rank high on Google and you'll rank high anywhere. What does it take to rank high on Google? According to the people at Google the way to good ranking is to build a good site that people want to use. The zen way to search engine bliss. In fact, this is a bit disingenuous. Google's automated achiving system can't read Javascript or Flash Animations. So you could have a lovely site, which everyone wanted to use, based Flash... and be invisible to the Google system.

Google likes straight HTML content. Lots of text with plenty of keywords and phrases. Headings with keywords in them. Links that link to you using your keywords (what is often called "anchor text"), and links that you use to "deepen" your site. Which is why many sites with high Google ranking look less than cutting edge. They're not designed to look attractive to viewers. They're designed to Google well.

This can represent a challenge to your web designer. Graphically interesting, interactive, sites may not fare as well on the search engines as a plain vanilla site heavy with text. Which, even if you achieve the page rank you desire, may not improve your sales because your client base isn't interested in reading a treatise on your bed and breakfast. They want to see pictures! What to do?

Enter the SEO's or Search Engine Optomizers, who claim they can take your current site and through a little sleight of hand, manipulation of file names, tweaking of the meta tags... lift you up on the search engine pages. And, in certain cases, particularly with older sites, they can help. They are also not inexpensive services, running in the neighborhood of $300-600 per year. The plus of using an SEO service is it may help your site. The minus? The truth of it is, not everyone can be number one. The SEO is not selling his service to you and you alone. He's making the same promises to your friends and competitors. And you can't all be number one.

To keep everyone happy, SEO's try to spread the keywords around between competitors. So your site may be optomized for someone searching on "Stowe Vermont Weddings," while one competitor may be optomized for "Weddings in Stowe Vermont," and another for "Stowe Vermont Wedding." Think it doesn't make a difference?

Stowe Vermont Weddings places our wedding pages hosted on the GatewaytoStowe.com site on the second page of listings.

Stowe Vermont Wedding places us at number one in the listings. Number one, two, and three, no less.

Weddings in Stowe Vermont places us at the bottom of the first page of listings.

This is pretty good placement for a set of pages we put up only a month before we ran this test. The placement is a credit to the work we've done to achieve good standing for the GatewaytoStowe pages. But it also graphically illustrates how an SEO can claim to be lifting all his clients up the search engine ladder.

Are SEO's worth the money they're charging? For people with older sites, quite possibly yes, although your webmaster should be able to make file name changes and metatag adjustments without the help of an outside agent. A better use of your resources, however, is probably to bid on traffic with a pay to play search engine placement.

Bidding, or paying, for clicks is rapidly becoming the preferred method of driving traffic to a site. You pay only for the traffic you receive, and bid only on the keywords you think will generate business for your site.

So, for example, you are a manufacturer of whiggits and gimlets. Whiggits are not a high profit item for you, and there is a lot of competition in the whiggit market. But gimlets have high margins, and they're very profitable for you. Naturally, you'll optomize your site to come up when people search on whiggits and gimlets... but you'll buy top placement for your gimlets. Even if it costs you $20 a month to be number one under "gimlets," you'll more than make that up with what your new customers buy and the exposure you receive.

Paying for traffic has two side benefits rarely discussed, even by the services themselves, which in and of themselves are worth the monthly fee. These services allow you to see what your competitors are bidding for their placement, hence creating transparency in the marketplace. And they allow you to see how often your keywords were searched on in the month past.

Going back to our example of "Stowe Vermont Weddings" we can see which combination of words or phrases was searched on the most frequently. In fact, we learn that "Vermont wedding" is number one, and placement in the top three positions under "Vermont Wedding" has been bid up until it is quite pricey. We can choose to compete in that category, or buy our way to the top of a "Stowe Vermont Wedding" combination we're not optomized for. We can bid high in critical months, low in less critical months, or take ourselves off the page entirely when our goals have been met. Bang for the buck, I'm much more comfortable with bidding for placement, which I have control over, than search engine optomization, which I don't.

If you're a new site, you'll probably want to budget for announcing yourself to, at the very least, Google. If you know you're listed on the engines, but aren't seeing the placement you'd like there are two top services in the bid for placement market:

  • Advertise your Web site with Overture search listings. Overture allows you to set a budget you're comfortable with (minimum $20/month), and then places your URL at the top of the search engine hit list under "sponsor matches." You pay only for those that actually click through, making this one of the most affordable long term methods of increasing traffic available. Sign up now and get a $10 credit, equivalent to 200 free sales leads. Sign up now.
  • Advertise on LookSmart. I know, I know... you've heard you shouldn't pay for listings. Problem is, for most of you... your competitor is paying for listings. Which is why they come flying up on the first page... and you don't. Looksmart is a little less expensive, $15/month, but doesn't allow you to bid for placement. Still, $15/month buys you 100 click throughs, on your choice of keywords. Click here

You need to weigh these two options... or budget $35-50/month and do both. How much exposure can you buy for $420 in print media, vs. the exposure you'll get coming up in the first slots of a search? Pick one, pick both, sign up yourself, or delegate the responsibility to your webmaster, and ask for regular reports.

Looking for more tips? Sign up for our newsletter, which comes out on a more or less monthly basis, by sending us your e-mail address. Visit this month's edition now.

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