March 15, 2006Volume 5 Number 11 Issue 98
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Keywords

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Keywords—Optimizing Your Site to Get Top Billing at Search Engines

This week we will discuss the key to improving your sites listing in the top Internet search engines. There are whole companies dedicated to this mission, so obviously this article will only touch the high points, but that should be enough to get you started.

When a user enters a search term, also known as a ‘keyword,’ into a search engine, the engine runs through the billions of pages in the database and awards each one a ‘relevancy score.’ The higher your score, the higher your listing. If your site doesn’t contain the keyword used by the searcher, the only score it’s going to get is a big, fat zero. Your first task then is to make sure you know which keywords are most relevant for each of your sites. Let me say that again - your first task is to make sure that you know which keywords are most relevant for your site.

There are three ways to figure out your keywords:

Ask your competitors

This is the cheapest way to find many of the most important keywords. Simply log on to a search engine (AltaVista is good, Google is better) and carry out a search for sites like yours. Open the top site, and once the home page has downloaded, click on ‘View’ in your browser, and then ‘Source.’ That will reveal all the HTML used to build the Web page, including all the keywords that have been specially inserted.

For example, let’s say one of your web sites sold nutritional supplements. You could carry out a search for ‘vitamins’ in Google. The top site there is called DrugEmporium.com, and the keywords they list are "The Katz group, Snyders, Drug Emporium, Drug, Drug Store, pharmacy, stores."

Some of those keywords will be relevant to your site. Others, of course, won’t be relevant and there will be lots of other keywords that aren’t obviously listed—like ‘vitamins’ for example. But you can repeat the process on other sites, using different keywords, and build up a pretty long list.

Ask the pay-per-clicks

Pay-per-click sites actually let you see how popular a keyword is. They’re not being kind; they’re trying to make money. The more webmasters bid on those keywords, the higher the bids are going to rise—and the more money the pay-per-clicks are going to make. FindWhat (now miva.com), for example, has a Keyword Center, and Overture a Keyword Suggestion Tool. Both are very handy, but they also require you to open an account. That can cost a few bucks, but when you have a lot of sites covering a lot of different areas, it’s usually worth the expense.

Use a specialized tool

Not too surprisingly, a number of companies have popped up to supply specific keyword services for a fee. The best of these is WordTracker.com. They’re not bargain basement, but you get what you pay for. They’ll give you all the keywords you need and in my experience, they’re a sound investment.

Googlefight.com is another useful tool to see whether one keyword is more popular than another. The site compares two keywords and tells you which is more popular. It’s free and has a limited use, but it’s fun to play with.

As you make up your list of keywords, bear in mind that it’s also worth looking at key phrases. It’s quite possible that a user looking to buy flowers online might search for ‘red roses’ or ‘cheap bouquets’ as well as just ‘flowers.’ Key phrases are often overlooked by competitors, so you’ve got a pretty good chance of getting a high placement with the right combination.

Don’t worry too much about the competition though. Some people will tell you that you’re better off trying to find keywords that no one else has thought of—as if there were any!—and others will tell you to throw in keywords that are only slightly relevant to your businesses.

In my experience, that’s a waste of time. If your competitors are using certain keywords, it’s because they know they work. And if you pick up any users using irrelevant keywords, you’re not going to sell them anything. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel here: just try to figure out the most popular keywords and the best key phrases to put on your site.

Once upon a time, web site owners would stuff their sites with irrelevant terms such as “sex”, “free”, “cash” and whatever was popular at the moment. For a while this got droves of visitors to their sites, but generated few positive responses. The search engines have become much more sophisticated and penalize sites heavily for such ”shenanigans”. The logic of getting all these folks who could care less about your products to visit your site always escaped me.

What you need is targeted traffic. Folks who want /need what you are promoting are the folks you want visiting your site.

Whichever of these methods you use—and I tend to use more than one—you should end up with a pretty comprehensive list of keywords that you can stick into your website. The next question then, is how do you use them? When a search engine assigns relevancy to a site, it looks for the keywords in a number of specific areas.

Title Tag

The title tag is written in the <.HEAD> section of the Web page and after the <.TITLE> tags. (Note: the period at the beginning of the tags is just there so that you can see the tag. In real use, the period must be removed.) It’s usually the line listed in the search results as well. For example, the New York Times’ title tag is “The New York Times on the Web: Daily international, national and local news coverage from the newspaper, breaking news updates, technology news, sports, reviews, crosswords, classified ad listings.”

That looks long, but the title tag is usually between 50 and 80 characters including spaces. Different search engines have different limits so you want to make sure that your most important words are near the beginning of the title. When you look at the New York Times’ site, you only see “The New York Times on the Web”.

The rest of the title is made up of keywords and phrases but in fact, you don’t want to put in too many keywords here. Just place one keyword as the second or third word in the title. Too many, and your site could be seen as spamming.

You can also list more keywords in the <.META Keywords> and <.META description> sections of the <.HEAD> area, but because these areas have been so abused in the past, a number of search engines today will skip right past the title tag and go straight to the Web copy.

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Web Copy for SEO

The search engines will scan the text on a Web page to see if your site is relevant to the search term. That means that in effect, your Web copy is going to have to do two things:

  1. persuade a customer to buy, and
  2. persuade a search engine it’s relevant.

When you write your copy aim for about 500 words a page, but throw in between four and eight keywords. You’ll have to try to balance a smooth text flow with getting in all the keywords you need to be listed.

You can also consider adding text-only pages such as how-to articles, tips or tutorials to your site. Throw in some keywords and they can turn up in search engines and create opportunities for link exchanges.

So there’s a few ways you can try to improve the position of your site in a search engine. More important than where you put the keywords is choosing the right keywords. That’s not really a huge challenge as your competitors are likely to have done the job for you.

Of course, even if you do get everything right, it doesn’t mean you’re going to shoot straight to the top of Google. One of the criteria for relevancy is how long you’ve been online, so success on the search engines won’t come overnight. The sooner you start submitting though, the sooner you can start to rise.

Until next time…

warmly,
Jim Green

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