If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? This old riddle might be updated for the Information Age: If you create a Web site, and no one sees it, have you done anything?
One old saying that isn't necessarily true: If you build it, they will come.
An entire industry has come into existence in recent years to help Web sites and the organizations behind them get noticed and entice visitors to come. Search-engine marketing (SEO) targets search engines, which are how most people find Web sites, and mostly targets Google, since it's the most popular search engine.
If your business depends on the number of people and the right kind of people (buyers or clients) you attract to your Web site, you're best off hiring an SEO professional. If your needs are less pressing, or if you're a do-it-yourselfer, here are some general guidelines gleaned from talking with SEO pros and reading what they write.
The three main things that you can do to improve your search engine results, in increasing order of importance, are coding your site properly, making sure other sites link to it and optimizing its content.
Coding your site
Think of the search terms or phrases that people are most likely to type into Google to find sites such as yours. Those terms should be part of the headlines and subheads of your site (the text of your H1 and H2 tags) and your site's title tags (the text in the section of a Web page between .
You should also include a "meta description," which also resides in the section and describes your site or business in a sentence or two that reads like:
You should repeat any keywords you used in headlines, subheads, titles and meta descriptions within the body of your site. Don't do this too much, however, or it will be regarded as search-engine spam, and search engines may lower your rankings. Similarly don't load your pages with keywords in white or invisible text to try to boost your rankings, as it may also backfire.
Google's breakthrough in generating relevant results was basing search rankings on sites linking to other sites. Sites are returned first that others sites link to, and the more sites that link to those sites, the more weight their links carry.
So get your site linked to by other sites, particularly popular sites.
You can do this yourself, or you can use automated tools, both free and fee. The single-best open directory is DMOZ. Many other directories get their content from DMOZ. You can find its "Submitting Your Site" section is at www.dmoz.com/help/submit.html.
Another useful site is SearchMonster, which, along with a directory, offers techniques you can use to promote your site, including banner ads, link exchanges and Web reviews.
Search Engine Colossus points to directories in hundreds of other countries.
Stay away, however, from "link farms," which are Web sites that aren't bona fide directories, but schemes solely designed to improve your site's rankings. Being included in them can actually hurt your rankings.
Providing great content is the best way for your site to be found. Larry Chase, publisher of Web Digest for Marketers, offers the following tips for optimizing content.
- Provide value and usefulness, reasons for people to come to your site, return, tell others about it and link to it at their own Web sites.
- Flip the stereotypical marketing mindset on its head by thinking in terms of the needs of your site's visitors, not your needs.
- Keep your content fresh and up-to-date. Visitors won't come back if there's nothing new to see.
- Make news. If you do something different with your site than similar sites, people will sit up and take notice. If you put out press releases about it, they will take note. When relevant, include both major news media as well as trade publications in your field on the releases.
- Offer visitors an internal search tool to help them find the content they're after, such as Pico Search.
- Distinguish your site from similar ones through its appearance as well as your voice, the stamp you or your organization places on your content that--when done right--is no less authentic than an individual's personality.