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Spider Sense

Adding Horsepower to Your Search Engine Optimization Efforts
Larri Cochran

Larri Cochran says today’s Web sites need to include as many inbound links from other sites as possible in order to rank highly on Google.

As savvy business owners know, it’s not enough to have a creative, informative, easily navigable Web site; people have to be able to find that site. This is the realm of search engine optimization, or SEO. Mastering it can put your business on the first page of a Google search — and often drive more sales.

“A science and an art.”

That’s how Jim Flynn, CEO of EZ Takes, an online movie download service based in Easthampton, describes search engine optimization (SEO).

“When people search, they’re looking to discover something,” said Flynn. “It’s not about typing in the name of a business and its location to find its Web site … that will only bring in people who already know you exist.

“To be truly optimized,” he continued, “you must be attracting new customers who had never heard of you before. That’s the point of it.”

In more specific terms, SEO refers to a wide array of tactics designed to drive visitors to Web sites, by making it as easy as possible for search engines to find and interpret the site.

Those search engines include those controlled by Yahoo, MSN, and Ask.com, but the primary concern of developers, programmers, and business owners alike is falling into the good graces of the granddaddy of them all — the ubiquitous Google.

In the early days of search engines, Flynn explained, people sorted through and cataloged Web sites in a directory, but during the late 1990s, two students from Stanford University drafted a thesis that detailed the possibility of an automated system that evaluated a site’s relevancy to a search term — any word or phrase typed in by an Internet user. That idea became Google, and today, after countless changes and upgrades to the system, it’s the ruling force of finding information on the Web, and in turn, the primary driver of E-commerce today.

“The goal is to land on page one of a Google search of the most relevant search terms for your site,” said Flynn, noting that, in and of itself, that process is a constant challenge. “When a search engine scans a site, it doesn’t look at it like a human. It looks at the code in a page to figure out what it’s about. The goal is to put as much information in the best places on the site, such as in the title bar or the home page, to tell the search engine everything we can about the site.”

Caught in the Web

Larri Cochran, manager of Professional Services for Tortus Technologies in West Springfield, said there are three critical elements a site needs to optimize its searchability: keywords, constantly evolving text, and inbound links from other sites. Those are the most organic — meaning ‘free’ — ways to optimize a Web site. There are other paid interventions, such as sponsored links (those in the blue box on the top of the first page of listings returned after a Google search), or the Google AdWords program, a pay-per click system that allows for the purchase of keywords to drive visitors to a site.

However, Cochran said all companies, even those that are household names such as Coca-Cola or Nike, must utilize SEO on all levels to varying degrees, in order to capitalize on increasingly intelligent searching systems.

To begin, a set of keywords or key phrases describe what the site, or the business it serves, offers. Cochran said these words essentially become what search engines’ ‘spiders’ latch onto when they ‘crawl’ the Web to find sites, define them, and index them in their constantly evolving databases.

“They are what get the spiders to the site to grab information,” said Cochran, who noted that this process is constantly changing, especially in Google’s case, to make the search process more efficient for the end-user. “The goal for us is to be found for specific keywords. That becomes a struggle, because we need to define which keywords will be effective.”

That’s because the broader the term, the harder it is to stand out in the vast virtual world. A local law firm that uses the keywords ‘lawyer,’ ‘attorney,’ or even ‘intellectual property law’ as its primary searchable terms, for instance, will be indexed in a Google search, but so will millions of other firms around the globe. Those that use more specific, descriptive terms as well — for example, ‘Springfield, MA’ — will have a greater chance at better placement on a list of relevant sites, and in turn of being found by viable clients.

To stay relevant, however, Cochran said sites also need a critical amount of text-based copy as opposed to graphic elements, such as a company logo, that, while it includes the company’s name, will not be seen by a search engine spider.

“Search engines can’t read images,” she said, “but they can read HTML text. That copy needs to be increased on a regular basis. The critical foundation of the site should stay the same, but new copy can be added to a dynamic part of the site.”

These ‘dynamic,’ or easily updated, portions of a site can be a ‘news’ section, for instance, where information about a business can be added regularly, or any other Web page or pages that can serve to expand the content available at the site, without changing its overall look and feel too drastically.

Finally, Cochran said including as many ‘inbound editorial links’ — in other words, other sites that link to one’s own — as possible is one of the newest challenges that Web denizens face.

“That was Google’s last major change,” she said. “It analyzes the inbound links a Web site has to rank page popularity.”

Those links to a given Web site could appear on a directory such as the Western Mass. Web Guide, for instance, or another company’s site. In turn, reciprocal linking guards against irrelevant links and helps to create a network.

As search engines become more intelligent, Cochran said, it’s also increasingly important to ensure that links on a site are included within relevant, readable text, not just as part of a simple listing or in a way that doesn’t translate to human eyes.

“Spiders are really intelligent,” she said. “It’s not enough to have a simple link — it has to make sense.”

The Written Word, Reinvented

And that, Cochran added, is creating a whole new writing genre — one that is scannable by automated search engines, but that doesn’t alienate human viewers. It’s part of the reason why blogs and other forms of online media-based content are becoming such a phenomenon.

To augment his own business, Flynn regularly writes articles on his business and his specialties, and submits them to various online locales. Every article published, especially with a link to EZ Takes, adds to the site’s optimization.

Nino Del Padre, owner of Del Padre Visual Productions in East Longmeadow, which creates and optimizes Web sites for clients as part of the company’s repertoire of services, said that as editorial content becomes more important, so do the keywords and key phrases that are included for search engines to find.

Once, he said, search engines worked by identifying words (metatags) hidden from plain view in the site’s HTML code. But today, they look to identify more specific terms.

“Hidden keywords, or tags, are not as important anymore, but keywords in content are becoming very important,” he said, noting that the World Wide Web’s vast landscape is largely the cause. “The new algorithms work off the actual title of the document and the descriptive words it includes.”

For instance, Del Padre said, where just including the term ‘Flash Web site’ was once enough to optimize a site, now the goal is to better place that site to attract relevant visitors. “Now, the goal is to include phrases like ‘Flash Web site design in East Longmeadow,” he said.

Form and Function

But Del Padre said that as SEO becomes an increasingly prevalent concern for Web developers, design of the site can’t take a back seat.

There are some conflicts between Web design and SEO, one of which returns to the reality that images are not identifiable by current search engines. This creates a challenge for any business with a Web presence; it must not only create a site that can be found, but one that doesn’t sacrifice its aesthetic value to be located.

Conversely, Del Padre said a site can be very well-designed and still rank low in Google searches. “Flash-based sites are made up of images, and images aren’t searchable, but there is new technology that can be used.”

As proof of the ever-changing face of the Internet and its functions, Del Padre said an evolving program, Javascript SWF Object, embeds text within a Flash-based Web site, allowing Google to read the non-flash content and index the site in its listings.

“It creates alternate text that search engines can see,” he said. “It’s not being widely used yet, but it’s constantly revamped.” Del Padre said it’s one glimpse at the future of SEO and of Web site design in general, as all search engines move toward more complete, personalized search tactics.

Revving the Engine?

Flynn agreed, saying that the whole idea of search engines, and Google in particular, was to get people the information they were looking for online, and that objective remains.

“That’s Google’s whole edge — it gets you to the right place,” he said, adding that SEO also gives small businesses an edge, allowing them to compete with larger entities. “We’re not Amazon, but through SEO we are able to get a large number of visitors anyway, if we’re paying attention.

“It goes back to the art and science of it,” Flynn concluded. “We have to do the work to make it easy for others.”

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

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