January 22, 2009, 12:00 AM

Experts reveal search engine optimization secrets at Web Design conference

Retailers make many mistakes that cause their sites to fall in rankings of major search engines. That was obvious Tuesday as search experts Marion Sharkey and Stephan Spencer reviewed retail sites at the Internet Retailer Web Design ’09 Conference.

H1 tags? 301 redirects? That kind of jargon may be foreign to many e-commerce managers. But understanding what they mean is essential to helping an e-commerce site appear high in search results on such major search engines as Google, Yahoo and MSN, search optimization experts Marion Sharkey and Stephan Spencer explained Tuesday at the Internet Retailer Web Design ’09 Conference in Miami Beach, FL.

During a session entitled “Top design tips to boost SEO rankings,” retailers in the audience volunteered their web sites for on-the-spot review and Sharkey and Spencer explained the strengths and weaknesses of each site from a search engine optimization perspective. Sharkey is vice president of business development at PM Digital and Spencer president of Netconcepts.

In looking at the coding for one site Spencer pointed out that the retailer used what’s called a 302 redirect to point URLs it controls to its main web address. He explained that 302 redirects are temporary and not given weight by the search engines, which means the traffic that results from those clicks is not credited to the main site. With a quick change to a permanent 301 redirect, search engines will count the traffic coming through that routing and the main site’s ranking should increase.

He also noted several sites did not use H1 tags to highlight category or product headings on pages. Spencer said each page should have a header with an H1 tag that includes the keyword, such as a product or brand, that is the focus of the page. “You want to have one H1 tag, and have it attuned to the keyword focus for the page,” he said.

Sharkey said every page should have a title-the text that appears at the top of the page in the browser frame-and that it should have a few keywords that the retailer wants that page to rank high on. She noted that online appliance retailer AJMadison.com’s title contained a long list of products, including refrigerators, stoves, cooking ranges, ovens, washers, dryers and dishwashers. A page is not likely to rank high on all those appliance terms, she said, and suggested limiting the title on each page to no more than three keywords, aiming to rank high for those terms. “You could also use top-selling brands in the title tag,” she added. “If you use Maytag or other brands in the tag, people searching for that brand can find you."

Spencer pointed out a common error among e-retailers is to put a long block of text at the bottom of the home page with lots of keywords, hoping those words will make the page seem to the search engines more relevant for those terms. He said the search engines consider that “keyword stuffing” and will penalize sites for doing that.

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