February 27, 2003, 12:00 AM

The steps to identifying and choosing the right search engine optimization expert

Retailers who optimize their pages for search engine placement need to know the differences among search engines.

Search engines are the primary way most people find new web sites, but web site designers forget this when they create sites. Often, site designers make the mistake of building the web site, then contacting a search engine optimization specialist to ensure the site is search-engine friendly.

They have it backwards. A search engine optimization specialist should be brought in before the site is even designed, not after the site has been built. Such specialists, who focus on ways of landing web pages near the top of search results, can look at design templates and tell if a site’s navigation scheme, layout and keyword structure might be problematic. Addressing design and copywriting issues early in the design and redesign of a web site can save companies time and expense.

But there are search engine optimization specialists and there are search engine optimization specialists. Many people who consider themselves specialists place keywords and keyword phrases inside of HTML tags without considering an overall online marketing strategy. A true specialist, though, writes for the search engines, analyzes site statistics, has a thorough knowledge of spider-friendly HTML, has considerable experience with search engine optimization in multiple industries and stays up-to-date on search engine happenings. And to top it off, the ideal search engine optimization specialist in retailing has, if not merchandising experience, at least a good understanding of the principles of merchandising and product promotion.

This article addresses important points to consider when looking for a search engine optimization specialist to work on your site.

1. Know a search engine from a directory

A true search engine optimization specialist knows the differences between spider-based search engines (Google, FAST Search, Inktomi, Teoma, AltaVista) and human-based search directories (Yahoo, Open Directory, Business.com). Spider-based search engines crawl sites looking for identifying tags that will determine how and when the page appears in search results. A human-based search engine employs cadres of researchers to look at millions of sites and categorize them according to what the researcher deems appropriate.

Strategies for being listed well in search engines differ from strategies for being listed well in directories. Search engine optimization is designing, writing, and coding in HTML a web site to maximize the chance that web pages will appear at the top of spider-based, search engine results for selected keywords and phrases. Factors that affect search engine visibility include keyword density, that is, the ratio of keywords to the total number of words on a page; keyword placement, the positioning of keywords in title and other tags and in alternative areas, such as in image descriptions; keyword prominence, how high up on a page a keyword appears; and link popularity.

Search directories, by contrast, require that the site operator select the most appropriate directory categories for a web site and write descriptions that concisely and accurately describe the content of the site. Factors that affect directory placement are selecting the right category and writing a good description.

Editors will modify a directory listing if the company name, description, or web address is no longer accurate. Since it is nearly impossible to modify a directory listing after your initial submission, a search engine optimization specialist should emphasize the importance of doing it right the first time.

2. Do keyword research

A considerable amount of an SEO specialist’s time should be spent on researching keywords your target audience is most likely to type in a search query and incorporating these into your web pages. You will be surprised to find what your audience is typing in. For instance, shoppers searching for a necklace won’t search just for necklace. They might search for 18K gold chain necklace, or jewelry AND necklace AND gold, or where can I find an 18K gold chain necklace online.

Jeremy Sanchez is a representative from Position Technologies, a firm specializing in paid inclusion and trusted feed programs for all of the major search engines. Position Technologies receives massive amounts of click-through data each day. “75% of all search queries in our Inktomi data are three terms or longer,” Sanchez says. “And very few search queries are alike. For every 50 clicks a URL receives, 90% of the search queries are different.”

The most important tags in an SEO specialist’s arsenal are title tags and the main body text. Secondary in importance are meta-tags, alternative text and comment tags. Meta-tags are HTML tags that give information about a web page’s content but do not affect how a page is displayed on a browser. Alternative text is the text placed inside a graphic image. Comment tags are used to hide content from browsers. Designers use these tags to keep web page content more organized. Meta-tags, alternative text and comment tags are supplemental; having extra keywords in these tags alone will not give long-term results.

3. There are no guarantees

No one should guarantee a search engine ranking. A credible, experienced, and knowledgeable search engine optimization specialist can demonstrate results from past performance but cannot guarantee future results.

Except for pay-for-placement search engines, such as Overture.com, no one can guarantee top positions because there are third parties-the directory editors and the search engines-who have all the control. In fact, all major search engines have a disclaimer stating that they decide which web sites to include in their indices.

4. Beware of cloaking and doorway pages

Search engines have made it clear that the web page delivered to the search engine spider and the web page delivered to the end user should contain the same content. If not, the search engines remove the site from the database. Prime examples of this form of search engine deviousness are the widely reported adult-content sites a few years ago that encoded the phrase “Barney the dinosaur” in their home pages as a way to trick people into coming to their sites.

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