Most people that are concerned with search engine optimization focus obsessively on keywords and HTML tags. But when it comes to getting ranked by search engines, the only tags that matter are TITLE, and the META tags KEYWORDS and DESCRIPTION. And you have to be very careful about how you handle each one.
TITLE makes a big difference, especially with Google. It should be short (less than 40 characters seems to work best) and, most importantly, should match the search queries people will be using to find your site. This could lead to a struggle with the marketing managers: They'll want your site's page titles to contain the company name and/or a positioning statement. Ask them what good that will do if no one ever sees the pages.
This is a good TITLE tag that will generate traffic from people searching for "picasso":
This is a mediocre one:
<TITLE>Artstuff: Pablo Picasso</TITLE>
This one will put you out of business:
<TITLE>Artstuff: Your Number One Online Resource for Fine Art Solutions!!!</TITLE>
Keyword spamming is the number one favorite trick for search engine optimization. But many of the sites that stuff a zillion keywords into their pages are hoping to get clicks to their pages just to show ads they don't care if they get any repeat business. But if you want to draw real customers, focus on the keywords you think your users will be searching for.
For our Picasso page, something like this would work (note that uppercase letters don't matter):
<META NAME="keywords" content="Pablo Picasso, Pablo, Picasso, painting, cubist, painting, ceramics, collage, Spain, Guernica, Paris, 20th century, Girl Before a Mirror">
Repeating the most important keyword twice seems to work with some search engines, but repeating more than that will cause some of them to ignore the whole page. Although none of the representatives from the search companies would confirm specific behavior, it seems that they tend to ignore keyword lists longer than 1024 characters, .
What keywords are people searching for? It's important to focus on the right
ones. Zipf's Law predicts that
traffic for any particular keyword on a search engine will be proportional
to its popularity rank. That is, the number of queries (and hence potential
clickthroughs to your site) for the most popular keyword will be ten times
greater than that for the tenth most popular term. And traffic to term #10
will be 1,000 times higher than traffic to term number 10,000. Search engine
logs don't quite match Zipf's curve, and they vary from one engine to the next. But the lesson remains:
If you're not matching the top keywords, forget it.
Where to find the top keywords? Two free resources are searchterms.com and a weekly emailing from Wordtracker. Keyword popularity varies from search engine to search engine, but across the Web (and according to a few well-placed contacts at search engines) these listings are close enough. For a more interactive approach, try GoTo's Search Term suggestion tool, which lets you enter keywords and then shows you how popular similar search terms are on the site.
This field gets used for the page summary on Inktomi and some other engines, so don't cram it with keywords: A scary-looking description on a search engine's results page could discourage people from clicking through to your page, even if it scores high. (We'll cover more on descriptions in Step 3.)
It never hurts to have the search terms you want to match near the top of the page. But cramming in a list of spam-style keywords can also backfire Google will display them under the page title on its results page, and Inktomi will show them (as do many others) if there is no DESCRIPTION tag.
Stuffing long strings of repeated keywords into pages used to magically get them to the top of search engine results, but that was before the search engineers realized what was going on and learned how to prevent this from happening. Once in a while you'll see a "spamdexed" page near the top of your results, but this trick works less and less frequently these days.
Links from Other Domains
Look at the top results for the terms you most want to match. Will those sites link to you from their domain? If they do, some of their relevance will rub off on your pages. There are ways to use this dishonestly (see "How to Cheat Honestly" on Page Five), but usually sites only link to other sites they're comfortable being associated with.
Even if your site does manage to claw its way to a plum position in the search results, that doesn't guarantee that users will follow the link that still takes some convincing.