All of the work you've done to get your site crawled at the top of rankings is meaningless if you neglect the final step: Getting the searcher to click through to your site. These days, few users will click on a page described as "Pablo Picasso Pablo Picasso Pablo Picasso art art art art" in search engine results. But if you use TITLE to specify the most likely search term that matches the page, and DESCRIPTION to provide a quick (50 words max) synopsis of the info on the page, your site will attract a lot more clicks.
For Artloop's artist profile pages, we specified that TITLE contain the artist's name, and the DESCRIPTION would hold the summary that appears later in the page, like this:
<TITLE>Artloop: Andy Warhol (Warhola)</TITLE>
<META NAME="description" content="American painter, born in Pittsburgh, and a leading figure in Pop">
Don't Scare Them Away
This is where gateway pages, redirects, shadow domains, and other trickery often fail: The would-be customer gets to your site only to discover it contains confusing pages, poor navigation, gratuitous redirects, or exactly the same content as the last site they looked at huh? When users find pages of such a dubious nature, do you think they're going to trust the site with their credit card number on, say, a $1400 order for two DJ turntables? I sure didn't: When I landed at a site like that recently, I immediately clicked Back and wound up dropping my money on a pair of pricey Technics decks at a site that looked like a real, honest company, rather than a network of sites designed to capture me.
Another mistake new Web marketers make is trying to stop search engines from sending users directly to individual pages on the site something they huffily call "deep linking." They'll force their Webmaster to redirect anyone who hasn't come through the site's front door back to the home page, as if the site were a brick-and-mortar store. This is usually justified as "customer experience" and "branding," but all it really says is the site doesn't trust its customers to know what they want.
I'm guessing most sites abandon this practice once they look at their log files and see their would-be customers abandoning the site after being pulled away from a product they were ready to buy.
All that said, there are ways to beat the system, as long as you don't mind getting your hands a little dirty.
How to Cheat Honestly
As much as I talk up Google, their ranking system isn't foolproof. In short, it ranks individual URLs based on which other URLs link to them, which URLs link to those, and so on. That's the simplified explanation you can read about eigenvectors and normal link matrices in this paper written by Google's creators.
While the system works better than old search engine rankings based on keywords and page content, it's not perfect. Links from popular sites can count more than they should, or not enough if the link comes from an obscure page.
But when Google's engineers read the original version of this article, they bristled at some of our suggestions even though we'd tested them. Emails led to phone calls, and eventually we spent a caffeinated afternoon at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA, using whiteboards and napkins to sketch out what actually raises your rankings, and what doesn't. We came away with some solid suggestions for where to invest your time wisely:
See? There are a lot of ways to improve your site ranking, and they're all relatively easy. So why on earth would you ever pay someone else to do it?
- Make sure your dynamic pages are crawlable (see above), and make sure the URLs remain constant. If you use one URL on the site map, another for the dynamically generated page, and yet another after giving the user a cookie, the URLs other sites use to link to your pages may not be the same as the one Google indexes. URL inconsistency keeps your pages from being ranked as high as they should be.
- Google crawls the Web in descending order of PageRank, meaning the highest ranked pages are crawled first and most often. So while a crawler page will make your pages findable, getting other sites to link to the individual pages will get them crawled more completely, and thus raise their scores.
- Focus on getting pages that are considered the authoritiy on the topic that you cover to link to your pages. Notice we said pages, not sites. For example, I have a page that's listed by Yahoo, but it's on an obscure part of the directory that no one else links to, so it doesn't help me as much as that link from Dave Winer's blog.
- Ranking trickles down through popular domains with lots of interpage links, raising the value of all pages on a popular site and hence any page it links to. This is something all bloggers have realized. For example, let's say a post on my blog gets Slashdotted. Not many Web pages will link to the actual Slashdot post, so you'd think it wouldn't do much for my site's scores. But the value of the many links to Slashdot's home page trickles down through to the navigable links inside the site, and eventually to the posting about my page.
- Creating fake domains is a popular trick people use to try to raise their Google scores, hoping to make it appear that other domains are linking to them. The Google guys giggle at this obvious scam: If you understand how vectors work, spreading your pages across multiple domains, or building duplicate sites, does no better than if you'd simply added those pages to your original domain. That's because it's the number of inbound links from elsewhere on the Web that raises your overall score, and it's unlikely that fake domains will make that number go up. Google does make some score adjustments concerning URLs within the same domain to improve the overall results quality, but spreading your pages across ten domains won't do much. And according to Google's anti-spam cop, duplicate domains are the easiest scam to spot.
- You can find authoritative pages by using Google's "link:" operator on pages that come at the top search results. For example, search Google for "link:www.digitalphenomena.me.uk". The result is a list of the pages that link to Webmonkey's front door, listed in descending PageRank order. Who'd have guessed that Lycos "Legal Terms and Conditions" page was such a hot property?