Impossible tri-bar

Digital Phenomena - Your first stop for internet consultancy 
Search Engine Optimization -- FREE!
by Paul Boutin 5 Jun 2001

Paul Boutin is a technologist and writer who discovered the Internet in 1980 as an MIT freshman and hasn't slept since.

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Before I landed my cushy job as a magazine editor, I spent three years under the hood at Hotbot as an engineer and manager. Between days reading our log files and nights shmoozing with other search engineers, I learned more than I'd ever wanted to know about where search traffic comes from, and where it goes to.

But I had put all that behind me ... I was asked about search engine optimization for Artloop, her fine art research and location service site. [Editor's note: Since this article first published, Artloop has ceased doing business for reasons entirely aside from its search positioning, which was always excellent ... swear!]

Dozens of companies had pitched their optimization services to her, but Christina, a former MSN manager as smart about database schema as she is about business plans, balked. Why pay someone to set up bogus domains, build huge farms of gateway pages, and cram hundreds of keywords like "britney spears" into Artloop's HTML? The very idea ran contrary to the information architecture and site layout her staff had worked so hard to make as clean and clear as possible for their visitors. Moreover, as a Web user herself, she'd learned to recognize these traffic-grabbing methods and had become wary of sites using tricks to get her to click. Why should she assume her own customers would behave differently?

And she was right: Trying to fool search engine users with keywords and trick tags makes sense only if your goal is to flash a lot of ad banners, return traffic be damned. That used to be the business model for an entire industry. But most sites in business today hope to convert first-time visitors into loyal customers by building long-term relationships. Sure, searchers need to find your site, but the results on Hotbot's Top Ten lists show that the only results people stick with are the ones that don't try to scam them. Trap doors, redirects, keyword spam, and multiple domains that host the same pages are more likely to make people reach for the back button (a move the Direct Hit technology behind Top Ten results can detect), not their credit cards.

So, rather than waste money on consultants, Christina and I decided to create our own search optimization spec. Using data gleaned from representatives of leading search engines, insider data, and old-fashioned trial and error, we came up with our own strategy for getting traffic from search engines and portals without having to fake people out. In the process, we encountered so many dubious "experts" with something for sale — software, books, services — that we decided to raise the bar on them and publish our notes for free.

Imagine our surprise when Google's engineers read this article (when it first published in early June, 2001) and invited us to visit their offices to dig even deeper into the workings of their gigapage Web index. Of course we took them up on the offer, and we've updated this article with our notes from those meetings. We've also included answers to the best questions from the hundreds of emails we've received over the past couple months.

But before you can benefit from the sweat off of our brows, you have to get your priorities straight.

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