Customer Interface: Stacking the Deck

As Web searching grows ever-more complicated, winning the search-engine game requires keeping a few tricks up your sleeve

The content is cool, the gifs are animated and the back-end applications are tightly bound to the server. And yet, in spite of the time you’ve invested, you seem to have created a stealth Web site. All that wonderful functionality is going to waste because nobody can find you.

It’s not that nobody knows you exist: Your brand name is widely recognized. But when people use Internet search engines to find you, they come up with 126,023 links to other sites that mention your company, your products or services, or your subject matter. The actual link to your site is number 126,021. What’s a Web site owner to do?

Stuff the ballot box, of course!

Search engines are highly pragmatic. They don’t all work the same way but are, by nature, very programmatic. They look at HTML document titles, meta tags, text, links, referrals–the works–and they pigeonhole what they find. In so doing, the search engines actually evaluate your site for the prospective customer on the other side of the mouse.

It’s not hard to finagle the search-engine rankings to get a better slot at or near the top of the page. But that raises an interesting problem, which occurs right where three distinct needs converge.

First comes the need for Web site publishers to make their Web sites visible. After all, you’re doing those searchers a service by helping them find you. Right?

Next, there’s the need for search engines to provide the most balanced possible view of the Web. Why is that important? Income. Survival. To understand this one, you also have to understand the third piece of the convergence: what searchers want.

Typically, searchers need only one thing. Actually, that’s the problem; they need one thing, and they end up with 126,023. So they hope that AltaVista, Excite, Infoseek, Lycos, WebCrawler and other search engines will be beacons in the dark, lighting up that one-in-a-million page with the single bit of information they want. They depend on the engines to rank their findings according to a strict meritocracy.

If searchers cannot find what they want at a particular engine, they will stop going there. If they stop going there, the engines can no longer sell advertising. If search engines can’t sell advertising, they greatly diminish their prospects of ever making a major initial public offering.

So let’s tally the score: Search engines and searchers need the purest databases possible. But pity the poor Web site that nobody can find. Isn’t there a middle ground? Isn’t there something you can do to shine more light on the site in which you’ve invested so much?

To start, you can take some simple, virtually foolproof measures. Title your home page something other than the ubiquitous Home Page. Use meta tags–HTML coding that, among other things, describes a Web page’s content–to provide a description of your site that search engines can display. And keyword tags, which let you identify words searchers are most likely to use to find you, can incorporate those important phrases that don’t quite fit in the description or on the home page. A men’s footwear retailer, for example, might include the following terms in the keyword tag: shoe, shoes, wingtip, brogan, dress shoe.

There are also some things you should not do. Don’t overstack the deck. If you use the same phrase too frequently in your keyword tag, the search engines will simply kick your entries to the end of the list. And don’t use trademarks registered to others; several lawsuits have already been filed over such infringement.

What’s the right formula? Depends on whom you ask. If you’ve been on the Web more than 10 minutes, you’ve already gotten spammed with bulk e-mail from people promising to help put your site in the top slot in all the search engines. If you prefer professional help, consider turning to resources like WebSpecialist LLC in Los Olivos, Calif.

Anybody can use keywords to steer site traffic. Simply fill the meta tags with sexually related idioms or a few celebrity names and the words “Microsoft bug,” and the hits will keep coming. But if you want to attract people who are genuinely interested in your products, then you need to track what happens after they hit the home page. WebSpecialist will concentrate on keyword phrases that attract the people who dig down deep rather than those who just hit and run.

You come up with a technique that puts you at the top of the list today, and you’re going to have to check back tomorrow to see whether you’re still king of the hill. If not, it’s time to create a new technique. You could spend your life doing that. Or you could outsource it to a company like WebSpecialist. But is it the right thing to do?

Unsolicited e-mail is wrong. Yes, it is commercially viable. Yes, a small investment for a bulk electronic mailing can yield a large return. But it’s wrong to saddle users with paying access fees and phone charges to download huge packets of junk mail.

When it comes to helping people find your site, I’m not on such solid moral ground. If you can create a better Web site, you’ll be more successful. If, like Amazon.com Inc., you can afford humorous radio ads that draw more people to your site, more power to you. If you can build a better banner and place it on the exact spot on the Web to draw searchers to you, well done! If you have bright minds working for you who know how to target direct (postal) mail to drive traffic, then I want to hear from you. So why not offer kudos to those who know the ropes when it comes to keywords?

Because deep down, I want my Web search experience to be pure. I want to find only those pages that really meet my needs, not those that just want to grab my attention.

But the real world now includes ads on public television and interstitial pages in content Web sites. (Those are the ads that pop up between the time you click and the time the page you wanted finally shows up.) So I guess I’ll get used to the idea that the first few pages of my search results will be spattered with the efforts of those who know how to manipulate the system, hoping they’re also among those who best meet my needs.