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Human Internet Makes Peace with the Search Engine Robots

By Andrew Goodman, 7/19/2000

Optimizing About.com's 800 guide sites was a daunting challenge for search engine
marketing guru Marshall Simmonds. He is helping About guides make peace with search
engine spiders.

One of the most popular online destinations today is About. Its slogan these
days is "The Human Internet." Wouldn't you know it, though; until recently these
humans were being foiled by a bunch of robots. Search engine spiders weren't giving
the rich content created by About's human guides the time of day.


As if that weren't enough trouble, human editors like those at Yahoo! gave the
About Guide Sites the short end of the stick.


Recognition from Yahoo editors

On several occasions, About (formerly About.com)
CEO Scott Kurnit has complained about the limited number of Yahoo! listings for
About's 750+ "guides." The Yahoo! situation has now largely improved. Evidently,
the argument that most About sites are "in the top ten in their category" has
penetrated the consciousness of the Yahoo! gatekeepers.


But as every webmaster knows, good listings in Yahoo! are just the beginning.
There are dozens of major search engines and directories, and careful attention

needs to be given to the many aspects of optimizing a web site for successfully
pulling in more search engine traffic.


Search engine optimization guru to the rescue

Enter Marshall Simmonds, search engine optimization guru, and now Manager of
Search Engine Relations for About. His job: get those search engines to send more
traffic to all that great content! Simmonds' task was a daunting one, but on the
other hand, it must have been a dream assignment for someone with his talents.


What needs to be kept in mind is that About sites are set up as more or less
independent web sites under the direction of their Guides. Optimizing About's
vast content - 860,000 pages - is far different from making sure the web
site for a single company such as Mitsubishi, Ford, or Intel makes it into
the search engines. Simmonds' job would be to work with all 750+ About.com Guides
to ensure that they began to work on optimizing their sites to get the placements
they often richly deserve.


Listening carefully to Simmonds, one realizes that the task of search engine
optimization is more "granular" than many suspect. His first task was to get some
guides to stop "frantically submitting" their pages to search engines. While this
might have caused a temporary dropoff in traffic, Simmonds' task was to get Guides
to focus on what makes a page suitable for search engine placement.


Optimize by page, not by site

All Guide sites are stand-alone subdomains of About.com, and, importantly, until
recently, they were static HTML sites with no database component. This meant that
a Guide was free to optimize any page on his or her site, but many Guides didn't
realize that optimization is page specific, not site specific, so they created
metatags, titles, and descriptions with the same text on page after page. This
unintended duplication was perceived as a mild form of spamming by some engines.
(If this sounds familiar, then it may be time to get busy overhauling your company's
site!)


Simmonds cut his teeth as an independent marketing consultant and points to some
1997 training by Danny Sullivan, Editor of href="http://www.searchenginewatch.com">Search Engine Watch, as a significant step forward
in his learning process. He has consulted with Intel, Lawyers.com, BigWords, and
Hughes Digital on the proper design of web sites for search engines. He also started
the i-search list, a popular discussion list on search engine optimization techniques.


Simmonds seems pleased that About knew enough to ask for help. What they probably
didn't bargain for was that the whole About site - which was massively overhauled
to install a new database system - would need to be designed carefully with an
eye to search engine friendliness. Simmonds worked with About's developers
to assure that content in the database was both search engine friendly and avoided
technical no-nos.


Many companies aren't so receptive to the needs of basic search engine optimization.
After all, getting the free traffic that comes to a site from search engines like
Hotbot and Altavista is in the realm of guerrilla marketing, something that some
blue chip firms may see as beneath them. Until, of course, they see some small-time
vendor's product listed first in "their" category.


Corporations naive

"There's sometimes a naive attitude" on the part of larger companies, argues
Simmonds, "that 'we own this online space'". While large brands like Nike may
have overwhelming brand awareness, if they ignore basic Internet awareness techniques,
who knows if the brand will erode over the long term? A site like the Nike site
- to use one example - will tend to have poor rankings at Google, in part because
Google rewards sites for linking to related resources. Linking out to other sites
is something that many corporations are reluctant to do, but this is precisely
what many have come to expect from the Internet: a resource to go along with a
product pitch.


Chris Sherman, the About Guide to Web Search, is a bit more vocal in his indictment
of many top-tier firms for their lack of effort on the search engine
optimization front. Site design, the experts will tell you, needs to build in
search engine friendliness from the beginning. Designers may be insufficiently
cognizant of the main purpose of a site - for most companies, it's a marketing
tool - and create pages that are unindexable, or will rank so poorly that they
are almost invisible. "I'm talking about basic blocking and tackling," says Sherman.
"Optimizing for maximum ranking is an order of magnitude beyond what most companies
should be doing as just a bare minimum, but much to their detriment, simply aren't
doing at all."


So what are your secrets, Marshall?

So what makes a web site pull more traffic? The first thing is to avoid irking
the engines. Don't spam them with repeated, irrelevant submissions. Beyond that,
as mentioned above, it's really about working on individual pages as opposed to
the whole site. A properly optimized page has appropriate keywords in the title
and meta tags. Beyond that, creating content and headings (as in the h5 headings
contained in the present document) that also contain appropriate keywords can
lead to more recognition in search engine rankings. Simmonds paints all of this
as little more than common sense. But if it were common sense, it would be more
common.


A company the size of About can do a bit more than tweaking its pages. Beyond
the CEO conducting a PR campaign to get better directory listings, it's also possible
to meet with staff at the search engines and explain that your site's rich content
needs to be given its due rather than treated as spam. "We're not looking for
special deals. We just want to make sure their engine knows how to spider us,"
says Simmonds.


Chris Sherman plays the nice cop

href="http://websearch.about.com/internet/websearch/mbiopage.htm">Sherman has been
"a wonderful advocate" helping Simmonds to work with the Guides. Since many of
them were laboring under misconceptions as to how to pull in search engine traffic,
says Simmonds, "Chris has helped to confirm what I'm saying so they're more likely
to comply."


For his part, Sherman believes that Simmonds is a significant asset for About
and has "carried out his task with the calm but no-nonsense authority of a skilled
diplomat." In effect, this is a monster-gig, consulting to the creators of
800 individual Web sites, "run by talented, often wilful people who are used to
working with minimal supervision or guidance apart from some fundamental style
and formatting directives," adds Sherman.


Simmonds is far from finished with this task, but already he's seen some Guide
sites tripling or quadrupling their search-engine-referred traffic. The next step
will be to analyze server logs and metrics to do more fine tuning.


While this tale shows us one major media company in the act of responding
to the needs of marketing on the Internet, it seems as if many of the
world's largest companies are still ignoring the steps required to allow
each of their sites' pages to pull in a respectable amount of search engine traffic.


Lessons for the little guys

For the time being at least, this means the guerrilla marketing advantage accrues
to the smaller webmaster who is willing to learn how to create search-engine-friendly
pages. Enjoy it while it lasts. And remember the simple formula. First optimize,
then submit.

Andrew Goodman is Editor-in-Chief of Traffick.com and principal of Page Zero Media, a Toronto-based consulting firm which focuses on search engine optimization and related marketing services. To stay in touch with search engine and portal trends, be sure to sign up for Andrew's Traffick Monthly email newsletter. 

 

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