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Human Internet Makes Peace with the Search Engine Robots
METAGUIDE By Andrew Goodman - July 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 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

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.

 

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