My Decade of Writing About Search Engines

  |  May 3, 2006   |  Comments

After covering search engines for a decade, Danny discovers some best practices from the early days are still valid.

Ten years ago, I started writing publicly about search engines. If we’d had blogs back then, I probably would have been a search blogger. But we didn’t. We hand-coded our HTML, we walked through the snow for eight miles to FTP files to our Web servers, and we liked it!

My involvement with search engines goes back to my first year as a student at the University of California, Irvine, in 1983. No, I wasn’t part of the university’s highly regarded information and computer science department. I was an English major -- and a pretty bored one for my first two months, when I had to commute until I obtained on-campus housing.

I spent time exploring the library’s magical electronic card catalog, Melvyl (named for Melville Dewey, who created the Dewey Decimal System). For fun, I’d do Melvyl searches for broad topics, such as history, art, or love, to see how many matches would come back. I’d routinely crash the search doing this.

My 1996 Study

Search engines remained fascinating to me when I reencountered them in 1995. I’d left working as a newspaper reporter to go into Web development since I didn’t want to miss what was obviously going to be the future of publishing. As general manager of Maximized Online, I helped get people in the Orange County, CA, area online. We’d build Web sites, publicize them to search engines and other venues, and host them.

In late 1995, a client was upset his OC jobs site didn’t rank tops for a search on "orange county" in WebCrawler. We didn’t have a good answer. We’d done the submission and used the meta tags the search engines said to use; but exactly why a site would rank well was unknown. I decided to look into it.

I spent January through April 1996 making changes to the InfoPages directory my company maintained, a search engine just for Orange County Web resources, to see if it could rank better in a search for "orange county." I tried putting those words in the body text, title tag, and meta tags and checked to see if spamming (repeating the word over and over) would have any effect.

I published the results online. Ten years on, a lot of the advice remains exactly the same. Don’t depend on ALT text. Don’t fixate on only one or two terms, as people will seek you in many ways -- a long tail before there was talk of long tails. Build links, because links can send traffic. And don’t fixate on getting traffic just from search engines.

Here are some more results from my study:

There don’t seem to be any magic methods to make a page appear on top of every search engines’ listings. There’s too much fluctuation on the Web for any page to claim a foothold, and all the engines handle relevancy slightly differently. Yet there are some general tips that do help a page appear more relevant.

  • Text on your home page: Search engine catalogs contain text read from various home pages the engines visit. If a page lacks descriptive text, there’s little chance it will come up in the results of a search engine query. It’s not enough for text to be in graphics. It must be HTML text. Some search engines catalog ALT text and text in comment and meta tags. To be safe, a straight HTML description is recommended.

  • Pick keywords: Focus on the two or three keywords that are most crucial to your site, then ensure those words are in both your title and used early on the page. Generally, most people already have those words present on their pages, but may not also have them in page titles. Bear in mind keywords you consider crucial may not be exactly what users enter. Our study focused on making the InfoPages directory appear high on lists if keywords "Orange County" were entered. Lack of success with some search engines doesn’t mean the site isn’t being found. Many people find the site by entering more words, such as "Orange County California" or "Orange County Web." Adding just one extra word can suddenly make a site appear more relevant, and it can be impossible to anticipate what that word will be. The best bet is to focus on your chosen keywords but also to have a complete description.

  • Link to inside pages: If there are no links to inside pages from the home page, it seems some search engines won’t fully catalog a site. Unfortunately, the most descriptive, relevant pages are often inside. You can try sending search engines directly to lower levels if they don’t ordinarily go there.

  • Forget spamming: For one thing, spamming doesn’t seem to work with every search engine. Ethically, Web page content ought to be enough for search engines to determine relevancy without having to resort to repeating keywords for no reason other than to try and "beat" other Web pages. The stakes keep rising, and users begin to hate sites that undertake these measures. Effort is better spent on networking and alternate forms of publicity described below.

  • Network: If your site fails to make the top 10 lists, get together with those that do. Some might be considered "competitors," but others may be happy to link to your site in return for a link back. After all, your site may appear first when slightly different keywords are used. The Web was built on links. They’re still one of the best ways for people to find your site.

  • Relax: Search engines are a primary way people seek Web sites, but not the only way. There’s word-of-mouth, traditional advertising and media, newsgroup postings, Web directories and links. Often, alternative forms are far more effective draws than are search engines. Your desired audience may be visiting a site you can partner with, or reading a magazine that’s unaware of your site. Do the simple things to best make your site relevant to search engines, then concentrate on the other areas.

A Webmaster’s Guide To Search Engines

I also published a collection of documents called "A Webmaster’s Guide To Search Engines." My goal was to help site owners better understand the essentials of being found, plus identify which search engines really mattered. Knowing who mattered was critical when a search engine like Galaxy forced you through a three-part, multiple-question submission process. Was all that time worthwhile? (For Galaxy, the answer was no!).

The guide provided links to each search engine’s FAQ, along with my observations about whether how each search engine said it worked lived up to reality. There was a guide to which search engines I considered "major" or most important for site owners and searchers alike. I had a "Strategic Alliances & Victories" chart to show which search engines had deals with the Netscape or Internet Explorer browsers and which had positive reviews.

That information quickly generated lots of positive feedback. At the same time, the company I worked for closed. I hung out my Internet consultant shingle and maintained the Webmaster’s Guide part time, including a newsletter update ("The Search Engine Report") twice that year.

In 1997, I moved to the U.K. so my wife could be closer to her family. I also began spending more time on the site, as well as writing freelance articles on search. In the middle of the year, I rebranded the site Search Engine Watch, which generated more attention. By the end of the year, Mecklermedia purchased the site from me, and I continued on as editor.

The Search Revolution

Ten years on, I remain as fascinated with search engines as ever. I’ve been fortunate to help chronicle the birth of an entirely new ad medium. Equally important has been the birth of an entirely new way for people to seek information.

I knew search engines were important when I decided to write about them. The journalist in me could see they were a good story, especially when you realized that under the hood, they weren’t doing things like crawling as often as was widely believed. But a 2001 study by Keen especially resonated. Search engines (as a whole -- we weren’t Google-obsessed yet) were the single most likely way people would seek information.

The study was small, but the findings were stunning. In only about five years, search engines had usurped friends, family, books, magazines, libraries, and other perfectly good resources for seeking answers.

Some of this was bad. I’d personally watched people spend ages trying to find a phone number when a call to information would have found it much faster. Old but still useful search strategies were abandoned in favor of the magic search box.

Lots of this is good. Search engines remain amazing tools that in many circumstances get us the right answers quickly.

Looking Ahead

Will I still be doing this in 20 years? Almost certainly not, at least not in the daily-grind format. I’d like to keep writing about search issues, but eventually I’ll move away from the regular day-to-day coverage to perhaps focus on less-frequent but deeper looks at particular search issues.

I’m also thinking a lot about doing a book these days. I’d always wanted to do a book on search, indeed the exact type of history that John Battelle did a fantastic job with in "The Search."

Since that’s come out, I’ve thought more about a more personal retelling of Web search history -- the evolution, developments, and trends I’ve seen by being in the trenches of covering them over the years.

I’d also like to do a separate book; talk to various search marketers, spotlighting them and focusing on how that medium has evolved over the years and where it will be going. The most fascinating book idea remains the impact of search on our everyday lives -- how people use it, how habits have changed, how our laws are starting to account for the power of search, and many related issues.

Someday! For the near future, I expect to remain working on the site and update some standing content. My original Webmaster’s Guide helped many understand search engines. I very much want to ensure we remain a leading resource for that in years to come.

This column was adopted from ClickZ’s SearchEngineWatch.com. For a longer, more detailed version, read the original post on the Search Engine Watch Blog.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Danny Sullivan

Danny Sullivan left Search Engine Watch as of Dec. 1, 2006.

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