If you have a website you may want people to visit it and getting a listing on a search engine is half of the battle. The problem is to try to get your website showing on the first page of any search results page for the important search words related to your site.

This article lists some of things I have observed about getting better ratings on Google, probably the most important search engine to be listed on at the moment. Much of what I write is common sense or fairly obvious and quite broad in scope, but it is something that is often overlooked while you set your attention to the problems of site design. Most of my current opinions on improving search engine rankings come from examining my web logs from http://ovine.net/ which has proved the most successful site I have made to date in this regard.

The following, in no particular order, are what I have observed as having a positive effect on my placement on Google. Lets start with the most obvious!

1) META tags.
There are two you should definitely place on every page. description and keywords. META tags are effectively data describing data and you can use these two to provide specific information about your site that you feel is most important and relevant. More importantly most search engines will use these to help populate their databases.

Examples (place these in your HEAD tags):

meta name=description content=My lovely horse
meta name=keywords content=horse,horses,riding horses,fields,ted,lovely

You can also put some misspellings in your keywords as users can often mistype when searching, for example: hosre. I do not know how successful this tactic is, but do not be excessive on trying to capture every mistype if you chose to try it!

A word of warning - do not try to abuse your rankings by using words that are not related to your site and in particular each page you place these META tags on. If your web pages content does not make mention to horses for example, be wary about putting this in your keywords META tag.

If a search engine suspects that you are filling your keywords with irrelevant information it may rank you poorly, or even exclude you all together. Also do not try to use too many keywords or very long descriptions, they too seem to work against you - making your site appear too generic. And just as important, make sure you have these tags on every page and that each page has its own description and keywords. For best effect do not copy the same keywords to every page Ė diversify!

2) Links.
Google partly works by measuring how popular your website is by the number of other websites that have links to you. The more links to your site, the higher Google will rank you in the results of a search. A good tip here is to search Google using the keywords that are important to you and see if you can get some of the websites returned in the list to link to you (don't forget to link back to them ). Also posting on message boards with a link back to your website in your signature can sometimes help. The way Google ranks your site is a closely guarded secret, but my guess is if you are linked on a popular site, it may weigh more heavily than several links from a less popular site.

Another word of warning, don't try to spoof Google by making your own links pages that are spread over the web. If Google suspects you are trying to forge your ranking on its search index, you may find yourself worse off.

3) Content.
When creating a website, the thing that may occupy your mind the most is how it looks, what cool graphics you can make and anything else that is fun to do. What may get forgotten is the content and the presentation of that content, being the least fun task when all you want to do is get straight down to making your pages.

This article is not going to cover my opinions on website design. However one piece of advice I would give is that before you do anything else in the design process, collect together the things you want your website to be about and use this as the basis to build upon.

The presentation of information is not only important to your visitors in helping them find what they want on your site (and importantly returning to your site in the future) but it is also a key factor in providing the meat that the search engines are looking for in order to index your page and back the importance of your META keywords.

This means text. If you have a heavy graphical, flash or vitalize! website but very little textual content, then the search engine will not have much information about your site and you will suffer for it on search results. This is not to say make text only sites, but if you make a 100% flash site, it would be worth making a HTML version too.

As a general rule, each page should be clear and to the point and contain textual content. It does not hurt to waffle on from a search engine point of view, as more text = more evidence of the importance of your keywords but while doing this don't forget that the web page is for another human to read, not an automated search engine spider! Itís a difficult balancing act and something you will need to review often.

The word of warning for section goes along the same theme of do not try to cheat the search engines. Some well known tricks that are sure to get you poorly ranked on a search include creating hidden text that the search engine will see but your visitors will not. Usually hidden text would contain a vast array keywords, often irrelevant to your site, that you would like your site to be indexed against. Methods of creating hidden text might be to use black text on a black background, or placing it in hidden layers. Search engines are smart to this, don't do it! Be careful too if you make a dynamic site with lots of DHTML, as sometimes this can wrongly be seen as trying to cheat!

4) Image tags.
When you include images, or non-textual information in general, you are creating a black hole for a search engine. It does not know what it is and thus it has no value to a search engine spider or robot. You can do something about this by using alt tags on your images. Alt tags allow you to provide some information that is useful to the visitor and were originally the 'alternative' text to display if a visitor had turned off images. Today this is not common on desktops, maybe on some handheld browsers.

Alt tags provide the ability to associate text with images, and so this is something a search engine can pick up, some will specifically look for these too. Another tag to use is the title tag and you can use this on almost any HTML tag. This is the official way of giving an image, table, or any other piece of HTML a tool tip. Internet Explorer will convert alt tags to tool tips too, but I'd strongly recommend that you keep alt tags for describing your image and title tags for display the tool tips.

An example: img src=images/icn_games.gif width=14 height=18 align=absmiddle alt=space invader bullet title=Click to download my lovely horse screensaver

The word of warning again on the theme of cheating the search engines. Do not flood your alt tags, or title tags for that matter, with keywords for the sake of keywords. Search engines are wise to this. Use your keywords, but use common sense in how you distribute them. Usually if you use them where you'd expect to instead of just because you can, you will not go wrong.

5) CSS.
Use cascading style sheets (CSS) to dictate the look of your web pages as much as possible. Not only does it provide many advantages which you can find billions of discussions about, but it also helps keep your HTML pages smaller (a good thing for the visitor downloading your page) and means that search engine bots that rip apart your page see less HTML code and more text, often helping to provide more emphasis to the text that is important. I base this partly on my experience in past websites but it makes a lot of sense when you think about it. A search bot will read in a page. It may only read in up to a maximum number of bytes so anything further down in a large page would be lost. It may also give more importance to what is at the top than what is at the bottom of a page. I can only suggest you experiment, and let us know your experiences on this.

No word of warning I can think of here, other than to try to make well formed CSS as every browser misbehaves with it's interpretation of CSS so test on several browsers, eg: IE, Netscape/Mozilla and Opera.

6) Web logs.
I mentioned that a great deal of my opinions came from examining my web logs. This is a treasure trove of information. I use several web logging services and they all provide healthy information about visitors and how they found my site. One of the more interesting categories is from search engine referrers. These usually show what keywords people used to find your site and can help you review what pages on your site are working and those that are not.

7) Regular updates.
I find that sites that are regularly updated usually appear higher in the rankings, especially on the first page of search results. Keeping your website updated is important for your visitors too. Donít neglect it unless you donít mind it gathering dust and cobwebs

8 ) Your first page.
The first page of your site, for example http://ovine.net/ is a key page for success of your website. It creates impact, not only for visitors but for search engines. This is not a 100% guarantee, but in my experience I have found that the front page seems to be the most important page of your entire site for a search engine.

If your front page is a welcome page with a click here to enter my site, then you are wasting an opportunity. Once over, ďfront doorsĒ as they were called were popular as many companies that said they could improve your search engine rankings by using them (usually charging you a nice fee for the advice too). They usually were set up with all the search engine no-noís like hidden text containing loads of keywords, excessively large META tags and a generalised snapshot of everything contained (and sometimes not contained) on your website. Perhaps once upon a time they might have worked, but they donít anymore.

Do a search on Google, how many pages returned have front doors, and how many sites have a front door as their root? Not many huh?

Therefore treat your first page as the most important and make sure it contains something of everything your site is about.

This is by no means definitive, and not necessarily 100% accurate but I hope you find it useful. It seems to be working for me right now, but it is a constantly changing world and to stay at the top you need to keep on your toes. Learn from your web logs, keep your website updated, stay relevant to what your site is about and donít try to cheat the search engines.

Of course, what ever you do for your search rankings will not necessarily bring you the flood of visitors you are after as it all depends on the type of site you host, how well it is presented and how popular the content is, but that is for another article


Andy H from http://ovine.net/