Interview

04/30/01 & 05/07/01
Pam Blackstone and Robert McCourty discuss Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and dispel some of the most common myths and misconceptions within the industry.

1. At one time, search engines/directories were the key way to make sure one's web site could be found on the Internet. How important, today, are these tools compared to other forms of promotion, such as viral marketing and off-line advertising, etc.?

"Search Engines are still the key way for new people to find your site. Proper search engine categorization and placement will help you expand your client base and attract new people to your site, but simply submitting your site and doing nothing else would never be enough of a marketing effort. It's only one aspect of a much larger field of endeavor, namely, Internet Marketing. There are many other facets to marketing your site properly. Viral marketing and off-line advertising are always important, just as word of mouth will always be a factor, but the search engines are the equivalent of the phone books, yellow pages, or 411; At some point everyone uses them."

"It's interesting to note that the size of your business may not proportionally reflect where your marketing efforts should be concentrated. For example, a family owned Bed and Breakfast in Victoria, BC, classified as a small business, may rely entirely on international visitors to their site for business, thus online marketing efforts may be more intense; other countries, other languages, etc., whereas a much larger company such as a car dealership, may only be interested in selling to a local population, thus their online efforts may be reduced and their off-line (traditional) marketing efforts increased. Each web site will have its own distinct target market and it's very important to determine what that market is before you begin."

2. What do you believe is the single most important key to getting found in search engines and directories?

"In a word... Relevance. Search engines are just big computer programs. You need to help these machines categorize and index your web site properly. Provide them with the utmost relevant keywords, site description, content and metatags as possible. It helps the search engine to do its job properly. A big misconception some web site owners make is assuming the search engines have intelligence. That the machines will somehow anticipate what you meant to say about your site and take this into consideration when indexing takes place. In reality, exactly the opposite is true. You have to instruct the engine. You have to feed it the proper information. Ensure your content, keywords and metatags all reflect the way you want your site indexed. These decisions should be made before you invite any engine to your site. Pre-Search Engine preparation is the key. Relevance and content are of utmost importance."

Are Meta tags as important as some people believe?

"Actually, I think they are still underestimated. Many web site owners do not even know what Metatags are or how they are used. We're still in a general educational process regarding metatags. They are becoming increasingly important as we head toward global standards. The Internet is growing so rapidly some form of indexing standards are inevitable. Metatags will be incorporated into those standards. Metatags will continually evolve to include additional pertinent data. Dublin Core and other current indexing projects are seeking ways to classify entire library systems, image archives, musical compositions, etc. Soon, to be found on a wireless device, your site will need to contain some form of GPS (global positioning) data or GIS information. This will also be incorporated into some form of Metatag. So yes, I think they are very important. That being said however, other components such as the number of outside (reciprocal) links pointing to your site is becoming more of a consideration. Many search engines now use "popularity" within their indexing algorithms as a measure of a site's relevance. The more reciprocal links your site has, the better your ranking chances."

3. Any tips for how people can create good word lists for their keywords meta tag?

"Sure. Copy all the text content from your site into your word processor. Eliminate all words such as; and, but, or, the, etc. Now do a word count and read what you have left. Are the most important words and phrases the most frequent? Do they convey exactly what you wish to say about your site? Are the top 20 words terms people would use to find your site within a search engine? If the answer is no to any of these questions go back and rewrite your web pages. Don't Guess! You need to think like a total stranger who has never visited your site before. Let's say you sell luggage and the word luggage is plastered all over your site. Great right? In the UK it's referred to as "baggage," not luggage. Thus, by simply excluding a single word you've practically eliminated an entire segment of the population of Europe from buying your products and more to the point, you've inadvertently restricted the search engine classification of your site. Whoops! Your best bet is to hire a professional SEO firm to find the best keywords for you. I know it sounds like a plug but if you guess wrong, it will take a lot longer for your site to be indexed properly. A good SEO firm can analyze, weigh and optimize the keywords you should be using by scientific means -before- your site is submitted. No guessing allowed!"

4. How seriously has the pay-for-placement trend affected the ability to get listed in the major search engines and directories?

"It may affect your site's ranking ability within a few engines and indexes because it costs money and not all marketing budgets are created equal, but overall, the engines still need to rely on relevance when producing results.

Buying your way to the top of the listings will not guarantee success. Attracting targeted traffic as opposed to bulk traffic to your site is a much sounder principle. Would you rather have ten thousand people visit your site and only one purchase or one thousand visitors and ten purchases?"

How can people with small or nonexistent budgets get around this problem?

"Target your listing submissions to the main database companies which supply the engines with search results. Google, Inktomi and Dmoz (open directory project) are probably the largest suppliers of such data to engines. Once you're in their databases, the results will be served out to several hundred if not thousands of other engines and indexes. I believe Inktomi currently provides search results from their database to over 8000 engines. That's a good start."

5. Which is more effective, manual or auto submitting? Why? How often should one resubmit?

"A well designed auto-submitter will do the job as well as a human and in some cases better, as they are required to follow preprogrammed guidelines. Either one is necessary for maximum visibility but I don't think one is more effective than the other. They both perform the same function. I think the emphasis should be placed on optimizing your site before submission instead of worrying about rushing through the actual submission process."

How often should one resubmit?

"It depends on the Engine. Some will have your site indexed within a few weeks, others can take up to six months. Each engine has its own set of rules. There is no 'across-the-board' solution as to the frequency you are allowed to resubmit. As a general rule-of-thumb I wouldn't resubmit pages too often or you're likely to get dropped from the Engine and have your web site banned entirely."

6. Several search engines, including Altavista, Google, and Northern Light, have begun to block auto submissions from certain software programs such as Web Position Gold. How has this affected what you do?

"We are very vigilant regarding changes the engines make to their submission procedures. Each engine's parameters are studied quite carefully before integrating them into our technology. Some engines have begun blocking auto submitters because of abuses to the submission procedure as discussed earlier. When you leave the submission process in the hands of the end-user you can bet someone, somewhere is going to be tempted to see how hard they can push. Also, if you buy a piece of auto-submission software off the shelf and the search engine rules suddenly change, you'll need to spend more time and/or money continually updating that software to stay current.

With our technology, we control the adjustments. Changes can be implemented swiftly and globally and our clients are not required to download anything or stay abreast of every single change in the industry. Staying current is our responsibility. We are also aligning ourselves with several of the Search Engine Companies themselves to stay ahead of the curve."

Thanks again for your willingness to share your expertise with my readers.

"You're warmly welcome. You realize of course we've only barely scratched the surface of SEO Maybe we could have a day long seminar sometime so we can discuss the subject more in depth."



Robert McCourty is the Director of Marketing for Metamend, a search engine optimization firm specializing in automated SEO solutions for marketing and promotion of web sites. Phone: (250) 381-6382

Pam Blackstone is a professional writer whose background is a fusion of technology, training and marketing. She writes a weekly technology column for a major west coast daily, contributes regularly to Publish, eBiz, and various other magazines and trade journals, and develops content for corporate Intranets and leading web sites and zines. Pam specializes in writing for and about the Internet, and brings to her work close to two decades of experience in periodical and technical writing. You can reach her at [email protected] or through her Web site. Please don't send attachments.

Sections of this interview were previously published in the Victoria Times-Colonist.