From the March 2003 issue of Startups

Unlike a storefront in New York City, your Web site can't rely on foot traffic to gain new customers. Cyber prospects can't exactly stroll by and happen upon your Web site--that is, of course, unless you're using search engines effectively.

While e-mail, direct contact, fliers and advertising might work on some levels, they can also be a drain on money, time and resources. Search engine listings are free and have the ability to deliver higher amounts of traffic than almost any other marketing method. Getting your site ranked high in the search results of the main engines such as Google and Yahoo! could quadruple your traffic flow immediately. The problem is competition from the other 3 billion Web sites indexed. For example, when a Google user does a search for "Web design," 3,030,000 results are returned. If a Web design company isn't listed within the first 50, there is no point in being listed at all.

Luckily, there are a few tricks that can get you to the top of those rankings. Search engines use "spiders" to search, categorize and rank Web sites. Some capture the title and the first 1,000 characters of content; some capture the title and description listed in the metatags; some analyze only the "keyword" section of the metatags; and some use a combination of all these methods.

The first step to getting a good search engine ranking is adding metatags to your Web site. Metatags are located in the header portion of the HTML code between the

tags, close to the top of your Web site document, and are invisible to regular Web site visitors. .

It is important to understand that search engines are very particular about metatags. First, there are tag limits: It is recommended that the keyword metatags not exceed 1,024 characters, including spaces, and that the description tags not exceed 250 characters, including spaces.

To make sure you create the metatags correctly and don't exceed the suggested limits, use a free metatag generator like the one found on AddMe. When entering keywords and descriptions into the AddMe tag generator, make sure you accurately describe the content of your page. The description and keywords will be used to entice visitors to click on your listing, and deceiving potential visitors of the true content on your Web site does absolutely no good, even if it does increase traffic.

Also, be sure to include three to four of your most important keyword phrases, especially those used in your title tag and page copy. If you run a pet supplies company, use the phrase "pet supplies" in the keywords, title and description as well as frequently in your Web site text. Repetition is appealing to search engines, as it ensures more accurate search results. The more accurate your Web site appears to the search engines for certain phrases, the higher you will be ranked when a search engine user searches for that target keyword or phrase. It is no wonder that the Honda motorcycles Web site is one of the first to pop up in Altavista and Google, because they use the keyword "motorcycles" in their meta keywords and meta description before any other keywords, thus making that keyword appear extremely accurate.

Try to have your most important keywords appear at the beginning of your description. This often brings better results, and will help avoid having any search engine cut off your most important keywords if they limit the length of your description.

Finally, be careful not to repeat keywords in the keyword tag section too many times, as some search engines spiders don't like this. There is no specific limit, but many experts suggest no more than five repetitions.

Once you have inserted metatags into all your Web pages, there are a few other necessary tweaks needed for complete search engine optimization. Next month I will cover part II of search engine optimization and talk about optimizing the title tag, page copy, "alt" attribute image tags and site design. I'll also discuss some good submission resources where you can submit your optimized site to more than 400 search engines and directories.


Joel Holland, age 17, has been starting and running businesses since he was 12 and is currently the chief marketing officer for Nortel Networks Kidz Online, a digital studio that creates educational content about technology for schools nationwide and in Canada. Holland is ranked in the top 10 nationwide for his marketing skills through DECA, a national organization with more than 300,000 teen members, and was named Business Student of the Year by the McLean, Virginia, Chamber of Commerce. To contact Holland, write to joel@joelkentholland.com.