A: As you're finding, submitting your site to search engines doesn't guarantee being ranked by them. But it's still important to keep trying to boost your hits from search engines. The 10th World Wide Web User Survey conducted by the Georgia Institute of Technology shows that 85 percent of people discover Web sites through search engines. If a prospective customer doesn't find your site in the first two or three pages (20 to 30 hits) of a search -- the point at which most people give up -- you're effectively invisible to your market.
Fortunately, there are simple ways to improve your rankings. The first is to understand how different search engines index sites. Search engines, such as AltaVista and HotBot, and directories, like Yahoo! and Lycos, each have their own strategies, and ranking highly on one doesn't mean you'll appear on another. What's more, your ranking can decrease as new competitors emerge and as particular search engines change how they index sites. To stay on top of search engine developments, try http://www.searchenginewatch.com, which also offers a subscription newsletter.
As you work to boost your search engine rankings, you'll want to look closely at your site's content. Too often, site developers neglect to build in keywords and tags that search engines will notice. Failing to add these attention-grabbers is like building a brick-and-mortar store with no sign, no storefront display, no address -- and no traffic.
Some search engines rely on "meta tags." These are HTML tags invisible to site visitors but which guide the indexing of the page. The most commonly used tags for indexing are description and keyword tags. To learn how tags can be used effectively, use a search engine to perform a search that a customer might use to find you. Then set your browser to view the source of pages that pop up -- especially those of competitors that rank more highly than you do -- and study the meta tags at the top of the page.
For example, the beauty care site Nature's Radiance uses this simple meta tag to advertise its content: meta name="description" content="Nature's Radiance offers the finest in all natural skin and hair products. Order online!"
This tag is followed by a keyword tag that contains both common terms any customer searching natural health and beauty aids might use (beauty, health, skin care) but also more specific ones, including the name of the site itself (with and without the apostrophe) and the names of unique products and ingredients.
Although composing meta tags is not conceptually difficult, keeping them up to date can get time-consuming. For help, you can try software products such as Watchfire Metabot or use sites that will help you create meta tags including Meta Tag Builder.
Though mastering meta tags is essential, it doesn't guarantee success because not all search engines or directories use them (Lycos is one example). Instead, some sites look for placement and frequency of certain keywords. Perhaps the hardest part in using keywords to attract attention is coming up with words that concisely describe your site. As with meta tag descriptions, use general terms for your category of products and specific terms for your unique offerings.
Make sure these words are placed prominently on your site. A key location is the title of your page (the sentence that appears at the top of the Web browser). The title for Nature's Radiance home page draws on several important keywords: "All natural skin and hair care! Shampoos, conditioners, creams, lotions, soaps and moisturizers." Other key locations to place keywords are in headline tags, links and the first few lines of body copy.
Once you've added strong meta tags and keywords, resubmit your site to the major search engines and see whether your work has nudged your ranking upward. If not, there's nothing wrong with trying again. But don't be tempted to use some of the techniques unscrupulous Web site developers sometimes resort to -- repeating keywords over and over or using intriguing or off-color keywords unrelated to the site's content. Search engines are wise to such tactics, and they can get you banished to search engine oblivion.
Peter Banks is a writer and consultant who specializes in positioning print and online publications for greater profitability. As editor and publisher for the American Diabetes Association, he helped launch and develop www.diabetes.org, one of the leading health Web sites with more than 9 million hits monthly. He was a featured participant in the video Publishing in the Age of New Media: Show Me the Money and is the author of the brochure 101 Tips for Profiting from the Web. He lives and works in Fairfax, Virginia, and can be reached at Peter Banks Associates, 10117 Blue Coat Dr., Fairfax, VA 22030, (703) 591-6544.