Search Engine "Placement"?
Part of How Do They Do That With HTML? by Carl Tashian

Do you care how many hits your site gets? Everyone wants high placement on the biggest search engines, like Yahoo, Google, Excite, and Lycos. They see it like this:

good search engine placement = high visibility = hits

Frankly, this equation bothers me. It is thin, it is somewhat backwards, and it hides the fact that high visibility will draw people in, but it won't keep them around. If you don't have a useful site, people won't stay. People browse the web because they're looking for something, and if you can't give them what they're looking for (or something sufficiently distracting), they'll find someone who will. You're not valuable to them, and they're not valuable to you.

If you have a really useful web site, you don't need search engines. Word of mouth is very powerful on the Internet, and an excellent site will get people talking. If you can write a web site that has people coming telling their friends and back every day, you could eventually live off of banner advertising alone (all you need is 500,000 or so hits a month). Make a site that is captivating, and you'll generate your own audience.

Here's my version of the equation:

useful site + time or money = lots of hits

Search engines do play a role in this equation, as I'll explain later, but they are not central to it. I started this web site in 1995, and I added it to two or three search engines. My site was somewhat useful back then, but it wasn't ground breaking. I was just trying to learn how to write web pages, so I thought I'd make an attempt at teaching it!

I let the initial site sit around for years, and every 6 months or so, I'd make one or two changes. I graduated high school. I went to college. I graduated college. By then, I had almost forgotten about the site. But one day, to my surprise, I received this e-mail:

From: [the CEO of a software company]
To: Carl Tashian
Subject: Product mention 
Date: Tue, 11 Apr 2000 15:38:00 -0400

Hello Carl,

I wanted to say thanks for mentioning [the company's product] in your HTML primer.  Your
site has consistently relayed folks to our site.  Our site received over 1700
hits coming from your site last month, over 1600 in February and over 500
so far this month.

I found the page I'd written 6 years ago that linked to this company's site. The link was buried in the page, in the middle of a random paragraph. It was not prominent. So it raised a question immediately, "If this obscure link is clicked on 1,600 times in a month, how many hits must my site be getting overall?"

As it turned out, I was getting about 80,000 hits a month without doing anything to my site. 2,500 times a day, someone was reading something I wrote in 1995. Over the years, I had been fully assimilated by the web, and I hadn't even noticed. My site was useful to some people, and they linked to it. And the links spiraled out from there. Useful content and time were my keys to success.

Time can be replaced by money, to some extent. Advertising your site with ad banners is expensive, but if you're targeting the right people, they will bring in some traffic. You can even pay someone US$500 to add you to 500 search engines, but I think this is a waste of money and a total scam. I don't really recommend spending money to advertise, unless you're a big company running a national ad campaign and you can somehow still make a profit.

Personally, for my own web sites, I'd rather grow at whatever rate the Internet deems necessary. The Darwinian nature of web traffic dictates that an excellent site will grow quickly and exponentially, and that a useless site will fizzle out. If people aren't staying around and passing the word on, and if you're not seeing increased traffic as a result, it's probably a hint that you're doing something wrong.

But back to search engines. How do they work? How do they determine what site you get first when you type in something like "HTML"? Unfortunately, the companies behind the major search engines won't reveal exactly how their software ranks documents in a search. These are the big secrets; they don't want competitors to steal their techniques, and they don't want people to cheat the system. But allow me to make a few guesses about how sites are ranked:

Bottom line: Search engines have become very complicated. A lot of web developers have tried to cheat the system, and the system has responded by making cheating difficult to impossible. In the end, just follow the equation and you'll be in good shape.

useful site + time or money = lots of hits

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