Saturday, December 16, 2006

8 Quick Ways to Fix Your Search Engine

Over the past year, I’ve evaluated the search experiences on a number of popular content sites.
I picked apart the search and result designs from sites like
Apple.com, NASA.gov, SchwabFoundation.org, and a variety of others. We focused on content sites, rather than e-commerce or Web applications, and we avoided general Web search engines entirely.

Our finding, not surprisingly, is that almost every site’s search engine could use improvement. We also found that most organizations’ Web teams couldn’t really affect the quality of their search results — they were stuck tweaking search technologies that had already been purchased and installed. Often, the most dramatic change they could make was in the design of the search and results interfaces. In some cases, as the old saying goes, this was like putting lipstick on a pig. But cleaning things up does help users find answers to their queries.
Through our research, we discovered eight quick fixes that will improve your site’s search experience:


1. Question search engine defaults.
Before turning on your search software, evaluate every option the software provides in terms of user needs. For example, do they really need to hide or show the result summaries? Take away as much as you can; it will simplify your results page.


2. Relevance is relative.
Ranking results based on their relevance is a subjective practice at best. Every piece of search software has its own algorithm for determining which documents best match which queries. Make sure the default ranking you select matches your user needs.


3. Help users avoid mistakes.
Check your search logs. One of the top queries will inevitably be an empty submission. While we’re not sure why this happens so frequently, users often accidently submit forms before filling them out. One of the simplest usability enhancements you can make to your site’s search experience is a single line of JavaScript. Make sure the search field has something in it before allowing the form to be submitted.


4. Roll your own results.
Even if you can’t change your search engine’s algorithm to be more relevant for your users, don’t give up hope. Frankly, one of the best ways to improve your results is to do them by hand. Get a report of the top search queries on your site. Take the top ten and find three to five pages that satisfy those queries. Then, create a simple script to match them up on your results page. When you have time, do the next 20 most popular. Stop when you get to 50. That will likely cover the majority of your users’ queries. Check the report once a month and adjust the canned results as necessary.


5. Simplify your page layout.
Almost every search engine can be more effective with a simple layout.
Include a wide text box with the user’s search query and a submit button labeled “Search again.”
Use a header that displays the total number of results and a control for displaying the next 10 (preferably an arrow pointing to the right).
List 10 results with ranking numbers hanging in the column.
Repeat the navigation controls at the bottom of the results.


6. Offer help for zero results.
If a query doesn’t find any matches, display the following:

  • A text box showing the user’s query that allows them to edit it.
  • Possible spelling alternatives, presented with the phrase, “Did you mean [alternative]?”
  • A couple of other tips as a bulleted list. “Try a broader search term.” or “Try using a synonym.”
  • Include a link to search help, a site map, and contact page.

7. Use categories if you’ve got them.
If your search software offers different search categories (often called catalogs or indices), use them to organize your results in a similar structure to your site’s architecture. Then include links at the top of the results page that show how many results match each category. This will help users narrow their search to a more manageable list.


8. Advanced search and help should be the same thing.
If you link to a page that offers usage instructions for the many features of your search engine, include interfaces for those features so they can be used without switching back and forth. See the advanced search page at HotBot for an example.


Jeffrey Veen is the Director of Product Design and a founding partner of Adaptive Path. In conjunction with author Darcy DiNucci, Jeff has just released our latest report: “Site Content Search : User Experience Analysis.” Full of real-world examples, this report provides a feature-by-feature best-practices guide to use as a design reference when developing the search experience on your site. When implementing a feature, you can easily reference how others have used it across a range of sites.
Jeff will also be speaking on this and related topics at our User Experience Week
in Washington, D.C. from August 16-19, as well as our “Beyond Usability” workshop in Toronto, Ontario, Canada on September 28 and 29.

The 80/20 Of Search Engine Marketing - Part 2

In The 80/20 Of Search Engine Marketing - Part 1 I covered the first four of the Top 8 Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Techniques as explained by Brad Fallon. The first four methods were applicable to On-Page SEO, techniques you can manually apply to your website internally. The remaining four that I am about to discuss cover Off-Page SEO, which in my mind is a lot more difficult to control since you are dealing with external variables.

As I mentioned in part one, these techniques come from a special seminar recording that I received as part of my welcome package for joining Perry Marshall’s Renaissance Club.

Off Page SEO
If you are at all familiar with search engine optimization you are probably more interested in Off-Page techniques. With a bit of study and practice you can quickly grasp the most important On-Page variables to play with on your website. There is always more you can do of course, but as long as we are talking 80/20 rules there are only a handful of really important On-Page things and most of them were covered in part one of this article series.

Off-Page SEO in my mind is more important than On-Page. You can get your On-Page content perfectly optimized but without any good Off-Page SEO your On-Page efforts are wasted. No website can be a success in natural search engine results unless there are links flowing into it. This is what Off-Page SEO is all about, getting good quality links coming through.

Quite frankly I don’t believe there are any consistent, easy and affordable ways to conduct Off-Page SEO, and that is why I was so interested to hear what Brad was going to cover in his presentation. To be honest I wasn’t blown away by his comments. It didn’t cover anything new to me but I have been reading about SEO for a number of years, including some of Brad’s other materials, but it did reaffirm what I currently practice in my own Off-Page SEO activities and it’s always good to be reminded of what is smart practice.

Let’s go through the final four of the Top 8 Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Techniques so you can also do a mental check list and be certain you are following what the experts do.

5. Links and PageRank
Brad mumbled this first point out but later it was clarified that he said links. Really his Off-Page SEO technique discussion was more of a gradual break down than a top 4 list, with each point flowing into the next (which you will see is mimicked in this article) so the first place to logically start is links.

Links to your site is the most important Off-Page SEO technique. Simple but true. Incoming links are what determines your natural search engine placement. Yes all the On-Page SEO techniques will influence the variables but the links will determine the strength of your web pages to compete for the top places in search engine results pages. The more strength, the higher in the search engines your web pages will be. Nuff said.

PageRank
If you read my blog you should be well and truly familiar with PageRank. Most of my SEO posts are laden with the term but just in case you don’t know about PageRank head over and read this article to get yourself introduced to the topic - PageRank Explained - Keeping SEO Simple - this is one of my most popular articles and it should answer your basic questions.

Brad Fallon did not do anything more than a basic introduction to PageRank but he did make one interesting comment that I think is worth repeating. He gave a typical scenario of a person conducting search engine marketing for a website (or a company hired to do so), which usually starts with submitting to directories and hunting around for link exchange partners. Not exactly the most effective means of SEO because you tend to get low quality and low PageRank incoming links.

Brad went on to note the perils of over optimizing, which often happens when techniques like low quality link exchanges and free directories are over used, generating thousands duplicate anchor text incoming links from sites with low PageRank. He stated that the search engines don’t reward these techniques well, but strangely enough these are often considered the foundations of SEO campaigning but don’t lead to great results.

What Is A Good SEO Plan?
A more sound search engine marketing strategy is all about quality over quantity. Get your site listed in the best directories - DMOZ (the open directory project) and Yahoo! - and then slowly, but consistently build incoming links from good relevant sites. This pattern is considered more natural and hence is rewarded with better organic search engine results. Yes it takes longer and you better be a patient bunny, but it will lead to better results in the long term. It’s all about spending your time finding the 20% of links that will give you the 80% of results.

Brad pointed out that 1000 low quality and low PageRank backlinks generated in a short period of time will not be nearly as good as a handful of high PageRank incoming links added over many months. The emphasis is on oh-na-tur-al. Don’t follow the crowd and exchange links with anybody and everyone that comes asking for a link (perhaps I should drop my link exchange practices for this blog?) and don’t spend all your time asking for links from any site you can find that is remotely relevant to yours.

How To Get High Quality Links
It can be especially difficult for a commercial site with no interesting content (for example, nothing but sales pages) to get quality incoming links. No self-respecting, high PageRank site will have a good reason (besides money) to link to a site that is just selling something. Okay yes Apple will probably have no problems getting quality links to its iPod pages but that’s obviously not a position most businesses enjoy.

Unfortunately I don’t have a full-proof method for gaining quality links other than what I have already written about before and what is repeated over and over again all over the Internet - Content is King. The better the content the better the backlinks. Of course you can’t expect quality backlinks to come immediately unless you are willing to buy them. You need to slowly build up an audience that will eventually lead you to enjoy some exposure in the eyes of the quality sites and quality backlinks will come. The best thing is that links from one popular site tends to give you exposure to the owners of other popular sites and momentum will build.

If you need a practical example of how to get high quality backlinks using content read the second part of this article - Smarter Online Marketing. This article explains how one of my blog articles enjoyed some major exposure around the web resulting in lots of links.

In the case of commercial sites the same rules hold true, content will bring in links and visitors. With a commercial site the secret sauce is great content that is tightly aligned with your target market. Whitepapers, articles, free reports, resources, anything and everything you can come up with that will bring your market to your site. If you have just launched a new site put together a whiz-bang whitepaper, it doesn’t have to be too long, just a few pages of really really good stuff and make it available on your site for free.

Once you have the resources on your site you just need to get out there and tell everyone. At the moment one of the best ways is to comment on blogs and forums where your target market congregate. As I mentioned above, if one popular site owner reads your whitepaper, thinks it’s great and tells her audience, your job may be done already. This alone may bring in hundreds of backlinks and definitely lots of real visitors. It’s not easy but good content will lead to good results - it’s almost guaranteed!

6. Page Reputation
Back to the wisdom of Brad Fallon. Page Reputation is a relatively new concept in the eyes of the web public and has been gaining more and more credence as an important SEO consideration. In a nutshell reputation refers to the value of the sites linking to your site and the value of the links linking to the sites linking to your site. Confusing isn’t it!

Every website has a reputation value and incoming links determine that reputation, however it’s not about the number of incoming links but the quality and reputation of the sites that link. The reputation of a mainstream news site, for example CNN, is quite high and will have incoming links from other high reputation sites. If you get a link from CNN then your reputation will rise. Basically it’s measure of a site’s value based on the network of sites linking to that site going back multiple levels of the network.

That’s about as far as my understanding of the concept goes and in my mind ties right back in with the quality over quantity theory.

7. Anchor Text
Number three in the Off-Page SEO technique list is anchor text. Anchor text is the text used to link to your site and like your internal linking structure, your external link text is very important but often harder to manipulate. You don’t decide how people link to your site, all you can do is encourage people to link in a certain way.

This issue is all about your keywords. First you have to know what keywords you want people to use to link to your pages and then you need to figure out ways to make sure people use those keywords. For the basic link exchanges you usually communicate with the person providing you with a link and stipulate what anchor text to use. However most of the valuable links will come in response to you writing some good content and it will be quite random, the linking person won’t approach you to ask how they should link to you, they will just slap up a link as they feel appropriate.

In most cases people linking to your pages will use the title of your article, or part of the title, as the anchor text and as such you need to be extra careful when deciding how to name your articles. Yes usability and marketing comes first - you want to grab the attention of human beings with a tempting title, but if you can get some good keywords in there too you will be killing two birds with one stone. Other areas to consider are your name (now don’t go changing your name just for SEO!) and your website’s title as these are often used as anchor text.

I wouldn’t stress about external anchor text too much otherwise you can become bogged down in little details. Often the people linking to you will use completely random text that means absolutely nothing (for example - visit Entrepreneur’s Journey - click here - “click here” is not good anchor text) but at least will bring in human visitors. Just stay consciously aware of the importance of keywords in anchor text whenever you produce new content.

8. Link Popularity
Lastly Brad noted link popularity as the final point in his top 8 SEO technique list. Link popularity is all about the numbers, not the quality. This is purely how many incoming links there are to your website.

The one interesting point Brad mentioned in this section of his presentation was the difference between Google and Yahoo! regarding the top variables in their algorithms.

Google - 1.Title Tags, 2.PageRank and 3.PageRep
Yahoo! - 1.Title Tags, 2.Keyword Density and 3.Link Popularity

Now I can’t verify that in any manner but it does make for some interesting discussion. This shows that Google cares more about quality and Yahoo! cares more about quantity, but I’m sure there is a lot more to it than that. I’ll leave it up to you to test this theory on your sites.

Link Relevancy and ‘Do Keywords In Domain Names Matter?’
Before I wrap this article up I want to make one comment regarding how relevant backlinks have to be and whether keywords in domain names matter. Brad made some interesting comments about these topics.

My assumption was that relevancy meant that the pages your incoming links come from should be relevant to a pretty high degree, for example, Entrepreneur’s Journey would appreciate links from business, marketing, SEO and entrepreneurship sites but universities, sports clubs and cooking sites would not be relevant. Brad stated that Google’s relevancy scope is quite wide, as wide as the top categories in the DMOZ directory. A site that on first inspection may not be relevant may actually in fact offer some relevancy even if the connection is obscure or drilled down (is every link from a blog relevant to a blog simply because they all belong in the “blog” category? I think not). It’s a hard thing to judge given that determining whether a result (say a search engine ranking increase) has a direct correlation to a single backlink is next to impossible.

What was really interesting and actually makes total sense is what Brad said about domain names. One of the age old questions in SEO is whether keywords in your domain name are important. Brad straight out said that the Google algorithms do not consider keywords in the domain name, however when people link to you they often use your domain name and if your keywords are in your domain name then the anchor text people use to link to you will contain your keywords. In a round about way, yes, keywords in domain names matter.

Conclusion
There you have it, the top 8 search engine optimization techniques as presented by Brad Fallon, one of the web’s most respected search engine marketers, along with lots of additional commentary thrown in from yours truly. For some people there won’t have been much new material but what these two articles do provide is a solid list of the 80/20 variables that you should work on if your organic search engine results are business critical. For solopreneurs with little time on you hands knowing what the key two-to-three things you need to worry about makes for efficient business.

A few people have emailed me questioning the validity of Brad Fallon and I can say one thing only - Jay Abraham would not have selected him as the presenter on search engine optimization if he wasn’t the real deal. If you don’t have any confidence in Jay Abraham then perhaps you need to start studying business and marketing.

The 80/20 Of Search Engine Marketing - Part 1

I joined Perry Marshall’s Renaissance Club to get my copy of the Definitive Guide To Google AdWords at the discounted rate, however I’ve started to realize there is a lot more value in it than just the AdWords eBook, which I guess makes sense since Perry wants people to stay subscribed to his club, so he must keep dishing out good stuff.

Just this morning I had a listen to one of the CDs you receive when you first join the club. This one was with Brad Fallon, the search engine optimization (SEO) expert. It formed the third part of the Jay Abraham’s Power To Profits seminar series that was completed earlier this year with Perry, Brad and Ken McCarthy. You get this CD, titled “The 8 Essential Things You REALLY Need to Know About Search Engine Optimization“, when you first join Perry’s club, along with the two other CDs that make up the seminar.

Who Is Brad Fallon?
You have probably noticed Brad Fallon’s name, his free e-course and SEO product, Stomping The Search Engines, pop up in the yellow boxes on this blog lately. This is because I know Brad is the real deal after reading his material and listening to his audio and I feel confident recommending him to you as one of a handful of SEO experts that I trust. Much of my understanding of SEO, in particular about sitemaps, has come from Brad. He also has the credentials to back up his products, having grown his business My Wedding Favours from brand new in January 2004 to about $700,000 per month operation 15 months later, mostly thanks to his position in the search engines (his site is number one for most of his key phrases, including “wedding favors“).

As a result of his success with his online store he went on to teach others how to get great results in natural search engine rankings. The audio CD I just listened to had some fantastic materials on the 80/20 of SEO activities we should all be doing. Brad’s skills have come from testing things on his websites and research - lots of real life testing to see what works and what doesn’t. Perhaps more importantly he knows what might be sound SEO practice but falls into the 80% of activities that only have 20% impact on your search engine performance, so shouldn’t be prioritized, and the 20% of activities that have the greatest impact that you need to devote most of your time to.

The 80/20 Rule For Search Engine Marketing
When I say 80/20, I mean the 20% of activities that account for the 80% of results you get. In this case it’s the 20% of things you should spend the most time regarding optimizing your website to get the 80% of results in search engines. Wasting time with the other 80% that produces 20% of the results is obviously not a good idea. If you are at all familiar with this principle, and you will be if you read my blog regularly since I reference to it a lot, then you know that the 80/20 equation is not a strict mathematical rule but definitely is something that every business should heed.

There are very few variables in any organisation that account for the majority of results. When I say variables I mean anything from people, marketing methods, customers, infrastructure, systems, suppliers, products, pricing points, seasons - anything and everything, can usually fit nicely into a 80/20 relationship. In this case I am discussing the 80/20 of search engine optimization techniques - these are the activities that you should spend the majority of your time on.

The Top 8 Search Engine Optimization Techniques
I’m going to list the top 8 techniques that Brad discussed in the seminar. Bear in mind that I’m only going to briefly review them since it wouldn’t be fair to Brad, Perry or any of the guys selling this stuff if I simply reposted all their materials. The fact is I couldn’t do it anyway, it would take a 50 page post to cover everything Brad discussed in the audio CD. If you are interested in having a listen to this CD I suggest you try Perry’s Renaissance Club.

Brad broke down his top 8 list into two categories - On-Page SEO and Off-Page SEO. On-Page refers to things you can do to your website, Off-Page refers to the things that happen to your website from other sites (usually talking about incoming links from other sites). Let’s start with On-Page since you can action these items immediately and test results.

On-Page SEO

1. Title Tags
If you are at all familiar with SEO then I’m sure you would have seen this one coming. The fact is, and this has been proven time and time again, what you put in your title tags is the most influential variable to determine how your pages show up in natural (organic) search results.

Brad gave an excellent example of how he played with slight changes to the title tag of his Wedding Favors home page causing a dramatic change to his search engine result page (SERP) placement. He was sitting at number 2 on Google and was testing methods to get his site into number 1. With Google you can make a change to your title tags and within 24-36 hours you will see the results. His results were often quite dramatic, dropping to number 9, then completely gone, and finally finding the combination of title tag phrases that resulted in a number one ranking. He now owns the number one ranking in Google and Yahoo!.

During this process Brad recommended that you optimize for only two to three key phrases per page. The keyphrases that start the title tag (the ones on the left) have the most power, so should be selected very carefully. His example was interesting because it showed how his three key phrases for his homepage were adjusted to create a number one ranking for all three of his phrases (Wedding Favors - Wedding Party Favors - Bridal Shower Favors). It wasn’t very complicated, just moving words around and seeing what happened. Not rocket science, just practical testing. I have since added an entry to my ‘to-do’ list for BetterEdit.com to start testing title phrases again.

2. Keyword Density
Keyword density was listed the second most important on-page factor in the 80/20 of SEO activities. Keyword density is the percentage of times your keywords appear on a given page. There is no strict rule or percentage to aim for but Brad offered a very sound practice to determine what works - copy what your competitors do. Search for your key phrases, the phrases you want to show up for in the search engines and see what the current top result site’s keyword density is.

To do this Brad gave away this fantastic little gem of a resource - go to this website - www.Ranks.nl and use it to test out the keyword density of your competitors pages and your pages. See how the number one site handles their keyword density - how often in title tags, heading tags, alt tags, body content and other areas of their site certain keyword phrases appear and then copy their techniques. Once you have your on-page keyword density equal or better than your competitors then all you have to do is worry about your off-page SEO to beat them (and test test test!).

3. Site Structure
Site structure covers the way your site is linked together internally. Brad didn’t talk too much about this and I know why - he’d need a full seminar just to explain all the different things you can work on! However I think there is one really important thing to mention regarding site structure and I know Brad would agree with me - it’s your sitemap - whether you have one to begin with and how you structure it. My suggestion is you do Brad’s free e-course that covers a lot on site structure and in particular sitemaps. It’s free so there is no reason why you shouldn’t do it.

4. Internal Links
You have to remember that Google treats each webpage as a single page, not as a part of a website, so when it comes to linking to your own pages it’s very important you take great care to optimize your keyword linking methods. The beauty of this technique is that you can control it, it’s an on-page technique that in lets you add backlinks to your own pages (What is a backlink and why should you care? Read this - The Backlink FAQ and this - Monitoring Your Backlinks - How Popular Is Your Website?).

The two most important things to consider is how you anchor your internal links (what phrases you use to link) and that you take advantage of all the opportunities to link your pages together. Make use of a footer by linking to all your most important pages using the appropriate anchor text keyword phrase (especially your sitemap) and make sure your navigation structure links with keywords, not just blanket statements like “click here”.

Two words of warning with this - don’t forget about usability and don’t over optimize. Brad mentioned that Google recently added technology to their algorithms that penalizes sites that appear to be over optimizing. This is usually indicated by too much use of a particular keyphrase, for example always using the exact same word or phrase to link to one page in your site and all incoming links from other sites are also use the same phrase. To avoid the penalty just mix up your phrases a bit and, leading to the other warning to watch out for - usability -keep it human, use phrases that humans will understand. Afterall your goal with all this SEO is to get humans to your site and there is no point if they can’t figure out how to navigate to what they want because your linking text is all the same or poorly labeled.

Off-Page Search Engine Optimization in Part 2
That’s it for the on-page SEO tips. In part two of this series I’ll go through the final 4 tips Brad Fallon mentioned regarding off-page SEO and then you will have a complete picture of the top 8 most important search engine optimization factors. Part two will be posted in the next couple of days.

Part 2 is now available - The 80/20 Of Search Engine Marketing - Part 2

8 essential search engine marketing techniques

Yaro Starak has written an in-depth review of The 8 Essential Things You REALLY Need to Know About Search Engine Optimization, a CD where Brad Fallon talks about ways of improving search engine rankings. The review is split into two parts: The 80/20 Of Search Engine Marketing - Part 1, which contains on-page SEO techniques, and The 80/20 Of Search Engine Marketing - Part 2, where off-page techniques are discussed.

The techniques are these:

1. Title Tags (which should be document titles or title elements, since it’s the text between the opening and closing title tags that is important, not the actual tags)
2. Keyword Density
3. Site Structure
4. Internal Links
5. Links and PageRank
6. Page Reputation
7. Anchor Text
8. Link Popularity

All in all, a good list of techniques to use when working on increasing the number of visitors a site gets from search engines.

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