22 April 2009

Build it … and make them come?

By Rodney Lim

(Published in’Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)

In the iconic Kevin Costner movie Field of Dreams from 1989, a voice compels an Iowa farmer to turn his corn field into a baseball diamond. “Build it … and they will come”, says the voice. Sure enough, thousands show up by the end of the film to watch dead baseball legends who seem to appear from nowhere.

Although Build It and They Will Come has proven to be the magic formula for Starbucks, KFC and many shopping malls, it does not seem to translate as well to building Internet websites. Putting up a website is not a problem, but in the vast expense of cyberspace (over a 186 million websites as of December 2008, and growing), getting people to come to it, is.

On the web, getting your site found is a matter of life and death. Yet many small businesses do not have the resources necessary to contract Internet marketing specialists or participate in text ad programmes to obtain website traffic. Still, there are plenty of things you can do with your site to gain more visitors.

About 85% of all traffic to websites is referred from the major search engines, so they are absolutely vital in driving visits to your website. Make sure your website is registered with the major search engines so that it is accessible to the automated ‘spiders’ that crawl the web regularly to find new sites to add to their vast databases. With Google, for example, you just need to submit your domain name towww.google.com/addurl.html. When your site is indexed by Google, it will be listed on Google’s search results pages (SERPs) if it is relevant to search terms that are typed by users into the Google search box.

Being searchable is just a start. You would also want to rank high in those SERPs. A good 90% of users click on results in the first three pages of a SERP, while only 10% or so would venture beyond those first three pages. Thus, an understanding of how search engines rank search results on a keyword query is necessary to ensure your website stays on top.

Basically, search engines employ algorithms, or a set of rules, to sort through millions of web pages and to rank them according to their relevance to a particular search term. Although these algorithms are closely guarded secrets, you can still boost your SERP rankings by applying simple Search Engine Optimization (SEO) – techniques which help improve website content and HTML coding.

First, try to figure out what keywords and phrases people are likely to type into the search engines when they are searching for things that you want them to find on your website. If you feature gym equipment on your website, for instance, consider the relevant keywords that are usually used to find this item – ‘exercise equipment’, ‘gym equipment’, ‘workouts’, ‘fitness’ and other synonyms and combination. Such words should appear frequently and prominently on your website.

There are free keyword search tools like Google Keyword Tool (https://adwords.google.com/select/KeywordToolExternal) and SEO Tools (http://tools.seobook.com/keyword-tools/seobook/) that will tell you popular words and phrases used in searches.

Each page in your site should have its own custom title and description. HTML title tags define what the page is all about, so your relevant keywords and phrases should appear in these title tags. Considering that there are tons of other businesses looking to optimize themselves in a similar manner, you can get creative with your title tags. For instance, a title tag that reads: ‘Great Deals from ABC Fitness Co. in Kuching’ not only localizes the targeting of your site or page, it also works like an advertising copy!

In addition, you can use descriptive and accurate keyword phrases in the Image Alt tags and the Meta tags (although meta tag spamming has made it a non-factor for most search engines) to help boost your page rankings. You should be careful not to stuff your pages with keywords or use hidden text, among other things, to manipulate the site’s rankings. Many so-called SEO experts resort to deceptive and unethical techniques to fool search engines like this so they can guarantee their clients of top rankings. Known as Black Hat practices, they can get your site penalized or even banned from the search engine indexes.

Instead, you should concentrate on creating useful content for users. This means making informative web pages with relevant keywords in appropriate contexts, and focusing on fresh and original content.

Your site will also be better optimized for the search engines if it is well-designed, with clear structure, hierarchy and navigation. Site maps and good use of links will also go a long way in SEO. Internal linking helps connect content within your website. It improves navigation and usability, and is often overlooked. Even more important is inbound links, which is the focus of Google’s famed PageRank algorithm.

PageRank determines the relevance or importance (and thus ranking) of a website by looking at the quantity and quality of links that go into that website. Essentially, your site will rank higher if many websites, especially important ones, link to yours. And people would want to link to you if you have plain old good content.

So, good content drives link popularity, which drives traffic.

In an industry where gimmicks and shady practices abound, this simple system underscores what SEO is really all about – creating great websites to get great traffic.

Build it well, and they will come.

Rodney Lim is a lecturer with the School of Business and Enterprise at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be contacted at rlim@swinburne.edu.my