It feels a little weird, writing this article. After all, it’s the sort of title you see in the spam that shows up in your mailbox, isn’t it? How to put together web pages that get good search engine rankings. It’s the subject of a gazillion articles, web sites, and books.
Why do I think I have something useful to say on the subject? Well, I think we’ve done pretty well with our resource pages here. As I write this article, if I type “writers resources” into Google, we’re on the first page of results. If I type “roleplaying resources,” we’re the very first result. It used to be that if you typed in just plain old “writing” we were doing pretty well; the reason why we aren’t any more will be addressed shortly. Plain old “roleplaying” puts us on the second page of results, which in my book isn’t bad. (Results vary with other search engines, obviously.)
So I think it’s fair to say that I have at least a marginal idea of how to carry off the job, and I can even tell you some of the things that I’ve done wrong. Maybe it’ll help to clear up some of the weird misconceptions people seem to have about getting their sites up in the search engine rankings. I can’t tell you how to make a top web site in five easy steps, but I can address a few basic concepts that many people never quite seem to get to.
Common Misconceptions: Tricks and Easy Fixes
Everyone seems to think that there’s some easy two-minute “trick” to getting a good search engine ranking. This is fueled, of course, by all of the self-proclaimed web “gurus” who will promise to tell you how to get a good ranking in five easy steps, and by the spam that shows up in your email box every day. I don’t use these tricks, and yet our pages do quite well in the search engine rankings.
The closest thing to a “trick” that I use is to put keyword tags on our main resource pages. This by itself isn’t going to get you anywhere, of course, but it does help the search engines figure out which words on your page are important and, thus, how to give searchers more accurate results. Ultimately though, keywords aren’t going to solve your problems if you have a low search engine ranking.
Submitting your site to the search engines over and over won’t help either. I submitted the main page of our site to the major search engines precisely once, when it first went up. That was it. I’ve never done it again, and I’ve never submitted any other pages but the main one (which of course contains links to the major resource pages on our site, which link to all of the other pages). I’ve submitted just a couple of our major pages to a couple of the directories out there as well.
The “Hidden” Secret: Content!
Here’s the big secret people seem to miss: CONTENT! Search engines index text. That’s right: plain old boring words. They’ll note things like how many times various words and phrases show up on the pages of your site. If you don’t have lots of text, then there isn’t a whole lot for them to index! I know that putting up content takes more time than mucking with meta tags, and for many people it isn’t as exciting as making pretty graphics, but it also does a lot more good.
If you’re a writer then you should have plenty of content, right? Put up old stories and poems. Put up articles you think up. Put up opinion pieces on interesting subjects. Put up anything remotely interesting that you own the rights to and can get your hands on. If the content is interesting then more and more people will click through when it shows up in the search engine results. As more people click through, the search engines take note of that. Stop trying to save every single piece of your writing for a paying gig if you want search engine hits, you need that on-line content.
You might also grab people you wouldn’t have otherwise. Write articles on all sorts of subjects that are tangentially related to the rest of your site, and link from those articles to your main web page. Then people who click through because they saw a cool article about the usefulness of email newsletters might get intrigued and decide to look at the rest of your material.
Update Early and Often
This is why we’ve fallen in the search engine rankings recently (in my belief). We had a three-week chunk of down time earlier this summer, followed by, for various reasons, a whole lot of inactivity. I didn’t get around to verifying and updating links. I didn’t add as many new articles. The search engines take note of a lack of activity.
Try to add things often, even if it’s just an update on what’s going on in your life, a new article on some random subject you thought up the other night, and so on. You can’t expect the world to stay interested in what you have to say when you don’t have anything to say!
Links from Other People
I too have heard that when lots of people link to your site, it improves your search engine ranking. Don’t use this as an excuse to run around desperately begging everyone for links (or worse, sending them long manifestos about how you’d be doing them a favor by trading links with them).
First off, the number of people who link to you won’t help you if you don’t have that interesting content mentioned earlier. If you do have interesting content, then why do you need to beg, plead, and bribe for links? Instead, try something a little more friendly:
“Hi, I just added a link to [name of person’s site here] to the links section of our roleplaying resources page. If for any reason you’d like me to alter or remove the link, just let me know and I’ll be happy to do so. Perhaps if it seems appropriate you’d consider adding a link to us on your links page. (We do not require reciprocal links, however, so either way we’re happy to link to you!)”
Believe it or not, it’s at least as effective as saying “if you link to me first then I’ll link to you.” Very few people say no if you’ve made sure before emailing them that they actually have a list of links appropriate to your type of site. Not only that, but you haven’t irritated them in the process, which has all sorts of benefits. People I’ve emailed for links have signed up for our email zine, written really nice comments about our site on their links lists, and sent other people our way. I can think of maybe two sites that didn’t actually add us when I asked, and somehow I doubt that requiring a reciprocal link would have made the difference in those cases.
If you’re going to send a form letter telling a webmaster that you love their site and asking them to list you, try to make sure that they don’t already list you. Otherwise it becomes pretty obvious that the bit about being familiar with their site is just form-letter crap, and no one likes being lied to.
On Keeping Links Lists
The question of whether or not to keep links lists around can be a tricky one. After all, they take time and effort to maintain, and there are probably some portals and gateways out there that do just as good a job as you could, if not better, so why not just link to them? It’s a strong argument, and one that I’ve considered quite a few times as I try to find time to update my links listings and fail! Here are the reasons why I continue to keep my separate links listings:
- No matter what you think of reciprocal links policies, plenty of people do keep them. My policy is that I don’t ask for a link from anyone I haven’t added to my own links listing in order to avoid conflict in this area. Besides, if I don’t think a page is good enough for our links listing, then why would I want a link from it?
- You can leave out places that annoy you. You can, for example, refuse to list sites that play music or videos without asking when you view them.
- You can leave out sites that have little or bad content. Large portals often take pretty much anything that remotely falls under their area of expertise. Thus, although your links listing is smaller, people might find it more valuable.
- You can post notes about sites. For instance, I try to note when sites play noises or music without prompting.
- You can use your links listing as sort of your own personal bookmark list. To be honest, that’s how both my writing & roleplaying links lists started–as lists of links I didn’t want to forget.
- Judging by our web logs, there are people who find us by checking out their statistics packages’ notes on where their web traffic is coming from. So it’s another source of traffic.
Keeping your links fresh isn’t too hard; get a cheap or free link checker that can tell you when links are unreachable (or even better, use an automated directory that allows people to submit links via a form). If you invite people to submit links to you, then eventually you’ll find that you don’t have to spend too much time looking for cool new links because most of them come to you. So yes, it does take some time. But every time I consider stopping, I find that the benefits still outweigh the disadvantages. Choose for yourself.
None of this will help you if you aren’t saying something that people want to hear. It won’t help if you don’t have interesting content. If people can’t find their way around your site, they won’t look around. If you use fonts they can’t puzzle out, they won’t read on. If your grammar and spelling are so terrible that no one can tell what you’re saying, then they won’t care what you’re saying.
While a “pretty” site can be nice, and graphics can help make people go “oooh!”, they aren’t the be-all and end-all of web-site design. I’ve had plenty of people email me and thank me for not cluttering up the site with all of that sort of stuff. Which isn’t to say that my way of doing it is “right,” either (I think variety is great!), but it does make the point that artistic design isn’t the only thing web surfers care about. Besides, search engines can’t index the quality of your graphics.
Make things easy to find. If people come to your site and they can’t locate your content, then they’ll assume it just isn’t there and they won’t stay. Remember that people won’t always come to your main page. If you allow search engines to index all of that marvelous content, then readers won’t always click through to your main page. They’ll show up at random pages all over your web site. This means that each and every page needs to link back to any main pages that they’re derived from. I recommend that you come up with a template that you use for your articles (that includes the links back) so you don’t forget this. Also make sure that methods of contacting you are available from each page on your web site.
Long swaths of text can be tough to read on a computer screen. Remember to break things up. There are various means to do this — white space, section headings, hrules, and so on. Personally I like breaking things up with section headings and putting white space between major section breaks. Check out some of your favorite web sites and see how they do it.
I think everyone’s heard by now that no one wants to read huge, over-long articles on a computer screen. I’m not 100% convinced of this–our longer articles seem to do just fine in our rankings–but there is something to be said for making it easy for people to stop in the middle of reading and find their place again later. One way to do this is to break long pieces of writing up into multiple “pages” and link them all together. Find natural ways to break up the material and turn your one article into a series of them. This also allows you to post it one section at a time and thus add new material to your site more often.
Making Audience Trade-Offs
Make sure that your page loads cleanly and easily. If you use all sorts of weird script frobbies, be aware that you are increasing the chance that you’ll crash people’s browsers–and they probably won’t come back if that happens. If you use lots of large graphics, remember that folks on old machines or slow dial-ups aren’t likely to sit still and wait. Most of them will click “stop” and go somewhere else.
If your page automatically plays music and your reader is logging in from work, they probably won’t come back (and will curse your name as their boss comes out and asks them what on earth is going on). If your page is impossible for a text-only browser to make sense of, then there will be a lot of handicapped people who won’t be visiting your pages. If you use screwy fonts or browser-specific features, then you could be driving away whole crowds of people who use a different OS and browser combination than you do.
Sure, you can tell yourself that you don’t care about these people. But if you want web traffic, if you want people to click on your link and keep clicking through, if you want people to link to you (in short, if you want lots of those things that will get you a high search engine ranking), you shouldn’t be cutting off large parts of your audience.
It’s entirely up to you to decide which trade-offs to make, but remember that they are trade-offs. If we put up lots of large graphics we might get a segment of readers we haven’t gotten before, but to me it’s more important that everyone can actually make use of our site. Weigh your trade-offs carefully and decide for yourself which ones are right for you, but most of all, be aware that you’re making them.
What It Comes Down To
What it comes down to is the idea that you have to have something that people want to read in order to get them to read it! It seems so simple, yet somehow it’s something people miss. People put up a pretty background and a couple of ad banners and somehow expect that this and a few “tricks” will cause people to beat a path to their door. Remember that there are millions of web sites out there! Getting ranked “first” or even close to it in your relevant subject isn’t easy any more.
I’m hardly saying that I have all the answers, or that our traffic couldn’t be higher. For one thing, if my livelihood totally depended on my web site then I’d put a lot more time and money into banner exchanges, advertising, and so on. (Which brings me to one other small point: high search engine ranking doesn’t automatically translate to lots of hits. You need other means of drawing people in.) But it does seem to me that people are missing some of the basic concepts:
- If you want people to find you via search engines, you need indexable content.
- If you want people to come back again and again, you need to update your content and add more.
- If you want people to return, you have to make the experience pleasant and interesting for them, and preferably useful as well.
- When you use spiffy fonts, scripts, and graphics, you often cut off a portion of your potential audience. Make your trade-offs consciously rather than accidentally.
You can’t just pull a few “tricks” and expect to suddenly get a lot of traffic. Besides, if you put up interesting content, you’ll get some neat emails: emails asking interesting questions; emails telling you that you have a really cool site; emails thanking you for not being like all of the other sites out there; emails from people who assume that just because you’ve put up an extensive web site on a subject, you must be some kind of expert (which is weird, if kind of cool). So put a little time and thought into your site, let your passion for your subject shine through, think about what you’re doing and why, and enjoy yourself. It’s hard to go wrong with that combination.