Search Engine Basics
By Burkey Belser
Every firm wants prospective clients to find its site more often. Try building special pages for niche markets. Get your articles published elsewhere on the web. and learn how to entice Google and other search engines to index your site.
Law firms that are putting up new or reorganized sites have numerous issues to tackle. Chief among their concerns, however, is making the most of their investment in their sites by pulling in the maximum number of visitors. What can you do to ensure that your firm’s site will be found in searches by prospective clients? There’s a short answer and a long answer. But basically, it comes down to improving your site’s rankings in search results.
Rich Content Translates into Hits
Let’s start with the short answer: The best way to improve your position in search results is to have relevant content and multiple links from other Web sites. That’s advice straight from www.google.com, but experience proves it holds true for the other leading search engines as well. Nothing beats rich content, in a new site or a mature one. Google and other search engines award bonus points to sites that offer lots of authoritative information to interested visitors—usable content, not just straightforward facts about the firm and its lawyers.
The fastest route to high rankings is to publish articles of interest to clients. Write about what you do and what you care about. Write about problems that are important to clients. Write exhaustive treatises. Write brief alerts. But write.
Publish the articles on your firm’s site, but be especially sure they’re on other sites and in journals, newsletters, newspapers and conference proceedings, too. Ensure that the author’s name and your firm’s name are attached. Ask for explicit links to your site. Each of those links will raise your search engine profile and increase your chances of being found by users who are searching on your written topics.
The surest route to sustained high rankings is to build a section of your site (or an affiliated site) as a resource for a niche area of the law or industry segment. These pages may include your articles and alerts, as well as industry and government links, statistics, product information and bulletins—enough useful information to get the pages bookmarked and regularly used by clients and prospects.
Now for a longer answer.
Why Does It Take So Long to Get Recognized?
The first weeks after launching a new or reorganized site are critical—and frustrating. Most of the links enjoyed by your old site will be broken when the changeover occurs, and your old links will eventually be purged by the search engines. Establishing new links and reestablishing old ones can’t happen soon enough. But even in the best of circumstances, it may be weeks before your new site’s URL is recognized. And it may be months before you get the rankings you want from relevant searches.
Search technology changes literally every day. And there are vast differences in search methods and consistency of operation from one search engine to another. At the same time, it’s also true that there is extensive sharing of databases. Yet, in spite of all the sharing, each search site plays by its own rules in ranking and ordering the data it acquires.
Search organizations are part human, part cyber. Human editors at most search sites are swimming against an overwhelming tide of new sites to be reviewed. A greater cause of delay, however, is that their search engine robots , also referred to as spiders, learn slowly. They’ll stumble through your new site several times before beginning to accumulate all the connections you hope they’ll make.
The Smartest Search Site Is Also the Slowest Learner
Google accounts for more than 51 percent of Web searches here and abroad. Add the listings that Google supplies to the Yahoo directory, the second-most-used search site, and Google becomes responsible for as much as 80 percent of search traffic.
As the current king, Google garners a lot of attention. To the credit of its managers, popularity hasn’t hurt the quality of its searches. But something had to give, and that was Google’s speed in absorbing new sites. Scoring well on Google takes longer than on the other big search sites. That’s partly because of the logjam created by the hundreds of submissions Google receives each day, and partly because Google does a more thorough job of evaluating and ranking its findings.
To get a running start, you should register with Google on the day you launch your site. Submit an application at google.com within hours after you go online. Then start working at ways to reduce the time it takes to entice Google to index your site.
Four Ways to Jumpstart the Indexing Process
What you need now are links to your site from Web sites other than Google—other search engine sites, as well as legal and business sites that have content related to your practice. Why bother with other sites, your might ask, since Google is so dominant? The obvious reason is that each of the lesser engines (such as AltaVista and Overture) has its own devoted following of visitors—and some of them may turn out to be potential clients and referral sources.
The more-hidden reason is that one of Google’s prime criteria for ranking your site is how many other search sites you’re linked to. Google won’t start moving you up the ladder until you’ve achieved a certain measure of "link popularity." There are four top ways to collect links.
1. Submit your site to every popular search engine and directory. In the directories, make sure you get listed under "legal" and other appropriate categories. To take care of such details, you may want to contract with a site submission service that will automatically submit your URL and key pages to 50 or more of the most-used search sites.
2. Consider paying to be reviewed by directories that offer such an option. Think about Yahoo in particular. Likewise, you might consider Google’s advertising program, which for a fee can guarantee you top position on selected pages.
3. Register at FindLaw.com, Law.com and other legal sites. Create a free Web site at FindLaw and include a link back to your firm’s site.
4. Exchange links with other relevant sites. These "reciprocal" links should be with sites that relate to your practices—for example, professional organizations, clients, trade groups, think tanks, consultants, publishers and educational institutions.
These four approaches will put you near the green, if not on it. Indeed, if you’ve connected with enough external links, particularly links with sites where you’ve placed content, you probably won’t have to worry about the short strokes needed to deal with the traps and hazards called meta tags.
Some of the major search engines don’t read meta tags at all. In many instances, a spider just whistles by the metatags and goes for the real content. But meta tags can be critical in accumulating the initial links that are all-important in building the link popularity that leads to high rankings.
Techniques for Meta Tag Optimization
Meta tags are HTML-coded information that search engine spiders look for as they crawl your site. They consist of a title, a description of the content and a list of keywords on the page. Here’s an example:
XYZ Law Firm: Home Page
meta name="description" content="A full service law firm..."
meta name="keyword" content="top 150 law firms, antitrust, bankruptcy...">
Because each search engine works by its own rules, optimizing for one may actually diminish performance at others. That’s what makes optimization a complex problem. Nevertheless, there are a few meta tag and keyword tactics that should improve your performance on the most popular search sites.
• Settle on your keywords. How many should you have? Some search engines won’t read more than 200 characters—that’s maybe 25 words. But what if you have 25 practice areas, 10 industry specialties and other essential references? It’s a dilemma. Each word you add diminishes the importance (or density) of your most important keywords. But at least go with every practice and industry specialty name, plus a few unusual words that define your firm.
• Be consistent with your keywords. The keywords in the "title" field should also appear in the "description" and "keyword" fields.
• Avoid repeating the same word over and over. When search engines detect keyword "stuffing," they assess penalties that hurt your ranking.
• Consider mini-sites. Many law firm sites, for economy, use the same meta content for every page. A much more effective tactic is to write unique meta descriptions and keywords for every practice area and industry specialty page. In effect, each page becomes a mini-site. However, be aware that while this strategy avoids the keyword limitations just discussed, it significantly increases initial cost. And the follow-up task of maintaining the meta descriptions and keywords as the content on the pages changes can also be costly.
Measure Progress, Adjust Meta Tags, Repeat
Optimization is a trial-and-error process that takes teamwork, ingenuity and persistence. Integral to the process is your IT group, which should be equipped with Web tracking software (such as Website Promoter) and density-checker software.
But the IT group will also need the close support of a lawyer or marketing person with the experience required to make decisions consistent with the firm’s marketing goals. Improving your performance on the search engines requires both strategic (marketing) and tactical (technical) decision-making personnel. As you test combinations of keywords and descriptions, you’ll find that you need both skill sets. Apply those skills in tandem with the optimization pointers here, and you’ll also find more traffic on your Web site.
Burkey Belser (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a principal of Greenfield/Belser Ltd., a Web site design firm in Washington, DC.
SIDEBAR, p. 43
Macromedia Flash has turned Web designers into animation wizards. The world turns, the baby dances, the flag waves, the frog morphs into a prince. Nearly everyone is drawn to the memorable effects possible in well-designed Flash sites. Everyone, that is, except search engine spiders.
Until recently, most search engines did not index dynamically generated pages. That’s because a Flash page can cause a spider to enter a loop from which it can’t escape. To prevent that problem, spiders have been programmed to turn away from Flash pages and run to the next site on their list. Slowly, that is changing. In the meantime, Web site developers are devising ways to beat the problem.
A top solution is to link a "shadow" HTML page to each Flash page. When Greenfield/ Belser designs and codes a Flash site or a site that includes Flash-driven pages, we insert code that intercepts the spider before it hits a Flash page, guiding the spider instead to meta tags and meta content on a shadow page (invisible to human browsers), which the spider reads and indexes just as if it were an HTML site.
• Check the resources at www.google .com, particularly the FAQs, which contain insights and plain talk about the workings of the best search sites.
• Go to www.searchenginewatch.com for updates on the tactics of the leading search engines, plus well-written information on searching and being found.
• At www.spider-food.net, you’ll find a wealth of Web site optimization tips, as well as software that can make it easy to monitor your progress in reaching the leading search engines.