Dennis Kennedy is a lawyer and Internet consultant in St. Louis, Missouri. He speaks and writes frequently on Internet topics.
Q: How Do I Get My Firm’s Web Site Listed on Search Engines?
Dennis Kennedy (DK): Getting accepted by a search engine and getting and maintaining a good placement is more an art than a science. I tried steadily for four years to get my estate planning page listed on Yahoo and never was successful. This question really comes up when firms get their sites listed on search engines but not in the ways that they expect. For example, it still surprises me when Dennis Miller’s Web site is higher on the list in response to a search on “Dennis Kennedy” than my Web site is.
Brenda Howard (BH): I agree and to make it worse, it used to be FREE everywhere. It seems that the only way I can get my clients listed in Yahoo is to “pay” their $195 fee for a seven day turn around on the review. Even then, you don’t get what you want and are at the mercy of their editors in determining the category that your site falls under. One client sells artwork, corporate gifts and engraved items. I requested a listing under all three categories – yet Yahoo placed the site under corporate gifts and wouldn’t list the site under the other two categories. It’s very frustrating, even if you pay for the service.
Jerry Lawson (JL): First of all, let’s distinguish between directories (organized lists of links compiled by humans) and search engines (searchable databases of sites, generated mostly or entirely by software called “spiders” that index Web sites automatically). Different techniques are needed to appeal to spiders as opposed to human indexers. Yahoo has a search engine component at their site, but the heart of their operation is the human-generated index.
Getting listed at Yahoo has become difficult, as their human staff of indexers tries to keep pace with the phenomenal growth of the Internet. This is a problem, because Yahoo is by far the most popular single search site. Being listed in Yahoo is a giant promotional advantage. They now promise to process requests more rapidly (though not necessarily giving more favorable results) in exchange for a cash payment. As Brenda’s experience shows, this does not always work as well as it might.
DK: That program is the tip of the iceberg in some experimentation that is happening with “pay for placement” schemes.
JL: The best advice I can give you on being listed at Yahoo is to make your site look like it would be a significant help to someone who was interested in a particular area of law. Remember, the Yahoo editors’ main goal is to compile an organized list of useful sites. While this is necessary, it may not be sufficient. Dennis’ estate planning site met this criteria. One thing that MIGHT have helped get it into Yahoo would have been getting a custom domain name for your estate planning site. This is a way of saying, “This is not a casual hobbyist site. I am serious about this topic and reliable.”
DK: I agree with your diagnosis, Jerry. It’s one more example why a law firm should have a first-level domain name (like www.yourfirmname.com).
BH: Most definitely. Yahoo won’t even let you “pay” to have your site listed if it isn’t a top level domain name. They don’t want the “here today and gone tomorrow” Web sites that people create and then abandone.
DK: The major search engines can take a few weeks or a few months to get you listed – something that surprises many people. By major search engines, I mean AltaVista, Excite, HotBot, Lycos and the other standard search engines people commonly use. For me, the key resource about the major search engines is the Search Engine Watch Web site. It analyzes in great detail how the search engines work and changes in their approaches, like the recent controversial experiment by a few search engines to allow sites to pay for a placement in the top few returns on key words. It’s an eye-opener, especially for those who haven’t realized that you need to submit your URL to search engines to be included in them.
Learning the nuances of the various search engines can really help you get the types of listings you want.
JL: There are many businesses that advertise they will submit your registration information to hundreds of search engines. Even if these are very cheap–they are probably not a good investment. Most of them only send out form e-mails, which some search engines disregard completely. Some search engines that will consider them, but give them lower priority. Such businesses are good at one thing: increasing the amount of unsolicited commercial e-mail, or spam, that you receive.
BH: It definitely increases the amount of spam that the website owner receives. I do use an automatic submission software program, but it’s a top of the line program. It contacts each search engine/directory individually and presents a page as if it were hand submitted. Even so, I still re-submit, by hand for the top 10 search engines. It’s the only way to guarantee that you’ll get into the search engine.
DK: I concur that the “automatic” search engine submission services are not a good idea. I prefer to submit to each search engine individually. Usually it’s as simple as clicking on a “submit URL” button and filling out information about your site. I like to take advantage of the opportunity some search engines give you to describe your site. That summary often is what is listed when your site appears in response to a search request. Writing that description gives you more control and allows you to say things like: “This excellent resource . . . .”
Any other specific tips?
BH: Yes. Submissions must be repeated. A regular program of submitting, then resubmitting new pages on the site will keep your listings higher on the search engine returns. Submitting the same Web site address too many times may get your site “banned” from a search engine, but submitting new pages each week will not – assuming that you submit less than 50 pages in a 24 hour period. Not every search engine follows this guideline, but it’s a safe guideline to use.
Since very few law firm sites have more than 50 individual pages, you could submit a specific page every day of the month and assure that your entire site has coverage in any given search engine. Some people are under the misguided opinion that a visitor MUST enter a site from the home page. This simply isn’t true. Each person comes to a site for a different reason and may only be interested in the one page on bankruptcy that came up in the listings. That’s fine; let the visitor enter from this page. Make sure you have your contact information or an email link on each page and they’ll contact you if your content has compelled them to do so.
DK: Making sure you put your firm name in the title of the page, making sure the firm name is in the text of the main page (not just in a graphic) and use of metatags all are useful standard techniques that will serve you well. By the way, search engines are dynamic and you can rise and fall in rankings and even drop off search engines. Tracking your listings in search engines should be part of your regular site maintenance schedule.
JL: Designing a page to so that it is spider-friendly is very much an art. Techniques that cause you to rate highly with one search engine can actually hurt you with others. For this reason, some firms establish “bridge pages” that are designed specifically to appeal to particular search engines. These bridge pages all funnel traffic to the firm’s main entry point.
Watch out for snake oil. There are a number of businesses that claim that through some secret technique, they can guarantee a high ranking. It is nearly always a good idea to avoid those who make such claims. Some of their techniques can cause your site to be banned by search engines. One example would be including multiple repetitions of key words in the title block or text of your page. Sometimes they try to hide the repetitions by specifying their font color to be the same as the background of the page. This causes the text to be invisible to humans under normal conditions. Search engine operators are trying to crack down on “index spamming” techniques like these and others, and sometimes ban the firms using them, or otherwise penalize them.
Some technical tricks can help, if you know what you are doing, but the most reliable technique for getting good rankings in search engines and human-compiled indices is to have relevant content. If you want to attract people interested in bankruptcy, for example, have articles about bankruptcy. These will include the relevant key words, so you can get a high ranking without risking being ruled an “index spammer.”
BH: Jerry you are exactly correct. There is a fine line between getting a high ranking for your site and becoming a “spammer”. Some people do not realize this until their sites are banned from several search engines. Since the “rules” of each search engine are different, Dennis’s reference to reading http://www.searchenginewatch.com becomes mandatory reading. They list all of the different quirks and rules in one place. They even have a bulletin board area for each search engine and you can find out when search engines have gone down, lost all of their database information or have other problems that could prevent a listing, no matter how many times you register your site. There’s a difference in aggressive and assertive registration of your site. A consistent weekly program following all the rules is the assertive way of getting listed without getting banned.