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BT DOTCOM: DIRECTORIES
How To Be A Good Search-Engine Driver

They offer high visibility. but then, just like the number of sites, there are a million ways to make it to the top in search-engine listings. Some fair, others not so fair. A BT ride on the web rails.

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This meeting is not clicking, methinks. Not at all. The 20-something owner of an education site is intense and evangelistic about his upcoming portal. Come to think of it, staring at second-round funding three months into the business, I would be too. But mentally preparing for the long drive home, I politely go through the motions: business model (interesting, but possibly premature); revenue model (there, but somewhere in the future); profits (firmly in the future)... and then, he leans to one side, and smiles: ''We've done a lot of research on how to get top ranking on search engines...'' Uhuh. Yet another search-engine buster.

Since search-engines first strode across the Net space like juggernauts, this has been an unequal, continuing, and enduring battle. At one corner, you have the people who run these engines-the men and women who decide which sites get listed and in what order. And, on the other, there are countless web-site developers constantly trying to get one up by reconfiguring their own code to produce better results for their sites.

Can the system be tweaked? Can a site engineer to get a better ranking on a search engine? In the early days of the world wide web, this was possible, and easy. Now, with close to a billion pages indexed by search engines-estimates point to another billion waiting in the wings-it's no walk in the park. Particularly, as expectations are so, so high. ''Most companies would typically like to come in the top three in the search-engine listings,'' says Vaiteeshwaran, 34, Veep, Fabmart.com. Adds Sankarson Banerjee, 30, Executive Director, Indbazaar.com: ''Search-engines are a major source of traffic to the site, so it is a very good idea to register, especially with the 10-15 major ones.''

The bottomline: there aren't a web of 'engine secrets' to guarantee a top listing. There are, however, a number of small changes a site developer can make to sometimes yield great results.

Web-sites usually begin by registering at search-engines, a necessary, but time-consuming process. Engines usually take between 48 hours to six weeks to put up the site. It's fairly automatic in machine-indexed engines such as Altavista.com, though in human-indexed directories like Yahoo, editorial quality plays a major role. A crucial factor lies in telling search-engines under what category a site should be listed. Determining the right category is the key here. For only then will the search-engines give a good ranking. Agrees Dhruv Sharma 40, CEO, 123India.com: ''Protocol requires an objective approach to the listing of the submission request.''

On that note, can one pay the engines to speed up the process? It's expensive. For $199, a web-site can get a quick answer from Yahoo.com and LookSmart.com. There's always the option of outsourcing this process to sites like Submitexpress.com, which handle everything-for a fee, of course. Is it necessary? Well, usually services offered by search engines are free. Opines Mohana Pillai, 44, President, Pacific Internet (India): ''You can do it free, but the chances are that the site might not be listed.'' Why, one can buy a ranking at GoTo.com, AltaVista.com, AskJeeves.com, and several other search engines.

Closely linked to categorisation of the site are MetaTags, a place in the html code where information about the page can be listed, as well as keywords describing the content of the page. Search-engines use algorithms to search for MetaTags, on the basis of which web-sites are thrown up during search results. For instance, Fabmart's MetaTag for the music page is (as of today) 'India's finest on-line music store'. There is, however, a lot of competition for single words. ''There are million of sites talking about homework,'' laments Apoorv Misra, 26, Chief Technology Officer, Classteacher.com.

That's when the game begins. The search-engines keep on changing the relevance ratings based on MetaTags. For example, if you search for a phrase of five words, web-sites with MetaTags using all five words will be most relevant, those with four words a little less relevant, and so on. But then, the sites also play their own game. They also keep changing their MetaTags, frequently, based on the feedback they get from surfers. It is important, however, for web-sites to avoid search-engine spamming-repeating a keyword many times on a page.

Key Is The Word

Search-engine busters

Choose  the category for listing your site very carefully. Here lies the key
Relevant communication, and good content, will work with directory engines
Keep polishing the site's MetaTags, but don't even think of spamming
Trace the frequency and positioning of keywords to determine relevance
There are none that work all the time, across sites. Build a great site instead

But then, MetaTags are only part of the big (search) picture. Pages with keywords appearing in the title are assumed to be more relevant than others to the topic. How many times a keyword appears in the document, in what locations, and in what format... all contribute to the results of the search. For instance, some search-engines look for keywords on the top of the page; others tend to look for how many keywords appear through the page.

Then, some engines adopt the strategy of linking popularity to grade sites, the assumption being that a page with many links to it is probably well-regarded on the Net. Link-based popularity is very important at the hot search site of the moment, Google.com. For human-compiled indices, such as Yahoo.com, a strategy of writing to the category editor to upgrade a site's ranking, backed by suitable alterations in content and design, is a good idea.

To sum up, the search strategies vary from one site to another. Remember that there is no one-size-fits-all model here. Lycos, for instance, doesn't even consider MetaTags in its search rating. Try selling a poor content site to a category editor at Yahoo. Even creating dummy sites to link to the target site (to get on to google.com) is a short-sighted strategy. By tweaking search engines-through dubious means, I may add-a site runs the risk of getting offloaded. Out of site, out of mind. No one fully knows the secret of the search-indexing business. However, a popular site that gets a lot of direct hits is known to work in this business.

-Aparna Ramalingam

 

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