Chapter 9: Search
Tricky BusinessThe tricks employed by search engine specialists are numerous and change all the time. Many ideas are simple add-ons to normal Web design techniques. For example, many designers rely on invisible pixel shims to force layout. Search engine promoters might say, "Why not put alt attributes on these images to improve things." Imagine, for instance, having the following all over your page:
<img src="pixel.gif" alt="robot butler robot butler robot butler" />Pity the user who pauses on top of one of these invisible pixels only to have a ToolTip pop up screaming about whatever the page is promoting. Spamming pages with invisible text, small text, and multiple images, or just loading the <meta> or <title> tags, are not the most sophisticated tricks, but they often work.
Other tricks include the infamous "bait and switch," where a special search engine page is created and then posted to a search engine. Once the ranking is high, the bait page is replaced with a real page built for users. A more complicated version of this could be dubbed "feeding the dogs"(or page or site cloaking). In this scenario, you write a program that senses when a search engine hits the site, and then the program "feeds" the engine the page that it wants to see. Like a ravenous dog, it gobbles up the food with no idea it just ate the equivalent of informational pig snouts. As real users hit the site, they aren't served the dog food, but get the real site.
Distinguishing search engines from regular users isn't terribly difficult, since the engines identify themselves and come from consistent IP addresses. In reality, "feeding the dogs" is just a modified form of browser detection. Search engines can do little to combat this approach, since they would have to consider eliminating dynamically built pageswhich is impossible given their growing importanceor not informing sites that they are search engines while indexing. A few search engines have already begun to provide a link to a page that shows what was indexed, so users can determine if they are being shown something different than what a search engine indexed. Others revisit the page in multiple guises and see if things are dramatically different; if they are, cloaking is considered to be in play and the page is dropped. Of course, this may just be because the page is dynamically created; thus, many search robots will tend to exclude pages with complex URLs, like www.democompany.com/products.cfm?robots= army&cost=expensive. In order to address this, some site owners will rewrite page URLs to make them more search engine friendly. We'll address that in Chapter 17, on site delivery.
The problem with all the search engine promotion ideas is that they tempt the designer to stop building pages for users and start building them for search engines. This is just another form of designing more for your own needs than for your users.
Rule: Do not design pages solely to attract search engines, as, ultimately, pages are for people.One of the most interesting aspects about search engines is that many large organizations don't rely greatly on them for driving traffic. In fact, for many corporations, unless you type their name in directly, you'll be hard pressed to find them in a search engine. However, despite what appears to be a major oversight on their part, these sites continue to get huge amounts of traffic. According to studies such as the GVU Internet Survey, people type in URLs directly quite often.
How are they finding out about sites? Search engines aren't the only way to drive traffic. There are many ways to get users to visit your site. Banner ads, link exchanges, news group postings, mass e-mailings, and easily typed and remembered domain names all are well-known approaches to traffic generation. However, one increasingly popular way to attract visitors is to rely on things outside the Internet. Television, radio, print, billboard, direct mail, and a variety of other venues are being used to spread the address of the latest Web site.
This is by no means a complete discussion of search engine promotion, as the topic literally changes on a weekly basis. Readers looking for more up-to-date information are directed to the numerous site promotion sites that exist on the Web, especially Search Engine Watch (www.searchenginewatch.com).
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