Live from ACC: Websites Under the Microscope

Orlando, FL–The search engine marketing practices of a number of Websites were put under a microscope of sorts at the Annual Catalog Conference’s Search Engine Marketing Lab. The first specimen to be examined was Bloomingdales.com. According to a company employee in the audience, the apparel merchant is having a difficult time deciding whether to direct shoppers from search engines to the main Website’s home page or to a separate online catalog page.

“For pretty much every site, splitting domain names can really hurt,” said Amanda Watlington, Ph.D., president of Charlestown, MA-based online search consultancy Searching for Profit and one of the marketing professionals serving as a “lab technician.” Such domain splits, in which customers interested in shopping from the online catalog are taken to a specially named subsection, can hurt search engine optimization (SEO) efforts because the engine takes searchers to the subdomain page instead of the home page, lowering the ranking of the home page, and also confusing customers who might not realize that the page they’ve been directed to is part of the official site.

One reason subdomain names within the site aren’t effective for SEO, said Detlev Johnson, vice president, consulting services for Geneva, IL-based Web IT firm Position Technologies, is that search engines have begun to realize the propensity of spam coming from subdomain pages. “We used to say [sub-domain pages] could give you a lift, but there’s been so much subdomain-level spam that search engines have started penalizing you for them.”

Another apparel merchant, Silhouettes.com, needs to optimize only the elements on its home page that it would want a search engine to pick up, said Heather Lloyd-Martin, director of search strategies for Bellingham, WA-based online consultancy WebSourced. Since anything on the page, from the “order online” tab to the company’s privacy policy, might get picked up as an identifying site description by a search engine, she suggested putting information you don’t want an engine to crawl in the form of a graphic, as search engines are designed to read text rather than images.

In particular, said Johnson, Flash technology takes search optimization problems your site may be experiencing and “multiplies them by 10…. Flash should only be used as a self-contained add-on to a page, never as a navigation or splash page,” he stressed. “It breaks up the fundamental interactive style of HTML.”

When it comes to text, the company’s name at the top of the site needs a tagline or a punchy description of what it sells, said Lloyd-Martin. “Silhouettes is your company name to you, but to me it’s a very generic word,” she pointed out. The home page features images to describe its niche, but that’s not enough for text-loving search engines, said Gord Hotchkiss, president/ CEO of Kelowna, British Columbia-based search engine consultancy EnQuiro.

To make it more likely that a shopper searching for the specific item will be taken directly to the page on the site selling the product, Johnson advised embedding relevant keywords for the product in the page’s URL. Since search engines reward sites that make it easier for the shopper, URLs with identifying keywords are given a higher ranking.

“You want to simplify URL name spaces. If a user lands on a long URL [lacking keywords], they’re not going to know where they are,” said Johnson. Creating unique title tags for each page is well worth it, he said, and doing so shouldn’t be beyond the capabilities of your company’s IT worker or department. “It’s something that’s perfectly reasonable to ask an IT team to do, and the benefit is tremendous, nearly overnight.”

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