The Search is on

The SEO landscape is constantly shifting. What used to be considered a best practice two years ago may very well be irrelevant today, simply because Web-based technology and search engine algorithms are always evolving.

Plus, a “best practice” isn’t necessarily a hard and fast rule for every site. What SEO experts proclaim to be critical advice might be invaluable for one site — and a waste of time for another.

How do you navigate your way through the promises, uncertainties, and red herrings of SEO best practices? Testing is the key to achieving scalable SEO nirvana on your site. By monitoring and retesting specific SEO enhancements, you validate their benefit and appropriateness for your e-commerce site.

While conversion may be the hot topic for online retailers and marketers, having a well-optimized Website and e-commerce platform that facilitates your pages being efficiently crawled, indexed, and ranked is equally important. With a little upfront polishing, your site can really shine, offering its products to searchers and devoted customers alike.

By implementing SEO best practices — with particular emphasis on those reaching the “lowest hanging fruit” — you can extend your brand reach significantly through organic search.

Consider these proven strategies as a starting point for your SEO testing regimen.

CRITICAL best practices

301 Redirects: In SEO, duplicate content is the bane of any Website owner’s existence. There is one common mistake that can result in two copies of your site getting indexed by the search engines: having one URL containing “www” and one that does not.

Take a look at your Website’s domain. Let’s say you own Now, type in without the “www.” If your site does not redirect to “,” you’ve fallen into a common SEO trap.

If it does redirect, you’re not out of the woods yet. You’ll need to use a server header checker (like the one at to ensure it is a 301 redirect, not a 302. Only a 301 passes PageRank to the destination URL. If not, take a few minutes to address this critical issue through a 301 redirect to the “canonical” (or original) URL and rest assured your PageRank will flow to the right place.

URLs free of tracking parameters and session IDs: Does your URL structure look something like this: www.mystore/pagegen.asp?product=123&session=107342587867&source=usatoday_ad? Pages with URLs that contain session IDs or tracking parameters are deadly to SEO because they result in duplicate content and PageRank dilution. If you’re unable to ditch the session IDs or tracking parameters, you can still eliminate this SEO problem with conditional redirects or “good cloaking.”

Static-looking URLs: The most palatable URLs to spiders are the ones that look like they lead to static pages. That’s because the spiders are less likely to end up in a “spider trap” — an infinite loop where the spider unwittingly follows links to the same content but at varying URLs.

So you may want to reconsider your URLs if they look something like;456;789, for example. A more search-engine-friendly URL would be

You can achieve such static-looking URLs when you run a dynamic Website by rewriting your URLs with a server module/plugin like mod_rewrite (for Apache) or ISAPI_Rewrite (for Microsoft IIS Server) or by recoding your scripts to obtain the necessary parameters from the URL’s path info instead of its query string. If your company is IT-resource constrained, you can enlist a proxy-based solution like GravityStream to incorporate SEO best practices with minimal involvement from your IT team.

Content written in the searchers’ vocabulary: All too often, online retailers are stuck using industry-specific language that searchers may not be familiar with. For example, are you selling “kitchen electrics?” Do you really think anyone is typing that phrase into Google?

Keyword research tools like and can tell you what keywords are being searched. Your page content should reflect the searcher’s vocabulary — in the title tag, H1 tag, page content, and internal backlinks.

One easy way to speak your customers’ language is to get them to write content for you. Incorporate consumer-generated content such as product reviews and discussion forums into your site — and ensure that the content is readable by search engine spiders. (Some third-party product-review services insert the reviews into your product pages using JavaScript, which is unreadable by spiders.)

Optimized title tags: The text within your site’s page title is given more weight by the search engines than any other text on your page. Don’t squander this opportunity. Many companies lead with their brand name at the beginning of the title tag, on all their site’s pages (e.g., “Your Store : Bedding : Kids’ Comforters”). By inverting the elements of the title tag, you make the most important keywords the more prominent ones (e.g., “Kids’ Comforters : Bedding :”).

For best results, write hand-crafted title tags that aren’t simply regurgitations of the product name and/or category name (e.g., “Kids’ Comforters, Quilts, Covers and Throws and other Bedding for Children”). By making each title tag unique and keyword-rich, you help the search engine spiders understand the page’s keyword focus.

Use Google’s Webmaster Tools at (sign up for a free account if you don’t already have one) and look up what Google is reporting about your title tags. Google notes how many pages have duplicate titles and whether any are too long or too short.

This can be helpful in finding the pages on your site that may need additional intervention to improve after you’ve tried to individualize everything. An even quicker trick is to do a “” query on Google (replace yourstore with your own domain name), setting your display preferences to 100 results per page, then doing a quick scan through those search results to ensure the titles displayed in the search listings are unique, keyword-rich and compelling. If not, get to work!

H1 tags: One “on-page” SEO element critical to your site’s SEO health is to ensure that you use one keyword-rich H1 tag per page. In HTML, there are six heading tags, H1 through H6. The search engines consider H1 tags to be more important than the rest of the body copy.

Some Web developers believe that H1 tags look ugly — big, bold text that sticks out like a sore thumb and interferes with the look and feel of a brand. But that doesn’t have to be the case. The H1 tag’s font, size, color and amount of surrounding white space can all be defined using style sheets and integrated seamlessly to look good for your brand.

DESIRABLE best practices

Keywords in your URLs: Short keyword-rich URLs usually help boost rankings for those keywords. Netconcepts tested more than 600 shortened keyword URLs through our GravityStream platform.

For example, instead of!sf.htm, we rewrote it to a keyword URL that looked like The result was a significant improvement in rankings and traffic.

RSS feeds: If you have engaging, time-sensitive content, you should be publishing RSS feeds to push out that content to subscribers and feed search engines as it gets added. Use an RSS feed analytics solution, such as Feedburner, to track your feed subscribers, reads and clickthroughs, but ensure it’s your own domain represented in the URL, not your analytics provider’s. If you have one or more RSS feeds, ping the blog and feed search engines to let them know you have published new content in your RSS feeds.

Breadcrumb navigation: Breadcrumb links refer to a “trail” of category and subcategory links on your site; they often appear just beneath the masthead. Keyword-rich breadcrumb links reinforce your site’s internal hierarchical linking structure to the search engines, as well as enhancing your site’s usability. Breadcrumb navigation might look like: “Online Catalogue > Home Furnishings > Lighting > Table Lamps.”

Unique meta descriptions for every page: It’s highly desirable to improve the snippet that’s displayed in your search listings, as it improves the clickthrough from the search results. Let’s say you’re an online retailer of expensive men’s suits. Typing the phrase into your search engine, you see that your title tag is displayed correctly, but the snippet reads something like: “men’s suits, mens suits, buy a suit, wool suits, find a black suit, brown suit.”

You quickly scan the rest of the listings and see that your competitor’s snippet reads: “Are you looking for a well-tailored men’s suit? Our brand features high-quality men’s suits in a variety of fabrics to fit your needs.” Which one do you feel is more enticing to a potential buyer? Through your meta descriptions, you can influence the snippets that are displayed to offer better, more compelling “mini-advertisements” to searchers through your search listings. Note that Google’s Webmaster Tools can report not only on title tags, but also meta descriptions.

Tagging and tag clouds: Tagging offers an alternative form of site navigation that is based on keyword-rich text links — perfect for SEO. Products can be organized into groups by keywords or tags. Those keywords can then be displayed as navigation using what’s called a “tag cloud.”

In a tag cloud, the font size of each keyword is proportionate to the number of times that keyword has been used as a tag, so the more products associated with a keyword, the bigger the keyword is displayed in the cloud. (For an example, check out the bottom of the home page at

A key benefit to using tagging is that it allows large, e-commerce sites to inject keyword-rich text links higher up in the site tree, so search engine spiders don’t have to dig deep into your site to find things like coffee makers and potholders. Remember, the higher up a page is linked in the site tree, the more PageRank it will inherit.

Keyword-rich intro copy on category-level pages: If you take a look at any e-commerce site, you’ll notice category pages are often very graphically-intensive but target popular terms. Keyword-rich body introductory copy helps set a stable keyword theme for the page, rather than relying on the latest and hottest featured products being the most prominent text on the page. Adding just a few sentences of keyword-rich, descriptive intro copy to support the page’s keyword focus can mean higher search rankings and increased traffic.

Keyword-rich text links for navigation: Most e-commerce sites are overly reliant on graphical tabs, buttons and images. Google, Yahoo and Live Search (MSN) all associate the anchor text in the link as highly relevant to the page it’s being linked with. Use good keywords in the anchor text to help the engine better ascertain the theme of the page you are linking to. By incorporating keyword-rich text links into your site’s navigation, you reinforce searcher vocabulary throughout your site.

Nofollows on low-value internal links: Most sites have pages that serve mostly an administrative purpose, like terms and conditions, privacy and security policy, legal notices, and view cart. Such pages, while essential, have little SEO value. By “nofollowing” (adding “rel=nofollow”) to these types of links, you will direct the flow of PageRank to travel more deeply into other, more important (from an SEO standpoint) pages of your site.

For example, retailers often have a link to a “hacker safe” page hosted by a third party. By employing a “nofollow” in the URL (a rel=“nofollow” href=“”>) you will save more of your PageRank to spend on the other links on your home page, such as your category pages and featured products.

Another type of “low-value” internal link is a text link that has a word or phrase like “more” and “additional info” in the anchor text. If you also have a keyword-rich text link leading to the same page (like the name of the product), try “nofollowing” the “read more” link because it isn’t providing the search engines with good context.

Unique product copy: All too often, merchants rely on descriptions from manufacturers for their product-level pages. Thus, the same product description is on the sites of numerous retailers, providing duplicate content to the search engines and subjecting your site to the engine’s duplicate content filter. By paraphrasing your product content and/or augmenting the manufacturer description with value-added text, you improve your chances for traffic.

Once you’ve tested these SEO best practices, it’s time to implement these features according to what is scalable for you. One way to introduce scalable, on-page optimization is through “thin slicing,” a concept popularized in the book Blink. Author Malcolm Gladwell notes how over-thinking and over-analyzing can actually sabotage your good judgment, forcing you to make a wrong decision. “Thin slicing” is the idea that humans can rely on common sense and intuition to make decisions based on the “thinnest slice” of our experiences.

When you’re going through a 100,000-page Website, “thin slicing” allows you to make very quick modifications to the most important elements on the page — like the title tag and the H1 header — without getting bogged down on keyword research, strategy or on the rest of the page’s elements. Just as Website owners fall into the trap of not paying enough attention to their overall SEO, there is such a thing as “over-doing” your SEO.

It is quite possible to attract unwanted scrutiny from the search engines because you’ve over-optimized your site and its pages so perfectly that it doesn’t appear natural to the engines anymore. Even though you may not have intended to, it looks like you’ve specifically engineered your site to manipulate the search engine algorithms to achieve higher rankings.

Look at scalable actions that will help your company achieve a happy medium. SEO is undeniably essential to natural search. On the other hand, it’s also important to manage your SEO efforts if you want to turn your pages into gold.

Stephan Spencer is founder/president of Madison, WI-based SEO agency Netconcepts.

The Search Is On…

Van Dyke’s Restorers is pretty happy with the results of its site redesign. With a 450% increase in traffic within three months and a 500% leap in revenue, why wouldn’t the Woonsocket, SD-based cataloger be happy? What’s more, the redesign didn’t involve major changes to the Website offering. All that the marketer of woodworking and furniture restoration supplies had to do was optimize the site so that the company could take advantage of one of the most frequently missed e-marketing opportunities: search engine marketing.

Search engine marketing is the ultimate targeted, low-cost, high-return weapon in the i.merchant’s promotional arsenal. Search engines offer unrivalled exposure to the broader Web audience and allow businesses to reach people who are seeking the products and services they offer. And search engine listings are a more effective space for promoting your business to those people, who are six times more likely to click on a search engine listing than on a banner ad.

Yet most marketers know much more about banner advertising than about what”s needed to do to make their Website search-engine-friendly.

Key phrases are key

The first step in developing a search-engine-friendly site is choosing the right focus for your Web pages. You need to identify the keywords and phrases most relevant to and popular with your target audience, and then incorporate them into your site.

Search engines index a staggering number of Web pages. To generate a meaningful amount of traffic you need to be listed on the first or second page of search results. And achieving this for a one-word search will be next to impossible. You will just be one of thousands of sites vying for those top positions.

At the same time, Internet users learn over time to refine their searches to get more-relevant results. Someone searching for “digital camera reviews” instead of “cameras” will get a fraction of the search results, and those results will be much more useful to them.

For those reasons, you should focus on two or three key phrases rather than individual words. Achieving a top-10 position for a search phrase such as “digital camera reviews” is a more attainable goal than gaining the equivalent position for “cameras” — and it will yield much more qualified traffic.

A number of resources can assist you in identifying the most popular of relevant keywords and phrases. For instance, search engine listings provider offers a “search term suggestion tool” that will tell you how many times a particular word or phrase was searched for by its users during the past month. A car dealer would discover that the keyword “car” is more than five times as popular as the keyword “auto.” And a clothing retailer would find that “clothing” is 30% more popular than “clothes” and nearly twice as popular as “apparel.”

If you have a single keyword in mind, you can use the free Overture tool to suggest good key phrases to target, ranked in order of popularity. For example, enter “clothing” and you”ll be presented with related key phrases such as “baby clothing,” “kids clothing,” and “plus-size clothing.”

Be aware that Overture’s suggestion tool has shortcomings. First, because Overture auctions off keywords on its site to marketers, the results are skewed by the number of times keyword buyers check their rankings to adjust their bids. Furthermore, Overture combines singular and plural forms together, along with popular misspellings, then displays the aggregate number alongside only the singular form.

Using the Overturn tool in conjunction with others like WordTracker allows you to go even further in your keyword research to uncover relative popularities between singular and plural forms and misspellings. A subscription service that costs about $200 a year, WordTracker bases its results on data collected from the meta-search engines MetaCrawler and Dogpile. Using WordTracker, the owner of a bed-and-breakfast would learn that “accommodation” is more than five times as popular as “accommodations” and that the misspelling “accomodation” is nearly as popular as the correct spelling.

Beyond the mere presence of the appropriate words on your site”s Web pages, where on the pages those words appear is critical as well. The higher up on the page, the more weight the keyword receives. This makes intuitive sense, as a page that leads off with “Maori art” is much more likely to be relevant to the topic of Maori art than a page that displays “Maori art” in the last paragraph.

But appearances can be deceiving. Often the keyword-rich body copy appears to the user to be at the top of the page, when in actuality Javascripts, tables, and image maps may be pushing the copy quite far down in the HTML source code, which is what the search engines read. A search-engine-savvy HTML programmer can strip out unnecessary code and reorganize the code that remains so that your body copy is more prominent.

“Every page has a song,” says search engine marketing guru Danny Sullivan, meaning that every page has a unique composition that can be fine-tuned. Don’t try to cram every keyword and phrase imaginable onto your home page. Instead, make each page of your site “sing” for its unique topic.

An online music store, for instance, would do much better to optimize its “jazz” page, its “Craig David” page, and so on than to try to incorporate all the artists whose music it sells as keywords on its home page.

Weave a web of links

Key phrases aren”t the sole determinant of search engine prominence. Links matter too. A network of sites that link to your site will not only drive traffic in their own right, but they will also increase your “link popularity.” Search engines use link popularity to indicate the worth of a site”s content. They consider sites with many links from other sites more likely to be relevant to a search and therefore rank those sites higher.

Industry heavyweight Google uses its proprietary PageRank system to place the most emphasis on links from sites that it considers “important.” In other words, links from sites possessing better PageRank scores will be given more weight and have a greater positive effect on your position in the search results. You can check your PageRank rating with the Google Toolbar (

To boost your link popularity, submit listings for your Website with major directories such as Yahoo!, Open Directory (, and LookSmart. Also request that niche sites and vertical portals in your industry link to your site.

Sites that link to your competitors are also good targets. You can find many of these sites quickly using MarketLeap”s link popularity checker (

Stay away from automated submission bots that promise submissions to thousands of search engines and directories. You will be paying for submissions to totally irrelevant or defunct Websites. And reputable search engines tend to ignore or penalize bulk submissions.

Likewise, resist the temptation to boost your link popularity by submitting to “free for all” links pages. These are simply pages that are full of links — you submit your Web address and are automatically added. Search engines discount these pages too. (In fact, some search engines, such as Google, are known to “punish” sites for associating with them.)

It is far better to spend time establishing reciprocal links with sites that offer content complementary to yours. Alternatively, developing an affiliate program, in which you reward sites that link to yours, can improve your site”s link popularity.

HTML to warm a search engine”s heart

Okay, you”ve identified the key phrases you need to focus on and made them prominent in your Website copy. You”ve made your site Miss Popularity in terms of links with other sites. Now what? Time to make sure that the HTML code that makes up your pages includes search-engine-friendly elements:

Title tag

This is the most critical HTML element on your Web page for search engine rankings. A good page title is 5-13 words long with important keywords placed near or at the beginning. The title tag serves a dual purpose: Compelling wording makes it a call to action on the search results page and it acts as a heading for the page in browser windows and bookmarks listings.

Heading tags (H1 and H2)

Search engines consider text in heading tags a good indicator of what a page is about and the searches for which it will be relevant. Say you have a page selling men”s apparel and accessories. Instead of an H1 headline that reads “Select an item below for further details,” you”d be better off with a headline that says “Men”s apparel and accessories.”

Alt tags

Only Google and AltaVista support them, but alt tags are a key element in creating an accessible site. Search engines can”t “read” images, including navigation elements, and streaming media. Alt tags serve as alternate, readable text for the search engines.

Hyperlink text

Google considers link text to be highly relevant to the linked page. Changing all your “click here” links within your site to keyword-rich phrases will boost your rankings for those keywords. For instance, instead of “For corporate gift baskets, click here,” with the link embedded in “click here,” consider “Explore our selection of corporate gift baskets” with “corporate gift baskets” as the hyperlink text.


Most of the major search engines now ignore them, but Inktomi (which provides secondary results for MSN Search), AltaVista, and SearchNZ will still index meta-descriptions and/or meta-keywords. Make sure they reflect the page content, or you may be accused of “spamming.”

Design that works

The truly optimized Website does not merely incorporate search-engine friendliness as an add-on; such friendliness is built in from the ground up. Certain design elements make every page of your site accessible to search engine spiders (the software that search engines use to explore and download sites). Your site should offer:

  • access to every important page on your site via simple text links from the spider”s starting point

    — typically your home page. Search engines have difficulty following links that rely on Flash or Javascript.

  • a site map that uses text links.
  • no “stop characters” (?, &, +, =, %, cgi-bin) in URLs.

    Stop characters are rampant on “dynamic” sites that are connected to databases. Search engines have difficulty indexing and following links from these pages.

  • flat directory structure.

    Many spiders seldom go beyond the third or fourth level of your site, or more than three or four subdirectories deep.

  • file names and directory names that include good keywords.

Now, about those worst practices…

Even top catalogers can fall victim to worst practices when it comes to search engine optimization. These practices can be broken down into two categories: technology use and misuse, and sneaky practices or “spam.” We”ll start with poor technology choices:

Navigation uses dropdown boxes

Search engines cannot fill out forms. So pages available only through a dropdown menu will not be indexed.


Most search engines support frames, but only, as Google says in its FAQ section, “to the extent that [we] can.” Searchers clicking through to a framed page from search results will often find an “orphaned page” — a frame without the content it framed, or content without the associated navigation links in the frame it was intended to display with. Often they will simply find an error page.

Splash pages and other contentless pages

Search engines by and large consider your home page the most important page on your site. Without keyword-rich content on this page, your home page won’t rank well. A home page displaying nothing more than “Choose our Flash-enhanced or HTML site” is a wasted opportunity.

The same title tags on all pages

Far too many Websites use a single title tag for the entire site. Some of the worst offenders are sites where hundreds or even thousands of products are offered. Nearly one in three people will search for a product name on a search engine; if your product page titles include product names, your chances of being found increase dramatically.

Superfluous text in title tags

A title that starts with “Welcome to…” is a wasted opportunity. How about starting off with some good keywords instead?

Pop-up windows

Pop-up windows use Javascript, which search engines ignore.

Home page redirect

This occurs when the home page refers the user to another URL instead of having the home page content on the home page URL. An example (soon to be fixed) from the Catalog Age site: A user types in “”; immediately the URL changes to “….” Search engines may not follow that redirect to the new URL. What”s more, the true home page that everyone links to (and that therefore has a high PageRank) isn”t being used.

The above are innocent mistakes. Attempts to fool search engines by supplying spiders with misleading content to artificially achieve high rankings fall under the “sneaky practices” heading. Avoid practices that search engines consider spam unless you want to risk being banned.

What sort of practices do we mean?

Cloaking and automated redirects

An unscrupulous merchant could design his site so that when a search engine spider visits, it gets a page on which the words “gift baskets” are repeated 100 times so that the page ranks well for that search term. Of course, such a page would be a turnoff to a human visitor, so the merchant would serve up a different page to him. The gibberish page, which is sometimes called Spamglish, is therefore “cloaked,” or hidden from the shopper. Fortunately for scrupulous marketers, when content intended for the spiders differs markedly from content delivered to human visitors, search engines consider it a bait-and-switch.

Hidden or small text

Text that is too small for humans to see or the same color as the page background.

Doorway pages

Engines are suspicious of pages not linked on your site that bear little relevance to your site content. Don”t submit pages to the search engines that aren”t carefully designed and thought out to provide valuable content in their own right.

Keyword stuffing

Repeating keywords excessively or adding a meta-tag that is hundreds of words long. A description tag should be no more than one or two sentences. A keywords tag should include no more than a couple of dozen words.

Embedding others” trademarks in meta-tags

This tactic can put you at the wrong end of a lawsuit.

Machine-generated pages

These pages are usually devoid of meaningful content. Don”t use software tools that purport to auto-generate doorway or bridge pageswhich are pages created solely to boost a site”s search engine ranking. Google, in particular, is working to identify and exclude machine-generated doorway pages.

Duplicated pages with minimal or no changes

Google can already spot offenders.


Also called hijacking, this is simply stealing high-ranking pages from other sites and placing them on your site with few or no changes. Often this tactic is combined with cloaking so as to hide the victimized site”s content from human visitors.

Obviously irrelevant keywords in HTML tags

Placing popular but totally off-topic search keywords in meta-tags, alt tags, and the like.

Resubmitting, automated submitting, and deep submitting

That is, simultaneously submitting multiple pages from deep within your site using an automated tool. Submit your site to a search engine only after you ensure it”s not already in the search engine”s index, and then submit your home page only once — manually.

Not only should you play by the rules, but you also need to keep your affiliates in check, as they can do your brand damage with their spamming tactics.

Keep on keeping on

Improving your rankings among search engines is an ongoing process. Just as a Website is never finished, neither is your search engine optimization.

But don”t obsess trying to create the elusive “perfect” page. Search engines don”t release “how to rank well” manuals or data on such things as optimal keyword density. All search engine marketing is based on educated guesses. Numbers and tactics can change as quickly as they are ascertained.

Instead, concentrate on creating great, keyword-rich content; refining it; establishing more links to your pages from relevant sites; and ethically using the tactics presented above. You can”t go wrong (standard disclaimers apply), and you might just find yourself enjoying a big increase in traffic to your Website.

Stephan M. Spencer is founder/president of Netconcepts, a full-service interactive agency specializing in search engine marketing and e-commerce. He is also confounder of Website auditing firm Audit-It.

What Exactly Is a Search Engine, Anyway?

It”s easy to confuse Internet directories with search engines. Search engines are adding directory features, and directories are adding search engine features.

Add pay-per-click options, which allow people to bid for prominence in sponsored listings on engines and directories alike, to the mix, and the issue becomes even cloudier.

Search engines periodically explore all the pages of a Website and add the text on those pages into a large database that users can then search. With a search engine, publishing Web pages that incorporate relevant key phrases, prominently positioned in particular ways, is critical.

With Internet directories, human editors group Websites into categories and provide descriptions or edit short descriptions of the sites submitted to them. With a directory, picking the right category and composing a description rich in key phrases will ensure maximum visibility.

The Importance of Google

Google, which supplies secondary results to Yahoo!, is the 800-lb. gorilla of search engines. During the past 12-18 months, the majority of well-known search engines suffered a decline in popularity. Not Google. Its usage has skyrocketed.

How did Google do it? Google concentrates on providing users with a simple interface, producing relevant results quickly, and regularly indexing a large proportion of the Internet (currently more than 3 billion documents).

The resulting word of mouth has allowed Google to quietly achieve more than 20% market share in the U.S. (Jupiter Media Metrix, October 2001). And that”s not even accounting for “Yahoo! Powered by Google.” Not bad when you consider Google”s success is based on a “build it and they will come” marketing strategy.