Understanding Search Engines

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Let's begin by learning exactly what search engines are and what they do. First, it's important to understand the difference between a search engine and a directory.

■ Search Engine A system that "indexes" web pages—it looks at millions of pages (Google currently indexes over eight billion pages!) and stores information about those pages, in some cases even keeping a copy of many of the pages. The three big search engines are Yahoo! (www.yahoo.com—see Figure 26-1), Google (www.google.com), and MSN (www.msn.com).

■ Search Directory A system that categorizes web sites, not pages. The directory has no idea about the content of particular pages within the site; it just knows what the site is about. Yahoo! had the first massive directory on the Internet (dir.yahoo.com—see Figure 26-2). Google also has a directory (dir.google.com), but MSN does not currently have one.

Remember, search engines index the content of individual web pages; search directories categorize web sites.

We're primarily interested in the search engines—the web-page indexes—for a couple of reasons:

■ Indexes are now used far more than directories; most search traffic goes through the indexes, not the directories.

■ There's not much you can do to optimize your site for the directories—the large directories are human-edited; someone actually looks at your web site and decides where to place your site in the directory, and what text will appear in the listing. You can suggest text, but the editors may not accept it.

This is an introduction to search-engine optimization. This is a big, complicated subject... to do really well, you may need to understand more. Sometimes ranking well is very easy. Follow these basic rules and you may find your site on the first page of the search results at major search engines. In many cases, however, you're up against a lot of competition, and ranking well is very difficult. One of the authors of this book, Peter Kent, is also the author of Search Engine Optimization for Dummies (Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2004), which provides a more detailed path to search-engine success.

Enter a search term here.

Enter a search term here.


Yahoo!'s search engine. Type a keyword here and Yahoo! searches through the content of billions of pages.

So the search engines come to a web site and start reading pages. They index the text on the page, and, using very complicated (and secret) computer-programming algorithms, they attempt to match pages with searchers' queries. When someone searches for the phrase shoes denver, for instance, the search engine attempts to find the most relevant pages for that search. That's a complicated thing to do—Google, for instance, has around three quarters of a million pages with the words shoes and denver in its index.

How do search engines find your pages? They use "searchbots" that follow links all day long (that's the great thing about "bots"—they never need to rest). They travel from page to page to page, reading and indexing every page as they go. (You'll learn how to get them to arrive at your site under "Registering with the Search Engines" later in this chapter.)

Browse through the directory here.

Search through the directory here.

Browse through the directory here.

Search through the directory here.


Yahoo!'s directory. You can browse through the categories or search for a web site, but the directory does not contain information about individual pages, only web sites.

Your goal is to appear at the top of a search-engine results page when someone searches on your top term (see Figure 26-3). Even if you're not top, but in the first few positions, you can still get a lot of traffic. If you drop "below the fold," though (below the area of the page visible without scrolling), traffic drops off dramatically. And if you're on page 2, even at the top, you'll see only a small fraction of the traffic garnered by the #1 position.

By following a few basic rules, you can create sites that will be indexed by the search engines. And by creating pages that are "search-engine friendly," you have a good chance of ranking well and getting traffic when people search for the keywords to which your site is related.

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