Content is still king when submitting sites to search engines

It may sound like an obvious statement, but you need to ensure that you have enough relevant text on your web site if you want search engines to take you seriously. The old adage of ‘content is king’ is still very true today. Even if you spend a small fortune promoting a site, you will not get good rankings if the content that the search engines eventually harvest does not merit their attention.

This article was provided to and published by IT Leadership magazine.

Let’s be clear about what we mean by content – text, and lots of it. By all means add in images to your site. Add in Flash media as well if you wish, but it is text that search engines identify and rank against.

You may think that you cannot say much about your product or service other than what perhaps appears on your current literature, but there are ways around this. You don’t have to necessarily just expand on what is written; it’s more a case of writing content that compliments it. For example if you have a technical product why not write a technical article on the industry it serves? (This could also double as a good article that you could provide to a magazine – most of them love receiving quality content that is not a pure product plug). Case studies are another way of not only generating regular content for your web site, but also regular PR content.

Online Discussion Forums
Online forums, also known as bulletin boards not only provide a useful place for your customers and prospects to discuss issues and ideas but also put content generation to the masses, although watch out as these are open to abuse (from disgruntled customers or competitors). There are plenty of free and highly customisable forum applications available, one excellent example being phpBB (www.phpbb.com). All you need is web space that supports PHP scripting and a mySQL database (available from under £100 per year from many hosts). Installation is relatively straightforward –download the software from their website, unzip the files, upload them to your web space and then run through the setup wizard. Once installed you can then configure the site to suit your needs – this includes multi-lingual support, design template modification, forum moderation (validating user’s messages before placing them live) and setting various access levels for different users. The system automates many processes, including registration emails, lost passwords, emailing updates to users etc, and is an excellent way to add a ‘pulse’ to your site. Users that do abuse the system can also be banned.

If you have a busy site, your site lends itself to a forum and you have the resources (and the will!) to regularly monitor it then you will hopefully find that it is quickly filled with posts from users that contain rich and relevant content. When people search for rather obscure combinations of keywords relating to your product/industry then you stand a better chance of having your site listed. Google also likes larger sites, so the more pages your forum generates the better.

You may also have heard of Flash or Shockwave, both Adobe products. These are much more media-rich than standard graphics, allowing full animation, sound and interaction – there are even Flash games on the Internet. There are some major drawbacks with Flash – most search engines cannot read inside a Flash file, so if your entire site is Flash-based then all most search engines will hit is a big brick wall! From a design point of view it is more time consuming to develop a Flash site than HTML, which of course generally equates to more expense. Therefore use Flash sparingly.

Don’t steal content to bulk up on text
Search engines are known to compare pages across different sites, so if you simply rip content from another site this can work against you. Also, ensure that you do not host duplicate pages on your site. The exact percentage of similarity after which a search engine may penalise you is not known, it varies from search engine to search engine, so your aim should be to keep your page similarity as LOW as possible.

Intro screens – No!
Do not succumb to the temptation of having an intro screen, which is usually either a static graphic or Flash animation that then leads into the main site. As mentioned above, if it’s Flash then it’ll stop search engines dead in their tracks. If it’s a graphic then search engines can technically follow the link through to the rest of your content, but have little incentive to do so as there may be little or no text that it can ‘see’.

What do search engines see, anyway?
Search engine databases are built by robot programs called spiders. They find pages for possible inclusion by following links in the pages they already have in their database (i.e., already "know about"). They cannot just "decide" to go look something up and see what's on the web about it, so if a web page is never linked to from any other page, search engine spiders cannot find it. The only way a brand new page - one that no other page has ever linked to - can get into a search engine is for its web address to be submitted to the search engine – most have a ‘submit URL’ link on their site somewhere, but some charge for this.

After finding pages, they pass them on for ‘indexing’. This identifies the text, links, and other readable content on the page and stores it so that it can be searched. The page will be listed within a search engine’s results page if your search matches its content.

If you want to get an idea of what a search engine will see when it hits your site use this free tool:

http://www.webconfs.com/search-engine-spider-simulator.php

This service will show you the raw text, URLs and keywords that search engines will see, without all of the graphics and formatting that your visitors will see – viewing your site in this rather undressed manner can give you a much better understanding of the task in hand.

Without content a site is just a skeleton – make sure that your site is well nourished with plenty of fresh pages, rich in relevant keywords.

This subject is covered in much greater detail in 'Getting more visitors to your website in 90 minutes' by Martin Bailey.

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