Clients can’t come to you if they can’t find you. With a little know-how, you can greatly improve your salon’s ranking on popular search engines like Google and Yahoo. Learn what easy steps you can take so these search engines help to build your business for you.
Once upon a time, advertising meant a sign in the window, small ads in the local newspaper, and a display ad in the Yellow Pages. Those forms worked because they reached potential customers where they looked for information about salons and services. While each of these traditional advertising mediums is still useful, today’s customers — especially younger customers — want to find information where they spend most of their time. Their time is spent on the Internet rather than in print, and the Internet has become the central advertising medium of the new century.
When most people try to find information on the Web, they search for it using Google, Yahoo, MSN, or one of the other search engines. Putting your information in front of customers means making sure your services are listed in the search results from these engines, and are shown near the top of the list. I performed a search a potential customer might make, looking for a nail salon in Orlando, Fla. When you look at the results shown on this page, notice a couple of important things: First, see that Google returned about 327,000 results. (Yahoo and MSN return similar numbers.) Next, look at the shops listed at the top of the list. That’s where you want to be.
In order to be listed in a search engine and have any say in how your listing appears, you need two things; a website and some knowledge. [Editor’s note: Learn about easy web creation tools in NAILS’ using October 2006 article, “How to Set Up a Website Without Breaking a Sweat.”] Let’s assume you already have a website and focus on how you can use the search engines to help build your business.
Learning Some Basics
Everything else we talk about will make more sense if you understand a bit about how Google, Yahoo, MSN, and the other search engines work. While there are some differences in exactly how each of them creates its list of results, there are some things that are true for all the engines.
Every search engine builds an index of words found in every web page it’s able to find. Finding the pages and words is the job of a special type of software called a “spider.” Spiders go out and crawl around the Web (hence, the name) looking for new pages and information. They look for the words you see on the page, words you can’t see (usually in the form of metatags — keywords put into a special format the spider can understand), links to and from the page, and the title of the page. These words, and how easy you make it for the spider to find them, will play a huge role in where your website is found in the results of a search.
In the image at the top of this article, you can see that the results of a search are divided into four sections: advertisements in the column on the right, sponsored results at the top, local results next to the map, and then the rest of the 400,000+ results below and on the pages to follow. Now, you can certainly buy ads or sponsorships, but you shouldn’t have to — there are things you can do without spending a dime that will help you get better results.
How It Works
Let’s think about those keywords for a moment. It’s not just important that you feature them somewhere on your page — you have to feature them in the right spots. The title of your page, for example, is a great place to feature important words. So is the URL by which it’s called. If you have photos or other images on your home page (and you really should), then the name of those images and the captions you put next to them can matter greatly. Putting a word higher on the page is better than putting the same word lower on the page. Finally, you should use the metatags, but be careful: only use tags that really apply to your page. The search engine engineers know that some folks have put thousands of metatags on their pages to make them come up for virtually any search, and they’ve developed rules to make too many metatags a liability.
In addition to the location on a given page, the page’s location within the website as a whole can be important. The closer to the “home page,” the more important the information is in the electronic eyes of the spider. It’s also important that the pages on your website are linked together in ways that make it easy for a spider to crawl them easily. Toward that end, the major search engines have standardized on a format for sitemaps.
Sitemaps are special data files that are kept on a website, and hold information on the pages within the site. Data like the URLs for all the pages in the site, the relative importance of each page, last update date for each page, and how frequently a page will usually change are all included in the sitemap. The sitemap itself is in the form of an XML file. While XML files sound scary until you write the first one, they’re very much like simple HTML files — they’re just standard ways of passing information between applications.
The rules for building a sitemap are found at www.sitemaps.org. Since sitemaps are supported by Google, Yahoo, and MSN (among others), it’s worth taking the small amount of time required to write a file in order to improve your website’s placement.
One assumption is made by most search engines: If a lot of other sites link to you (and, conversely, if you link to a lot of other sites) then you must be really good. This has led to some bad behavior, including sites that are called “link farms.” These sites are nothing but long lists of links to sites that may or may not be related. They’re designed solely to appeal to the search engines. Don’t be tempted to do this — there are now techniques in place to make it far less effective. Instead, do link to other sites that are related to your business (and ask them to link back to you), but don’t try to “fool” the spiders.
Now that we’ve looked at some general ways to improve your ranking, let’s examine some techniques unique to each of the three major search engines.
Google has a series of tools it makes available to webmasters that show you how well your website is doing in the Google rankings. When you go to www.google.com/webmasters/tools, you find a dashboard that shows you when your site was indexed, how it’s ranked, and how many links have been made to your site. The dashboard also shows how each page in your site is ranked by Google. Since there’s information on how to improve your rankings as well, this dashboard can become a very important resource as you work to improve your rankings.
When you look back at the image at the top of this article, you notice that local results are at the top of the page. Fortunately, getting your site included in the local results isn’t difficult. You start by going to the Google Local inclusion page, www.google.com/local, and providing the information on your business and website. Next, you’ll want to make sure that basic information on your business’s address is included on your home page, contained within tags.
Once your site is included in local results, you then continue to watch your Google placement through the dashboard. In a large city, you’ll want to make sure your site is well constructed so it’s in the top few results found. In smaller cities, you’re more likely to be in the top few, but you still want to make sure your rankings are as high as possible.
Yahoo is relatively simple in terms of what it looks for in a site. As we’ve already mentioned, the link count — both in and out — is critical. Yahoo is also somewhat more sensitive to page structure than Google is; simpler is better. If Yahoo is your target, make your site simple, make sure there are a lot of good links, and keep up your sitemap. These are the steps that will bring the greatest results for Yahoo.
MSN search is somewhat pickier than Yahoo, or perhaps it’s more fair to say that there is a bit more you can do to affect your site’s ranking. MSN cares less about links than it does about keywords — you want to make sure that your keywords are appropriate and thorough to appeal to MSN. You also want to make sure that your HTML code is well-formed and correct; MSN can reduce a page’s ranking if it finds code error on the page.
In addition, there’s another file that you need to be aware of when it comes to MSN. Robots.txt is a simple text file that includes information that tells MSN how its robotic spiders should treat your pages. You can find information on the robots.txt file at http://search.msn.com.sg/docs/siteowner.aspx?t=SEARCH_WEBMASTER_REF_RestrictAccessToSite.htm. It’s a very simple file to write, and the payoff for the few minutes it takes will be very good.
You Can Win the Search Race
There’s a lot of information when it comes to getting the best position on a search results page. If you think of it, though, getting the most from advertising has always required a bit of knowledge and effort. Whether you are choosing the art for your Yellow Pages ad or the colors for you business cards, though, the effort is worthwhile because it improves your image and brings in more customers. The same is true of taking care of your website search rankings. Nothing here is difficult and nothing (aside from setting up your website to begin with) requires you to spend money. Take a close look at your site and try some of these ideas — you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the results.
Curtis Franklin, Jr. has been writing about computers and networks since 1985. A freelance writer based in Gainesville, Fla., he covers new media, security, and wireless topics. You can contact him at [email protected].
sidebar: More Information on Search Engine Optimization These websites have information to use as you learn more about increasing your visibility through search engine optimization:
IBM Search Engine Optimization Basics
These four parts are a very thorough introduction to the practices that will get you better placement.
Part 1: www-128.ibm.com/developerworks/web/library/wa-seo1.html
Part 2: www.ibm.com/developerworks/web/library/wa-seo2/index.html
Part 3: www-128.ibm.com/developerworks/web/library/wa-seo3.html
Part 4: www-128.ibm.com/developerworks/web/library/wa-seo4.html
Google Answers has a number of threads that discuss improving your Search Engine Results Page (SERP) placement. http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=248512
sidebar: Buying an Ad
If you don’t want to depend solely on your site’s position on a search page to bring in customers, you can pay for your ad to show up on the various search pages.
The most popular web advertising system, and the least expensive in which to start, is Google’s AdWords. With AdWords, you create an advertisement and then pay Google to show your ad when certain searches take place. Your payment, and your success, are based on how many times the ad is clicked on, not just how many times it’s seen. You decide how much you’re willing to pay per click, and that amount is “bid” against everyone else who wants to be seen on your chosen results page. If you’re the highest bidder for a given word and page, then you’re the first ad people see. If 10 other companies bid more than you for that word and page, yours will be the 11th ad seen.
It’s easy to get started: Go to http://adwords.google.com to create an AdWord account. You can tell Google which words, which websites, and which cities or counties you want your ad to be associated with and how much you want to spend. The less you spend, the less often your ad will appear, and the farther from the top of the search page it will appear. If you have an advertising budget, you should give AdWords a try — but be prepared to spend some real time on the project analyzing how your ad is performing and why.
Yahoo has Sponsored Search Results that are similar to Google’s AdWords. Just like AdWords, what you’re really paying for is not how many times your ad is seen, but how many times it’s clicked on. As with AdWords, you can decide to spend only so much per day, and Yahoo will serve up that many clicks per day of advertising. Just as with Google, you’ll need to create a winning ad and monitor its results to understand how well your advertising investment is paying off. While Yahoo will start an account with $5, and will serve a minimum of $5 of ads per day, they recommend that you keep at least 30 days’ budget in your account at all times. To get started, call (866) 764-7650.
KEYWORDS: SEO, Google, growing business, website, expert