(Note: If you were looking for software to create printable bingo cards, Dolch sight word bingo, or Dolch sight word lists, you should check those three links. The rest of this post is about how search engines work, and is probably not that interesting to you. However, because it repeats your search query frequently, the search engine you were using thinks its a perfect match for your interests. If you’re running a small business and wondering how to make it look better on the search engines, you’re in the right place:)

Some things which I’ve found useful, and which can be done fairly easily without compromising your ethics or your user experience:

1) A different, meaningful title on every page. “Meaningful” means “makes sense to humans AND includes keywords”. If your title is something like CompanyName Website, you’re losing valuable SEO currency unless people routinely search for CompanyName. So, for example, my homepage is “Make Your Own Custom Bingo Cards With Bingo Card Creator”. The first five words of that is a decently common, high value (near 80% conversion) search string, which I rank rather highly on on Yahoo (5thish) and MSN (1st). So do I use that sitewide? No! My purchasing page, for example, says “Make Printable Bingo Cards with Bingo Card Creator”. That simple expedient puts that page at #4 on MSN for both “make printable bingo cards” and “printable bingo cards”, both of which are (as far as my keywords go) competitive. Incidentally: all 3 big search engines treat keywords to the left of the title as the most important, so you don’t want a title like “Company Name: Delivering Cheap and Cost Effective Widgets” if you have people searching for “Widgets”. How many interior pages do you have on your site which get read once in a blue moon? A simple change of their title to include some keywords and, bam, free traffic and some utilization of all that time you spent writing, e.g., your privacy policy.

2) Use URLs to your advantage. MSN is a sucker for this, and it helps elsewhere too. If you have landing pages for, say, “Dolch sight words bingo”, make the URL blahblah/dolch-sight-words-bingo.htm (*cough* 2nd on MSN *cough*) rather than “bingo.htm” or, God forbid, “content.php?article=23″. The same goes for your site’s domain name. Obviously, you don’t have quite as much flexibility as that, but you should have total control over your URLs (caveat: a lot of users hover over links and read the URLs. More, I’m guessing, than who actually read page titles. Don’t name your purchasing page involved-widget-search-string.htm). Oh, that reminds me — use dashes, not underscores, to represent a space. All three big search engines think foo_bar is a single word and foo-bar matches the query “foo bar”.

3) Pluralization matters. I had assumed all the search engines did stemming (natural language processing term, means collapsing verb endings and plural forms before continuing processing on input). It appears that they care more about fidelity to the exact words used than about stemming. The difference between SERP (search engine result pages) for “cheap red widget” and “cheap red widgets” is night-and-day. For example, drop the s from “words” in “Dolch sight words bingo” (oh Lordie, I’m so going to rank on that for this post… dang it all), and I slide 5 places on every search engine. I picked the variant that was getting more impressions in my PPC campaign. Recently, Google released a tool which will let you discover which of the alternatives is more popular. Make sure you select “Global search volume trends” from the dropdown box. Unforunately, unlike Yahoo Search Marketing (YSM) they won’t give you exact counts of searches.

4) Variations matter. “first grade” != “1st grade” != “grade one”. Note, however, that if you’re writing naturally you might use all three of these in a single paragraph. Hey, does that give you any ideas? It should :)

5) Consistent navigation helps you. If your users and your desire to SEO every come into conflict, you have done something terribly wrong. Borking your navigation because you’re afraid having non-keywords in prominent places is a big “something wrong”: the search engines are really good about stripping out templates iff that template is mostly consistent across your site. You can check if you accomplished proper templating fairly easily: if when you search for a keyword you get “My Keyword Is In My Title … Keyword leads the heading, too!” with the template code ellipsed out on the SERP (search engine result page), then congratulations, the search engines are properly ignoring the template. If on the other hand you see something like “My Keyword Is In My Title Products Services Free Trial Contact About Us Keyword Leads The Heading”, you could probably stand to take a look at whether your template is internally consistent across several pages. Oh, incidentally, another failure mode is not having several pages actually indexed.

6) Thou shalt not duplicate content. Duplicate content means using substantially the same words on two pages. Your navigation will generally not count unless it vastly outsizes the actual text on a page (this is a big no-no, and you can guesttimate whether it does by pointing Google’s AdWords keyword suggest tool at the page and seeing whether it can extract any keywords or not). If you do duplicate content, perhaps because you wanted to have two substantially identical pages rank for different variations on search (say, to avoid that pluralization niggle I pointed out above), you run the risk of “going supplemental”.

Going supplemental means your page gets quarantined out of the main search index for Google, and is put in basically a low-quality jail. When Google gets a search query, they display quality results and then, if there are no quality results, they give “supplemental results”. Obviously, most strings being searched for have quality results on them somewhere on the web, and people who click through all the way to supplemental results are a very rare breed. Accordingly, “going supplemental” is the kiss of death, so don’t duplicate content. Want a safe but time-consuming way to accomplish the same thing? Write two versions of the same page which are substantially identical *when read by a human* but substantially dissimilar *when read by a computer*.

Want an example? My academic background is AI and natural languages. I’ve seen some awesome things done with text processing, and it can give the impression that the algorithm has genuine content understanding (e.g. did you know that a 30 line gawk script that can guess whether you’re a man or woman on basis of a single college term paper with 80% accuracy?) But there is really no ghost in the machine, and some tasks require *actual* understanding rather than even the coolest applications of statistics. Here’s an example: tell me whats special about the next paragraph. Now try to figure out what a computer would have to do to come to the same conclusion.

The definition of duplicate content is two pages which use mostly the same verbiage. Analysis for it does not count the user interface unless the interface is much larger than the parts of the page which draw the attention of the reader. This should be avoided. Software which analyzes a page for keywords, such as the one provided by The Big G’s CPC service, can be used to check whether you’re in danger or not: if it reports that it has insufficient information to provide quality results, you should write more. The penalty for having two mostly identical documents is severe: you can vanish off the most common search engine results pages.

Yep, you’re right, this is indeed a thought-for-thought recapitulation of a paragraph you just read. But the word order and vocabulary used are almost totally orthogonal, and even algorithmicly derived lists of synonyms will fail for most of the words (“vanish = disappear” is easy for a computer to understand, “vanish = ‘going supplemental’” is all but impossible).

On a lighter note, if search engines were girls: Google is the bombshell who everyone drools over. She knows this and lords it over everyone. You’ve really got to work to get Google’s trust. She also has a weird fascination with blogging. Yahoo is wild and erratic. MSN is the world’s cheapest date, who will practically faint if you show any interest in her at all.