Page layout. Sites built with frames and complex, nested tables are difficult for robots to navigate. Even
simple tables, when used to lay out your site, can present problems. This is not to say frames and tables should
never be used. But a good deal of potential headache can be avoided if, when first planning your site, you consider
the effect that layout has on search engine findability. Frame and table layouts can often be duplicated using
Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), for example. Besides providing far greater flexibility and ease of maintenance, CSS
layouts follow current "best practices" for site design and usability and are much easier for robots to understand
and navigate. This site is built entirely with CSS.
If you plan on using graphics for navigation, rather than plain text, remember that such a system can't easily be followed by a robot. You need to include descriptive ALT text to at least let the robots know there is additional content available.
<HEAD> information. Once the general layout of the site has been decided, spend some time developing
accurate, meaningful information to go in your site's <HEAD>, including the Title and Meta tags. If you
are unfamiliar with these terms, click "View" and "Source" (or "Page Source") in your
browser's toolbar to see the information contained in any given page's <HEAD>. Basically, this information
provides important information about your site and its purpose to search engines and indexes.
The "Title," for instance, consists of a web page's actual title. It is displayed in the upper left of your browser window. The title of this page, for example, is "Creating and Growing Your Online Presence, Part 2." From a robot's perspective, it is actually not a particularly effective title, in that it does not accurately describe what the overall site - not just this page - is all about. That is not too much of a concern with this page, however, as visitors coming to this site from a search engine almost certainly will begin at the site's index or "home" page. The index page does in fact have a more effective title: "Welcome to daltec.org, home of daltec productions and the world-famous daltec mulch pile." Seemingly a bit long, the language of such a title is meaningful to human visitors but also provides useful information to the robots. A good title for Randy's Ravioli Ranch might be: "Randy's Ravioli Ranch: Your One-Stop Source for Gourmet, Organic and Vegetarian Ravioli, Cooking Oils and Tasty Recipes."
The second aspect of the <HEAD> section is the Meta description. "Metadata" is often defined as "information about information." Likewise, the data contained within your site's Meta tags (including "description" and "keywords") should describe the site itself. "Description" is fairly self-explanatory - it is a chance to expand upon the site's Title and provide a fuller overview of what your site is all about. "Keywords" are single words or phrases that also help describe the site, its purpose, what it offers, its special features, and so on. Keywords provide an excellent opportunity to distinguish your site from the others, especially if you can come up with uncommon or "niche" words and phrases. For example, there might be hundreds of sites using the generic keyword "ravioli," but far fewer will use niche phrases such as "organic ravioli."
The frequency with which your keywords appear in your site's content also have an effect. For example, listing "organic ravioli" as a keyword will have a much more positive effect on search engine ranking if it is accompanied by several articles on cooking and preparing organic ravioli that actually contain the phrase "organic ravioli." Which brings us to the subject of keyword spamming. This is the practice of repeating certain keywords over and over in an attempt to artificially bump up a site's ranking. It can also mean using keywords that are popular search terms but have nothing to do with your site. A third trick is to conceal hundreds of keywords in the body of a page by setting it in white text on a white background - the keywords are invisible to humans, but noticed by robots. The trouble with these tricks is that search engines have long gotten wise to such antics. In fact, search engines employ sophisticated anti-spam filters specifically to guard against keyword spamming. Using spam tactics on your site will almost certainly not improve your site's ranking, and may even get your site banned or blacklisted by the search engine altogether - meaning, your site will never be included in their listing, no matter what you try to do.
This is not to say that gaming the search engines does not occur. The development and use of various "underground" search engine optimization (SEO) tactics are in fact something of a black art - well beyond the scope of this article. But if you are interested, have a look at Search Engine Watch for lots of articles and information on SEO.
So what does make a compelling experience? If the examples provided by some of the most popular sites on the net are anything to go by, a compelling experience offers interactivity and personalized, useful content.
Interactivity. An interactive site is simply one that engages visitors in some way, rather than giving them nothing more than a static reading list. For example, many commercial sites allow customers to add their own comments and reviews to product listings. Other sites provide "forums" where ongoing discussions can be held. Returning to our example of Randy's Ravioli Ranch, suppose the site provided a brief description of the various types of ravioli on offer, as well as a few recipes. Useful, perhaps, but certainly not interactive. How about if visitors were encouraged to develop and submit their own recipes? Each month, visitors could vote to select the best recipe, with the winner receiving a free cookbook or gift certificate. Winners could even have their recipes published in the cookbook itself. Engaging visitors in this way not only adds fun and interest to your site, it gives them a reason to come back. A less obvious benefit is that it soon becomes a built-in source of quality content for your site.
Personal, useful content. Netflix, the online movie rental service, allows you to rate movies you have seen. Based on your ratings, Netflix recommends a range of other movies you might also like and provides a forum for you to read the reviews of other members, as well as write your own. Washington Mutual mortgage company provides several financial calculators, advisory articles, and daily interest rates. Lowe's provides how to articles, project planners and design ideas. These are all good examples of useful content. The personal aspect comes from giving your visitors a sense of ownership or control. Many sites provide an "account" through which visitors can alter page settings and save their preferences for the next visit. Others allow visitors to choose whether or not to display particular items.
The combination of interactivity and personal, useful content goes a long way to creating a compelling experience for your visitors. Together with having good content and designing your page to be search-engine friendly, it plays a crucial role in growing your online presence. Next we'll take a look at some strategies for after your site "goes live."