Saturday, March 13, 2004

Things not to do to your web site, part 1

Learning by your own mistakes is a mistake that you should avoid, if you could.

It's much easier to learn by the fumbles and foibles of others. I've decided that the few hundred errors I've learned since the mid 90s might make good fodder for this blog. It's salvation to realize that what you are doing is wrong. Much better than continuing to do it incorrectly. Learning that you are making mistakes, or how to avoid those of others, is good.

One of the most important rules to keep in mind when it comes to the birth and care and feeding of your web site will be repeated here more than a couple of times. It goes like this:

When you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing.

Today, I'm going to write about that in terms of something I've seen referred to as keyword flooding. There was a time when keywords were an important part of every web site. You would use a meta tag in the head section of each page, and include a list of words in there, separated by commas. Those words would be words that you expected people to use to find your site, or that you hoped they would follow and find your site.

How would having these "keywords" help people locate your pages? Well, a search engine such as Altavista would come along and index those keywords and associate them with your online endeavor. Altavista liked keywords, and indicated that people should use up to 1024 characters in their keyword list. That would fit a lot of words.

But, there are problems with keywords. One of the more interesting articles I've found about the weaknesses of the meta tag and keyword approach is Cory Doctorow's Metacrap: Putting the torch to seven straw-men of the meta-utopia.

The search industy seemed to catch on the the problems described by Boing boing blogger Doctorow (the article was written back in the pre blog days.) A clear indication of the decline and fall of meta tags was the recognition of their demise by Search Engine Watch commentator Danny Sullivan, in Death Of A Meta Tag.

Most people who developed the habit of writing a list of meta tags for their web sites continued to do so. I do, too. But, I no longer try to make the big, big, lists of the past. Keep it to a handful of words, normally the words around which the page was built. When you build your site for a particular market, one of the most important things you can do is know your market, and your targeted audiences, and build the site around the ways that they will use to find the site, and include on the site words that they expect to find.

Those keywords will likely be in the body text of the site, in the description, in headlines, alt-text, the site title, and others.

What does this have to do with the rule I cited above, "when you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing?"

Well, I've seen people put what looks like half the dictionary in their meta keywords tag. Every word that they might believe someone would use to find your site. It does not work like that! Under the old rules of the keywords, every word was important, bt less important if there were more words. By including so many words, you diffuse the value of each word.

So? How important is this tidbit of seemingly useless information if keywords are no longer used?

Maybe they are, and maybe they aren't. People have been claiming for quite some time that Google no longer uses them. But, only the scientists working at Google know for sure.

And Google isn't the only search engine on the web. People do use different search engines. Yahoo used to serve Google results. That has recently changed.

On the Yahoo page How do I improve the ranking of my web site in the search results?, we see this: "Use a 'keyword' meta-tag to list key words for the document. Use a distinct list of keywords that relate to the specific page on your site instead of using one broad set of keywords for every page. "

It appears that the reports of the death of meta keywords are not true. At least for now.

But use them carefully, and don't consider them an opportunity to show off how many words you know about a specific industry.

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