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September 3, 2007

Website Creation and the Eye of the Spider

Picture, if you will, a Rocky-style montage. A team is involved in website creation from the ground up. A driving, inspirational song begins. The first scene is a highly contentious meeting, with a sweating and nervous marketing executive frantically drawing away at a whiteboard in front of a hostile audience. Flash to copywriters, fingers cracked and bleeding, churning away at their keyboards. Jump to web designers, sporting blurred eyes rimmed with dark circles, peering into their monitors in obvious discomfort. Finally, we see signs of it all coming together. A beautiful home page briefly appears. The music ends.

A bell rings. And… Nothing happens. The website would seem to have tripped over its own shoelaces and fallen right through the canvas, disappearing into cyberspace. The credits roll, to the eternal shame of those whose names appear.
What went wrong?

The team engaged in website creation without any regard for the role of the search engine spider. You see, there is quite a difference in what is seen by humans on a website and what is seen by a search engine “spider” (a program that routinely combs the Internet indexing websites). There are an untold numbers of expensive websites out there that are beautiful to behold from a human perspective, yet all but invisible to search engine spiders (and thus searchers), just as there are untold numbers of expensive, beautiful yachts silently and pointlessly resting on the ocean bottom in the Bermuda Triangle.

What follows is a small list of common website elements, broken into two categories: what search engines can see, and what they can not.
Three Things a Search Engine Spider Can’t See

Graphic text – Most professionals involved in website creation take great pride in their work, which is obviously a desired trait. Occasionally, however, this can present problems. When a web designer decides to use text in a graphic form (meaning that the text is actually an image), the search engine spider can not read what that text says. A common reason for a designer to use text in a graphic is because he or she wants to use a rare font that most visitors won’t have on their machines. Another reason is that the designer wants to have absolute control over how the website text renders. When faced with the choice over which kind of text to use, it is important to weigh the aesthetic choice against the potential loss of search engine visibility.

Images – As touched upon above, a search engine spider is not yet able to look at images or pictures and determine what they are (although you can and should attach a tag to them which the spider can read – commonly referred to as an “alt” tag). A spider will skip directly over your logo and masthead, any pictures, and most other graphical elements.

Flash – Search engine spiders will not read through the text in any Flash animation on your site (or any other animation). This does not mean that using Flash elements will render your site invisible; it merely means that you should not count on the text that appears in any Flash animation on your website to be indexed. If the team responsible for your website creation decides to build the entire site in Flash, however, you will encounter unique problems. While some search engines are getting better at trying to index websites built entirely on this platform, it is still an overall rankings killer. If you must have a website created entirely in Flash, it is wise to also have an alternate HTML version for search engines and people who prefer HTML sites.
Three Things a Search Engine Spider Can See

HTML text – A search engine spider relies heavily on HTML text to determine what a web page is about. Spiders, therefore, index HTML text and will even make distinctions between differences in how the text is presented. For example, text that is in a headline or is bolded is assumed to be slightly more important than regular text.

Links – Outgoing links on your pages are easily understood by the spider, especially if they are text links. The wording of these links (or the alt tags attached to them) can, like HTML text, give the spider an idea of what your page is about. However, there are certain types of links that are not easily indexed. If your website creation team embedded your links in a pull-down menu that utilizes JavaScript or other scripting language, most search engine spiders will not see them.

Tags – There are many kinds of tags, but not all are important for search engine optimization. Meta tags include the “keywords” tag, which should list keyphrases that describe the page. Another meta tag is the “description” tag, which should be one or two brief sentences that describe the page. Another tag, which is not actually a meta tag, but which has significant importance to search engine rankings, is the “title” tag. This tag contains the words that you will see in the blue bar at the top of your web page.

This list is by no means comprehensive – there are many other attributes that aren’t mentioned in this article. The primary message here is that companies should do their homework before engaging in website creation. There are thousands of resources available on the Internet that can answer your questions about any element you are considering adding before you build (or redesign) your site. Take the time to study each so that you can be sure you aren’t sacrificing your search engine rankings for the sake of something largely unnecessary.

As for the downtrodden website creation team mentioned earlier in the article, let’s remember that Rocky has been known to get beat down in the first fight but then to pull himself up from the floor and triumph in the end. The team will go back into training and eventually understand the Eye of the Spider. Cue the music…
Author:  Scott Buresh is managing partner of Medium Blue Internet Marketing. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including ZDNet, WebProNews, MarketingProfs, Search Engine Guide, ISEDB, DarwinMag, SiteProNews, and PromotionData. Medium Blue is an Atlanta search engine optimization company that works with clients all over the country.

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