Search Engines vs. the Wild West

Yahoo! If you realize this is a word that's currently accepted more as Web jargon than as a shout from an excited cowboy, you'll probably survive the new millennium. If not, hang on partner, you're in for a ride!

How does someone actually find a Web site? How do you list a Web site on search engines? Does that cost anything? And what happens when you get an e-mail from a company telling you that your site isn't "doing well" on search engines?

First off, let's take a step back and define "search engine." I always liken a search engine to an online library. If you need to research a topic, you'd go to your local library. Online, people simply turn to search engines to locate information.

Some of the most commonly used search engines are: Yahoo!, AltaVista, Excite, Lycos, Hotbot, Infoseek, Magellan, AOL's Netfind, Northern Light, Dogpile and Ask Jeeves.

If you want to get a listing of search engines, all you have to do is go to a search engine, such as and type in the keywords "search engine." Yahoo! will give you an entire list of search engines to use.

Although "search engine" is the common term, if you want to get technical, there are search engines and then there are "search directories." The difference is that search directories list only the home page of a site, and normally an actual person reviews the site before listing it within the directory. A search engine will list one or multiple pages from that one Web site. (Usually there is a cap on the number of pages from one site that can be listed.) People do not review the site before it is listed on a search engine; that's done via computers.

List your Web site
When I hear about companies offering to list your site on "400 search engines for the low, low, one-time price of $19.95," I think of those salesmen who used to travel by covered wagon offering their magical potions and ointments, sure to cure everything from arthritis to the common cold.

For the most part, these offers don't work because:

  • They only attempt to list your site once. It normally takes multiple attempts before a site gets listed. Just because you list your site, it doesn't mean that it will automatically be picked up and listed by a search engine. On average, you'll spend from one to six months listing and re-listing your site with search engines before it filters through the main ones. Then, of course, your site can be "dropped" by the search engine and will need to be relisted.
  • Your site doesn't need to be on "400 search engines." Those search engines could be product-specific or even porn search engines, for that matter! Approximately 90-to-95% of people use the top 10 or so search engines, and some of these share databases.

I recently did work with a kitchen dealer who used one of these companies to list his site. After a bit of digging, we determined that his Web site design firm was already listing his site with the major search engines, so it wasn't something he needed after all. He had just wasted $40 plus his time. If you have a site developed for you, search engine listing should be something provided by the Web site design firm. Not listing your Web site with search engines is the same thing as creating a beautiful showroom and then not using it.

Also, many of you probably receive e-mails from companies telling you that they did a search on five or six search engines for your Web site. One of their reports will show you how "poorly" your site did on each search engine. The goal of these companies is to entice you into using them to "assist" you in listing your site with the search engines. Don't fall for it. While it looks pretty convincing, most of these companies will search for your Web site by only using a single word. For example, if you're a kitchen and bath design firm, they'll search for your company using the word "bathroom." A kitchen dealer with a Web site that's, say, 10-25 pages should not expect to show up well when the word bathroom is searched for. If you're not in the top 30 listings, it will say that you're there "0" times. Only if your site is, say,, and you have several hundred pages full of bath-related material on the site, will you do well on their search.

Does that mean your site needs to be several hundred pages to be found? Absolutely not. A site that's built correctly both on the surface and behind the scenes will do just fine on the search engines. What many people don't realize is that search engines constantly change their parameters, which determines how well your site does in their listing. For example, your site may be the number-one listing on the search engine HotBot during the month of October, while in December, your site may fall to the 31st spot. This happens because search engines change the parameters so no one is able to figure out the "exact science" of the first spot. That's why it's so important to build a site that does well overall.

Cost factors
Does listing your site with a search engine cost anything? For the most part, no. A few less-popular search engines are charging a fee to be listed in their directories. As the Internet stands today, your site will fare well being listed on the main (free) search engines. Search engines typically make the bulk of their money through the advertising done on different pages within the search engines themselves.

How does a site get listed on a search engine? Each search engine requests different information from the Web site. Some search engines simply want the Web site address and a contact's e-mail. Depending on where you request your site to be listed within Yahoo!, there may be up to five pages of questions to answer about the site. Another difference with Yahoo! is you'll be asked to "Suggest A Site." What they're gently stating is that you may request that your site be listed on Yahoo! and you may even request which section (for example, kitchen design) the site be listed under, but it is up to their discretion as to where or even if the site is listed on Yahoo! at all.

Search engines will also ask you to "Add URL." This means that you may add your Web site's address, and that it doesn't need to meet certain requirements.'

After all this, I expect the next time someone yells "Yahoo!" you'll hop on your computer instead of your horse!