Imagine trying to hit a pin-sized target in a pitch-black auditorium. Or looking for a quarter-carat diamond hidden someplace in Yosemite National Park. Or locating a single novel in a giant library that shelves books randomly.

Or trying to find a particular website--for instance, your company's--in a world without search engines.

With precise directions--or, for the website, a URL--searchers in all those scenarios would have a pretty good chance of finding what they sought. Without them, they'd be out of luck.

Fortunately, in your case, the Web is rich with resources for helping people find what they want. Your challenge is making the best possible use of those tools.

The Big Picture

As the Web has grown to millions of sites and billions of pages, demand for ever-more sophisticated search capability skyrocketed right along with it. By most estimates, users worldwide now conduct at least 550 million searches daily--and, of course, that number will keep rising.

Meanwhile, as any Web user knows, individual queries often yield hundreds or thousands of links. Research indicates that few searchers venture beyond the first 30. So with users most likely to click on the highest-ranked results, it's critical to make sure your site rises to the top.

Complicating matters is the sheer variety of available search engines and Web directories. The roll call reads like a Who's Who of the high-tech industry. At this writing, Google, the category's undisputed Goliath, is gearing up for an initial public offering (IPO) of stock that's likely to set new records. Microsoft Corp. is massively upgrading its MSN Search program. Yahoo! has acquired several top competitors; Amazon is quietly developing its own offering. And hundreds of smaller players, including some highly specialized ones, remain in the game as well.

First Obvious Question

So if you're serious about competing, do you have to list your site on all those directories and search engines? Absolutely not, experts say.

"There are only a few worth worrying about," says Web consultant Peter Kent, president of Denver-based iChannel Services and author of Search Engine Optimization for Dummies (John Wiley & Sons, April 2004). Kent's must-have list includes Google, Yahoo!, AlltheWeb, AltaVista, Ask Jeeves, Inktomi, and the lesser-known Open Directory Project. "They're the only ones who matter because they feed everyone else who counts," he says. Directly or indirectly, he adds, those few sites provide data for 99% of all searches. For instance, Inktomi provides data to Microsoft's MSN Search and Yahoo's Overture, while the Open Directory Project feeds at least 300 others, including many specialized ones catering to particular industries or interests.

What about all those companies dangling tempting offers to list your site with 400--or even 4,000--search engines in exchange for what sounds like a reasonable fee? Rarely worth the cost, Kent says: "Sometimes what they're doing is submitting you to just a few sites, knowing that then those sites are feeding hundreds more." Worse, those helpful companies may list your site with bogus "search engines" that do nothing more than compile e-mail addresses for use by spammers, says Chris Sherman, associate editor of the industry information site and newsletter Search Engine Watch. "I would say they're not only not a good deal, they're the best way quadruple e-mail spam you get," Sherman says. A better strategy: Focus on getting listed with a few key search engines and forget about the rest.

Second Obvious Question

When, if ever, should you pay to play?

That is, should you concentrate on getting your site to surface in free--or, as Sherman calls them, organic -- search-engine listings? Or should you invest one of the many pay-for-placement (PFP) options?

"Either will work," says Sherman, who also heads the Searchwise consulting firm in Boulder, Colo. "Organic placement will take more time [to show up on search engines] and last longer." A PFP listing--a small text ad that appears in or near relevant search results--will go online almost immediately, but its longevity is tied to the bottom line: "The minute you stop paying for it, it's gone," Sherman says.

Under the PFP system, marketers bid to have their ads listed in the results for specific searches, with high bidders' ads show up first. Search-engine companies collect fees--anywhere from a few cents to upwards of $10--whenever users click through to marketers' websites.

The decision about whether to stick with free listings, enter the PFP universe, or combine the approaches depends on your budget, your competitors' strategies, and a sense for how your target audience will respond (many users dislike paid placements, especially those that look too much like free search results).

"It's like buying or leasing a car," Sherman says. "It's up to you to decide which option works best."

The Keys to Search-Engine Success

Actually, there are two major ways to "optimize" your site so it's most likely to show up in a potential customer's search.

First, carefully identify the words and phrases your best prospects are most likely to use in searching for whatever you provide. "Each page should contain two or three keywords that you want people to use in finding you," Sherman says. (But don't list those words dozens or hundreds of times in attempt to show up first in search results; that's called "keyword stuffing" and it's considered cheating.) Choose keywords that are simple, coherent, and consistent with your other marketing campaigns, and be sure to list them in metatags as well.

In addition, get specific. Phrases like "home mortgage" and "low rates" won't set you apart from the pack. But adding your city and state, for instance, might help land your site higher in the results for searchers using those terms. In addition, keywords--not just your company name--should appear in the title bar atop your site's pages, Kent recommends. "Sanders & Son Ltd" doesn't indicate what the company does; "Sanders & Sons Graphic Design and Printing Services" tells users at a glance whether they've found the right site.

Secondly, keep in mind that search engines love links. The more sites linked to yours, the higher it's likely to rank in search results. "Links are essentially the same thing as votes," Sherman says. From a search engine's point of view, he says, " the more votes you have, the greater the indication that there's high-quality content at your site." So keep building your network of relevant links.

Finally, remember that while getting your category's number-one search-engine ranking is dandy--but you certainly haven't failed if a clear, well-targeted message appears a few notches down the page. "Keep your eyes on the result," Kent advises. "The goal is to increase qualified traffic to your Web site, and you can do that without having the very top position."

Sidebar: Glossary

Keyword: Words and phrases included in a Web page matching those users are likely to employ in searching.

Keyword stuffing: Discouraged practice of overloading Web pages with keywords in an effort to obtain higher placement in search results. Also known as "spamdexing."

Local search: Evolving capability to limit search results to particular geographical areas.

Metasearch: Search using multiple search engines and directories.

Metatag: HTML tag that stores information about a Web page, including keywords for search-engine and directory use.

Optimization: See "SEO."

PFI (pay for inclusion): Advertising option in which marketers pay to be included in search results.

PFP (pay for placement): Advertising option in which marketers bid to place short text ads in or near search results, with highest bids appearing first.

Query: Synonym for "search."

Search engine: Program such as Google that searches its indices or databases in response to a user's query, retrieving lists of documents containing specific keywords. See also "Web directory."

Spiders: Software robots that automatically scour the Internet, reporting Web page contents back to a search engine's index or database. Also called "crawlers."

SEM: Search-engine marketing; using search techniques to build brand awareness or generate business.

SEO: Search-engine optimization, or retooling a site so that it's more likely to appear high in search results.

Web directory: Searchable indices such as Yahoo that are compiled by human editors rather than by automation. See also "Search engine."

Sidebar: Major search engines, directories, and related research tools:

All the Web (subsidiary of Overture/Yahoo!)

AltaVista (subsidiary of Yahoo!)

Inktomi (subsidiary of Yahoo!)

MSN Search

Overture (subsidiary of Yahoo!)
Conducts searches via several other major search engines

Yahoo! Directories


All Search Engines
Useful index of search engines

The Open Directory Project
Human-edited directory of the Web, edited by volunteers.

Search Engine Bulletin
Companion site to Search Engine Optimization for Dummies, by Peter Kent (John Wiley & Sons, April 2004).

Search Engine Optimization Tips
MSN's printable list of SEO do's and don'ts.

Search Engine Strategies
Resource site with articles and links.

Search Engine Watch
News, advice, reviews, links, information about Search Engine Strategies conferences and free Search Engine Report monthly newsletters.