Generating Sales from Search Engines

Paul Graham

To sell online, you need two things: an effective site, and traffic to it. A great site alone is not enough. You also have to bring people to it. How do you do that?

Put yourself in the customer's place. When you want to find something on the Web, what do you do? You probably start with a search engine. So that is where you should start in promoting an online store.

Most online stores get most of their traffic from search engines. There are hundreds of search engines and indices, but only seven that matter: Yahoo, AltaVista, Excite, WebCrawler, InfoSeek, Lycos, and HotBot. (Viaweb sites are automatically submitted to all of these, except Yahoo, which can't be automated.)

All the others might account for 1% of your traffic, combined. So if you are in the top seven, you are doing fine.

Although Yahoo is often called a search engine, it is fundamentally different from the others. In fact, it is not really a search engine at all.

A search engine works by sending a program, called a "crawler" or "spider" to your site. It retrieves your pages and stores them in a database. Later, when someone comes to the search engine and searches for "chocolate", the search engine will tell them about all the pages in its database that contain that phrase, possibly including yours.

Yahoo is different. It does not have a crawler. When you submit your site to Yahoo, you can supply a description of up to 200 characters. And when someone does a search of Yahoo, those descriptions are all that get searched.

So while searching for "chocolate" at a true search engine like AltaVista or Excite could find you if the word "chocolate" occurs anywhere in your site, a Yahoo search for "chocolate" will only find you if "chocolate" was included in the description you supplied when you submitted your site to Yahoo.

Yahoo searches are narrower. And that, for shoppers, is the value of Yahoo. Because if you search for "chocolate" in a true search engine, you'll get thousands upon thousands of results, most of them merely recipes. If you search for it in Yahoo, at least you'll only get those sites where chocolate was important enough to be mentioned in the description.

What does this mean for you? It means that you should be very careful when you write your site description for Yahoo. You should use all 200 characters, and if there is any text in your description that you couldn't imagine someone searching for, it is wasted.

You probably can't just supply a list of keywords as your Yahoo description, because Yahoo will reject it, but the closer you can get, the better.

Here is an example of a ineffective Yahoo description:
We have been selling the highest quality domestic and imported gourmet foods since 1927.
There is only one word in this description that your customers might search for: "gourmet". Your customers are not going to be searching for "quality" or "1927".

You'll get a lot more traffic if you say:
Selling cookware and gourmet foods including cheese, caviar, sturgeon, lox, salmon, foie gras, truffles, herbs, spices, olive oil, vinegar, chutney, mustard, tea, coffee, rugelach and chocolate.
This description uses almost all 200 characters, and almost every word is a possible search keyword.

It's worth taking the time to write a good Yahoo description, because Yahoo is one of the biggest sources of sales for online stores.

When you submit your URL to search engines, don't expect your site to show up immediately. Your front page will show up in AltaVista and Excite the next day, but the others are slow to add new listings.

In some search engines, it can be a month or more before even your first page is indexed, and much longer before your site is fully indexed. That's because most search engine crawlers typically retrieve only a few pages from each site on each visit, and visits can be weeks apart.

Since it can take months for your site to be fully indexed, you should have your pages online months before you expect people to search for what's on them. So if you want consumers to find your site when they search for gifts in November and December, your site should be up and running in August or September.

When search engines return results, they are sorted by "relevance". Most users don't look beyond the first couple pages of search results, so it is a big advantage to come up first. How do you get your site to appear first in the search engines?

There is no easy trick that will work in all cases, because (a) all the search engines are different, and (b), if there were a trick, everyone would use it, and it would be just as hard to come up first.

Generally, someone searching for "chocolate" is more likely to get a page in your site if the word "chocolate" appears often on that page, especially if it appears in the title. But it will not work simply to have your page begin with the word "chocolate" repeated 100 times. Most search engines filter out sites that try that.

The best approach is to use key words frequently in your site, but not in a way that appears unnatural. In general, the more text in your site, the bigger a target you present to search engines.

It may also help to put keywords in special tags, called "meta tags", within your pages. If your software supports meta tag keywords (Viaweb does), it can't hurt to use them, but if not, don't worry. As long as you use the important keywords in your pages, meta tags won't add much.

Is there anything you shouldn't do, if you want traffic from search engines? There are two major don'ts. Don't use frames, and don't use software that generates your pages dynamically.

Frames are a way of dividing your pages into separate "panes". Many search engine crawlers ignore sites that use frames. If you use frames in your site, you will only make it into about half the search engines.

Even more important, if you want traffic from search engines, is not to use software that generates your pages dynamically, as the consumer is looking at them. (iCat works this way, for example.) Currently, all search engine crawlers ignore dynamically generated pages. So any part of your site that is dynamically generated will not exist, as far as search engines are concerned.

To maximize your traffic from search engines:

  1. Submit your site to the top seven (or use software that does it for you).
  2. Use search keywords in your Yahoo description.
  3. Use keywords frequently in your site, but not in a way that appears unnatural.
  4. Allow search engines several months to index your site.
  1. Use frames.
  2. Use software that generates your pages dynamically.

Text copyright © 1998 Paul Graham. Feel free to reproduce any of this text on your own Web site, so long as you reproduce it verbatim, and include this message. For any other use, please contact the author. Viaweb and Viamall are trademarks of Viaweb Inc. All other trademarks are the property of their respective owners.

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