Reader Q&A: July 2000

Q. What are the maximum lengths for the description and keyword meta tags?

There aren't set official lengths. Rather, each search engine only makes use of a certain number of characters. Generally, stick with 200 characters for your description and 1000 characters for keywords, and you'll be fine. Going longer than this does not disqualify your tags. The extra information simply won't be indexed, or in the case of a description tag, be displayed on screen.

Q. How often can I repeat words in meta tags?

There are no published rules. See the More About Meta Tags article for some general advice that may help you avoid problems.

Q. Can you make search engines revisit your site more often by using the meta revisit tag?

The meta revisit tag looks like this:

The idea is that by specifying a time span, such as 15 days in the example above, you'll make the search engines revisit your site as often as you specify. However, none of the major search engines recognize this tag. They will not revisit according to any time span you specify within it. Instead, they'll come back according to their own schedules.

Q. Does the title tag have to come before meta tags?

No, and for more about this issue, especially for FrontPage users, see the More About Meta Tags article.

Q. Some search engines use the first text found within the body tag as the "description" text they display for that page. They disregard the meta description tag. How can I control hide my page summary for these engines?

You can make an image the first thing that appears after the body tag and insert your description as ALT text for that image. That's especially helpful for the Lycos crawler. You might also make a comment tag with your description appear right after the body tag. Finally, you can simply ensure that the first 200 characters or so of HTML text after a body tag contains the description you want. Despite these attempts, there will still be some search engines like Google that make their own decision on what to use for a description, rather than using your meta description tag or the alternatives I've suggested.

Q. If I have the word, "marketing" in my meta tag keyword list, and someone enters the word "market," can most search engines today figure out that "market" is contained in "marketing," or should I include both market and marketing in my tag.

You should include both forms, and not just within the keywords tag but also in the page copy itself. That's far more important. While some search engines may use "stemming" to understand that marketing is a form of the word "market," you cannot depend on this and you may still generally find that they will give preference to exact matches.

Q. If a website uses frames, should the meta tags be in each frame and are there other considerations for registering or promoting framed sites with the various search engines?

To paraphrase Grandmaster Flash, "Frames -- don't do it!" If you must, each framed page that you'd like search engines to list should have its own unique meta tags. But to get those pages listed, you also need to make sure search engines can find them in the first place (see my frames tutorial for more about this). As for other considerations, the main issue is that frames make it difficult for search engines to crawl your site, or for human editors to bookmark particular sections of your site. Both factors decrease your ability to get listed, so you should avoid using frames altogether, if possible.

Q. Where can I find the "rules" about what search engines consider to be spamming?

The What Is Search Engine Spamming? page summarizes some of the more common spamming tactics that search engines may penalize for. Some of the search engines also provide information about spamming within their help pages, though this is usually sparse.

Q. How often should I resubmit?

A. I operate on the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" rule. If your site is listed well with search engines, then I don't see great advantages to resubmitting. However, if you see your traffic drop from a particular search engine, then resubmitting to that search engine can make sense.

Q. Will I get in trouble submitting other people's pages to the search engines?

What type of trouble, morally, legally or with the search engines themselves? The answer depends on the type of page you are resubmitting. If you submit a page that a search engine doesn't currently list, for purposes of helping to improve its listings, you should have no problems. Similarly, if you submit a page that no longer exists, in order to help a search engine remove it from its listings, that also poses no problems.

Some webmasters submit pages that have changed since the search engine has last visited them, especially if these are competitor pages that have good rankings for particular terms. A search engine should revisit these anyway, so it would be hard for anyone to argue that you've done any harm. Similarly, some webmasters submit pages that have current listings, simply to see if they can cause a ranking to drop.

Morally, I don't like this, nor do I think I'm alone in that. However, other people may feel this is perfectly fine. Legally, there's never been a case I know of involving submission of other people's pages. Potentially, one could be raised, if the web site owner could prove you did the submission and equally convince a court that your submission caused them real harm. As for the search engines, if you were to embark on a large scale resubmission of current pages, they probably would not look upon this favorably. It's unclear how they'd be able to track this back to an individual, though. At best, they might block your IP address. That only hurts those with dedicated Internet connections. People connecting by modem get a different IP address each time they connect.

Finally, some people may resubmit many pages from a site in hopes of convincing a search engine that the site is attempting to spam them. I find this morally wrong, and I think most people would also agree with this. Legally, it would make for a stronger case to show harm, as you are attempting to harm another sites reputation. The search engines themselves would definitely not like this activity.

Q. If I have subdomains for different web sites, will these be seen as separate web sites by search engines?

Let's talk definitions, first. There are top level domains, such as .com, .net and .edu. When site owners register a domain, technically these are subdomains of these top level domains. By generally, we refer to these as root domains. For instance, this would be a root domain:

Sometimes people create additional "subdomains" that are extensions of their root domains. For instance, these are all subdomains:

All the major search engines will treat these subdomains as separate sites, even though they use the same base domain. That means they can each be submitted separately. This also offers some advantages to those who run particularly large web sites. By breaking your site up into subdomains, you may find more pages overall get indexed.

See also the Submitting & Encouraging Crawlers page.

Q. I'm on Tripod, and I can't get listed on the search engines. HELP!

I'd get your own site, under your own domain, rather than doing it within or any place offering "free" home pages. Sites offering free home pages are often looked upon with suspicion by search engines, because search engine spammers also make use of them. It's like sharing a house with bad roommates. Move out, get your own house, and you'll probably do better with search engines.

Q: Is there a standard out there for how much search engine traffic should come from optimization efforts? In terms of web site traffic, is there a percentage one should expect from search engines?

A: There are no standards that I know of. Every site is different. Some may naturally attract more traffic from search engines than others. Personally, I think having 15 to 50 percent of your traffic from search engines is fine. More than that amount, and you are probably too dependent on search engines. Less than that, and you can probably do better. Also see this article, Survey Finds Search Engine Referrals Low, for another take on the issue

Q. Do search engines read Flash content?

No. If you have a page that only has Flash content on it, the search engines will essentially see a blank page. It is especially important to avoid doing this on your home page, if it is the root page of a web server. That is because root pages are ranked more highly by most search engines than inside pages. Not having solid HTML content on your root page is like handing out a blank business card.

Q. I'm moving my web server. How do I help search engines find my new files?

"Server side redirection" is an easy way to ensure that you don't lose traffic when changing a file's name on your web server. It also helps search engine spiders locate moved pages, so they can update their listings. Server side redirection produces no spam penalties, as can be the case when search engines detect "page-based redirection" through JavaScript or the meta refresh tag. The article below provides tips on how to establish server side redirection.

The Fine Art of Redirection
ClickZ, July 7, 2000

This succinct tutorial explains how to send people automatically to a page's new address. The same technique as described in this article. Also, be sure to use the technique described to establish a "custom 404" page that pops up if someone tries to find a page you've removed or enters an incorrect address. A custom 404 page can be a useful way to guide visitors to other helpful areas of your web site, if their original goal no longer exists.

Q. I am about to change my web hosting company. Will this effect my search engine rankings?

The transition should be seamless to search engines and produce no problems. However, you might have trouble if you move to a hosting provider that has problems with bandwidth or server load. The search engines might drop your pages, if they have difficulty reaching them. Solution? Be sure to go with a reputable provider.

Q. Often my log files tell me 'no refer' for how someone came to my site. Is there any way to tell how these people found my site? Are there really that many people out there just typing in my address into their browsers?

Not all browsers pass on referrer information, and that's why you may see many of your entries shown as having no referrer data. This may also be people who came to your site via links on newsgroups or in email. Unfortunately, there's no way to extract the missing information.

Q. What the final word on plural vs. singular keywords? Should I use both variations in my titles, body copy, meta tags, etc?

If you want to be found by people searching in both the singular and plural, you'll need to use both forms. Some search engines may automatically look for plurals if a singular is used, and vice versa, but you'll still likely do better by using both forms.

Q. We use hyphens in our keywords, such as "high-tech training." Should we leave these out, in case people search without using hyphens?

To be absolutely safe, if you think most people search without hyphens, you might leave them out. However, it really shouldn't make a difference. My understanding from most search engines is that they ignore punctuation. So "high-tech training" would be seen as "high tech training." The hyphens are basically seen the same as having spaces between the letters. Keeping them in shouldn't hurt.

Q. Does using header tags (H1, H2 etc.) improve ranking, however slightly?

In the past, it was sometimes helpful to have your keywords or page headlines in an H1 tag. It won't hurt to do it, and maybe it might help a bit, but it is now generally less of a boosting factor.

Q. If we buy a domain name, then forward anyone coming to that name to another domain name, which name will the search engines use for our listings?

Search engines will ultimately index the page under whatever address they are forwarded to. In other words, go to the page and watch what happens to your browser's address area. If the address there changes because of how you've configured your server, then whatever address is ultimately left in the address box will be the one that the search engines will index.