Making Your Pages Easy for Search Engines to Index

by Andrew Starling

First, let's dispense with the zombies and headless chickens. Many companies
and experts offer methods of deceiving search engine spiders to gain high
rankings. And a few of these methods even work - at least for a while.

On the other side of the front line are the search engines themselves,
engaged in a perpetual battle to identify these techniques, commonly known
as spamming, and penalize the sites that use them because they distort
search results. And of course the search engines want the sole right to do
that themselves, through accepting payments for high rankings, but that's
another story.

Often the techniques used by spamming experts backfire - they're spotted and
punished by low rankings. Even more often, the same techniques are attempted
by regular webmasters, who are not dedicated search engine experts and can't
keep up with the progress of the battle, so they get wiped out soon after
the opening credits. As a small example, just renaming your pages with
spider-friendly filenames, without changing their content, can get them
demoted in the rankings.

The easiest way to avoid this virtual war is to step aside and provide the
search engines with what they want and observe their rules. Few sites manage
to do this, and yet it's both effective and "legal".

The Time Element
There will be no instant results. Getting a good search engine ranking takes
time. That's one of the best ways to identify charlatans from real experts.
Anybody who promises instant gratification is in the voodoo business.

Search engines do not publish their precise methods of working, but most
anecdotal evidence points to the importance of time. They simply do not
trust new sites to deliver the goods. Also the engines are oversubscribed
and have too many sites to index, so they're prone to dropping new sites
from their listings on the grounds that many young sites are destined not to
reach maturity, so it would be silly to take them too seriously while
they're still in diapers.

You need to allow six months to a year for a decent search engine strategy
to work. It will then continue to work for a long time, with minimal effort.
But in the first few months it might not be a star performer. If your site
doesn't provide what visitors want to see then it might never perform at
all, but once again, that's a different story.

During the first year of promoting a new site, you may have to resubmit your
site a number of times because it's repeatedly dropped by the search
engines. That's fine. It's part of the game. They're just checking that
you're serious.

You may also experience long delays between submission and actual listing.
Look at the details provided by the search engine when you make your
submission - often they'll tell you how long the delay will be. Allow a few
weeks extra, to be on the safe side, before resubmitting.

All your submissions should be done manually, and it's a good idea to keep a
record of them so you don't bug specific engines too often. If you do, you
will be penalized. Automatic submission systems ("With one keystroke
register your site with 1,500 search engines!") are for suckers. The search
engines quickly identify them and ignore them, or, worse still, punish the
sites that use them.

Spiders are Machines
Spiders (or robots) are software programs the search engine companies create
to trawl the Web and index sites. They create massive databases that the
engines then use to return search results.

They follow rules of logic, impeccably, and have no flexibility. They have
no idea what your site really looks like, nor do they have a sense of humor.
It's highly unlikely that a real human will look at your site as part of the
indexing process. The exception is when you apply for a listing with a
directory such as Yahoo! (

When designing your site, it's important to remember that it will be read by
machines. This means, for example, if you turn all your major page headings
into graphics, the spiders won't be able to recognize where your main
heading are and identify the core text areas that follow, even though this
would pose no problem for a human viewer.

On the other hand, if you go all out for machine-readability, you may well
get the thumbs-down from a Yahoo reviewer, who has no interest in how your
pages appear to a machine. It's all a question of balance.

Search engine spiders want to read the text on your pages, and especially
the introductory text near the top of the page. This mirrors the way human
beings assess pages - by reading them, starting at the top.

Here are some guidelines to keep text-hungry spiders happy:

1) Provide text. Pages without text rarely gain high rankings. This is
especially important for home pages. If there's no text on the opening page
then the spider might stop right there and not even bother to look at the
rest of your site. It's one reason for avoiding Splash pages at the front
end. Ideally you should provide at least 150 words of text on your home

2) Make full use of early paragraphs to include relevant keywords. Most
search engines place emphasis on early text, and less on the words further
down the page. The numbers vary from engine to engine, but you can assume
the first 50 words are crucial, the next 50 are important, the 50 following
are likely to be read. After that, it's anybody's guess, though some engines
do manage to fully index pages with more than a thousand words. Try to get
your important keywords - the expressions you expect your visitors to use in
their searches - included in your first 150.

3) Don't overdo any repetition. If you repeat your keywords too often, you
could be penalized. There's no magic number to aim for, but if you repeat
keywords three times or less, you should be safe.

4) Concentrate on the main text. You might have a separate top table
(perhaps containing an advert and logo) plus a left hand column with links.
These will appear in the HTML file before your main, central text block.
There's a temptation to think these areas are more important than the main
text area because spiders read them first. If these outlying areas contain a
lot of text (unlinked) then this may well be true. But many engines try to
ignore peripheral HTML blocks, especially if they're heavy on links, and
head straight for the center. It's not too difficult for them to do. They
simply look for the largest title (within <h> tags) on the page and assume
that whatever follows that is the most important text area.

5) It's not much use getting your keywords in the right place if you've
chosen the wrong ones. It doesn't help the spiders either. They'd prefer you
to choose the right keywords so their indexing works as intended. It's worth
spending a few hours on deciding your keywords, maybe trying out a few
expressions in the search engines and seeing if they deliver the sites you
want to compete with.

6) Spiders have lists of stop words - mainly related to adult content and
profanity. When they find one of these words they may abandon your site
altogether. If you have a page that includes a possible stop word, hide it
from spiders by making it an exclusion in your robots.txt file (see later).
Also watch out for words that have two meanings, one of which is sexual.
Spiders don't understand context.

7) If you have pages full of links, make sure there's plenty of text to
accompany them. Pure link listings are often ignored by spiders, but if you
add a couple of sentences describing each link, the problem disappears.

Popular Sites are Exceptions
Often you can learn a few tricks by looking at the most popular sites on the
Web and seeing how they do things. But not in this case. The most popular
sites are given a special status by search engines and indexed under
slightly different rules than regular sites. They are more likely to be
indexed thoroughly and frequently, which means they don't have to try as
hard. Also, because it's assumed they won't try to spam the engines, they're
forgiven the occasional mistake, such as overusing a keyword.

Titles and Filenames Count
Spiders like to see useful page titles, and some also appreciate relevant
filenames. It helps them, but unfortunately the mechanism has been abused,
so they're wary. Try to use filenames and page titles that match your text
content and keywords, rather than using them to cover keywords that don't
otherwise get a mention. Words in filenames can be separated by an
underscore - this is a convention that IT professionals used before the
Internet arrived, so it's perfectly acceptable. But if your filenames turn
into a long sequence of keywords, spiders will assume you're trying to spam

Meta Tags
These go in the file header, in two sections - keywords and description. The
meta tag system has been so heavily abused that some engines simply ignore
them. But it's still worth spending a few minutes on creating them for the
engines that remain interested. Keep them short and don't use words that are
missing from the main text. If you spend a long time working on meta tags,
you're probably trying to manipulate the system and you may well be found
out. Create them quickly, using the simplest, most obvious content, and it's
more likely they'll work as intended.

Image Alt Descriptions
These create the text that shows in an image space before a graphic loads,
and subsequently when the mouse rolls over it. They've been sorely abused,
often crammed with long lists of keywords, and again the spiders have wised
up and tend to ignore them, or penalize obvious abuse.

Their proper use is to show visitors with text only browsers (and
impaired-vision visitors with talking browsers) what they're missing. Using
them as a method of presenting keywords is spamming and you can hardly
complain if it gets you a ranking penalty.

Frames confuse most spiders. If you insist on using frames, then make the
most of your <noframes> tag and include a link within it to a sitemap or
contents page that lists your pages and links to them directly, rather than
linking to framesets. You can always force the framesets to appear when the
links are followed in a regular browser by using JavaScript, which the
spiders will ignore. It's a lot of work but at least it should get you
listed in the search engines.

This text file goes in your root directory and gives instructions to spiders
about which files and directories to ignore when they're trawling your site.
It can have other uses too, but many of these are close to spamming
techniques so won't be covered here.

Here's a sample robots.txt file:

User-Agent: *
Disallow: /images/
Disallow: /bookmark*.html
Disallow: /cgi_bin/
Disallow: /status/

This tells all spiders (first line) not to look inside the directories
called images, cgi_bin and status, and to ignore files called
bookmark1.html, bookmark2.html and so on. Incidentally, the linebreaks are

It's a good idea to include a robots.txt file on your site, even if you
don't have much to exclude. It helps prevent spiders wasting their time
poking around in your image directories. And since spiders often tire and
give up with sites without fully indexing them (especially new sites) it can
help you get the more important areas of your site indexed.

Directory Structure
Spiders find their way around your site by following your internal links.
They prioritize pages that are in the root directory, then first level
directories, and if you're lucky (or a very popular site) they may look at
subdirectories beyond that, but often they won't bother. That's why you find
most professional sites have a flat structure, with many pages in the root
directory and first-level subdirectories, rather than a deep structure with
many levels of subdirectories.

Dynamic Pages
Spiders generally have trouble with these. Also they're a little frightened
of them because they can get trapped inside a dynamic page server, and may
even bring the server down. For this reason spiders identify dynamic pages
by the question mark contained in their URLs, and usually avoid them. Some
will allow you to submit specific dynamic pages, but they still won't follow
the internal links within them.

One solution is to create static gateway pages that include static links to
other pages on your site. Make sure the link URLs are inherently complete,
not generated on the fly, that they don't contain question marks, and that
your server can translate these static links to reach dynamic pages if it
has to. Also make sure there's plenty of text on the gateway page, that it
isn't purely made up of links, otherwise it may be ignored.

An alternative is to make technical alterations to your system so the server
can cope with a visit from a spider, and then replace the question mark with
a less obvious symbol such as a % sign. There's no point in making this
replacement if the server won't be able to cope. The usual problem is that
links to dynamic pages are often created dynamically themselves, and spiders
can't manage this. They request pages with incomplete URLs missing query
string elements, the server sends back a request for more information to
complete the URL, which the spider can't understand, and the request turns
into a dangerous loop. To get over this you have to create a work-around for
the incomplete URL problem, and technically that's a demanding task.

For more details on getting dynamic sites indexed, try NetMechanic
( and Spider Food

Additionals Links

* More on the robots.txt file

* How To Use HTML Meta Tags

* Everything you need to know about search engines, at SearchEngineWatch

* Theme-based spidering is a relatively new concept. Read about it here:

* Learn how to attract hungry arachnids at Spider Food

About the Author:

Andrew Starling is a Web developer, consultant and author based in the UK.
He was previously the Managing Editor of the Web Developer's Journal for and Technology Editor of the UK's Internet Magazine, for which
he still writes. His own Web sites are and
Foxglove is a satirical site and was chosen as the Mirror newspaper site of
the day back in August 2000. Tinhat covers Internet security and privacy.