Monday, August 10, 2009

To Find a Page

No one knows how many websites there are in the world today. Some estimates have been attempted in the past. According to a CNN article, dated 1st November 2006, there were 100 million websites with "domain names and content on them". Another research reported 11.5 billion pages as of January 2005 whereas Yahoo reported that it had 19.2 billion documents in its directories in the same year. In February 2007, the Netcraft Web Server Survey reportedly found 108,810,358 distinct websites. The Internet Domain Survey conducted in Jan 2008 reported 541,677,360 host sites that had responded to a ping. If nothing, these numbers, surveys and research tell us that nobody knows exactly how big the world wide web is, let alone the Internet. The exact number is really not that important, except perhaps to those who need to set the million dollar question in "Who wants to be a millionaire" or to trivia buffs. What really is important is whether people who surf the world wide web (www) can find a particular website in the quickest possible time. From the earliest days, Search Engines and Directories, such as Alta Vista, Yahoo, Lycos, etc., were invented to do just that - help people navigate the www to find a particular website. Search engines have become more sophisticated over time. They have become automated. Most search engines today don't so much rely on humans to do the categorizing and listings. Search Engines like Google's employ search bots to crawl the internet and do the indexing of websites, including positioning and ranking the websites it finds, based on some algorithms known only to the Search Engine provider.

But the broad rules that these algorithms implement have been known for quite some time now, which is why many firms can promise to optimize a website such that it appears at the top of search engine result pages. For example, modern Search Engines look at the descriptive title tag, which appears on the upper left border of most internet browsers. It used to give weight to the texts in the meta tags, until some unethical SEO firms abused this by stuffing the meta tags with keywords that were irrelevant to the subject of the website. The process of ensuring that a web page is listed in the first search results page is called Search Engine Optimization (SOE). It is big business in the web for some time now and have grown in tandem with the increasing importance of Search Engines such as Google in web marketing. Shari Thurow has written on this subject again in her book, "Search Engine Visibility" (New Riders Publishing, 2008, 2nd Edition), in which she discusses the subject of SEO and offers many practical examples and methods of optimizing websites to ensure visibility on the search engine's results pages.

She points out that there are 3 major components of search optimization - text component, link component and popularity components and proceeds to discuss, in detail, why these 3 components are so important to SEO and how one might go about implementing these. Along the way, she debunks a few 'urban legends' that are a hold-over from the earlier days of SEO. Shari does not offer any magic bullet. She makes the point that SEO can be hard work, beginning with keyword research. But she also shows how to Yahoo Search Marketing, Google adWords and Microsoft adCenter, amongst others, to determine common keywords used by searchers for a product or service and structure them into the website to optimize the page's visibility in search engines. She also discusses links, which are often embedded in graphics, and how search engines indexes these for searching purposes. Website popularity has to do with external links. While not within the entire control of the website designer, Shari offers practical advice on how to build such externals links through appropriate Web Directory links, reciprocal links, and most importantly, through good original content.

So what's so different about this book compared to the hundreds of them already published? I am afraid I can't compare with other books because this is the only book I have read cover to cover on the subject of SEO so far. But a few things impress me about Shari's book. First, she comes across as sincere, practical and honest about the subject. She doesn't guarantee anything because in SEO, nothing can really be guaranteed. I tend to agree with her. People come up with the rules (the 'algorithm') to place a web page in a particular position. These same people can change these rules tomorrow.

Second, she strikes me as having the experience that makes her discussion and recommendation on the subject credible. She cites examples of one or two of cases where SEO has gone wrong and how they had to be fixed. And she provides checklists of things to ask and steps to take in order to arrive at a desire outcome.

Third, she is clear about what are important, what are secondary and what are useless in SEO, so that users spend time on the really important things that will truly make a difference in putting their sites on top of a search engine result.

Fourth, and probably most important of all, she promotes an ethical approach to SEO. We are all familiar with e-mail spam. Shari points out that many dubious SEO providers engage in Search Engine spam - techniques and methods that seek to put a website up the search result rankings by exploiting the behaviour of the search engines. These include setting up artificial link farms, cloaking, doorway and gateway pages, free-for-all (FFA) websites as well as keyword stuffing and stacking, amongst others. She points out that some of these may have worked in the past, but that search engine providers such as Google have responded to these instances of abuse by changing their algorithms to, for example, give less priority to keywords in meta-tags - a technique much touted in the past to gain visibility in search results. Shari devotes an entire section in the book discussing the dos and don'ts of SEO, which is important for, as Shari points out, abusing Search Engines can lead to the website being blacklisted.

This an excellent book if you want to learn how to promote your website on Search Engines effectively and ethically. It is also an eye-opener on the design of Search Engines today and what are important and what are peripheral in any consideration of Search Engine behaviour. I recommend this book highly.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Blog log

I have been blogging since 24 July 2005. Not a long time and certainly not the longest time. Blogs, as a genre, started appearing as early as 1998/1999. At that time, I thought little about it. I thought it was nothing more than a platform for a person's personal diary. I was more interested in constructing the next big web site then.

But simple things have a way of taking on a life of its own, blogs included. By the time I started blogging in 2005, there were already millions penning their thoughts, their lives and their rants on platforms such as, Movable Type, LifeJournal and Wordpress. Today, I am still blogging, though not at the rate I used to. But I am still keenly interested in the ever changing blogging technologies out there. So when I came across the reasonably thin book (its 207 pages long), "What no one ever tells you about Blogging and Podcasting" by Ted Demopoulos, I was intrigued.

The book is organised into 101 bite-sized chapters of no more than 2 pages long. Each chapter focuses on a particular topic or tip, some of which are familiar while others are new - even to one who has blogged for that last 4 years. It is a book that you can get through very quickly. You skim those chapters which you are familiar with, and dwell on those chapters which has more to say to you. I have tried to read some books on blogging and gave up 2 chapters into these books as I found them heavy going. Those books are probably suitable for those doing research on blogging. This book, on the other hand, is for those who want to do it and get on with it. The good thing about the book is it covers podcasting and, to a lesser extent, videocasting. I am not familiar with Podcasting, so that was were I spent more time on the book. But I have found new things to learn in the chapters on blogging too.

The 101 chapters cover a wide range of topics on blogging and podcasting, from the basics to the use of blogging/podcasting in business, making money (or not), promoting your blogs and extracting statistics on how your blog is performing - quite a plateful, I must say, but easy to read and get through. My only minor complaint is that it has some typo in the texts, which lowered my perception of the quality of the book. I wouldn't go out to buy it (sorry), but if you can find it in the library, or if your friend already has it, it is probably worth a read. However, to each his own. Maybe it should sit in your library, for that instance when you want to find out what more you can do with your blog.