It's been a few years since my last article on getting your site noticed on Google, Tips on Improving Your Google Search Engine Ranking. The situation hasn't changed much, and the article is still relevant today. However, over these years I have learned a couple more things about what to do and what not to do on your website with regards to your site's placement on the search engine results.
Everyone knows that search engines (not just Google, but probably every one of them) frown on hidden text. Some people use hidden text to stuff keywords on their pages so that when people type those words on the search engine, your site will show, even though your page does not have any visible sign of those words.
I have never believed in hiding my keywords in hidden text or any of those cloak and dagger stuff, and hence I don't practise such things. Imagine my surprise, when one day, a few years back, I suddenly found my pages on thefreecountry.com receiving a Page Rank of 0 because of hidden text on the page. (See my other article on Google Page Rank if you don't know what Page Rank is.)
No, I did not compromise on my principles or anything like that. I did not try any underhand tactics to stuff keywords, etc. The reason is more mundane.
At that time, I had partially converted thefreecountry.com to use CSS for its site design instead of the traditional <font> and <table>tags. In those years, there were still a few people using the old Netscape 4 which did not support CSS correctly. To accomodate those people, I tried to make my site degrade gracefully when it detected an old browser being used. I also put a message that contained the following text:
This text was enclosed in a box that was hidden from view if you were using a modern browser, but visible if you used Netscape 4. I used the usual methods of getting different browsers to load different stylesheets as mentioned in my article How to Use Different CSS Style Sheets For Different Browsers (and How to Hide CSS Code from Older Browsers).
Unfortunately, Google's algorithms detected that some text was hidden, and not realizing that it was also visible in other cases, automatically assumed I was employing some sort of skulduggery to get those keywords into its index. It then penalized my site accordingly.
When I realized that my attempt to help my visitors was going to cost my site's position in the search engine results, I immediately pulled the message, and its accompanying CSS, from the site. Visitors using old browsers would still be able to use the site, but they would not receive any friendly explanation. I was disgusted that I had to do this because Google at the time were ("was" in US English) telling webmasters not to worry about how the search engine perceived their site and just design as they saw fit to accommodate their visitors. But of course I couldn't, since without the search engine, I won't have any visitors to accommodate.
Although the days of Netscape 4 are long gone, the lessons learnt from that incident are still useful today. Undoubtedly many of you will not even dream of using keyword stuffing in hidden text and the like. However, as I found out from the above incident, Google's search engine is far from intelligent, and its hidden text detection algorithm can bite legitimate webmasters too. If it even senses hidden text, even for an innocuous purpose like mine, your site is history.
Some ways in which you might inadvertently use hidden text (possibly without knowing, if you use third-party scripts) include the use of drop-down menus for site navigation and browser-specific tips for users (like in my case above). I'm fairly certain that the Google programmers keep refining their engine so that the more common use of CSS to hide text for harmless purposes like navigation menus (and so on) are recognized as benign, but if you are about to use hidden text for some fancy design gimmick on your page, you might want to test it out on some obscure page on your site to see if Google's algorithms choke on it. After all, always remember your site's life depends on a computer program, not a human. It may be obvious to you and other people that the code is harmless, designed for some acceptable purpose, but computer software can only follow a set of preprogrammed rules.
Note that neither the navigation menu created by my Free CSS Navigation Menu Button Wizard nor the one created by the Free Drop Down Navigation Menu Wizard uses hidden text for the various menu items (or anything else for that matter), so don't worry. They are straightforward menus that do not use any trickery to accomplish their jobs.
I get many queries everyday from new webmasters reading thesitewizard.com, asking me how they can get the link to their site to be shown on the first page of the Google search engine results. In fact, for some of them, getting their site to appear anywhere in the first few pages of Google's results would already be a victory.
If you are in a hurry to get your site noticed, and have a budget allocated for your site's search engine promotion, one instant way to get to the first page of Google's results page is to buy advertisements on the words or phrases you think people will search for. Before you summarily dismiss this, read everything I have to say first.
Google's Adwords (the name of their advertising program) actually operates according to your budget: that is, you can spend according to what you can afford. It also allows you to place the adverts on precisely the keywords you would have wanted for your site to appear in the search engine results. Unlike the normal search engine however, you control the exact keyword which will trigger the display of your advertisement. The facility comes with a price though. If a particular set of keywords is popular, the amount of money you will have to sink into your advertisement will probably increase, not only because you have a lot of potential customers clicking on the advert (which is a good thing) but also because your competitors are bidding for the same set of keywords (which is not so pleasant). Yes, I used the word "bidding". The procedure has the overtones of an auction.
Many new webmasters I deal with don't consider this as a viable option, because it involves cash-outlay. I agree that if you are merely running a personal site or a hobby site that does not receive an income, advertising this way is probably out of the question. You should then work on applying the usual search engine promotion tips and hope for the best in the long run. However, if your site is a business site that yields an income, you might want to calculate the costs and benefits to see if you can actually earn more this way. Treat your expenditure on the advertisements like all other business expenditure and calculate your return on investment (ROI). If you spend (say) 50 cents per click on your advertisement, and every 100 clicks gets you one person who spends $100 on your site, you would have made a profit of $50 for each batch of a hundred clicks (ie, $100 - [$0.50 x 100] = the profit of $50). This is income that you would not otherwise have made had you not advertised. Of course, as in all things, it's possible to go overboard and spend more than you earn. You might want to consider setting aside an budget for a month or two as an experiment, and adjust as you go along to see if this approach increases your profits.
Google is now, arguably, the most important search engine around. Knowing what you should not do to survive Google, as well as learning one way to throw money at the problem of getting an instantaneous good placement on its search engine results page, is now a very important part of website promotion.
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