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Analysis of a Search Engine Listing

The typical user goes to his or her favorite search engine to find something in particular. Common search engines include Lycos, AltaVista, HotBot, Excite, LookSmart, AOL Search, and search.msn.com. We'll use the Excite search engine in our example, but most of these search engines work the same way. The user visits the search engine and types in one or more keywords related to the topic they're interested in. The search engine then returns a list of sites related to those keywords. For example, suppose the user is interested in dating. He or she types the word dating into the search engine, and gets back something that looks like Figure 2 (only the top four results are displayed here).

Figure 2 Actual search engine listing for the keyword dating.

The first important thing to notice is that the search engine only returns a limited number of results per page. In our example, there are close to 2.5 million sites related to dating. Obviously, not all of them can be shown onscreen at once, so the search engine only lists a few at a time, 10 in our example. Intuitively, you would expect that the earlier you appear in the listing, the higher the probability that users will see and visit your site. Conventional web site developer wisdom states that users don't check past the first five listings. However, I believe it's more like the first two listings; you need your site to appear either in the first page of listings or the second page for search engines to be an effective means of delivering traffic to your site. Our first goal, then, is to get ranked highly in the search engines.

However, getting ranked highly is not our only goal. Take another look at the search engine listing in Figure 2. Which link wouldn't you click? If you're like most people, you probably wouldn't click the fourth link, since its first line says Untitled and the third line in its description says No summary is available. What's going on? Why is this listing so uninformative? The answer is that the site's owners set up their site to appear high in the search engine listing, but they didn't make it attractive so that users would click the listing. Thus, our second goal is to provide a descriptive search listing so that users want to click your site when they see it listed. Doing both requires instrumenting the pages in your personal web business a certain way, which we examine next.

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