Regularly updating and improving your site is a very important and time intensive task, so much so that you may forget to regularly check the effects of your efforts in terms of a very important traffic source - search engines. Without monitoring the impact you are having on search engines, you may be heading in totally the wrong direction in the evolution of your site.
It's more than just watching rankings
Watching where you actually rank in search engine results and tweaking pages is only one part of the equation - take it further; you also need to consider:
It's all about getting in touch with not only what's happening internally, creating more quality content to assist in the search engine ranking lottery, but external factors that can impact on the success of your site - both now and in the near future.
Automated tools abound for carrying out this sort of work; for example there's a plethora of free Google tools around - but sometimes it's a case of "humans do it better" :). You need to delve into what the results are indicating; and in many cases you don't even need fancy tools to reap valuable data.
Here's a scenario - search engine tool A tells you that X number of sites are linking to you. But what if 90% of X sites are posting bad reviews about you? Tool A also won't tell you about the quality of the sites. I've seen many posts in webmaster forums where the site owner has complained that he has hundreds more backlinks than a competitor, yet the competitor consistently ranks higher. In some scenarios, this is simply due to the quality of the backlinks. I'd much rather be linked from 5 high quality sites, than 50 "scraper" sites
By digging deeper, beyond just the numbers that automated tools or search engine themselves provide, you can really improve your rankings, presence and bottom line.
Here's another scenario - you're sure your site is mentioned favourably on hundreds of sites, but have very few backlinks. In many instances this is simply because the other sites have mentioned "yoursite.com"; but there's no actual link.
The following are a few simple tips that can help you gain a clearer picture of how your site is doing and strategies for ramping up your presence.
Gauging backlinks - sites that link to yours
To discover *some* of the sites linking back to you in Google:
in MSN Search
It's important to understand that while all major search engines will provide you with information on sites/pages that link back to you, they will more than likely never display all of them. This is for a couple of reasons
How much of your site is indexed by a search engine?
This is especially useful as the first stage of troubleshooting why your site may not be performing well in the search engines. Your site may have hundreds of pages of content, but if only one or two are listed, then you're really reducing the chances of good rankings.
To determine the pages of your site that are listed in Google, Yahoo and MSN:
If you find that only a small percentage of your pages are listed, study your server logs and stats to determine if search engine spiders are visiting, and how thoroughly they appear to be indexing your site.
If you find that you're getting few spiders crawling over your site; some of the points I mention in my article "Why isn't my site listed in search engines?" may apply.
Where else is your content appearing?
If you provide content for reproduction on other sites and would like to see where it's ending up, or you wish to track down sites that reproducing content without authorization, or those who are plagiarizing your content; a few simple queries can be run.
Open up a page on your site and look for a "rare phrase", i.e., one that wouldn't be repeated too often in other sites.
Here's an example - a phrase from a 301 redirect tutorial I published:
"301 redirect is the most efficient and spider/visitor friendly"
Copy that phrase into Google and ensure you encapsulate it in quotations (")
You'll see quite a few listings - some of them authorized reproductions, some unauthorized and probably some where the "author" is not me has claimed the article to be his own work - and believe me, I'll be chasing those people with extreme prejudice ;).
This type of querying will not only display where a site has perhaps reproduced an entire article (either with or without authorization), but also where perhaps some of your content has been quoted, or used as the basis for another article.
Just on the topic of unauthorized reproduction, you may want to read my in-depth article on identifying and dealing with the issue of pagejacking. Pagejackers can have a serious effect on your rankings.
Different data centers produce different results
If you have a page promoting an event in Flombletown USA, it's solid, well laid out, getting heaps of traffic and yet you're getting few inquiries; one of the possibilities is that the visitors you are receiving are interested in Flombletown, Australia.
Another scenario may be that you just have a general page that hasn't been changed for a while and suddenly starts getting a lot of hits - but only from a particular country.
Most major search engines have data centers in multiple countries and depending on which country you're in can dictate which data center your query will be directed to. Large fluctuations in traffic from specific countries can become very apparent during a major search engine index update - propagation of new rankings throughout all data centers can take days or even weeks. It's called a "dance".
A few years ago, it was relatively easy to trace back this activity, but with engines such as Yahoo and MSN regularly changing IP's for different data centers, researching this phenomenon on those two engines can be quite frustrating.
For Yahoo and MSN, your best bet for at least determining if there's an update happening that may not be apparent in your neck of the woods yet is to check out the activity in the forums at WebMasterWorld
A word of warning: WebMasterWorld can be quite addictive. Some people spend more time in there than actually working on their sites. Also bear in mind that tips you see posted on WMW forums can sometimes be "bleeding edge" and risky, or just personal opinions rather than fact. When approaching Search Engine Optimization for your site, it's always best to stick with tried and tested optimization techniques that will keep your nose clean.
Discovering site mentions without links
We've looked at how to determine who is linking to you - but what about sites that only mention your site name - no backlink? You may be surprised at the huge number of sites where this occurs!
Run this query on Google, Yahoo and MSN:
So many site owners spend valuable time, or employ marketers, to engage in linking campaigns - and quality links are becoming increasingly difficult to get. You may find you have a treasure trove of related sites already who mention you but don't link back. A politely worded email requesting that they edit the mention to contain a link could provide huge rewards - not just in ranking improvements, but given that people are lazy by nature; they may click on a link, but not be bothered with having to copy and paste or type in a web address into a browser.
This article only just scratches the surface of "beyond the listing" related issues, but I hope it has provided you with some valuable information to bring you increased success in your online business!
Further learning resources
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In Loving Memory - Mignon Ann Bloch
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