Search engines are online services that allow users to scan the contents of the Internet to find Web sites or specific information of interest to them. A user inputs a search term, and the search engine attempts to match this term to categories or keywords in its catalog of World Wide Web sites. The search engine then generates a list of sites that match the search criteria, ranked in order of relevance. Search engines help organize the more than two billion pages of information on the World Wide Web and make them accessible to Internet users.

Search engines are the primary method Internet surfers use to locate information on the Web. In fact, Karl Greenberg noted in Brandweek that 85 percent of Internet surfers use search engines to locate information online. Search engines generate the largest percentage of new traffic to Web pages, followed by links from other sites, printed media, and word of mouth. For this reason, small businesses hoping to establish a presence on the Internet should make sure their Web sites are listed with a number of search engines.

Search engines "catalog and list your Web site information so that when someone using the Internet searches for information pertaining to products or services that you sell, your potential customer locates your site," Steffano Korper and Juanita Ellis wrote in The E-Commerce Book. "Search engines and directories function as listings of your site's theme and content, similar in function to a phone directory advertisement."


There are thousands of different search engines to help people navigate the Internet. These include major commercial search engines—like Yahoo!, Lycos, AltaVista, and Excite—as well as many smaller, industry-specific directories. There are even metasearchers, which work by querying a number of other search engines and processing the results. Many of the major search engines are created through an automated process in which a program called a spider "crawls" across the Web to gather information about existing sites. The spider captures this basic information and organizes its findings into categorizes, which are then used to generate search results for users. Small businesses hoping to list an existing Web site with a major search engine may find that the process has already been completed for them by an automated spider.

The largest and most popular search site, Yahoo!, is an exception to this rule. The Yahoo! listings are prepared by real people who actually look at each Web site, analyze its contents, and assign it to various classifications. Like most other commercial search engines, Yahoo! routinely seeks out new Web sites to include in its listings. However, small business owners may wish to change or add to the information that has been gathered about their sites. Many of the smaller directories are compiled using data submitted by individuals and businesses who want their site to be listed. Web page designers submit a form describing their sites, including keywords to describe the contents, in order to get a listing.

When a small business's potential customers use a search engine to scan the Internet for a particular type of information, they receive a list of matching Web sites ranked by relevance. The various search engines use different criteria to determine relevance. For example, Excite uses the number of links pointing to a particular site as a gauge of its popularity and ranks those sites higher. But regardless of the criteria used, the main idea of relevance rankings is to inform users how closely the contents of each site match their search criteria. As Vince Emery noted in How to Grow Your Business on the Internet, search engines generally rank Web sites higher if the keywords appear in the title of the page, as a headline in the body text, in the first 100 to 200 words of body text, or in the site's domain name. Another factor determining relevance rankings is the search term density, or how often the keywords appear in relation to other text on the Web site.

Since Web surfers generally have neither the time nor the inclination to examine hundreds of sites, small businesses need to achieve a high relevance ranking in order to attract visitors to their Web sites. "Your goal with search engines is not just to have a listing in a database," Emery wrote. "You need to rank in the first 50 listings returned, or even better, the first 25."

"No company that wants to thrive on the Web can do so without a top ranking on the major search engines," Fredrick Marckini, founder of search engine positioning firm iProspect, told Greenberg. "You can spend a million or two on a Web site, but if you don't do the things you need to do to make it found in the major search engines in the top 30 matches, your million-dollar Web site is a billboard in the woods."

There are a few steps you can take while designing or registering your Web site to improve the odds of it appearing near the top of the list. Most important among these are making sure keywords appear early and often, and following the registration process for each search engine carefully. But experts caution against trying to trick the search engines into ranking your Web page highly. Known as "search engine spamming," this practice is frowned upon and may cause your site to be rejected by some of the major search engines. The methods considered spamming include repeating a keyword multiple times on a Web page (for example, printing the word over and over in colored type that is invisible against the background of the page) and duplicating the same Web page with several different domain names in order to get multiple listings.

Korper and Ellis recommend that small business owners register their Web sites with a number of major search engines and directories. It may make sense to begin this process with the search engines that generate the most traffic, such as Yahoo!, Excite, and AltaVista, but it is also important to include smaller directories that may be popular within a specific industry. The registration process generally includes checking to see if your site is already listed, making any necessary changes to the automatically generated listing, finding out how the search engine organizes its listings, using this information to specify appropriate categories and keywords for your site, and then making sure that the keywords are placed in prominent positions on your site.

Several commercial services exist to help businesses register sites with search engines. Many of these services simplify the process by listing a Web site with a number of search engines at once. For example, Submit-It allows you to post the details of a Web site to 20 different directories from one central location. There are also search engine optimization firms whose purpose is to make Web pages more relevant in search engine results. For up-to-date information about search engines and directory listings—as well as tips on achieving high relevance rankings and links to online magazine articles—see .


Emery, Vince. How to Grow Your Business on the Internet. 3d Ed. Scottsdale, AZ: Coriolis Group, 1997.

Greenberg, Karl. "Search Patterns." Brandweek. September 11, 2000.

John, Lauren. "Wanted: As More of the IT Universe Moves to the Web, Search Engines Are Being Used to Take on Increasingly Complex Business Functions." Computerworld. July 3, 2000.

Korper, Steffano, and Juanita Ellis. The E-Commerce Book: Building the E-Empire. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2000.

Regan, Keith. "Does E-Commerce Need Search Engines?" E-Commerce Times. October 18, 2000.

Zetter, Kim, and Harry McCracken. "How to Stop Searching and Start Finding." PC World. September 2000.

SEE ALSO: Internet Domain Name ; Web Site Design

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