Beer and Tacos.  Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Chapter 7: Publicizing Your Site (Without Irritating Everyone on the Net)

by Philip Greenspun, part of Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing

Revised June 2003

Hate.  Manhattan 1995. This section explains how search services are built, how search engine sites sell advertising, how a publisher can determine the number of users who came to a site via a search engine (and what those people were searching for), how to improve a site's chances of being selected by a search engine in response to a query string, and how to make sure that dynamically-served content isn't inadvertently hidden from search engines.

How Search Engines Look to the User

The search engine's job is to produce a private view of the World Wide Web where links are sorted by relevance to a user's current interest. Users typing "history of Soho London" would expect to get a page of links to pages detailing the history of this neighborhood. The search engine user will bypass "entry tunnels" and bloated cover page GIFs and go right to the most relevant content anywhere on your Web server. That's the theory anyway.

How Search Engines Work

Manhattan 1995. All the search engines have three components (figure 7.1). Component 1 grabs all the Web pages that it can find. Component 2 builds a huge full-text index of those grabbed pages. Component 3 waits for user queries and serves lists of pages that match those queries. Your Web server deals with Component 1 of the public search engines. When you are surfing you are talking to Component 3 of that search engine.

Figure 7.1: A generic Web search engine. Note that these are logical components and might all be running on one physical computer.
Component 1: The Crawler (or "How to Get Listed by a Search Engine")
Each search engine's crawler keeps a database of known URLs. When the time comes to rebuild the index, the crawler grabs every URL in this database to see if there are any changes or new links. It follows the new links, indexes the documents retrieved, and eventually will recursively follow links from those new documents.

If your site is linked from an indexed site, you do not have to take any action to get indexed because the crawlers will eventual discover it. If you are impatient to get your site indexed or you have recently changed a lot of content or nobody is linking to you, it is worth using the "add my URL" forms on the search engine sites. The specific URLs that you enter will be available to querying users within a few days. Another good way to get indexed is to add yourself to the appropriate pages within the Yahoo and Open directories.

Component 2: The Full-Text Indexer
Here's a word-frequency histogram for the first sentence of Anna Karenina:

































You might think that this sentence makes better literature as "All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," but the computer finds it more useful in this form.

After the crude histogram is made, it is typically adjusted for the prevalence of words in standard English. So, for example, the appearance of "resemble" is more interesting to the engine than "happy" because "resemble" occurs less frequently in standard English. Very common words such as "is" are thrown away altogether.

Component 3: User Query Processor
The query processor is the public face of a search engine. When the query machine gets a search string, such as "platinum mines in New Zealand," the "in" and probably the "New" are thrown away. The engine delivers articles that have the most occurrences of "platinum" and "Zealand". Suppose that "Zealand" is a rarer word than "platinum". Then a Web page with one occurrence of "Zealand" is favored over one with one occurrence of platinum. A Web page with one occurrence of each word is preferred to an article where only one of those words shows up. This is a standard text retrieval algorithm in use since the early 1980s.

For relatively stupid indexer/query processor pairs, this is where the sorting stops. Smarter engines, however, use some further knowledge about the Web. For example, they know that

How to Stand Tall in the Search Engines
Mojave Desert.  Joshua Tree National Park One way to stand tall in most search engines is to buy words. Any time someone searches with a string containing the word "car" your banner ad will appear on the page. Search for "Toyota Sienna" in Google and you'll see a host of "sponsored links". Google's AdWords system is worth studying. Basically advertisers bid to appear when users search for particular words. If you want to fight with Honda and Ford for "new car" it will be expensive per click-through; for "Erasmus" you can probably outbid the average philosophy professor pretty easily.

If you can't afford to buy words it is a good idea to focus on collecting relevant documents. Remember that search engines don't index graphics, Flash, or Java applets. What you want is text, text, text. The more text on your site, the more words and therefore the greater chance that you'll have a combination of words for which users are searching. If you want readers to find you in the search engines, it's much better to spend $20,000 licensing the full text of a bunch of out-of-print books than on a graphical makeover of your site.

Relevant and unique information also helps build prominence in search engines by encouraging other Web publishers to link to your site. Google assumes that a page that 100 other people have found worthy of linking to is better than a page that only 2 other pages on the Web point to.

Joshua Tree National Park Does advertising on the Web work? If what you're advertising is another Web site, the answer seems to be "sort of". Buying words in Google seems to be the only universally agreed-upon good value.

How much does advertising cost? Web publishers seem to be able to charge between three and twenty-five cents per click-through. Note that a fee is only paid when a user actually cicks on the banner. This is good if you're an advertiser but not so good if you're a publisher selling ads because clickthrough rates are very close to 0, i.e., users are sick of irrelevant advertising and almost never click on ads.

If you have an ecommerce site you may be able to acquire clickthroughs at a much lower cost by operating a referral scheme similar to Amazon's.

If you have a worthwhile not-for-profit site, advertising need not cost anything. Most commercial publishers have unsold banner ad space and they don't like to redesign their pages to serve documents without advertising. Environmental Defense Fund was able to get quite a few banner ad impressions to promote The ads said "Type in your zip code and we'll tell you who is polluting your town" and even had a little zip code entry form that would take users directly to a community page. Publishers are able to set some of their advertising rates as a function of the clickthrough rate on their site overall. They thus welcomed the ads for Scorecard because the clickthrough rate was as high as 3% (versus an industry average of less than 1% at the time, probably 1/100th of 1% now!). If the ads had been ineffective and would therefore have reduced a publisher's site-wide average clickthrough rate, they would have been pulled, however much the publisher might have liked Scorecard.

How Many Users Are You Getting from Search Engines?

Cactus.  Moorten Botanical Garden.  Palm Springs, California. Often the user's browser will tell your Web server the URL from which the user clicked to your site. Any Web server program can log this referer header (yes, "referer" is misspelled in the HTTP standard) in the same file where other information about requests is stored.

Sometimes the referer URL will contain the query string. The very first time we ran a referer report on a server log was on a commercial site. We were all set to e-mail it to "the suits upstairs" when we looked a little more closely at one line of the report. We were giving away "Cosmo Hunk calendars" where each month there was a picture of Fabio or something. A WebCrawler user had grabbed this page and the referer header gave us some real insight into his interests
We decided not to use this particular report to demonstrate our powerful new logging system to the senior executives of our client, a $3 billion publisher.

I put the above example in the manuscript of my first book on Web stuff. Read to find out how it went over with my publisher at the time.

Sometimes a user talks to the search engine via HTTP POST instead of GET. That makes the referer header much less interesting. - - [01/Jan/1997:18:57:21 -0500] 
"GET /nudes/ HTTP/1.0" 304 0
"Mozilla/2.0 (Compatible; AOL-IWENG 3.0; Win16)"
We know that this user is an America Online user because he is coming to from an AOL proxy server. We know that he is at least mildly naughty because his WebCrawler search has come up with "" as an interesting URL for him. The user-agent header at the end supposedly tells us that he is using Netscape Navigator (Mozilla) 2.0. If we look a little more carefully, the "compatible" indicates in fact that he is in fact using some other browser that has been programmed to fraudulently advertise itself as Netscape. Publishers back in 1995 wrote scripts to look for the string "Mozilla/2". Those users would be served an "enhanced with frames" site. Presumably the "AOL-IWENG 3.0" browser in use here is frames-compatible and the false advertising as Netscape 2.0 is its way of saying so.

Here's an AltaVista user: - - [01/Jan/1997:23:41:08 -0500] 
"GET /nudes/body-paint HTTP/1.0" 200 7667
"Mozilla/3.01 (Win95; I; 16bit)"
This user is more advanced. He's not using AOL. He's making a direct connection from his machine at Truman State University (Missouri). At first glance, it appears that he's had a problem with his car because he is searching for "body painting auto automobile repair". Won't he be surprised that AltaVista sent him to the rather naughty Actually he won't be. Our sharp-eyed friend Jin glanced at it and said "Look at the little minuses in front of auto, automobile, and repair. He was looking for documents that contained body and painting but NOT any of the auto repair words."

Sometimes the Web really does work like it should… - - [01/Jan/1997:20:50:31 -0500]
"GET /cr/maps/ HTTP/1.0" 302 361
"Mozilla/2.02E (Win95; U)"

This fellow, apparently an ATT Worldnet user, wanted a map of Costa Rica and found it at

Improving Your Pages' Indexing and Description

If you want to take the time to add META elements to the HEAD of your HTML documents, some search engines will try to learn from them. If you have some extra keywords that you think describe your content, but that don't fit into the article or don't get enough prominence in the user-visible text, just add
<META name="keywords" content="making money fast greed">
to your page (remember that it is only legal within the <HEAD> of the document). People who do this tend to repeat the words over and over:
<META name="keywords" content="making money fast greed money 
money money money money money money money fast fast fast greed">
which presumably does increase relevance—and therefore prominence—on badly-programmed search engines. Search engine programmers got tired of seeing the sleaziest sites given the most prominence, though, and started by only indexing each keyword once. Eventually the folks at Google gave up and started to ignore altogether any content in META tags.

A potentially more useful META tag is "description":

<META  name="description" content="Journal for sophisticated 
Web publishers, specializing in RDBMS-backed sites.">

Normally a search engine will condense the textual content of your site into something resembling a description. Perhaps it will take the first 25 words and serve that up along with the title. This becomes especially problematic if you have a graphics-heavy site with no content at all. If the first few sentences of a page aren't what you'd like people to see when a search engine offers it up as an option, then include a description META tag on that page. Note that currently (June 2003) Google ignores the DESCRIPTION tag.

Hiding Your Content from Search Engines (Intentionally)

Sometimes you don't want search engines to find your stuff. Here are some possible scenarios: You can take advantage of the Standard for Robot Exclusion, documented at, which is a protocol for communication between Web publishers and Web crawlers. You the publisher put a file on your site, accessible at "/robots.txt", with instructions for robots. Here's an example that addresses the mirror site problem given above. Suppose that you have a mirror server that has a lot of its own original content but also a copy of Travels with Samantha. You'd add a robots.txt file with the following contents:
User-agent: *
Disallow: /samantha

The User-agent line specifies for which robots the injunctions are intended. Each Disallow asks a robot not to look in a particular directory. Nothing requires a robot to observe these injunctions but the standard seems to have been adopted by all the major indices nonetheless.

Remember that putting something in robots.txt is a very bad way to keep a document confidential. If one wanted to find's secret Web content, one might very well start by requesting If you can be sure that nobody will link to you, you can keep a Web directory reasonably private merely by refraining from creating any internal links. Of course, if it is truly confidential information then you will probably want to password-restrict the directory.

More: has some useful tips for META tags that will cause pages to be excluded from Google's cache.

Hiding Your Content from Search Engines (By Mistake)

Sites that require registration and aren't programmed to let Google and other search engines in are going to suffer a big reduction in usage because their content won't get indexed.

Sites that are all generated by scripts at request time may scare off some search engines. Instead of having URLs that look like "" it may be safer to program the site so that the same content is available at "".

Final Tip

It is not a great idea to reorganize your file system after you're listed in all the Web directories, after folks at other sites have linked to articles on your server, and after search engines have discovered your sites. You don't want users getting "404 Not Found" messages after finding your site in Yahoo or Google.


The original Bob's Big Boy, built 1949.  A historical landmark.  Toluca Lake, California. Here's what you should have learned in this chapter:


or move on to Chapter 8: So You Want to Run Your Own Server