If you build it, will they come?

So you finally got around to building a website to showcase your science writing business. Only it just sits there — nobody ever visits or calls. What to do?


So you finally got around to building a website to showcase your science writing business. Only it just sits there — nobody ever visits or calls. What to do?

One way to increase traffic is to master new requirements for effective keyword writing, says Donna Wilkins, president of Charity Dynamics, a company that optimizes charity web sites to raise their rank in search engine query results. Effective keyword writing has become more complicated over the last few years because of a change in how Google spiders scan them, says Wilkins, a panelist at the workshop "Web Writing and Search Engine Optimization: If You've Got It, Flaunt It!" at ScienceWriters 2009.

While it used to be enough to write the coded keyword tags invisible to viewers, to appear high in search results today one must also place effective keywords in the text viewers read. As a result, all keywords for your site should appear in the first 25 words (including the headline and anything else before the body of the text, like a subhead), Wilkins says. All keywords should also appear at least three times in the first 100 words.

Google added these requirements, in part, because some web designers put in coded keyword tags (sometimes called Google "bombs") for topics that would attract readers, even though the content on the site covered an entirely different subject.

In addition, when picking keywords, choose them "not how you think about [the topic] but how people who read you think about it," Wilkins says. Do it the way your client wants it, just like a good hairdresser does for your haircut.

Unless you put keywords readers find salient into both your text and your invisible codes, you will lose viewers, Wilkins says. A Google-sponsored scientific eye-tracking test showed that 60 percent of searchers click on only the top three items in the rank list of results. If you're ranked fourth or lower, most viewers will never find you.

To improve your site's rank in searches even more, Wilkins says, pay more attention to your site's internal and external links. When you write links to other sites (internal links), be maximally descriptive. Don't say, "Click here for more," say "Click here to find out x."

When you ask other web sites to link to your page (external links), make sure you write the "anchor text" — the hyperlinked words their readers will click on to get to your site. If you let the other site choose less descriptive anchor text, your site's ranking may suffer.

While attracting visitors is important, you also must keep them on your site once they arrive, says Merry Bruns, owner of ScienceSites Communications and session organizer. "Getting found is only half the battle," Bruns says. "The only thing that really matters is, 'If they come to [your site], can they use it?'" In other words, don't put all your effort into picking the coded keywords that search engines use but viewers never see. To increase traffic — and keep readers intrigued once they've found you — present information visitors seek in a simple and direct way, Bruns says. That requires writing headlines and text differently than you do for print.

Take, for example, the headline. A magazine reader's interest might be heightened by a flip headline such as "The Lab Rat Who Knew Too Much." But a clever headline that doesn't offer clues to the main topic of the story is counterproductive for Web articles. Keep the title simple and short, Bruns says, and — within those limits — maximize its descriptiveness. Bruns also suggests using subheads and photos, to add context to your main headline. Tools such as these will quickly convey the site's message in multiple, interrelated ways.

Another way to keep readers at your site is to put the information visitors want where they can easily find it. If the information they seek is not front and center, viewers may leave within three seconds, Merry says, because they don't have the patience for cute and complicated. The FedEx Web site is a great example to emulate because it puts tracking packages — what viewers most want to do — in a can't-miss box near the top of the page.

If you want to learn more about clearer web writing and better search engine optimization, download the presenters' slides (Bruns' slides) and (Wilkins' slides). You can also email the experts at mbruns@sciencesitescom.com and donna@charitydynamics.com.

John Dudley Miller was a Freelance Travel Fellow at ScienceWriters 2009. He lives in Cleveland and writes for web sites, newspapers and magazines, including Scientific American.

Oct. 26, 2009