People who have their own site on the Internet--and these days, who doesn't?--often see bold promises by so-called search-engine submission tools to "build a flood of traffic." These programs, some of which cost $100 or more, usually advertise their huge universe of search engines: 10,000, 100,000--or even more.
The joke is that there aren't thousands of relevant search engines. The majority of Web surfers around the world use only a handful of portals for all their searches. Nearly three-quarters of all search-engine referrals come from the top four services--Yahoo, Google, MSN and AOL Search--according to figures released in late May by StatMarket, a rating service.
So what about the other "thousands" of search engines? Industry watchers say they're mainly a way to collect e-mail addresses from naive owners of new Web sites. These "hot" addresses can then be sold as prime prospects to spammers.
Chris Grady, president of Vieodata, a Web development consulting firm, has strong opinions about generic search-engine submission tools.
"We did a submission for a couple of different test sites and got negligible traffic," Grady says.
He never counted the number of unsolicited e-mails the dummy sites received, but the unwanted (and unread) messages consumed gigabytes of disk space. "When we finally deleted the entire directory of spam, I went out to lunch, and when I came back it was still deleting."
Hundreds of thousands of genuine search engines don't, in fact, exist. Instead, many submission programs count entries they submit to "free-for-all," or FFA, listings. These unedited sites accept anyone who submits a listing but attract few visitors--or none.
Being listed in FFA sites may actually hurt a Web site owner's ranking, says Jim Stob, president of Position Technologies, a partner of Inktomi, the database behind MSN, AOL and HotBot.
"Google's algorithm is link-sensitive," says Stob. "If you're a new site and you submit to a free-for-all engine, and then Google finds a thousand free-for-all links, it'll hurt you."
Given the extravagant claims, it was surprising that I wasn't able to find a single submission-tool provider willing to go on the record about whether it sells e-mail addresses to other parties.
But it's clear from Internet experts that submission tools aren't necessary to get a Web site into the major search engines.
"The top 15 or 20 major search engines will produce 95 percent of the traffic," says Brent Winters, president of FirstPlace Software. His company publishes WebPosition Gold, a $149 piece of software that structures Web pages so they score well when search engines index a site.
Winters says optimizing a site so it contains relevant search terms is a better use of a Webmaster's time than trying to get into 100,000 places. To research appropriate keywords, he recommends Wordtracker, which offers a free trial service.
Danny Sullivan, the editor of SearchEngineWatch.com, agrees with the emphasis on search terms. "Pick three or four words you want people to associate with your site, then make sure these words appear where search engines look for them," he says.
Sullivan also advises Webmasters to consider "paid inclusion" and "paid placement." Paid-inclusion engines charge a fee to facilitate a quick listing. The $199 fee at Yahoo is probably a good investment for most business-oriented sites, Sullivan says.
For most sites, submitting a listing to only a few top search engines should be the goal, not paying for a submission tool. Unless, of course, you're not receiving enough spam.
Brian Livingston's Wired Watchdog column appears at CNET News.com every Friday. Do you know of a problem affecting consumers? Send info to tips@BrianLivingston.com. He'll send you a book of high-tech secrets free if you're the first to submit a tip he prints.