Many people want to know how they can make their page appear at the top of search engine listings, but they forget that surfers who take one look at the index page and then walk away disappointed, never to return, don't really count. The best advertising doesn't help if the product doesn't live up to the expectations.
Word-of-mouth and "regular customers" are as important on the internet as in the product world (and as frequently under-rated), only that the former is replaced by links from other sites. Links to your site can be viewed as the currency of the Web: The more you have, the richer (in hits) you get. Your site will only be linked to if it manages to convince visitors that it will be of interest to others, and that can only be achieved through a combination of good content, sophisticated layout and accessibility. But then the best site won't get hits if there's no marketing.
Basically, there are two kinds of search engines: Those where you enter your URL along with a description etc. (e.g. Yahoo), and those where you only enter your URL (e.g. AltaVista, Lycos). In both cases, the title of the site is important.
Search engines like Yahoo employ people who take a look at the submitted site and then decide whether the site will be listed. Informational content and good design play a large role here. The listing is alphabetically, so your page appears higher up if the title starts with "A" - but that's only half of it. It's essential to choose the correct category: People who are interested in the subject will find you more easily, and people who're not aren't the audience you should target. If you have e.g. a site about the paintings of Rubens, and the search engine offers categories like Art > Paintings > History > Baroque, put your site into "Baroque" rather than "Art". The further down you go into categories, the fewer competition and the better your chances! Of course, the site description you have entered will also play a major role as it will appear alongside the site title.
Search engines of the Altavista type use so-called spiders, programmes (AKA robots) that visit your page after submission, take stock of the words on it, and put them into a database of astronomical dimensions. They are also supposed to follow all your internal links and index those pages as well, but it doesn't seem to work properly. Anyway, depending of how refined the query was, your site could appear way, way down the list with many unrelated sites in front of it. The reason is that robots are dumb. They only collect words on the page, and the more occurences of the keyword it finds, the higher a site is on the hit list - but that doesn't really tell anything about the quality of the site, does it? What you must understand about robots is that words in certain surroundings count more than others. Words in the page title count highest, followed by "keywords" and "description" in the meta tags, and words in headings. If your index page only lists a few entry points into your site, be sure to format them using "heading" tags rather than large font size and bold script.
Meta tags are used in the header of a HTML file and usually have to be entered manually
as many editors don't offer functionalities for entering them. They go like this:
<meta name=keywords content="keyword1, keyword2, keyword3, ..., keywordn">
<meta name=description content="A close look on the paintings of Rubens">
Put both keywords and description between quotation marks. The description will usually appear in the hit list along with the site title. Some engines however (e.g. Lycos), don't use the description, but the first few lines of body text. Of course it's better to be listed with "Welcome a review of the paintings of Rubens" than with "Welcome to my site! It is still under construction but...", so be careful about the opening words.
As search engine spiders are unbelievably daft and come up with tons of unrelated sites each time, the webring system has developed into an alternative search system. It is provided free of charge by webring.org but is not very well maintained anymore. It works 23:55 out of 24 hours, though. The basis is a database in conjunction with CGIs that enables a visitor to surf from one member site to the next, or the previous, or a random site. Everybody who has a certain internet know-how can found a ring, so the system is more flexible than category search engines like Yahoo. A major asset is that you have real, living humans who decide whether a site should be in the ring, so a certain level of quality and relation to the subject is guaranteed.
On the other hand, not all ringmasters are equally selective, and not all rings are suitable for gettings hits. Before you increase the loading size of your page by putting the so-called ring fragment (necessary for ring membership) on it, you should check a few things:
If you decide to join multiple rings, it is recommended to put all ring fragments on an extra page to prevent slow loading of your index page. This ring page should be easily accessible from anywhere on your site, otherwise the ring will be broken, resulting in fewer hits.
Many people don't want to hear it, but the importance of links from other pages cannot be emphasized enough. Search engines are typically dumb and only provide you with a long listing of mostly unrelated sites that happen to carry the keyword you searched for - or, if you're unlucky, used to carry it until a month ago. This is not to say that being listed in Yahoo or Altavista doesn't help - but it's only the first step. People will find you using the search engines, and if your site is good and unique, they'll bookmark it and list it on their "favourite links" page. There's nothing like personal endorsement!
If your site has a niche theme, don't hesitate to contact the webmasters of larger sites with the same theme, asking them for a link. The embarassment (which is often only imagined) of being rejected by some is well worth the reward of being accepted by others.