Optimizing Dynamic Pages - Part II

Dale Goetsch
Search Innovation
September 15, 2003

The Widget Queen Revisited

You have the world's finest collection of widgets. You created the world's best widget website. You have no traffic.

You checked in the search engines and find that your site does not appear at all, even though all your competitors' sites do. Perhaps the search engine robots cannot get to your pages to index them.

Search Engine Robots

Search engine robots are simple creatures. They can "read" text to add to their databases, and they can follow "normal" links--those links that are coded to look like

<a href="bluewidgets.html">blue widgets</a>

or the slight variation
<a href="bluewidgets.html><img src="bluewidget.gif"></a>

That's it. Search engine robots cannot select items from lists; search engine robots cannot type text into boxes; search engine robots cannot click "submit" buttons. That means that no matter how important our dynamically-generated page of blue widgets is, if the only way to access that page is to select it from a list or click on a button, the robot will never be able to visit it. That, in turn, means that it will never appear in the search engine results.

So how do you get your dynamic information to show up in non-dynamic ways?

The Painful Solution

One of the reasons that dynamic pages exist is because of the difficulty involved in constantly updating -- adding and deleting -- pages from your site, based on which widgets you are offering this season. If you have a separate page for each make and model of widget, each of those pages can be spidered. They can all be reached through links that look like

<a href="bluewidget-1.html">blue widgets style 1</a>
<a href="bluewidget-2.html">blue widgets style 2</a>
<a href="redwidget-1.html">red widgets style 1</a>
<a href="redwidget-2.html">red widgets style 2</a>
<a href="newwidget-1.html">new widgets style 1</a>
<a href="newwidget-2.html">new widgets style 2</a>

The bad news here, of course, is that you now have to create all of those pages. This loses the benefit of drawing the widget information from a database.

A Better Solution

A better solution is to create only a "shell" of each page, and then to dynamically populate the page from our database. By creating a "real" file, you can assign a fixed URL, but still use the database to fill-in the page, using any of various server-side techniques (HTML server-side includes, Perl, Active Server Pages, Java Server Pages, PHP, etc.). A simple page like this might suffice:

<html>
<head>
<title>Blue Widgets style 1</title>
</head>
<body>
<!--#exec cgi="myscript.pl?bluewidget-1"-->
</body>
</html> 

Save this page as "bluewidget-1.html" and you're good to go, assuming that "myscript.pl" will actually return the content you want for the body of the page. True, you will have a discrete page for each item in your inventory, but at least you only need to hard-code the bare-bones of that page.

Another Way To Go

There is yet another way to go. This method does not require creating dozens of static pages, or of having to include exotic scripts in your web pages. It also may not work for all search engines!

Some search engine robots just will not follow links that include a "querystring" as part of the URL. You have seen a querystring if you have ever looked at the URL of a page of search results in Google. For example, if you look for "blue widgets" on Google, not only do you get page after page of blue widgets, you also see that these pages have very complicated-looking addresses

http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&q=blue+widgets

In this address, everything after the question mark ("?") is a querystring. This is used to pass additional information to the web server. While some search engines can follow a complicated address like this, many simply will not follow such a link. That means that if you use a URL like

http://www.mycompany.com/catalog.html?item=widget&color=blue&model=1

that the robot may not be able to follow it. This is bad.

On the other hand, an increasing number of search engine robots will follow such links. Usually, links like this are created "on the fly" by filling-out forms and clicking a "submit" button, but that doesn't have to be the case. You can grab that address, querystring and all, and put it into a "normal" link, like this

<a href="http://www.mycompany.com/catalog.html?item=widget&color=blue&model=1">blue widgets style 1</a>

Put several of these on a page and the search engine robot can now visit your dynamic pages from links that require no button-clicking. Remember that not all robots will follow these links, so your mileage may vary.

As long as the link to the page exists in a form that does not require human intervention to get to it (pulldown menus, search results, form submits, etc) then a bot will follow it.

Widgets Out The Door

Using any of these methods will help search engine robots to find the dynamic pages on your site. This means that the important content on those pages is more likely to be included in the search engine databases, and that people will be better able to find you. That, of course, means that the Widget Queen will reign supreme, knowing that widget customers the world over will now be able to find you and buy your widgets.

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Dale Goetsch is the Technical Consultant for Search Innovation Marketing, a Search Engine Optimization company serving small businesses. He has over fourteen years experience in software development. Along with programming in Perl, JavaScript, PHP, ASP and VB, he is adept at technical writing and editing.

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