Thursday, December 4, 2008

Making Your Comic Archive Search Friendly

Every new comic archive page has a tendency to be "search similar" to the page before it, reducing its contribution to site searchability. The more similar your pages, the less search engines care about them, and giant sites with months of effort invested can find themselves performing poorly in searches.

Hence the myth circulating among some gurus that larger sites perform less well in search. Search is made for larger sites; only a poorly optimized larger site will do badly. Or a site with sliding traffic.

We worsen the problem by using similar page URLs, page title and page description meta tags, and not including search-friendly content. Yes, a small blog under your latest update can help your reader relations and your searchability, but those posts don't accompany the comic page into the archives, do they?

Some people like to insert variation in page URLs. I'm not a big fan of mixing up URLs. I like to choose something good and stick with it, so I don't get lost myself. I am quite happy to vary description tags and ALT text for graphics, and perhaps my title tags, but I want my page names to be orderly.

Aside from varying those tags, injecting additional content may be the best chance for attracting search attention to your comic's archive.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Send designated blog posts into the archive with episodes they discuss;
  • Add paying ads, or ads for other projects you are doing. You can put the same ad code in multiple locations, mixing together high traffic spots and backwaters;
  • Report on something related to the strip: where you get ideas, how your life is going, how you make the strip, etc. on every tenth or twentieth page;
  • Display some art by readers;
  • Show ads for merchandise you carry that are a little fun and silly, which you wouldn't place anywhere else;
  • Share historical details from Wikipedia or some other source that pertains to something happening in an episode;
  • Insert a decorative doodad or spacer between lower body and footer, and rotate it periodically.
Consider how much distraction the reader will tolerate. I don't know the answer, but it surely depends on your readers and your insert material. To be safe, start slow, and withdraw anything you come to doubt. Look to enhance the reading experience as the first priority, and entertaining searchbots as second.
It's a little bolder to use inserts that recommend other comics and web sites, because if your story slows, people might wander off. You could say, all the endorsed links are collected at the end, on a dedicated page, so don't sweat passing them. This is fine if your archive is fifteen pages, but people reading a 200 page story might like to know they can pursue links of interest via your home page when they pause the story.
Think of inserts as Easter Eggs that are in plain view. At their best, they add to the reader's experience. One example might be when a new character enters, a profile of them is offered at the bottom of the page, when suitable. Large cast comics might especially benefit from this.
More technically-minded people might make insert viewing optional, with images turned off with a click. It should be a simple matter to make disabled images search engine friendly regardless of whether a viewer has them activated. Just use care not to trigger the "invisible text" penalty. I doubt this is a major worry.
Page bottom is the logical location for inserts like I describe. Unfortunately, it's the part of the page search engines care about least. Blocks of text will be read, but you might want to have a footer and keep your inserts in the body, while using the footer for internal links, copyright boilerplate and other stuff. I saw one diagram, which might be complete bologna, indicating search engines weight headers 100, bodies 50 and footers 0. I'd like to confirm it before anyone relies on it, but I think it is someone's approximation and that site nuances determine the crawler's behavior more than such a simple rule. Still, it's better not to rely on footer content to jazz up your archive.

To see for yourself whether this is worthwhile or just another blog list of contrived ideas, play with your site in search, make some modifications, and see how they perform. Use Webmaster Tools to select keywords people use to find you, but which have you showing in a low ranking, and try to boost those keywords. I played with it for two weeks before writing this and moved some search term placements up about 15-20% against tough contenders. This got some of my best terms "above the fold" (above the bottom of the computer screen) where they are sure to be seen.

Inspection of my own comics will reveal very little special content in the archives, because I started with meta tags, which aren't in the open. I have a few ads for one comic in the archives of the other, so I can't offer you a big display of visual examples -- I still have work to do. Though I've only done a little so far, the data already tells me this is a good idea, and I plan more.

A last tip: if you can design a system to rotate special material from time to time, you will get credit for updating archive pages. Search engines like that because it tells them the content has probably been inspected or updated recently. Any system that refreshes your quiet pages will help keep them more highly ranked.