It’s a simple matter these days to build and host a Web site. What’s less simple is getting others — potential customers, readers and other users — to find your site among the millions of others already out there. In this column I’ll discuss Japanese search engines, particularly how best to use Japanese and other search engines to promote your business, Weblog or hobby site online.
Search engine evolution
Its been nearly a decade since NTT launched the first directory-based search engine for the Japanese Internet, Nihon no Shinchaku Jouhou (What’s New in Japan). Three years later, in 1996, Yahoo Japan ( www.yahoo.co.jp ) launched its own directory service here, and before long secured the No. 1 position among Japanese Web portals.
Around the same time, foreign players such as InfoSeek ( www.infoseek.co.jp ) and Excite ( www.excite.co.jp ) joined the fray, competing with domestic newcomers such as Goo ( www.goo.ne.jp ) and Fresheye ( www.fresheye.co.jp ). None of them, however, could match the popularity of Yahoo.
Google ( www.google.com ) came along in 2000, however, and all that changed. By applying innovative technology to the process of ordering and displaying search results, Google was able to deliver much higher-quality results than any of the other search engines. The key to Google’s success was the introduction of page relevance based on PageRank.
How they work
PageRank, according to Google architects Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page, is an objective measure of a page’s citation importance that corresponds well with people’s subjective idea of importance — that is, given a search word, the technology reaches the same conclusion about a Web site’s relevance in relation to that word as a person poring over the same information would.
By prioritizing the display rankings of search results based on the degree to which the page is linked (which is to say, cited) from other pages on the Web, Google is able to position the most relevant search results near the top of the list where we are most likely to find them.
Yahoo Japan caught on quickly to the value (and surging popularity) of the Google engine and in April 2001 began using Google for keyword-based Web site searches. Yahoo was soon followed by Excite, Netscape, BIGLOBE, All About (Japan) ( allabout.co.jp ), AOL and others. Today, Google is the search engine behind most of the crawler-based Japanese search engines.
Crawler-based search engines employ bots — special programs that navigate the Web collecting information from Web pages for inclusion in search engine databases. AltaVista ( www.altavista.com ), InfoSeek Japan ( www.infoseek.co.jp ), NAVER Japan ( www.naver.co.jp ) and AAA! Cafe ( www.aaacafe.ne.jp ) are other examples of crawler-based search engines, and each uses its own data-collection and indexing systems.
Directory-based search engines comprise the other half of the search engine universe and differ greatly from crawler-based engines in the way that information is collected and stored. These search engines are based on a directory of information that is maintained in a directory of hierarchical categories and subcategories. These engines rely on human intervention in the listing process to both qualify and sort Web pages and other content.
What this screening and sorting means for the user is a much higher quality of content than that found among the results of crawler-based search engines. Directory-based engines also allow users to surf among different sites within a particular category, which can be a real time-saver when you know exactly what you’re looking for and a category for it exists.
The downside to this, however, is that the same human factor that keeps the quality high in directory-based search engines also makes it difficult to keep the directory up to date with new listings. In other words, there just aren’t enough site reviewers to keep up with explosive growth of the World Wide Web.
Another problem these sites face is one of categorization. Assuming you can’t infinitely divide and subdivide directory categories, how do you address the issues of convenience and usability when the listings for a particular category number in the hundreds?
In Japan there are a handful of directory-based search engines. Yahoo Japan is the best-known and most-used among them, and maintains its own directory in addition to providing search results from Google. Goo and InfoSeek Japan also maintain similar directories, and rank third and fourth, respectively, after Yahoo and Google. Other key directories include the Open Directory Project ( www.dmoz.org ) — which provides directory listings for Google, AOL, and AAA! Cafe — as well as Looksmart, and FreshEye.
Making them work for you
Given that current landscape, how can we make the best of Japanese search engines as tools for promoting our businesses and other activities online?
One way is through a process called “search engine optimization.” This involves a number of coding and formatting practices used by Web developers and other specialists to improve rankings among search engine results and guarantee listing by crawler-based search engines.
As a Web developer and search engine optimization consultant, I’ve had the opportunity to test firsthand the effectiveness of various techniques employed over the years, and many of the early practices, though still widely used today, have lost their effectiveness as search engine technology has improved. Spamming search engines with hundreds of repeated keywords and building gateway pages today will likely get you the opposite of your intended result — you could be blacklisted.
Your chances of getting listed in the major Japanese search engines today are best if you follow a few simple guidelines:
Clean up your code. Make sure that your title and so-called META tags (particularly those for keywords and description) are optimized not for your entire site, but rather for the information presented on the page itself. Concise and accurate meta-data (information about your page that is collected by bots) will go a long way toward helping people find your site later. Also, be sure to specify the character set of any Japanese pages on your site. Some Japanese search engines are programmed to ignore pages unless they are marked as being in Japanese.
Submit your site. In Japan the lion’s share of search requests are handled by Yahoo, Google, Goo, InfoSeek and MSN. That means you can maximize your exposure in as few steps as possible by getting listed with Google, InfoSeek and Inktomi (which feeds MSN and Goo).
Get linked. One way to boost the relevance (and thus the PageRank) of your site is by getting other sites to link to yours, especially other sites with a high PageRank.
Buy a better listing. Yahoo offers a number of premium services for businesses that can help ensure that your site appears at or near the top of search results for particular keywords. Also, Google and Japan-newcomer Overture ( www.jp.overture.com ) have recently announced a per-click pricing system for listings. Overture claims to reach 77 percent of Web users through publishing agreements with the biggest engines, while Google’s AdWords service gives your ad text and URL prominent on-screen placement that you only pay for when someone clicks through. Costs vary, depending on the type of premium service you choose, but don’t be surprised to pay 50,000 yen.
Overall, the best way to help people find your Web site is by taking a dual approach — focus on both crawler-based search engines and Internet directories. And if you have a budget for it, you can always pay for prominence.
The Japan Times: March 13, 2003