There is an entire school of thought, as well as a sizable industry, dedicated to the optimization of websites to show up higher in Google search rankings. Search engine optimization (SEO) techniques vary from simple content changes to tricks that game Google’s system, referred to as “black hat” SEO. Optimization can be a complex topic — read Mark Glaser’s article 9 Tips to Improve Search Engine Optimization to get a good feel for the process.

SEO rules tend to apply universally, but specialty sites require some additional thought. When assessing a music artist’s site in regards to optimization, one has to consider that artistic expression is often more important than search visibility. From this, many artists make decisions in the name of art (or just not knowing better) that have an adverse affect on their search engine rankings. Below are seven of the most common mistakes and how to remedy them.

1) Site Built Fully in Flash

Having a site made entirely of Flash is usually the best way to maintain massive artistic control. HTML, CSS, JavaScript, or any other combination of web technologies simply cannot rival the level of interactivity given by Flash. However, this flexibility comes at a major price — unless properly planned out in the design stages, Flash cannot be indexed by search engines. Therefore, a site built fully with it may significantly hinder SEO efforts.

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Adobe Flash

Why is that? In a published Flash document, most applications of text become bit-mapped graphics and lose their status as individual characters. A search engine has nothing to index and process when scanning for relevant text. In addition, Flash documents tend to contain multiple states and therefore might not display all text at once; a search engine does not have the ability to interact and follow each path the way links allow in HTML.

The solution most SEO experts will tell you is to not base your site in Flash. However, if that is how it has to be to achieve your artistic vision, then there are a number of tips to get around these limitations. Most are advanced and require a solid understanding of multiple web technologies but can be implemented without too much extra effort.

RESOLUTION: Create an HTML site to run in parallel, give the users a choice, and send the search engines to the HTML side. Or, do some homework at places like The Adobe Developer Connection. They have published two documents that may be of assistance — Search optimization techniques for rich Internet Applications and Search optimization checklist for rich Internet Applications. These articles discuss topics such as using variables to display content, implementing behind-the-scenes HTML tricks, and creating sitemaps to help search engines navigate your site.

2) Site Built With Images Only

Another common technique for building artist sites is to construct the entire site out of images. Like Flash, this allows a high level of artistic control, but does not provide indexable text that the search engines need to categorize a site.

Fortunately, the HTML code behind images allows for ALT text that serves two purposes — explaining to visitors what is on the site if images don’t load or if they are browsing on a device that doesn’t support them, and providing search engines a description of what the graphics are displaying. In addition, the file names of the images provide information to search engines. All titles should use relevant keywords, and individual words should be separated with dashes (e.g. My-Band-Name-Cover-300dpi.jpg) to clearly delimit the search terms.

RESOLUTION: Always ensure you are providing ALT text behind any image, especially if the site is built primarily or entirely of images. Be smart with file names.

3) Lack of Keywords in Content

Traditional SEO states that the cleanest way to optimize your site is to jam it full of content rich with relevant keywords. For example, if you have a real estate site, words such as “mortgage,” “refinance,” and “realtor” should appear over and over.

For artist sites, keywords are not always so clearly defined. There are obvious terms that are likely to be on most, such as “guitar,” “bass,” or “singer.” Beyond that, however, many artists do not like to define themselves with standard music phrases. Most artist bios and related pages contain a wide range of terms that aren’t necessarily going to be what fans are searching for.

RESOLUTION: Find as many places on the site that allow for the basic keywords you believe your fans will be searching for. If the majority of the site is artistic and full of creative, descriptive phrases, it may be worth adding a static page that is focused solely on band facts — member info, publicity quotes, simple description of the band’s sound, detailed discographies, and more.

4) Relying Solely on Meta Tags

Early SEO relied heavily on behind-the-scenes HTML code called meta tags. A sample meta tag might be a phrase like this, enclosed in carrot brackets:

meta name=“keywords” content=“Microsoft, product, support, help, training, Office, Windows, software, download” /

The name section determines what type of meta tag is being declared, and the content section lists all the keywords that define what the web page is about. In this case, it would be for the Microsoft.com site.

Unfortunately, as soon as search engines started relying on these tags, people began taking advantage of them. For example, if I were performing SEO on a site that sold computer hardware, and wanted to glean some traffic from people searching for Microsoft, I could use the meta tags above even though they did not accurately describe my site. Realistically, that alone wouldn’t complete the job, but at one point it did have a significant impact on site indexing.

Meta tag relevance has been primarily phased out over the years, but many site developers still rely heavily on this as their primary form of SEO. Depending on the search engine, the value of these tags may be zero.

RESOLUTION: Include relevant meta tags on your pages, but realize that the value is minimal and spending time on other SEO strategies will be much more effective.

5) Poor Link Strategy

As meta tag significance faded away, other ways of ranking page relevance came to prominence, the majority of which make much more sense in regards to legitimacy. One of these that weighs heavily into search engine rankings is link strategy — managing incoming, outgoing, and internal links.

The theory of link strategy is simple — the more sites linking to a page, and the more prominent the referring sites are, the more relevance the page has in the search engines. For example, if a highly established site such as PBS.org links to an artist’s site, that artist page is given a slightly higher boost in rankings as web surfers may assume the site has some level of significance or else PBS wouldn’t be linking to it.

When running the publicity and marketing campaigns for an artist, getting a partner site to link to yours is critical. Not only does it drive traffic directly, but it can also have a significant impact on search results.

A site is also given a level of credit by outgoing links. The nature of the web is one of discovery, and sites are looked upon favorably if they are linking to other relevant sites. This is not nearly as effective as getting inbound links from prominent sites, but it does have a small effect.

Lastly, internal links can boost a page’s search engine ranking. An internal link is one that points to another page on the same site. Blogs use this technique inherently; by linking from one piece of content to other relevant content, search engines view the site as being rich and pertinent.

RESOLUTION: Encourage other sites to link to yours via networking and marketing. Link to relevant sites. Link to other pages within your site.

6) Overlooking Alternate Search Types

People don’t just search for text. Google provides alternate search methods including image and document searches. Artist sites, often rich in images, allow an opportunity to index digital assets in search engines. Similar to the ideas discussed in tip #2 above, we can use those rules to ensure that your cover art, promo photos, show posters, and any other image can be found.

In addition to images, documents can be indexed in the search engines. Google can index PDF files, and display them as HTML via search results. This is useful for band bios, press releases, order forms, and many other documents bands use on a regular basis.

RESOLUTION: Learn about alternate file types your fans and the media are searching for, name them intelligently, and link them so they can be found by the search engines.

7) Ignoring the Logs or Not Utilizing Analytics

Once a site has been optimized for search engines, content is flowing, and the traffic is coming, an additional SEO challenge begins. A common and terrible mistake is to assume that because a strategy was working at one point it will continue working indefinitely.

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Urchin

There are two primary ways to monitor what is happening on a website from the back end. Most web servers offer statistics programs such as AWStats or Urchin. These allow you to see where traffic is coming from, what people are searching for that end up at your site, popular pages, and more. In addition, a webmaster can install Google Analytics, a robust tool that offers deeper analysis than many standard web statistics packages.

A significant advantage of Google Analytics is that after setting up an account, you simply need to add a few lines of JavaScript code to your pages. The actual software lives on Google’s servers, which is beneficial when it comes to updates and new features. Google has also integrated Analytics into some of their other applications, creating a massive tool for webmasters.

The data these tools output can give you a clear picture of what your fans want. If the majority are entering on your media page, you know where you need to focus extra energy (such as making sure you are capturing email addresses off that page). The search engine stats are extremely valuable to see what keywords people are searching for prior to landing on your site. Advanced features also include integration with Google AdWords, motion charts, and custom reporting.

RESOLUTION: Take the guesswork out of figuring out how your fans interact with your site. Enable and constantly monitor website statistics through a package such as AWStats or Google Analytics.

Conclusion

Search engine optimization is just as important for musicians’ sites as any other type of website. And there’s no reason that an artist must forsake creativity for better search rankings. Keep these seven common mistakes in mind when you’re designing your site, and you should be able to drive more traffic to your website — and, most importantly, reach more fans.

UPDATE: As pointed out in the comments, Google has made strides to be able to correctly index Flash documents. Visit this blog post to read about the ways Google can interact with Flash. However, I still stand by the idea that a site that utilizes text and other searchable HTML is a cleaner, more clear-cut way to enhance your search engine rankings. Although your Flash may be indexed, the likelihood of accurate and comprehensive indexing still does not compare to straightforward text and HTML.

Jason Feinberg is the president and founder of On Target Media Group, an entertainment industry new media marketing and promotion company. He is responsible for business development, formulation and management of online marketing campaigns, and media relations with over 1,000 websites and media outlets. The company has served clients including Warner Bros. Records, Universal Music Enterprises, EMI, Concord Music Group, Roadrunner Records, and others with an artist roster that includes The Rentals, Flipper, Thin Lizzy, Sammy Hagar, Primus, Poncho Sanchez, Ringo Starr, Chick Corea, and many more.