Jargon Buster & Glossary of Terms for Search Engine and general IT terms

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This glossary or list of search engine terms is designed to help your understand search engine terms and general IT terms.
The information is "as is" and any errors can be reported here

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A property of the relationship between words in a search engine (or directory) query. Search engines often allow users to specify that words should be next to one another or somewhere near one another in the web pages searched.

A popular search engine with the largest database on the web, indexing more than 140 million pages. Its main URL is http://www.altavista.com/. Until 1998, this search engine provided the search facility for Yahoo. Altavista indexes all the words in a web page, and new pages are normally added to the database fairly quickly, within a couple of working days. You are asked to submit just the main page of your site. The Altavista spider will then explore your site and index a representative sample of the pages. Some problems with spamming have been noticed. The use of keyword meta tags is penalised. Altavista places various alternative options before its search results, including suggested questions (using the Ask Jeeves service). Paid entries are beginning to appear at the start of the search results.

Drives it's results from the open directory project and Google.

A small program, often written in Java , which usually runs in a web browser, as part of a web page. It is possible that the use of such a program may cause spiders and robots to stop indexing a page.

The name of the Excite search engine's spider.

Ask Jeeves
A meta search engine which can be asked questions in English. This service is also in use at Altavista. http://www.askjeeves.com/.

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Common Gateway Interface - a standard interface between web server software and other programs running on the same machine.

CGI Program
Strictly, any program which handles its input and output data according to the CGI standard. In practice, CGI programs are used to handle forms and database queries on web pages, and to produce non-static web page content.

A computer, program or process which makes requests for information from another computer, program or process. Web browsers are client programs. Search engine spiders are (or can be said to behave as) clients.

Click Through
The process of clicking on a link in a search engine output page to visit an indexed site.

This is an important link in the process of receiving visitors to a site via search engines. Good ranking may be useless if visitors do not click on the link which leads to the indexed site. The secret here is to provide a good descriptive title and an accurate and interesting description.

The HTML <!-- and --> tags are used to hide text from browsers. Some search engines ignore text between these symbols but others index such text as if the comment tags were not there. Comments are often used to hide javascript code from non-compliant browsers, and sometimes (notably on Excite) to provide invisible keywords to some search engines.

See Spider.

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Dead Link
An Internet link which doesn't lead to a page or site, probably because the server is down or the page has moved or no longer exists. Most search engines have techniques for removing such pages from their listings automatically, but as the Internet continues to increase in size, it becomes more and more difficult for a search engine to check all the pages in the index regularly. Reporting of dead links helps to keep the indexes clean and accurate, and this can usually be done by submitting the dead link to the search engine.

The removal of pages from a search engine's index.
Removal can occur for various reasons, including unreliability of the machine that hosts a site or because of perceived attempts at spamdexing.

Descriptive text associated with a web page and displayed, usually with the page title and URL, when the page appears in a list of pages generated by a search engine or directory as a result of a query. Some search engines take this description from the DESCRIPTION Meta tag - others generate their own from the text in the page. Directories often use text provided at registration.

Direct Hit
A system which monitors the search engine users' selections from search engine results, counting which results are clicked on most, and how long visitors spend at that site, so as to improve relevancy. Used by HotBot and as a plug-in to Apple's new innovative Sherlock search system. See http://www.directhit.com/.

A server or a collection of servers dedicated to indexing Internet web pages and returning lists of pages which match particular queries. Directories (also known as Indexes) are normally compiled manually, by user submission (such as at whatsnew.com), and often involve an editorial selection and/or categorisation process (such as at LookSmart and Yahoo).

A meta search engine. Found at http://www.dogpile.com/.

A sub-set of Internet addresses. Domains are hierarchical, and lower-level domains often refer to particular web sites within a top-level domain. The most significant part of the address comes at the end - typical top-level domains are .com, .edu, .gov, .org (which sub-divide addresses into areas of use). There are also various geographic top-level domains (e.g. .ar, .ca, .fr, .ro etc.) referring to particular countries.

The relevance to search engine terminology is that web sites which have their own domain name (e.g. http://www.nativetongues.com) will often achieve better positioning than web sites which exist as a sub-directory of another organisation's domain (e.g. http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/tijana/).

Dynamic content
Information on web pages which changes or is changed automatically, e.g. based on database content or user information. Sometimes it's possible to spot that this technique is being used, e.g. if the URL ends with .asp, .cfm, .cgi or .shtml. It is possible to serve dynamic content using standard (normally static) .htm or .html type pages, though. Search engines will currently index dynamic content in a similar fashion to static content, although they will not usually index URLs which contain the ? character.

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A search engine which concentrates on information relating to Europe. The URL is http://www.euroseek.com/.

Regarded as one of the best search engines, with an index of 55 million pages. It can be slow to index new sites. The URL is http://www.excite.com/. Sites using frames must have a NOFRAMES section in order to be listed. Some spamming has been noticed. Excite previously ignored the DESCRIPTION meta tag, but is now using this in its listings (although the contents do not affect relevancy, which is based mainly on the title and body text). Excite has an audio/video search facility which is a branded component of RealNetworks' RealPlayer G2.

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Fake Copy Listings
Sometimes a malicious company will steal a web page or the entire contents of a web site, re-publish at a different URL and register with one or more search engines. This can cause a loss of traffic from the original site if the search engines position the copy higher in the listings. If you find that someone has stolen your site in this way, write to the company concerned and ask them to remove the stolen content. Also contact the hosting service used by the company, any company that benefits from the theft and any search engine(s) concerned. If the thieves refuse to remove the material or ignore you, obtain legal advice. It is also well worth having printed evidence to support your claim that your copy of the material was there first, and that you have the copyright!

False Drop
A web page retrieved from a search engine or directory which is not relevant to the query used. This could be for one of the following reasons:

The web page contained the keywords entered, but used in the wrong context, with a different meaning or with a different inter-relationship to that expected.

  • The web page is an attempt at spamdexing.
  • The search engine has a fault in its database or a bug in its query program.

An HTML technique for combining two or more separate HTML documents within a single web browser screen. Compound interacting documents can be created to make a more effective web page presented in multiple windows or sub-windows.

A framed web site often causes great problems for search engines, and may not be indexed correctly. Search engines will often index only the part of a framed site within the <NOFRAMES> section, so make sure that the <NOFRAMES> section includes relevant text which can be indexed by the spiders.

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A portal partnership between Infoseek and Disney, with search capabilities based on the Infoseek index, at http://go.com/.

The name of the Northern Light Search Engine's spider.

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Many search engines give extra weight and importance to the text found inside HTML heading sections. It is generally considered good advice to use headings when designing web pages and to place keywords inside headings.

In the context of visitors to web pages, a hit (or site hit) is a single access request made to the server for either a text file or a graphic. If, for example, a web page contains ten buttons constructed from separate images, a single visit from someone using a web browser with graphics switched on (a "page view") will involve eleven hits on the server. (Often the accesses will not get as far as your server because the page will have been cached by a local Internet service provider).

In the context of a search engine query, a hit is a measure of the number of web pages matching a query returned by a search engine or directory.

One of the largest search engines, indexing 110 million pages. Powered by Inktomi, new submissions appear to be taking two weeks or longer to appear. The URL is http://www.hotbot.com/.

HyperText Markup Language - the (main) language used to write web pages.


HyperText Transfer Protocol - the (main) protocol used to communicate between web servers and web browsers (clients).

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Image Map
A set of hyperlinks attached to areas of an image. This may be defined within a web page, or as an external file.

If the image map is defined as an external file, search engines may have problems indexing your other pages, unless you duplicate the links as conventional text hyperlinks.

If the image map is included within the web page, the search engines should have no problem following the links, although it's good practice to provide text links too, to aid the visually impaired and those accessing the web with graphics switched off or using text only browsers.

Inbound Link
A hypertext link to a particular page from elsewhere, bringing traffic to that page. Inbound links are counted to produce a measure of the page popularity. Searches for the inbound links to a page can be made on Altavista, Infoseek and Hotbot.

See Directory. Also refers to the database of web pages maintained by a search engine or directory.

A meta search engine. Found at http://www.infind.com/.


One of the largest search engines. New sites are normally added very quickly, within one or two business days. The URL is http://www.infoseek.com/. Infoseek is one of the few search engines to treat singular and plural forms as the same word. Very sensitive to page popularity in its positioning algorithm.

The database used by some of the largest search engines, including Hotbot. Inktomi is also used by Yahoo when no matches are found in Yahoo's own database.

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A computer programming language whose programs can run on a number of different types of computer and/or operating system. Used extensively to produce applets for web pages.

A simple interpreted computer language used for small programming tasks within HTML web pages. The scripts are normally interpreted (or run) on the client computer by the web browser. Some search engines have been known to index these scripts, presumably erroneously.

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A word which forms (part of) a search engine query.

Keyword Density
A property of the text in a web page which indicates how close together the keywords appear. Some search engines use this property for positioning. Analysers are available which allow comparisons between pages. Pages can then be produced with the similar keyword densities to those found in high ranking pages.

Keyword Domain Name
The use of keywords as part of the URL to a website. Positioning is improved on some search engines when keywords are reinforced in the URL.

Keyword Phrase
A phrase which forms (part of) a search engine query.

Keyword Purchasing
The buying of search keywords from search engines, usually to control banner ad placement. All the major search engines (except EuroSeek and Overture) insist that keyword purchasing is only used for banner ad placement, and doesn't influence search results. The display of banner ads for bought keywords can be studied using a service called Bannerstake from Thomson and Thomson at http://www.namestake.com which returns the banner ads displayed when particular queries are used.

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Link Popularity
See page popularity.

Log File
A file maintained on a server in which details of all file accesses are stored. Analysing log files can be a powerful way to find out about a web site's visitors, where they come from and which queries are used to access a site. Various software packages are available to analyse log files, and some are listed below.
Sane Solutions provide NetTracker, which is good at analysing queries from log files. A free program called WebLog is available at http://www.awsd.com/. See also the reviews at http://www.bellacoola.com/html/sample_reports.htm?isg.

A medium-sized directory. The URL is http://www.looksmart.com/.

One of the largest search engines, Lycos appears to be moving towards becoming a directory and is using the Open Directory for some search results. It can be slow to index new sites. The lycos spider ignores meta tags in pages. Lycos can be found at http://www.lycos.com/.

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A meta search engine found at http://www.metacrawler.com/. Results from various search engines are summarised in an easy to read form.

A meta search engine found at http://www.metacrawler.com/.

Meta Search
A search of searches. A query is submitted to more than one search engine or directory, and results are reported from all the engines, possibly after removal of duplicates and sorting. Also the meta search engine of the same name, found at http://www.metasearch.com/.

Meta Search Engine
A server which passes queries on to many search engines and/or directories and then summarises all the results. Ask Jeeves, Dogpile, Infind, Metacrawler, Metafind and Metasearch are examples of meta search engines.

Meta Tag
A construct placed in the HTML header of a web page, providing information which is not visible to browsers. The most common meta tags (and those most relevant to search engines) are KEYWORDS and DESCRIPTION.
The KEYWORDS tag allows the author to emphasise the importance of certain words and phrases used within the page. Some search engines will respond to this information - others will ignore it. Don't use quotes around the keywords or keyphrases.
The DESCRIPTION tag allows the author to control the text of the summary displayed when the page appears in the results of a search. Again, some search engines will ignore this information.
The HTTP-EQUIV meta tag is used to issue HTTP commands, and is frequently used with the REFRESH tag to refresh page content after a given number of seconds. Pages sometimes use this technique to force browsers to a different page or site. Most search engines are wise to this, and will index the final page and/or reduce the ranking. Infoseek has a strong policy against this technique, and they might penalise your site, or even ban it.
Other common meta tags are GENERATOR (usually advertising the software used to generate the page) and AUTHOR (used to credit the author of the page, and often containing e-mail address, homepage URL and other information).

People quite often spell words incorrectly when using search engines. Pages which use common misspellings will quite often receive extra hits, so it is a useful technique to include common misspellings of words in alt tags, keywords, page names and titles. A similar effect occurs when spaces are missed out and words are accidentally joined together.

A parallel search engine which offers users their own branded versions. http://www.multicrawl.com/.

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See AOL Netfind.

See the Open Directory Project.

Northern Light
A search engine with an additional "pay to access" special collection of business, health and consumer publication articles. The first search engine to ban meta search engines from its database. The URL is http://www.northernlight.com/.

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Open Directory Project
A directory project run by thousands of volunteer editors. In principal, this is a very exciting and powerful way to organise the web. In practice, there have been some problems with the behaviour of some of the editors, which has caused some initial difficulty for the organisers. Initially known as NewHoo, the project is now part of Netscape (and therefore of AOL). See http://directory.mozilla.org/.

Open Text
A large business-only directory. The URL is http://www.opentext.com/.

Changes made to a web page to improve the positioning of that page with one or more search engines. A means of helping potential customers or visitors to find a web site. Optimization may involve design/layout changes, new text for the title-tags, meta-tags, alt- attributes, headings, and changes to the first 200-250 words of the main text. A large image map at the top of a page should be moved further down the page. Frames should be avoided (unless navigational links are also provided within the frames).

Overture (previously GoTo)
A search engine, powered by Inktomi, which only returns one URL per domain in its search results. Operates a "pay per click" scheme where websites can pay to increase their relevancy. The URL is http://www.overture.com/.

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Page Popularity
A measure of the number and quality of links to a particular page (inbound links). Many search engines (and most noticeably Infoseek) are increasingly using this number as part of the positioning process. The number and quality of inbound links is becoming as important as the optimisation of page content. A free service to measure page popularity can be found at http://www.linkpopularity.com/.

Page View
Used in site statistics as a measure of pages viewed rather than server hits. Many server hits may be made to access a single page, causing many separate log file entries. Analysis software can determine that these server hits were generated when a visitor viewed a single page, and group them together to provide this more useful method of counting visitors. See also Hit and Unique Visitor.

See Positioning.

Politeness Window
In order not to overburden any particular server, most search engine spiders limit their access to each server. If your page is hosted on the same server as thousands of other pages, the spider may never get the time to reach (and index) your page. This can be a powerful argument for having your own server.

Portal Site
A generic term for any site which provides an entry point to the Internet for a significant number of users.
Examples are search engines, directories, built-in default browser or service provider homepages, sites hardwired to browser buttons, sites offering free homepages, e-mail or personalised news and any popular (or heavily advertised) sites that significant numbers of people may bookmark or set as default pages.

The process of ordering web sites or web pages by a search engine or a directory so that the most relevant sites appear first in the search results for a particular query. Software such as PositionAgent, Rank This and Webposition can be used to determine how a URL is positioned for a particular search engine when using a particular search phrase. The GoHip Search site allows you to see positioning information from many of the big search engines, displayed all on one page.

Positioning Technique
A method of modifying a web page so that search engines (or a particular search engine) treat the page as more relevant to a particular query (or a set of queries).

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A word, a phrase or a group of words, possibly combined with other syntax used to pass instructions to a search engine or a directory in order to locate web pages.
For details of which queries are being used, visit the Overture.com Search Inventory page. To "spy" on queries as they're entered, look at the Metaspy page. A summary of what people actually search for can be found at http://www.synergy-marketing.com/search.html. A free program called Word Market will collect search terms from the search engines, and is available at http://www.softwaresolutions.net/free.htm.

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See Positioning.

The URL of the web page from which a visitor came. The server's referrer log file will indicate this. If a visitor came directly from a search engine listing, the query used to find the page will usually be encoded in the referer URL, making it easy to see which keywords are bringing visitors. The referer information can also be accessed as document.referrer within JavaScript or via the HTTP_REFERER environment variable (accessible from scripting languages).

Refresh Tag
See the paragraph about HTTP_EQUIV under Meta Tag.

The process of informing a search engine or directory that a new web page or web site should be indexed.

Relevancy Algorithm
The method a search engine or directory uses to match the keywords in a query with the content of each web page, so that the web pages found can be ordered suitably in the query results. Each search engine or directory is likely to use a different algorithm, and to change or improve its algorithm from time to time.

Repeating the search engine registration process one or more times for the same page or site. Under certain circumstances, this is regarded with suspicion by the search engines, as it could indicate that someone is experimenting with spamming techniques.

The Infoseek and Altavista search engines are particularly vulnerable to spamming because they list sites very quickly, and are thus easy to experiment with. Both engines de-list sites for repeated re-submission and Infoseek, for example, does not allow more than one submission of the same page in a 24 hour period. Occasional re-submission of changed pages is not normally a problem.

Any browser program which follows hypertext links and accesses web pages but is not directly under human control. Examples are the search engine spiders, the "harvesting" programs which extract e-mail addresses and other data from web pages and various intelligent web searching programs. A database of web robots is maintained by Webcrawler.
A text file stored in the top level directory of a web site to deny access by robots to certain pages or sub-directories of the site. Only robots which comply with the Robots Exclusion Standard will read and obey the commands in this file. Robots will read this file on each visit, so that pages or areas of sites can be made public or private at any time by changing the content of robots.txt before re-submitting to the search engines. The simple example below attempts to prevent all robots from visiting the /secret directory:
User-agent: *
Disallow: /secret
For more information, please refer to the Altavista robots.txt page.

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The name of the Altavista search engine's spider.

Search Engine
A server or a collection of servers dedicated to indexing internet web pages, storing the results and returning lists of pages which match particular queries. The indexes are normally generated using spiders. Some of the major search engines are Altavista, Excite, Hotbot, Infoseek, Lycos, Northern Light and Webcrawler. Note that Yahoo is a directory, not a search engine. The term Search Engine is also often used to describe both directories and search engines.

A smaller search engine which allows visitors to vote on the relevance of the pages returned by their queries, thus ranking sites based on the opinions of searchers. Unlike some of the major search engines, there is good customer support. http://www.searchking.com/.

Search Term
See Query.

A computer, program or process which responds to requests for information from a client. On the Internet, all web pages are held on servers. This includes those parts of the search engines and directories which are accessible from the Internet.

The name of the Infoseek search engine's spider.

The use of various means to steal another site's traffic. Techniques used include the wholesale copying of web pages (with the copied page altered slightly to direct visitors to a different site, and then registered with the search engines) and the use of keywords or keyword phrases "belonging" to other organisations, companies or web sites.

Site Hit
See hit.

Artificially changing search engine results so that, for example, popular queries will return artificially created listings. Infoseek is currently experimenting with this technique, using a small group of reviewers to artificially force higher relevance for certain sites.

The name of the spider used by Inktomi.

A large directory. The URL is http://www.snap.com/.

The name of the filter program used by the Infoseek search engine to prevent spamdexing. It detects multiple mirror pages, font and background spoofs, multiple title tags, keyword stuffing and possibly other types of spamdexing.

The alteration or creation of a document with intent to deceive an electronic catalogue or filing system. Any technique that increases the potential position of a site at the expense of the quality of the search engine's database can also be regarded as spamdexing - also known as spamming or spoofing.

See spamdexing. Spamming is also used more generally to refer to the sending of unsolicited bulk electronic mail, and the search engine use is derived from this term.

Spider, Spyder
That part of a search engine which surfs the web, storing the URLs and indexing the keywords and text of each page it finds. Please refer to the Search Engine Watch SpiderSpotting Chart for details of individual spiders. See also Robot.

The process of surfing the web, storing URLs and indexing keywords, links and text.

Typically, even the largest search engines cannot spider all of the pages on the net. This is due to the huge amount of data available, the speed at which the new data appears, the use of politeness windows and practical limits on the number of pages that can be visited in a given time . The search engines have to make compromises in order to visit as many sites as possible, and they do this in different ways. For example, some only index the home pages of each site, some only visit sites they're explicitly told about, and some make judgements about the importance of sites (from number and quality of inbound links) before "digging deeper" into the subpages of a site.

See spamdexing.

Server Side Includes. Used (for example) to add dynamically generated content to a web page.

A function of some search engines and directories which allows results to be returned from some or all keywords based on the same stem as the keyword entered as a search term. For example, when stemming is switched on, a search for the word dance will return matches for any word whose stem is danc-, matching the keywords dance, dancer and dancing.

Stop Word
A word which is ignored in a query because the word is so commonly used that it makes no contribution to relevancy. Examples are common net words such as computer and web, and general words like get, I, me, the and you.

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The text contained between the start and end HTML tags of the same name. This text is associated with (but not displayed in) the web page containing these tags, and is displayed in a special position (usually at the top of the window) by the web browser.

Title text is important because it normally forms the link to the page from the search engine listings, and because the search engines pay special attention to the title text when indexing the page.

Don't confuse this text with heading text within the web page which often looks like the title. Usually this will be rendered either using the HTML heading tags or just rendered with a large font size.

The visitors to a web page or web site. Also refers to the number of visitors, hits, accesses etc. over a given period.

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Unique Visitor

A real visitor to a web site.

Web servers record the IP addresses of each visitor, and this is used to determine the number of real people who have visited a web site.

If for example, someone visits twenty pages within a web site, the server will count only one unique visitor (because the page accesses are all associated with the same IP address) but twenty page accesses.

See also hit and page view.

Universal Resource Locator. An address which can specify any Internet resource uniquely. The beginning of the address indicates the type of resource - e.g. http: for web pages, ftp: for file transfers, telnet: for computer login sessions or mailto: for e-mail addresses.

URL Submission
See registration.

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Virtual Domain
A domain hosted by a virtual server account.

Virtual Server
An account on a hosting company server, usually linked to its own domain. This provides an inexpensive way to run a web site with its own top level domain, and is usually indistinguishable from having a separate physical server, except that the virtual server may share an IP address with other virtual servers on the same machine. A virtual server account is fine for most uses, but will often be slower to respond than a physically separate server, and physical access to the machine will seldom be allowed. The cost of a virtual server account is a small fraction of that needed to run a real server, mainly because of the expense of the dedicated line needed to connect the server continuously to the rest of the net.


Web Copywriting
The writing of text especially for a web page. Similar to the writing of copy for any other type of publication, good web copywriting can have a great effect on search engine positioning, so it forms a major part of optimisation.

One of the largest search engines. The URL is http://www.webcrawler.com/.

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XML Extensible Markup Language.
A new language which promises more efficient data delivery over the web. XML does nothing itself - it must be implemented using 'parser' software or XSL.

Extensible Scripting Language - an XML style sheet language supported by the newer web browsers Internet Explorer 5 and Netscape 5.


Similar to a search engine, but with a database generated by hand, this is the world's most used directory of web sites. The main URL is http://www.yahoo.com/. It is notoriously difficult to get listed in Yahoo and, once listed, even more difficult to get your listing changed or to get out! To increase the odds of getting listed, try the following:

  • Select the three categories you want to be listed in very carefully. Consider the regional categories. Ensure that the categories match the content of your site.
  • Apply to one of their local subsidiaries for your own country or city.
  • Make sure that your site is well-designed and easy to navigate.
  • Ensure your site has no dead links.
  • Ensure that your pages download quickly.
  • Provide good contact information on your site.

If you manage to get listed, keep the e-mail they send you. You can e-mail the same person subsequently to get your listing changed.


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