You had me at the search engine

by Gemma Maidment on 1 June 2004

You've likely heard of the movie, Jerry Maguire, with its famous line, "You had me at hello." Jerry Maguire was luckier than websites we find in search engines. Many websites don't attract user devotion at the first word, let alone after scanning the homepage.

Problems with the homepage

How many times has this scenario happened to you? You've performed a search in a search engine or directory, reviewed the results and found a page description that fits your needs. When you click on the page that looks the most promising, you often arrive at the website's homepage, where one or more things might happen:

  • The page loads slowly due to too many graphics, dynamic applications or scripts
  • There are terms used on the page that you don't understand
  • It promotes products or services that weren't mentioned in the page description from the search engine
  • The products or services are unrelated to your search
  • The page is ‘amateurish’ in appearance and you're not feeling confident about things like customer service, user privacy and security, experience with the product, or other credibility issues
  • The page is so busy you don't know where to go to next, or distractions caused you to forget your original mission
  • Something has turned you off, such as swimsuit models that don't look like you do, corporate images of businessmen, not women, or multiple animated things
  • An invasive advertisement appeared that you had to click away so you could read the content underneath it
  • The page loads but your scumware radar starts beeping like crazy or popup and security alerts appear
  • You need a magnifying glass to read the content

Problems with inside pages

If a keyword search brings back an inside page, more common frustrations occur to drive people away from the website. They include:

  • There is no navigation to the rest of the website
  • There is navigation, but no visible, easy-to-locate link to the main homepage or main website
  • A link home is offered, but sub-navigation is missing, so that the user must start at the beginning to figure out where they landed inside the website
  • Link labels do not explain what the website is about, so the visitor may not be inspired to click around
  • There is no suggested click path to follow (for example, if the page happens to be an article, it might be useful to say "Did you find this article helpful? Here are more articles that may interest you.")

We often forget that search engines index more than our homepage. People often stumble into our websites while searching for other things, linking from another website, or receiving an email link from a friend. The starting place isn't always home base.

How to get chosen in the search results

So, how do you make a website page approachable in a crowded room of search engine results? First, make sure your title tag is accurate. Every page requires a title tag unique to the content it represents. The homepage is an overview page, so focus on the main goal, which is often also your primary keyword(s).

Next, write a genuine, honest description that isn't all hype and glorified self-worship about your great website. If the site is going to sell something, what does it sell? Does it specialize? Avoid words like unique, amazing, and special because, frankly, everybody makes these claims.

It's important that you don't stuff keywords in your title and description tags because these are displayed in search engines as your site or page description. When read by humans, they don't make sense. People are getting wiser. They know that you're trying to get a higher rank but it doesn't mean your website is any better in quality that those lower in search results.

Once they're on your website

Regardless of where the page is in your site, there are lots of ways to attract attention or generate curiosity so that your visitor becomes a potential customer, or at least finds the content interesting enough to keep browsing around. My favorite part of discount shops are the displays where they toss clearance items, or the impulse "Oh yes, I forgot I needed that"-type items. You can do the same thing with your website. Simply place the toenail clippers, scotch tape and calling cards out front where they're easily seen. In other words, remind your visitors you carry the items they didn't know they needed.

Here are some other ideas to try:

  • Provide a good reason to enter your site. Don't expect anyone to take your word for anything. Offer incentives.
  • Put a visible text link to your sitemap on every page. Every department store has a map with a "You are here" pointer.
  • Be forthcoming and descriptive with pictures. If you design and make your own crafts, show close-ups of the detail and workmanship. The sunglasses line you offer is likely filled with brand name shades, but what types of faces will they complement? In a virtual world, you must go to great lengths to sell things people can't touch or see in use.
  • Place words like sale, getting started, first-time user, learn more, try now, buy now, free, download, we deliver and free shipping on your pages, above the fold.
  • On your homepage, provide an introduction and suggestions for where your visitors might like to go next, based on their needs.


Search engines can only bring a visitor to your doorstep. It's your job to grab them by the hand, invite them inside and show it off.

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