Why Effective, Modern SEO Requires Technical, Creative, and Strategic Thinking – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

There’s no doubt that quite a bit has changed about SEO, and that the field is far more integrated with other aspects of online marketing than it once was. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand pushes back against the idea that effective modern SEO doesn’t require any technical expertise, outlining a fantastic list of technical elements that today’s SEOs need to know about in order to be truly effective.

For reference, here’s a still of this week’s whiteboard. Click on it to open a high resolution image in a new tab!

Video transcription

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week I’m going to do something unusual. I don’t usually point out these inconsistencies or sort of take issue with other folks’ content on the web, because I generally find that that’s not all that valuable and useful. But I’m going to make an exception here.

There is an article by Jayson DeMers, who I think might actually be here in Seattle — maybe he and I can hang out at some point — called “Why Modern SEO Requires Almost No Technical Expertise.” It was an article that got a shocking amount of traction and attention. On Facebook, it has thousands of shares. On LinkedIn, it did really well. On Twitter, it got a bunch of attention.

Some folks in the SEO world have already pointed out some issues around this. But because of the increasing popularity of this article, and because I think there’s, like, this hopefulness from worlds outside of kind of the hardcore SEO world that are looking to this piece and going, “Look, this is great. We don’t have to be technical. We don’t have to worry about technical things in order to do SEO.”

Look, I completely get the appeal of that. I did want to point out some of the reasons why this is not so accurate. At the same time, I don’t want to rain on Jayson, because I think that it’s very possible he’s writing an article for Entrepreneur, maybe he has sort of a commitment to them. Maybe he had no idea that this article was going to spark so much attention and investment. He does make some good points. I think it’s just really the title and then some of the messages inside there that I take strong issue with, and so I wanted to bring those up.

First off, some of the good points he did bring up.

One, he wisely says, “You don’t need to know how to code or to write and read algorithms in order to do SEO.” I totally agree with that. If today you’re looking at SEO and you’re thinking, “Well, am I going to get more into this subject? Am I going to try investing in SEO? But I don’t even know HTML and CSS yet.”

Those are good skills to have, and they will help you in SEO, but you don’t need them. Jayson’s totally right. You don’t have to have them, and you can learn and pick up some of these things, and do searches, watch some Whiteboard Fridays, check out some guides, and pick up a lot of that stuff later on as you need it in your career. SEO doesn’t have that hard requirement.

And secondly, he makes an intelligent point that we’ve made many times here at Moz, which is that, broadly speaking, a better user experience is well correlated with better rankings.

You make a great website that delivers great user experience, that provides the answers to searchers’ questions and gives them extraordinarily good content, way better than what’s out there already in the search results, generally speaking you’re going to see happy searchers, and that’s going to lead to higher rankings.

But not entirely. There are a lot of other elements that go in here. So I’ll bring up some frustrating points around the piece as well.

First off, there’s no acknowledgment — and I find this a little disturbing — that the ability to read and write code, or even HTML and CSS, which I think are the basic place to start, is helpful or can take your SEO efforts to the next level. I think both of those things are true.

So being able to look at a web page, view source on it, or pull up Firebug in Firefox or something and diagnose what’s going on and then go, “Oh, that’s why Google is not able to see this content. That’s why we’re not ranking for this keyword or term, or why even when I enter this exact sentence in quotes into Google, which is on our page, this is why it’s not bringing it up. It’s because it’s loading it after the page from a remote file that Google can’t access.” These are technical things, and being able to see how that code is built, how it’s structured, and what’s going on there, very, very helpful.

Some coding knowledge also can take your SEO efforts even further. I mean, so many times, SEOs are stymied by the conversations that we have with our programmers and our developers and the technical staff on our teams. When we can have those conversations intelligently, because at least we understand the principles of how an if-then statement works, or what software engineering best practices are being used, or they can upload something into a GitHub repository, and we can take a look at it there, that kind of stuff is really helpful.

Secondly, I don’t like that the article overly reduces all of this information that we have about what we’ve learned about Google. So he mentions two sources. One is things that Google tells us, and others are SEO experiments. I think both of those are true. Although I’d add that there’s sort of a sixth sense of knowledge that we gain over time from looking at many, many search results and kind of having this feel for why things rank, and what might be wrong with a site, and getting really good at that using tools and data as well. There are people who can look at Open Site Explorer and then go, “Aha, I bet this is going to happen.” They can look, and 90% of the time they’re right.

So he boils this down to, one, write quality content, and two, reduce your bounce rate. Neither of those things are wrong. You should write quality content, although I’d argue there are lots of other forms of quality content that aren’t necessarily written — video, images and graphics, podcasts, lots of other stuff.

And secondly, that just doing those two things is not always enough. So you can see, like many, many folks look and go, “I have quality content. It has a low bounce rate. How come I don’t rank better?” Well, your competitors, they’re also going to have quality content with a low bounce rate. That’s not a very high bar.

Also, frustratingly, this really gets in my craw. I don’t think “write quality content” means anything. You tell me. When you hear that, to me that is a totally non-actionable, non-useful phrase that’s a piece of advice that is so generic as to be discardable. So I really wish that there was more substance behind that.

The article also makes, in my opinion, the totally inaccurate claim that modern SEO really is reduced to “the happier your users are when they visit your site, the higher you’re going to rank.”

Wow. Okay. Again, I think broadly these things are correlated. User happiness and rank is broadly correlated, but it’s not a one to one. This is not like a, “Oh, well, that’s a 1.0 correlation.”

I would guess that the correlation is probably closer to like the page authority range. I bet it’s like 0.35 or something correlation. If you were to actually measure this broadly across the web and say like, “Hey, were you happier with result one, two, three, four, or five,” the ordering would not be perfect at all. It probably wouldn’t even be close.

There’s a ton of reasons why sometimes someone who ranks on Page 2 or Page 3 or doesn’t rank at all for a query is doing a better piece of content than the person who does rank well or ranks on Page 1, Position 1.

Then the article suggests five and sort of a half steps to successful modern SEO, which I think is a really incomplete list. So Jayson gives us;

  • Good on-site experience
  • Writing good content
  • Getting others to acknowledge you as an authority
  • Rising in social popularity
  • Earning local relevance
  • Dealing with modern CMS systems (which he notes most modern CMS systems are SEO-friendly)

The thing is there’s nothing actually wrong with any of these. They’re all, generally speaking, correct, either directly or indirectly related to SEO. The one about local relevance, I have some issue with, because he doesn’t note that there’s a separate algorithm for sort of how local SEO is done and how Google ranks local sites in maps and in their local search results. Also not noted is that rising in social popularity won’t necessarily directly help your SEO, although it can have indirect and positive benefits.

I feel like this list is super incomplete. Okay, I brainstormed just off the top of my head in the 10 minutes before we filmed this video a list. The list was so long that, as you can see, I filled up the whole whiteboard and then didn’t have any more room. I’m not going to bother to erase and go try and be absolutely complete.

But there’s a huge, huge number of things that are important, critically important for technical SEO. If you don’t know how to do these things, you are sunk in many cases. You can’t be an effective SEO analyst, or consultant, or in-house team member, because you simply can’t diagnose the potential problems, rectify those potential problems, identify strategies that your competitors are using, be able to diagnose a traffic gain or loss. You have to have these skills in order to do that.

I’ll run through these quickly, but really the idea is just that this list is so huge and so long that I think it’s very, very, very wrong to say technical SEO is behind us. I almost feel like the opposite is true.

We have to be able to understand things like;

  • Content rendering and indexability
  • Crawl structure, internal links, JavaScript, Ajax. If something’s post-loading after the page and Google’s not able to index it, or there are links that are accessible via JavaScript or Ajax, maybe Google can’t necessarily see those or isn’t crawling them as effectively, or is crawling them, but isn’t assigning them as much link weight as they might be assigning other stuff, and you’ve made it tough to link to them externally, and so they can’t crawl it.
  • Disabling crawling and/or indexing of thin or incomplete or non-search-targeted content. We have a bunch of search results pages. Should we use rel=prev/next? Should we robots.txt those out? Should we disallow from crawling with meta robots? Should we rel=canonical them to other pages? Should we exclude them via the protocols inside Google Webmaster Tools, which is now Google Search Console?
  • Managing redirects, domain migrations, content updates. A new piece of content comes out, replacing an old piece of content, what do we do with that old piece of content? What’s the best practice? It varies by different things. We have a whole Whiteboard Friday about the different things that you could do with that. What about a big redirect or a domain migration? You buy another company and you’re redirecting their site to your site. You have to understand things about subdomain structures versus subfolders, which, again, we’ve done another Whiteboard Friday about that.
  • Proper error codes, downtime procedures, and not found pages. If your 404 pages turn out to all be 200 pages, well, now you’ve made a big error there, and Google could be crawling tons of 404 pages that they think are real pages, because you’ve made it a status code 200, or you’ve used a 404 code when you should have used a 410, which is a permanently removed, to be able to get it completely out of the indexes, as opposed to having Google revisit it and keep it in the index.

Downtime procedures. So there’s specifically a… I can’t even remember. It’s a 5xx code that you can use. Maybe it was a 503 or something that you can use that’s like, “Revisit later. We’re having some downtime right now.” Google urges you to use that specific code rather than using a 404, which tells them, “This page is now an error.”

Disney had that problem a while ago, if you guys remember, where they 404ed all their pages during an hour of downtime, and then their homepage, when you searched for Disney World, was, like, “Not found.” Oh, jeez, Disney World, not so good.

  • International and multi-language targeting issues. I won’t go into that. But you have to know the protocols there. Duplicate content, syndication, scrapers. How do we handle all that? Somebody else wants to take our content, put it on their site, what should we do? Someone’s scraping our content. What can we do? We have duplicate content on our own site. What should we do?
  • Diagnosing traffic drops via analytics and metrics. Being able to look at a rankings report, being able to look at analytics connecting those up and trying to see: Why did we go up or down? Did we have less pages being indexed, more pages being indexed, more pages getting traffic less, more keywords less?
  • Understanding advanced search parameters. Today, just today, I was checking out the related parameter in Google, which is fascinating for most sites. Well, for Moz, weirdly, related:oursite.com shows nothing. But for virtually every other sit, well, most other sites on the web, it does show some really interesting data, and you can see how Google is connecting up, essentially, intentions and topics from different sites and pages, which can be fascinating, could expose opportunities for links, could expose understanding of how they view your site versus your competition or who they think your competition is.

Then there are tons of parameters, like in URL and in anchor, and da, da, da, da. In anchor doesn’t work anymore, never mind about that one.

I have to go faster, because we’re just going to run out of these. Like, come on. Interpreting and leveraging data in Google Search Console. If you don’t know how to use that, Google could be telling you, you have all sorts of errors, and you don’t know what they are.

  • Leveraging topic modeling and extraction. Using all these cool tools that are coming out for better keyword research and better on-page targeting. I talked about a couple of those at MozCon, like MonkeyLearn. There’s the new Moz Context API, which will be coming out soon, around that. There’s the Alchemy API, which a lot of folks really like and use.
  • Identifying and extracting opportunities based on site crawls. You run a Screaming Frog crawl on your site and you’re going, “Oh, here’s all these problems and issues.” If you don’t have these technical skills, you can’t diagnose that. You can’t figure out what’s wrong. You can’t figure out what needs fixing, what needs addressing.
  • Using rich snippet format to stand out in the SERPs. This is just getting a better click-through rate, which can seriously help your site and obviously your traffic.
  • Applying Google-supported protocols like rel=canonical, meta description, rel=prev/next, hreflang, robots.txt, meta robots, x robots, NOODP, XML sitemaps, rel=nofollow. The list goes on and on and on. If you’re not technical, you don’t know what those are, you think you just need to write good content and lower your bounce rate, it’s not going to work.
  • Using APIs from services like AdWords or MozScape, or hrefs from Majestic, or SEM refs from SearchScape or Alchemy API. Those APIs can have powerful things that they can do for your site. There are some powerful problems they could help you solve if you know how to use them. It’s actually not that hard to write something, even inside a Google Doc or Excel, to pull from an API and get some data in there. There’s a bunch of good tutorials out there. Richard Baxter has one, Annie Cushing has one, I think Distilled has some. So really cool stuff there.
  • Diagnosing page load speed issues, which goes right to what Jayson was talking about. You need that fast-loading page. Well, if you don’t have any technical skills, you can’t figure out why your page might not be loading quickly.
  • Diagnosing mobile friendliness issues
  • Advising app developers on the new protocols around App deep linking, so that you can get the content from your mobile apps into the web search results on mobile devices. Awesome. Super powerful. Potentially crazy powerful, as mobile search is becoming bigger than desktop.

Okay, I’m going to take a deep breath and relax. I don’t know Jayson’s intention, and in fact, if he were in this room, he’d be like, “No, I totally agree with all those things. I wrote the article in a rush. I had no idea it was going to be big. I was just trying to make the broader points around you don’t have to be a coder in order to do SEO.” That’s completely fine.

So I’m not going to try and rain criticism down on him. But I think if you’re reading that article, or you’re seeing it in your feed, or your clients are, or your boss is, or other folks are in your world, maybe you can point them to this Whiteboard Friday and let them know, no, that’s not quite right. There’s a ton of technical SEO that is required in 2015 and will be for years to come, I think, that SEOs have to have in order to be effective at their jobs.

All right, everyone. Look forward to some great comments, and we’ll see you again next time for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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Reblogged 3 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

Distance from Perfect

Posted by wrttnwrd

In spite of all the advice, the strategic discussions and the conference talks, we Internet marketers are still algorithmic thinkers. That’s obvious when you think of SEO.

Even when we talk about content, we’re algorithmic thinkers. Ask yourself: How many times has a client asked you, “How much content do we need?” How often do you still hear “How unique does this page need to be?”

That’s 100% algorithmic thinking: Produce a certain amount of content, move up a certain number of spaces.

But you and I know it’s complete bullshit.

I’m not suggesting you ignore the algorithm. You should definitely chase it. Understanding a little bit about what goes on in Google’s pointy little head helps. But it’s not enough.

A tale of SEO woe that makes you go “whoa”

I have this friend.

He ranked #10 for “flibbergibbet.” He wanted to rank #1.

He compared his site to the #1 site and realized the #1 site had five hundred blog posts.

“That site has five hundred blog posts,” he said, “I must have more.”

So he hired a few writers and cranked out five thousand blogs posts that melted Microsoft Word’s grammar check. He didn’t move up in the rankings. I’m shocked.

“That guy’s spamming,” he decided, “I’ll just report him to Google and hope for the best.”

What happened? Why didn’t adding five thousand blog posts work?

It’s pretty obvious: My, uh, friend added nothing but crap content to a site that was already outranked. Bulk is no longer a ranking tactic. Google’s very aware of that tactic. Lots of smart engineers have put time into updates like Panda to compensate.

He started like this:

And ended up like this:
more posts, no rankings

Alright, yeah, I was Mr. Flood The Site With Content, way back in 2003. Don’t judge me, whippersnappers.

Reality’s never that obvious. You’re scratching and clawing to move up two spots, you’ve got an overtasked IT team pushing back on changes, and you’ve got a boss who needs to know the implications of every recommendation.

Why fix duplication if rel=canonical can address it? Fixing duplication will take more time and cost more money. It’s easier to paste in one line of code. You and I know it’s better to fix the duplication. But it’s a hard sell.

Why deal with 302 versus 404 response codes and home page redirection? The basic user experience remains the same. Again, we just know that a server should return one home page without any redirects and that it should send a ‘not found’ 404 response if a page is missing. If it’s going to take 3 developer hours to reconfigure the server, though, how do we justify it? There’s no flashing sign reading “Your site has a problem!”

Why change this thing and not that thing?

At the same time, our boss/client sees that the site above theirs has five hundred blog posts and thousands of links from sites selling correspondence MBAs. So they want five thousand blog posts and cheap links as quickly as possible.

Cue crazy music.

SEO lacks clarity

SEO is, in some ways, for the insane. It’s an absurd collection of technical tweaks, content thinking, link building and other little tactics that may or may not work. A novice gets exposed to one piece of crappy information after another, with an occasional bit of useful stuff mixed in. They create sites that repel search engines and piss off users. They get more awful advice. The cycle repeats. Every time it does, best practices get more muddled.

SEO lacks clarity. We can’t easily weigh the value of one change or tactic over another. But we can look at our changes and tactics in context. When we examine the potential of several changes or tactics before we flip the switch, we get a closer balance between algorithm-thinking and actual strategy.

Distance from perfect brings clarity to tactics and strategy

At some point you have to turn that knowledge into practice. You have to take action based on recommendations, your knowledge of SEO, and business considerations.

That’s hard when we can’t even agree on subdomains vs. subfolders.

I know subfolders work better. Sorry, couldn’t resist. Let the flaming comments commence.

To get clarity, take a deep breath and ask yourself:

“All other things being equal, will this change, tactic, or strategy move my site closer to perfect than my competitors?”

Breaking it down:

“Change, tactic, or strategy”

A change takes an existing component or policy and makes it something else. Replatforming is a massive change. Adding a new page is a smaller one. Adding ALT attributes to your images is another example. Changing the way your shopping cart works is yet another.

A tactic is a specific, executable practice. In SEO, that might be fixing broken links, optimizing ALT attributes, optimizing title tags or producing a specific piece of content.

A strategy is a broader decision that’ll cause change or drive tactics. A long-term content policy is the easiest example. Shifting away from asynchronous content and moving to server-generated content is another example.

“Perfect”

No one knows exactly what Google considers “perfect,” and “perfect” can’t really exist, but you can bet a perfect web page/site would have all of the following:

  1. Completely visible content that’s perfectly relevant to the audience and query
  2. A flawless user experience
  3. Instant load time
  4. Zero duplicate content
  5. Every page easily indexed and classified
  6. No mistakes, broken links, redirects or anything else generally yucky
  7. Zero reported problems or suggestions in each search engines’ webmaster tools, sorry, “Search Consoles”
  8. Complete authority through immaculate, organically-generated links

These 8 categories (and any of the other bazillion that probably exist) give you a way to break down “perfect” and help you focus on what’s really going to move you forward. These different areas may involve different facets of your organization.

Your IT team can work on load time and creating an error-free front- and back-end. Link building requires the time and effort of content and outreach teams.

Tactics for relevant, visible content and current best practices in UX are going to be more involved, requiring research and real study of your audience.

What you need and what resources you have are going to impact which tactics are most realistic for you.

But there’s a basic rule: If a website would make Googlebot swoon and present zero obstacles to users, it’s close to perfect.

“All other things being equal”

Assume every competing website is optimized exactly as well as yours.

Now ask: Will this [tactic, change or strategy] move you closer to perfect?

That’s the “all other things being equal” rule. And it’s an incredibly powerful rubric for evaluating potential changes before you act. Pretend you’re in a tie with your competitors. Will this one thing be the tiebreaker? Will it put you ahead? Or will it cause you to fall behind?

“Closer to perfect than my competitors”

Perfect is great, but unattainable. What you really need is to be just a little perfect-er.

Chasing perfect can be dangerous. Perfect is the enemy of the good (I love that quote. Hated Voltaire. But I love that quote). If you wait for the opportunity/resources to reach perfection, you’ll never do anything. And the only way to reduce distance from perfect is to execute.

Instead of aiming for pure perfection, aim for more perfect than your competitors. Beat them feature-by-feature, tactic-by-tactic. Implement strategy that supports long-term superiority.

Don’t slack off. But set priorities and measure your effort. If fixing server response codes will take one hour and fixing duplication will take ten, fix the response codes first. Both move you closer to perfect. Fixing response codes may not move the needle as much, but it’s a lot easier to do. Then move on to fixing duplicates.

Do the 60% that gets you a 90% improvement. Then move on to the next thing and do it again. When you’re done, get to work on that last 40%. Repeat as necessary.

Take advantage of quick wins. That gives you more time to focus on your bigger solutions.

Sites that are “fine” are pretty far from perfect

Google has lots of tweaks, tools and workarounds to help us mitigate sub-optimal sites:

  • Rel=canonical lets us guide Google past duplicate content rather than fix it
  • HTML snapshots let us reveal content that’s delivered using asynchronous content and JavaScript frameworks
  • We can use rel=next and prev to guide search bots through outrageously long pagination tunnels
  • And we can use rel=nofollow to hide spammy links and banners

Easy, right? All of these solutions may reduce distance from perfect (the search engines don’t guarantee it). But they don’t reduce it as much as fixing the problems.
Just fine does not equal fixed

The next time you set up rel=canonical, ask yourself:

“All other things being equal, will using rel=canonical to make up for duplication move my site closer to perfect than my competitors?”

Answer: Not if they’re using rel=canonical, too. You’re both using imperfect solutions that force search engines to crawl every page of your site, duplicates included. If you want to pass them on your way to perfect, you need to fix the duplicate content.

When you use Angular.js to deliver regular content pages, ask yourself:

“All other things being equal, will using HTML snapshots instead of actual, visible content move my site closer to perfect than my competitors?”

Answer: No. Just no. Not in your wildest, code-addled dreams. If I’m Google, which site will I prefer? The one that renders for me the same way it renders for users? Or the one that has to deliver two separate versions of every page?

When you spill banner ads all over your site, ask yourself…

You get the idea. Nofollow is better than follow, but banner pollution is still pretty dang far from perfect.

Mitigating SEO issues with search engine-specific tools is “fine.” But it’s far, far from perfect. If search engines are forced to choose, they’ll favor the site that just works.

Not just SEO

By the way, distance from perfect absolutely applies to other channels.

I’m focusing on SEO, but think of other Internet marketing disciplines. I hear stuff like “How fast should my site be?” (Faster than it is right now.) Or “I’ve heard you shouldn’t have any content below the fold.” (Maybe in 2001.) Or “I need background video on my home page!” (Why? Do you have a reason?) Or, my favorite: “What’s a good bounce rate?” (Zero is pretty awesome.)

And Internet marketing venues are working to measure distance from perfect. Pay-per-click marketing has the quality score: A codified financial reward applied for seeking distance from perfect in as many elements as possible of your advertising program.

Social media venues are aggressively building their own forms of graphing, scoring and ranking systems designed to separate the good from the bad.

Really, all marketing includes some measure of distance from perfect. But no channel is more influenced by it than SEO. Instead of arguing one rule at a time, ask yourself and your boss or client: Will this move us closer to perfect?

Hell, you might even please a customer or two.

One last note for all of the SEOs in the crowd. Before you start pointing out edge cases, consider this: We spend our days combing Google for embarrassing rankings issues. Every now and then, we find one, point, and start yelling “SEE! SEE!!!! THE GOOGLES MADE MISTAKES!!!!” Google’s got lots of issues. Screwing up the rankings isn’t one of them.

Sign up for The Moz Top 10, a semimonthly mailer updating you on the top ten hottest pieces of SEO news, tips, and rad links uncovered by the Moz team. Think of it as your exclusive digest of stuff you don’t have time to hunt down but want to read!

Reblogged 3 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

Controlling Search Engine Crawlers for Better Indexation and Rankings – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

When should you disallow search engines in your robots.txt file, and when should you use meta robots tags in a page header? What about nofollowing links? In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand covers these tools and their appropriate use in four situations that SEOs commonly find themselves facing.

For reference, here’s a still of this week’s whiteboard. Click on it to open a high resolution image in a new tab!

Video transcription

Howdy Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re going to talk about controlling search engine crawlers, blocking bots, sending bots where we want, restricting them from where we don’t want them to go. We’re going to talk a little bit about crawl budget and what you should and shouldn’t have indexed.

As a start, what I want to do is discuss the ways in which we can control robots. Those include the three primary ones: robots.txt, meta robots, and—well, the nofollow tag is a little bit less about controlling bots.

There are a few others that we’re going to discuss as well, including Webmaster Tools (Search Console) and URL status codes. But let’s dive into those first few first.

Robots.txt lives at yoursite.com/robots.txt, it tells crawlers what they should and shouldn’t access, it doesn’t always get respected by Google and Bing. So a lot of folks when you say, “hey, disallow this,” and then you suddenly see those URLs popping up and you’re wondering what’s going on, look—Google and Bing oftentimes think that they just know better. They think that maybe you’ve made a mistake, they think “hey, there’s a lot of links pointing to this content, there’s a lot of people who are visiting and caring about this content, maybe you didn’t intend for us to block it.” The more specific you get about an individual URL, the better they usually are about respecting it. The less specific, meaning the more you use wildcards or say “everything behind this entire big directory,” the worse they are about necessarily believing you.

Meta robots—a little different—that lives in the headers of individual pages, so you can only control a single page with a meta robots tag. That tells the engines whether or not they should keep a page in the index, and whether they should follow the links on that page, and it’s usually a lot more respected, because it’s at an individual-page level; Google and Bing tend to believe you about the meta robots tag.

And then the nofollow tag, that lives on an individual link on a page. It doesn’t tell engines where to crawl or not to crawl. All it’s saying is whether you editorially vouch for a page that is being linked to, and whether you want to pass the PageRank and link equity metrics to that page.

Interesting point about meta robots and robots.txt working together (or not working together so well)—many, many folks in the SEO world do this and then get frustrated.

What if, for example, we take a page like “blogtest.html” on our domain and we say “all user agents, you are not allowed to crawl blogtest.html. Okay—that’s a good way to keep that page away from being crawled, but just because something is not crawled doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t be in the search results.

So then we have our SEO folks go, “you know what, let’s make doubly sure that doesn’t show up in search results; we’ll put in the meta robots tag:”

<meta name="robots" content="noindex, follow">

So, “noindex, follow” tells the search engine crawler they can follow the links on the page, but they shouldn’t index this particular one.

Then, you go and run a search for “blog test” in this case, and everybody on the team’s like “What the heck!? WTF? Why am I seeing this page show up in search results?”

The answer is, you told the engines that they couldn’t crawl the page, so they didn’t. But they are still putting it in the results. They’re actually probably not going to include a meta description; they might have something like “we can’t include a meta description because of this site’s robots.txt file.” The reason it’s showing up is because they can’t see the noindex; all they see is the disallow.

So, if you want something truly removed, unable to be seen in search results, you can’t just disallow a crawler. You have to say meta “noindex” and you have to let them crawl it.

So this creates some complications. Robots.txt can be great if we’re trying to save crawl bandwidth, but it isn’t necessarily ideal for preventing a page from being shown in the search results. I would not recommend, by the way, that you do what we think Twitter recently tried to do, where they tried to canonicalize www and non-www by saying “Google, don’t crawl the www version of twitter.com.” What you should be doing is rel canonical-ing or using a 301.

Meta robots—that can allow crawling and link-following while disallowing indexation, which is great, but it requires crawl budget and you can still conserve indexing.

The nofollow tag, generally speaking, is not particularly useful for controlling bots or conserving indexation.

Webmaster Tools (now Google Search Console) has some special things that allow you to restrict access or remove a result from the search results. For example, if you have 404’d something or if you’ve told them not to crawl something but it’s still showing up in there, you can manually say “don’t do that.” There are a few other crawl protocol things that you can do.

And then URL status codes—these are a valid way to do things, but they’re going to obviously change what’s going on on your pages, too.

If you’re not having a lot of luck using a 404 to remove something, you can use a 410 to permanently remove something from the index. Just be aware that once you use a 410, it can take a long time if you want to get that page re-crawled or re-indexed, and you want to tell the search engines “it’s back!” 410 is permanent removal.

301—permanent redirect, we’ve talked about those here—and 302, temporary redirect.

Now let’s jump into a few specific use cases of “what kinds of content should and shouldn’t I allow engines to crawl and index” in this next version…

[Rand moves at superhuman speed to erase the board and draw part two of this Whiteboard Friday. Seriously, we showed Roger how fast it was, and even he was impressed.]

Four crawling/indexing problems to solve

So we’ve got these four big problems that I want to talk about as they relate to crawling and indexing.

1. Content that isn’t ready yet

The first one here is around, “If I have content of quality I’m still trying to improve—it’s not yet ready for primetime, it’s not ready for Google, maybe I have a bunch of products and I only have the descriptions from the manufacturer and I need people to be able to access them, so I’m rewriting the content and creating unique value on those pages… they’re just not ready yet—what should I do with those?”

My options around crawling and indexing? If I have a large quantity of those—maybe thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands—I would probably go the robots.txt route. I’d disallow those pages from being crawled, and then eventually as I get (folder by folder) those sets of URLs ready, I can then allow crawling and maybe even submit them to Google via an XML sitemap.

If I’m talking about a small quantity—a few dozen, a few hundred pages—well, I’d probably just use the meta robots noindex, and then I’d pull that noindex off of those pages as they are made ready for Google’s consumption. And then again, I would probably use the XML sitemap and start submitting those once they’re ready.

2. Dealing with duplicate or thin content

What about, “Should I noindex, nofollow, or potentially disallow crawling on largely duplicate URLs or thin content?” I’ve got an example. Let’s say I’m an ecommerce shop, I’m selling this nice Star Wars t-shirt which I think is kind of hilarious, so I’ve got starwarsshirt.html, and it links out to a larger version of an image, and that’s an individual HTML page. It links out to different colors, which change the URL of the page, so I have a gray, blue, and black version. Well, these four pages are really all part of this same one, so I wouldn’t recommend disallowing crawling on these, and I wouldn’t recommend noindexing them. What I would do there is a rel canonical.

Remember, rel canonical is one of those things that can be precluded by disallowing. So, if I were to disallow these from being crawled, Google couldn’t see the rel canonical back, so if someone linked to the blue version instead of the default version, now I potentially don’t get link credit for that. So what I really want to do is use the rel canonical, allow the indexing, and allow it to be crawled. If you really feel like it, you could also put a meta “noindex, follow” on these pages, but I don’t really think that’s necessary, and again that might interfere with the rel canonical.

3. Passing link equity without appearing in search results

Number three: “If I want to pass link equity (or at least crawling) through a set of pages without those pages actually appearing in search results—so maybe I have navigational stuff, ways that humans are going to navigate through my pages, but I don’t need those appearing in search results—what should I use then?”

What I would say here is, you can use the meta robots to say “don’t index the page, but do follow the links that are on that page.” That’s a pretty nice, handy use case for that.

Do NOT, however, disallow those in robots.txt—many, many folks make this mistake. What happens if you disallow crawling on those, Google can’t see the noindex. They don’t know that they can follow it. Granted, as we talked about before, sometimes Google doesn’t obey the robots.txt, but you can’t rely on that behavior. Trust that the disallow in robots.txt will prevent them from crawling. So I would say, the meta robots “noindex, follow” is the way to do this.

4. Search results-type pages

Finally, fourth, “What should I do with search results-type pages?” Google has said many times that they don’t like your search results from your own internal engine appearing in their search results, and so this can be a tricky use case.

Sometimes a search result page—a page that lists many types of results that might come from a database of types of content that you’ve got on your site—could actually be a very good result for a searcher who is looking for a wide variety of content, or who wants to see what you have on offer. Yelp does this: When you say, “I’m looking for restaurants in Seattle, WA,” they’ll give you what is essentially a list of search results, and Google does want those to appear because that page provides a great result. But you should be doing what Yelp does there, and make the most common or popular individual sets of those search results into category-style pages. A page that provides real, unique value, that’s not just a list of search results, that is more of a landing page than a search results page.

However, that being said, if you’ve got a long tail of these, or if you’d say “hey, our internal search engine, that’s really for internal visitors only—it’s not useful to have those pages show up in search results, and we don’t think we need to make the effort to make those into category landing pages.” Then you can use the disallow in robots.txt to prevent those.

Just be cautious here, because I have sometimes seen an over-swinging of the pendulum toward blocking all types of search results, and sometimes that can actually hurt your SEO and your traffic. Sometimes those pages can be really useful to people. So check your analytics, and make sure those aren’t valuable pages that should be served up and turned into landing pages. If you’re sure, then go ahead and disallow all your search results-style pages. You’ll see a lot of sites doing this in their robots.txt file.

That being said, I hope you have some great questions about crawling and indexing, controlling robots, blocking robots, allowing robots, and I’ll try and tackle those in the comments below.

We’ll look forward to seeing you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care!

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Reblogged 3 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

Eliminate Duplicate Content in Faceted Navigation with Ajax/JSON/JQuery

Posted by EricEnge

One of the classic problems in SEO is that while complex navigation schemes may be useful to users, they create problems for search engines. Many publishers rely on tags such as rel=canonical, or the parameters settings in Webmaster Tools to try and solve these types of issues. However, each of the potential solutions has limitations. In today’s post, I am going to outline how you can use JavaScript solutions to more completely eliminate the problem altogether.

Note that I am not going to provide code examples in this post, but I am going to outline how it works on a conceptual level. If you are interested in learning more about Ajax/JSON/jQuery here are some resources you can check out:

  1. Ajax Tutorial
  2. Learning Ajax/jQuery

Defining the problem with faceted navigation

Having a page of products and then allowing users to sort those products the way they want (sorted from highest to lowest price), or to use a filter to pick a subset of the products (only those over $60) makes good sense for users. We typically refer to these types of navigation options as “faceted navigation.”

However, faceted navigation can cause problems for search engines because they don’t want to crawl and index all of your different sort orders or all your different filtered versions of your pages. They would end up with many different variants of your pages that are not significantly different from a search engine user experience perspective.

Solutions such as rel=canonical tags and parameters settings in Webmaster Tools have some limitations. For example, rel=canonical tags are considered “hints” by the search engines, and they may not choose to accept them, and even if they are accepted, they do not necessarily keep the search engines from continuing to crawl those pages.

A better solution might be to use JSON and jQuery to implement your faceted navigation so that a new page is not created when a user picks a filter or a sort order. Let’s take a look at how it works.

Using JSON and jQuery to filter on the client side

The main benefit of the implementation discussed below is that a new URL is not created when a user is on a page of yours and applies a filter or sort order. When you use JSON and jQuery, the entire process happens on the client device without involving your web server at all.

When a user initially requests one of the product pages on your web site, the interaction looks like this:

using json on faceted navigation

This transfers the page to the browser the user used to request the page. Now when a user picks a sort order (or filter) on that page, here is what happens:

jquery and faceted navigation diagram

When the user picks one of those options, a jQuery request is made to the JSON data object. Translation: the entire interaction happens within the client’s browser and the sort or filter is applied there. Simply put, the smarts to handle that sort or filter resides entirely within the code on the client device that was transferred with the initial request for the page.

As a result, there is no new page created and no new URL for Google or Bing to crawl. Any concerns about crawl budget or inefficient use of PageRank are completely eliminated. This is great stuff! However, there remain limitations in this implementation.

Specifically, if your list of products spans multiple pages on your site, the sorting and filtering will only be applied to the data set already transferred to the user’s browser with the initial request. In short, you may only be sorting the first page of products, and not across the entire set of products. It’s possible to have the initial JSON data object contain the full set of pages, but this may not be a good idea if the page size ends up being large. In that event, we will need to do a bit more.

What Ajax does for you

Now we are going to dig in slightly deeper and outline how Ajax will allow us to handle sorting, filtering, AND pagination. Warning: There is some tech talk in this section, but I will try to follow each technical explanation with a layman’s explanation about what’s happening.

The conceptual Ajax implementation looks like this:

ajax and faceted navigation diagram

In this structure, we are using an Ajax layer to manage the communications with the web server. Imagine that we have a set of 10 pages, the user has gotten the first page of those 10 on their device and then requests a change to the sort order. The Ajax requests a fresh set of data from the web server for your site, similar to a normal HTML transaction, except that it runs asynchronously in a separate thread.

If you don’t know what that means, the benefit is that the rest of the page can load completely while the process to capture the data that the Ajax will display is running in parallel. This will be things like your main menu, your footer links to related products, and other page elements. This can improve the perceived performance of the page.

When a user selects a different sort order, the code registers an event handler for a given object (e.g. HTML Element or other DOM objects) and then executes an action. The browser will perform the action in a different thread to trigger the event in the main thread when appropriate. This happens without needing to execute a full page refresh, only the content controlled by the Ajax refreshes.

To translate this for the non-technical reader, it just means that we can update the sort order of the page, without needing to redraw the entire page, or change the URL, even in the case of a paginated sequence of pages. This is a benefit because it can be faster than reloading the entire page, and it should make it clear to search engines that you are not trying to get some new page into their index.

Effectively, it does this within the existing Document Object Model (DOM), which you can think of as the basic structure of the documents and a spec for the way the document is accessed and manipulated.

How will Google handle this type of implementation?

For those of you who read Adam Audette’s excellent recent post on the tests his team performed on how Google reads Javascript, you may be wondering if Google will still load all these page variants on the same URL anyway, and if they will not like it.

I had the same question, so I reached out to Google’s Gary Illyes to get an answer. Here is the dialog that transpired:

Eric Enge: I’d like to ask you about using JSON and jQuery to render different sort orders and filters within the same URL. I.e. the user selects a sort order or a filter, and the content is reordered and redrawn on the page on the client site. Hence no new URL would be created. It’s effectively a way of canonicalizing the content, since each variant is a strict subset.

Then there is a second level consideration with this approach, which involves doing the same thing with pagination. I.e. you have 10 pages of products, and users still have sorting and filtering options. In order to support sorting and filtering across the entire 10 page set, you use an Ajax solution, so all of that still renders on one URL.

So, if you are on page 1, and a user executes a sort, they get that all back in that one page. However, to do this right, going to page 2 would also render on the same URL. Effectively, you are taking the 10 page set and rendering it all within one URL. This allows sorting, filtering, and pagination without needing to use canonical, noindex, prev/next, or robots.txt.

If this was not problematic for Google, the only downside is that it makes the pagination not visible to Google. Does that make sense, or is it a bad idea?

Gary Illyes
: If you have one URL only, and people have to click on stuff to see different sort orders or filters for the exact same content under that URL, then typically we would only see the default content.

If you don’t have pagination information, that’s not a problem, except we might not see the content on the other pages that are not contained in the HTML within the initial page load. The meaning of rel-prev/next is to funnel the signals from child pages (page 2, 3, 4, etc.) to the group of pages as a collection, or to the view-all page if you have one. If you simply choose to render those paginated versions on a single URL, that will have the same impact from a signals point of view, meaning that all signals will go to a single entity, rather than distributed to several URLs.

Summary

Keep in mind, the reason why Google implemented tags like rel=canonical, NoIndex, rel=prev/next, and others is to reduce their crawling burden and overall page bloat and to help focus signals to incoming pages in the best way possible. The use of Ajax/JSON/jQuery as outlined above does this simply and elegantly.

On most e-commerce sites, there are many different “facets” of how a user might want to sort and filter a list of products. With the Ajax-style implementation, this can be done without creating new pages. The end users get the control they are looking for, the search engines don’t have to deal with excess pages they don’t want to see, and signals in to the site (such as links) are focused on the main pages where they should be.

The one downside is that Google may not see all the content when it is paginated. A site that has lots of very similar products in a paginated list does not have to worry too much about Google seeing all the additional content, so this isn’t much of a concern if your incremental pages contain more of what’s on the first page. Sites that have content that is materially different on the additional pages, however, might not want to use this approach.

These solutions do require Javascript coding expertise but are not really that complex. If you have the ability to consider a path like this, you can free yourself from trying to understand the various tags, their limitations, and whether or not they truly accomplish what you are looking for.

Credit: Thanks for Clark Lefavour for providing a review of the above for technical correctness.

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Reblogged 3 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

Should I Use Relative or Absolute URLs? – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by RuthBurrReedy

It was once commonplace for developers to code relative URLs into a site. There are a number of reasons why that might not be the best idea for SEO, and in today’s Whiteboard Friday, Ruth Burr Reedy is here to tell you all about why.

For reference, here’s a still of this week’s whiteboard. Click on it to open a high resolution image in a new tab!

Let’s discuss some non-philosophical absolutes and relatives

Howdy, Moz fans. My name is Ruth Burr Reedy. You may recognize me from such projects as when I used to be the Head of SEO at Moz. I’m now the Senior SEO Manager at BigWing Interactive in Oklahoma City. Today we’re going to talk about relative versus absolute URLs and why they are important.

At any given time, your website can have several different configurations that might be causing duplicate content issues. You could have just a standard http://www.example.com. That’s a pretty standard format for a website.

But the main sources that we see of domain level duplicate content are when the non-www.example.com does not redirect to the www or vice-versa, and when the HTTPS versions of your URLs are not forced to resolve to HTTP versions or, again, vice-versa. What this can mean is if all of these scenarios are true, if all four of these URLs resolve without being forced to resolve to a canonical version, you can, in essence, have four versions of your website out on the Internet. This may or may not be a problem.

It’s not ideal for a couple of reasons. Number one, duplicate content is a problem because some people think that duplicate content is going to give you a penalty. Duplicate content is not going to get your website penalized in the same way that you might see a spammy link penalty from Penguin. There’s no actual penalty involved. You won’t be punished for having duplicate content.

The problem with duplicate content is that you’re basically relying on Google to figure out what the real version of your website is. Google is seeing the URL from all four versions of your website. They’re going to try to figure out which URL is the real URL and just rank that one. The problem with that is you’re basically leaving that decision up to Google when it’s something that you could take control of for yourself.

There are a couple of other reasons that we’ll go into a little bit later for why duplicate content can be a problem. But in short, duplicate content is no good.

However, just having these URLs not resolve to each other may or may not be a huge problem. When it really becomes a serious issue is when that problem is combined with injudicious use of relative URLs in internal links. So let’s talk a little bit about the difference between a relative URL and an absolute URL when it comes to internal linking.

With an absolute URL, you are putting the entire web address of the page that you are linking to in the link. You’re putting your full domain, everything in the link, including /page. That’s an absolute URL.

However, when coding a website, it’s a fairly common web development practice to instead code internal links with what’s called a relative URL. A relative URL is just /page. Basically what that does is it relies on your browser to understand, “Okay, this link is pointing to a page that’s on the same domain that we’re already on. I’m just going to assume that that is the case and go there.”

There are a couple of really good reasons to code relative URLs

1) It is much easier and faster to code.

When you are a web developer and you’re building a site and there thousands of pages, coding relative versus absolute URLs is a way to be more efficient. You’ll see it happen a lot.

2) Staging environments

Another reason why you might see relative versus absolute URLs is some content management systems — and SharePoint is a great example of this — have a staging environment that’s on its own domain. Instead of being example.com, it will be examplestaging.com. The entire website will basically be replicated on that staging domain. Having relative versus absolute URLs means that the same website can exist on staging and on production, or the live accessible version of your website, without having to go back in and recode all of those URLs. Again, it’s more efficient for your web development team. Those are really perfectly valid reasons to do those things. So don’t yell at your web dev team if they’ve coded relative URLS, because from their perspective it is a better solution.

Relative URLs will also cause your page to load slightly faster. However, in my experience, the SEO benefits of having absolute versus relative URLs in your website far outweigh the teeny-tiny bit longer that it will take the page to load. It’s very negligible. If you have a really, really long page load time, there’s going to be a whole boatload of things that you can change that will make a bigger difference than coding your URLs as relative versus absolute.

Page load time, in my opinion, not a concern here. However, it is something that your web dev team may bring up with you when you try to address with them the fact that, from an SEO perspective, coding your website with relative versus absolute URLs, especially in the nav, is not a good solution.

There are even better reasons to use absolute URLs

1) Scrapers

If you have all of your internal links as relative URLs, it would be very, very, very easy for a scraper to simply scrape your whole website and put it up on a new domain, and the whole website would just work. That sucks for you, and it’s great for that scraper. But unless you are out there doing public services for scrapers, for some reason, that’s probably not something that you want happening with your beautiful, hardworking, handcrafted website. That’s one reason. There is a scraper risk.

2) Preventing duplicate content issues

But the other reason why it’s very important to have absolute versus relative URLs is that it really mitigates the duplicate content risk that can be presented when you don’t have all of these versions of your website resolving to one version. Google could potentially enter your site on any one of these four pages, which they’re the same page to you. They’re four different pages to Google. They’re the same domain to you. They are four different domains to Google.

But they could enter your site, and if all of your URLs are relative, they can then crawl and index your entire domain using whatever format these are. Whereas if you have absolute links coded, even if Google enters your site on www. and that resolves, once they crawl to another page, that you’ve got coded without the www., all of that other internal link juice and all of the other pages on your website, Google is not going to assume that those live at the www. version. That really cuts down on different versions of each page of your website. If you have relative URLs throughout, you basically have four different websites if you haven’t fixed this problem.

Again, it’s not always a huge issue. Duplicate content, it’s not ideal. However, Google has gotten pretty good at figuring out what the real version of your website is.

You do want to think about internal linking, when you’re thinking about this. If you have basically four different versions of any URL that anybody could just copy and paste when they want to link to you or when they want to share something that you’ve built, you’re diluting your internal links by four, which is not great. You basically would have to build four times as many links in order to get the same authority. So that’s one reason.

3) Crawl Budget

The other reason why it’s pretty important not to do is because of crawl budget. I’m going to point it out like this instead.

When we talk about crawl budget, basically what that is, is every time Google crawls your website, there is a finite depth that they will. There’s a finite number of URLs that they will crawl and then they decide, “Okay, I’m done.” That’s based on a few different things. Your site authority is one of them. Your actual PageRank, not toolbar PageRank, but how good Google actually thinks your website is, is a big part of that. But also how complex your site is, how often it’s updated, things like that are also going to contribute to how often and how deep Google is going to crawl your site.

It’s important to remember when we think about crawl budget that, for Google, crawl budget cost actual dollars. One of Google’s biggest expenditures as a company is the money and the bandwidth it takes to crawl and index the Web. All of that energy that’s going into crawling and indexing the Web, that lives on servers. That bandwidth comes from servers, and that means that using bandwidth cost Google actual real dollars.

So Google is incentivized to crawl as efficiently as possible, because when they crawl inefficiently, it cost them money. If your site is not efficient to crawl, Google is going to save itself some money by crawling it less frequently and crawling to a fewer number of pages per crawl. That can mean that if you have a site that’s updated frequently, your site may not be updating in the index as frequently as you’re updating it. It may also mean that Google, while it’s crawling and indexing, may be crawling and indexing a version of your website that isn’t the version that you really want it to crawl and index.

So having four different versions of your website, all of which are completely crawlable to the last page, because you’ve got relative URLs and you haven’t fixed this duplicate content problem, means that Google has to spend four times as much money in order to really crawl and understand your website. Over time they’re going to do that less and less frequently, especially if you don’t have a really high authority website. If you’re a small website, if you’re just starting out, if you’ve only got a medium number of inbound links, over time you’re going to see your crawl rate and frequency impacted, and that’s bad. We don’t want that. We want Google to come back all the time, see all our pages. They’re beautiful. Put them up in the index. Rank them well. That’s what we want. So that’s what we should do.

There are couple of ways to fix your relative versus absolute URLs problem

1) Fix what is happening on the server side of your website

You have to make sure that you are forcing all of these different versions of your domain to resolve to one version of your domain. For me, I’m pretty agnostic as to which version you pick. You should probably already have a pretty good idea of which version of your website is the real version, whether that’s www, non-www, HTTPS, or HTTP. From my view, what’s most important is that all four of these versions resolve to one version.

From an SEO standpoint, there is evidence to suggest and Google has certainly said that HTTPS is a little bit better than HTTP. From a URL length perspective, I like to not have the www. in there because it doesn’t really do anything. It just makes your URLs four characters longer. If you don’t know which one to pick, I would pick one this one HTTPS, no W’s. But whichever one you pick, what’s really most important is that all of them resolve to one version. You can do that on the server side, and that’s usually pretty easy for your dev team to fix once you tell them that it needs to happen.

2) Fix your internal links

Great. So you fixed it on your server side. Now you need to fix your internal links, and you need to recode them for being relative to being absolute. This is something that your dev team is not going to want to do because it is time consuming and, from a web dev perspective, not that important. However, you should use resources like this Whiteboard Friday to explain to them, from an SEO perspective, both from the scraper risk and from a duplicate content standpoint, having those absolute URLs is a high priority and something that should get done.

You’ll need to fix those, especially in your navigational elements. But once you’ve got your nav fixed, also pull out your database or run a Screaming Frog crawl or however you want to discover internal links that aren’t part of your nav, and make sure you’re updating those to be absolute as well.

Then you’ll do some education with everybody who touches your website saying, “Hey, when you link internally, make sure you’re using the absolute URL and make sure it’s in our preferred format,” because that’s really going to give you the most bang for your buck per internal link. So do some education. Fix your internal links.

Sometimes your dev team going to say, “No, we can’t do that. We’re not going to recode the whole nav. It’s not a good use of our time,” and sometimes they are right. The dev team has more important things to do. That’s okay.

3) Canonicalize it!

If you can’t get your internal links fixed or if they’re not going to get fixed anytime in the near future, a stopgap or a Band-Aid that you can kind of put on this problem is to canonicalize all of your pages. As you’re changing your server to force all of these different versions of your domain to resolve to one, at the same time you should be implementing the canonical tag on all of the pages of your website to self-canonize. On every page, you have a canonical page tag saying, “This page right here that they were already on is the canonical version of this page. ” Or if there’s another page that’s the canonical version, then obviously you point to that instead.

But having each page self-canonicalize will mitigate both the risk of duplicate content internally and some of the risk posed by scrappers, because when they scrape, if they are scraping your website and slapping it up somewhere else, those canonical tags will often stay in place, and that lets Google know this is not the real version of the website.

In conclusion, relative links, not as good. Absolute links, those are the way to go. Make sure that you’re fixing these very common domain level duplicate content problems. If your dev team tries to tell you that they don’t want to do this, just tell them I sent you. Thanks guys.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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Reblogged 3 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

​The 3 Most Common SEO Problems on Listings Sites

Posted by Dom-Woodman

Listings sites have a very specific set of search problems that you don’t run into everywhere else. In the day I’m one of Distilled’s analysts, but by night I run a job listings site, teflSearch. So, for my first Moz Blog post I thought I’d cover the three search problems with listings sites that I spent far too long agonising about.

Quick clarification time: What is a listings site (i.e. will this post be useful for you)?

The classic listings site is Craigslist, but plenty of other sites act like listing sites:

  • Job sites like Monster
  • E-commerce sites like Amazon
  • Matching sites like Spareroom

1. Generating quality landing pages

The landing pages on listings sites are incredibly important. These pages are usually the primary drivers of converting traffic, and they’re usually generated automatically (or are occasionally custom category pages) .

For example, if I search “Jobs in Manchester“, you can see nearly every result is an automatically generated landing page or category page.

There are three common ways to generate these pages (occasionally a combination of more than one is used):

  • Faceted pages: These are generated by facets—groups of preset filters that let you filter the current search results. They usually sit on the left-hand side of the page.
  • Category pages: These pages are listings which have already had a filter applied and can’t be changed. They’re usually custom pages.
  • Free-text search pages: These pages are generated by a free-text search box.

Those definitions are still bit general; let’s clear them up with some examples:

Amazon uses a combination of categories and facets. If you click on browse by department you can see all the category pages. Then on each category page you can see a faceted search. Amazon is so large that it needs both.

Indeed generates its landing pages through free text search, for example if we search for “IT jobs in manchester” it will generate: IT jobs in manchester.

teflSearch generates landing pages using just facets. The jobs in China landing page is simply a facet of the main search page.

Each method has its own search problems when used for generating landing pages, so lets tackle them one by one.


Aside

Facets and free text search will typically generate pages with parameters e.g. a search for “dogs” would produce:

www.mysite.com?search=dogs

But to make the URL user friendly sites will often alter the URLs to display them as folders

www.mysite.com/results/dogs/

These are still just ordinary free text search and facets, the URLs are just user friendly. (They’re a lot easier to work with in robots.txt too!)


Free search (& category) problems

If you’ve decided the base of your search will be a free text search, then we’ll have two major goals:

  • Goal 1: Helping search engines find your landing pages
  • Goal 2: Giving them link equity.

Solution

Search engines won’t use search boxes and so the solution to both problems is to provide links to the valuable landing pages so search engines can find them.

There are plenty of ways to do this, but two of the most common are:

  • Category links alongside a search

    Photobucket uses a free text search to generate pages, but if we look at example search for photos of dogs, we can see the categories which define the landing pages along the right-hand side. (This is also an example of URL friendly searches!)

  • Putting the main landing pages in a top-level menu

    Indeed also uses free text to generate landing pages, and they have a browse jobs section which contains the URL structure to allow search engines to find all the valuable landing pages.

Breadcrumbs are also often used in addition to the two above and in both the examples above, you’ll find breadcrumbs that reinforce that hierarchy.

Category (& facet) problems

Categories, because they tend to be custom pages, don’t actually have many search disadvantages. Instead it’s the other attributes that make them more or less desirable. You can create them for the purposes you want and so you typically won’t have too many problems.

However, if you also use a faceted search in each category (like Amazon) to generate additional landing pages, then you’ll run into all the problems described in the next section.

At first facets seem great, an easy way to generate multiple strong relevant landing pages without doing much at all. The problems appear because people don’t put limits on facets.

Lets take the job page on teflSearch. We can see it has 18 facets each with many options. Some of these options will generate useful landing pages:

The China facet in countries will generate “Jobs in China” that’s a useful landing page.

On the other hand, the “Conditional Bonus” facet will generate “Jobs with a conditional bonus,” and that’s not so great.

We can also see that the options within a single facet aren’t always useful. As of writing, I have a single job available in Serbia. That’s not a useful search result, and the poor user engagement combined with the tiny amount of content will be a strong signal to Google that it’s thin content. Depending on the scale of your site it’s very easy to generate a mass of poor-quality landing pages.

Facets generate other problems too. The primary one being they can create a huge amount of duplicate content and pages for search engines to get lost in. This is caused by two things: The first is the sheer number of possibilities they generate, and the second is because selecting facets in different orders creates identical pages with different URLs.

We end up with four goals for our facet-generated landing pages:

  • Goal 1: Make sure our searchable landing pages are actually worth landing on, and that we’re not handing a mass of low-value pages to the search engines.
  • Goal 2: Make sure we don’t generate multiple copies of our automatically generated landing pages.
  • Goal 3: Make sure search engines don’t get caught in the metaphorical plastic six-pack rings of our facets.
  • Goal 4: Make sure our landing pages have strong internal linking.

The first goal needs to be set internally; you’re always going to be the best judge of the number of results that need to present on a page in order for it to be useful to a user. I’d argue you can rarely ever go below three, but it depends both on your business and on how much content fluctuates on your site, as the useful landing pages might also change over time.

We can solve the next three problems as group. There are several possible solutions depending on what skills and resources you have access to; here are two possible solutions:

Category/facet solution 1: Blocking the majority of facets and providing external links
  • Easiest method
  • Good if your valuable category pages rarely change and you don’t have too many of them.
  • Can be problematic if your valuable facet pages change a lot

Nofollow all your facet links, and noindex and block category pages which aren’t valuable or are deeper than x facet/folder levels into your search using robots.txt.

You set x by looking at where your useful facet pages exist that have search volume. So, for example, if you have three facets for televisions: manufacturer, size, and resolution, and even combinations of all three have multiple results and search volume, then you could set you index everything up to three levels.

On the other hand, if people are searching for three levels (e.g. “Samsung 42″ Full HD TV”) but you only have one or two results for three-level facets, then you’d be better off indexing two levels and letting the product pages themselves pick up long-tail traffic for the third level.

If you have valuable facet pages that exist deeper than 1 facet or folder into your search, then this creates some duplicate content problems dealt with in the aside “Indexing more than 1 level of facets” below.)

The immediate problem with this set-up, however, is that in one stroke we’ve removed most of the internal links to our category pages, and by no-following all the facet links, search engines won’t be able to find your valuable category pages.

In order re-create the linking, you can add a top level drop down menu to your site containing the most valuable category pages, add category links elsewhere on the page, or create a separate part of the site with links to the valuable category pages.

The top level drop down menu you can see on teflSearch (it’s the search jobs menu), the other two examples are demonstrated in Photobucket and Indeed respectively in the previous section.

The big advantage for this method is how quick it is to implement, it doesn’t require any fiddly internal logic and adding an extra menu option is usually minimal effort.

Category/facet solution 2: Creating internal logic to work with the facets

  • Requires new internal logic
  • Works for large numbers of category pages with value that can change rapidly

There are four parts to the second solution:

  1. Select valuable facet categories and allow those links to be followed. No-follow the rest.
  2. No-index all pages that return a number of items below the threshold for a useful landing page
  3. No-follow all facets on pages with a search depth greater than x.
  4. Block all facet pages deeper than x level in robots.txt

As with the last solution, x is set by looking at where your useful facet pages exist that have search volume (full explanation in the first solution), and if you’re indexing more than one level you’ll need to check out the aside below to see how to deal with the duplicate content it generates.


Aside: Indexing more than one level of facets

If you want more than one level of facets to be indexable, then this will create certain problems.

Suppose you have a facet for size:

  • Televisions: Size: 46″, 44″, 42″

And want to add a brand facet:

  • Televisions: Brand: Samsung, Panasonic, Sony

This will create duplicate content because the search engines will be able to follow your facets in both orders, generating:

  • Television – 46″ – Samsung
  • Television – Samsung – 46″

You’ll have to either rel canonical your duplicate pages with another rule or set up your facets so they create a single unique URL.

You also need to be aware that each followable facet you add will multiply with each other followable facet and it’s very easy to generate a mass of pages for search engines to get stuck in. Depending on your setup you might need to block more paths in robots.txt or set-up more logic to prevent them being followed.

Letting search engines index more than one level of facets adds a lot of possible problems; make sure you’re keeping track of them.


2. User-generated content cannibalization

This is a common problem for listings sites (assuming they allow user generated content). If you’re reading this as an e-commerce site who only lists their own products, you can skip this one.

As we covered in the first area, category pages on listings sites are usually the landing pages aiming for the valuable search terms, but as your users start generating pages they can often create titles and content that cannibalise your landing pages.

Suppose you’re a job site with a category page for PHP Jobs in Greater Manchester. If a recruiter then creates a job advert for PHP Jobs in Greater Manchester for the 4 positions they currently have, you’ve got a duplicate content problem.

This is less of a problem when your site is large and your categories mature, it will be obvious to any search engine which are your high value category pages, but at the start where you’re lacking authority and individual listings might contain more relevant content than your own search pages this can be a problem.

Solution 1: Create structured titles

Set the <title> differently than the on-page title. Depending on variables you have available to you can set the title tag programmatically without changing the page title using other information given by the user.

For example, on our imaginary job site, suppose the recruiter also provided the following information in other fields:

  • The no. of positions: 4
  • The primary area: PHP Developer
  • The name of the recruiting company: ABC Recruitment
  • Location: Manchester

We could set the <title> pattern to be: *No of positions* *The primary area* with *recruiter name* in *Location* which would give us:

4 PHP Developers with ABC Recruitment in Manchester

Setting a <title> tag allows you to target long-tail traffic by constructing detailed descriptive titles. In our above example, imagine the recruiter had specified “Castlefield, Manchester” as the location.

All of a sudden, you’ve got a perfect opportunity to pick up long-tail traffic for people searching in Castlefield in Manchester.

On the downside, you lose the ability to pick up long-tail traffic where your users have chosen keywords you wouldn’t have used.

For example, suppose Manchester has a jobs program called “Green Highway.” A job advert title containing “Green Highway” might pick up valuable long-tail traffic. Being able to discover this, however, and find a way to fit it into a dynamic title is very hard.

Solution 2: Use regex to noindex the offending pages

Perform a regex (or string contains) search on your listings titles and no-index the ones which cannabalise your main category pages.

If it’s not possible to construct titles with variables or your users provide a lot of additional long-tail traffic with their own titles, then is a great option. On the downside, you miss out on possible structured long-tail traffic that you might’ve been able to aim for.

Solution 3: De-index all your listings

It may seem rash, but if you’re a large site with a huge number of very similar or low-content listings, you might want to consider this, but there is no common standard. Some sites like Indeed choose to no-index all their job adverts, whereas some other sites like Craigslist index all their individual listings because they’ll drive long tail traffic.

Don’t de-index them all lightly!

3. Constantly expiring content

Our third and final problem is that user-generated content doesn’t last forever. Particularly on listings sites, it’s constantly expiring and changing.

For most use cases I’d recommend 301’ing expired content to a relevant category page, with a message triggered by the redirect notifying the user of why they’ve been redirected. It typically comes out as the best combination of search and UX.

For more information or advice on how to deal with the edge cases, there’s a previous Moz blog post on how to deal with expired content which I think does an excellent job of covering this area.

Summary

In summary, if you’re working with listings sites, all three of the following need to be kept in mind:

  • How are the landing pages generated? If they’re generated using free text or facets have the potential problems been solved?
  • Is user generated content cannibalising the main landing pages?
  • How has constantly expiring content been dealt with?

Good luck listing, and if you’ve had any other tricky problems or solutions you’ve come across working on listings sites lets chat about them in the comments below!

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