Stop Ghost Spam in Google Analytics with One Filter

Posted by CarloSeo

The spam in Google Analytics (GA) is becoming a serious issue. Due to a deluge of referral spam from social buttons, adult sites, and many, many other sources, people are starting to become overwhelmed by all the filters they are setting up to manage the useless data they are receiving.

The good news is, there is no need to panic. In this post, I’m going to focus on the most common mistakes people make when fighting spam in GA, and explain an efficient way to prevent it.

But first, let’s make sure we understand how spam works. A couple of months ago, Jared Gardner wrote an excellent article explaining what referral spam is, including its intended purpose. He also pointed out some great examples of referral spam.

Types of spam

The spam in Google Analytics can be categorized by two types: ghosts and crawlers.

Ghosts

The vast majority of spam is this type. They are called ghosts because they never access your site. It is important to keep this in mind, as it’s key to creating a more efficient solution for managing spam.

As unusual as it sounds, this type of spam doesn’t have any interaction with your site at all. You may wonder how that is possible since one of the main purposes of GA is to track visits to our sites.

They do it by using the Measurement Protocol, which allows people to send data directly to Google Analytics’ servers. Using this method, and probably randomly generated tracking codes (UA-XXXXX-1) as well, the spammers leave a “visit” with fake data, without even knowing who they are hitting.

Crawlers

This type of spam, the opposite to ghost spam, does access your site. As the name implies, these spam bots crawl your pages, ignoring rules like those found in robots.txt that are supposed to stop them from reading your site. When they exit your site, they leave a record on your reports that appears similar to a legitimate visit.

Crawlers are harder to identify because they know their targets and use real data. But it is also true that new ones seldom appear. So if you detect a referral in your analytics that looks suspicious, researching it on Google or checking it against this list might help you answer the question of whether or not it is spammy.

Most common mistakes made when dealing with spam in GA

I’ve been following this issue closely for the last few months. According to the comments people have made on my articles and conversations I’ve found in discussion forums, there are primarily three mistakes people make when dealing with spam in Google Analytics.

Mistake #1. Blocking ghost spam from the .htaccess file

One of the biggest mistakes people make is trying to block Ghost Spam from the .htaccess file.

For those who are not familiar with this file, one of its main functions is to allow/block access to your site. Now we know that ghosts never reach your site, so adding them here won’t have any effect and will only add useless lines to your .htaccess file.

Ghost spam usually shows up for a few days and then disappears. As a result, sometimes people think that they successfully blocked it from here when really it’s just a coincidence of timing.

Then when the spammers later return, they get worried because the solution is not working anymore, and they think the spammer somehow bypassed the barriers they set up.

The truth is, the .htaccess file can only effectively block crawlers such as buttons-for-website.com and a few others since these access your site. Most of the spam can’t be blocked using this method, so there is no other option than using filters to exclude them.

Mistake #2. Using the referral exclusion list to stop spam

Another error is trying to use the referral exclusion list to stop the spam. The name may confuse you, but this list is not intended to exclude referrals in the way we want to for the spam. It has other purposes.

For example, when a customer buys something, sometimes they get redirected to a third-party page for payment. After making a payment, they’re redirected back to you website, and GA records that as a new referral. It is appropriate to use referral exclusion list to prevent this from happening.

If you try to use the referral exclusion list to manage spam, however, the referral part will be stripped since there is no preexisting record. As a result, a direct visit will be recorded, and you will have a bigger problem than the one you started with since. You will still have spam, and direct visits are harder to track.

Mistake #3. Worrying that bounce rate changes will affect rankings

When people see that the bounce rate changes drastically because of the spam, they start worrying about the impact that it will have on their rankings in the SERPs.

bounce.png

This is another mistake commonly made. With or without spam, Google doesn’t take into consideration Google Analytics metrics as a ranking factor. Here is an explanation about this from Matt Cutts, the former head of Google’s web spam team.

And if you think about it, Cutts’ explanation makes sense; because although many people have GA, not everyone uses it.

Assuming your site has been hacked

Another common concern when people see strange landing pages coming from spam on their reports is that they have been hacked.

landing page

The page that the spam shows on the reports doesn’t exist, and if you try to open it, you will get a 404 page. Your site hasn’t been compromised.

But you have to make sure the page doesn’t exist. Because there are cases (not spam) where some sites have a security breach and get injected with pages full of bad keywords to defame the website.

What should you worry about?

Now that we’ve discarded security issues and their effects on rankings, the only thing left to worry about is your data. The fake trail that the spam leaves behind pollutes your reports.

It might have greater or lesser impact depending on your site traffic, but everyone is susceptible to the spam.

Small and midsize sites are the most easily impacted – not only because a big part of their traffic can be spam, but also because usually these sites are self-managed and sometimes don’t have the support of an analyst or a webmaster.

Big sites with a lot of traffic can also be impacted by spam, and although the impact can be insignificant, invalid traffic means inaccurate reports no matter the size of the website. As an analyst, you should be able to explain what’s going on in even in the most granular reports.

You only need one filter to deal with ghost spam

Usually it is recommended to add the referral to an exclusion filter after it is spotted. Although this is useful for a quick action against the spam, it has three big disadvantages.

  • Making filters every week for every new spam detected is tedious and time-consuming, especially if you manage many sites. Plus, by the time you apply the filter, and it starts working, you already have some affected data.
  • Some of the spammers use direct visits along with the referrals.
  • These direct hits won’t be stopped by the filter so even if you are excluding the referral you will sill be receiving invalid traffic, which explains why some people have seen an unusual spike in direct traffic.

Luckily, there is a good way to prevent all these problems. Most of the spam (ghost) works by hitting GA’s random tracking-IDs, meaning the offender doesn’t really know who is the target, and for that reason either the hostname is not set or it uses a fake one. (See report below)

Ghost-Spam.png

You can see that they use some weird names or don’t even bother to set one. Although there are some known names in the list, these can be easily added by the spammer.

On the other hand, valid traffic will always use a real hostname. In most of the cases, this will be the domain. But it also can also result from paid services, translation services, or any other place where you’ve inserted GA tracking code.

Valid-Referral.png

Based on this, we can make a filter that will include only hits that use real hostnames. This will automatically exclude all hits from ghost spam, whether it shows up as a referral, keyword, or pageview; or even as a direct visit.

To create this filter, you will need to find the report of hostnames. Here’s how:

  1. Go to the Reporting tab in GA
  2. Click on Audience in the lefthand panel
  3. Expand Technology and select Network
  4. At the top of the report, click on Hostname

Valid-list

You will see a list of all hostnames, including the ones that the spam uses. Make a list of all the valid hostnames you find, as follows:

  • yourmaindomain.com
  • blog.yourmaindomain.com
  • es.yourmaindomain.com
  • payingservice.com
  • translatetool.com
  • anotheruseddomain.com

For small to medium sites, this list of hostnames will likely consist of the main domain and a couple of subdomains. After you are sure you got all of them, create a regular expression similar to this one:

yourmaindomain\.com|anotheruseddomain\.com|payingservice\.com|translatetool\.com

You don’t need to put all of your subdomains in the regular expression. The main domain will match all of them. If you don’t have a view set up without filters, create one now.

Then create a Custom Filter.

Make sure you select INCLUDE, then select “Hostname” on the filter field, and copy your expression into the Filter Pattern box.

filter

You might want to verify the filter before saving to check that everything is okay. Once you’re ready, set it to save, and apply the filter to all the views you want (except the view without filters).

This single filter will get rid of future occurrences of ghost spam that use invalid hostnames, and it doesn’t require much maintenance. But it’s important that every time you add your tracking code to any service, you add it to the end of the filter.

Now you should only need to take care of the crawler spam. Since crawlers access your site, you can block them by adding these lines to the .htaccess file:

## STOP REFERRER SPAM 
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} semalt\.com [NC,OR] 
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} buttons-for-website\.com [NC] 
RewriteRule .* - [F]

It is important to note that this file is very sensitive, and misplacing a single character it it can bring down your entire site. Therefore, make sure you create a backup copy of your .htaccess file prior to editing it.

If you don’t feel comfortable messing around with your .htaccess file, you can alternatively make an expression with all the crawlers, then and add it to an exclude filter by Campaign Source.

Implement these combined solutions, and you will worry much less about spam contaminating your analytics data. This will have the added benefit of freeing up more time for you to spend actually analyze your valid data.

After stopping spam, you can also get clean reports from the historical data by using the same expressions in an Advance Segment to exclude all the spam.

Bonus resources to help you manage spam

If you still need more information to help you understand and deal with the spam on your GA reports, you can read my main article on the subject here: http://www.ohow.co/what-is-referrer-spam-how-stop-it-guide/.

Additional information on how to stop spam can be found at these URLs:

In closing, I am eager to hear your ideas on this serious issue. Please share them in the comments below.

(Editor’s Note: All images featured in this post were created by the author.)

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Reblogged 2 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

How to Rid Your Website of Six Common Google Analytics Headaches

Posted by amandaecking

I’ve been in and out of Google Analytics (GA) for the past five or so years agency-side. I’ve seen three different code libraries, dozens of new different features and reports roll out, IP addresses stop being reported, and keywords not-so-subtly phased out of the free platform.

Analytics has been a focus of mine for the past year or so—mainly, making sure clients get their data right. Right now, our new focus is closed loop tracking, but that’s a topic for another day. If you’re using Google Analytics, and only Google Analytics for the majority of your website stats, or it’s your primary vehicle for analysis, you need to make sure it’s accurate.

Not having data pulling in or reporting properly is like building a house on a shaky foundation: It doesn’t end well. Usually there are tears.

For some reason, a lot of people, including many of my clients, assume everything is tracking properly in Google Analytics… because Google. But it’s not Google who sets up your analytics. People do that. And people are prone to make mistakes.

I’m going to go through six scenarios where issues are commonly encountered with Google Analytics.

I’ll outline the remedy for each issue, and in the process, show you how to move forward with a diagnosis or resolution.

1. Self-referrals

This is probably one of the areas we’re all familiar with. If you’re seeing a lot of traffic from your own domain, there’s likely a problem somewhere—or you need to extend the default session length in Google Analytics. (For example, if you have a lot of long videos or music clips and don’t use event tracking; a website like TEDx or SoundCloud would be a good equivalent.)

Typically one of the first things I’ll do to help diagnose the problem is include an advanced filter to show the full referrer string. You do this by creating a filter, as shown below:

Filter Type: Custom filter > Advanced
Field A: Hostname
Extract A: (.*)
Field B: Request URI
Extract B: (.*)
Output To: Request URI
Constructor: $A1$B1

You’ll then start seeing the subdomains pulling in. Experience has shown me that if you have a separate subdomain hosted in another location (say, if you work with a separate company and they host and run your mobile site or your shopping cart), it gets treated by Google Analytics as a separate domain. Thus, you ‘ll need to implement cross domain tracking. This way, you can narrow down whether or not it’s one particular subdomain that’s creating the self-referrals.

In this example below, we can see all the revenue is being reported to the booking engine (which ended up being cross domain issues) and their own site is the fourth largest traffic source:

I’ll also a good idea to check the browser and device reports to start narrowing down whether the issue is specific to a particular element. If it’s not, keep digging. Look at pages pulling the self-referrals and go through the code with a fine-tooth comb, drilling down as much as you can.

2. Unusually low bounce rate

If you have a crazy-low bounce rate, it could be too good to be true. Unfortunately. An unusually low bounce rate could (and probably does) mean that at least on some pages of your website have the same Google Analytics tracking code installed twice.

Take a look at your source code, or use Google Tag Assistant (though it does have known bugs) to see if you’ve got GA tracking code installed twice.

While I tell clients having Google Analytics installed on the same page can lead to double the pageviews, I’ve not actually encountered that—I usually just say it to scare them into removing the duplicate implementation more quickly. Don’t tell on me.

3. Iframes anywhere

I’ve heard directly from Google engineers and Google Analytics evangelists that Google Analytics does not play well with iframes, and that it will never will play nice with this dinosaur technology.

If you track the iframe, you inflate your pageviews, plus you still aren’t tracking everything with 100% clarity.

If you don’t track across iframes, you lose the source/medium attribution and everything becomes a self-referral.

Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.

My advice: Stop using iframes. They’re Netscape-era technology anyway, with rainbow marquees and Comic Sans on top. Interestingly, and unfortunately, a number of booking engines (for hotels) and third-party carts (for ecommerce) still use iframes.

If you have any clients in those verticals, or if you’re in the vertical yourself, check with your provider to see if they use iframes. Or you can check for yourself, by right-clicking as close as you can to the actual booking element:

iframe-booking.png

There is no neat and tidy way to address iframes with Google Analytics, and usually iframes are not the only complicated element of setup you’ll encounter. I spent eight months dealing with a website on a subfolder, which used iframes and had a cross domain booking system, and the best visibility I was able to get was about 80% on a good day.

Typically, I’d approach diagnosing iframes (if, for some reason, I had absolutely no access to viewing a website or talking to the techs) similarly to diagnosing self-referrals, as self-referrals are one of the biggest symptoms of iframe use.

4. Massive traffic jumps

Massive jumps in traffic don’t typically just happen. (Unless, maybe, you’re Geraldine.) There’s always an explanation—a new campaign launched, you just turned on paid ads for the first time, you’re using content amplification platforms, you’re getting a ton of referrals from that recent press in The New York Times. And if you think it just happened, it’s probably a technical glitch.

I’ve seen everything from inflated pageviews result from including tracking on iframes and unnecessary implementation of virtual pageviews, to not realizing the tracking code was installed on other microsites for the same property. Oops.

Usually I’ve seen this happen when the tracking code was somewhere it shouldn’t be, so if you’re investigating a situation of this nature, first confirm the Google Analytics code is only in the places it needs to be.Tools like Google Tag Assistant and Screaming Frog can be your BFFs in helping you figure this out.

Also, I suggest bribing the IT department with sugar (or booze) to see if they’ve changed anything lately.

5. Cross-domain tracking

I wish cross-domain tracking with Google Analytics out of the box didn’t require any additional setup. But it does.

If you don’t have it set up properly, things break down quickly, and can be quite difficult to untangle.

The older the GA library you’re using, the harder it is. The easiest setup, by far, is Google Tag Manager with Universal Analytics. Hard-coded universal analytics is a bit more difficult because you have to implement autoLink manually and decorate forms, if you’re using them (and you probably are). Beyond that, rather than try and deal with it, I say update your Google Analytics code. Then we can talk.

Where I’ve seen the most murkiness with tracking is when parts of cross domain tracking are implemented, but not all. For some reason, if allowLinker isn’t included, or you forget to decorate all the forms, the cookies aren’t passed between domains.

The absolute first place I would start with this would be confirming the cookies are all passing properly at all the right points, forms, links, and smoke signals. I’ll usually use a combination of the Real Time report in Google Analytics, Google Tag Assistant, and GA debug to start testing this. Any debug tool you use will mean you’re playing in the console, so get friendly with it.

6. Internal use of UTM strings

I’ve saved the best for last. Internal use of campaign tagging. We may think, oh, I use Google to tag my campaigns externally, and we’ve got this new promotion on site which we’re using a banner ad for. That’s a campaign. Why don’t I tag it with a UTM string?

Step away from the keyboard now. Please.

When you tag internal links with UTM strings, you override the original source/medium. So that visitor who came in through your paid ad and then who clicks on the campaign banner has now been manually tagged. You lose the ability to track that they came through on the ad the moment they click on the tagged internal link. Their source and medium is now your internal campaign, not that paid ad you’re spending gobs of money on and have to justify to your manager. See the problem?

I’ve seen at least three pretty spectacular instances of this in the past year, and a number of smaller instances of it. Annie Cushing also talks about the evils of internal UTM tags and the odd prevalence of it. (Oh, and if you haven’t explored her blog, and the amazing spreadsheets she shares, please do.)

One clothing company I worked with tagged all of their homepage offers with UTM strings, which resulted in the loss of visibility for one-third of their audience: One million visits over the course of a year, and $2.1 million in lost revenue.

Let me say that again. One million visits, and $2.1 million. That couldn’t be attributed to an external source/campaign/spend.

Another client I audited included campaign tagging on nearly every navigational element on their website. It still gives me nightmares.

If you want to see if you have any internal UTM strings, head straight to the Campaigns report in Acquisition in Google Analytics, and look for anything like “home” or “navigation” or any language you may use internally to refer to your website structure.

And if you want to see how users are moving through your website, go to the Flow reports. Or if you really, really, really want to know how many people click on that sidebar link, use event tracking. But please, for the love of all things holy (and to keep us analytics lovers from throwing our computers across the room), stop using UTM tagging on your internal links.

Now breathe and smile

Odds are, your Google Analytics setup is fine. If you are seeing any of these issues, though, you have somewhere to start in diagnosing and addressing the data.

We’ve looked at six of the most common points of friction I’ve encountered with Google Analytics and how to start investigating them: self-referrals, bounce rate, iframes, traffic jumps, cross domain tracking and internal campaign tagging.

What common data integrity issues have you encountered with Google Analytics? What are your favorite tools to investigate?

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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

Inverse Document Frequency and the Importance of Uniqueness

Posted by EricEnge

In my last column, I wrote about how to use term frequency analysis in evaluating your content vs. the competition’s. Term frequency (TF) is only one part of the TF-IDF approach to information retrieval. The other part is inverse document frequency (IDF), which is what I plan to discuss today.

Today’s post will use an explanation of how IDF works to show you the importance of creating content that has true uniqueness. There are reputation and visibility reasons for doing this, and it’s great for users, but there are also SEO benefits.

If you wonder why I am focusing on TF-IDF, consider these words from a Google article from August 2014: “This is the idea of the famous TF-IDF, long used to index web pages.” While the way that Google may apply these concepts is far more than the simple TF-IDF models I am discussing, we can still learn a lot from understanding the basics of how they work.

What is inverse document frequency?

In simple terms, it’s a measure of the rareness of a term. Conceptually, we start by measuring document frequency. It’s easiest to illustrate with an example, as follows:

IDF table

In this example, we see that the word “a” appears in every document in the document set. What this tells us is that it provides no value in telling the documents apart. It’s in everything.

Now look at the word “mobilegeddon.” It appears in 1,000 of the documents, or one thousandth of one percent of them. Clearly, this phrase provides a great deal more differentiation for the documents that contain them.

Document frequency measures commonness, and we prefer to measure rareness. The classic way that this is done is with a formula that looks like this:

idf equation

For each term we are looking at, we take the total number of documents in the document set and divide it by the number of documents containing our term. This gives us more of a measure of rareness. However, we don’t want the resulting calculation to say that the word “mobilegeddon” is 1,000 times more important in distinguishing a document than the word “boat,” as that is too big of a scaling factor.

This is the reason we take the Log Base 10 of the result, to dampen that calculation. For those of you who are not mathematicians, you can loosely think of the Log Base 10 of a number as being a count of the number of zeros – i.e., the Log Base 10 of 1,000,000 is 6, and the log base 10 of 1,000 is 3. So instead of saying that the word “mobilegeddon” is 1,000 times more important, this type of calculation suggests it’s three times more important, which is more in line with what makes sense from a search engine perspective.

With this in mind, here are the IDF values for the terms we looked at before:

idf table logarithm values

Now you can see that we are providing the highest score to the term that is the rarest.

What does the concept of IDF teach us?

Think about IDF as a measure of uniqueness. It helps search engines identify what it is that makes a given document special. This needs to be much more sophisticated than how often you use a given search term (e.g. keyword density).

Think of it this way: If you are one of 6.78 million web sites that comes up for the search query “super bowl 2015,” you are dealing with a crowded playing field. Your chances of ranking for this term based on the quality of your content are pretty much zero.

massive number of results for broad keyword

Overall link authority and other signals will be the only way you can rank for a term that competitive. If you are a new site on the landscape, well, perhaps you should chase something else.

That leaves us with the question of what you should target. How about something unique? Even the addition of a simple word like “predictions”—changing our phrase to “super bowl 2015 predictions”—reduces this playing field to 17,800 results.

Clearly, this is dramatically less competitive already. Slicing into this further, the phrase “super bowl 2015 predictions and odds” returns only 26 pages in Google. See where this is going?

What IDF teaches us is the importance of uniqueness in the content we create. Yes, it will not pay nearly as much money to you as it would if you rank for the big head term, but if your business is a new entrant into a very crowded space, you are not going to rank for the big head term anyway

If you can pick out a smaller number of terms with much less competition and create content around those needs, you can start to rank for these terms and get money flowing into your business. This is because you are making your content more unique by using rarer combinations of terms (leveraging what IDF teaches us).

Summary

People who do keyword analysis are often wired to pursue the major head terms directly, simply based on the available keyword search volume. The result from this approach can, in fact, be pretty dismal.

Understanding how inverse document frequency works helps us understand the importance of standing out. Creating content that brings unique angles to the table is often a very potent way to get your SEO strategy kick-started.

Of course, the reasons for creating content that is highly differentiated and unique go far beyond SEO. This is good for your users, and it’s good for your reputation, visibility, AND also your SEO.

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​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!

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

Your Trade Only Website: Product Attributes

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRg1rRrtVWs

Our Director of Education, Tracey Peyton, gives you the 4-1-1 on product attributes on your Trade Only platform. Very comprehensive explanation that will hel…

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SEO in 1 Minute

This video is for business professionals who want quick explanation of SEO (search engine optimization), how it works, and how it can help their business. Yo…

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SEO Done Right – www.findwineryvictoria.com.au

visit a winery for the region of Geelong | Find A Winery Victoria 2015-01-18 15-09-47

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