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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Using Term Frequency Analysis to Measure Your Content Quality

Posted by EricEnge

It’s time to look at your content differently—time to start understanding just how good it really is. I am not simply talking about titles, keyword usage, and meta descriptions. I am talking about the entire page experience. In today’s post, I am going to introduce the general concept of content quality analysis, why it should matter to you, and how to use term frequency (TF) analysis to gather ideas on how to improve your content.

TF analysis is usually combined with inverse document frequency analysis (collectively TF-IDF analysis). TF-IDF analysis has been a staple concept for information retrieval science for a long time. You can read more about TF-IDF and other search science concepts in Cyrus Shepard’s
excellent article here.

For purposes of today’s post, I am going to show you how you can use TF analysis to get clues as to what Google is valuing in the content of sites that currently outrank you. But first, let’s get oriented.

Conceptualizing page quality

Start by asking yourself if your page provides a quality experience to people who visit it. For example, if a search engine sends 100 people to your page, how many of them will be happy? Seventy percent? Thirty percent? Less? What if your competitor’s page gets a higher percentage of happy users than yours does? Does that feel like an “uh-oh”?

Let’s think about this with a specific example in mind. What if you ran a golf club site, and 100 people come to your page after searching on a phrase like “golf clubs.” What are the kinds of things they may be looking for?

Here are some things they might want:

  1. A way to buy golf clubs on your site (you would need to see a shopping cart of some sort).
  2. The ability to select specific brands, perhaps by links to other pages about those brands of golf clubs.
  3. Information on how to pick the club that is best for them.
  4. The ability to select specific types of clubs (drivers, putters, irons, etc.). Again, this may be via links to other pages.
  5. A site search box.
  6. Pricing info.
  7. Info on shipping costs.
  8. Expert analysis comparing different golf club brands.
  9. End user reviews of your company so they can determine if they want to do business with you.
  10. How your return policy works.
  11. How they can file a complaint.
  12. Information about your company. Perhaps an “about us” page.
  13. A link to a privacy policy page.
  14. Whether or not you have been “in the news” recently.
  15. Trust symbols that show that you are a reputable organization.
  16. A way to access pages to buy different products, such as golf balls or tees.
  17. Information about specific golf courses.
  18. Tips on how to improve their golf game.

This is really only a partial list, and the specifics of your site can certainly vary for any number of reasons from what I laid out above. So how do you figure out what it is that people really want? You could pull in data from a number of sources. For example, using data from your site search box can be invaluable. You can do user testing on your site. You can conduct surveys. These are all good sources of data.

You can also look at your analytics data to see what pages get visited the most. Just be careful how you use that data. For example, if most of your traffic is from search, this data will be biased by incoming search traffic, and hence what Google chooses to rank. In addition, you may only have a small percentage of the visitors to your site going to your privacy policy, but chances are good that there are significantly more users than that who notice whether or not you have a privacy policy. Many of these will be satisfied just to see that you have one and won’t actually go check it out.

Whatever you do, it’s worth using many of these methods to determine what users want from the pages of your site and then using the resulting information to improve your overall site experience.

Is Google using this type of info as a ranking factor?

At some level, they clearly are. Clearly Google and Bing have evolved far beyond the initial TF-IDF concepts, but we can still use them to better understand our own content.

The first major indication we had that Google was performing content quality analysis was with the release of the
Panda algorithm in February of 2011. More recently, we know that on April 21 Google will release an algorithm that makes the mobile friendliness of a web site a ranking factor. Pure and simple, this algo is about the user experience with a page.

Exactly how Google is performing these measurements is not known, but
what we do know is their intent. They want to make their search engine look good, largely because it helps them make more money. Sending users to pages that make them happy will do that. Google has every incentive to improve the quality of their search results in as many ways as they can.

Ultimately, we don’t actually know what Google is measuring and using. It may be that the only SEO impact of providing pages that satisfy a very high percentage of users is an indirect one. I.e., so many people like your site that it gets written about more, linked to more, has tons of social shares, gets great engagement, that Google sees other signals that it uses as ranking factors, and this is why your rankings improve.

But, do I care if the impact is a direct one or an indirect one? Well, NO.

Using TF analysis to evaluate your page

TF-IDF analysis is more about relevance than content quality, but we can still use various precepts from it to help us understand our own content quality. One way to do this is to compare the results of a TF analysis of all the keywords on your page with those pages that currently outrank you in the search results. In this section, I am going to outline the basic concepts for how you can do this. In the next section I will show you a process that you can use with publicly available tools and a spreadsheet.

The simplest form of TF analysis is to count the number of uses of each keyword on a page. However, the problem with that is that a page using a keyword 10 times will be seen as 10 times more valuable than a page that uses a keyword only once. For that reason, we dampen the calculations. I have seen two methods for doing this, as follows:

term frequency calculation

The first method relies on dividing the number of repetitions of a keyword by the count for the most popular word on the entire page. Basically, what this does is eliminate the inherent advantage that longer documents might otherwise have over shorter ones. The second method dampens the total impact in a different way, by taking the log base 10 for the actual keyword count. Both of these achieve the effect of still valuing incremental uses of a keyword, but dampening it substantially. I prefer to use method 1, but you can use either method for our purposes here.

Once you have the TF calculated for every different keyword found on your page, you can then start to do the same analysis for pages that outrank you for a given search term. If you were to do this for five competing pages, the result might look something like this:

term frequency spreadsheet

I will show you how to set up the spreadsheet later, but for now, let’s do the fun part, which is to figure out how to analyze the results. Here are some of the things to look for:

  1. Are there any highly related words that all or most of your competitors are using that you don’t use at all?
  2. Are there any such words that you use significantly less, on average, than your competitors?
  3. Also look for words that you use significantly more than competitors.

You can then tag these words for further analysis. Once you are done, your spreadsheet may now look like this:

second stage term frequency analysis spreadsheet

In order to make this fit into this screen shot above and keep it legibly, I eliminated some columns you saw in my first spreadsheet. However, I did a sample analysis for the movie “Woman in Gold”. You can see the
full spreadsheet of calculations here. Note that we used an automated approach to marking some items at “Low Ratio,” “High Ratio,” or “All Competitors Have, Client Does Not.”

None of these flags by themselves have meaning, so you now need to put all of this into context. In our example, the following words probably have no significance at all: “get”, “you”, “top”, “see”, “we”, “all”, “but”, and other words of this type. These are just very basic English language words.

But, we can see other things of note relating to the target page (a.k.a. the client page):

  1. It’s missing any mention of actor ryan reynolds
  2. It’s missing any mention of actor helen mirren
  3. The page has no reviews
  4. Words like “family” and “story” are not mentioned
  5. “Austrian” and “maria altmann” are not used at all
  6. The phrase “woman in gold” and words “billing” and “info” are used proportionally more than they are with the other pages

Note that the last item is only visible if you open
the spreadsheet. The issues above could well be significant, as the lead actors, reviews, and other indications that the page has in-depth content. We see that competing pages that rank have details of the story, so that’s an indication that this is what Google (and users) are looking for. The fact that the main key phrase, and the word “billing”, are used to a proportionally high degree also makes it seem a bit spammy.

In fact, if you look at the information closely, you can see that the target page is quite thin in overall content. So much so, that it almost looks like a doorway page. In fact, it looks like it was put together by the movie studio itself, just not very well, as it presents little in the way of a home page experience that would cause it to rank for the name of the movie!

In the many different times I have done an analysis using these methods, I’ve been able to make many different types of observations about pages. A few of the more interesting ones include:

  1. A page that had no privacy policy, yet was taking personally identifiable info from users.
  2. A major lack of important synonyms that would indicate a real depth of available content.
  3. Comparatively low Domain Authority competitors ranking with in-depth content.

These types of observations are interesting and valuable, but it’s important to stress that you shouldn’t be overly mechanical about this. The value in this type of analysis is that it gives you a technical way to compare the content on your page with that of your competitors. This type of analysis should be used in combination with other methods that you use for evaluating that same page. I’ll address this some more in the summary section of this below.

How do you execute this for yourself?

The
full spreadsheet contains all the formulas so all you need to do is link in the keyword count data. I have tried this with two different keyword density tools, the one from Searchmetrics, and this one from motoricerca.info.

I am not endorsing these tools, and I have no financial interest in either one—they just seemed to work fairly well for the process I outlined above. To provide the data in the right format, please do the following:

  1. Run all the URLs you are testing through the keyword density tool.
  2. Copy and paste all the one word, two word, and three word results into a tab on the spreadsheet.
  3. Sort them all so you get total word counts aligned by position as I have shown in the linked spreadsheet.
  4. Set up the formulas as I did in the demo spreadsheet (you can just use the demo spreadsheet).
  5. Then do your analysis!

This may sound a bit tedious (and it is), but it has worked very well for us at STC.

Summary

You can also use usability groups and a number of other methods to figure out what users are really looking for on your site. However, what this does is give us a look at what Google has chosen to rank the highest in its search results. Don’t treat this as some sort of magic formula where you mechanically tweak the content to get better metrics in this analysis.

Instead, use this as a method for slicing into your content to better see it the way a machine might see it. It can yield some surprising (and wonderful) insights!

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