Archive for the ‘Search engine optimization’ category

Did Google give web designers their groove back?

November 20th, 2009

Clean code is groovy

hippieOne of the perks of hiring a web designer to develop a custom website has always been clean code; although it is sometimes hard to quantify that benefit in light of the ongoing savings associated with content management systems.  I’ve always taken the high road when it comes to clean code for the simple reason that it is easier for someone else to step in and modify down the road, and it can also prevent browser compatibility issues in the future.  And, o.k., I’m a neat freak!  Still, it is often hard to communicate the value of clean code to a client when the words “page rank” aren’t involved.

Clean code took a blow in 2006 when Vanessa Fox (Google) stated in an interview with Rand Fishkin (SEOmoz):

“Google doesn’t really care all that much about the code to text ratio, we’re going to pick up the text, extract it from the page, and we’re really going to ignore the code.”

 And again in March 2007 when Adam Lansik, SEO Strategist at Google, stated in an interview:

 “…But, here is the core problem why we cannot use this in our scoring algorithms currently: There are a ton of very high quality sites, pages and sites from universities, from research institutions, from very well respected ecommerce stores, of which I won’t name any, that have really crufty sites, and sites that won’t validate. On some of these you can view the source and cry. And, because this is quality content, we really can’t use that as an effective signal in search quality. So, you can quote me a saying, I would be thrilled, it would make my day if people would decruft their sites, but it’s not going to directly affect their Google ranking.”

But recent comments made by Matt Cutts’ (head of Google’s Webspam team) regarding the possible impact of  page speed on website ranking in 2010 may have finally given weight to the fact that clean code can impact search engine rankings.

 Webpro News said regarding their interview with Cutts on November 13, 2009:

“From the sound of it, speed is going to be a huge factor in SEO moving in to 2010. He says that a number of people within Google consider speed to be very important to the web, and they are considering if that should play a role in the rankings of websites in search results.

According to Cutts, speed hasn’t played a role in rankings in the past, but that may very well change. Watch the video for more details about Caffeine and Google’s resources for helping webmasters improve site speed.”

Why is this important? Clean code = fast web pages.

I’ll use a CMS if I have too!

Because of my love for graphic art and my passion for clean code, I have always had a hard time accepting content management systems, although I do recognize that they are a valid solution in certain circumstances.  In cases where a website has to be updated frequently (real estate agents, photographers, churches, large organizations, etc.) site owners can lose their shirt in maintenance fees unless they learn some html or use such a thing.  But still, they are confining and stifling and ugly and…

Recently, when I took on a real estate company as a new client it only made sense to use WordPress.  I spent a great deal of time customizing the site so it would not look like a template – and I have to say I was surprisingly pleased with the code generated on the home page.  Not perfect mind you, but not nearly as crappy as some of the code I’ve seen generated by other content management systems. WordPress has come a long way and installing a SEO plugin to allow the customization of title and description tags helped as well.

For a moment I almost waffled.  Maybe content management systems aren’t evil…

 But thanks to Matt Cutts “encouragement”, I have come to my senses again and am warmly embracing my roots.  I got my groove back!  CMS is a solution, but it will not be the ultimate solution any time soon. Here’s why…

Awesome tools, but now what do I do?

In his interview with Webpro News Matt Cutts mentions a couple of tools to help analyze your website’s page speed, one of which is the Firefox plugin “Firebug”.   I Recently ran the Firebug page speed analyzer on my website and blog because I wanted to improve load time.  I have to tell you, it was SO cool!  My website was no big deal to optimize since it is hand-coded and I only use one CSS sheet and no javascript,.  The blog, however, was another beast!  Some of the suggestions, which I think will be common to the majority of sites running CMS, are not that easy to implement.  My blog runs on WordPress, which Matt Cutts says takes care of 80-90% of SEO mechanics, and still had to deal with half a dozen style sheets and over 14 javascripts.  I can’t imagine the work involved on a site running a less optimized software.

One of the standard suggestions is to minify javascripts and CSS, which basically means removing all of the extraneous line breaks and white space generated by CMS & many html editors.  You can actually click on links in Firebug to get the minified versions to copy and paste into the style sheets (sweet!), but only the main template style sheet is easily found.  Other minified versions refer to inline CSS and javascript located within various plugin files – the source of which is not specifically given. 

Another common suggestion is to “leverage browser caching” which involves modifying the hidden .htaccess file on your sever, and enabling gzip compression which is way over the head of your every day blog owner. 

While Firebug provides some simple suggestions that are not difficult to implement, such as optimizing graphics and including image sizes, many of the “meatier” suggestions, in my opinion, take the skill of a web designer.

Also, on my blog, many of the bloated style sheets and javascripts noted by Firebug were referenced externally from plugin websites so I could not modify them anyway.  Even though WordPress has come a long way in cleaning up their code, they have little control over the code generated by plugins.  One of the great features of a custom design is that you have total control over the code and scripting. One of the great features of hiring a web designer is they know what they are doing!

Web design is easy… uh huh!

Several years ago one of my clients moved to a hosted CMS and used a web creation tool to build a flash website.  After the new site was created, she called me with genuine concern in her voice.  “I’m really afraid that once people find out how easy it is to create their own site you will lose all of your business”.  I told her not to be concerned, that the benefits of a custom design ensured that it would always be in demand.  Six months later she called wondering why her website did not pull up in Google even for her company name.

 Still, it makes you wonder.  CMS are becoming more popular than ever, and right now with this tough economy “free” sounds good to everyone.  But if results count, a custom design, coupled with web design skills, still has more to offer.  As a matter of fact they may be even more valuable in 2010.  What do you think? 

Does plural mean more than one? Not to Google, not always

June 26th, 2009

Google plural singular searches

One question I am asked a lot is why searches performed on singular and plural forms of keyphrases pull up different results in Google. People cannot understand why their website ranks higher for one form then the other.

The answer is, to Google cat does not necessarily mean “one cat” and cats “more than one”. In many cases, Google sees a clear distinction in the intention of searchers when using the different forms.  In this case the singular form of “cat” might pull up search results for the animal, a tractor or a type of pump, whereas “cats” will pull up results for the animal.

Sometimes search results are mixed due to the ambivalent nature of a search term, i.e, “mold removal”.  Is a searcher looking for environmental information or a mold removal service?

To illustrate further, let’s take a look at the top 10 search results in Google for “medical vacation” and “medical vacations”.

Using the singular form “medical vacation” you will find that the top results mostly include websites that coordinate medical vacations. So, if that’s your business, great! However, a search on the plural form “medical vacations” provides a more mixed bag of goods, and mainly focuses on the concept of medical vacations, the rise in popularity, whether having surgery abroad is a good idea, rental homes, etc.

Another example…

Searching for “credit card machine” will mostly pull up companies offering specific equipment and merchant accounts, whereas the results for “credit card machines” lean more towards sites that offer price shopping, like wholesale equipment, warehouses, low price guarantees, etc.

You can see the logic behind this. Someone searching for a specific credit card machine or merchant account is more likely to search on the singular form i.e., “credit card machine for my business” and someone shopping for the best prices is more likely to use the plural form, i.e., “best deals on credit card machines”.

Can your site rank for both singular and plural forms of your keywords?

Many times it is important that your website rank highly for both the singular and plural forms of your keywords.  To be successful, you have to understand that Google takes human search behavior into consideration when deciding which results best match a searcher’s intentions.  You cannot simply repeat both forms of the keywords on your home page and expect to rank for both, because Google may be targeting a completely different audience for each.  Google will draw its conclusion as to which category they think your site fits best based on the content of your page.  Therefore, different pages with different focuses have to be created.

How do you know which form to use?

First do a search on the singular form of your keywords and look at the “big picture”. What types of sites are pulling up? Do you see a pattern? Are they offering the same type of product or service, or are they providing educational information? Do the sites seem to target customers searching for specific products and services or customers shopping for deals or looking for information? Now do the same with the plural form.

After performing the searches, determine which form is most relevant to your business or service. That is the keyphrase you should focus on first. The reason? Increasing traffic to your site does not mean a thing if the visits do not convert to sales. Make sure you are focusing on the most relevant category.

In other words, if an individual is doing research and looking for background information on the rise in popularity of “medical vacations”, then chances are he is not interested in a medical vacation himself, though there is always the possibility that he will read something that will convince him that he should take a medical vacation in the future. But if Google has determined that an individual uses the singular form “medical vacation” more often when looking for a website coordinating those types of services and that is the business you are in, then chances are the singular form will bring more targeted traffic to your site (yes, more sales). Though you do not necessarily want to blow off the “down the road” opportunity, you should focus on the most relevant category first.

Also, keep in mind that Google REALLY likes educational and informational sites and they are almost impossible to compete with. If searching on a plural form of your keyphrase pulls up a majority of websites that are informational in nature, then you have your work cut out for you and that may make the decision for you!

The Tortoise and The Hare and Google Entitlement Mentality

June 15th, 2009

tortoisehare

Slow & steady wins the race

It has been a very frustrating couple of months for me as a web designer. The recession is obviously causing many website owners to re-evaluate their poorly performing websites and is also causing them to become more aware of their site’s lack of visibility in Google. For me this has meant an increase in clients requesting website reviews and organic search engine optimization services.

While I am very excited about the opportunities, the influx of new business means that I am also, by necessity, explaining the time and dedication involved in creating a website that ranks high and wide in Google more often. I have been surprised by how resistant many of these perspective clients are to the idea that high search engine rankings require a lot of work. I actually think I have scared a couple of prospects off and they are out now looking for a designer/seo who can put them on the front page of Google quicker! Sigh. Unfortunately there is an abundance of blackhat SEO’s out there that will guarantee to do just that and feed them the lie they want to hear.

When putting together a website review I include recommendations for on-site search engine optimization, locate and point out usability and accessibility problems, critique the site’s content and appearance, research the effectiveness of the keywords they are using and also gauge their competition. The outcome of a website review is a clear, concise list of the problems found on the website and recommended solutions to those problems. When implemented, the solutions are geared to increase the sites performance (conversions) and search engine rankings. To put together a report like this, I spend days pouring through the site itself, reviewing web logs and other analytical statistics. Since I am driven by a desire to see my clients do well, I put a lot of thought and effort into the recommendations. You would think that if a website owner paid someone to thoroughly dissect their site and tell them “what is wrong”, that the resulting recommendations would be good news and welcome information. This is not always the case.

What I am finding is that many clients do not want to hear the truth about Google – that it takes a lot of work to rank well. Their prior blackhat SEO’s have harnessed the power of the Vulcan mind-meld and brainwashed them into believing that high ranking is “actually pretty easy”, all you have to do is stick this exact sentence here and repeat these words 200 times at the bottom of your page.

Here’s a great example if this cheap and easy advice taken from a forum I participate in:

“Optimization is simple. Make a check list of things you want to control and follow those. No worries at all. Metatags, Title, Bold, H1 tag, alt and the list goes on and on.”

See! All you have to do is fill out a couple of meta tags, bold your text, and you now have the ability to control your rankings. Who would have thought it was so easy!

** Note:  There is an extremely funny list of SEO myths over at the High Rankings Forum. It is best read when drinking wine, eating chocolate and possibly wearing your depends!

For some, once this type of “easy” mentality kicks in, it seems impossible to convince them otherwise. Recommendations for improving their site (if it involves extensive work and the setting of long-term goals and expectations) is not only NOT welcome, it is resented.

Unfortunately, I am finding that resistance to hard work and refusal to believe that good rankings take time goes hand-in-hand with another “syndrome” I fondly call the Google entitlement mentality.

Out of curiosity, and feeling compelled to blog my experience; I did a search on Google to see if anyone else had experienced this phenomenon. I found an excellent “rant” written by Jennifer Laycock, Editor of Search Engine Guide.  The content of the article itself didn’t surprise me as much as the date… 2006. Not only is Google entitlement mentality alive and kicking today, it seems to be getting worse!

I recently conducted a site review for a perspective client whose website was failing miserably in Google. There were so many things wrong with the website that it was almost overwhelming, but the biggest problem was evident immediately upon visiting the homepage. There was a spam-filled block of nearly invisible text at the bottom of the page. The site had also participated in a link-exchange program and owned a duplicate website; all big Google no-no’s. One day the site had good rankings, the next day it was gone and it never came back. P-e-n-a-l-t-y!

I completed the review and provided the client with a report (over 50 pages of data pointing out specific problem areas and providing solutions for each), including of course the removal of the blackhat areas. What do you think his response was? Anger at the SEO company that should have known better then to use these techniques in the first place? Anger at himself for not doing more research into the background of the SEO company before hiring them? A fresh determination to clean up his website so visits would begin converting to sales and hopefully his ranking would be restored?

No. He was ANGRY at Google. Why had they not been warned? The nerve! And, he was not very happy with me because I did not provide him with the “exact words for the home page” or the two keywords he should use. The website owner had already hired one SEO to perform “magical tricks” that would get his site to the top of Google, how’d that go for him? Now, he is looking for another.

I’m not sure where this entitlement attitude comes from. People who have not invested any money in a listing, put any thought or work into their site, and have actually gone against Google policy and tried to manipulate their way to the top should not expect anything. Most of these people believe Google is out to get them, when actually Google simply doesn’t want anything to do with them at all. Why would they?

To bring this mentality into better perspective, let’s use another scenario. What if a local visitor’s guide was trying to get off the ground and offered a business a free listing for a while to help them get launched. The magazine did very well in the first year and brought a substantial amount of traffic to the business. If after a year a representative from the guide explained to the business owner that they would have to begin paying for an ad, would the business owner get angry? Would the owner feel that the guide owed them a free ad (indefinitely) and be ungrateful for all the past business they had reaped for nothing? I think not.

Google entitlement mentality almost always leads to an ineffective website. When a client feels his site is entitled to top rankings not based on merit, but simply “because”, he does not value and is not motivated to implement solid recommendations. Why should he have to take time out of his busy schedule or hire someone to write content that makes sense and contains useful information? For that matter, why should he have to make sure his keywords are on his website, or that he is targeting the right keywords at all? He’s not particularly worried that his site does not look professional, or is confusing, or not converting visits to sales? He just wants his site on the first page of Google… and now!  The fact that 70% of his current visitors are leaving in between 0 – 30 seconds after landing on the site does not even factor into the equation. What to do?

For me, attitude after review is becoming the litmus test for which jobs I accept and which I do not. If the attitude reflects that of a “hare”, focused on short cuts and a resistance to hard work, and an underlying attitude of entitlement, I’m not going anywhere near it. Clients with this type of attitude are actually working against you (and themselves) and will ultimately end up with a websites that bomb. They will never be happy, and who wants an unhappy client!

On the other hand, I am very excited when I meet a “turtle”! A client that is not only interested in an honest assessment of their website, but embraces the recommendations and looks forward to improvement has so much potential. Turtles can see the big picture and understand that high rankings are not everything. Not even close. Converting visits to sales, that is the ultimate goal. They understand that “slow and steady” wins the search engine race and ultimately leads to higher, targeted traffic and sales. With a turtle on your team (not unlike a tiger in your tank) you can build a great website. That leads to a happy client, and everyone wants a happy client!

How does your SEO rank loyalty?

January 10th, 2009

How does your SEO rank loyalty?

Before hiring a professional SEO (search engine optimization) company, there is a critical question that should be asked, but is often overlooked. The question is:  “Are you already working for a business in my industry?”  If the answer is “yes”, you should request and carefully consider the company’s plan for promoting the best interests and search engine ranking of multiple clients in the same competitive industry.

Here is a GREAT example of a BAD deal!

The company that designed my orthodontist’s website – officite.com – promotes their services as follows:

Strategic search puts your practice first.

Just as you may have found Officite today by searching the terms “dental marketing” or “dental Web site design” on a search engine like Google®, so, too, will your patients and prospective clients search for you with words associated to their needs.

By creating customized keyword lists that include localities, ailments and treatments, and properly registering every Web site we build with the network of major search engines, you know you will be front-and-center when someone searches for you.

But guess what? My orthodontist is nowhere to be found on Google for “cosmetic dentists” or “orthodontists” in Colorado Springs. Why? Well, just try plugging this section of their home page text into Google (with quotes for an exact match):

“doctor and patient become a team for treating an individual’s dental needs”

You will find about 290 listings using the exact same text. What’s more, if you begin going through the sites you will find that all of the patient education information on the sites has been duplicated as well.

It’s common knowledge that in the case of duplicate content Google chooses the ONE site that they believe is the original owner of the text and filters all of the other pages out of their search engine results. Since Google assigns the highest rank to sites with unique and relevant information, no SEO company can guarantee better rankings by using duplicate content.

So is it possible for an SEO company to have more then one client in the same industry? We discussed this challenge in a thread at The Small Business Forum, [see SEO loyalty in the face of competition] and the general consensus was that though it is possible, an ethical SEO would know full well that the scenario is complicated and have a plan in place.

Some of the valid ways in which an SEO can address competition among clients are:

1.  Limit clients to certain geo-locations. An orthodontist in Colorado Springs would not be affected by ongoing SEO work for an orthodontist in Denver.

2.  Explain the conflict of interest and refer the new client to another trusted

3.  Structure the contract based on achieving first page rankings. In that scenario, theoretically an SEO could serve up to 10 different companies. Ever changing rankings could make this idea unrealistic, however.

4.  Provide services based on specific keywords that do not overlap between clients.

5.  Hire writers (in house or outsourced) to ensure that unique content is written for all clients.

6.  Offer two separate contracts, one that guarantees exclusive rights within a certain mail radius and one that has no such guarantee. Charges would be based on which contract the client chooses.

In the end, all of the SEO’s I discussed the issue with agreed that it is a matter of company ethics.

So ask the question. If the SEO company has a plan in place at least it means they have thought through the complications and made a decision to look out for their clients’ best interests. If there is no plan, you could be hiring the company that is promoting your competition!