Everything Non-SEOs Need To Know About SEO (Webinar)
George Freitag Jul 9 2013
Last month, I did a webinar called “Everything Non-SEOs Need To Know About SEO.” The goal was to give developers, designers, and other web professionals a core understanding of some of the more complex SEO concepts.
Here’s the full video along with the link bundle that includes the slidedeck. Enjoy!
You can find the link bundle here.
Ariana: So without further ado, please join me in welcoming George. Hey, George.
George: Hi, Ariana. Thank you for that introduction. All right, so the title of the webinar, like it says on the screen, “Everything Non-SEOs Need to Know About SEOs.” And what I wanted to do was just discuss some more common conflicts that can happen between other web folk, particularly designers and developers, and the SEO. The goal here is just to give a high-level understanding of some of the more technical and sometimes invasive SEO concerns and what SEOs are looking for when they start budding in to other people’s business. But at the very least, I hope that you understand these issues but hopefully, we can avoid them altogether and make a website that really lives up to its total potential. So with that, we’ll move forward.
Like Ariana said, here’s the hashtag, #portentu so if you have any questions or comments or you just want to yell at us, you can tweet them out to this hashtag. And then this is where the link bundle is gonna be. I’m gonna put the slides up later on after we’re done here. Right now, there’s just a few links, but this is where everything is going to be.
So with that, let’s get started and let’s start at the beginning, and that all start with a website, so either a business owner, marketing person, someone just has an idea to either start a new website, create a new website, revamp their old website, or do something. So they get a team together to build a website. So start out with a designer, typically, someone to make the website look nice, someone to make sure that everything’s findable, everything’s set up in a way that people can use. Get a developer, someone to make the website actually work, make sure it loads fast, everything works, all the gears are moving, and all of that. Next, a content person of some kind, maybe a writer or in some cases a merchandise person, someone to give the actual meat substance to the website so there’s something there to actually do and use and is useful of resources. And then last of all, comes the SEO, and usually later in the process, you bring in an SEO for the purpose of making the website findable.
So the designer, developer, and everyone else get together. They put together a website that everyone likes and they’re ready to launch it. That’s when the SEO comes along and they’re looking for some advice on how to make sure that it’s found. So the SEO starts making some changes. Some of this might be expected. Basic changes like adding content here and changing an image here, but then they start making more changes, getting into the actual design and structure and now they’re talking about how the website should actually function, talking about getting into the developer’s territory and moving along with that sort of stuff. Next thing you know, we’ve got navigation changes made to the website. Then they start asking some vague questions without any real reason, maybe some vague recommendations on how the website should be acting, telling you to get rid of pages altogether, and sooner or later, you sort of feel like this lady right here with the SEO being this dude with the blue elbow pads.
I’m sure you’re all familiar with this guy, the annoying guy hovering over you, behind you, nitpicking where you click, when you do, what you do, and all you want to do is get your work done. Nobody likes this guy. He’s got those elbow pads. They’re just kind of weird. So that brings me to the secondary title of this webinar and the one that I think is actually a little bit more accurate and that’s “How to Keep SEOs from Getting All Up in Your Business.” Because this is really what it’s about. Everyone has stuff that they need to get done and work they need to do. You don’t need elbow pads guy here telling you how to run your day to day. You’ve got your own work that you need to get done and you’ve got your own concerns related to how the website works and all of that.
So I want to give advice on how to make a website without having an SEO like this guy getting into your day-to-day business. So what I’m going to be doing is speaking mostly to designers and developers and talking about how you can avoid some of the big issues related to SEO. Marketers and business owners, hopefully you can learn about a lot of these potential conflicts, get a high-level understanding of what these conflicts are and in a lot of ways how they can just be avoided altogether with simple planning. And SEOs, if everything in here is something that you already know, then maybe at least you can understand that these are pain points and they should be treated as such and we should learn to avoid them.
So let’s get to the bottom of this and like a lot of things in life, a lot of these conflicts happen from expectations and so when people hire an SEO, I tend to find that they’re looking for specific types of recommendations or certain things from the SEO. They’re looking for things related to keywords or anything related to words, maybe an analysis of the existing keywords bringing in traffic, new keyword opportunities, anything related to that. Of course, title tag, new title tags that are targeting the right phrases. Content, content strategy, anything related to content or words. And if they’re getting really technical, maybe a three-to-one redirect or a couple of three-to-one redirects to get people to the right pages.
This is what people tend to expect when they hire an SEO and from this perspective, it really makes sense why the SEO tends to be brought in so late in the game because these are all things that can be changed. You can always change a title tag and you can always write a new blog post or redirect can always happen at any time. That makes total sense why the SEO was brought in in the process, because changing the content of the page is something that’s very doable and you do it regularly and if that’s all you expect, then it makes total sense.
What tends to happen is that there’s a series of things SEOs start actually doing and they’re sort of unexpected, like messing around with the navigation, telling you to change things around in there, telling you to move pages around, moving a page to a different category or changing how a page is being displayed, moving around the images. Beyond that, adding alt text. Maybe they want you to remove an image altogether because it’s in the way of something else. Maybe asking you to change how the site behaves, so exactly what’s changing in CMS, how the site’s functioning, stuff like that. Messing around with the actual URL structure or the URLs, how they’re being delivered, make changes related to that. Or possibly the worst thing yet, giving UX or UI advice to the designer or any sort of developer that’s working on that. Sometimes the SEO will actually have advice related to that and make comments on how people should be finding the site navigation items and stuff like that.
So a lot of people are wondering what SEOs are actually doing. Believe it or not, SEOs aren’t just trying to make people’s lives miserable when they’re asking questions like these. Whenever an SEO ventures outside of the world of keywords and content and blogs and all those sorts of things, it’s because we’re looking for something very specific and we’re looking for some big issues. Because there’s one underlying concern that all SEOs have and that’s we are worried that no one will ever find your website. We want to be sure that your website can always be found, particularly and specifically by the search engines.
So I’m gonna skip over a lot of the basics because I assume that you know a lot of these and focus on the technical issues. I assume you know already the good things like title tags and anything related actually to onsite content and then also what doesn’t work anymore and go to the large, major technical issues that tend to result in the conflicts between SEOs and other web professionals. Typically this problems can fall into three major categories. I’m gonna be going over each one of these very specifically and hopefully get an understanding of the concerns SEO has when they’re attempting to address these. Mostly I’ll be going over that.
So let’s go into the three big problems. You have indexation, duplication, and canonicalization. So let’s start with indexation. In indexation, problems can be caused by many things, but basically when an SEO is looking for indexation problems, they’re looking at this is that when there is no content on the website that matches the search, then you’ve got a content problem. But if search engines can’t actually find the words on your website or find the content, that’s when you have an indexation problem. So we’ll go over how indexation problems can occur. I’ll go over briefly at a high level how the search engine’s working just to give a concept of that.
So it always begins with a query. Google goes out with your query that you put in and finds all the pages that contain the same words with what you’ve typed. Then it takes those words and puts them into whatever order they want resulting in the search results, using things like link, offsite metrics, page range, a little bit of trust, and whatever other magic factors that Google uses to sort through all those pages. But the point here is that before any of that stuff can happen, it starts with a query looking for a specific word. So it starts with your content.
So basically it doesn’t matter how good your site is. If someone can’t find the content or if robots can’t find the content, then it doesn’t matter good the site is. There’s lots of ways that this can happen. The most direct way and brutal way is the classic robots.txt block. This is something that a lot of developers are familiar with and this is a great method that you want to use to prevent crawlers from getting to your website with setting up a staging site. But what happens is if the staging site gets launched with this still in place, then it gets blocked from the search engines. And a lot of times argument that allows that to happen is that it’s only on for a few minutes and the SEO is saying that it can’t ever be on at all but sometimes it’s on for a few minutes and it might be okay and the problem is that it’s actually not. And the reason why is that everything is always connected on the web. That’s why it’s called the web. If something changes over here, you have something over here that can be felt.
So you have a lot of links pointing to your website. If Google happens to crawl into one of the websites that’s linked to yours, it’s going to find the link that goes to your website, crawl, and notice something has changed. So what this means is the more popular your brand is or the more links you have going to your website, the more likely it is that that site is going to be crawled when something changes. So when you launch a new website, that will probably trigger a crawler to start crawling your site, especially if you’re popular. That is why the robots block is such a big deal and that’s why SEOs are always so concerned about it, because if you are a big brand, chances are you will get blocked. This happens a lot. Almost half of the sites that I’ve assisted with have launched with a robots.txt in place and it’s just something that should be avoided.
So the solution to this is just to change it before it goes live and I’ll leave it at that. That’s the most direct way of blocking content and creating indexation problems. But there’s lots of other ways that SEOs will get pushy about how the content is being indexed and that’s because they’re concerned about this happening, that you’ve got some nice content but it’s out here where no one will find it.
So to understand this, we’ll go into how the search engines are crawling the website and basically they’re doing something called the rational search model but basically that means that they are trying to crawl a page the same way that a person does. So essentially it’s a robot pretending to be a human when it crawls your site, like Data from Star Trek, Michael Fassbender from Aliens: Episode 1 or Zuckerberg from The Social Network, a robot that’s pretending to be a human.
And so what the search engines do is they get to your website, start clicking around the things, start touching things, looking around. Just basically doing everything a human would do if they were on your site but the problem is this, is that the search engine robots aren’t actual humans. They can’t do things and there’s a little series of things that they can’t do when crawling your website and looking for content.
The most common thing that can happen is text and images. So to go over this, this is something that a lot of people are familiar with, but basically the problem is this, that you’ve got some great content and great words that are describing what your website is about, but it’s in an image. That means that the search engines can’t see it. I understand that you don’t always want to be limited to Times New Roman and Arial for every single font and there’s lot of reasons, like branding, personality, and just overall style, why you want to make sure that it’s good text that’s not just a boring text that’s available online.
Before I go any further, I’m not talking about your logo. Logos are always okay. You can make that into an image. You don’t have to worry about that. If your SEO is asking about that, you can win that argument by telling them just to go away ‘cause your logo is fine. But for everything else, you really do want to make sure that it’s visible as actual HTML text and there’s ways to do this. There’s some old ways. This used to be a way of doing it where you just put in an image anyways and just shove the text off 10,000 pixels. You don’t want to do this anymore. It’s something that search engines specifically look for. So if an SEO does find this, this is something that they’ll ask to stop.
But the good thing is that there’s not really any reason to do this anymore because of all these fonts that you can upload to your website. So instead of doing anything within images, you just load the fonts to the actual website. The easiest way to do that is with Google Web Fonts, something that a lot of people are familiar with. Also, there’s lots of other fonts available online for download. Whenever there’s text on a page, if you just used actual HTML tags instead of an image, then you’re going to avoid a lot of issues with SEO and that’s something that they won’t have to bug you about.
But there’s also other ways of hiding content. Those were two of the more direct ways but some other ways that happen aren’t as known. Start with something like this. Sometimes SEOs are asking to make changes to the navigation. So they’ll take a look at your site that you’ve already spent time on and have you put links in the navigation that you don’t necessarily want. The reason why SEOs will be doing this is because they want to make sure that the website functions in this way. They want a link from your home page to go to the category page to go to a product page. They want to be able to click from one place to another.
So when an SEO’s getting involved in UI stuff, it’s because they’re concerned that this isn’t happening but more importantly, that this isn’t happening, that you don’t have an architecture that’s communicating the hierarchy of your website. You need to make sure that your website is communicating what each page is about both in context and in the actual words in the page and to complicate this a little bit further, there’s other things that search engines can’t use that are very great for users but totally unusable for search engines. Those are things like search bars, filters. Those are things that are both great for user experience, you should totally have on your website, and totally make sense, but you have to create a workaround for the search engines because they can’t use them. They need to have something like this. So in addition to a filter, there needs to be a way to get to every single page that reflects both relevancy and importance contextually.
And before I get any further, this does not mean just putting a link at the bottom in the footer. That’s something that search engines can detect, they know for, so that’s actually not a solution. It needs to be someplace where someone will actually click and that means here. So you need to have a link in the primary navigation or somewhere on the site that goes to each product and there’s a way to get to every single product. Even if there’s a great filter in place that already accomplishes this, the SEOs don’t care about the filter because the search engines can’t use it and that’s where their concern comes from.
So the argument often is no one every uses that and in this case, it’s just you have to do something to make the search engine feel like it’s a human in the end, troll the website like a human would, even if a human isn’t actually doing it.
So in this case, the surefire way to keep SEOs away is to make sure that every page on your website can always be reached through clicks, so you can actually click from one page to another, not using a builder and not using a search. You can get to every single page by doing that. And also whenever the content changes, the URL should change as well. This makes sense for indexation and search engines but it also makes sense for sharing. If you’re gonna share a piece of content and the only way to get to it is by clicking on something within the page, then that’s really limiting to your site in general and it’s going to make that content that is only being brought in dynamically from being seen by people sharing it on blogs or other social networks.
So let’s move on to another group of big problems that can occur within your website and that cause a lot of other conflicts with SEOs and other web people. Most people understand duplication, but basically it’s this. It’s when your site says the same thing as a bunch of other websites. There’s a couple of ways that this can happen. The most common way – or not the most common way but one of the more frequent ways is from scraping content. This is when you’re just taking other people’s content using some sort of automated effort like grabbing it. This is something that should be avoided, generally is avoided, but can cause some direct penalties from the search engines. So this is something that SEOs are always looking for.
The other thing is copying specific content. Even if it’s just something like the about page or the legal page or something like a how-to page, it’s something that’s taken from another website and put on your own. It should be avoided as well, ‘cause again, this is something that search engines specifically look for.
Another common thing that happens is pulling in feeds, pulling in product feeds or news feeds, anything where you’re automatically publishing content from another provider. This can something that can almost be its own webinar because there’s lots of nuances that can be discovered, so I won’t go into the details for this. I’ll just say contact an SEO. This is a good opportunity to reach out to an SEO and figure out the best way to do this. There’s lots of websites that have a business model built around this type of strategy and there’s ways to do it that are okay but there’s not really a way to encompass it as a whole within this. So I’m just going to skip over that.
But scraping and copying content are still big deals and the reason is this, is that they’re such big deals that Google has actually launched a series of updates targeting these specific problems related to duplicate content. The updates were called Panda updates and they’re all targeting duplicated content, any cases of websites copying other websites or copying the content or pulling in content from other websites. It’s a huge deal and here’s why. The basic reasoning is this. Right here, we’ve got four search results, the top four search results for this query. The people that run Google know that these four sites are going to be about 66 percent of all the clicks, so most people are going to be clicking on these four results. What that means is this is what Google is giving you. It’s giving you it’s best guess, it’s next best guess, it’s third and fourth, and the last is sort of longshot ‘cause it’s a tiny percentage of the clicks compared to the first ones.
If Google doesn’t get this right, then the people that run it know that you’re either gonna bale and do another search or worse yet, you’re gonna go to the competitor, in this case Bing. Bing is obviously where you’re gonna not like what you get there and go to Google. So Google’s not gonna show any sort of result that contains stuff that’s already found over on other websites. Search engines are only gonna show you need content for this reason. They don’t want you to bale on the search results and they want you to stay on their search results and trust those websites for delivering content that’s actually useful.
But everything I’ve covered here, scraping, copying, and pulling of feeds, these are all variations of pulling in other people’s content and putting it on your site. These are some things that people are usually aware of, duplication or duplicate content. Another thing that SEO’s will tend to look for is not as oftenly noticed by people running the website, is when you’re pushing your own content to other websites. So you’re using some sort of syndication and pushing it out that way. That’s something that might cause alarm with SEOs and that’s something that they might be looking for when they are working on your website.
And you might think that it’s your content so it’s okay. The issue is this, is that going back to those four results that I was showing earlier from Google. It’s only gotten four results to work with, so if it’s got one option of showing a site that has all your stuff on it, like your site, or if it’s got an option of showing a site that has all your stuff plus more stuff, it’s gonna go with Option 2 because that’s gonna be the more valuable search result that someone’s searching on their search engine. So even if you own the content, it can still cause you to get problems and something that you should try to avoid.
So the surefire way in this case to keep SEOs away is to just not let your content be on other websites. But I understand that that’s not always possible, so in that case, here are the backup plans if you’re talking with SEO and they do have concerns with you pushing out content or in some case, pulling in content, these are the strategies that you can have in place and already have in your tool belt to use when you start having these conversations. So there’s always the special descriptions, so if you’ve got descriptions that you are pushing out to other websites, having unique descriptions on your own website that are different from those is a great option for keeping your site unique.
Having exclusive articles, anything exclusive related to content, pushing out news articles or push out your own content to other websites having stuff that can only be found on your website is something that can be very helpful. Unique category descriptions. So if all individual products on a page can be pushed out to other websites but the category pages themselves on your page are actually unique, that’s something. It’s basically anything that adds value or makes your website a little bit different than all of the other ones that are showing your stuff.
And one more thing, what can you do about people stealing your stuff? The thing is that you can’t. So if you’re programmatically pushing yourself, pushing your content online, or programmatically pulling in stuff, that is a problem. But if your content is just getting scraped or getting stolen every once in a while, there’s nothing you can really do to prevent it. You just have to be aware of it. But fixing it on a case-by-case level is a lot easier than fixing a problem that’s been done, a duplication problem that’s been the result of some sort of programmatic effort.
So now that we’ve talked about unique, we’ll keep on a similar subject by going into canonicalization. This is typically what causes the biggest headaches for SEOs, but also is the more difficult thing for them to communicate to the website owners and developers and business owners because it’s sort of complicated and it’s not really that clear on why it’s a problem. So I want to spend a few minutes going over what exactly canonicalization issues are.
So let’s start out with the difference between a canonicalization issue and a duplication issue. Duplication is when the same content appears on different pages. Canonicalization means that the same page is appearing in different plates. So I’ll explain this with a little analogy and let’s say that you’re on a dating site and the weekend shows up and your first date shows up and it’s this guy. Then that date ends. Your next date starts the next weekend and it’s a different person but they’ve got the same bag of tricks and they’re saying the exact same thing. Date No. 3 shows up, it’s the same person yet again. I mean it’s a different person saying the same thing again. This is a duplication problem. You’ve got three different dudes and they’re all saying the exact same thing.
Canonicalization problem would be this: This guy shows up at your door and the next weekend, the same guy shows up at your door again, and then the weekend after that, it’s the same guy showing up at your door again. Even if there’s a little bit different of colorization or style, it’s still the same thing showing up over and over again. This is a canonicalization problem. It’s the same person who shows up over and over and over again.
So how does happen and why should you worry about it and all of that? SEOs are concerned about all of this because it can cause a bunch of serious problems with the website. The biggest concern is related to crawl budget. So Google crawls every website online. That takes a lot of time. Because of that, they set aside a budget to – they’ve budgeted a certain amount of time to crawl your site particularly. So that means if Google’s spending all of its time crawling the same page over and over again or variations of the same page, it might not have time to get to other pages.
Another issue is canonicalization. If you have multiple versions of the same page, they’re going to be competing with each other for the same position and Google might not know which one to rank. So in that case, you’re competing with each other and canonicalization your own search results.
The last thing is split authority. This has to do with links or shares going to a certain page. If there’s a bunch of different versions of a page that are being linked to, you’ve got a bunch of different links going to a bunch of different pages, when instead, all those thinks could be going to the same page and giving that page all the authority from all the links and shares that are up there.
So let’s get down to how it happens and how you can avoid it. This is the most common thing that happens and it’s when there’s a canonicalization issue on the actual home page. This is the first thing SEOs will typically look for when they’re going to a website is that you have your website and it shows up here and then it also shows up here. This is a canonicalization issue, your home page under two different URLs.
But then also, these are problems that can happen. Suppose that your home page exists on a specific file like default.aspx and maybe on top of that, you don’t have any sort of capitalization method on your server so it’s showing up as both lower case and upper case. Now you’ve got four different versions of your home page all showing up. Now let’s say that you’ve got a parameter from the mobile site and that’s directing so when you click on a link from the mobile site to your home page, that gets this URL. Now you’ve got another URL that is delivering the exact same page but as a canonical issue, it’s showing up differently.
Now let’s say that you’ve got a secure version of this site, so you’ve got HTTPS and HTTP, that’s all the previous versions plus these versions under HTTPS. Those are more versions of the home page showing up. This can kind of go on and on. This is the most common thing. This was frequently called URL normalization. It’s more often called URL canonicalization. But still, the concept is that you want to make sure that each page can only show up for one URL. So your home page specifically will always show as www.YourSite.com and not any of those variations. If someone types in one of those variations, ideally they redirect to this version.
In Apache, you’re going to do this in HTX file or any kind of server can take a file like that. Here’s some resources that I’ll put in the link bundle on how to do that. There’s lots of different resources out there. This is pretty straightforward. In IIS, it’s a little bit different. You go to Information Services Manager and click on a few things in there. But basically what you’re trying to do is to insure that your home page can only be indexed in the same way.
The bonus thing in this, too, is that if you use a directory-level URL structure instead of a page-level URL structure, so if a page exists on page rather than page.html, sometimes you can get a trailing slash in there that can also cause a canonicalization issue. This will solve those problems as well. So if you’ve got URL normalization, it solves a lot of those internal canonicalization problems as well. So this is the most common. It’s also the one with the most straightforward fix.
But here are the issues that can cause larger headaches for SEOs. What can cause some of the bigger conflicts between developers and SEOs are issues dealing with grammars and one of the reasons why is because they are difficult to explain and sometimes SEOs aren’t exactly clear on why this is such a big concern and what they’re looking for. So they happen like this: Let’s say you’ve got a page with a product on it and then you click on medium and you click on medium and it takes you to a variation of that same page with a little grammar up there that says, “This is a page for the medium-sized version of this product.” Then you click on green and it does the same thing with another grammar saying, “This is medium and green.”
Now you’ve got three different URLs all for the exact same page. Those of course aren’t the only variations. More variations of different combinations of size and colors and now you’ve got multiple versions of the URL that are all describing the same page.
One of the main reasons why this is such a big concern is that let’s say this particular page with the product on it gets popular and it gets shared all over the place. People start tweeting about it. It gets on news sites. It gets on blogs, Google Plus, Facebook. Every time someone goes to this particular page, they want to share it.
What happens if you’ve got a canonicalization problem is all these links are now pointed to different URLs. So whether or not they’re all for the same page and they should be and there are really people sharing the exact same thing, everyone’s sharing a different version of this. That means all of the links and votes that you’re getting from other sites are all going to different URLs, when instead, they could all be going to the same one and just giving that page all the authority to rank. So that’s one of the more common canonicalization problems.
The best way to keep SEOs away and for discussing parameter issues related to this is that you just avoid using parameters for variations of the same page. The other option would be to use a hashtag. So if something needs to have a variation based on color or something like that, you can use a hashtag to distinguish that. Hashtags right now are something that search engines ignore and they view it as the same page and so they won’t spend time crawling different hashtags over and over again. They’ll treat it actually as the exact same page, at least for now. Since it’s something that the search engines decide they want to use, it’s something that can always get taken away. So I recommend using it now and there might be better solutions in the future, but for now, you should use a hashtag if you need to distinguish the color because those will all be attributed to the same page.
So the only thing worse than a little parameter issue like that is a big parameter issue, and these are some of the worst things that can happen in a website and this is when SEOs will really dig in their heels and they’ve got a good reason and here’s why. Sometimes when you have a page like this with a product or a category with a couple of other related links to it, maybe through some related products, you can do something like this:
You’ve got a link here to relate a product. So let’s say you click on that related product link and it adds a reference grammar to the end of the URL saying where you came from. Now let’s say you click on another related product right here, it adds another reference parameter. You do that again, adds another one. You do that again, and now you’ve created what’s called a spider trap. This can be one of the biggest concerns and this is why SEOs are so worried about parameters and might ask you to move parameters or not have them built within a website. These can cause some of the bigger headaches.
So what can you do about this? The best solution is just to avoid using parameters for behaving tracking. I realize that that is part of a lot of CMS but there are much better ways to do this. Google Analytics will let you do good behavior tracking without ever changing the URL. Other analytics platforms will allow you to do the same. That should be the way you track behavior, not adding parameters. Even if the parameters aren’t causing a spider trap, they’re still going to cause other canonicalization issues because they’re going to resolve in different variations of the URL.
Before I get any further, ads and e-mails, those are okay. I understand if you’re doing an e-mail blast, you’ve got AdWords or display ads. A lot of times, those will pack on a reference parameter that you use using AdWords. Google will tell you to use those. Those are all okay. The biggest thing you want to be sure of is that those don’t get indexed and so you want to make sure that those aren’t on the website. This can be in the ads. This can be in the e-mails. You just shouldn’t link them on your website. If they get linked on other websites, you can deal with those on a case-by-case basis, but just don’t use those on your own website because those will also screw up your numbers anyways.
The last solution for dealing with a canonicalization issue is by using the canonical tag, and the reason why I didn’t bring this up as a primary solution is because it’s great. It’s very useful but it’s not something that you should actually depend on and here’s why. So in case you’re not familiar with it, it’s a great little tag and it says basically something like this. It says, “Hey, I know that the URL up there says this, but really the URL is supposed to be right here.” If it’s honored, then it does transfer authority. It can address serious canonicalization issues and help address a lot of problems within the website.
But the problem is that it’s far from perfect and here’s why is that while it’s a great little tag that helps a lot, in the end, it’s a little tag on your website and Google is Google. Google does not have to follow it. Sometimes it doesn’t. If Google finds a lot of problems on your website with the canonical tag or if it’s not correctly implemented, then it will ignore it altogether. So if that’s your only defense against canonicalization issue, then you’ve got nothing if Google does choose to ignore it.
Another thing is that it doesn’t prevent Google from calling the same pages over and over and using a crawl budget, so it doesn’t help you in that regards either. That’s why the canonical tag is not always the best solution. You should absolutely use it, absolutely include it on the website, and it’s a good thing for a lot of reasons but it should be the backup plan to existing straightforward canonicalizations to just keeping the same URL structure.
So if there’s one thing that you can learn about all this, about how to keep SEOs from bugging you with grammar issues or having canonicalization concerns, saying the word canonical because it is kind of hard to say, is that you should just follow this rule, one page, one URL, always. Anytime a page content changes it should have its own URL and it should only have one URL. So you might ask if that even applies to mobile and the answer is yes.
And this is why SEOs love responsive design. We did a webinar on responsive design. It was great. There was lots of great things about it. It’s very cool and it opens up a whole world of possibilities, but SEOs really only have one concern about it and that’s this, that responsive design always results in consistent URLs from page to page. So each version of the website, no matter where you’re showing up, always has the same URL. So regardless of your opinions about responsive design, love it or you think it’s just a passing trend, when the SEO is talking about responsive design or recommending it, it’s only because they have this thing in mind. This is the only thing that they’re interested in is that it provides us consistent URL structure.
So if for some reason you don’t want to do responsive design, you still want to be sure that this sort of stuff is implemented in whatever way because this is what’s going to avoid any sort of mobile canonicalization issues which are pretty common and if you can avoid them, you always should.
So those are the three big problems. So let’s go over what they were. We talked about indexation, duplication, and canonicalization. These are the three things that SEOs are looking for and so when they’re butting their heads into the day-to-day life of developers and designers and content people, it’s because these are the three things that they’re looking for, issues related to these.
So in essence, the way to avoid those conflicts with the SEO is just to make sure that when you put content on your site, put a new page, make sure that the content can always be found by a robot. You can click to any content and it’s indexable. Your content is unique. It’s not found anywhere else on any other page. And the content always displays under a single URL. So regardless of how you get to it, any sort of variation of the actual page, it’s always displaying under one URL.
So is this everything? Will this resolve all the conflicts? The thing is, this will actually take care of a lot of the things because these are, like I’ve said over and over again, these are the big technical things that SEOs are looking for when they’re getting into a website. They’re great, because preventing this problem is pretty simple. If you’re doing this during the planning stages, it involves a couple of conversations and then the implementation, which itself can be sort of complicated but still it’s worth it because fixing these problems can take forever. It involves diagnosis, identifying what exact problems are, where they’re occurring. Then you’ve got to roll out the actual implementation, rolling out the fixes, figuring out what’s going on and how to make sure that the site is avoiding this big pitfalls. They always involve fixing internal links or updating links. With a blog, especially, can be a real big pain.
External links can almost be impossible. This is asking other websites to update links to make sure your website can stopped being indexed in ways you don’t want it to be indexed any longer. De-indexing content, asking Google to remove things from its index and then re-indexing other content. These are big headaches that can take months and months and months. If either one of these become an issue where you need content removed from Google or you need it replaced with existing content, this can take forever. And then a lot of begging Google to give you just one last chance on whatever rain dance you need to do in order to make sure that Google crawls your site again and indexes it the way you want it to.
So all these issues can be avoided a lot more easily than they can be fixed. The best way to do that is instead of doing this when you decide on making a website, getting ready just before launch to call the SEO, do something like this. Bring in the SEO early on. Get these big problems out of the way because this is the big secret and this is the main thing of anything else that you can take away from this, I hope you learn one thing. It’s that if you take care of these issues, you make sure the site is indexable, it’s original, canonical, and shareable, SEOs don’t really have much else to do during the design process. That means they’ll totally leave you alone.
You’re allowed to do whatever you want. Design the website, developers can be left alone. Everyone can just stick to what they do and they don’t have to have the SEO constantly bothering them about grammars if all those issues are taken care of ahead of time. And that lets you do what you do best and lets the SEOs do what they like to do, which is actually all the stuff you typically hire them for in the first place like keywords, title tags, content, and redirects. This is what we want to be doing and what we are looking forward to do.
Portent Alum George is a former member and lead of Portent's SEO team. George is now in residence at Moz as an expert on local SEO, and is proficient in technical SEO, analytics, and video SEO. Read More