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What’s Important to Search Engines and What’s Not

March 21, 2007

I recently had an inquiry from someone who was looking for some possible SEO consulting with me.  He was in the process of a redesign and wanted to be
sure not to make any mistakes along the way, which is super-smart!  The time
to be looking at SEO is definitely in the beginning stage of any design or
redesign project.

 

The interesting part of the email was this person’s misconceptions about
what he thought were important factors for the search engines.  I’d like to
share those points with you, with my comments following each one:

 

* Little or no Flash.

 

This is a huge misconception to many who are trying to design
search-engine-friendly websites.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with
using Flash and no reason to avoid it altogether.  What you do need to avoid
is an *all-Flash* site, as well as Flash navigation.  But that’s it.   And
even if you have those things, there are workarounds.

 

* All scripts should be called from external files.

 

This is a great idea to keep file size down and make it easy to update your
pages, but it’s got nothing to do with search engines or how your pages are
ranked within them.  Search engines have long known how to ignore code that
is of no use to them.  Whether your scripts are right there in the source
code of the page or called up externally will have no bearing on your
rankings or search engine relevance.

 

* The site should be designed using CSS as extensively as possible.

 

Another myth.  CSS doesn’t have any special properties that search engines
like better than tables or any other HTML code.  Again, it may make it
easier for you to update your pages, or to use your content for other
things, but it’s not an SEO technique that will increase rankings or
relevance.

 

* The CSS should be called from external files.

 

Same as calling up scripts in external files — nice to do, but not a search
engine issue in the least.

* There should be no comments in the code.  It should be added to an FAQ or
Doc-type file.

 

Why not? I’m not sure where this myth came from, but I suppose if you’re
thinking that file size is going to affect your search engine rankings, you
might also believe this one.  It may have also come about because some
people used to think that adding keyword phrases to comment tags would help
search engine rankings, even though it didn’t.  Comment tags have long been
ignored by the engines, and because of this, you can use them as much or as
little in your source code as you would like.  I always comment out bits of
text and code that I no longer wish to use but that I may want to add back
in later.  It’s absolutely, positively not a problem!

 

* A large percentage of the code on each page needs to change from page to
page so that the search engines don’t see the pages as duplicate content.

 

Nope.  You certainly do NOT have to change the code in your pages to avoid
duplicate-content issues!  Website templates have code that is exactly the
same from page to page.  This is good and normal and certainly fine with the
search engines.  One would have to think that the search engineers were
really dumb if they were going to penalize pages because they used the same
design template from page to page!  Sure, you don’t want the same exact
*content* on every page of your site, but even that is not generally a
problem if it’s a few sentences here and there.  (See my recent article at
Danny’s Search Engine Land site on the Myth of Duplicate Content.)

 

* All picture links should have text links under the pictures.

 

No reason for that at all.  Image links that make use of the image alt
attribute (aka “alt tags”) have always been followed easily by the search
engines and will always continue to be followed.  They’re followed even
without the alt attribute, but the words you place in there tell the search
engines and the site users exactly what they’ll be getting when they follow
the link.  It’s essentially the same thing as the anchor text of a text
link.

 

* DO NOT use drop-down or fly-out menus using JavaScript.

 

This is fairly good advice; however, there are very easy workarounds if you
have to use JavaScript menus for some reason.  The “noscript” tag is a
perfectly legitimate place to recreate your menu for those who (like the
search engines) can’t do JavaScript.  I’ve been using this technique since
2000 or so when my website was designed with JavaScript menus, and it’s
definitely not a problem.  I just haven’t gotten around to redesigning my
site with a more crawler-friendly navigation.  Certainly these days, a CSS
menu would be a better option.

 

* Must use basic HTML link navigation (textual navigation, no JavaScript
mouse-over, and no image map graphical navigation).

 

Yes and no.  JavaScript links are definitely a no-no.  But there are plenty
of crawler-friendly image maps, and like I mentioned previously, graphical
links are A-OK with search engines.

* All pages must be VALIDATED by an HTML validator and all style sheets need
to be VALIDATED through a CSS validator.

 

Why?  This has nothing to do with search engines.  It’s nice to do, though.

* The majority of the site will be static, as static pages are easier for
search engines to crawl and rank properly.

 

‘Fraid not.  Dynamic pages are just as easy to crawl and rank as static
pages.  Most websites today are dynamic because they’re simply easier to
maintain.  The search engines have figured out how to crawl and rank them
just fine for many, many years now.  It’s true that there are specific
things you need to watch out for when creating a dynamic site, but most
developers are aware of the worst of the issues.  You certainly should
consult with an SEO if you’re changing content management systems, or if
you’re having problems getting your dynamic URLs spidered and indexed.  But
there’s no reason to have only static pages on your site because you’re
worried about the search engines being able to index dynamic pages.

 

* The site needs to be browser-compatible and screen-resolution-compatible.

 

This is another thing that’s nice to do for your site visitors, but it has
no bearing on search engine rankings or relevance.

 

Phew! I hope this helped clear up a lot of misconceptions that anyone else
may have had. Please don’t get me wrong — I do agree that most of the
things listed here are great design tips that can help you to create an
awesome, user-friendly website.  I just want to make it very clear that they
have nothing to do with SEO, rankings, spidering, indexing, etc.

 
 
Post Comment

 Caroline Bogart said:

Comment @ 03/22/07 at 4:35 am

 

This is a GREAT article. Thank you! Some questions/comments:


- The cool thing about CSS is the push toward xhtml. Clean code makes it easier to parse text from markup. So that’s an SEO benefit.
- Comments: I think this myth originated from programming. People leave comments in code forgetting that HTML and javascript comments are published. Like
- Do you have any idea why javascript isn’t read? That’s never made any sense to me. JavaScript is really easy to parse, do you think it’s because they just haven’t bothered to parse it yet? I wonder because there are so many millions of template websites out there that provide only javascript for navigation.
- Valid HTML and valid CSS - same as above, it’s easier to parse so the content is more easily discerned


 Caroline Bogart said:
(ach, line 2 edited out my code sample): like comment-start The password to the database is googleyeyes commend-end
 Robert T said:
Comment @ 03/22/07 at 11:25 am

Interesting and good points. However, regarding the image links, if you read Google Webmaster Guidelines, the recommendation is:
“Try to use text instead of images to display important names, content, or links. The Google crawler doesn’t recognize text contained in images.”

I’m not saying image links won’t work, but I believe it’s a good idea to follow Google’s guidelines. Same goes for the validation issue. Google recommend: “Check for broken links and correct HTML.”
 Pete Wailes said:
Comment @ 03/22/07 at 11:48 am

A wonderful post written by someone who’s not done their testing homework. The calling files from outside the page and CSS controlled layouts actually do make a difference. Try making two identical pages, and make them rank for stupid terms. Like your own private SEO contest. Then do one with CSS and javascript etc all in the code, and one called externally. See which one ranks better. : ) Fun little test for you.

I don’t doubt the difference is small, but it’s there.
 Richard Foote said:

Comment @ 03/22/07 at 12:06 pm

Jill, Good article as always. A couple of clarifications might be useful:

1) You say: Dynamic pages are just as easy to crawl and rank as static
pages.


Google says:


# Don’t use &ID= as a parameter in your URLs.
# If you use dynamic pages (for instance, the URL contains a ? character), be aware that not all search engine spiders crawl dynamic and static pages. It helps to keep the parameters short and the number of them few.


https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/webcrawlerrors

FWIW: Some of the CMS products (open and $) on the market have tools that rewrite their dynamic URLS in order to make them more search friendly. Well worth researching this for those that are looking at using a CMS.

2) You say duplicate content is not a bad thing, it gets filtered, not penalized.
Google says:
Don’t create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicate content.

I guess this depends on the definition of the word ’substantially.’ Certainly at our bed and breakfast words like lodging, and room descriptions get used a lot (how many ways can you say ‘private bath’ anyway?) But we’re still there so I guess Google must mean “suspicious substantially duplicated content.”


 Jill said:
Comment @ 03/22/07 at 1:30 pm

    Interesting and good points. However, regarding the image links, if you read Google Webmaster Guidelines, the recommendation is:
    “Try to use text instead of images to display important names, content, or links. The Google crawler doesn’t recognize text contained in images.”


Who cares what Google says? It’s simply not true. Image links are not now, nor have they ever been a problem. Why they say that is completely beyond me as there’s simply no reason for it.  It is definitely true that they can’t read the text that’s written as an image, but that’s what the alt attribute text is for!

    1) You say: Dynamic pages are just as easy to crawl and rank as static
    pages.
    Google says:
    # Don’t use &ID= as a parameter in your URLs.


That’s correct. The vast majority of dynamic pages don’t use that parameter, however.

You guys really have to get away from looking at Google Guidelines. That’s all they are “guidelines” not gospel.

You never need to read guidelines if you simply use common sense.
 Halfdeck said:
Comment @ 04/12/07 at 5:50 am

“You never need to read guidelines if you simply use common sense.”

The reason why there’s so much misinformation out there is too many people follow common sense.

“I’m here to tell you that there is no such thing as a search engine penalty for duplicate content.”

Absolutely not true, according to Adam Lasnik:

“In the rare cases in which we perceive that duplicate content may be shown with intent to manipulate our rankings and deceive our users, we’ll also make appropriate adjustments in the indexing and ranking of the sites involved. However, we prefer to focus on filtering rather than ranking adjustments … so in the vast majority of cases, the worst thing that’ll befall webmasters is to see the “less desired” version of a page shown in our index.”

Common sense will not lead you to the truth when it comes to search engines. Why? Because Google is a piece of code, and with any piece of code, there are bugs. Things happen that aren’t supposed to happen. Cloaking that *should* be detected goes ignored. HTML that should get parsed correctly isn’t. Irrelevant .edu parasite hosted pages that should never rank for “buy vi@gr@” outranks vi@gr@.com.

Let’s stick to facts, not common sense.

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