When professional SEOs first come to a website that they plan to work with, they view it through a very different lens than if they were just idly surfing. They instinctively start viewing it from the perspective of a search engine. The following are the elements that my colleagues and I pay the most attention to.
How Important Is a Domain Name?
From a marketing perspective, a domain name is the single most important element of a website. Unlike a brick-and-mortar company, websites don’t have visual cues closely associated with them. Whereas potential customers can use visual cues to identify if a physical building is more likely a barber shop or a bank, they are not able to tell the difference between domain names. All domain names use the exact same format: http:// subdomain dot (optional) root domain dot TLD. Take, for example, http://www.google.com or http://www.bing.com. To an outsider, there is no reason to think that any of these resources would be a search engine. They don’t contain the word search, and if their brands weren’t as strong as they are, their gibberish names wouldn’t mean anything to anyone. In fact, if you look at the top 100 most linked-to domains on the Internet, you see this trend over and over again: Wikipedia, YouTube, W3, Amazon, Macromedia, MSN, Flickr, Twitter, Digg, Technorati, IMDB, eBay—the list goes on.
This is where people get confused. They see websites like this and think that the domain name doesn’t matter. They register domains that are hard to pronounce (SEOmoz) or hard to spell (Picnik) and figure they don’t have to worry. The problem is they don’t realize that the popular websites got popular not because of their domain names, but rather despite their domain names. Google was such an outstanding product with a plan that was executed so well that it could have had been named BackRub and still been successful. (Note: It was originally called BackRub. I am just amusing myself.)
As an SEO, if you find yourself in the position of changing or choosing a domain name, you need to make a difficult decision. How confident are you in the client’s idea? Is it an idea that serves the entire world, or is it only useful to a few thousand people? If the website is world changing, it might actually benefit from a gibberish name. If the name is gibberish and very successful, people naturally start to associate its name with its service. For example, Google is now synonymous with “search.” However, if the idea doesn’t end up being world changing (and most websites aren’t), a gibberish domain name can hurt the website. What are the odds that the general populous will type in spoke.com (a real website) to find personal profiles?
A nonsensical domain name can hurt a website, making it harder for people (and search engines) to find that site and associate with the concepts that the site focuses on. For the vast majority of websites, a “search friendly” domain name is best. The search engines will always be constrained by the fact that many people search for exact URLs when they want to go to websites. Of course, the most relevant and popular result for the query “myspace.com” would be www.myspace.com. You can use this to your advantage. Say your clients own a hotel in Seattle. For them, the best domain name would be www.seattlehotel.com so that they could rank for the query Seattle Hotel. They should not worry about becoming a verb because the demand is not high enough for their service and the benefits of an exact match domain name outweigh the chances of their website changing the world.
Need more proof? The domain names porn.com and sex.com sold for $9.5 million and $12 million, respectively. NOTE For a while, the most searched-for term on both Yahoo! and MSN was Google. People would search for the search leader in Yahoo! And MSN, click through to google.com, and then type their search query.
This bothered Yahoo! so much that it eventually put a Yahoo! search bar as the number one result for Google. But what if a killer domain name is not available? You are not alone. As of the time of writing all of the combinations for .com domains with three or fewer characters were already owned. If you can’t get seattlehotel.com, you will just need to be more creative. To limit your ability to hurt yourself by being “too creative,” I advise you to look out for the following when registering a domain name:
Avoid hyphens: In domain names, hyphens detract from credibility and act as a spam indicator. Avoid generic, uncommon top-level domains (TLDs): Like hyphens, TLDs such as .info, .cc, .ws, and .name are spam indicators. Avoid domain names longer than 15 characters: People are lazy; don’t try to make them type a novel just to access your website. Be aware of permutations: The owners of ExpertsExchange.com built a sizable brand before they realized their domain name could be misconstrued as ExpertSexChange.com.
This advice about domains applies mostly to people who are either starting out from scratch, or for whom purchasing a better domain is an option. If you’re an SEO, you’ll probably have clients that are stuck with the domain they have, either due to branding or financial constraints. If that’s you, never fear. While a smartly chosen, keyword-rich domain is often an ideal situation, plenty of sites succeed without one. I doubt, for example, that Amazon.com is on the lookout for a more book- or electronics-based domain name.
Don’t Fool Yourself, Looks Matter
I once talked to a website owner who had an 80 percent bounce rate on his homepage and figured it was normal. Can you imagine if 80 percent of the people who looked at you immediately ran in the opposite direction? This isn’t normal. Web design is an element of SEO that many amateur SEOs miss. It doesn’t matter if you can get high rankings if none of the searchers
stays on the given webpage after clicking through.
SEO-friendly web design is a lot like getting a prom date; appearance matters. People make decisions about the credibility of a website the instant the page loads. Like people, credible websites have a very specific look and feel to them. They generally have a clear logo in the top left, and a navigation bar horizontally on the top of the page or vertically on the lefthand side. They have less than five colors in their layout (not including images), and they have clear, readable text.
Would you feel comfortable leaving your children with a person in a bright orange prison jumpsuit? Of course not! In the same way, visitors to websites are not going to feel comfortable if they are greeted with popups, loud music, and a multicolored skull logo. Of course those are extreme examples. The common mistakes that I see are more along the line of the following:
Lack of focus
Slow loading times
As an SEO, you need to stress the importance of good design. Though it may be fun and exciting to stretch the limits, it is not fun to be poor because 80 percent of your client’s would-be customers leave the website directly after entering.
Duplication and Canonicalization
After analyzing a website’s domain name and general design, my colleagues and I check for one of the most common SEO mistakes on the Internet, canonicalization. For SEOs, canonicalization refers to individual webpages that can be loaded from multiple URLs.
NOTE In this discussion, “canonicalization” simply refers to the concept of picking an authoritative version of a URL and propagating its usage, as opposed to using other variants of that URL. On the other hand, the book discusses the specific canonical link element in several places, including in Chapter 5.
Remember that in Chapter 1 I discussed popularity? (Come on, it hasn’t been that long.) What do you think happens when links that are intended to go to the same page get split up among multiple URLs? You guessed it: the popularity of the pages gets split up. Unfortunately for web developers, this happens far too often because the default settings for web servers create this problem. The following lists show the negative SEO effects of using the default settings on the two most common web servers:
Apache web server:
Microsoft Internet Information Services (IIS):
http://www.example.com/default.asp (or .aspx depending on the version)
http://example.com/default.asp (or .aspx)
Or any combination with different capitalization.
Each of these URLs spreads out the value of inbound links to the homepage. This means that if the homepage has 100 links to these various URLs, the major search engines only give them credit separately, not in a combined manner.
NOTE Don’t think it can happen to you? Go to http://www.mattcutts.com and wait for the page to load. Now, go t o http://mattcutts.com and notice what happens. Look at that, canonicalization issues. What’s the significance of this example? Matt Cutts is the head of Google’s web spam team and helped write many of the algorithms we SEOs study. If he is making this mistake, odds are your less informed clients are as well.
Luckily for SEOs, web developers developed methods for redirection so that URLs can be changed and combined. Two primary types of server redirects exist—301 redirects and 302 redirects:
A 301 indicates an HTTP status code of “Moved Permanently.”
A 302 indicates a status code of “Temporarily Moved.”
TIP You can read all of the HTTP status codes at http://www.w3.org/Protocols/rfc2616/rfc2616-sec10.html.
Though the difference between 301 and 302 redirects appears to be merely semantics, the actual results are dramatic. Google decided a long time ago to not pass link juice (ranking power) equally between normal links and server redirects. At SEOmoz, I did a considerable amount of testing around this subject and have concluded that 301 redirects pass between 90 percent and 99 percent of their value, whereas 302 redirects pass almost no value at all. Because of this, my co-workers and I always
look to see how non-canonicalized pages are being redirected.
It’s not just semantics. How a page is redirected (whether by a 301 or a 302 redirect) matters. WARNING Older versions of IIS use 302 redirects by default. D’oh! Be sure to look out for this. You can see worthless redirects all around popular IIS-powered websites like microsoft.com and myspace.com. The value of these redirects is being completely negated by a single value difference!
Canonicalization is not limited to the inclusion of letters. It also dictates forward slashes in URLs. Try going to http://www.google.com and notice that you will automatically get redirected to http://www.google.com/ (notice
the trailing forward slash). This is happening because technically this is the correct format for the URL. Although this is a problem that is largely solved by the search engines already (they know that www.google.com is intended to mean the same as www.google.com/), it is still worth noting because many servers will automatically 301 redirect from the version without the trailing slash to the correct version. By doing this, a link pointing to the wrong version of the URL loses between 1 percent and 10 percent of its worth due to the 301 redirect. The takeaway here is that whenever possible, it is better to link to the version with the forward slash. There is no reason to lose sleep over this (because the engines have mostly solved the problem), but it is still a point to consider.
When viewing a website from the 100-foot level, be sure to take the following actions:
This section dealt with some of the first elements of a site that I look at when I first look at a client’s site from an SEO perspective: domain name, design, canonicalization, robots.txt, and sitemaps. This initial look is intended to just be a high-level viewing of the site. In the next section I focus on specific webpages on websites and take you even closer to piecing the SEO puzzle together.