SEO 101, Part 5: SEO Tactics Including Navigation and Canonical URLs

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In this series so far, we’ve concentrated on actions marketers can take to improve SEO. With this, the final post of our SEO 101 series, we’re going to dive into three technical topics that will require the involvement of your webmaster. Let me assure you it’s worth the trouble, as each topic can have a significant positive impact on how search engines rank your website – if implemented correctly.

Canonical URL

This is one of the most important things you can do to improve your SEO and is the only thing I’m covering in this series that doesn’t provide a direct benefit to the visitor.

Background: One of the key factors in how a page ranks in the search engines is how many high quality links are pointing to that specific page. If your website resolves with both www.domain.com and domain.com (no www), both versions will get links. Since the search engines treat www and non-www as separate sites, they will not combine the link scores from two versions of the same page. This means your pages are essentially cannibalizing each other, with this result: the version of the page you care about most will not rank as well as it could.

These four URLs will each be ranked separately:

  • www.company.com
  • company.com/
  • www.company.com/index.html
  • company.com/home.asp

To fix this, you need to choose a canonical URL and make it the standard for your brand. Decide if you want your website to show up with or without the www. With the www is more common, but it’s a matter of personal preference and doesn’t make a technical difference. Pick one and stick with it. Once you have decided which version you want to use, your webmaster will need to configure the canonical URL to be the one you selected.

301 Redirect

When this is accomplished, all links, clicks, traffic, etc. from the versions you didn’t select are redirected to the version you did. Just make sure they set up a 301 redirect instead of a 302 redirect. Your webmaster should know to do this without prompting, but it doesn’t hurt to make sure. A 301 redirect lets the search engines know that the content is permanently moved and they should apply all value from the old page to the new page. A 302 redirect tells the search engine that the move is only temporary and that they shouldn’t pass on any value to the new page.

For Act On, we have selected www.act-on.com as our canonical URL. If you go to the address bar in your web browser and enter Act-On.com or click a link that takes you to Act-On.com, you will notice that the address is automatically changed to www.act-on.com.

301-Redirect-example

 

URL Hacking

Web visitors are getting more sophisticated at finding the content that interests them. One of the things people are starting to do is hack URLs. This isn’t a malicious way to try and access parts of your site or get information that you don’t want them to have. It’s a way for them to get more of your quality content without having to go through your navigation menus.

The key behind this is that most quality sites have started using standard directory structures within the site. These directories may be different from every other site out there, but they’re consistent within the site, which means people can use logic and intuition to find what they want. Web visitors are starting to learn that if you edit the URL to remove the part specific to the page the visitor is currently on, they can get information that’s one step (or more) closer to the home page.

For example, if someone is on www.example.com/whitepapers/this-is-a-whitepaper.html and they delete “/this-is-a-whitepaper.html” they’ll probably find themselves on a page that displays a list of all whitepapers on the site. This is often faster and easier than trying to go through the menu structure to figure out where the list of whitepapers is.

You’ll need to work with your webmaster to get this configured in your system and the directory level pages (e.g., a list of all whitepapers) will need to be created, but it is well worth the effort. It gives your interested visitors more ways to choose their own path through your site to access your content…and you’re providing search engines an additional source of links.

The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire does a nice job of this in their news section. If you go to http://www.uwec.edu/News/releases/12/08/0824MeritScholars.htm you can read a news article about four of their freshmen being named National Merit Scholars. If you delete the page name “/0824MeritScholars.htm” from the URL, you get http://www.uwec.edu/News/releases/12/08  where you can see all of the news articles from August 2012. Delete the “/08” and you get http://www.uwec.edu/News/releases/12 which allows you to select which month you are interested in. You can continue the process back all the way to the home page.

Breadcrumbs

Like most of the other suggestions in this series, breadcrumbs are a useful tactic to help both your site visitors and the search engines crawling your site. Breadcrumbs take their name from the Hansel and Gretel story, and are useful for helping your visitors find their way. They differ in a significant way; they are not a literal representation of path your visitor took to get to the page they are on. Breadcrumbs are instead a representation of where the current page lives in the site hierarchy.

They typically live in the upper left corner of a page (below the primary navigation) and are an easy way to both set the context of where the content lives in your site and for your site visitors to navigate to higher level content. This is usually similar to the results your visitors could get from URL hacking, but it’s more obvious and accessible, something you provide rather than your visitor having to do the work. Since these are standard links, search engines will follow them and have a better chance to discover your content.

 

 

Google believes breadcrumbs are important to help visitors understand the structure of the site and how the specific page fits into the site hierarchy. It will  include breadcrumb navigation in search results when they can.

Posts in this series:

Upcoming posts:

  • Epilogue: SEO Best Practices That No Longer Work

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  • Tim

    Its amazing how many people either forget or ignore 301 redirects when launching a new website. I recently worked with a web agency that I had to remind them to do it and even then, they didn’t do a thorough job on it. All that hard work to achieve SEO can be undermined when you don’t set up 301s when you relaunch.

  • http://overnitecbt.com thomas craft

    Thanks for reminding people how important breadcrumbs and canonical URL’s are. SEO has changed a lot in the last 10 years , but these are still a few of the tried and true necessities for any potent SEO campaign!

  • Martin Laetsch

    @Tim So true. 301 redirects and configuring a canonical URL are a critical component of a successful SEO program that often get overlooked. The challenge is that many “web agencies” and even a number of “SEO experts” are really just content people. They can create great content, design beautiful sites, optimize CTR’s and conversions, etc. but don’t understand the back-end technical. Sitemaps, Schema, canonicalization, 301 redirects, and the other technical aspects get lost in the process and sites don’t rank as well as they should.

  • Martin Laetsch

    @Thomas You make an excellent point. The would of SEO is FAR different that it was 10 years ago, but the fundamentals I covered in this series have basically remained unchanged. We still want to create great content, make it easy for our customers to find content they are interested in, and remove any roadblocks that make it difficult for search engines discover all of our pages.

    The majority of what has changed are the tricks. We rarely talk about things like keyword density, doorway pages, link wheels, keyword tag spam, white text on a white background, etc. All things designed to trick the search engine without any benefit to the site visitor.

  • Jeff

    Good read. Some great information that I didn’t know about regarding SEO. Very useful material that I will keep in mind! Thanks!

  • Martin Laetsch

    @Jeff Glad to hear it was useful

  • http://www.jacobcurtis.co Jacob Curtis

    This has been a great series of blogs and though I am sad to see it come to an end, I am happy to have them bookmarked and added to my arsenal!

  • Martin Laetsch

    @Jacob Thank you for the comment. I am glad that you found the series useful.

  • Lisa

    I’m an advocate of bread crumbs :) If the standard bread crumb design isn’t appropriate for your web design, find more examples here: http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2009/03/17/breadcrumbs-in-web-design-examples-and-best-practices-2/
    I have to say I’m considered a URL Hacker, some websites are so loaded with content it’s easier to delete part of the URL and get around, another reason why I like bread crumbs.

  • Martin Laetsch

    @Lisa Thank you for sharing the link to more breadcrumb examples. There is a lot of good information in that article.

  • Monica Seely

    Thank you for this post. I have never really understood the function of a canonical URL, but you explained it so well. I have some work to do now!

  • Martin Laetsch

    @Monica You are not alone. Canonical URL’s cause a LOT of confusion. I am glad the article helped you out and you now understand how important it is to set a canonical URL. Once you get your canonical URL configured, you should start to see your rankings in the search engines start to improve.

  • Herryponting

    Good resources of information and thanks a lot

  • Nik Dahlberg

    Great information. Thanks for tying in how breadcrumbs can help to solve the hacking problem. If a user is taking additional actions to make things easier for them then that’s a good indicator that your site is failing in some aspect. The user experience should be seamless and intuitive to the visitor.

  • Sarah

    This is great info for beginners! Most people wouldn’t think of including all of these steps in their SEO. I find a lot of sites specifically lack the breadcrumbs feature. If their navigation is clunky and there’s no breadcrumbs to follow, I often just leave the site completely. User friendly is the way to go!

  • Bobby Holt

    Absolutely stellar article. Helping people understand how to effectively use SEO tactics to help their marketing approach is absolutely paramount. Well done.

  • David Bonan

    Very interesting read! I learned a lot from this

  • Mike Compeau

    OK, so my brilliant comment disappeared when a password-handling algorithm poorly programmed by the hosting site threw it away into the ether. Chances I WANT to come back here to post ANYTHING in the future based upon this poor programming-related User Experience? Less than zero, I can tell you. Valuable content is important, but the value depends upon infrastructure and execution, people. We are judged not by how great our content looks to us when we post it, but by the interaction we foster with it, out into the future–it is the age of social media and if your IT folks can’t get the basics right. well, FWAAPP!! that’s the sound of the door slamming shut behind them as they click away.

    • MartinLaetsch

      @mikecompeau:disqus Sorry you had problems with the commenting system. We use a standard Disqus implementation and haven’t heard of other people loosing comments, but I would love to hear more about what happened so we can make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.

      • Mike Compeau

        Composed the response. Went to login to Disqus. password didn’t work for some reason, and “forgot password” opened new tab by default. submitted email address in that tab. Went to email. Clicked link. Of course, ANOTHER tab opened to validate and allow choosing password at Disqus. Clicked back to blog. No way to get at the previous comment from a cache– back button-no. login-gone. Tear hair out– yes. =)

        • Mike Compeau

          Maybe the geniuses behind these systems should actually TEST their process before implementing it. >sigh< Real humans do silly things that programmers don't think of–until they do it themselves. LOL

        • MartinLaetsch

          @mikecompeau:disqus Thank you for letting us know what happened. I have someone looking into this to see if there is anything we can do on our end to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else

  • bri44any

    I’m a strong believer in breadcrumbs. They don’t have to be obvious or distracting on the site, but the users who want them will know where to expect them. Not having them for those users might leave a moment of frustration, and maybe they’ll forget it or maybe they won’t, but why risk it when giving them breadcrumbs will help them flow through the site more easily to soak up more information? Make it as easy as them for possible.

  • Matt Alibakhsh

    This was great. Just the kind of stuff I was looking for. I’ll look to implementing all of these; just gotta find the time! :)

  • http://twitter.com/pepper__shaker Todd Holbrook

    SEO isn’t exactly my forte. But these are great tips – we will be starting work to use a canonical URL today! Breadcrumbs we got a hold of, though, and I think any website visitor is lost without them – especially first-timers.

    • MartinLaetsch

      I am glad you found the tips useful!

  • Zachary Winnie

    Hiring a good designer and developer who knows how to implement these strategies is key—you can hire a SEO expert, but in reality any good designer/developer should know these simple things as well.

  • http://twitter.com/LizChasse Liz Chasse

    These are some great tips that I think really focus more on user experience and getting people that are already on your site to stay a little longer and look at more pages. Some great tips.

  • http://twitter.com/dizzerdee Dawn Casias (Bulls)

    I always walk away smarter for having read the se pages and with a better understanding of the total process involved in SEO land. (not to mention picking up new jargon) Thanks!

    • MartinLaetsch

      I am glad you found the post useful. SEO is an ever changing world, but it is an extremely powerful tool in a marketers toolbox.