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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Part 1: Search, So They Will Find
- Part 2: Know Your Audience
- Part 3: Write Great Content
- Part 4: Optimize your Site for SEO
- Epilogue: SEO Best Practices That No Longer Work