Monday, March 19, 2012

Five common SEO mistakes (and six good ideas!)

Webmaster Level: Beginner to Intermediate

To help you avoid common mistakes webmasters face with regard to search engine optimization (SEO), I filmed a video outlining five common mistakes I’ve noticed in the SEO industry. Almost four years ago, we also gathered information from all of you (our readers) about your SEO recommendations and updated our related Help Center article given your feedback. Much of the same advice from 2008 still holds true today -- here’s to more years ahead building a great site!

If you’re short on time, here’s the gist:

Avoid these common mistakes
1. Having no value proposition: Try not to assume that a site should rank #1 without knowing why it’s helpful to searchers (and better than the competition :)

2. Segmented approach: Be wary of setting SEO-related goals without making sure they’re aligned with your company’s overall objectives and the goals of other departments. For example, in tandem with your work optimizing product pages (and the full user experience once they come to your site), also contribute your expertise to your Marketing team’s upcoming campaign. So if Marketing is launching new videos or a more interactive site, be sure that searchers can find their content, too.

3. Time-consuming workarounds: Avoid implementing a hack rather than researching new features or best practices that could simplify development (e.g., changing the timestamp on an updated URL so it’s crawled more quickly instead of easily submitting the URL through Fetch as Googlebot).

4. Caught in SEO trends: Consider spending less time obsessing about the latest “trick” to boost your rankings and instead focus on the fundamental tasks/efforts that will bring lasting visitors.

5. Slow iteration: Aim to be agile rather than promote an environment where the infrastructure and/or processes make improving your site, or even testing possible improvements, difficult.
Six fundamental SEO tips
1. Do something cool: Make sure your site stands out from the competition -- in a good way!

2. Include relevant words in your copy: Try to put yourself in the shoes of searchers. What would they query to find you? Your name/business name, location, products, etc., are important. It's also helpful to use the same terms in your site that your users might type (e.g., you might be a trained “flower designer” but most searchers might type [florist]), and to answer the questions they might have (e.g., store hours, product specs, reviews). It helps to know your customers.

3. Be smart about your tags and site architecture: Create unique title tags and meta descriptions; include Rich Snippets markup from where appropriate. Have intuitive navigation and good internal links.

4. Sign up for email forwarding in Webmaster Tools: Help us communicate with you, especially when we notice something awry with your site.

5. Attract buzz: Natural links, +1s, likes, follows... In every business there's something compelling, interesting, entertaining, or surprising that you can offer or share with your users. Provide a helpful service, tell fun stories, paint a vivid picture and users will share and reshare your content.

6. Stay fresh and relevant: Keep content up-to-date and consider options such as building a social media presence (if that’s where a potential audience exists) or creating an ideal mobile experience if your users are often on-the-go.
Good luck to everyone!

Upcoming changes in Google’s HTTP Referrer

Webmaster level: all

Protecting users’ privacy is a priority for us and it’s helped drive recent changes. Helping users save time is also very important; it’s explicitly mentioned as a part of our philosophy. Today, we’re happy to announce that Google Web Search will soon be using a new proposal to reduce latency when a user of Google’s SSL-search clicks on a search result with a modern browser such as Chrome.

Starting in April, for browsers with the appropriate support, we will be using the "referrer" meta tag to automatically simplify the referring URL that is sent by the browser when visiting a page linked from an organic search result. This results in a faster time to result and more streamlined experience for the user.

What does this mean for sites that receive clicks from Google search results? You may start to see "origin" referrers—Google’s homepages (see the meta referrer specification for further detail)—as a source of organic SSL search traffic. This change will only affect the subset of SSL search referrers which already didn’t include the query terms. Non-HTTPS referrals will continue to behave as they do today. Again, the primary motivation for this change is to remove an unneeded redirect so that signed-in users reach their destination faster.

Website analytics programs can detect these organic search requests by detecting bare Google host names using SSL (like ""). Webmasters will continue see the same data in Webmasters Tools—just as before, you’ll receive an aggregated list of the top search queries that drove traffic to their site.

We will continue to look into further improvements to how search query data is surfaced through Webmaster Tools. If you have questions, feedback or suggestions, please let us know through the Webmaster Tools Help Forum.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Video about pagination with rel=“next” and rel=“prev”

Webmaster Level: Beginner to Intermediate

If you’re curious about the rel=”next” and rel=prev” for paginated content announcement we made several months ago, we filmed a video covering more of the basics of pagination to help answer your questions. Paginated content includes things like an article that spans several URLs/pages, or an e-commerce product category that spans multiple pages. With rel=”next” and rel=”prev” markup, you can provide a strong hint to Google that you would like us to treat these pages as a logical sequence, thus consolidating their linking properties and usually sending searchers to the first page. Feel free to check out our presentation for more information:

This video on pagination covers the basics of rel=”next” and rel=”prev” and how it could be useful for your site.

Slides from the pagination video

Additional resources about pagination include:
  • Webmaster Central Blog post announcing support of rel=”next” and rel=”prev”
  • Webmaster Help Center article with more implementations of rel=”next” and rel=”prev
  • Webmaster Forum thread with our answers to the community’s in-depth questions, such as:

    Does rel=next/prev also work as a signal for only one page of the series (page 1 in most cases?) to be included in the search index? Or would noindex tags need to be present on page 2 and on?

    When you implement rel="next" and rel="prev" on component pages of a series, we'll then consolidate the indexing properties from the component pages and attempt to direct users to the most relevant page/URL. This is typically the first page. There's no need to mark page 2 to n of the series with noindex unless you're sure that you don't want those pages to appear in search results.

    Should I use the rel next/prev into [sic] the section of a blog even if the two contents are not strictly correlated (but they are just time-sequential)?

    In regard to using rel=”next” and rel=”prev” for entries in your blog that “are not strictly correlated (but they are just time-sequential),” pagination markup likely isn’t the best use of your time -- time-sequential pages aren’t nearly as helpful to our indexing process as semantically related content, such as pagination on component pages in an article or category. It’s fine if you include the markup on your time-sequential pages, but please note that it’s not the most helpful use case.

    We operate a real estate rental website. Our files display results based on numerous parameters that affect the order and the specific results that display. Examples of such parameters are “page number”, “records per page”, “sorting” and “area selection”...

    It sounds like your real estate rental site encounters many of the same issues that e-commerce sites face... Here are some ideas on your situation:

    1. It’s great that you are using the Webmaster Tools URL parameters feature to more efficiently crawl your site.

    2. It’s possible that your site can form a rel=”next” and rel=”prev” sequence with no parameters (or with default parameter values). It’s also possible to form parallel pagination sequences when users select certain parameters, such as a sequence of pages where there are 15 records and a separate sequence when a user selects 30 records. Paginating component pages, even with parameters, helps us more accurately index your content.

    3. While it’s fine to set rel=”canonical” from a component URL to a single view-all page, setting the canonical to the first page of a parameter-less sequence is considered improper usage. We make no promises to honor this implementation of rel=”canonical.”

Remember that if you have paginated content, it’s fine to leave it as-is and not add rel=”next” and rel=”prev” markup at all. But if you’re interested in pagination markup as a strong hint for us to better understand your site, we hope these resources help answer your questions!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Crawl Errors: The Next Generation

Webmaster level: All

Crawl errors is one of the most popular features in Webmaster Tools, and today we’re rolling out some very significant enhancements that will make it even more useful.

We now detect and report many new types of errors. To help make sense of the new data, we’ve split the errors into two parts: site errors and URL errors.

Site Errors

Site errors are errors that aren’t specific to a particular URL—they affect your entire site. These include DNS resolution failures, connectivity issues with your web server, and problems fetching your robots.txt file. We used to report these errors by URL, but that didn’t make a lot of sense because they aren’t specific to individual URLs—in fact, they prevent Googlebot from even requesting a URL! Instead, we now keep track of the failure rates for each type of site-wide error. We’ll also try to send you alerts when these errors become frequent enough that they warrant attention.

View site error rate and counts over time

Furthermore, if you don’t have (and haven’t recently had) any problems in these areas, as is the case for many sites, we won’t bother you with this section. Instead, we’ll just show you some friendly check marks to let you know everything is hunky-dory.

A site with no recent site-level errors

URL errors

URL errors are errors that are specific to a particular page. This means that when Googlebot tried to crawl the URL, it was able to resolve your DNS, connect to your server, fetch and read your robots.txt file, and then request this URL, but something went wrong after that. We break the URL errors down into various categories based on what caused the error. If your site serves up Google News or mobile (CHTML/XHTML) data, we’ll show separate categories for those errors.

URL errors by type with full current and historical counts

Less is more

We used to show you at most 100,000 errors of each type. Trying to consume all this information was like drinking from a firehose, and you had no way of knowing which of those errors were important (your homepage is down) or less important (someone’s personal site made a typo in a link to your site). There was no realistic way to view all 100,000 errors—no way to sort, search, or mark your progress. In the new version of this feature, we’ve focused on trying to give you only the most important errors up front. For each category, we’ll give you what we think are the 1000 most important and actionable errors.  You can sort and filter these top 1000 errors, let us know when you think you’ve fixed them, and view details about them.

Instantly filter and sort errors on any column

Some sites have more than 1000 errors of a given type, so you’ll still be able to see the total number of errors you have of each type, as well as a graph showing historical data going back 90 days. For those who worry that 1000 error details plus a total aggregate count will not be enough, we’re considering adding programmatic access (an API) to allow you to download every last error you have, so please give us feedback if you need more.

We've also removed the list of pages blocked by robots.txt, because while these can sometimes be useful for diagnosing a problem with your robots.txt file, they are frequently pages you intentionally blocked. We really wanted to focus on errors, so look for information about roboted URLs to show up soon in the "Crawler access" feature under "Site configuration".

Dive into the details

Clicking on an individual error URL from the main list brings up a detail pane with additional information, including when we last tried to crawl the URL, when we first noticed a problem, and a brief explanation of the error.

Details for each URL error

From the details pane you can click on the link for the URL that caused the error to see for yourself what happens when you try to visit it. You can also mark the error as “fixed” (more on that later!), view help content for the error type, list Sitemaps that contain the URL, see other pages that link to this URL, and even have Googlebot fetch the URL right now, either for more information or to double-check that your fix worked.

View pages which link to this URL

Take action!

One thing we’re really excited about in this new version of the Crawl errors feature is that you can really focus on fixing what’s most important first. We’ve ranked the errors so that those at the top of the priority list will be ones where there’s something you can do, whether that’s fixing broken links on your own site, fixing bugs in your server software, updating your Sitemaps to prune dead URLs, or adding a 301 redirect to get users to the “real” page. We determine this based on a multitude of factors, including whether or not you included the URL in a Sitemap, how many places it’s linked from (and if any of those are also on your site), and whether the URL has gotten any traffic recently from search.

Once you think you’ve fixed the issue (you can test your fix by fetching the URL as Googlebot), you can let us know by marking the error as “fixed” if you are a user with full access permissions. This will remove the error from your list.  In the future, the errors you’ve marked as fixed won’t be included in the top errors list, unless we’ve encountered the same error when trying to re-crawl a URL.

Select errors and mark them as fixed

We’ve put a lot of work into the new Crawl errors feature, so we hope that it will be very useful to you. Let us know what you think and if you have any suggestions, please visit our forum!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Keeping your free hosting service valuable for searchers

Webmaster level: Advanced

Free web hosting services can be great! Many of these services have helped to lower costs and technical barriers for webmasters and they continue to enable beginner webmasters to start their adventure on the web. Unfortunately, sometimes these lower barriers (meant to encourage less techy audiences) can attract some dodgy characters like spammers who look for cheap and easy ways to set up dozens or hundreds of sites that add little or no value to the web. When it comes to automatically generated sites, our stance remains the same: if the sites do not add sufficient value, we generally consider them as spam and take appropriate steps to protect our users from exposure to such sites in our natural search results.

We consider automatically generated sites like this one to be spammy.

If a free hosting service begins to show patterns of spam, we make a strong effort to be granular and tackle only spammy pages or sites. However, in some cases, when the spammers have pretty much taken over the free web hosting service or a large fraction of the service, we may be forced to take more decisive steps to protect our users and remove the entire free web hosting service from our search results. To prevent this from happening, we would like to help owners of free web hosting services by sharing what we think may help you save valuable resources like bandwidth and processing power, and also protect your hosting service from these spammers:
  • Publish a clear abuse policy and communicate it to your users, for example during the sign-up process. This step will contribute to transparency on what you consider to be spammy activity.
  • In your sign-up form, consider using CAPTCHAs or similar verification tools to only allow human submissions and prevent automated scripts from generating a bunch of sites on your hosting service. While these methods may not be 100% foolproof, they can help to keep a lot of the bad actors out.
  • Try to monitor your free hosting service for other spam signals like redirections, large numbers of ad blocks, certain spammy keywords, large sections of escaped JavaScript code, etc. Using the site: operator query or Google Alerts may come in handy if you’re looking for a simple, cost efficient solution.
  • Keep a record of signups and try to identify typical spam patterns like form completion time, number of requests sent from the same IP address range, user-agents used during signup, user names or other form-submitted values chosen during signup, etc. Again, these may not always be conclusive.
  • Keep an eye on your webserver log files for sudden traffic spikes, especially when a newly-created site is receiving this traffic, and try to identify why you are spending more bandwidth and processing power.
  • Try to monitor your free web hosting service for phishing and malware-infected pages. For example, you can use the Google Safe Browsing API to regularly test URLs from your service, or sign up to receive alerts for your AS.
  • Come up with a few sanity checks. For example, if you’re running a local Polish free web hosting service, what are the odds of thousands of new and legitimate sites in Japanese being created overnight on your service? There’s a number of tools you may find useful for language detection of newly created sites, for example language detection libraries or the Google Translate API v2.

Last but not least, if you run a free web hosting service be sure to monitor your services for sudden activity spikes that may indicate a spam attack in progress.

For more tips on running a quality hosting service, have a look at our previous post. Lastly, be sure to sign up and verify your site in Google Webmaster Tools so we may be able to notify you when needed or if we see issues.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Safely share access to your site in Webmaster Tools

Webmaster Level: All

We just launched a new feature that allows you as a verified site owner to grant limited access to your site's data and settings in Webmaster Tools. You've had the ability to grant full verified access to others for a couple of years. Since then we've heard lots of requests from site owners for the ability to grant limited permission for others to view a site's data in Webmaster Tools without being able to modify all the settings. Now you can do exactly that with our new User administration feature.

On the Home page when you click the "Manage site" drop-down menu you'll see the menu option that was previously titled "Add or remove owners" is now "Add or remove users."

Selecting the "Add or remove users" menu item will take you to the new User administration page where you can add or delete up to 100 users and specify each user's access as "Full" or "Restricted." Users added via the User administration page are tied to a specific site. If you become unverified for that site any users that you've added will lose their access to that site in Webmaster Tools. Adding or removing verified site owners is still done on the owner verification page which is linked from the User administration page.

Granting a user "Full" permission means that they will be able to view all data and take most actions, such as changing site settings or demoting sitelinks. When a user’s permission is set to "Restricted" they will only have access to view most data, and can take some actions such as using Fetch as Googlebot and configuring message forwarding for their account. Restricted users will see a “Restricted Access” indicator at various locations within Webmaster Tools.

To see which features and actions are accessible for Restricted users, Full users and site owners, visit our Permissions Help Center article.

We hope the addition of Full and Restricted users makes management of your site in Webmaster Tools easier since you can now grant access within a more limited scope to help prevent undesirable or unauthorized changes. If you have questions or feedback about the new User administration feature please let us know in our Help Forum.