Search Friendly Website – Talking to Spiders

As appeared in the Presence Pointers column of the April 2008 issue of “Business Watch” magazine.

On the simplest level, a Web site visitor can be classified as human or spider. Of course human visitors are obvious and highly desirable as they are the only one of the two that can buy from us. Back in November of 2007, I talked about the importance of making sure your Web site met your human visitors’ needs in the article, It’s not about you.

But what about these spiders? Is your Web site about them, and how could it be if it is about your human visitors? Thankfully, your site is still about your human visitors, even when the spiders come crawling. While your message doesn’t need to change, we may need to change how it is delivered to get the most out of the message for both humans and spiders.

The search engine spiders, or sometimes called crawlers or bots (short for robots), spend all of their time crawling the web. Their crawling is the first step that enables a Web page to be returned for a search in any of the search engines. There is much more that goes on than just crawling – the crawling is actually the easiest thing to understand about search engines; the indexing and retrieval aspects are far more complex.

For our sake, what is important to understand is that these spiders see the Web differently. Actually, they don’t see at all, which is one of the challenges. Without question, a Web site needs to speak to its human visitors, but we also want it to be meaningful to spiders too since it may be the search engines that help deliver many of our human visitors.

Spiders are all about text. Not only are they able to consider all of the words on a page through complex processing, they are also often able to understand some of the basic meaning and overall context of a page. Because of this, they can often determine the correct meaning of a word based on the other words around it and on the page.

Certain aspects of a page carry greater importance in establishing context. The title of a page, which appears in the top “chrome” of the browser window, is the most important element to a spider in understanding what the page is about. Headings on a page (e.g., h1, h2, h3, etc. tags) carry considerable importance to and their proper usage helps create content hierarchy.

Perhaps the next important element that you can control on your site is links. Links are a little different though than titles and headings as their primary signal is about the page the link leads to, rather than the page they are on.

So there we have three absolutely critical elements to focus on. Of course you want to make sure that the rest of your site is meaningful as well. Doing so will make sure that both types of visitors find what they want, what you have to offer and keep coming back for more.

Being Spider Friendly

    • Page titles (found within the title tags) should be topically relevant to the page they are on. Ideally they should use some of the most important keyword phrases related to the page. Most importantly, every page should have a unique page title.
    • Page headings should reinforce the page titles.
    • Links should be text-based, preferably, or if image-based, contain alternative attributes. The text, or alt text for images, should be topically relevant to the destination page, rather than things like “more,” “next,” or “click here.”
    • Any important text on a page should be in html rather than an image.
    • Flash®, which I covered in last August’s article Is your Web site Flash in the Pan?, is best used for accent and user interaction, but not as the primary page content or to deliver important information since spiders have a difficult time accessing and understanding text within Flash.

Leap Onto the Web

As appeared in the Presence Pointers column of the February 2008 issue of “Business Watch” magazine.

If your business doesn’t have a website yet, then this month’s column is especially for you. And even if you do have a site, it may still be worth the read. If you’ve been holding out on making the leap to the web, well it’s time to move past that. Web access is available in more businesses and homes than ever, and thanks to smart phones like the BlackBerry and iPhone, people have access to the web 24/7, just about anywhere they are.Let’s talk about this thing called “web design.” We’re going to bypass the do-it-yourself discussion. If you want to play around on your own with a hobby site or site for your family, great, but don’t jeopardize the image of your business while trying to learn web design — there’s much more to it than just understanding a little HTML code.Businesses will either have staff on hand or, more likely, will outsource the development of their site. It is very important to understand up front that graphic design and web design are extremely different things. Layout and graphics are only one part of web design — just go to a web page and right-click your mouse, and select “View Source.” As you can see, there is a lot more under the surface of a web page.

A little self-education is important to be able to talk intelligently with potential designers or your own staff. Since there isn’t enough space in this column to go into this in detail, here are seven important basics that you may want to consider and learn more about on your own. And over the next few months, we’ll tackle some of these in more detail.

Web Standards – developing websites around recommended technical best practices.

Table-less design – not relying on HTML tables to control the visual layout of a web page.

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) – separates presentation from content and can dramatically reduce the amount of code per page, enable greater visual consistency across a site, and simplify styling and even visual layout changes to an entire site.

Accessibility – making a site accessible to as many users as possible; including the blind, visually impaired, those with motor-skill challenges, etc. — which also includes search engine spiders.

JavaScript and Flash usage – these technologies can provide great functionality, but can also hinder users and search engines, even preventing them from using your site.

Content Management System (CMS) – allows site owners to manage, edit, and update their sites on their own. However, there are many systems available, each with their own complexities, pros and cons.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) – while actually outside of the web design arena, SEO is an area of search marketing that deals with making a site optimal for search engines and helping to get site pages to rank higher in search engines. Designers that focus on web standards, accessibility, CSS, and table-less designs may indicate a better understanding of SEO, or at the very least, may help get your site part way there.

While this little run down is just scratching the surface, hopefully it helps to get the ball rolling. Today, having a website is expected and running a business without one is akin to having a business without a mailing address or a phone — although without one, you may never know how much business you lost.

5 Tips to getting the most out of your website

  • Be sure to add it to all literature: business cards, letterhead, sales materials, etc.
  • Running an ad through traditional marketing? Create a special landing page on your site and include the URL to that page in the ad instead of your homepage. Then you can track the amount of traffic and measure the effectiveness of the ad.
  • Get a lot of the same basic questions over and over? Add an FAQ or information section to your site to help field these.
  • Get links to your site from business partners or organizations you are in.
  • Your website as an investment in your business. You’ll only get out of it what you put into it, whether that is time or money.

Is Your Website Flash In the Pan?

As appeared in the Presence Pointers column of the August 2007 issue of “Business Watch” magazine.

Flash in the pan is a catchy saying that derived from a very literal meaning. It generally means “something or someone that disappoints or fails to deliver anything of value, even though its showy beginning promised otherwise.” Literally though, it referred to the firing of muskets, which had small “pans” that held the priming used to ignite the main firing charge, and the priming ignited but failed to ignite the main charge. So, you’d end up with a “flash” but no results… the musket didn’t fire.

So what does this have to do with your website? Well there is a very generic connection, but I have a very specific reference in mind. There is a technology called Flash®, which you have probably experienced online. It has many uses… delivering video or audio, site navigation, interactive banner ads, and even entire websites.

I think Flash is a wonderful tool and has a lot of great uses. And as is so often the case, it isn’t the tool that is bad, so much as the implementation. Flash on the web is often used for its showy properties, adding interesting interactivity and a more enriching experience, but often failing elsewhere.

Your website has two general audiences: first and foremost, actual visitors, and second, search engines because search results will often deliver those actual visitors. The problem, especially for websites done entirely in Flash, is that both kinds of visitors may have a hard time using your site. Navigation isn’t always obvious and regular web browser functions don’t always work, like when a user has navigated several “pages” into your site and clicks their back button to go back a page, but ends up at your home page or the website they were on before yours. There are many other potential issues, but there’s another very important issue I’d rather discuss.

Search engines build their results from text found on websites. The problem is that they have a hard time “looking” inside Flash. While there are ways to make Flash more accessible to users and search engines alike, the vast majority of Flash implementations don’t; perhaps the designer didn’t know how, didn’t know the difference, didn’t want to invest the time and energy, or the project couldn’t justify the additional expense.

“Search” may become one of your most valuable channels for reaching existing and new business, so having a website that can’t be crawled or indexed could be devastating. Have a Flash-based website already and wondering whether your website is flash in the pan? While not completely conclusive, you’ll get a pretty good idea when you head to your favorite search engine and search for “site:yourdomain.com”” (replacing yourdomain.com with your website, and leave off the quotation marks and no spaces before or after the colon). If you only see one or just a few listings and your site has considerably more “pages” than that, then your website may be failing to deliver.

5 For Flash

  • It’s best to use Flash to complement your website content, rather than as a base for your entire site.
  • Whenever possible, use Flash for non-critical content, and have good textual content related to the Flash bits.
  • Do not have a home page that consists of nothing but Flash unless you do not care about search engines, or have no concerns of turning away human visitors as well.
  • Remember that the cool “effects” created with Flash may not be appreciated as much by your visitors as you think. Pages that take too long to load, or fancy, dramatic effects that must be sat through on every page provide no real value to the visitor.
  • Flash-based menus and navigation can be especially dangerous with regards to usability and accessibility for both humans and search engines.