The search engines provide some of the best tools, free of charge, if you know how to use them.
Isn't it frustrating when you call a professional repairman to your home and he can't complete a task for you? He roots around in his toolbox, goes out to his truck and roots around some more, scratches his head, makes a call back to the office, and then finally tells you he doesn't have the part or tool he needs to make the repair today.
Well, that's just how frustrating natural SEO (define) can be if you don't go at a fix-up project with the right tools in your toolbox. When you're completing a site audit to measure how well your site is performing on the search engines, you have to dip into your toolbox to figure out the problems before you can make proper adjustments.
The same process holds true whether you're completing keyword research, preparing to initiate a link building campaign, or producing a competitive analysis of online rival sites. You must get your tools and start taking things apart.
In past columns, I've addressed what tools can be used to help you on your way to building a better SEO toolbox. They include:
But those are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the tools I use every day.
My old PC recently died, although I suspect it committed suicide from one too many Xenu runs, and I had to rebuild my toolbox on a brand spanking new computer. While being a bit painful in terms of personal productivity, it was still a good time to sort through which tools I use all the time, toss out some tools that have been replaced by better devices, and check out a couple of new tools I've been meaning to add to my toolbox.
In between downloading plug-ins and reclaiming passwords, I realized how many different tools I count on each day to get the job done. And I was reminded of the fact that some of the best tools are those that the search engines provide free of charge -- if you know how to use them.
Completing a site audit and competitive analysis is the first step I usually take when initiating a natural search program. A natural SEO program can take up to 12 months to complete, depending on the objectives of the programs, so evaluating a site's performance is a continuous process. To measure the performance of each program over time, a good old-fashioned spreadsheet is an invaluable tool to track details the search engines provide when using advanced query strings.
Once organized for a date range it's easy to start collecting details about how a site is performing and could potentially perform in the search engines. One of the fundamental advanced search queries that can be used in Google, Yahoo, and MSN, among others, is the [site:domain.com] command string.
Granted, Yahoo will default to its Site Explorer functionality, but you'll get a good idea about just how many pages of a site are indexed in the engines. If you know exactly how many pages exist in the site, then you can see how the search engines operate when different site dynamics are in play.
It's also easy to use the same query string to see how well a site is canonicalized by shifting between [site:www.domain.com] and [site:domain.com] queries. Sometimes Webmasters only canonicalize the home page and not pages deep within the site, so an http://domain.com default check might not give you all the information you need. Header checkers belong in any optimizer's toolbox. There are many to choose from, but I still prefer Rex Swain's HTTP Viewer.
Find all the site's pages that have a particular keyword in a file path. If all your product pages have the word [item] or [product] in them, then an advanced search query for [inurl:item inurl:domain or company name] and [allinurl:product company name] is very helpful toward understanding how a site's product pages are performing.
Google allows users to combine the [site:domain.com inurl:product] search functionality, which can provide additional insight into just how your product pages are performing in Google, at least when it comes to measuring indexation levels, once you get past the omitted results click path. The same process holds true for tooling around print-only pages, blogs, reviews, or comments, etc.
The search engines will also help you discover particular file types. This can come in particularly handy when determining how well engines are picking up SWF objects or PDF files. Complete a [domain name filetype:pdf] or [filetype:swf company name] search to see what's what.
Of course, you can add a link in your tracking spreadsheet for each query string used for your research. This will greatly simplify future updates and ensure that you're consistently monitoring the same details with each review.
You learn something new about a site's performance in the search engines every time you grab another tool. Remember: when search results need to get fixed, some of the best tools you can use are the search engines themselves.
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P.J. Fusco has been working in the Internet industry since 1996 when she developed her first SEM service while acting as general manager for a regional ISP. She was the SEO manager for Jupitermedia and has performed as the SEM manager for an international health and beauty dot-com corporation generating more than $1 billion a year in e-commerce sales. Today, she is director for natural search for Netconcepts, a cutting-edge SEO firm with offices in Madison, WI, and Auckland, New Zealand.
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