Around the Horn With the Big Three Engines

With Major League Baseball’s spring training rapidly approaching (and with a nod to colleagues who benefit from sports metaphors), I’d like to take you around the bases with the three major search engines, stealing one quick bit of information from each before heading home.

MSN/Live

Are you getting full credit for all your MSN traffic? If you’re not reporting on search traffic from Live, you’re probably not. Based on some my clients’ statistics, Live traffic began to match or surpass MSN traffic in the late summer or early fall 2007. Large analytics packages might not include Live in their list of organic search engines, especially if the package runs on your own server and was installed or configured in 2006 or earlier. Some hosted solutions, such as Google Analytics, do include Live in their lists of organic engines. Live traffic is search traffic. You’ve earned it, so be sure you take credit for it.

Yet, not all traffic from Live is necessarily organic search traffic. If you’re looking at Live traffic from your analytics program’s domain referral report, you might see a number that’s higher than it should be, because Hotmail traffic will likely be included in that number. Hotmail traffic typically comes from mail.live.com now, so to accurately measure organic traffic from Live.com, you may need to filter down to visits coming from search.live.com.

Yahoo

In an earlier column, I discussed how Yahoo Site Explorer data can help you control your URLs when your in-house tech team won’t. Specifically, Yahoo’s dynamic URL tool enables you to specify individual portions of your dynamic URLs that you want Yahoo’s crawler to avoid. Two sample uses of this feature are deleting session IDs from URLs and stripping out tracking parameters, both of which help reduce the chances of duplication and canonical problems.

The sample site I had in mind as I wrote that column has improved significantly at Yahoo. First, the Yahoo index no longer contains any URLs with the specific session ID variable that we told Yahoo to ignore. From that we can determine that Yahoo is listening.

But we needed to be sure Yahoo wasn’t simply deleting those URLs wholesale from the index, which would create a false-positive result to our test. Fortunately, that’s not the case. Indexed URLs that used to contain session IDs still exist in the Yahoo index, but the URLs no longer contain the session IDs when you view them on the Yahoo SERP (define) or click over to them.

Finally, and most important, the number of deep URLs indexed has increased significantly, and those deep pages are driving traffic based on their improved rankings at Yahoo.

In short, Yahoo’s dynamic URL tool is a very specific tool for a very specific task. Not everyone will benefit from it, but for those that need it, it’s a real blessing.

Google

In December, Google’s Webmaster Central Blog briefly touched on several important items, including smartly allowing Webmaster Tools access to multiple users, being scraped by proxy servers, migrating to a new IP address, and — a perennial favorite — using hyphens or underscores in URLs.

Historically, the question of hyphens or underscores was put to rest by a seminal post by Matt Cutts in 2005. But last fall, the discussion was resurrected due to rumors that Google was (or would soon) view hyphens and underscores the same way.

That was premature. Currently, according to the Webmaster Central team, “dashes in URLs are consistently treated as separators while underscores are not. Keep in mind our technology is constantly improving, so this distinction between underscores and dashes may decrease over time.”

The bottom line is stick to hyphens. My view on hyphens or underscores (or text vs. gibberish) is that if you’re starting a new site or a new section on an existing site, then by all means do your best to judiciously use keywords in URLs, separated by hyphens.

But retrofitting an old site with the sole purpose of converting underscores or gibberish in URLs to keywords and hyphens should be considered major surgery, with all the inherent risks included. If you’re converting to a URL structure that will be more efficient for years down the line, go ahead. But be cautious, and gauge success in the long term. If you’re converting to hyphens because you’re prone to knee-jerk site changes based on the SEO (define) technique of the month (be honest!), your time is better spent elsewhere.

Join us for SES New York March 17-20 and for the training day on March 21.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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