We are more than six months into Google’s Hummingbird algorithm and some Internet chatter still proclaims SEO as “dead.” Let me confirm: SEO is alive and well. (These premature assessments remind me of the third installment of the Terminator movie series when the two cyborgs could not be killed off during their epic battle; after what would appear to certainly be a “fatal” impact, they would burst out of the rubble to continue fighting.) To adapt successfully to Hummingbird and the “keyword (not provided)” update that came out at the same time, it’s now an even more competitive opportunity to pay extra attention to the technical elements that comprise your owned properties and digital assets.
Despite the reduced impact of on-page search phrases and black-hat tactics that have marred the search experience, technical SEO remains as relevant as ever and is still central to good webmaster practices as stated by Google and Bing. Page crawling and indexing is just as important and therefore coding best practices are still critical to search engine results page (SERP) success. So this might be a good time to cover some of the key areas of impact that permeate global SEO.
XML sitemaps remain an important component to successful SEO. For optimal convenience, we can specify variations that will cover all URLs in a single property through the XML sitemap. However, global properties should be defined with XML sitemaps for each country section. For example, when we have the URL http://www.website.com/uk targeting English language users in the U.K. and wish to specify that the equivalent URL targeting German language speakers in Austria is http://www.website.com/at, we would code as follows:
< loc>http://www.website.com/uk < /loc>
< xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”de_at” href=http://www.website.com/at” />
< xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en_gb” href=http://www.website.com/uk” />
< loc>http://www.website.com/at < /loc>
< xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”de_at” href=http://www.website.com/at” />
< xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en_gb_at” href=http://www.website.com/uk” />
Remember to indicate page priority (scale: 0.1 to 1.0), update frequency, and hreflang attributes within your XML sitemap.
Global enterprises are faced with the two-fold challenge of 1) page authority for geo- or language-centric searches and 2) indexing relevancy for duplicate content. Geo-targeting through the use of the linkrel=”alternate” hreflang annotation remains a key solution. While developers can deploy this element using on-page markup or in the HTTP header, implementation has been easiest in your XML sitemap.
As your global reach expands into diverse language settings, hreflang attributes allow search engines to dynamically return content that is relevant to IP addresses. For a more satisfying user experience, canonicals should be assigned so duplicate alternate language pages are suppressed. And it’s still appropriate practice to designate a generic URL for commonly spoken languages, such as English, French, or Spanish, which cross geographic borders.
We cannot afford to get lazy with navigation, internal links, and other on-page optimization. If a searcher lands on website.com/de/, then it clearly follows that all underlying pages targeting German visitors must point to our German URLs. Canonicals are essential to global properties; we suggest liberal use of canonicals within each subdomain targeting language-centric users.
Site crawlability can have a devastating (or supportive) effect on your domain authority. Again, we recommend managing your crawl budget through the use of your XML sitemap. Even if the URL structure is spider-friendly, content organization, categorization, and labeling will determine how engines index your pages.
404 Errors and Redirects
When retiring or moving pages, your redirect practices still have a critical impact on optimization success. Users who get error messages take action that reduces your Google rank (bounce rate, reduced page views, etc.). Page deletion will cause 404 (pages not found) errors on the site, which impacts not only user experience, but also SEO.
404 errors prevent Google from crawling the site well and reduce theme relevancy that the retired page can transfer to the new page. It’s important to use 301 (permanent) redirects for retired URLs. Do not simply delete and redirect the old URL to a theme-relevant new URL. If you can’t assign a relevant page, redirect users to the nearest landing page.
Page Load Speed
We work closely with our Web and IT teams to provide coding recommendations to improve page load speed. The Google Page Speed and Yahoo Yslow tools both provide very specific and practical recommendations. Page speed is a factor for SEO, as engines want searchers to arrive to their destination quickly. Just as important is the improvement in customer satisfaction and conversion. To justify the investment in page speed improvements, recommend stack-ranking the type of technical improvements possible for your teams and website against a simple low, medium, and high value for both effort and impact. Set this up in a spreadsheet and use this business justification analysis to get buy-in from other stakeholders who can help improve page load speed.
Page templates continue to play an important role in SEO success, just as modern content management systems improve Web design, teamwork, asset management, and ultimately the user experience and conversion optimization. Page design and coding should ensure that relevant elements are crawled and establish prominence for geo-centric searches. To rank well in the Hummingbird era, SEO teams should focus on:
- Coding: Heavy pages carry less authority in Google; limit page size (code only) to less than 100KB where possible; use clean code, avoid excessive line breaks, and position content relative to code
- Title and Meta Description: Allow each page to have a unique title and meta description; keep these tags high up in code
- Canonical Tag: Implement canonical tags where duplicate content is a potential issue; for example, < link rel=”canonical” href=”http://www.website.com/mainpage.html” />
- Header Tags: Use H1 tags for the main header (ideally use only one per page) with relevant keywords included and H2, H3, H4 for secondary headers
- On-page Content: Incorporate secondary phrases naturally throughout the entire body content to establish common keyword themes of the page
- Links: Actively link to theme-relevant pages; use simple Href tags for links; keywords in link text are preferred.
- Images: Designate images with correct file naming and use of image Alt tags
Mobile development demands that we use responsive design, dynamic serving, and appropriate redirect mapping when managing global properties. This is just as critical following Hummingbird as it was prior to its release. Redirects must accurately point users to appropriate page display based on screen size and location. Load speed is also critical in order to code lean redirects when we provide desktop and mobile versions of our global properties.
While Hummingbird may have shifted our approach to a semantic search optimization strategy, the change has not reduced the demand for effective technical SEO. Today’s website analytics tools provide Web developers with the ability to construct global properties with agility and target geo-centric audiences using the most technically acceptable means. Some of my other favorites include:
- Google Webmaster Tools
- Bing Webmaster Tools
- GTMetrix (for Google Page Speed and Yahoo YSlow analysis in one location)
- BrightEdge (and worth looking at enterprise SEO dashboards from Conductor, SearchMetrics, Covario, and SEOClarity)
- Screaming Frog
- Advanced Web Ranking
- Xenu LinkSleuth
- Excel Plugin from Niels Bolsma
- FireFox Plugin
- Open Site Explorer
I’ll discuss these tools in more detail in a future blog. For those who have suffered SERP drop-off following Hummingbird or had to suffer the growing pains required to move from keyword-centric to audience-focused, I encourage you to focus on the fundamentals of SEO that have been around for years. Have you discovered successful tactics that have improved your page authority in the Hummingbird era? Let me know how you’ve thrived through the Hummingbird and Keyword Not Provided updates.
There is of course a lot of discussion about content and what does and doesn't work online. Is long-form the key? Does short-form content have a role to play? Are there other factors at play?
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