Are You Keeping Secrets From The Search Engines?

Many webmasters are obfuscating the content of their sites’ pages from view of the search engines. They post content that appears differently for human readers than it does for search engine crawlers. And as a result, their sites receive inferior treatment from those search engines in the indexes.

No, I’m not talking about page spam (that’s a topic for future discussion). I am talking about non-text-based content. So many websites invest in pretty web design with little-to-no thought on whether or not the search engine crawlers can access and interpret the meaning of that pretty content. This is really about down-level strategies, aka graceful degradation, for search.

If your site is super-basic, lots of text, with otherwise no images, videos, JavaScript, or rich Internet application (RIA) technology such as Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight, the search crawlers will love it. Mind you, I’m not saying it’ll give it preference in the indexes. (Your site still needs great content and authoritative backlinks, among other things, for that.)

If anything, today’s search engines are looking at things like quality page design and presentation as best they technically can for inherent end user value. But text-based sites have one great trick up their sleeves: the search crawlers can easily access and interpret all of the content they offer.

If the crawlers find great content throughout the site, along with relevant keywords used in body text and reflected in key HTML tags, such as <title> and <h1>, establishing relevance for the content their pages contain is straightforward.

But what about the pretty pages, the ones filled with either binary content files that are hard, if not impossible, for search crawlers to reliably consume or those that have content buried in <script> tags?

Those elements in isolation, because they are hard for crawlers to read, often mean the content they contain won’t be considered when the page’s contents are assessed for keyword relevance. The value of the content contained there is functionally lost – at least to the search engines.

We humans can see it just fine, of course, but when we search the Web, we’re not asking Matt Cutts for a manually curated list of relevant links to our queries. We need the massive, automated resources of Google and Bing for that. Luckily, with some planning, a little effort, and a dose of “Ah, now I get it!”, we can go much farther in making our pretty sites more functional in search.

Why Web Designers Keep SEOs In Business

A few years ago, I was asked by a local business owner why Google had suddenly dropped his property management company’s website from its index. When I looked at the site, I immediately noted it had been redesigned (I was familiar with the business).

The new site design was heavily graphic-oriented, with odd navigation menus that displayed submenus when the mouse hovered over them, and all of the text content within every “page” was limited to displaying in a relatively small text area box within the page’s presentation structure (requiring lots of scrolling!).

It was certainly poor Web design from an end user perspective, but I suspected it was even worse from an SEO perspective. I guessed that the site’s redesign put all of the site’s text content within JavaScript calls and image files.

A look at the home page source code revealed it to be a coder’s dream – and an SEO’s nightmare. Viewing the page from the crawler’s perspective (I like the SEO Browser tool for this) nailed the issue down pat. All of the “content” on the site’s pages was buried in inaccessible technologies. Both Google and Bing had, as a result, purged almost all of the site’s pages from their indexes (all but the home page and a few old PDFs).

The site’s pages were purged from search because there was no crawlable content on them to index for query relevance. They were functionally blank! Heck, even the metadata was either generic or blank! This site’s redesign really gave it no chance to succeed. To this day, the site still remains in its self-inflicted banishment from search, despite claimed search engine improvements in crawling these technologies.

When I asked the business owner about the redesign, he admitted he went on the cheap and let a “friend” who was a graphics designer (and a hobbyist web designer) do the work. That cost savings earned him a disastrous site purge from the search engines. His site was not penalized for any wrong-doing – unless the wrong-doing was keeping his content secret from search.

Reveal Your Secrets

There’s nothing wrong with using images, multimedia, and even RIA content on your website. If implemented thoughtfully and in judicious moderation, it can really enhance a page’s value for both end users and in search. But you must be smart about it or you might setup your own self-inflicted banishment from search. It’s all a matter of thinking in terms of text.

Since search engines love text, give it to them! As it turns out, binary graphics presented with the <img> tag can take advantage of the tag’s alt attribute text. Alt text has significant SEO value, as it’s supposed to be used to define the content of the image in text form. That’s good for search.

I always prefer that important text meant to be crawled be put on a page as text, but as Web designers often dictate, it can be presented in images as well. Are you among the guilty site owners who put the only reference to your company’s name on your website within a graphical logo? I’ve seen it done.

Worse yet, is the only reference to your business’ local street address and telephone number also in a graphic? That’s definitely not helpful for getting a good placement in local search. The text locked up in these images is just not going to be “read” by the search crawlers as text. But, by adding that information as alt text, you can help mitigate that problem (just know I’ll still advise that you put it somewhere in body text).

Of Wine Bottles & ALT Text

Alt text is a great help, but often the advantage it provides for developing keyword relevance is under-utilized. After all, not all alt text is the same.

two wine bottles alt tag exampleImagine a photo of two tall green bottles. Oenophiles might recognize the straight-sided, high-shoulders of a standard Cabernet Sauvignon bottle and the sloping shoulders of a typical Pinot Noir bottle.

So what should the alt text be for this image? Did I hear you say, “wine bottles”? Perhaps, but perhaps not. The answer depends on the theme of the page on which the image is presented.

If the page is about different types of bottles, sure, “wine bottles” it is.

But what if the page was about the latest releases from a famous, high-end French winery? What if the page were dedicated to the high art of collecting wine bottle labels? What if the page was about recycling green glass? Is “wine bottles” the optimal alt text for the image in any of these other cases? I’d argue not.

The bottom line here is that alt text is most powerful when it works within the context of the page rather than a mere name of the object shown. An image on the page is most often an augmentation of the page’s theme, so describe the image in keyword relevant to the page theme for best SEO effect.

Remember, the words used in alt text are weighted in terms of SEO value by their placement in the tag (similar to <title> tag text). To really optimize your alt text, write the text string so that your most potent keywords are at the start, and leave any copyright notices for the end.

Clickable Maps

So what about websites that are heavy in animations or other RIA media – what can you do to optimize them? This is tougher, as there is no single tag attribute to use to define in text what’s shown in the media content. But the overall concept is still the same.

You need to provide underlying, secondary text to complement the primary rich media (aka graceful degradation). After all, not all computers have Flash or Silverlight browser add-ins installed or allow JavaScript to run (heck, in the case of search bots, they can’t be relied upon to fully support parsing those technologies).

As a result, it’s still not a great idea to make a full-page presentation solely in RIA media. I like using RIA media as one of many elements on the page, and leave all relevant text content out of the presentation and in text form for search bots to crawl. But not everyone wants to work that way. OK, so if your Store Locator page really must consist of a large, interactive national map, you do have some strategies you can employ to help the page have value in search.

A great example on how to employ graceful degradation well is on the home page of http://silverlight-tour.com/. Using Firefox with the Silverlight plugin activated, you see a US national map showing the locales of their available training classes. With the plugin disabled (or if Silverlight was never installed in the first place), you instead get a text-based table listing all of the upcoming classes. That table is always in the page’s source code, but is secondary content to the primary Silverlight map. The search bots can crawl the data in the table to access the key information on the page, so all is good for search.

For a deeper explanation on three possible methods for implementing a similar graceful degradation plan for your RIA pages, check out the post from the Bing Webmaster Center blog titled Illuminating the path to SEO for Silverlight. I won’t lie to you. This work is not for WYSIWYG web page editors. Ask your dev team to handle this task (if you have RIA content on your site, you have dev resources. It’s not sexy work, but you still need to convince them that this extra work is important for the ultimate success of your page. Money is usually persuasive in these cases).

No More Secrets

It’s time to stop keeping secrets from the search engines, especially when revealing those secrets can have a substantial benefit to the keyword relevance (and thus the page rank) of your webpages. Put it down in writing (text), and feel the rush of success!

Image used under license from Shutterstock.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO

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About The Author: is an in-house SEO at MSN.com, and was previously part of Microsoft’s Live Search and Bing Webmaster Center teams, serving as the primary contributor to the Bing Webmaster Center blog and then later as an in-house SEO for the Bing content properties. He also randomly adds to his own blog, The SEO Ace.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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