In many ways, SEO consultants are like doctors, only instead of analyzing your personal health symptoms, we analyze the overall health of your website. It’s true we’re not working with life or death situations the same way doctors do, but having a website that is not receiving all the targeted search engine traffic it could be is a sign of a sick website.
When working with a new client our first task is to research their website’s symptoms of underperformance. Once we diagnose what the problems are, we can provide a “cure” that will make the website perform better. As with human health, there are varying degrees of website unhealthiness; for people, it might range from those that just need to get more exercise to those who have an all out deadly disease. For websites, it can vary from those that can’t even get their pages indexed by search engines (and thus are not able to receive any organic search visitors), to those who are receiving lots of organic traffic, but could be obtaining more.
In all cases, a sick website is leaving money on the table.
There are a number of factors that need to be carefully reviewed in order to diagnose exactly where and how you’re leaving money on the table. At High Rankings we’ve developed our own comprehensive technical SEO checklist which came out of many years of auditing 100′s of websites.
One of the first diagnostic tests in our checklist is to see how Google views your home page (or any page of your site) by taking a peek at how it looks in Google’s “text cache.”
Reviewing the x-ray
The text cache is different than the “full cache” that you normally see, as it strips out all graphics and anything else that Google doesn’t actually read or index. Google’s full cache is similar to a photo of your website, while the text cache is more akin to an x-ray.
You can go directly to the text cache of any page by copying this URL into your browser (substituting your domain for example.com): http://www.google.com/search?q=cache:http://www.example.com/&hl=en&lr=&strip =1
Just as when you see how the inner workings of your body look on an x-ray, what you see in the text cache may surprise you—it’s not going to be pretty. But, like an x-ray, reviewing the text cache can often reveal trouble buried deep in your website’s programming that you didn’t know existed.
Here are some warning signs of poor website health that you may spot when looking at your page through Google’s text cache:
- Some of the page content (the words) is missing, you see a completely blank page, or there’s just some text that says you have to download an application or enable something in order to view the page.
- Links that normally exist in your main navigation are nowhere to be seen.
- There’s a list of unlinked words that are normally contained in a dropdown menu.
- You see a bunch of keyword-stuffed paragraphs that you’ve never seen when viewing the page normally.
Let’s look further at each of these warning signs (symptoms), make a diagnosis as to what’s happening, and then provide a cure.
The Symptom: Missing page content
The diagnosis: Missing page content happens when the text on the page is in a form that Google can’t index. If your home page shows up as a completely blank page, chances are that it’s actually one giant graphic (or a series of multiple graphics), or the page is completely embedded in Flash. If it’s just missing portions of text, the missing text is probably not coded in HTML, but is instead a graphical image of text. Since the search engines have to be able to read and index information from your page to understand how to classify it (and ultimately how to rank it), the words on your page need to be coded as plain-old-fashioned HTML text.
The cure: Convert any words on the page that are embedded in graphics into HTML text. Redesign Flash websites so that only images are coded in Flash, not the important information that you want your users and the search engines to read. There are a few alternative workarounds for these things, but they are more like band-aids than a true cure.
The Symptom: Missing navigational links
The Symptom: List of unlinked words
The diagnosis: When you see this, you are most likely looking at the contents of a drop-down navigational menu. Google indexes the text of those menus, but it doesn’t see them as links, and therefore can’t get to or index the URLs of the pages contained within them. If the only way to find the resulting pages is through the drop-down, it’s unlikely they will get indexed.
The cure: If the pages that are reached through your drop-down menu are ones that you want indexed by Google, then either change your drop-down into a more search engine friendly navigation system, or add some alternative navigation that contains links to the URLs in your drop-down. It’s important to note that while you could put these types of links into a site map to help them get indexed, this is also a bit of a band-aid approach as they won’t be given very much weight in the eyes of the search engines if the site map is the only place from which they are linked.
The Symptom: Keyword stuffed paragraphs that aren’t normally visible
The diagnosis: Somebody who has control of your site has been messing with it to try to trick the search engines! Amazingly enough, people (and some dumb SEO companies) still use hidden text as an SEO technique. It’s pretty silly, and in all likelihood if the page is ranking well, it’s probably doing so despite the hidden text, not because of it. Think of this like smoking cigarettes; it might not hurt you in the short term, but it’s definitely not good for your long-term health. Competitors have been known to squeal to Google about hidden text, and a quick review by a search engineer could kill the website for good.
The cure: Find the offending hidden code in the website and remove it as soon as possible. If someone you hired to optimize your site recommended this tactic, you may want to find a new SEO company immediately!
Using Google’s text cache is just one of the tools we use to diagnose the overall health of your website. There are many additional potential problem areas that you’ll need to look into as well, which I’ll write about in future articles.
Jill Whalen, CEO and founder of High Rankings, a search marketing firm outside of Boston, and co-founder of SEMNE, a New England search marketing networking organization, has been performing SEO since 1995. Jill is the host of the High Rankings Advisor search engine marketing newsletter. The 100% Organic column appears Thursdays at Search Engine Land.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.