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Free Web Design Tools From The Big Three: SEO Friendly Or Not?
Today’s article is a follow-up on our earlier review in which I looked at the capabilities and usability of the big three search engines’ free site creation tools. The focus was on how easy each software product was for a non-technical person to master. The three tools reviewed were Google’s Page Creator, Microsoft’s Office Live Basics, and Yahoo’s SiteBuilder.
The original article, Free Web Design Tools From the Big Three: Trash or Treasure? spawned a flurry of questions related to the “SEO friendliness” of the products. Many small businesses don’t have coders on staff but still want to take advantage of basic optimization best practices, so certain elements needed to be in place in order for site owners to control their optimization processes.
Search engines consider over a hundred different criteria in the process of classifying and ranking pages. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve selected a few of the more popular on-page factors normally addressed by search engine optimizers for us to review. We will not look at linking or other off-page factors since this is not meant to be a discussion on ranking factors, but rather a discussion of the abilities each tool offers for various ranking criteria. The items I selected for review are:
- Title Tag
- Heading Tag
- Bold/Strong Tag
- META Keywords Tag
- META Description Tag
- Alt Attribute Tag
- Filename Control
- Sitemap XML Support
Test One – Title Tag Control
Will the tool let you control the text included in the title?
Why You Should Care: The title tag is considered the most important on-page factor by most optimizers. SEOMOZ recently compiled input from a number of top optimizers and keyword use in the title tag was given the single highest score for importance. The title of a page is the text enclosed inside the <title> tag in the HEAD section of an HTML document. A compelling title can improve the click through rate on results pages. Being able to control the title of a page was considered critical.
Results: Good news! All three tools allow control over the title of the page. One caveat, however: Google automatically prepends the site name to the title and repeats the title at the top of the body of the page.
Test Two – Heading Tag Control
Will the tool let you specify text in a heading tag?
Why You Should Care: HTML heading tags (H1 through H6) are used to help define a page’s organizational structure and to add emphases to section headers. Proper use of an H tag can also make your page more scan-friendly to a human. Most SEOs feel text placed in an H tag is given extra weight by engines so a common SEO practice is to include some H tags on each page.
Results: Windows Office Live and Google’s Page Creator had the heading tags built in as part of their standard format options. In Office Live, the top part of the page rendered text in heading tags. I was able to add H tags in other parts of the page through the use of their HTML option.
The Yahoo SiteBuilder did not include the heading tag as an option in their standard formatting. However, through the use of HTML I was able to hand-code heading tags into the document. Unfortunately making the heading tags render properly in a browser requires major reworking and cleaning up of messy code. Also it assumes that the webmaster’s knowledge includes defining styles to page elements to ensure they render attractively in a browser. Due to the reworking necessary to make heading tags work properly with Yahoo SiteBuilder pages, I’d only recommend trying this if you’re an intermediate or master HTML coder. Sadly, this will exclude many from using this feature.
Test Three – Bold or Strong Tag Control
Will the tool allow you to create bold or strong formatting for specified text?
Why You Should Care: Adding emphasis to certain keywords is one way to tell engines that specific text is important. While not considered a heavy-duty ranking factor, placing text in bold or strong tags can be valuable for the user by making a document easier to scan and catching the reader’s eye.
Results: All three tools allow formatting of text using the bold and strong tags so all pass this test with flying colors.
Test Four – META Keywords Tag Control
Will the tool allow you to create custom META keywords for each page?
Why You Should Care: While not considered a ranking factor due to past abuse, there are still some excellent reasons why including this tag on each page is considered good form by many in the SEO field. In a 2004 interview with Mike Grehan, then Yahoo Search Manager Jonathan Glick stated that Yahoo uses the keyword tags for matching. This is important because your page needs to first be considered relevant for terms before it can be considered for ranking.
In a 2007 Search Return article, Detlev Johnson mentions another compelling reason to use the META keyword tag with relevant keywords: META data is often used by site search applications. Many visitors use search boxes as a way to navigate sites. Returning good site-wide search results can help provide users with the information they are seeking. (Yahoo SiteBuilder tool offers a site-wide search as an add-on to its tool.) A third reason why the ability to customize META tags might be important is that the unique META data can help pages avoid duplicate content filters.
Results: The Windows Live and Yahoo SiteBuilder products both offered built in ways to enter custom META keyword tags. Being a determined coder, I was able to find a creative way to “force” the META keyword tags into a page built by Google Page Creator, but it isn’t a solution for the small business without a coder on staff.
The work-around to creating META tags is to capture the HTML code using the “View Source” option in the browser and then hand edit the code adding the META tags desired. Then save the file to your hard drive and upload the edited file back into Page Creator.
While this work-around accomplishes the mission of getting access to the sections of the page you can’t reach from within the Page Creator control panel, this method is a lot of extra work and defeats the whole purpose of using an “easy” page tool. Since Page Creator can’t modify uploaded files, all future changes to the page will require modifications to be made outside the program. You’ll then need to uploaded the new version into Page Creator. You still get free hosting for your site and you can create links to the uploaded page, but only at the cost of a lot of additional, manual work.
The biggest downside I see with using the work-around, aside from the extra time, is that it won’t work for the home page—only interior pages. This method also requires the small business to have someone versed in HTML on staff and reduces Google Page Creator to little more than an FTP client. Hopefully, Google will add some of these functionalities over time. Something that should be mentioned is that the Page Creator tool is still in its infancy, it’s a Lab Tool, unlike the other two tools that have been around a few years and have had time to mature.
Test Five – META Description Tag Control
Will the tool allow you to add custom META description tags to individual pages?
Why You Should Care: Some engines display the text contained in a META description on the search engine results page. A well-written, eye-catching description on that page can positively influence visitors to click your site’s listing. Needless-to-say, this will result in more traffic to your site while also adding value to the user because it provides a concise narrative of your page. Thus, having custom META descriptions is considered a good marketing practice and is also good for the user.
Results: Windows Office Live gives you the option to enter a custom META description directly inside the tool. (This option is located under the Page Editor. Choose Page Properties and click on the Search Engine Optimization tab at the top of the pop-up window.) Of the three tools, Windows Live was the only one that allowed editing of META description tags as an integral part of the product.
In Google Page Creator, you could use the same work-around method described for the META keyword tag. Since the work-around isn’t part of Page Creator, to utilize a custom META description requires a considerable amount of work and defeats the intended purpose of the software because all modification is outside the tool.
The Yahoo SiteBuilder tool, like the Page Creator tool, only allows HTML access to the BODY section, not the HEAD section. I tried modifying the code outside the software and then reloading it, but was given a warning that the file had been modified outside the program and that it may not work properly. It rendered fine, but when I pulled up the code, my META description had been removed. There may be a clever webmaster who has found a way to insert this tag into the code, but my suggestion would be for Yahoo to simply add it in the same place it currently allows webmasters to add keywords.
Test Six – Alt Attribute Control
Will the tool allow you to enter alternative (alt) text to images?
Why You Should Care: There are some fresh new reasons to reconsider image attributes in your list of SEO best practices. Users are searching on images with increased frequency. Some sites are finding image search a new way to drive traffic to web sites. Screen readers use the description in alt attributes to provide visually impaired users with information about the graphic. Sites wanting to pass Section 508 accessibility standards must include alt attributes with non-text elements (graphics). While not considered a heavyweight ranking factor, the alt attribute is worth inserting because it’s good for the user.
Results: Yahoo SiteBuilder made it easy. Simply right click on the image and select properties from the menu. This loads a window where you can add alt text and various other actions related to the graphic. Nice, intuitive and clean.
In Google Page Creator and Office Live, you can edit the section of HTML code containing the image and add an alt attribute to the raw code. If you know HTML it’s easy, but—once again—a simple solution is not part of the standard tool.
Test Seven – Filename Control
Why You Should Care: Creating easy to remember and descriptive file names is good for the customer. If the name happens to also contain keywords, that’s an extra benefit for the engines.
Result: All three tools provide you with direct control over the names of files. Three gold stars awarded!
Test Eight – XML Sitemap Control
Can I use my XML sitemaps file with a site created by these products?
Why You Should Care: This isn’t a ranking factor, but it’s something that small business site owners might want to participate in to gather information about their sites. One way to let engines know about your site is to create an XML file listing all the pages. You can then inform the engines of your file by submitting it directly, listing the sitemap file location in the robots.txt file or by sending an HTTP request (see Sitemaps XML Format at Sitemaps.org for specific details). Search engines normally find pages via links. The sitemap method is considered supplemental and a way for you to provide additional data about the pages such as how often the map changes, how important it is compared to other pages, etc. All the major engines support the sitemaps protocol.
Result: Google Page Creator supports file upload and accepts any file format so adding a sitemap.xml was simple. I could not find an obvious upload option in either Microsoft Office Live or Yahoo SiteBuilder.
This same deficiency means using Office Live and Yahoo SiteBuilder preclude you from participating in Google’s Webmaster Tools. This is a relatively new initiative where you can get comprehensive statistics, link and error information about pages on your site. Google requires that you verify you are the official site owner by adding a META tag with a unique value (provided by Google) or by uploading an HTML file (again with a unique name given to you by Google).
In another work-around I was able to get a site created in Yahoo SiteBuilder into Google Webmaster Tools. First I created the required HTML verification file and saved it on my hard drive. Then I went into Yahoo SiteBuilder and opened then saved the file into the same directory as my other files. SiteBuilder will save HTML files. It gave ugly warnings when I tried to view it in the browser, but it kept the name of the file intact, so it should allow you to at least verify that you are the site owner. Since you can’t save XML files in SiteBuilder, you can’t provide the XML sitemap file, but you could still get some benefit from Google Webmaster Tools on the site.
Office Live and the 302 Issue
Before closing I need to mention one concern about Office Live. I noticed that Office Live used 302 redirects for common aliases for the home page. I’ll explain by giving you an example. The following URLs are common names for the same home page:
If you enter any of the above into a browser you are redirected to the http://klutzcooking.com/default.aspx page. The problem is the other three versions of the name use a 302 redirect to take you to the final page. In fact, if you enter the www version of the URL you’ll get nested 302 redirects. The “302” refers to the HTTP status codes that are returned to your browser when you request a page. The difference between a 301 and a 302 is that a 301 status code means a page has permanently moved to a new location. A 302 status code means a page has temporarily moved to a new location.
On a real site over time inbound links develop to the different versions of the name. SEOs call this situation “link splitting.” Normally this situation is corrected by using a 301 permanent redirect, which tells the engine to send all spiders and link credits to the destination URL.
Since webmasters using the free tools can’t hop on their servers and set up redirects, their choices are limited on how to handle this situation. Google’s Webmaster Tools allow you to specify a preferred domain – either the www or the non-www version – but since Office Live users cannot verify their sites they don’t have that option. The only fix for this issue is for Microsoft to change the type of redirection from 302 to a 301.
Here’s a quick-look summary of how the tools fared during our review of ranking factors:
|Ranking Factor||Windows Office Live||Google Page Creator||Yahoo SiteBuilder|
|Heading Tag||Through HTML module||Yes in both Edit HTML option and automatically in zones||Yes|
|Bold / Strong Tag||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Meta Keywords Tag||Yes||Not through tool, but can upload file with tag embedded||Yes|
|Meta Description Tag||Yes||Not through tool, but can upload file with tag embedded||No|
|Alt attribute||Through HTML Module||Yes, through Edit HTML option||Yes|
|XML Sitemap||No||Yes, through Upload File option No to XML sitemaps.||Partially, to Google Webmaster tools by opening and saving an HTML file (can verify Google file.)|
The list in this review only contains a few of the many ranking factors considered important by optimizers. For most other factors, some knowledge of HTML is required. Since different SEOs lend different weight to the individual tests, and this list is a small subset of the larger list of factors considered, it isn’t appropriate to declare a winner or loser.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.