Pitfalls To a Successful SEO Strategy (Back To the Basics Series)

As a final installment to my “back to the basics” series, this post will discuss some of the pitfalls or obstacles you may come across when developing a SEO strategy. These may include duplicate content issues, potential problems with e-commerce sites and/or content management systems and obstacles that Flash and AJAX technologies may pose.

Duplicate Content Issues

One of the main duplicate content issues people face and most the time aren’t even aware of it is canonicalization. This is the process of picking the best URL when there are several choices, and it usually refers to home pages. For example, the following URLs can all point to the same page but are in reality, separate URLs:

  • example.com
  • www.example.com
  • example.com/index.html
  • www.example.com/index.html

When Google for example “canonicalizes” a URL, they try to pick the one that seems like the best representative from that set. However that doesn’t always work out. A web site for example could have a set of “non www” URLs and duplicates with “www” in the search indices. You now have a duplicate content problem.

And why is this an issue? It mostly relates to an old spam technique where people would have the same content strewn across multiple domains in order to try to dominate the SERPs. While search engines have done a much better job over time filtering out duplicate content, having it within your site can still pose problems. The bottom line is that search engines don’t want to present the same
content over and over to their users but rather a variety of the best content.

Therefore the best strategy is to decide whether you want your site’s pages to be displayed with a “www” or “non-www” and then set up a 301 redirect for the method you didn’t chose to the method you did. Example: try typing searchrank.com into your browser’s address bar and you will see it redirect to www.searchrank.com. This is accomplished by setting up a 301 redirect in the .htaccess file of the web server our site resides on. It looks like this:

Options +FollowSymlinks
RewriteEngine on
RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} !^www.searchrank.com
RewriteRule ^(.*)$ http://www.searchrank.com/$1 [R=301,L]

This same piece of code allows us to redirect other versions of our domain to the main domain as well.

Another reason why you might want to choose one or the other versions of your domain relates to how people link to your site. In a perfect world, everyone would link to the exact URL of your choice. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. They may link to your main domain with or without the “www.” Choosing one and redirecting the other allows all the “juice” obtained from inbound links to help your main domain.

Other duplicate content issues can arise if you have a blog. Individual blog posts can show up in multiple areas of your site including the home page of the blog, date archives and category archives. In cases where you merely have summaries of blog posts which then point to a single post in it’s entirety, duplicate content should not be so much a worry. On the other hand, if your posts are displayed in their entirety, as is the default case with most WordPress blogs, you are very likely going to have duplicate content issues.

You can remedy this by either providing summaries to blog posts rather than posts in their entirety on home pages, date and category archives or you can us the robots meta tag to direct search bots to not index a page but to follow its links, indexing those. The tag would look like this:

<META NAME=”ROBOTS” CONTENT=”NOINDEX, FOLLOW”>

Search bots may not always follow this meta tag so in my opinion, it is best to make sure that with regards to blogs, you only have one complete version of each post.

One final duplicate content issue can arise from submitting articles to article directories. If you have articles on your site and then submit them to article submission or directory sites, you now have a duplicate content issue. I have even seen the submitted article rank better than the original. Therefore, if submitting your articles to these types of sites, you may wish to only submit a summary and then link back to the original. In essence this is what is happening with social news and bookmarking sites such as Digg, Mixx, StumbleUpon and others.

Problems With E-Commerce / Content Management Systems

E-commerce and content management systems (CMS) are either custom built applications or off the shelf models. I wrote about what to look for in an SEO friendly e-commerce application in January 2007. If you are either getting ready to buy an off the shelf product or are looking to develop a custom application, I’d encourage you read that post as it goes into pretty good detail of what pitfalls to watch out for. That same advice can be applied to CMS.

Here is a summary of things to watch out for which may pose problems to a successful SEO campaign.

  • Title Tags – Does the application allow for unique title tags?
  • Meta Description Tags – Does the application allow for unique meta description tags?
  • Navigation – Is navigational structure dynamic or static?
  • Navigational Breadcrumb Trails – Are they available and if so, are they dynamic or static?
  • Site Map – How is site map formed, if there even is one?
  • URLs – Are category, product and even product detail page URLs search engine friendly?

If your e-commerce / CMS does not provide a “SEO friendly” solution for these items, your hands will be tied in what you can do to effectively optimize your site. You’ll need to either shop around for a SEO friendly application or tweak the one you have, both of which can cost additional time and money.

In a best case scenario, a good application will provide automated uniqueness across all pages that are produced with the added ability to customize if you so choose. In other words, the title tags, meta description tags, breadcrumbs, anchor text in site map links, etc. should populate dependent on the product or service page but also have fields that should you wish to customize something, the option is available.

Obstacles With Flash and AJAX

Flash and AJAX technologies can produce some really neat web applications. Flash offers awesome rich media aspects to web pages and AJAX can load neat applications on top of web pages giving them greater functionality and interactivity. The main problem with both is that their content is typically hidden from search engines.

The main issue with Flash is that it is graphical or video content. It is therefore invisible to search engines. Where this especially poses problems is when you have complete web sites wrapped up in one Flash video. While you may be able to load several pages within the Flash video, search engines do not see
those additional pages. Additionally, they cannot see the content. The web site is like a blank slate to them. It is easy to see why an all Flash site such as this would not rank well in search engines.

Take Disney.com for example. When you arrive at their home page, there is a lot of rich media that provides a great user experience. However, if you look at Google’s cache of the same page, you still see nothing but a blank page!

Now in all reality, does Disney really need to be worried about SEO? Probably not. However, there are plenty of sites that do need the benefits of SEO that set their sites up in a similar fashion. They have nice flashy intuitive sites but are invisible to search engines.

Ajax (asynchronous JavaScript and XML), is a group of inter-related web development techniques used for creating interactive web applications. In layman’s terms, it allows web pages to be much more interactive. The down side is that it is server side driven content that is often invisible to search engines.

Without going into great detail of all the possible examples of how these two technologies can pose problems to a SEO effort, the main idea is that if you are going to cater to search engines, you have to be able to present to them content they can understand. There are a variety of ways to go about doing this
including agent delivery where you deliver alternative content to search engines, hiding content using CSS, div tags and the no display option, layer rich media and AJAX on top of standard html or even provide html versions of your rich media.

Again, if you are Disney, you probably do not need to worry about this but if you are a custom home builder in Arizona and have a fancy all-Flash site, you’re going to have issues with getting organic search traffic.

David Wallace

David Wallace, co-founder and CEO of SearchRank, is a recognized expert in the industry of search and social media marketing. Since 1997, David has been involved in developing successful search engine and social media marketing campaigns for large and small businesses. Follow +David Wallace on Google + as well as Twitter.

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