Sometimes it's the little things that make a big difference. That's especially true when you're trying to rank your site in the search engines. If you're doing everything you can think of to win a place in organic search, and it's not working, maybe the problem is in you website's code.
Glen Gabe covered this issue in some detail for Search Engine Journal. He discussed two different cases in which one simple line of code killed a website's possibility of earning a ranking. These issues had nothing to do with so-called “black hat” SEO techniques. In both cases, the single line of code prevented the site from being indexed properly. “If your site can't be crawled or indexed properly, you're essentially dead in the water,” Gabe noted. “You can build links until the cows come home and it won't make a difference SEO-wise.”
Gabe's company performs technical audits on websites for SEO purposes. He shared case histories for two of those audits. In one, while reviewing the core domains for a company, he interviewed a non-technical person at the firm about the client's blog. The interviewee noted that the blog's content was performing poorly in organic search results; in fact, he couldn't find any examples of blog posts ranking at all.
A code-savvy person at this point would suspect a stray “noindex” tag. In fact, when Gabe pulled up the blog's source code and searched for “noindex,” he found “a meta robots tag using noindex and nofollow on every page of the blog.” For those who are not website developers, this means that the blog was telling all of the search engines that stopped by to refrain from indexing the content on any of its pages, and to not follow links on any of the pages. Basically, it was as if the blog had set out a big fat “IGNORE ME” sign for all of the search engines!
Gabe told the development team, who quickly removed the tag. Within just a few days, Google and Bing started indexing the blog's content. Some time later, the blog began strongly driving quality traffic to the site, thanks to good rankings across several hundred blog posts. Here's the scary point though: if the company hadn't performed the audit, they probably would have continued to assume that blogging didn't work. As Gabe emphasized, “one line of code was killing their chances of strong rankings, traffic, and conversions.”
Gabe's second case study dealt with the link rel=”canonical” tag. You've probably heard that it can be used to prevent duplicate content issues, and that you need to decide whether the www or non-www version of your website is the “official” one to prevent duplicate content issues. With an e-commerce website, these issues become even more complicated.
Apparently, there are a lot of ways to use this tag incorrectly. Gabe explained how such a tag should be used first. Imagine that you're selling a product that comes in four different colors. Your site is set up so that your prospective customer can see the product in each color. The problem is, each time they change the color, the URL changes. But the rest of the content is the same. This is exactly where you should use a canonical tag to tell the search engines that only one product page (the main one) “counts” for purposes of SEO, and point the other ones to it.
That's not what Gabe's customer was doing. They were using the canonical tag, but they were pointing all 1000+ pages of their site to just one page. “Think about it, how could 1000+ pages of unique content be the non-canonical versions of one other page? They couldn't, and this implementation was seriously confusing the search engines,” Gabe observed.
How could this happen? It's not that difficult. The canonical tag looks like this: <link rel=”canonical” href=”http://www.domain.com/canonical-url.html” />. Gabe's client's canonical tags were all set up so the href pointed to the same URL. Worse, that URL was actually broken. It didn't include a product ID. This meant that the site couldn't figure out which product to display, so it threw a 500 error (application error). Thanks to the way the canonical tag was set up, EVERY SINGLE PAGE on that website threw that error. No wonder they weren't ranking!
While this problem was easy to find, the fix was a little more complicated. All of those 1000+ tags needed to be rewritten so that they pointed to the correct pages. Or, more specifically, “The correct use of the canonical URL tag for this web site would be to add it to each product page and reference the canonical URL for each specific product,” Gabe noted. “That would ensure each non-canonical product page directed its power back to the core product page (the canonical URL).”
So before you think about launching a major SEO campaign or buying search ads, make sure that your website isn't suffering from technical errors in its code that prevent it from being crawled, indexed, or ranked properly. Otherwise, your hard work will fail to pay off. Good luck!
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