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Is your web site confusing the search engines?

In my line of work, I see a lot of Web sites, and sometimes I take the absolutely simple stuff for granted. I realized the error of my ways when I saw a client site that had over 500 (!) HTML errors right on the home page. Now, you might not know or care what an HTML error is. In fact, it’s even OK with me if you don’t know what HTML is. But my goal by the end of this post is to get you to care and to make sure that your site is working as expected.

For the uninitiated, Web sites are composed of several major kinds of content. The really exciting stuff are JavaScript, images, videos, Flash, and other multimedia. It’s what you notice and what your visitors notice too. But (mostly) the search engines don’t notice it at all.

What the search engines mainly notice are two things: your text and your markup. The text is easy enough–you can probably figure out why that’s important and how you create and optimize it for search. Write naturally, add a few dollops of keywords, fix up your title and description tags and you’ve done most of what’s important.

html tattoo

Image by webmove via Flickr

But the markup is the boring stuff. The markup is just a set of formatting instructions that tell the Web browser when to make something bold (or blue), when to start a new paragraph or where to place a bullet. You probably wouldn’t expect that much could go wrong there, but you would be wrong. Markup languages, such as the HTML (HyperText Markup Language) that define the formatting on a Web page, can be a bit tricky. It’s rather easy to make a mistake in your markup, unfortunately.

So what’s the big deal? Browsers actually are quite forgiving when it comes to markup errors. They likely render the pages properly regardless of whether you have mistakes. But the search engine spiders are quite a bit more finicky. Those delicate spiders can be thrown off quite easily at times when a page is coded incorrectly. Often, that doesn’t do any harm, but sometimes it causes the spider to miss big portions of your page, meaning that all the words in those areas are not indexed and can never cause your page to be found.

Admittedly, this is a rather minor item in the scheme of all things search, so if it was quite difficult to detect or to fix, I might advise you to forget it. But it’s extremely easy to detect and almost as easy to fix. A free Web site, called the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) at w3.org owns and maintains the standards for what makes HTML valid, and happily they do more than create a book full of rules for that. The W3C offers a free validation tool, called (predictably enough) the W3C Markup Validation Service that you can use to find the errors on any Web page.

So, OK, you can find the errors, but you don’t have to be the one to fix them. Just understand that you can really hurt your search results if you have a boatload of errors. A few errors are normal and nothing to worry about, but make sure your Web person takes care of validation or maybe the errors will take care of your search marketing efforts. And not in a good way.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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