Google London Site Clinic

« Previous / Next »Filed under geekiness, at an ungodly early hour, Wednesday, 6th April 2011.

Last night I was lucky enough to attend Google's first London Site Clinic at TechHub. This, as the name suggests, was a free-of-charge chance for webmasters to hear from the horse's mouth the do's and don'ts of increasing your website's visibility in Google Search.

After a brief run through of basic SEO, e.g. the importance of good anchor text, <title> and description meta tags, human-readable image filenames and use of the alt tag, etc., we were given an overview and brief tour of Google Webmaster Tools. While informative, much of this was quite basic and seemed aimed a little below the average attendee; indeed I don't think those running the show were quite expecting everyone to raise their hand when asked the question, "who here uses our Webmaster Tools?".

By far the most interesting part of the evening was the Google Search Quality team's appraisals of sites owned by members of the audience. It was eye-opening to see how many easily avoidable mistakes were being made by relatively established sites. It was a little disappointing that so few of these webmasters failed to show up as some excellent questions could have come out of this - come on guys, it was free!

The key points that I took away from Google's Search Quality team were:

  1. Use web-sniffer.net, the LiveHTTPHeaders Firefox plugin or a similar tool to see what exactly is being returned from the server.
  2. Don't serve the same content from the non-www and www versions of your site.
  3. Do redirect the non-www version of your site to the www version (or vice-versa) of yor site using a 301 permanent redirect.
  4. Do redirect users to the equivalent page, eg. yourdomain.com/example should redirect to www.yourdomain.com/example, not just www.yourdomain.com
  5. Deliver the correct HTTP response: 404 pages should be displayed with a 404 response code, not a 200 (aka. a "soft 404").
  6. Keep the organisation and structure of your site as logical and as straightforward as it can be.
  7. Structure your content with appropriate use of headlines, using the range of <h1> to <h6>. A handy tip here was to Google Search for cache:yourdomain.com, then click the text-only version link in the top-right corner see non-styled page layout. Bang go my days of loading up Lynx to achieve the same result.
  8. Make full use of <title> and description meta tags on every page. This was the broken record point of the evening; the panel couldn't stress it enough. Do not duplicate these across pages on your site.
  9. The keywords meta tag is dead.
  10. Use canonical links to distinguish the original article in situations where content is duplicated.
  11. Use a robots.txt file.
  12. Use an XML Sitemap.
  13. Be aware of page load speeds, i.e. including numerous external .js and .css files is going to slow down browser rendering times and therefore the user's experience.
  14. Ultimately, make full use of Google Webmaster Tools, be part of their community and read their blog.

As pretty much everything covered during the evening is freely available in Google's SEO Starter Guide PDF, many of the Tweeters present found the content way too simple and were disappointed they weren't being given any SEO golden nuggets. While I too may have been frustrated if I were a hardcore SEO professional, I feel the point the team were trying to make was that these are simple tasks anyone can get right and site owners should concentrate on getting all these basics down before even thinking about delving into the "nitty gritty" details.

Yes, perhaps Google could have set greater expectation before the talk in terms of difficulty level or target audience, but the number of basic, "schoolboy errors" made by the critqued sites (plus this one you are reading now) suggest that perhaps all these advanced SEO tricks and tips are a complete waste of time and money if we don't get the foundations right first.

Most encouragingly from my point of view as someone so passionate about User Interface and User Experinece, the overall message was that if you look after your user, Google will look after you.

p.s. If the guy from Epilepsy Action wants any advice about fixing that hotlinking problem, do feel free to ask.

Hi Jon,

Nice write-up - covering slightly more ground than mine, but it looks like we had pretty much the same feelings about the level it was pitched at. I was expecting it to be pretty low-level stuff judging by the blurb on their website, but the clinic part of it was good.

Yours aye,
Chris

P.S. I like the way your about page includes information that is struck through. Satisfies the genetic literary critic in me.

Christopher Whalen wrote on 6th April 2011

I am interested in their rationale for (2) there. As I server the same content (well...sort of, I redirect so it doesn't matter if you put in www or not).

Wouldn't it be more confusing for users if they typed in www and saw one site, and left it off and saw another?

Stray Taoist wrote on 6th April 2011

Stray, Google doesn't always catch that the non-www and the www versions of the site are the same, so often by not choosing one of these and redirecting all traffic there you could have duplicate content issues.

I use an entry in my .htaccess file at the site root to resolve this, here's the code... hopefully this helps:

<IfModule mod_rewrite.c>
RewriteEngine on

# If your site can be accessed both with and without the 'www.' prefix, you
# can use one of the following settings to redirect users to your preferred
# URL, either WITH or WITHOUT the 'www.' prefix. Choose ONLY one option:
#
# To redirect all users to access the site WITH the 'www.' prefix,
# (http://example.com/... will be redirected to http://www.example.com/...)
# adapt and uncomment the following:
RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} ^yourdomain\.com$ [NC]
RewriteRule ^(.*)$ http://www.yourdomain.com/$1 [L,R=301]

</IfModule>

It also ensures that it maps per-page and uses 301 redirects :)

Jon, great post, I also felt like the content of the presentation was a little basic given the audience, however if I took anything away, it was "go back and double check the foundations". Which I'll be doing today :)

Ben Davies wrote on 6th April 2011

Oops, the comment system here stripped out some of my code above, here's a link to the same code on Pastebin instead:

http://pastebin.com/AB0apWbQ

Ben Davies wrote on 6th April 2011

Thanks Ben, I'll have a check of my stuff later!

Stray Taoist wrote on 6th April 2011

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Jon Combe