Apr 5, 2012

Google Hate Me

Running your own website and trying to get it to rank well in search results can be a frustrating experience. Even though you put a lot of time and effort into your site, and you think you’re following all the rules, you still feel like you’re walking around in a t-shirt silk-screened with “Google Hate Me” in 8-inch letters.

Google, like most other search engines, isn’t out to get you. But search engines are pretty picky about the quality of their search results. Some sites don’t rank well simply because of poor SEO practices. Other sites, however, may do a lot “right” with SEO and still not rank well because they also feature very big “wrongs” in other areas.

Some very common errors can carry strong negative effects on how search engines view your website. Your site may get “marked down” for content that is — unknown to you — violating search engine guidelines on website quality. If not that, then failing to pay attention to the guideline details can still cause problems by generating confused search results. Here are few examples of “accidental” guideline red flags that commonly cause Google Grief for many websites:

Duplicate Content

Surely by now everybody has sense enough to know that websites can be dinged, dented and blacklisted by search engines if they duplicate or “borrow” content from another website. But there are some fairly common practices — which aren’t necessarily perceived as “black hat” techniques — that can cause you a lot of Google Grief. Google tries to sort out lazy mistakes from the intentionally deceptive, but can’t always tell the difference.

Do all of the pages on your website have the same long block of text, maybe a long copyright notice or legal disclaimer, stuck somewhere down at the bottom? Google hate you. Have you recently restructured or redesigned your website and neglected to use redirects to steer visitors away from old or dead pages? Google hate you. Does your site feature a number of pages about products or services that are nearly identical, except perhaps for a single detail like size or cost? Google hate you.

In many cases, “mild” problems with duplicate content — easy-to-make mistakes like those listed — may not cause direct problems with search rankings as much as they cause confusion. If Google finds multiple pages from your website’s domain that have essentially the same content, the page it decides to display in search results may not be the page you want potential visitors to see.

Paid Links

For years, lots of very reputable web wizards have recommended paid advertising — with direct links from those paid ads to your website — as a way of building Page Rank in Google. So it might come as a surprise to some folks that Google’s Webmaster Guidelines frown on the practice.

Making money from ads that link to the advertiser’s website has been a mainstay of the online economy since the earliest days of the web. That’s not the issue. The problem isn’t advertising links; it’s advertising links that not only pass visitors to the advertiser’s website, but also pass along page rank. Many websites that provide ad links already use coding techniques to block passing page rank. If you’re advertising on a site that links directly to your website, passing along page rank in the process, then you may have a problem. Google hate you.

Hidden Content

Many of the old-school black-hat techniques for hiding keyword text and concealing links are so dumbly famous that any web designer can recite them by heart: white text on a white background, font sizes set to “0”, links from hidden text, links placed on a single small character. All of those can cause instant Google Grief for your website.

But there are a number of common errors — omissions, more precisely — that Google also considers “hidden content.” They may not turn your website into instant search wreckage, but they can have a negative impact on your rankings simply because they’re missed opportunities to provide more information and quality content.

Search engines still haven’t learned to read photos and other images. Do all of the photos on your website fill up the “alt” attribute with descriptive image information? If not, Google hate you. If you display content in a Javascript, is the same content repeated in a “no script” tag? No? Google hate you.

There are a lot of details to keep up with in order to avoid all of the possible Google Grief out there. Google tries to make it easier with Webmaster Tools, but you still need to read their guidelines carefully to identify all of the potholes.

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