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Understand the ins and outs of search engines

Let's face it - creating a website for your business is a lot easier than getting it to rank well in search results. And good rankings are what you need to get more visitors to your site.

To get your site into search results, you need to make sure that search engines can "see" your site, and that they regard it as ready for human visitors. Search engines are eager to discover and index new - and newly expanded or redesigned - websites, but there's a caveat: sometimes new web pages are ready and useful, and sometimes they're still under construction or in transition. Web pages that aren't quite done yet wouldn't be helpful to people who find them in search results, so search engines try to avoid including them.
Below you'll find a list of mistakes that can indicate to search engines that your site isn't ready (even if YOU think it is!), and that are, unfortunately, easy to make. We'll show you how to avoid or fix these problems so you don't hurt your rankings in search results.

1. Slow load time for your web pages

Matt Cutts, head of the webspam team at Google, announced in 2010 that page load time - also called site speed - was now one of the factors affecting a site's ranking in Google's search results.
Luckily there's a great Firefox plug-in called YSlow that can help you identify and fix problems with your page load times. For more tools and ways to improve your site's page load time, read 6 Easy Ways to Improve Your Site Speed.

2. Sitemap problems

"We have a quality threshold on our sitemaps. When you build a site map for us, we want it to be clean. When you put a URL into our site map, what I don't want to see in there is any URL that's a 404, 302, 301, anything at all. I want the end state URL only."

—March 2011 interview with Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz and Duane Forrestor from Bing

It's very common for webmasters to create a sitemap, submit it, and then forget about it. Months later, pages have been renamed, deleted, new pages have been added - and your sitemap no longer accurately reflects what's on your website.
Don't include in your sitemap:
  • Any pages that return a 404 error
  • A page that immediately redirects to another page via a 301 redirect
  • Pages that search engines can find when they crawl your site, but that aren't included in your sitemap
If a search engine sees many pages with the characteristics listed above, it makes your sitemap appear to be out of date, and perhaps not trustworthy. Use a tool like Xenu Link Sleuth to crawl your site and generate your XML sitemap file for you.

3. Broken links on your site

Use Xenu Link Sleuth to crawl your website the same way search engine robots do. It will report any broken internal links - that is, links between pages of your site that don't work. Broken links tell search engines your site isn't well maintained, and isn't of good quality. Furthermore, search engines discover web pages by following links from other web pages. If search engine robots find too many broken links on your site, they'll just stop crawling it and go somewhere else.
Remember, you might not even see some of the 404 errors on your website. For example, a missing image file will generate a 404 error, and you may not even realize it. Xenu will catch these errors for you, so you can do something about them.

4. Broken pages that return a 500 error

It's the website equivalent to a Windows application crashing, and it's definitely a bad experience for a human visitor. A 500 error also sends a negative signal to the search engines.

5. Not canonicalizing your subdomains

Make sure that your website can be reached whether or not people type "www." before your domain name. I've seen a number of sites that return nothing at all for the non-www version. People should get the exact same website whether they type www or not. Additionally, you should choose which is your preferred version - called the canonical URL for your site - and use a 301 redirect from the non-canonical to the canonical version. For more information, read Multiple Subdomains: Classic SEO Mistake.

6. The anti-social website

With the sharp increase in social network activity, search engines now look to links and mentions in social networks to help them decide which web pages are important to people. Social signals are now an important part of search engines' ranking algorithms. This means you really need to make sure people share your site on Facebook and tweet about it in Twitter. If no one at all is mentioning your site in either of those places, you're not getting the visibility boost that others - perhaps your competitors - are getting.

7. The site coma

Has anything changed on your website over the past three months? Six months? The past year? The search engines are well aware of whether you've got new pages or updated content - or not. Just watch what happens to your crawl frequency in Google Webmaster Tools if you don't stir things up now and then!
A simple solution to this problem - and to No. 6 as well - is to add a blog to your site, and then publish snippets from your blog on your company Facebook page. You can use the Facebook app RSS Graffiti to automatically publish blog snippets.
Think it might be too hard to generate fresh blog content on a regular basis? Think again. It's not necessary for YOU to have news, new products, or new services to talk about. You can just blog about industry news items you discover, writing a couple of sentences of synopsis and linking out to articles that cover the news in more depth. Not only will you be generating new content, you'll probably make some new friends around the Web who will appreciate your links. They may even take the time to find something interesting on your site and link to it.

8. Not paying attention

You can find great webmaster tools at both Google and Bing that will help you understand what these search engines "see" in your website, and how to improve your site and its ranking in search results. I've solved many problems for clients and gotten them back in the search results very quickly simply by resubmitting their sitemaps via Google Webmaster Tools and Bing Bing Webmaster Tools after fixing their site problems.

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