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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Internal Linking Strategy: SEO Self Reflection

SEO articles abound on social media linking strategies. SEO blog posts are legion on the topic of link and widget bait. SEO forums buzz endlessly about reciprocal versus one-way linking. There is no doubt that all of those various types of external, inbound links matter. But how often do we discuss internal linking strategies?

I had a long conversation with an apprentice level SEO this week. When she was questioned about her grasp of internal linking strategy, she gave that interesting "Did-I-hear-you-correctly?" type of puzzled stare that says very plainly "Are you pulling my leg, or was that a serious comment?"

This made me reflect on the less strenuously debated SEO strategies that are crucial to ranking well for specific keyword phrases. Since internal linking is so important to SEO, but rarely discussed, I often wonder how many SEO's truly comprehend the importance of internal interlinking of pages and how critical outbound links are to ranking well in the search engines.

Let's try to remedy that and raise the level of internal linking strategy discussions to at least a whisper, because the level of discussion on the topic now is barely audible.

I'm going to step out on a limb here and suggest that internal linking matters more than reciprocal links, possibly more than social media links such as Digg and links matter and maybe even as much as (javascript and flash) widget links and in some cases, more than (wimpy) link bait (as practiced by most) matters.

How sites link to their own content internally tells the search engines more about what matters most on a site than almost any other cue (save title tags). I'm going to step further out on that limb and attempt to rank the importance of various internal links to SEO. So here's the top 6 list:

  1. Navigation TEXT Links

    No image links, No Javascript Links, NO Image Map Links - Only keyword focused embedded text links to menu items. Use CSS, Use graphic Background images and text links using keywords. It's not that hard to do.

  2. Breadcrumb Links (category - subcategory)

    This type of link can vary by type of site. Ecommerce sites would use one type of structure, while informational sites would use a different hierarchy. These high level link structures define what you think is important and point visitors (and search engine robots) to an overall structure. Your opinion of what matters to your site informs the search engines. If your site is loosely organized by randomly linking internally, you may be randomly ranked.

  3. Subject & Topic Group Links (related pages)

    This is where many lose focus and fail to map internal structure for either search engines or visitors. Newspapers and large informational sites that rank very well will always use "Related Stories" pages. There are at least a couple of good reasons for this. The first is usability and the second is topical relevance of the page.

    Many sites lose focus and use "Most Popular" links to pages unrelated to those they are on. This dilutes the relevance and topicality of the page by looking at the site as do tag clouds on broad ranging topical sites with many areas of interest.

  4. Single Item Focus Page Links

    This link probably ranks in imporance at the top of the list here, but without those elements above them, single item links lack structure that search engines crave and don't help as much as they do when that larger structure supports them.

    So now is when I point to the site we all love to hate, WikiPedia. I'll argue that this single factor, added to the supporting heirarchical structure of WikiPedia is what makes it rank so extremely well for nearly every topic you can think of.

    WikiPedia links internally to every page, every time a word or phrase with it's own page is mentioned. Every page, every time, site-wide. If any topic has a page, anywhere on WikiPedia, it links from ANY use of that word or phrase back to that page ABOUT that word or phrase. This is the magic bullet, but is only important within the overall structure.

  5. Sitemap Links

    OK, this is the internal link we all agree on and rarely question. It's accepted and necessary, again, from both a usability standpoint and relevance. The site index list of links to every page (or to subindexes of pages). Since nobody questions that sitemaps matter, I'll stop there.

  6. Outbound Links

    Now comes the controversy, the raised blood pressure, the nofollow tags and the standard "company policy" against outbound links. This is where I simply have to point at blogs. Search engines like them in many cases because they reference external sources, they quote multiple viewpoints and link out to them. In some cases bloggers are paid to link out to external sources.

    I'll baldly state my opinion here and leave it to your own experience and "company policy" to decide your own outbound linking strategy. Outbound links increase relevance of the pages they are on when they link to supporting information externally. I'll put it differently for those with the puzzled look on their faces. Outbound links increase your search engine ranking.

So now I'll hope that at least my fellow SEO's will begin discussing this, offer case studies, offer anecdotal evidence, point to random examples, try to prove me wrong - but let's TALK about internal linking and raise it's importance. Talk enough that apprentice level SEO's know that it matters how we link internally and how we link OUT. Do a little SEO self-reflection and reassess your internal linking strategy.
Mike Valentine is an SEO Specialist offering occassional commentary on Search Engine Developments through his Reality SEO Blog and developed WebSite101 Small Business Ecommerce Tutorial in 1999 to help educate the little guy to the intricacies of online business.

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Marriage of SEO & Accessibility Prevents Lawsuits, Increases Visibility

The WorldWide Web Consortium (W3C), in May 0f 1999, issued Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which outlined methods of making web content easily accessible to the visually and physically impaired. In those guidelines the W3C stated plainly,
"Provide content that, when presented to the user, conveys essentially the same function or purpose as auditory or visual content."

Well, one purpose is to communicate your site content to blind search engine spiders, which can't hear auditory content either. If only we would pay attention to the W3C, the web would be fully accessible to all and completely search engine friendly. Hindsight and attention to historical web developments might serve to make us aware that SEO and accessibility are interwoven. Yes, SEO, as we'll discuss a bit more below. But first, let's look a bit closer at the W3C guidelines on accessibility.

Those guidelines recommend that web developers
"Use features that enable activation of page elements via a variety of input devices."
The idea is to allow those using assistive devices, or those with javascript disabled to navigate a web page easily and without the need of a mouse, using alternate methods to move through and activate links on the page. When using text only readers, web-enabled cell phones and other small screen devices it's not always possible to easily access and activate web page content.

There have been a few high-profile cases which should have served as wake-up calls for accessibility to online business.
"In 1999, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) sued America Online, claiming it discriminated against the blind because its system is not accessible to them. The federation later dropped the lawsuit when AOL agreed to make its software compatible with devices designed for visually impaired users."

The above quote appeared in a 2002 CNet News story by Declan McCullough about another lawsuit against Southwest Airlines was filed and U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies only to physical spaces, such as restaurants and movie theaters, and not to the Internet."

That CNet story was written after a law suit was filed against Southwest Airlines because the web site was not accessible to visually challenged web surfers using "screen reader" technology to browse the web. The story was titled "Disabilities Act Doesn't Cover Web"

OK, now lets jump forward another year to 2003, when attention was focused on Search Engine Optimization when Brandon Olejniczak wrote an article for Alistapart (ALA) titled "Using XHTML/CSS for an Effective SEO Campaign" and discussed the value of coding to current web standards to lighten page code and remove excessive javascript from web pages, thus improving search engine friendliness of web sites.

There was still little attention paid to the connection between the two seemingly unrelated issues of accessiblity and SEO until Andy Hagans followed up with an article for ALA titled "High Accessibility Is Effective Search Engine Optimization" in 2005 which pointed out that paying attention to accessibility increases search engine rankings. He said,

"I have been a search engine optimizer for several years, but only recently have become infatuated with web accessibility. After reading for weeks and painstakingly editing my personal website to comply with most W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, I have come to a startling revelation: high accessibility overlaps heavily with effective white hat SEO."

Wait, an SEO "infatuated with accessibility" - they like each other and are now flirting! What a great couple they'd make! SEO's could approach their clients with the dual promise of improved search rankings AND keeping them out of court on accessibility issues. If a company loves that sexy search and cares little about accessibility, won't the idea of having search as a good friend make them at least accept the dull boyfriend, accessibility?

So in July of 2006, Google jumps into the web accessibility fray with "Google Accessible Search" which purports to rank web sites based on how accessible they are to visually impaired visitors. This is a very interesting development as it suggests that sites which are NOT "accessible" rank differently in this special Google Labs version of the search engine than they do in the normal search. If this were true, then Andy Hagans may be off-base in his assumption that accessibility and SEO go hand in hand. (Apparently Google participated in some accessibility studies with two university intern researchers right around this time.)

One noticable difference in "Google Accessible Search" results is that multiple pages from the same site show up in those search results, where in regular Google searches, only two pages from the same site are allowed to appear in results. Still there is little discussion among SEO's how accessibility and search might be, if not lovers, then at least VERY close and getting serious.

Now we'll jump back into the halls of justice with two new lawsuits in late 2006. One in which the National Federation for the Blind (NFB) sues Target on behalf of a blind shopper over web site accessibility, and another where blind Texas state workers sue because the Texas Workforce Commission bought human resources software that is not accessible to blind workers.

Now - in December of last year - hop over to MediaPost, where Rob Garner is ruminating in "Search Insider" about "SEO 2.0 And The Pageless Web: The RIA Search Conundrum" (RIA meaning "Rich Internet Applications") and referencing asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) and difficulties gaining search visibility using (javascript links) techniques which don't require re-loading of a page to add new content.

Hmmmm. Remember my reference in the first sentence? WorldWide Web Consortium (W3C), in May 0f 1999, issued Web Content Accessibility Guidelines in which they recommend -
"Use features that enable activation of page elements via a variety of input devices."
AJAX, once again, requires use of a mouse, active javascript and visual cues not available to visually challenged visitors. Why do developers keep going there? I know, I know, because those sexy new tools are irresistible - but remember, SEO and accessibility are VERY good friends and miss SEO dislikes web tricks that insult or ignore the boyfriend, accessibility.

Now let's hop forward to March of this year, where Rob Garner comments on the Texas lawsuit and that accessibility and search are often seen together. Now Garner is on the case (or maybe two separate cases), when he says,
"If nothing is being done for accessibility or search, mobilize your developers, designers, search specialists, and accessibility specialists to assess and determine the best solution.This will likely involve the creation of an entire second site for search engines and screen-readers. If rich applications are a part of your future, get used to the idea of maintaining two sites."

Here we go again! Let's NOT have two separate sites - CSS and XHTML can accomplish the same things as AJAX and Flash (well at least similar things), remember SEO and accessibility REALLY like each other - don't separate them, bring them together.

Hold the presses, I have a great idea! Now that SEO and Accessibility have met, flirted and they clearly like each other, I propose that we get them married so that these issues stay forever together. I know it's not the norm for third parties to make marriage proposals (except in shotgun weddings), if the two are wed, won't that be enough to convince the web engineering teams AND corporate counsel that helping visually impaired web visitors (and avoiding lawsuits from NFB) WHILE ranking well in the search engines are very good business?

Pre-nuptials could be complex and it may be tough to get everyone to wrap their head around the concept of SEO married to accessibility, but it ultimately means increased web site visitors due to higher search rankings and less money lost fighting lawsuits over accessibility issues. More money, more visitors, less time in court - sounds like a marriage made in heaven.

Remember, search engine spiders are blind and can't hear. Design your pages for them and it resolves accessibility issues. SEO and accessibility are true soul-mates and should never be separated. The W3C neglected to introduce SEO to accessibility in 1999, but they did see the accessibility issues. Now that we realize search engine spiders demand accessibility and are responsible for increased search engine visibility (pun intended, sorry) let's not separate the two again. Profitability is related to accessibility, which is now married to SEO.

Mike Valentine is an SEO Specialist offering occassional commentary on Search Engine Developments through his Reality SEO Blog and developed WebSite101 Small Business Ecommerce Tutorial in 1999 to help educate the little guy to the intricacies of online business.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

Google Maps - Send to BMW

No doubt all manufacturers will jump on this option and integrate into their factory navigation systems as soon as it is possible. Anyone who has used a GPS system will attest to the value here. Ever tried to enter an address on the touchscreen in the time it takes a red light to cycle to green? Amazing stuff Google, thanks for showing others what is possible BMW - I trust you'll port this to Mini-Coopers fairly rapidly?