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Saturday, August 02, 2008

Tag Clouds & SEO - Tagging Engineers & Developers

Saw this great tag cloud cartoon on ReadWriteWeb (RWW) today and it prompted this blog post. I've got a mini-rant on this topic due to my constant advocacy for tag clouds and resistance from everyone I recommend them to.

Why? OK, it's because it requires a custom build, I admit that. But I truly believe the reason tag clouds have hung in the margins (literally) is because everyone wants an "off-the-shelf" solution to tag clouds. I just haven't found one already built that both works for SEO and makes sense to users.I see a huge SEO value in them if implemented in a completely different way than everyone seems to be doing it.

That cartoon above seems to be suggesting tag clouds have died. I really don't care if they have or not - because they've never been done right for SEO purposes. I argue for tag clouds on a relevance model - not popularity models as they are most frequently used.


Let me back up a little for the uninitiated, and we'll go through the basic concepts here. The intent as designed in the popularity model seems to have been to display the most frequently used keywords that people apply as tags on a given site or blog or photo-sharing site. The more popular or frequent a word or phrase is on that site or for a particular photograph or article, the larger the font those keyword phrases are displayed in within the cloud. Larger words mean they are more popular and are more often used as tags on the site.

While the above is a fun graphical representation, it's not what "real" tag clouds look like, so to be thorough, here is an example from Wikipedia page on tag clouds.

Image:Web 2.0 - Wikipedia, tag clouds

Those individual tags are then linked to a page bearing a list of articles or photos tagged with the word or phrase you click on. While this blog is not using tag "clouds", it is using tags. If you click on the "yahoo" tag, you'll end up on a page which includes all posts I've tagged with "Yahoo" from among my blog posts. (Go on Try It!).

Most off-the-shelf tag clouds are done in javascript or AJAX or flash - all bad for SEO purposes.

Most custom build tag cloud solutions fail to use the tag microformat which would be favored by search engines and instead - they simply link the tags to an internal search function which does a site-level search for the word linked in the cloud. This is horrible for search relevance, user experience (due to poor results), and for SEO.

I want tag clouds that group only topically relevant words. This requires a different mind-set than most apply to tagging. I want all RELATED words and phrases in a cloud, then I want each word or phrase hyperlinked the way the tags used on this blog are linked - by going to a page which includes all articles tagged with that particular phrase.

I don't care about popularity in this model - I want relevance in my tag clouds. I'm convinced that a) search engines would love this model, b) users would love this model and therefore c) clients who take this advice someday will love the relevance model of tag clouds because of a) and b) bringing search referral traffic that loves the utility of those tag clouds which deliver them to EXACTLY what they are searching for - in plain HTML - not in javascript, flash or AJAX.

The pages grouping tagged articles listed could take excerpts of the articles to avoid duplicate content penalties. The headlines from articles could be linked to the full page versions.

If anyone knows of a script or utility which could generate effective, relevancy model tag clouds in a plug-n-play way that I can hand to clients - I'd be happy to become a reseller - since I'm not a developer. Sometimes I wish I had the skills to do SEO engineering, but oh well - I'm an idea guy who does SEO strategy.

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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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