06 Mar 2013

Google Problems? 3 Checks in 3 Minutes

Organic or “free” exposure for your Web site via the Search Engines historically requires fundamental attention to three Search Engine Optimization basics: getting text and digital content indexed in the search engines’ databases, being relevant to the subject you want to rank for, and having the authority to outrank other relevant content. Over the years, many friends and acquaintances have come to me to ask about search engine visibility for their sites, and of course I have also performed diagnostic reviews for potential clients. Over time, I have developed 3 quick ways to test if a site has major, minor, or just a few issues from an SEO perspective, and I feel that this is something anyone can learn.

Even if you are scared of words like “algorithm” and “Webmaster tools,” you can take these simple steps to determine if your site has potential issues hindering your exposure within search results pertinent to your industry and brand. The best part about it is that you don’t need a single tool other than a live Internet connection in order to perform these checks. Keep in mind that it will probably take you longer than 3 minutes to do this as you get used to it, but with practice this will be like quickly looking over a lunch menu before being ready to order.


Check 1: The Brand Test (45 seconds)

Does your site show up first for your brand name? Try searching Google with a variety of versions, including your single word brand: (you can click on any of these pictures to see a larger version)
Target Corporation - Google search screenshot
as well as your full company name:
Target Corporation - Google search screenshot
You will notice that in the examples above, the Target site shows up in the number one slot, and also has “Sitelinks” below it which link to different pages on the same domain, such as the top categories or location-finder pages. The first diagnostic is whether or not the site actually shows up #1. Unless you have a brand name that is the exact same as another brand name (this can happen especially in services businesses), you should show up, especially for the full company name including the “LLC” or “Inc.” If you don’t there may be an issue with your site from an indexation, and/or relevancy, and/or authority standpoint, and you should probably launch a legitimate SEO program.

The second part – whether or not there are indented Sitelinks present below the first result – is not just a good indicator that multiple “important” pages of content have been indexed, but is also a great sign that Google has begun to trust the authority of the content, especially in relation to its relevance to your brand. A couple years ago there were “Google Quality Guidelines” that were allegedly leaked from the team that Google uses to QA their algorithms as well as content that may seem suspicious, and the concept of “Vital” was introduced. In short: is your site considered by Google to be “vital” to appear for a search for your brand, that is good. If the answer is no, then you might have an issue and you should seek to remedy it.  (see what Joe thinks about Google’s quality-determining-expertise)

Also worthy of noting is that the search for “Target Corporation” has been identified by Google as different user intent, and they have minimized the Sitelinks to be “inline” instead of large. This is insight into how much Google knows about the corporate sub-domain, and that it has changed the output of the search to match the perceived user intent for more business-type content.

BONUS: If there are only 7 results on the first page of the Google results for this search, you have achieved the new “brand 7-pack” as I like to call it, which is a great indicator that Google really trusts that your brand is who you say you are. You will often find that the rest of the seven results are actually other pages that you have control over, such as your Facebook, Google +, or Twitter page. You may also find some of your sub-pages and even sub-domain pages, depending on the authority those pages have gained. **Please note this is not the classic “7-Pack” of local search results, which is a completely different subject. However, it is possible with a brand like Target which has both online and brick and mortar stores that Google will keep the “organic” results to 7 listings, and also include up to 7 “local” results based on geo-location.

Here is a small view of the “brand seven pack” (mixed with three locals) – do try this at home! Don’t despair if you haven’t achieved this status for your brand yet, but I have seen even small real estate brokers enjoy this type of brand-friendly search result.
Search result for "Target" which shows whole page, and only 7 main listings instead of 10


Check 2: The “Site Colon” aka “site:” (1 minute)

People sometimes snicker when an SEO asks if you have tried a site colon command within Google. The fact remains that this is probably the single greatest quick tool that Google has given Webmasters in order to help them understand what Google sees as important on a domain. (Keep in mind oh masters out there reading: that this type of check is meant to be way before you have access to Webmaster tools)

To do a “site:” command, simply go to Google, and start typing in the search box the following: [site:domain.com] (ignore the brackets). Substitute the “domain” for your domain, such as: site:mysite.com. ***Please note that I have not used [site:WWW.domain.com] – the reason for that is because I want to see all the pages that Google has indexed for my site, including some that may live on other “sub-domains” than WWW.
Site colon search for target.com
In the example above, we can see that a number of sub-domains appear near the top of the list, I would spend a few moments analyzing this page. First: does the root home page of the domain show up first in the results? If the answer to this question is no, you probably have a problem. Secondly, what appears in the subsequent slots? Many SEOs believe that the order of pages returned in the site colon command indicates some level of the authority of those pages. Although Google has not to my knowledge confirmed this. If you believe that there may be some order of importance involved, you obviously want some pages higher on the list. In the case of Target, a lot of authority seems to flow to newsroom.target.com sub-domain, which in my opinion is an issue, since I’d probably prefer to see some high level pages like the Men’s or Furniture pages showing up highly. Also very “popular” are the Coupons and Deals pages, which would make sense. Without making this too much of a review, there is an opportunity to improve authority to the pages such as those in the “/c/” directory, such as target.com/c/furniture/-/N-5xtnr#(additional navigation-based tracking parameters removed from here – Google ignores from the hashmark on).

This check can make for some interesting conversation with site owners, as they have to start thinking about what pages mean the most to them, and how to get them to the top of the rankings for relevant keywords.  I promise that when you do this often, you will get to this point within no more than 105 seconds… or as Mr. Myagi would say “paint the fence.”


Check 3: Full Title Search (1 minute, 15 seconds)

Now I have a little over a minute left, so I want to go check the rankings for pages on a domain by using what I would call a “gimme” search. That is, if you don’t rank in the top three for it, there is something that needs to be done to help your authority. The process here is to search for the full page title from the home page and a few other pages, to ensure that they show up in the results for that search. For Target, their Furniture page title and all their page titles end with “: Target” in order for them to get the brand in the title (which is a good and bad thing but another subject entirely). In this case, I usually cut off the brand, otherwise it makes it too much of a gimme. If I don’t find Target at the top, especially considering their domain strength, I would be worried.
Google Search result for exact title of page being tested
You can’t stop at just the home page and a category page though – with your remaining time, you should look deeper into the site navigation, in order to determine if there are pages that may be perceived as duplicate.
Google search result for deeper page title shows 3 pages from domain
In the above case, I find that three pages are indexed with relatively the same title, and two of the three have the same description snippet. In my book, this is an issue that needs to be addressed by SEOs.

In conclusion, these three quick tests can help anyone very quickly determine if there are potential SEO indexation, relevance, or authority issues with a site. If the site passes all these tests but has seen a significant drop in traffic, there may be other issues that need to be examined, including through the use of Webmaster Tools provided by Google and Bing, as well as with a deeper analysis of site experience and overall industry trends.