SEO Myths I: Analyze This

Every web designer under the sun talks about search engine optimization (SEO), but it amazes me to see how often basic principles are ignored. I'm in-between jobs right now, which means I'm spending a lot of time looking at potential employers' websites. I've decided to start a series of posts on SEO myths and realities that will talk about designing for maximum visibility.

I'm not going to focus on any of the underhanded tricks to fool search engines into listing an inappropriate page. Google hates this kind of tactic and so do I. You get visits for having good content. Good search rankings are based on good content and the best way to boost your content is to present your page in a way that lets both humans and search engines find the content they want. Part one is on website analysis and tracking.

Don't assume that your website is easy to navigate. One of the neatest things about the web is that we have instant feedback on use. With just a little tracking we can see what pages people are looking at, how they're finding our site and what they're doing once they're here.

Javascript Trackers:

My most advanced sites are currently using four different tracking methods. Most utilize javascript "bugs," tiny snippets of code that send individual results to an advanced software tracking system. I put the code inside a Moveable Type "Modules Template" which is automatically imported to all pages. Installing a new system is as easy as cutting-and-pasting the javascript into the Template and rebuilding the site.

  • AXS Visitors Tracking System
    This software installs on your server but don't let that scare you: this is one of the easiest installations I've ever seen. AXS gives you great charts of usage: you can narrow it specific pages on your site, or even particular search engines or search phrases.
    There's also a option to view the lastest traffic by visitor. I love watching this! You can see how individuals are using the site and where they're navigating. I've been able to identify different types of visitors this way and understand the complexity of the audience.
    It doesn't seem like AXS is not being developed anymore. The latest stable version came out over two years go, which is a shame.

  • HitTail
    This service watches search-engine links and makes recommendations for new keywords. I wrote about this service yesterday in Blogging for the Long Tail.

  • Reeferss.com
    This is a simple simple bit of software. Like every other tracking system it keeps track of referrers: search engines and websites that bring traffic to your site. But unlike the others that's all it does. Why care then? It provides a real-time RSS feed of these visitors. I bring the feed into my "Netvibes" page (a customized start page, see below) and scan the results multiple times a day.

  • Google Analytics
    The internet's gatekeeper bought the Urchin analytics company in April 2005 and relaunched the product as Google Analytics shortly thereafter. This is becoming an essential tracker. It's free and it's powerful, though I haven't been as impressed by it as others have. See its Wiki page for more.

Internet Trackers:

It's easy to find out what people are saying about you online.

  • Technorati
    This service tracks blogs but you don't need to have a blog to use it, for Technorati will tell you where blogs are linking. Give it your URLs (or those of your competitors!) and you'll know whenever a blogger puts in a link to you. You can also give it keywords and find out when a blog uses them.

  • Google Blog Search
    Google can also let you follow blog references or keyword mentions on the blogs. Google will also track beyond blogs of course. Type "site:www.yourdomain.com" into the main Google search page and you'll see who's linking to your site (or to the competition). There are lots of other services that track blogs and mentions--Sphere, Bloglines, etc. They all have different strengths so try them and see what you think.

  • Feedburner
    The best RSS massager has always focused on ways to track your RSS feed. They've recently introduced page tracking software too. It looks great but I just installed it this week. I still have to see if it's as good as Feedburner's other offerings.

Keeping on top of this flow of data:

It's easy to get overwhelmed by all of this information. Most of the tracking services provide RSS feeds (See The Wonders of RSS Feeds for an intro). I use Netvibes, a customized start page, to pull these all together into a single page that I can scan every morning. Here's a screenshot of part of my Netvibes tracking page--the full page currently shows fourteen tracking feeds on one screen:

So why is tracking important to SEO?

With tracking you find out what people are looking for on the internet. This helps you create pages and services that people will want to find. You might be surprised to see what they're already finding on your site. Some examples:

  • Analyzing one site, I noticed that few pages I thought were obscure were bringing in high Google traffic. I looked at these pages again and realized they did a good job of describing the company's mission. I consequently redesigned the site homepage to feature them and I made sure that those pages contained direct links to its most important services.

  • When I started work for another client I looked at their site and suspected that they're most important articles were not being seen--visitors had to click through about four times to get to them. Six months of tracking confirmed my hunch and gave me the hard data to convince the executive director that we made some small modifications to the design. Having this strong content linked right off the homepage helped bring in Google traffic.

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