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March 13, 2007

Can Google Clean Up Its SERPs with AJAX?

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Two recent finds really make me wonder how much longer it’ll be before we see an AJAX-based search engine results page from Google. I’ve heard Michael Gray say it’ll be less than 12 months, I heard Bruce say something similar during SEOToolSet training, and more and more it looks like Google is encouraging Webmasters to implement AJAX into their site design.

I stumbled across a WebmasterWorld thread (via Barry) where member Bill notes that the Chinese version of the Google Directory incorporates a healthy dose of AJAX, allowing users to move sections around and customize the layout. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Google incorporate or encourage the use of AJAX. China makes an interesting testing ground to see how users will interact with a "page-less" design that allows users to customize their own interface. After all, these days personalization is Google’s best friend.

The other thing that has me wondering is Danny Sullivan’s post over at Search Engine Land. Danny comments on a recent change in Google’s guidelines that is meant to crackdown on Google indexing your search results in theirs. You know what the easiest way is to conform to this new guideline and ensure Google can’t index your search results? Design your site search in AJAX.

I’ll admit my knowledge and experience in regards to AJAX is limited to the blog posts I’ve read and my eavesdropping on our designers communicating in languages that I’m not completely sure were even English. However, even I can see there are a couple of quantifiable benefits to using AJAX.

If you’ve taken part in this whole Web 2.0 craze (which I’m pretty sure accounts for all of you, minus Susan), you’re probably fairly familiar with AJAX. It’s what allows site designers to create all that flashy functionality and makes programs like Google Earth possible. It’s pretty cool stuff. However, that’s why we like it. Not why the search engines like it.

The first thing you need to know about AJAX is that because it relies on JavaScript, it’s invisible to the search engines. This has good and bad elements. Obviously, since the engines can’t read JavaScript, it means you shouldn’t design your entire site or navigation in AJAX. Doing so pretty much ensures your site will never show up in the index. If you want people to find your site, this is bad.

However, if you use AJAX to power dynamic site elements like your site search, it means the engines won’t waste their resources indexing it, that you’re adhering to Google’s new guidelines, and that you won’t be looked at as a spammer. This saves Google bandwidth and it may mean more of your pages get indexed. This is good for everyone.

It’s actually something we’ve already implemented on BruceClay.com. If you use our site search, you’ll see the results are delivered using AJAX. When users conduct a site search, our results page displays our header and footer before the results are generated and inserted into the open space. This is a "page-less" page that exists for the searcher, but doesn’t exist to Google.

The advantage of AJAX is that sites can deliver content faster and limit the number of page refreshes for the typical Web app. It’s particularly great for query based pages and means users will have to sit through fewer pages loads just to update a particular section of your Web site. It could even help curb the duplicate content problem you’re facing due to dynamic URLs displaying the same content with different parameters.

So why would Google want site owners to use AJAX when appropriate? Because it saves them valuable resources. They don’t have to waste bandwidth indexing pages that provide no value to users, they can get through more of your site the first time around, it’s easier to authenticate actual users, and it provides a better search experience for users.

All those reasons seem worthy enough of a subtle AJAX Google push, and I think that’s what we’re seeing. What do you think?

I mentioned it earlier but I want to restate it again. If you are using AJAX on your site, make sure your content and navigation are in HTML. If they’re not, the engines won’t see it and your site will disappear from the engines’ indexes. It’s also important for users who don’t have JavaScript enabled. Usability is our friend, folks.

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