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December 5, 2006

SEO – Successful Site Architecture – SES Chicago

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I’ll be honest with you. Only about 84 percent of me decided to attend this afternoon’s Successful Site Architecture panel because I’m intelligent and realize how important it is to design a site that knocks down indexing obstacles. The other, more vapid, part of me remembered how absolutely adorable Derrick Wheeler is and very much wanted to spend an hour coyly staring at him. Based on that reasoning, I decided it would be in my best interest to attend. And I’m still pretty glad I did.

Anyway, onto the session.

Barbara Coll, better known as WebMama, moderated today’s panel that included super cutie Derrick Wheeler and known accessibility king Matt Bailey.

The theme of the session: breaking down crawling barriers so the search engines can index your site. The engines want to index your site, and if they can’t, it’s entirely your fault. Fix it.

WebMama’s first assertion is that most site designers pay little, if any, attention to SEO while designing a site. That’s some sad news. If your site is (and thereby your business) important to you and your goals, why would you make search engine optimization an afterthought? It’s just not wise.

Your goal as a site owner is to achieve high rankings in organic search for the keywords that convert best for you. In order to do that, your pages need to show up in the search engines. That’s where site architecture comes in. It’s about constructing the building blocks of your site in a way that encourages indexing. It’s about looking for optimization opportunities and seeking out Web developers and site designers who have SEO experience or partners.

The first step in successful site architecture is to get the team on board. If you don’t have the executives on your side, you’ll never have the support you need to make your site as great as it can be. In order to make friends, you may have to resort to educating them, convincing, or if all else fails, bribing them. I know dark chocolate or coffee works best on me.

Once you have the backing, you need to figure out where you are. How do you take what you have and turn it into successful site architecture?

The fact is most people aren’t starting out with a blank slate. Derrick notes that during this stage you need to:

  • Uncover all of your site’s domains and subdomains.
  • Identify the number of unique Web pages on each domain or subdomain.
  • Measure the number of pages from your site that are indexed at each engine.
  • Identify sections or pages of your site not indexed.
  • Track your rankings for business critical keywords at major search engines.
  • Measure how much traffic you are getting from each engine.
  • Review the search phrases that are generating traffic from each.
  • Determine which phrases generate the most conversion.

It may sound like a lot of work (it is), but you can’t help your site move forward until you know where it sits today.

From there, Derek shows users some best practices, explaining how text links are pretty and perfect, and JavaScript links are moderately evil, how footer links should be divided into two groups (SEO-based footer links and the required privacy law kind of stuff), the attractiveness of uncluttered URLs, and lots more good stuff.

He also defines some of the HTTP status codes that, for some reason, I always have difficultly remembering for. For example:

200 OK – This page is okay. We’re ready to go.
301 Object Permanently Moved – This URL has permanently moved to another location.
302 Object Temporarily Moved – It’s a temporary moved. The engine may continue to index the redirecting URL, as well as the old one.
404 Error – Oops. Invalid or mistyped URL.

After talking about the stuff you should be doing, Derek then launches into conversation about what he calls The Circle of Death. These are the very, very bad things that site owners often mistakenly do much to their own demise.

Circle of Death actions include accidentally disallowing the search engines to index your site, making the engines accept cookies before entering, relying on some other kind of user dependant action, using tracking IDs or dynamic URLs, home page redirects and all sorts of other nasty spider traps.

Matt Bailey was last up and discussed the issues currently facing Target and takes attendees on a brief tour of common accessibility issues, like requiring users to perform an action before being allowed in (select a country/language), lack of alt attributes, image based Web sites

Tips for creating an accessible site:

  • Create a site with a clear hierarchy and text links.
  • Offer a site map.
  • Create and write pages that clearly and accurately describe your content.
  • Think about the words users would type to find your site.
  • Try to use text instead of images to display important names, content and links.
  • Make sure your title and alt tags are descriptive and accurate.
  • Provide a text equivalent for every non-text element.
  • Avoid cluttered URLs – rewrite or redirect. Redirect links to the new URL.

Successful site architecture is the process of systematically satisfying the needs of search engines and the needs of your users. Learning to successfully architect your site for search engines and understanding how specific page elements and design technologies impact your ability to gain good organic listings with help your site rank well and stand out from your competition.

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