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BACK TO BASICS: SEO Competitive Research, Part 8: Troubleshooting Techniques

BACK TO BASICS: SEO Competitive Research, Part 8: Troubleshooting Techniques

by: Bradley Leese, August 2006

By now, you now have successfully completed each step outlined in this Competitive Research series. You have identified, measured, collected, analyzed and strategized but there is a small problem: you are still nowhere near a level playing field with your primary competitor. This article aims to teach you the how and why of troubleshooting those last barriers standing in your way to the improving your search engine rankings across all major search engines.

Part 1: Review

Each Competitive Research article in this series has been written to address a specific element of the process of competing head-to-head with a major competitor. Here's a brief recap of the major steps towards achieving top search engine rankings. Follow each article to uncover and clarify exactly what each competitor is doing and how to overtake their precious rankings one keyword at a time. So far in the series we have:

Identified Competitors:

After you have identified targeted high activity keyword phrases, you will have properly narrowed down the most important competitors. (Read: Part 2: Identifying Competitors)

Measured Parameters:

You have visited the top sites and made a clear inventory of all the most relevant parameters that your competitors are excelling in. Accurately document your own site against that of your true competitors. (Read: Part 3: Measurable Parameters)

Collected Data:

Collected and organized data now provides insight into the flux of competitor sites. You can begin to understand how this data might form trends that may be worth analyzing. (Read: Part 5: Data Collection)

Analyzed Data:

Analyzing the collected data trends will provide clear evidence of the most valuable information sources to a website's success in the search engines. Analyze changes and pay close attention to any major shift across competitor sites. (Read: Part 6: Data Analysis)

Developed A Site Strategy:

You have surveyed the land, weighed the most potent parameters and decided on which elements your primary competitor is using to the greatest effect. (Read: Part 7: Site Strategy)

Part 2: Troubleshooting

You have done the research and followed each recommended step to no avail. How do you get over that last barrier and completely dominate your competition?

When all else fails and high keyword ranking still remain out of grasp, it is time to return to the source of all knowledge by looking within. Instead of looking out to others to answer how to fix your site, begin by looking inward into the specifics of your own site. Understand exactly who you are as a member of your community online. Before exploring the larger meaning of company identity, return to the problem at hand: Why has my site not received high SERP rankings?

Example 1: Three Troubleshooting Steps

Ready: Evaluation

What makes your site tick? Document each specific technology that you use to place your site live on the internet for the search engines to index. If you are not currently aware of the technical specifications of your site you will never know if they are getting in the way of your site getting fully indexed by the search engines. Make a technical checklist of your own site so that you can verify that you are not your own worst enemy.

Aim: Google, Yahoo! and MSN Standards

You may remember in Part 2: Measurable Parameters that we discussed the importance of going to each search engine and documenting each variable that the search engines highlight in their webmaster guidelines. It is time to revisit this process for each of the major search engines. Create a thorough guide for each engine documenting in detail each issue that is addressed, noting the elements that deal with the specific technical specification on your site. Often when your rankings are stagnant or frozen the obvious culprit is that you have been flagged or penalized for breaking major search engine violations. By creating a definitive checklist you are ensuring that all your bases have been covered.

Fire: Methodology

Return your seat to the upright position and once again consult the Bruce Clay methodology. The troubleshooting methodology is straight from BC gospel which states that each element should be measurable and implementation should always be carefully tracked.

Technology Checklist

There are many different ways to effectively construct a site to achieve high search engine rankings. Using static HTML, ASP or PHP will not improve your rankings alone. It depends on how the code is written and how it interacts with the database. There are many ways to build a successful website that complies with all search engine requirements.

To prepare for possible technical issues, create a checklist of all the elements being used in the construction and maintenance of your site. Be thorough in the process and consider all the elements of how your site is constructed and maintained.

Here is a list of elements to consider:

  • Web Hosting Companies (Ipower, Aosoft )
  • Hosting Plans (Virtual, Dedicated)
  • Web Server Configuration (Apache, IIS)
  • Databases (MySQL, SQL, Oracle)
  • Content Management Systems (Mambo, TeamSite, CoreMedia)
  • Shopping Carts (OSCommerce, X-Cart Gold, Paypal, Google Checkout)
  • Programming Languages (HTML, PHP, ASP)
  • Scripting Languages (JavaScript, CSS)
  • Media Types (Flash, Jpg, Java Applets)
  • W3C Compliance (HTML, XML, Robots.txt)
  • Tracking Programs (Analytic Codes, Usability tracking)
  • Desktop Applications (Dreamweaver, Front Page, Adobe GoLive)

Carefully document all the factors and the technical specifications, using all published specifications. Collect available data from the official forums and support pages that highlight common search related issues. Seek out all the known issues relating to errors with search engines or commonly reported problems. Place your emphasis on error discovery rather than uncovering specific solutions. It is crucial to locate the best long term solutions and not rely on quick fixes or temporary patches.

Remember to take Murphy's Law into consideration when considering the use of new technologies on your site: If anything can go wrong, it will.

Example 2: Three Troubleshooting Categories--Expanded

Organize this documentation so that you can easily reference it throughout the remainder of the troubleshooting process. Create a spreadsheet document with a tab for each technically specific element that plays into the operation and maintenance of your website.

Example 3: Technical Checklist Spreadsheet

By first documenting technical related issues throughout your site you can make the process of evaluating search engine standards as it relates to your site's relationship to the search engines. Open the spreadsheet and document each instance in which search engines address your individual technical needs. Remember to include the originating URLs in notes so that you can return to each appropriate documentation element.

Search Engine Standards

All search engines are built on a foundation of very specific rules. Each of the major search engines (Google, Yahoo! and MSN Search) have been very good about documenting the factors that they value in a "good" website. Document each element with as much technical detail as possible and refrain from discounting even the smallest detail. Make special notation of the factors that they "forbid" as there maybe a penalty attached. Ignoring these warnings may result in negative repercussions to search engine rankings.

Use the following search engine resources to collect up-to-the-minute documentation:

Google Help Center

Google Official Blog

Yahoo! Help Center

Yahoo! Official Blog

MSN Help Center

MSN Official Blog

Documentation should always be obtained from webmaster guidelines or their official blog, rather than from forums and non-official blogs. Eliminate the distraction of outside opinion and focus on the task at hand. The reality is that this process that will provide the greatest insight into ranking for that search engine. Beyond the written text, you will see the structure and values that that each search engine has towards site relevance and requirements for high search engine rankings.

Create a separate spreadsheet to document search engine standards:

Example 4: Search Engine Standards Spreadsheet

This process should strip away the myths from the methods on how a site is evaluated and indexed by a search engine. Stop following the crowd and being dependent on outside influences (unofficial forums and blogs) and go to the source.

In the beginning, the volume of documentation can be daunting, but each element has a profound implication on the standards that a search engine is structured on. Create a document like that used to track data parameters and make clear documentation that can be reviewed with consistent frequency to make sure you implementing the most up to date elements.

In the construction of this documentation for each of the major search engines, make sure to cross reference the similarities and differences between engines. Make specific notation as to which engines are more strict or lenient on specific factors. Use this list to outline specific standards in which to structure and plan the future growth of your site. You will realize that after making these specific notes that you can most efficiently rank for all major search engines across the spectrum without baring rankings from another.

The Troubleshooting Method


Compare the elements discovered in the technical checklist and the search engine standards. Document and categorize each major element and prioritize its importance (Short or Long term Priority). Compare this list to your data completed in Part 3: Measurable Parameters, Part 5: Data Collection and Part 6: Data Analysis and analyze and identify which elements are critical, and which are forbidden and possibly harmful to search engine rankings.

Example 5: The Troubleshooting Method


Identify the elements that are specific to your site and the currently implemented website technology. Evaluate each element to verify that there are no issues that relate specifically to the technology implored on your site. If there are relevant issues, mark the category and assign a specific deadline. Place the priority in a list and update your site strategy to account for the improvement and contribution of additional information to support this new category or item.


Systematically begin removing bad and ugly elements. Begin by removing one element a week from the top priority elements. Continue collecting and analyzing data. If there aren't major drops in SERPs as elements are removed, proceed with caution until all the questionable sections have been updated.

Review the documentation and list of priorities identified during this troubleshooting process. Measure twice and cut once. In search engine optimization there is no mysterious process to getting search engine rankings; it's simply a matter of meticulous recordkeeping and small moves carefully measured. There is no sense in completing 10 tasks only to find out that your rankings begin dropping, as there would be no way to tell which change was responsible for the drop and all would have to be removed. Remember to pace the implementation of changes with strict attention paid to any ranking loss or ranking gain.

Troubleshooting is by far the most tedious and nebulous of all the steps in competitive research, however, don't become discouraged. By following all the steps outlined in this Competitive Research series, you will be able to identify and better the techniques that your competitors are using to reach the top of the SERPs. Happy optimizing!