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Steve Martin famously once said that “talking about music is like dancing about architecture,” summing up the difficulty in defining the essence of something that seems intangible and unexplainable while wearing an arrow through his head.
Understanding the nuances of Google Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) can often feel like this (without the arrow, of course).
In this next part of my evaluation of SEO among 12 independent book publishers, following on from “Pages Crawled vs. Pages Indexed,” I will be delving into an architecture of sorts, website architecture and URL structure. I hope to define some website and URL best practices for the Digital Book World audience, while pointing out how Google and other search engines find this SEO factor important to your page ranking in its SERPs.
Below is a chart outlining the publisher grades for URL Structure and Site Architecture. Overall, the publishers scored a 2.0 (a D grade) in this area.
A Solid URL Structure
Have a look at the DBW homepage. Like most main pages for a website, the URL starts off simple and succinct: “http://www.digitalbookworld.com.” Moving through DBW’s page categories and subcategories, the URL gets longer but still not too long for search engines to handle. When websites start producing URLs of 2,000+ characters, however, something bad is happening and it may disrupt your page rankings.
Research has shown that shorter URLs lead to more than 250 percent more clicks in the SERPs. Why is that? Here are some ideas:
• Google likes short URLs. We all have our preferences, and Google prefers and displays the shortest URLs first. This is because research has shown that it may stop crawling URLs after the fifth or sixth word. The words and characters at the beginning of the URL are seen as the most important, and everything after that is less so and superfluous to a search engine.
• People like short URLs. When reading SERPs, it has been noted that users will choose one search result over another if it has a shorter URL. They look cleaner and are easy to remember.
• Social media likes short URLs. If you want your customers to share book or author pages on social media, your longer URLs will get the short end of the stick. While there are many URL shorteners out there, such as bitly, a shortened URL does not contain the keywords necessary to best explain your site links.
So when you look at your URLs, why do they appear to contain every letter/number/symbol in existence? More than likely, you are passing parameters.
Passing Parameters Makes Google Pass You By
A parameter is the part of the URL that provides data to your database so that the proper records can be retrieved. URLs with too many parameters may be skipped during a site crawl, passing your link juice right on by.
Parameters that balloon your URLs significantly can include the following:
• Session IDs that track a user’s page-by-page journey on your website and are saved within your URL structure.
• Product URLs that use codes and numbers rather than descriptive text.
• Errors in the HTML code that can cause URLs to become “concatenated” and strung together.
Fortunately, there are a few fixes to put your search rankings back on track:
Set Your Canonicals
As defined by Google, “a canonical page is the preferred version of a set of pages with highly similar content.” Introduced in 2009, canonicals are links set in the website code that tell Google and other search engines what page to focus on during a site crawl. This link is perfect for websites with URLs that contain too many parameters or duplicate URLs that link to the same page.
By setting a “rel=canonical” reference in your website code, you are taking all of the duplicate and overlong URLs, choosing one page as representative of all the links and merging the rest of the URLs into that link. Now, you are guiding the search engine to the page you want it to hit with a URL that does not pass dynamic parameters and that contains text that is descriptive of the information for a particular book within your catalog.
P.S. Facebook and Twitter honor canonical settings, too. So why not improve your SEO and social media standing at the same time?
Use Descriptive Text in Your URLs
Setting up a URL doesn’t have to be like “dancing about architecture.” There are two types of URLs: “static” and “dynamic.” A static URL is one that uses descriptive text—actual words to represent pages within your website. For example, on the website for the Doomsday Kids book series, the URL “http://thedoomsdaykids.com/wp/book/list-all/liams-promise/” shows that all sections of the URL contain descriptive text (in order): the name of the website, the notation that it is part of the WordPress domain (“wp”), its classification as a book, an action to list all books available (“list-all”) and the first book in the series (“liams-promise”). This is a static URL.
Conversely, the book page for Beneath Cold Seas at Greystone Books has a URL of “http://www.greystonebooks.com/book_details.php?isbn_upc=9781553658702.” Beyond the homepage, it uses words and symbols that do not relate to the book, its author or its location on the website. This is a dynamic URL. Remember that Google wants to “read” and understand your URL just like your customers do. Descriptive text creates a static URL that can make that happen.
(Just as a side note, Google prefers the use of hyphens in the URL over underscores or other symbols.)
We will dive deeper into using descriptive text for meta description tags, header tags and site content in future installments in this series.
Descriptive text in your categories and subcategories can also help improve your site architecture (and page rankings).
Use Your Redirects (Carefully)
In addition to canonicals, you can also use the old switcheroo to redirect users to the page that you want them to see. By using a redirect, you can send search engines and site visitors to a determined page that may be different from the one they had selected in the SERPs.
There are two types of redirects:
A 301 is a permanent redirect that will guide users to your site for as long as the redirect is in place. Even better, the redirect maintains a majority (but not all) of the link juice you would have received if you sent the user to the original page. Aside from replacing long URLs with more descriptive ones, 301s can help you manage duplicate pages, switch old content or pages with recently updated information or new pages, and redirect users if your site domain has moved.
A 302 is a temporary redirect designed to keep users from reaching 404-File Not Found and other error pages. The most important thing to know about 302s is that they are not SEO-friendly, and they do not convey any link juice for search rankings. 302s should be used sparingly (if at all) for out-of-stock or seasonal items and not as a way to redirect users to permanent information (stick to the 301 redirect for this).
P.S. Once you choose whether you will use a www or non-www domain name, be sure to use a 301 redirect to divert traffic from the other domain.
Great Websites = Great Architecture
Building a website is similar to building a business. It requires organization, planning and defining your products and services so that customers understand what you have to offer and how to get it. Even more so, building a successful modern website means that customers can find your business and products online via a search engine. And that is where great site architecture can give you the advantage in your search ranking.
Your first step to great site architecture is organizing your website into a hierarchical structure. Get a pen and a blank piece of paper and give it a try. Since you are only organizing main pages, categories and subcategories (and not individual books), it should be pretty simple.
For example, Wayzgoose Press, a publisher of genre-fiction, literary non-fiction and educational materials, starts with its Home Page, the center of the structure. From there, the structure branches out of the Home Page and into book categories (Fiction, Non-Fiction, Education, etc.) and further into subcategories. The Education category branches into Books for Teachers, Books for Students, etc. This type of website strategy is referred to as “siloing.” Not only does it help you organize your products and help your customers find your books, but it also helps search engines locate your pages more easily by following the internal links from your Home Page to each of the categories and subcategories in your site.
Still, you will need to take further steps within site architecture order to get the most link juice out of smart website architecture choices:
Shakespeare’s Juliet asks, “What’s in a name?” To search engines, it’s everything. Using Wayzgoose Press as our example again, clicking on the Author’s link from the Home Page leads us to the Authors page. But look at the URL: “http://wayzgoosepress.com/about-us.html.” The URL lists the category as “about-us.html” not “authors” and the text title of the page is “About Our Authors.” With three naming disconnects in terms of category, URL and page title, customers and search engines may have trouble finding that page.
A further example shows that searching for individual books from University of Hawaii Press (UHP) may not provide the best SERPs. Have a look at the book page for “Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii”—” “p-532-9780824802882” is the ISBN of the book, and if searched, gives UHP the top spot in SERPs. However, most customers will be searching by book name (or author/editor name). A search for the book name shows UHP in the sixth spot, below many major competitors.
Here are a few best practices for page nomenclature:
• Be consistent with your naming across pages. Confirm that the URL, page title, H1 tags and meta tags for a specific book are as similar as possible. This helps customers and search engines find your site pages more easily.
• Give your books a name. Users search books by title and author. While an ISBN or catalog number may help you organize and track books better at the business level, it doesn’t help search engines very much. Change your URLs to be more descriptive to make your books easy to find for all parties.
• Weigh anchor links. Using anchor text in the link URL can often describe the contents more effectively than the website name can. Anchor text helps search engines “determine the subject matter of the linked-to document,” which means better search rankings.
Breadcrumb Navigation Trails
Just like Hansel and Gretel, if you leave a trail of breadcrumbs, your customers will follow it back home. Breadcrumbs are a trail left by your site architecture hierarchy that shows the user his or her path within your website. For example, the Oldcastle Books Group, a UK publisher with several imprints, uses breadcrumbs to link from their homepage “http://www.oldcastlebooks.co.uk” to each of its six imprints, allowing their customers to return to their main site for other selections in their catalog and assisting search engine crawlers locate internal links within their website.
A proper breadcrumb trail will help your customers better navigate back and forth in your site without using the “back” button or having to re-click category and subcategory links, as well as help Google identify site links via the individual breadcrumb link, its title and the position of the breadcrumb in the site hierarchy.
Don’t Bury Your Pages
Your customers are looking for the quickest route to your catalog of books so that they can make a purchase. That being said, properly organized site architecture can help users reach their desired location and convert their visit to a sale.
The rule of thumb is that information should never be further away than three links/clicks from the homepage, for the following reasons:
1) Google and other search engines don’t like to work too hard, prefering to display what they can find quickly and display it on the SERPs pages. The deeper you bury your books through multiple categories and subcategories, the harder search engines have to work to find your links. This means the link juice is less concentrated and more thinly spread (which you don’t want).
2) Additionally, your customers want to find their books and make the purchase as quickly as possible. Sending them on a long journey to find what they are looking for may frustrate them and cause them to abandon their session on your website. Going back to the Oldcastle Books example, if you are looking for the book The Rivals of Dracula, you only have three steps to take: Oldcastle Books Group ▶ No Exit Press ▶ The Rivals of Dracula.
Make Your Website and SEO Masterpiece
A great URL structure and site architecture is a work of art. It represents the aesthetic of the choices you make in the organization of your website. The more steps you take to make it “prettier” (organizing by siloing, using descriptive text in the URL, removing dynamic parameters), the better the chance it will be viewed by customers and competitors alike (search engines, too).
In the next installment, we will take that aesthetic further into creating page titles that wow the crowd and the search engines.
How does your site’s URL structure stack up? Let me know in the comments below.
Previous Article: Pages Crawled vs. Pages Indexed – An Important Ratio for SEO
Next Article: Page Titles (More Than Just a Name for Your Page)
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