Where’d My Stats Go?

Google had a grand announcement the other day that many people probably didn’t even notice: Google Search over SSL.  If you’re not sure what this means, Wikipedia has a decent article on SSL but here’s a quick blurb:

…Secure Socket Layer (SSL), [is a] cryptographic protocol that provides security for communications over networks such as the Internet. …SSL encrypts the segments of network connections at the Transport Layer.

In English this means is that SSL protects data between your computer and the server that you’re connecting to (in this case, Google’s servers).  While I agree that securing your connection is smart for those times when you’re browsing on an unprotected hot spot, there are also some technical implications that this has on your browsing experience.  Google pages may load slower and many of the links to services that your normally get won’t appear (at least until they have SSL enabled too).

Does Page Bloat Affect Google Organic Search Rankings?

One of the questions that seems to come up a lot in our forums is whether larger page file sizes affect search engine rankings in Google results. Matt Cutts from Google has put together a video explaining how Google views page file size.

My advice is to keep the page as “clean” as possible – remember Google is a robot and if you give the robot a mess, it’s not as likely to find the diamonds.

How To Remove Hover Text on Bing

The new Bing search engine shows text excerpts when you mouse over search results. Frankly it can be troublesome and many publishers will want to remove this option. If you would like to remove the hover text within bing, you need to add the following META tag to your head area on any/all pages you want the hover text removed for.

<meta name=”robots” content=”nopreview”>

What’s An Exploit Worth To Your Google Traffic?

Earlier this month CenterNetworks was converted from Drupal to WordPress. Part of the conversion resulted in several of the CN sites getting hit with an exploit. It appears that one of the CN sites might have actually been hit earlier and I just never noticed it and only upon CN getting hit did I realize this other site was also hit.

This other site apparently lost most of its “Google Juice” which resulted in a major reduction in organic search site traffic. Here’s a graph of the before, during and after.

At the lowest point, nearly 70% of Google-referral traffic to the site in question was lost. As you can see from the chart above, slowly the Google Juice has been restored and we are back to normal traffic today. Phew, at least now I can get the investors off my back.

What did I learn from this experience? Google indexes sites very quickly but it seems to take about two weeks for the Google search crawlers to update an entire site. From what I can tell, there’s no real way to tell Google that a site was infected and that it is now clean of bad links. There is a re-inclusion request form but I’ve never received any feedback when I have submitted that form in the past so no idea if it actually worked. More importantly, the experience made me realize just how much Google controls how this site does monetarily each and every day.

Search Engine Usability

The secret benefit of accessibility part 2: A higher search engine ranking

An additional benefit of website accessibility is an improved performance in search engines. The more accessible it is to search engines, the more accurately they can predict what the site’s about, and the higher your site will appear in the rankings.

Not all of the accessibility guidelines will help with your search engine rankings, but there are certainly numerous areas of overlap:

1. ALT descriptions assigned to images

Screen readers, used by many visually impaired web users to surf the web, can’t understand images. As such, to ensure accessibility an alternative description needs to be assigned to every image and the screen reader will read out this alternative, or ALT, description.

<em>image description goes here</em>

Like screen readers, search engines can’t understand images either and won’t take any meaning from them. Many search engines can now index ALT text though, so by assigning ALT text search engines will be able to understand all your images.

2. Text displayed through HTML, not images

Text embedded in images appears pixelated, blurry and often impossible to read for users utilising screen magnifiers. From an accessibility point of view this should therefore be avoided.

Search engines equally can’t read text embedded in images. Well, you can just give the image some ALT text, right? Unfortunately, there’s strong evidence to suggest search engines assign less importance to ALT text than they do to regular text. Why? Spammers. So many webmasters have been stuffing their ALT tags full of keywords and not using them to describe the image. Search engines have cottoned on to this form of spamming (as they eventually do every form of spamming) and have taken appropriate action.

3. Descriptive link text

Visually impaired web users can scan web pages by tabbing from link to link and listening to the content of the link text. As such, the link text in an accessible website must always be descriptive of its destination.

Search engines place a lot of importance on link text too. They assume that link text will be descriptive of its destination and as such examine link text for all links pointing to any page. If all the links pointing to a page about widgets say ?click here?, search engines can’t gain any information about that page without visiting it. If on the other hand, all the links say, ?widgets? then search engines can easily guess what that page is about.

One of the best examples of this in action is for the search term, ?miserable failure?. So many people have linked to George Bush’s bio using this phrase as the link text, that now when miserable failure is searched for in Google, George Bush’s bio appears top of the search rankings!

4. Website functions with JavaScript disabled

JavaScript is unsupported by about 5% of web users (source: The Counter), either because they’ve turned it off (for example to prevent pop-up adverts) or because their browser doesn’t support it. Many forms of JavaScript aren’t accessible to web users utilising screen readers.

Search engines can’t understand JavaScript either and will be unable to index any JavaScript-driven content. Perhaps more importantly, they’ll also be unable to follow JavaScript-driven links. You may really like the look of your dropdown menu but search engines won’t if they can’t access certain pages on your site because there aren’t any regular links pointing at them.

5. Alternatives to Flash-based content provided

Flash, like JavaScript, isn’t accessible to many users, including those using screen readers. Equally, search engines can’t access Flash so be sure to provide equivalents.

6. Transcripts available for audio

Hearing impaired users obviously require written equivalents for audio content to be able to access it. Search engines too can’t access this medium, but transcripts provide them with a large amount of text for them to index.

7. Site map provided

Site maps can be a useful tool for visually impaired users as they provide a straightforward list of links to the main pages on the site, without any of the fluff in between.

Site maps are also great for search engines as search engines can instantly index your entire site when they arrive at the site map it. Next to each link you can also provide a short keyword-rich preview of the page. All links should, of course, be made through regular HTML and not through JavaScript (see 4. above).

8. Meaningful page title

When we arrive at web pages the first thing that appears, and the first thing that visually impaired users hear, is the page title. This latter group of web users don’t have the privilege of being able to quickly scan the page to see if it contains the information they’re after, so it’s essential that the page title effectively describes the page content.

If you know anything about search engine optimisation you’ll know that the page title is the most important attribute on the page. If it adequately describes the content of that page then search engines will be able to more accurately guess what that page is about.

9. Headings and sub-headings used

Visually impaired web users can scan web pages by tabbing from heading to heading, in addition to tabbing from link to link (see 3. above). As such, it’s important for accessibility to make sure that headings are correctly marked up by using <h1>, <h2> etc.

Search engines assume that the text contained in heading tags is more important than the rest of the document text, as headings describe the content immediately below them. Search engines assign the most importance to <h1>, then <h2>, and so on. Make sure you use the heading tags properly and don’t abuse them, as the more text you have contained in heading tags, for example, the less importance search engines assign to them.

10. CSS used for layout

Screen readers can more effectively work through the HTML code of CSS-based sites as there’s a greater ratio of content to code. Websites using CSS for layout can also be made accessible to in-car browsers, WebTV and PDAs. Don’t underestimate the importance of this – in 2008 alone there’ll be an estimated 58 million PDAs sold worldwide (source: eTForecast).

Search engines also prefer CSS-based sites and are likely to score them higher in the search rankings because:

  • The code is cleaner and therefore more accessible to search engines
  • Important content can be placed at the top of the HTML document
  • There is a greater density of content compared to coding

Conclusion

With all this overlap between web accessibility and search engine optimisation there’s no excuses for not implementing basic accessibility on to your website. It’ll give you a higher search engine ranking and therefore more site visitors.

This article was written by Trenton Moss, founder of Webcredible, a web usability and accessibility consultancy. He’s extremely good at web accessibility training and knows an awful lot about the Disability Discrimination Act.