Friday, June 29, 2018

What Do SEOs Do When Google Removes Organic Search Traffic? - Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

We rely pretty heavily on Google, but some of their decisions of late have made doing SEO more difficult than it used to be. Which organic opportunities have been taken away, and what are some potential solutions? Rand covers a rather unsettling trend for SEO in this week's Whiteboard Friday.

What Do SEOs Do When Google Removes Organic Search?

Click on the whiteboard image above to open a high-resolution version in a new tab!

Video Transcription

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we're talking about something kind of unnerving. What do we, as SEOs, do as Google is removing organic search traffic?

So for the last 19 years or 20 years that Google has been around, every month Google has had, at least seasonally adjusted, not just more searches, but they've sent more organic traffic than they did that month last year. So this has been on a steady incline. There's always been more opportunity in Google search until recently, and that is because of a bunch of moves, not that Google is losing market share, not that they're receiving fewer searches, but that they are doing things that makes SEO a lot harder.

Some scary news

Things like...

  • Aggressive "answer" boxes. So you search for a question, and Google provides not just necessarily a featured snippet, which can earn you a click-through, but a box that truly answers the searcher's question, that comes directly from Google themselves, or a set of card-style results that provides a list of all the things that the person might be looking for.
  • Google is moving into more and more aggressively commercial spaces, like jobs, flights, products, all of these kinds of searches where previously there was opportunity and now there's a lot less. If you're Expedia or you're Travelocity or you're Hotels.com or you're Cheapflights and you see what's going on with flight and hotel searches in particular, Google is essentially saying, "No, no, no. Don't worry about clicking anything else. We've got the answers for you right here."
  • We also saw for the first time a seasonally adjusted drop, a drop in total organic clicks sent. That was between August and November of 2017. It was thanks to the Jumpshot dataset. It happened at least here in the United States. We don't know if it's happened in other countries as well. But that's certainly concerning because that is not something we've observed in the past. There were fewer clicks sent than there were previously. That makes us pretty concerned. It didn't go down very much. It went down a couple of percentage points. There's still a lot more clicks being sent in 2018 than there were in 2013. So it's not like we've dipped below something, but concerning.
  • New zero-result SERPs. We absolutely saw those for the first time. Google rolled them back after rolling them out. But, for example, if you search for the time in London or a Lagavulin 16, Google was showing no results at all, just a little box with the time and then potentially some AdWords ads. So zero organic results, nothing for an SEO to even optimize for in there.
  • Local SERPs that remove almost all need for a website. Then local SERPs, which have been getting more and more aggressively tuned so that you never need to click the website, and, in fact, Google has made it harder and harder to find the website in both mobile and desktop versions of local searches. So if you search for Thai restaurant and you try and find the website of the Thai restaurant you're interested in, as opposed to just information about them in Google's local pack, that's frustratingly difficult. They are making those more and more aggressive and putting them more forward in the results.

Potential solutions for marketers

So, as a result, I think search marketers really need to start thinking about: What do we do as Google is taking away this opportunity? How can we continue to compete and provide value for our clients and our companies? I think there are three big sort of paths — I won't get into the details of the paths — but three big paths that we can pursue.

1. Invest in demand generation for your brand + branded product names to leapfrog declines in unbranded search.

The first one is pretty powerful and pretty awesome, which is investing in demand generation, rather than just demand serving, but demand generation for brand and branded product names. Why does this work? Well, because let's say, for example, I'm searching for SEO tools. What do I get? I get back a list of results from Google with a bunch of mostly articles saying these are the top SEO tools. In fact, Google has now made a little one box, card-style list result up at the top, the carousel that shows different brands of SEO tools. I don't think Moz is actually listed in there because I think they're pulling from the second or the third lists instead of the first one. Whatever the case, frustrating, hard to optimize for. Google could take away demand from it or click-through rate opportunity from it.

But if someone performs a search for Moz, well, guess what? I mean we can nail that sucker. We can definitely rank for that. Google is not going to take away our ability to rank for our own brand name. In fact, Google knows that, in the navigational search sense, they need to provide the website that the person is looking for front and center. So if we can create more demand for Moz than there is for SEO tools, which I think there's something like 5 or 10 times more demand already for Moz than there is tools, according to Google Trends, that's a great way to go. You can do the same thing through your content, through your social media, and through your email marketing. Even through search you can search and create demand for your brand rather than unbranded terms.

2. Optimize for additional platforms.

Second thing, optimizing across additional platforms. So we've looked and YouTube and Google Images account for about half of the overall volume that goes to Google web search. So between these two platforms, you've got a significant amount of additional traffic that you can optimize for. Images has actually gotten less aggressive. Right now they've taken away the "view image directly" link so that more people are visiting websites via Google Images. YouTube, obviously, this is a great place to build brand affinity, to build awareness, to create demand, this kind of demand generation to get your content in front of people. So these two are great platforms for that.

There are also significant amounts of web traffic still on the social web — LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, etc., etc. The list goes on. Those are places where you can optimize, put your content forward, and earn traffic back to your websites.

3. Optimize the content that Google does show.

Local

So if you're in the local space and you're saying, "Gosh, Google has really taken away the ability for my website to get the clicks that it used to get from Google local searches," going into Google My Business and optimizing to provide information such that people who perform that query will be satisfied by Google's result, yes, they won't get to your website, but they will still come to your business, because you've optimized the content such that Google is showing, through Google My Business, such that those searchers want to engage with you. I think this sometimes gets lost in the SEO battle. We're trying so hard to earn the click to our site that we're forgetting that a lot of search experience ends right at the SERP itself, and we can optimize there too.

Results

In the zero-results sets, Google was still willing to show AdWords, which means if we have customer targets, we can use remarketed lists for search advertising (RLSA), or we can run paid ads and still optimize for those. We could also try and claim some of the data that might show up in zero-result SERPs. We don't yet know what that will be after Google rolls it back out, but we'll find out in the future.

Answers

For answers, the answers that Google is giving, whether that's through voice or visually, those can be curated and crafted through featured snippets, through the card lists, and through the answer boxes. We have the opportunity again to influence, if not control, what Google is showing in those places, even when the search ends at the SERP.

All right, everyone, thanks for watching for this edition of Whiteboard Friday. We'll see you again next week. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com


Sign up for The Moz Top 10, a semimonthly mailer updating you on the top ten hottest pieces of SEO news, tips, and rad links uncovered by the Moz team. Think of it as your exclusive digest of stuff you don't have time to hunt down but want to read!

What Do SEOs Do When Google Removes Organic Search Traffic? - Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

We rely pretty heavily on Google, but some of their decisions of late have made doing SEO more difficult than it used to be. Which organic opportunities have been taken away, and what are some potential solutions? Rand covers a rather unsettling trend for SEO in this week's Whiteboard Friday.

What Do SEOs Do When Google Removes Organic Search?

Click on the whiteboard image above to open a high-resolution version in a new tab!

Video Transcription

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we're talking about something kind of unnerving. What do we, as SEOs, do as Google is removing organic search traffic?

So for the last 19 years or 20 years that Google has been around, every month Google has had, at least seasonally adjusted, not just more searches, but they've sent more organic traffic than they did that month last year. So this has been on a steady incline. There's always been more opportunity in Google search until recently, and that is because of a bunch of moves, not that Google is losing market share, not that they're receiving fewer searches, but that they are doing things that makes SEO a lot harder.

Some scary news

Things like...

  • Aggressive "answer" boxes. So you search for a question, and Google provides not just necessarily a featured snippet, which can earn you a click-through, but a box that truly answers the searcher's question, that comes directly from Google themselves, or a set of card-style results that provides a list of all the things that the person might be looking for.
  • Google is moving into more and more aggressively commercial spaces, like jobs, flights, products, all of these kinds of searches where previously there was opportunity and now there's a lot less. If you're Expedia or you're Travelocity or you're Hotels.com or you're Cheapflights and you see what's going on with flight and hotel searches in particular, Google is essentially saying, "No, no, no. Don't worry about clicking anything else. We've got the answers for you right here."
  • We also saw for the first time a seasonally adjusted drop, a drop in total organic clicks sent. That was between August and November of 2017. It was thanks to the Jumpshot dataset. It happened at least here in the United States. We don't know if it's happened in other countries as well. But that's certainly concerning because that is not something we've observed in the past. There were fewer clicks sent than there were previously. That makes us pretty concerned. It didn't go down very much. It went down a couple of percentage points. There's still a lot more clicks being sent in 2018 than there were in 2013. So it's not like we've dipped below something, but concerning.
  • New zero-result SERPs. We absolutely saw those for the first time. Google rolled them back after rolling them out. But, for example, if you search for the time in London or a Lagavulin 16, Google was showing no results at all, just a little box with the time and then potentially some AdWords ads. So zero organic results, nothing for an SEO to even optimize for in there.
  • Local SERPs that remove almost all need for a website. Then local SERPs, which have been getting more and more aggressively tuned so that you never need to click the website, and, in fact, Google has made it harder and harder to find the website in both mobile and desktop versions of local searches. So if you search for Thai restaurant and you try and find the website of the Thai restaurant you're interested in, as opposed to just information about them in Google's local pack, that's frustratingly difficult. They are making those more and more aggressive and putting them more forward in the results.

Potential solutions for marketers

So, as a result, I think search marketers really need to start thinking about: What do we do as Google is taking away this opportunity? How can we continue to compete and provide value for our clients and our companies? I think there are three big sort of paths — I won't get into the details of the paths — but three big paths that we can pursue.

1. Invest in demand generation for your brand + branded product names to leapfrog declines in unbranded search.

The first one is pretty powerful and pretty awesome, which is investing in demand generation, rather than just demand serving, but demand generation for brand and branded product names. Why does this work? Well, because let's say, for example, I'm searching for SEO tools. What do I get? I get back a list of results from Google with a bunch of mostly articles saying these are the top SEO tools. In fact, Google has now made a little one box, card-style list result up at the top, the carousel that shows different brands of SEO tools. I don't think Moz is actually listed in there because I think they're pulling from the second or the third lists instead of the first one. Whatever the case, frustrating, hard to optimize for. Google could take away demand from it or click-through rate opportunity from it.

But if someone performs a search for Moz, well, guess what? I mean we can nail that sucker. We can definitely rank for that. Google is not going to take away our ability to rank for our own brand name. In fact, Google knows that, in the navigational search sense, they need to provide the website that the person is looking for front and center. So if we can create more demand for Moz than there is for SEO tools, which I think there's something like 5 or 10 times more demand already for Moz than there is tools, according to Google Trends, that's a great way to go. You can do the same thing through your content, through your social media, and through your email marketing. Even through search you can search and create demand for your brand rather than unbranded terms.

2. Optimize for additional platforms.

Second thing, optimizing across additional platforms. So we've looked and YouTube and Google Images account for about half of the overall volume that goes to Google web search. So between these two platforms, you've got a significant amount of additional traffic that you can optimize for. Images has actually gotten less aggressive. Right now they've taken away the "view image directly" link so that more people are visiting websites via Google Images. YouTube, obviously, this is a great place to build brand affinity, to build awareness, to create demand, this kind of demand generation to get your content in front of people. So these two are great platforms for that.

There are also significant amounts of web traffic still on the social web — LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, etc., etc. The list goes on. Those are places where you can optimize, put your content forward, and earn traffic back to your websites.

3. Optimize the content that Google does show.

Local

So if you're in the local space and you're saying, "Gosh, Google has really taken away the ability for my website to get the clicks that it used to get from Google local searches," going into Google My Business and optimizing to provide information such that people who perform that query will be satisfied by Google's result, yes, they won't get to your website, but they will still come to your business, because you've optimized the content such that Google is showing, through Google My Business, such that those searchers want to engage with you. I think this sometimes gets lost in the SEO battle. We're trying so hard to earn the click to our site that we're forgetting that a lot of search experience ends right at the SERP itself, and we can optimize there too.

Results

In the zero-results sets, Google was still willing to show AdWords, which means if we have customer targets, we can use remarketed lists for search advertising (RLSA), or we can run paid ads and still optimize for those. We could also try and claim some of the data that might show up in zero-result SERPs. We don't yet know what that will be after Google rolls it back out, but we'll find out in the future.

Answers

For answers, the answers that Google is giving, whether that's through voice or visually, those can be curated and crafted through featured snippets, through the card lists, and through the answer boxes. We have the opportunity again to influence, if not control, what Google is showing in those places, even when the search ends at the SERP.

All right, everyone, thanks for watching for this edition of Whiteboard Friday. We'll see you again next week. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com


Sign up for The Moz Top 10, a semimonthly mailer updating you on the top ten hottest pieces of SEO news, tips, and rad links uncovered by the Moz team. Think of it as your exclusive digest of stuff you don't have time to hunt down but want to read!

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Minimum Viable Knowledge You Need to Work with JavaScript & SEO Today

Posted by sergeystefoglo

If your work involves SEO at some level, you’ve most likely been hearing more and more about JavaScript and the implications it has on crawling and indexing. Frankly, Googlebot struggles with it, and many websites utilize modern-day JavaScript to load in crucial content today. Because of this, we need to be equipped to discuss this topic when it comes up in order to be effective.

The goal of this post is to equip you with the minimum viable knowledge required to do so. This post won’t go into the nitty gritty details, describe the history, or give you extreme detail on specifics. There are a lot of incredible write-ups that already do this — I suggest giving them a read if you are interested in diving deeper (I’ll link out to my favorites at the bottom).

In order to be effective consultants when it comes to the topic of JavaScript and SEO, we need to be able to answer three questions:

  1. Does the domain/page in question rely on client-side JavaScript to load/change on-page content or links?
  2. If yes, is Googlebot seeing the content that’s loaded in via JavaScript properly?
  3. If not, what is the ideal solution?

With some quick searching, I was able to find three examples of landing pages that utilize JavaScript to load in crucial content.

I’m going to be using Sitecore’s Symposium landing page through each of these talking points to illustrate how to answer the questions above.

We’ll cover the “how do I do this” aspect first, and at the end I’ll expand on a few core concepts and link to further resources.

Question 1: Does the domain in question rely on client-side JavaScript to load/change on-page content or links?

The first step to diagnosing any issues involving JavaScript is to check if the domain uses it to load in crucial content that could impact SEO (on-page content or links). Ideally this will happen anytime you get a new client (during the initial technical audit), or whenever your client redesigns/launches new features of the site.

How do we go about doing this?

Ask the client

Ask, and you shall receive! Seriously though, one of the quickest/easiest things you can do as a consultant is contact your POC (or developers on the account) and ask them. After all, these are the people who work on the website day-in and day-out!

“Hi [client], we’re currently doing a technical sweep on the site. One thing we check is if any crucial content (links, on-page content) gets loaded in via JavaScript. We will do some manual testing, but an easy way to confirm this is to ask! Could you (or the team) answer the following, please?

1. Are we using client-side JavaScript to load in important content?
2. If yes, can we get a bulleted list of where/what content is loaded in via JavaScript?”

Check manually

Even on a large e-commerce website with millions of pages, there are usually only a handful of important page templates. In my experience, it should only take an hour max to check manually. I use the Chrome Web Developers plugin, disable JavaScript from there, and manually check the important templates of the site (homepage, category page, product page, blog post, etc.)

In the example above, once we turn off JavaScript and reload the page, we can see that we are looking at a blank page.

As you make progress, jot down notes about content that isn’t being loaded in, is being loaded in wrong, or any internal linking that isn’t working properly.

At the end of this step we should know if the domain in question relies on JavaScript to load/change on-page content or links. If the answer is yes, we should also know where this happens (homepage, category pages, specific modules, etc.)

Crawl

You could also crawl the site (with a tool like Screaming Frog or Sitebulb) with JavaScript rendering turned off, and then run the same crawl with JavaScript turned on, and compare the differences with internal links and on-page elements.

For example, it could be that when you crawl the site with JavaScript rendering turned off, the title tags don’t appear. In my mind this would trigger an action to crawl the site with JavaScript rendering turned on to see if the title tags do appear (as well as checking manually).

Example

For our example, I went ahead and did a manual check. As we can see from the screenshot below, when we disable JavaScript, the content does not load.

In other words, the answer to our first question for this pages is “yes, JavaScript is being used to load in crucial parts of the site.”

Question 2: If yes, is Googlebot seeing the content that’s loaded in via JavaScript properly?

If your client is relying on JavaScript on certain parts of their website (in our example they are), it is our job to try and replicate how Google is actually seeing the page(s). We want to answer the question, “Is Google seeing the page/site the way we want it to?”

In order to get a more accurate depiction of what Googlebot is seeing, we need to attempt to mimic how it crawls the page.

How do we do that?

Use Google’s new mobile-friendly testing tool

At the moment, the quickest and most accurate way to try and replicate what Googlebot is seeing on a site is by using Google’s new mobile friendliness tool. My colleague Dom recently wrote an in-depth post comparing Search Console Fetch and Render, Googlebot, and the mobile friendliness tool. His findings were that most of the time, Googlebot and the mobile friendliness tool resulted in the same output.

In Google’s mobile friendliness tool, simply input your URL, hit “run test,” and then once the test is complete, click on “source code” on the right side of the window. You can take that code and search for any on-page content (title tags, canonicals, etc.) or links. If they appear here, Google is most likely seeing the content.

Search for visible content in Google

It’s always good to sense-check. Another quick way to check if GoogleBot has indexed content on your page is by simply selecting visible text on your page, and doing a site:search for it in Google with quotations around said text.

In our example there is visible text on the page that reads…

"Whether you are in marketing, business development, or IT, you feel a sense of urgency. Or maybe opportunity?"

When we do a site:search for this exact phrase, for this exact page, we get nothing. This means Google hasn’t indexed the content.

Crawling with a tool

Most crawling tools have the functionality to crawl JavaScript now. For example, in Screaming Frog you can head to configuration > spider > rendering > then select “JavaScript” from the dropdown and hit save. DeepCrawl and SiteBulb both have this feature as well.

From here you can input your domain/URL and see the rendered page/code once your tool of choice has completed the crawl.

Example:

When attempting to answer this question, my preference is to start by inputting the domain into Google’s mobile friendliness tool, copy the source code, and searching for important on-page elements (think title tag, <h1>, body copy, etc.) It’s also helpful to use a tool like diff checker to compare the rendered HTML with the original HTML (Screaming Frog also has a function where you can do this side by side).

For our example, here is what the output of the mobile friendliness tool shows us.

After a few searches, it becomes clear that important on-page elements are missing here.

We also did the second test and confirmed that Google hasn’t indexed the body content found on this page.

The implication at this point is that Googlebot is not seeing our content the way we want it to, which is a problem.

Let’s jump ahead and see what we can recommend the client.

Question 3: If we’re confident Googlebot isn’t seeing our content properly, what should we recommend?

Now we know that the domain is using JavaScript to load in crucial content and we know that Googlebot is most likely not seeing that content, the final step is to recommend an ideal solution to the client. Key word: recommend, not implement. It’s 100% our job to flag the issue to our client, explain why it’s important (as well as the possible implications), and highlight an ideal solution. It is 100% not our job to try to do the developer’s job of figuring out an ideal solution with their unique stack/resources/etc.

How do we do that?

You want server-side rendering

The main reason why Google is having trouble seeing Sitecore’s landing page right now, is because Sitecore’s landing page is asking the user (us, Googlebot) to do the heavy work of loading the JavaScript on their page. In other words, they’re using client-side JavaScript.

Googlebot is literally landing on the page, trying to execute JavaScript as best as possible, and then needing to leave before it has a chance to see any content.

The fix here is to instead have Sitecore’s landing page load on their server. In other words, we want to take the heavy lifting off of Googlebot, and put it on Sitecore’s servers. This will ensure that when Googlebot comes to the page, it doesn’t have to do any heavy lifting and instead can crawl the rendered HTML.

In this scenario, Googlebot lands on the page and already sees the HTML (and all the content).

There are more specific options (like isomorphic setups)

This is where it gets to be a bit in the weeds, but there are hybrid solutions. The best one at the moment is called isomorphic.

In this model, we're asking the client to load the first request on their server, and then any future requests are made client-side.

So Googlebot comes to the page, the client’s server has already executed the initial JavaScript needed for the page, sends the rendered HTML down to the browser, and anything after that is done on the client-side.

If you’re looking to recommend this as a solution, please read this post from the AirBNB team which covers isomorphic setups in detail.

AJAX crawling = no go

I won’t go into details on this, but just know that Google’s previous AJAX crawling solution for JavaScript has since been discontinued and will eventually not work. We shouldn’t be recommending this method.

(However, I am interested to hear any case studies from anyone who has implemented this solution recently. How has Google responded? Also, here’s a great write-up on this from my colleague Rob.)

Summary

At the risk of severely oversimplifying, here's what you need to do in order to start working with JavaScript and SEO in 2018:

  1. Know when/where your client’s domain uses client-side JavaScript to load in on-page content or links.
    1. Ask the developers.
    2. Turn off JavaScript and do some manual testing by page template.
    3. Crawl using a JavaScript crawler.
  2. Check to see if GoogleBot is seeing content the way we intend it to.
    1. Google’s mobile friendliness checker.
    2. Doing a site:search for visible content on the page.
    3. Crawl using a JavaScript crawler.
  3. Give an ideal recommendation to client.
    1. Server-side rendering.
    2. Hybrid solutions (isomorphic).
    3. Not AJAX crawling.

Further resources

I’m really interested to hear about any of your experiences with JavaScript and SEO. What are some examples of things that have worked well for you? What about things that haven’t worked so well? If you’ve implemented an isomorphic setup, I’m curious to hear how that’s impacted how Googlebot sees your site.


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Friday, June 22, 2018

The Goal-Based Approach to Domain Selection - Whiteboard Friday

Posted by KameronJenkins

Choosing a domain is a big deal, and there's a lot that goes into it. Even with everything that goes into determining your URL, there are two essential questions to ask that ought to guide your decision-making: what are my goals, and what's best for my users? In today's edition of Whiteboard Friday, we're beyond delighted to welcome Kameron Jenkins, our SEO Wordsmith, to the show to teach us all about how to select a domain that aligns with and supports your business goals.

Goal-based Approach to Domain Selection

Click on the whiteboard image above to open a high-resolution version in a new tab!

Video Transcription

Hey, everyone. Welcome to this week's edition of Whiteboard Friday. My name is Kameron Jenkins, and I am the SEO Wordsmith here at Moz. Today we're going to be talking about a goals-based approach to choosing a domain type or a domain selection.

There are a lot of questions in the SEO industry right now, and as an agency, I used to work at an agency, and a lot of times our clients would ask us, "Should I do a microsite? Should I do a subdomain? Should I consolidate all my sites?" There is a lot of confusion about the SEO impact of all of these different types of domain choices, and there certainly are SEO ramifications for each type, but today we're going to be taking a slightly different approach and focusing on goals first. What are your business goals? What are your goals for your website? What are your goals for your users? And then choosing a domain that matches those goals. By the end, instead of what's better for SEO, we're going to hopefully have answered, "What best suits my unique goals?"

Before we start...define!

Before we start, let's launch into some quick definitions just so we all kind of know what we're talking about and why all the different terminology we're going to be using.

Main domain

Main domain, this is often called a root domain in some cases. That's anything that precedes your dot com or other TLD. So YourSite.com, it lives right before that.

Subdomain

A subdomain is a third-level domain name for your domain. So example, Blog.YourSite.com, that would be a subdomain.

Subfolder

A subfolder, or some people call this subdirectory, those are folders trailing the dot com. An example would be YourSite.com/blog. That /blog is the folder. That's a subfolder.

Microsite

A microsite, there's a lot of different terminology around this type of domain selection, but it's just a completely separate domain from your main domain. The focus is usually a little bit more niche than the topic of your main website.

That would be YourSite1.com and YourSite2.com. They're two totally, completely separate domains.

Business goals that can impact domain structure

Next we're going to start talking about business goals that can impact domain structure. There are a lot of different business goals. You want to grow revenue. You want more customers. But we're specifically here going to be talking about the types of business goals that can impact domain selection.

1. Expand locations/products/services

The first one here that we're going to talk about is the business wants to expand their locations, their products, or their services. They want to grow. They want to expand in some way. An example I like to use is say this clothing store has two locations. They have two storefronts. They have one in Dallas and one in Fort Worth.

So they launch two websites — CoolClothesDallas.com and CoolClothesFortWorth.com. But the problem with that is if you want to grow, you're going to open stores in Austin, Houston, etc. You've set the precedent that you're going to have a different domain for every single location, which is not really future-proof. It's hard to scale. Every time you launch a brand-new website, that's a lot of work to launch it, a lot of work to maintain it.

So if you plan on growing and getting into new locations or products or services or whatever it might be, just make sure you select a domain structure that's going to accommodate that. In particular, I would say a main root domain with subfolders for the different products or services you have is probably the best bet for that situation. So you have YourSite.com/Product1, /Product2, and you talk about it in that sense because it's all related. It's all the same topic. It's more future-proof. It's easier to add a page than it is to launch a whole new domain.

2. Set apart distinct facets of business

So another business goal that can affect your domain structure would be that the business wants to set apart distinct facets within their business. An example I found that was actually kind of helpful is Apple.com has a subdomain for Trailers.Apple.com.

Now, I'm not Apple. I don't really know exactly why they do this, but I have to imagine that it was because there are very different intents and uses for those different types of content that live on the subdomain versus the main site. So Trailers has movie trailers, lots of different content, and Apple.com is talking more about their consumer products, more about that type of thing.

So the audiences are slightly different. The intents are very different. In that situation, if you have a situation like that and that matches what your business is encountering, you want to set it apart, it has a different audience, you might want to consider a subdomain or maybe even a microsite. Just keep in mind that it takes effort to maintain each domain that you launch.

So make sure you have the resources to do this. You could, if you didn't have the resources, put it all on the main domain. But if you want a little bit more separation, the different aspects of your business are very disparate and you don't want them really associated on the same domain, you could separate it out with a subdomain or a microsite. Just, again, make sure that you have the resources to maintain it, because while both have equal ability to rank, it's the effort that increases with each new website you launch.

3. Differentiate uniquely branded sub-departments

Three, another goal is to differentiate uniquely branded sub-departments. There is a lot of this I've noticed in the healthcare space. So the sites that I've worked on, say they have Joe Smith Health, and this is the health system, the umbrella health system. Then within that you have Joe Smith Endocrinology.

Usually those types of situations they have completely different branding. They're in a different location. They reach a different audience, a different community. So in those situations I've seen that, especially healthcare, they usually have the resources to launch and maintain a completely different domain for that uniquely branded sub-department, and that might make sense.

Again, make sure you have the resources. But if it's very, very different, whether in branding or audience or intent, than the content that's on your main website, then I might consider separating them. Another example of this is sometimes you have a parent company and they own a lot of different companies, but that's about where the similarities stop.

They're just only owned by the parent company. All the different subcompanies don't have anything to do with each other. I would probably say it's wisest to separate those into their own unique domains. They probably definitely have unique branding. They're totally different companies. They're just owned by the same company. In those situations it might make sense, again, to separate them, but just know that they're not going to have any ranking benefit for each other because they're just completely separate domains.

4. Temporary or seasonal campaigns

The fourth business goal we're going to talk about is a temporary or a seasonal campaign. This one is not as common, but I figured I would just mention it. Sometimes a business will want to run a conference or sponsor an event or get a lot of media attention around some initiative that's separate from what their business does or offers, and it's just more of an events-based, seasonal type of thing.

In those situations it might make sense to do a microsite that's completely branded for that event. It's not necessary. For example, Moz has MozCon, and that's located on subfolder Moz.com/MozCon. You don't have to do that, but it certainly is an option for you if you want to uniquely brand it.

It can also be really good for press. I've noticed just in my experience, I don't know if this is widely common, but sometimes the press tends to just link to the homepage because that's what they know. They don't link to a specific page on your site. They don't know always where it's located. It's just easier to link to the main domain. If you want to build links specifically for this event that are really relevant, you might want to do a microsite or something like that.

Just make sure that when the event is over, don't just let it float out there and die. Especially if you build links and attention around it, make sure you 301 that back to your main website as long as that makes sense. So temporary or seasonal campaigns, that could be the way to go — microsite, subfolder. You have some options there.

5. Test out a new agency or consultant

Then finally the last goal we're going to be talking about that could impact domain structure is testing out a new agency or consultant.

Now this one holds a special place in my heart having worked for an agency prior to this for almost seven years. It's actually really common, and I can empathize with businesses who are in this situation. They are about to hand over their keys to their domain to a brand-new company. They don't quite know if they trust them yet.

Especially this is concerning if a business has a really strong domain that they've built up over time. It can be really scary to just let someone take over your domain. In some cases I have encountered, the business goes, "Hey, we'd love to test you out. We think you're great.However, you can't touch the main domain.You have to do your SEO somewhere else." That's okay, but we're kind of handcuffed in that situation.

You would have to, at that point, use a subdomain or a microsite, just a completely different website. If you can't touch the main domain, you don't really have many other options than that. You just have to launch on a brand-new thing. In that situation, it's a little frustrating, actually quite frustrating for SEOs because they're starting from nothing.

They have no authority inherited from that main domain. They're starting from square one. They have to build that up over time. While that's possible, just know that it kind of sets you back. You're way behind the starting line in that situation with using a subdomain or a microsite, not being able to touch that main domain.

If you find yourself in this situation and you can negotiate this, just make sure that the company that's hiring you is giving you enough time to prove the value of SEO. This is tried-and-true for a reason, but SEO is a marathon. It's not a sprint. It's not pay to play like paid advertising is. In that situation, just make sure that whoever is hiring you is giving you enough time.

Enough time is kind of dependent on how competitive the goals are. If they're asking you, "Hey, I'm going to test you out for this really, really competitive, high-volume keyword or group of keywords and you only have one month to do it," you're kind of set up to fail in that situation. Either ask them for more time, or I probably wouldn't take that job. So testing out a new agency or consultant is definitely something that can impact your ability to launch on one domain type versus another.

Pitfalls!

Now that we've talked about all of those, I'm just going to wrap up with some pitfalls. A lot of these are going to be repeat, but just as a way of review just watch out for these things.

Failing to future-proof

Like I said earlier, if you're planning on growing in the future, just make sure that your domain matches your future plans.

Exact-match domains

There's nothing inherently wrong with exact-match domains. It's just that you can't expect to launch a microsite with a bunch of keywords that are relevant to your business in your domain and just set it and forget it and hope that the keywords in the domain alone are what's going to get it to rank. That doesn't work anymore. It's not worked for a while. You have to actually proactively be adding value to that microsite.

Maybe you've decided that that makes sense for your business. That's great. Just make sure that you put in the resources to make it valuable outside of just the keywords in the domain.

Over-fragmenting

One thing I like to say is, "Would you rather have 3 websites with 10 backlinks each, or 1 website with 30 backlinks?" That's just a way to illustrate that if you don't have the resources to equally dedicate to each of those domains or subdomains or microsites or whatever you decided to launch, it's not going to be as strong.

Usually what I see when I evaluate a customer or a client's domain structure, usually there is one standout domain that has all of the content, all of the authority, all of the backlinks, and then the other ones just kind of suffer and they're usually stronger together than they are apart. So while it is totally possible to do separate websites, just make sure that you don't fragment so much that you're spread too thin to actually do anything effective on the SEO front.

Ignoring user experience

Look at your websites from the eyes of your users. If someone is going to go to the search results page and Google search your business name, are they going to see five websites there? That's kind of confusing unless they're very differently branded, different intents. They'll probably be confused.

Like, "Is this where I go to contact your business? How about this? Is it this?" There are just a lot of different ways that can cause confusion, so just keep that in mind. Also if you have a website where you're addressing two completely different audiences within your website — if a consumer, for example, can be browsing blouses and then somehow end up accidentally on a section that's only for employees — that's a little confusing for user experience.

Make sure you either gate that or make it a subdomain or a microsite. Just separate them if that would be confusing for your main user base.

Set it and forget it

Like I said, I keep repeating this just because it's so, so important. Every type of domain has equal ability to rank. It really does.

It's just the effort that gets harder and harder with each new website. Just make sure that you don't just decide to do microsites and subdomains and then don't do anything with them. That can be a totally fine choice. Just make sure that you don't set it and forget it, that you actually have the resources and you have the ability to keep building those up.

Intent overlap between domains

The last one I'll talk about in the pitfall department is intent overlap between domains.

I see this one actually kind of a lot. It can be like a winery. So they have tastings.winery.com or something like that. In that situation, their Tasting subdomain talks all about their wine tasting, their tasting room. It's very focused on that niche of their business. But then on Winery.com they also have extensive content about tastings. Well, you've got overlap there, and you're kind of making yourself do more work than you have to.

I would choose one or the other and not both. Just make sure that there's no overlap there if you do choose to do separate domains, subdomains, microsites, that kind of thing. Make sure that there's no overlap and each of them has a distinct purpose.

Two important questions to focus on:

Now that we're to the end of this, I really want the takeaway to be these two questions. I think this will make domain selection a lot easier when you focus on these two questions.

What am I trying to accomplish? What are the goals? What am I trying to do? Just focus on that first. Then second of all, and probably most important, what is best for my users? So focus on your goals, focus on your users, and I think the domain selection process will be a lot easier. It's not easy by any means.

There are some very complicated situations, but I think, in the end, it's going to be a lot easier if you focus on your goals and your users. If you have any comments regarding domain selection that you think would be helpful for others to know, please share it in the comments below. That's it for this week's Whiteboard Friday, and come back next week for another one. Thanks everybody.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com


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The Goal-Based Approach to Domain Selection - Whiteboard Friday

Posted by KameronJenkins

Choosing a domain is a big deal, and there's a lot that goes into it. Even with everything that goes into determining your URL, there are two essential questions to ask that ought to guide your decision-making: what are my goals, and what's best for my users? In today's edition of Whiteboard Friday, we're beyond delighted to welcome Kameron Jenkins, our SEO Wordsmith, to the show to teach us all about how to select a domain that aligns with and supports your business goals.

Goal-based Approach to Domain Selection

Click on the whiteboard image above to open a high-resolution version in a new tab!

Video Transcription

Hey, everyone. Welcome to this week's edition of Whiteboard Friday. My name is Kameron Jenkins, and I am the SEO Wordsmith here at Moz. Today we're going to be talking about a goals-based approach to choosing a domain type or a domain selection.

There are a lot of questions in the SEO industry right now, and as an agency, I used to work at an agency, and a lot of times our clients would ask us, "Should I do a microsite? Should I do a subdomain? Should I consolidate all my sites?" There is a lot of confusion about the SEO impact of all of these different types of domain choices, and there certainly are SEO ramifications for each type, but today we're going to be taking a slightly different approach and focusing on goals first. What are your business goals? What are your goals for your website? What are your goals for your users? And then choosing a domain that matches those goals. By the end, instead of what's better for SEO, we're going to hopefully have answered, "What best suits my unique goals?"

Before we start...define!

Before we start, let's launch into some quick definitions just so we all kind of know what we're talking about and why all the different terminology we're going to be using.

Main domain

Main domain, this is often called a root domain in some cases. That's anything that precedes your dot com or other TLD. So YourSite.com, it lives right before that.

Subdomain

A subdomain is a third-level domain name for your domain. So example, Blog.YourSite.com, that would be a subdomain.

Subfolder

A subfolder, or some people call this subdirectory, those are folders trailing the dot com. An example would be YourSite.com/blog. That /blog is the folder. That's a subfolder.

Microsite

A microsite, there's a lot of different terminology around this type of domain selection, but it's just a completely separate domain from your main domain. The focus is usually a little bit more niche than the topic of your main website.

That would be YourSite1.com and YourSite2.com. They're two totally, completely separate domains.

Business goals that can impact domain structure

Next we're going to start talking about business goals that can impact domain structure. There are a lot of different business goals. You want to grow revenue. You want more customers. But we're specifically here going to be talking about the types of business goals that can impact domain selection.

1. Expand locations/products/services

The first one here that we're going to talk about is the business wants to expand their locations, their products, or their services. They want to grow. They want to expand in some way. An example I like to use is say this clothing store has two locations. They have two storefronts. They have one in Dallas and one in Fort Worth.

So they launch two websites — CoolClothesDallas.com and CoolClothesFortWorth.com. But the problem with that is if you want to grow, you're going to open stores in Austin, Houston, etc. You've set the precedent that you're going to have a different domain for every single location, which is not really future-proof. It's hard to scale. Every time you launch a brand-new website, that's a lot of work to launch it, a lot of work to maintain it.

So if you plan on growing and getting into new locations or products or services or whatever it might be, just make sure you select a domain structure that's going to accommodate that. In particular, I would say a main root domain with subfolders for the different products or services you have is probably the best bet for that situation. So you have YourSite.com/Product1, /Product2, and you talk about it in that sense because it's all related. It's all the same topic. It's more future-proof. It's easier to add a page than it is to launch a whole new domain.

2. Set apart distinct facets of business

So another business goal that can affect your domain structure would be that the business wants to set apart distinct facets within their business. An example I found that was actually kind of helpful is Apple.com has a subdomain for Trailers.Apple.com.

Now, I'm not Apple. I don't really know exactly why they do this, but I have to imagine that it was because there are very different intents and uses for those different types of content that live on the subdomain versus the main site. So Trailers has movie trailers, lots of different content, and Apple.com is talking more about their consumer products, more about that type of thing.

So the audiences are slightly different. The intents are very different. In that situation, if you have a situation like that and that matches what your business is encountering, you want to set it apart, it has a different audience, you might want to consider a subdomain or maybe even a microsite. Just keep in mind that it takes effort to maintain each domain that you launch.

So make sure you have the resources to do this. You could, if you didn't have the resources, put it all on the main domain. But if you want a little bit more separation, the different aspects of your business are very disparate and you don't want them really associated on the same domain, you could separate it out with a subdomain or a microsite. Just, again, make sure that you have the resources to maintain it, because while both have equal ability to rank, it's the effort that increases with each new website you launch.

3. Differentiate uniquely branded sub-departments

Three, another goal is to differentiate uniquely branded sub-departments. There is a lot of this I've noticed in the healthcare space. So the sites that I've worked on, say they have Joe Smith Health, and this is the health system, the umbrella health system. Then within that you have Joe Smith Endocrinology.

Usually those types of situations they have completely different branding. They're in a different location. They reach a different audience, a different community. So in those situations I've seen that, especially healthcare, they usually have the resources to launch and maintain a completely different domain for that uniquely branded sub-department, and that might make sense.

Again, make sure you have the resources. But if it's very, very different, whether in branding or audience or intent, than the content that's on your main website, then I might consider separating them. Another example of this is sometimes you have a parent company and they own a lot of different companies, but that's about where the similarities stop.

They're just only owned by the parent company. All the different subcompanies don't have anything to do with each other. I would probably say it's wisest to separate those into their own unique domains. They probably definitely have unique branding. They're totally different companies. They're just owned by the same company. In those situations it might make sense, again, to separate them, but just know that they're not going to have any ranking benefit for each other because they're just completely separate domains.

4. Temporary or seasonal campaigns

The fourth business goal we're going to talk about is a temporary or a seasonal campaign. This one is not as common, but I figured I would just mention it. Sometimes a business will want to run a conference or sponsor an event or get a lot of media attention around some initiative that's separate from what their business does or offers, and it's just more of an events-based, seasonal type of thing.

In those situations it might make sense to do a microsite that's completely branded for that event. It's not necessary. For example, Moz has MozCon, and that's located on subfolder Moz.com/MozCon. You don't have to do that, but it certainly is an option for you if you want to uniquely brand it.

It can also be really good for press. I've noticed just in my experience, I don't know if this is widely common, but sometimes the press tends to just link to the homepage because that's what they know. They don't link to a specific page on your site. They don't know always where it's located. It's just easier to link to the main domain. If you want to build links specifically for this event that are really relevant, you might want to do a microsite or something like that.

Just make sure that when the event is over, don't just let it float out there and die. Especially if you build links and attention around it, make sure you 301 that back to your main website as long as that makes sense. So temporary or seasonal campaigns, that could be the way to go — microsite, subfolder. You have some options there.

5. Test out a new agency or consultant

Then finally the last goal we're going to be talking about that could impact domain structure is testing out a new agency or consultant.

Now this one holds a special place in my heart having worked for an agency prior to this for almost seven years. It's actually really common, and I can empathize with businesses who are in this situation. They are about to hand over their keys to their domain to a brand-new company. They don't quite know if they trust them yet.

Especially this is concerning if a business has a really strong domain that they've built up over time. It can be really scary to just let someone take over your domain. In some cases I have encountered, the business goes, "Hey, we'd love to test you out. We think you're great.However, you can't touch the main domain.You have to do your SEO somewhere else." That's okay, but we're kind of handcuffed in that situation.

You would have to, at that point, use a subdomain or a microsite, just a completely different website. If you can't touch the main domain, you don't really have many other options than that. You just have to launch on a brand-new thing. In that situation, it's a little frustrating, actually quite frustrating for SEOs because they're starting from nothing.

They have no authority inherited from that main domain. They're starting from square one. They have to build that up over time. While that's possible, just know that it kind of sets you back. You're way behind the starting line in that situation with using a subdomain or a microsite, not being able to touch that main domain.

If you find yourself in this situation and you can negotiate this, just make sure that the company that's hiring you is giving you enough time to prove the value of SEO. This is tried-and-true for a reason, but SEO is a marathon. It's not a sprint. It's not pay to play like paid advertising is. In that situation, just make sure that whoever is hiring you is giving you enough time.

Enough time is kind of dependent on how competitive the goals are. If they're asking you, "Hey, I'm going to test you out for this really, really competitive, high-volume keyword or group of keywords and you only have one month to do it," you're kind of set up to fail in that situation. Either ask them for more time, or I probably wouldn't take that job. So testing out a new agency or consultant is definitely something that can impact your ability to launch on one domain type versus another.

Pitfalls!

Now that we've talked about all of those, I'm just going to wrap up with some pitfalls. A lot of these are going to be repeat, but just as a way of review just watch out for these things.

Failing to future-proof

Like I said earlier, if you're planning on growing in the future, just make sure that your domain matches your future plans.

Exact-match domains

There's nothing inherently wrong with exact-match domains. It's just that you can't expect to launch a microsite with a bunch of keywords that are relevant to your business in your domain and just set it and forget it and hope that the keywords in the domain alone are what's going to get it to rank. That doesn't work anymore. It's not worked for a while. You have to actually proactively be adding value to that microsite.

Maybe you've decided that that makes sense for your business. That's great. Just make sure that you put in the resources to make it valuable outside of just the keywords in the domain.

Over-fragmenting

One thing I like to say is, "Would you rather have 3 websites with 10 backlinks each, or 1 website with 30 backlinks?" That's just a way to illustrate that if you don't have the resources to equally dedicate to each of those domains or subdomains or microsites or whatever you decided to launch, it's not going to be as strong.

Usually what I see when I evaluate a customer or a client's domain structure, usually there is one standout domain that has all of the content, all of the authority, all of the backlinks, and then the other ones just kind of suffer and they're usually stronger together than they are apart. So while it is totally possible to do separate websites, just make sure that you don't fragment so much that you're spread too thin to actually do anything effective on the SEO front.

Ignoring user experience

Look at your websites from the eyes of your users. If someone is going to go to the search results page and Google search your business name, are they going to see five websites there? That's kind of confusing unless they're very differently branded, different intents. They'll probably be confused.

Like, "Is this where I go to contact your business? How about this? Is it this?" There are just a lot of different ways that can cause confusion, so just keep that in mind. Also if you have a website where you're addressing two completely different audiences within your website — if a consumer, for example, can be browsing blouses and then somehow end up accidentally on a section that's only for employees — that's a little confusing for user experience.

Make sure you either gate that or make it a subdomain or a microsite. Just separate them if that would be confusing for your main user base.

Set it and forget it

Like I said, I keep repeating this just because it's so, so important. Every type of domain has equal ability to rank. It really does.

It's just the effort that gets harder and harder with each new website. Just make sure that you don't just decide to do microsites and subdomains and then don't do anything with them. That can be a totally fine choice. Just make sure that you don't set it and forget it, that you actually have the resources and you have the ability to keep building those up.

Intent overlap between domains

The last one I'll talk about in the pitfall department is intent overlap between domains.

I see this one actually kind of a lot. It can be like a winery. So they have tastings.winery.com or something like that. In that situation, their Tasting subdomain talks all about their wine tasting, their tasting room. It's very focused on that niche of their business. But then on Winery.com they also have extensive content about tastings. Well, you've got overlap there, and you're kind of making yourself do more work than you have to.

I would choose one or the other and not both. Just make sure that there's no overlap there if you do choose to do separate domains, subdomains, microsites, that kind of thing. Make sure that there's no overlap and each of them has a distinct purpose.

Two important questions to focus on:

Now that we're to the end of this, I really want the takeaway to be these two questions. I think this will make domain selection a lot easier when you focus on these two questions.

What am I trying to accomplish? What are the goals? What am I trying to do? Just focus on that first. Then second of all, and probably most important, what is best for my users? So focus on your goals, focus on your users, and I think the domain selection process will be a lot easier. It's not easy by any means.

There are some very complicated situations, but I think, in the end, it's going to be a lot easier if you focus on your goals and your users. If you have any comments regarding domain selection that you think would be helpful for others to know, please share it in the comments below. That's it for this week's Whiteboard Friday, and come back next week for another one. Thanks everybody.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com


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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

An 8-Point Checklist for Debugging Strange Technical SEO Problems

Posted by Dom-Woodman

Occasionally, a problem will land on your desk that's a little out of the ordinary. Something where you don't have an easy answer. You go to your brain and your brain returns nothing.

These problems can’t be solved with a little bit of keyword research and basic technical configuration. These are the types of technical SEO problems where the rabbit hole goes deep.

The very nature of these situations defies a checklist, but it's useful to have one for the same reason we have them on planes: even the best of us can and will forget things, and a checklist will provvide you with places to dig.


Fancy some examples of strange SEO problems? Here are four examples to mull over while you read. We’ll answer them at the end.

1. Why wasn’t Google showing 5-star markup on product pages?

  • The pages had server-rendered product markup and they also had Feefo product markup, including ratings being attached client-side.
  • The Feefo ratings snippet was successfully rendered in Fetch & Render, plus the mobile-friendly tool.
  • When you put the rendered DOM into the structured data testing tool, both pieces of structured data appeared without errors.

2. Why wouldn’t Bing display 5-star markup on review pages, when Google would?

  • The review pages of client & competitors all had rating rich snippets on Google.
  • All the competitors had rating rich snippets on Bing; however, the client did not.
  • The review pages had correctly validating ratings schema on Google’s structured data testing tool, but did not on Bing.

3. Why were pages getting indexed with a no-index tag?

  • Pages with a server-side-rendered no-index tag in the head were being indexed by Google across a large template for a client.

4. Why did any page on a website return a 302 about 20–50% of the time, but only for crawlers?

  • A website was randomly throwing 302 errors.
  • This never happened in the browser and only in crawlers.
  • User agent made no difference; location or cookies also made no difference.

Finally, a quick note. It’s entirely possible that some of this checklist won’t apply to every scenario. That’s totally fine. It’s meant to be a process for everything you could check, not everything you should check.

The pre-checklist check

Does it actually matter?

Does this problem only affect a tiny amount of traffic? Is it only on a handful of pages and you already have a big list of other actions that will help the website? You probably need to just drop it.

I know, I hate it too. I also want to be right and dig these things out. But in six months' time, when you've solved twenty complex SEO rabbit holes and your website has stayed flat because you didn't re-write the title tags, you're still going to get fired.

But hopefully that's not the case, in which case, onwards!

Where are you seeing the problem?

We don’t want to waste a lot of time. Have you heard this wonderful saying?: “If you hear hooves, it’s probably not a zebra.”

The process we’re about to go through is fairly involved and it’s entirely up to your discretion if you want to go ahead. Just make sure you’re not overlooking something obvious that would solve your problem. Here are some common problems I’ve come across that were mostly horses.

  1. You’re underperforming from where you should be.
    1. When a site is under-performing, people love looking for excuses. Weird Google nonsense can be quite a handy thing to blame. In reality, it’s typically some combination of a poor site, higher competition, and a failing brand. Horse.
  2. You’ve suffered a sudden traffic drop.
    1. Something has certainly happened, but this is probably not the checklist for you. There are plenty of common-sense checklists for this. I’ve written about diagnosing traffic drops recently — check that out first.
  3. The wrong page is ranking for the wrong query.
    1. In my experience (which should probably preface this entire post), this is usually a basic problem where a site has poor targeting or a lot of cannibalization. Probably a horse.

Factors which make it more likely that you’ve got a more complex problem which require you to don your debugging shoes:

  • A website that has a lot of client-side JavaScript.
  • Bigger, older websites with more legacy.
  • Your problem is related to a new Google property or feature where there is less community knowledge.

1. Start by picking some example pages.

Pick a couple of example pages to work with — ones that exhibit whatever problem you're seeing. No, this won't be representative, but we'll come back to that in a bit.

Of course, if it only affects a tiny number of pages then it might actually be representative, in which case we're good. It definitely matters, right? You didn't just skip the step above? OK, cool, let's move on.

2. Can Google crawl the page once?

First we’re checking whether Googlebot has access to the page, which we’ll define as a 200 status code.

We’ll check in four different ways to expose any common issues:

  1. Robots.txt: Open up Search Console and check in the robots.txt validator.
  2. User agent: Open Dev Tools and verify that you can open the URL with both Googlebot and Googlebot Mobile.
    1. To get the user agent switcher, open Dev Tools.
    2. Check the console drawer is open (the toggle is the Escape key)
    3. Hit the … and open "Network conditions"
    4. Here, select your user agent!

  1. IP Address: Verify that you can access the page with the mobile testing tool. (This will come from one of the IPs used by Google; any checks you do from your computer won't.)
  2. Country: The mobile testing tool will visit from US IPs, from what I've seen, so we get two birds with one stone. But Googlebot will occasionally crawl from non-American IPs, so it’s also worth using a VPN to double-check whether you can access the site from any other relevant countries.
    1. I’ve used HideMyAss for this before, but whatever VPN you have will work fine.

We should now have an idea whether or not Googlebot is struggling to fetch the page once.

Have we found any problems yet?

If we can re-create a failed crawl with a simple check above, then it’s likely Googlebot is probably failing consistently to fetch our page and it’s typically one of those basic reasons.

But it might not be. Many problems are inconsistent because of the nature of technology. ;)

3. Are we telling Google two different things?

Next up: Google can find the page, but are we confusing it by telling it two different things?

This is most commonly seen, in my experience, because someone has messed up the indexing directives.

By "indexing directives," I’m referring to any tag that defines the correct index status or page in the index which should rank. Here’s a non-exhaustive list:

  • No-index
  • Canonical
  • Mobile alternate tags
  • AMP alternate tags

An example of providing mixed messages would be:

  • No-indexing page A
  • Page B canonicals to page A

Or:

  • Page A has a canonical in a header to A with a parameter
  • Page A has a canonical in the body to A without a parameter

If we’re providing mixed messages, then it’s not clear how Google will respond. It’s a great way to start seeing strange results.

Good places to check for the indexing directives listed above are:

  • Sitemap
    • Example: Mobile alternate tags can sit in a sitemap
  • HTTP headers
    • Example: Canonical and meta robots can be set in headers.
  • HTML head
    • This is where you’re probably looking, you’ll need this one for a comparison.
  • JavaScript-rendered vs hard-coded directives
    • You might be setting one thing in the page source and then rendering another with JavaScript, i.e. you would see something different in the HTML source from the rendered DOM.
  • Google Search Console settings
    • There are Search Console settings for ignoring parameters and country localization that can clash with indexing tags on the page.

A quick aside on rendered DOM

This page has a lot of mentions of the rendered DOM on it (18, if you’re curious). Since we’ve just had our first, here’s a quick recap about what that is.

When you load a webpage, the first request is the HTML. This is what you see in the HTML source (right-click on a webpage and click View Source).

This is before JavaScript has done anything to the page. This didn’t use to be such a big deal, but now so many websites rely heavily on JavaScript that the most people quite reasonably won’t trust the the initial HTML.

Rendered DOM is the technical term for a page, when all the JavaScript has been rendered and all the page alterations made. You can see this in Dev Tools.

In Chrome you can get that by right clicking and hitting inspect element (or Ctrl + Shift + I). The Elements tab will show the DOM as it’s being rendered. When it stops flickering and changing, then you’ve got the rendered DOM!

4. Can Google crawl the page consistently?

To see what Google is seeing, we're going to need to get log files. At this point, we can check to see how it is accessing the page.

Aside: Working with logs is an entire post in and of itself. I’ve written a guide to log analysis with BigQuery, I’d also really recommend trying out Screaming Frog Log Analyzer, which has done a great job of handling a lot of the complexity around logs.

When we’re looking at crawling there are three useful checks we can do:

  1. Status codes: Plot the status codes over time. Is Google seeing different status codes than you when you check URLs?
  2. Resources: Is Google downloading all the resources of the page?
    1. Is it downloading all your site-specific JavaScript and CSS files that it would need to generate the page?
  3. Page size follow-up: Take the max and min of all your pages and resources and diff them. If you see a difference, then Google might be failing to fully download all the resources or pages. (Hat tip to @ohgm, where I first heard this neat tip).

Have we found any problems yet?

If Google isn't getting 200s consistently in our log files, but we can access the page fine when we try, then there is clearly still some differences between Googlebot and ourselves. What might those differences be?

  1. It will crawl more than us
  2. It is obviously a bot, rather than a human pretending to be a bot
  3. It will crawl at different times of day

This means that:

  • If our website is doing clever bot blocking, it might be able to differentiate between us and Googlebot.
  • Because Googlebot will put more stress on our web servers, it might behave differently. When websites have a lot of bots or visitors visiting at once, they might take certain actions to help keep the website online. They might turn on more computers to power the website (this is called scaling), they might also attempt to rate-limit users who are requesting lots of pages, or serve reduced versions of pages.
  • Servers run tasks periodically; for example, a listings website might run a daily task at 01:00 to clean up all it’s old listings, which might affect server performance.

Working out what’s happening with these periodic effects is going to be fiddly; you’re probably going to need to talk to a back-end developer.

Depending on your skill level, you might not know exactly where to lead the discussion. A useful structure for a discussion is often to talk about how a request passes through your technology stack and then look at the edge cases we discussed above.

  • What happens to the servers under heavy load?
  • When do important scheduled tasks happen?

Two useful pieces of information to enter this conversation with:

  1. Depending on the regularity of the problem in the logs, it is often worth trying to re-create the problem by attempting to crawl the website with a crawler at the same speed/intensity that Google is using to see if you can find/cause the same issues. This won’t always be possible depending on the size of the site, but for some sites it will be. Being able to consistently re-create a problem is the best way to get it solved.
  2. If you can’t, however, then try to provide the exact periods of time where Googlebot was seeing the problems. This will give the developer the best chance of tying the issue to other logs to let them debug what was happening.

If Google can crawl the page consistently, then we move onto our next step.

5. Does Google see what I can see on a one-off basis?

We know Google is crawling the page correctly. The next step is to try and work out what Google is seeing on the page. If you’ve got a JavaScript-heavy website you’ve probably banged your head against this problem before, but even if you don’t this can still sometimes be an issue.

We follow the same pattern as before. First, we try to re-create it once. The following tools will let us do that:

  • Fetch & Render
    • Shows: Rendered DOM in an image, but only returns the page source HTML for you to read.
  • Mobile-friendly test
    • Shows: Rendered DOM and returns rendered DOM for you to read.
    • Not only does this show you rendered DOM, but it will also track any console errors.

Is there a difference between Fetch & Render, the mobile-friendly testing tool, and Googlebot? Not really, with the exception of timeouts (which is why we have our later steps!). Here’s the full analysis of the difference between them, if you’re interested.

Once we have the output from these, we compare them to what we ordinarily see in our browser. I’d recommend using a tool like Diff Checker to compare the two.

Have we found any problems yet?

If we encounter meaningful differences at this point, then in my experience it’s typically either from JavaScript or cookies

Why?

We can isolate each of these by:

  • Loading the page with no cookies. This can be done simply by loading the page with a fresh incognito session and comparing the rendered DOM here against the rendered DOM in our ordinary browser.
  • Use the mobile testing tool to see the page with Chrome 41 and compare against the rendered DOM we normally see with Inspect Element.

Yet again we can compare them using something like Diff Checker, which will allow us to spot any differences. You might want to use an HTML formatter to help line them up better.

We can also see the JavaScript errors thrown using the Mobile-Friendly Testing Tool, which may prove particularly useful if you’re confident in your JavaScript.

If, using this knowledge and these tools, we can recreate the bug, then we have something that can be replicated and it’s easier for us to hand off to a developer as a bug that will get fixed.

If we’re seeing everything is correct here, we move on to the next step.

6. What is Google actually seeing?

It’s possible that what Google is seeing is different from what we recreate using the tools in the previous step. Why? A couple main reasons:

  • Overloaded servers can have all sorts of strange behaviors. For example, they might be returning 200 codes, but perhaps with a default page.
  • JavaScript is rendered separately from pages being crawled and Googlebot may spend less time rendering JavaScript than a testing tool.
  • There is often a lot of caching in the creation of web pages and this can cause issues.

We’ve gotten this far without talking about time! Pages don’t get crawled instantly, and crawled pages don’t get indexed instantly.

Quick sidebar: What is caching?

Caching is often a problem if you get to this stage. Unlike JS, it’s not talked about as much in our community, so it’s worth some more explanation in case you’re not familiar. Caching is storing something so it’s available more quickly next time.

When you request a webpage, a lot of calculations happen to generate that page. If you then refreshed the page when it was done, it would be incredibly wasteful to just re-run all those same calculations. Instead, servers will often save the output and serve you the output without re-running them. Saving the output is called caching.

Why do we need to know this? Well, we’re already well out into the weeds at this point and so it’s possible that a cache is misconfigured and the wrong information is being returned to users.

There aren’t many good beginner resources on caching which go into more depth. However, I found this article on caching basics to be one of the more friendly ones. It covers some of the basic types of caching quite well.

How can we see what Google is actually working with?

  • Google’s cache
    • Shows: Source code
    • While this won’t show you the rendered DOM, it is showing you the raw HTML Googlebot actually saw when visiting the page. You’ll need to check this with JS disabled; otherwise, on opening it, your browser will run all the JS on the cached version.
  • Site searches for specific content
    • Shows: A tiny snippet of rendered content.
    • By searching for a specific phrase on a page, e.g. inurl:example.com/url “only JS rendered text”, you can see if Google has manage to index a specific snippet of content. Of course, it only works for visible text and misses a lot of the content, but it's better than nothing!
    • Better yet, do the same thing with a rank tracker, to see if it changes over time.
  • Storing the actual rendered DOM
    • Shows: Rendered DOM
    • Alex from DeepCrawl has written about saving the rendered DOM from Googlebot. The TL;DR version: Google will render JS and post to endpoints, so we can get it to submit the JS-rendered version of a page that it sees. We can then save that, examine it, and see what went wrong.

Have we found any problems yet?

Again, once we’ve found the problem, it’s time to go and talk to a developer. The advice for this conversation is identical to the last one — everything I said there still applies.

The other knowledge you should go into this conversation armed with: how Google works and where it can struggle. While your developer will know the technical ins and outs of your website and how it’s built, they might not know much about how Google works. Together, this can help you reach the answer more quickly.

The obvious source for this are resources or presentations given by Google themselves. Of the various resources that have come out, I’ve found these two to be some of the more useful ones for giving insight into first principles:

But there is often a difference between statements Google will make and what the SEO community sees in practice. All the SEO experiments people tirelessly perform in our industry can also help shed some insight. There are far too many list here, but here are two good examples:

7. Could Google be aggregating your website across others?

If we’ve reached this point, we’re pretty happy that our website is running smoothly. But not all problems can be solved just on your website; sometimes you’ve got to look to the wider landscape and the SERPs around it.

Most commonly, what I’m looking for here is:

  • Similar/duplicate content to the pages that have the problem.
    • This could be intentional duplicate content (e.g. syndicating content) or unintentional (competitors' scraping or accidentally indexed sites).

Either way, they’re nearly always found by doing exact searches in Google. I.e. taking a relatively specific piece of content from your page and searching for it in quotes.

Have you found any problems yet?

If you find a number of other exact copies, then it’s possible they might be causing issues.

The best description I’ve come up with for “have you found a problem here?” is: do you think Google is aggregating together similar pages and only showing one? And if it is, is it picking the wrong page?

This doesn’t just have to be on traditional Google search. You might find a version of it on Google Jobs, Google News, etc.

To give an example, if you are a reseller, you might find content isn’t ranking because there's another, more authoritative reseller who consistently posts the same listings first.

Sometimes you’ll see this consistently and straightaway, while other times the aggregation might be changing over time. In that case, you’ll need a rank tracker for whatever Google property you’re working on to see it.

Jon Earnshaw from Pi Datametrics gave an excellent talk on the latter (around suspicious SERP flux) which is well worth watching.

Once you’ve found the problem, you’ll probably need to experiment to find out how to get around it, but the easiest factors to play with are usually:

  • De-duplication of content
  • Speed of discovery (you can often improve by putting up a 24-hour RSS feed of all the new content that appears)
  • Lowering syndication

8. A roundup of some other likely suspects

If you’ve gotten this far, then we’re sure that:

  • Google can consistently crawl our pages as intended.
  • We’re sending Google consistent signals about the status of our page.
  • Google is consistently rendering our pages as we expect.
  • Google is picking the correct page out of any duplicates that might exist on the web.

And your problem still isn’t solved?

And it is important?

Well, shoot.

Feel free to hire us…?

As much as I’d love for this article to list every SEO problem ever, that’s not really practical, so to finish off this article let’s go through two more common gotchas and principles that didn’t really fit in elsewhere before the answers to those four problems we listed at the beginning.

Invalid/poorly constructed HTML

You and Googlebot might be seeing the same HTML, but it might be invalid or wrong. Googlebot (and any crawler, for that matter) has to provide workarounds when the HTML specification isn't followed, and those can sometimes cause strange behavior.

The easiest way to spot it is either by eye-balling the rendered DOM tools or using an HTML validator.

The W3C validator is very useful, but will throw up a lot of errors/warnings you won’t care about. The closest I can give to a one-line of summary of which ones are useful is to:

  • Look for errors
  • Ignore anything to do with attributes (won’t always apply, but is often true).

The classic example of this is breaking the head.

An iframe isn't allowed in the head code, so Chrome will end the head and start the body. Unfortunately, it takes the title and canonical with it, because they fall after it — so Google can't read them. The head code should have ended in a different place.

Oliver Mason wrote a good post that explains an even more subtle version of this in breaking the head quietly.

When in doubt, diff

Never underestimate the power of trying to compare two things line by line with a diff from something like Diff Checker. It won’t apply to everything, but when it does it’s powerful.

For example, if Google has suddenly stopped showing your featured markup, try to diff your page against a historical version either in your QA environment or from the Wayback Machine.


Answers to our original 4 questions

Time to answer those questions. These are all problems we’ve had clients bring to us at Distilled.

1. Why wasn’t Google showing 5-star markup on product pages?

Google was seeing both the server-rendered markup and the client-side-rendered markup; however, the server-rendered side was taking precedence.

Removing the server-rendered markup meant the 5-star markup began appearing.

2. Why wouldn’t Bing display 5-star markup on review pages, when Google would?

The problem came from the references to schema.org.

        <div itemscope="" itemtype="https://schema.org/Movie">
        </div>
        <p>  <h1 itemprop="name">Avatar</h1>
        </p>
        <p>  <span>Director: <span itemprop="director">James Cameron</span> (born August 16, 1954)</span>
        </p>
        <p>  <span itemprop="genre">Science fiction</span>
        </p>
        <p>  <a href="../movies/avatar-theatrical-trailer.html" itemprop="trailer">Trailer</a>
        </p>
        <p></div>
        </p>

We diffed our markup against our competitors and the only difference was we’d referenced the HTTPS version of schema.org in our itemtype, which caused Bing to not support it.

C’mon, Bing.

3. Why were pages getting indexed with a no-index tag?

The answer for this was in this post. This was a case of breaking the head.

The developers had installed some ad-tech in the head and inserted an non-standard tag, i.e. not:

  • <title>
  • <style>
  • <base>
  • <link>
  • <meta>
  • <script>
  • <noscript>

This caused the head to end prematurely and the no-index tag was left in the body where it wasn’t read.

4. Why did any page on a website return a 302 about 20–50% of the time, but only for crawlers?

This took some time to figure out. The client had an old legacy website that has two servers, one for the blog and one for the rest of the site. This issue started occurring shortly after a migration of the blog from a subdomain (blog.client.com) to a subdirectory (client.com/blog/…).

At surface level everything was fine; if a user requested any individual page, it all looked good. A crawl of all the blog URLs to check they’d redirected was fine.

But we noticed a sharp increase of errors being flagged in Search Console, and during a routine site-wide crawl, many pages that were fine when checked manually were causing redirect loops.

We checked using Fetch and Render, but once again, the pages were fine.

Eventually, it turned out that when a non-blog page was requested very quickly after a blog page (which, realistically, only a crawler is fast enough to achieve), the request for the non-blog page would be sent to the blog server.

These would then be caught by a long-forgotten redirect rule, which 302-redirected deleted blog posts (or other duff URLs) to the root. This, in turn, was caught by a blanket HTTP to HTTPS 301 redirect rule, which would be requested from the blog server again, perpetuating the loop.

For example, requesting https://www.client.com/blog/ followed quickly enough by https://www.client.com/category/ would result in:

  • 302 to http://www.client.com - This was the rule that redirected deleted blog posts to the root
  • 301 to https://www.client.com - This was the blanket HTTPS redirect
  • 302 to http://www.client.com - The blog server doesn’t know about the HTTPS non-blog homepage and it redirects back to the HTTP version. Rinse and repeat.

This caused the periodic 302 errors and it meant we could work with their devs to fix the problem.

What are the best brainteasers you've had?

Let’s hear them, people. What problems have you run into? Let us know in the comments.

Also credit to @RobinLord8, @TomAnthonySEO, @THCapper, @samnemzer, and @sergeystefoglo_ for help with this piece.


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