I was doing some research last week for a short blog post on the things that designers and front-end developers are getting wrong when it comes to SEO. Basic stuff, you know? I thought it'd be a nice helpful post that motivated people to continue to improve their SEO practices.
My first point of call were the websites of a number of local, well respected digital agencies. My thoughts were that I'd see what sort of things they might be having difficulty with - and help remedy that with some sound advice.
Like Alice stumbling clumsily down the rabbit-hole, I came upon something of a quagmire of problems and issues. Problems that are usually pretty simple to fix, but ones that had been overlooked (pretty severely in some cases) by a large percentage of the agencies I looked at.
That white rabbit beckoned further and I do believe I heard one madman in a top hat suggest I write about these discoveries instead, so I now present to you:
"Failing By Example: Digital Agencies Struggle With The SEO Basics"
Click the thumbnail at the right to view the infographic
I audited 20 local agencies (which will remain nameless) on a number of criteria. Largely the basics that I was taught from the start. Things that are often considered "best practice" and a couple of no-brainers.
Indexed Development Sites
First of all, upon running a
site: operator search for each agency's URL, I found that of the 20 sites checked, 10 of them had anywhere from 1 to 20 of their development sites indexed in Google. Both old and new development work it would seem.
Not only is this an obvious security and possible disclosure issue, but for those development sites which are for sites that have gone live elsewhere, there suddenly becomes a duplicate content issue. Two instances of a site with hundreds of pages is going to be a problem and likely detrimental for those clients.
Pages In The Secondary Index
Google often truncates the amount of listings it displays on result pages. Usually this is down to a determination that there's duplicated content, or that the pages are so similar, that they'll be no use to anybody searching.
So with this apparent demotion within Google's eyes, you'll struggle to get maximum exposure for all of your site's pages.
The solution is to try and avoid duplicate content or pages that don't serve any real purpose. Blogs can often be a hot-spot for duplication, especially when you've got category listings, tag listings, author listings and a main listing page paginated to the nearest squillion or so.
Of the 20 sites looked at, 16 of them had pages within the secondary index.
The irony here is that QueryClick also currently has 10 or so pages in the secondary index, but shhhhhh... We're working on fixing them.
H1 tags on the homepage.
Heading tags are often used and abused, but it would appear none more so than the
Designed to highlight the main focus of the page that it sits on, it's recommended to have just a single
<h1> - although pages that target two or three main keyphrases can be an exception. It's about keeping things sensible.
<h1> tag is traditionally one of the three most important things on a page (alongside the title tag and the URL).
Of the 20 sites looked at, 11 of them did not have a single
<h1> tag on their homepage.
I would have at least expected the homepage to have
<h1> tags used for the company name, or a keyphrase that was relevant, but of the remaining 9 sites, only around half of them used the
<h1> for anything meaningful.
The Keywords Tag
Once upon a time, the keywords meta tag was used by most, if not all search engines to help index websites accordingly. The problem was (and still is) that it was abused quite regularly by those who didn't understand how to use it (or those who understood all too well how to use it, as the case may be).
A few years ago, Google came out of the keyword closet and announced that they did not use the keywords tag as a ranking factor.
Bearing that in mind, and their huge market share globally (aside from one or two country exceptions) you would think that this would deter people from using the keywords tag so heavily.
Bing and Yahoo are also on record saying they don't use meta keywords as a ranking factor, but there are other engines worldwide which may (Yandex, Naver, Baidu, Ask, Wolfram Alpha and maybe more) - but it's likely that it has a very small impact on search listings, and for those targeting the UK, I personally (although not perhaps QueryClick's view in this instance) wouldn't even bother adding the tag.
Of the 20 sites looked at, 16 of them used the keywords tag. Of those 16, 6 of them were heavily stuffed with keyphrases that were not always relevant, 3 were completely empty, one had "test" in it and another was completely broken (HTML-plosion™)
Now, due to the relevant redundancy of the keywords meta tag, this doesn't pose a massive problem for sites, but it doesn't put forward a particularly professional and competent front when your meta keyword tag says "test" or when it's stuffed full of repeated words and phrases.
The Description Tag
Contrary to the keywords meta tag, the description tag is used by search engines, but much like the keywords tag, it's not a strong ranking factor for your result listing position. It is however a crucial tag since it commands a large amount of real-estate on your search result listing. Despite not technically being a ranking factor, your click through rate from the results page is, so a well formed meta description will obviously have an influence over that - so it might be argued that there is certainly heavy influence on your search engine rankings.
Primarily the description tag should summarise the page's content, and should contain some form of call to action to entice people to click through from the search results page.
Of the 20 sites looked at 2 sites had empty description tags, 2 sites had "test" in the content for the tag, one was part of the afore-mentioned (HTML-plosion™) and one was shamelessly stuffed with keyphrases.
That leaves only 11 sites with descriptions tags that are acceptable (and that's without even looking at how well written they are).
Title Tags On Links
The main navigation is obviously one of the most important elements on a website. This we can all certainly agree on. So why, you might ask is it so badly treated?
An important part of an anchor tag (after the href attribute that is) is the title attribute. Often touted for accessibility reasons and actually required for standard W3C validation against the HTML5 doctype.
So why, when I checked all 20 sites, did 14 of them have no title tags on the anchors on their main navigation elements?
Valid code on your pages is a no-brainer. Especially for agencies providing front-end development.
A small caveat: The title attribute on anchor tags is not technically an SEO ranking factor, but it certainly affects the validity of your page code.
Those That Claim To Do SEO
So of all 20 sites checked, 8 of them claimed that SEO was a service they offered, and many of those 8 went on to describe how much care and attention they put in to their SEO services.
5 of those sites that claimed SEO was a service had development sites indexed within Google.
4 of those sites that claimed SEO was a service had no
<h1> tag on the homepage.
6 of those sites that claimed SEO was a service had a keywords tag that was stuffed or empty.
2 of those sites that claimed SEO was a service had no description tag.
All 8 of the sites that claimed SEO was a service did not use title attributes on the links in their main navigation. (incidentally they all provide front-end development too)
So What Now?
When you think about hiring a digital agency, you presume that you're going to them for strategy and planning, for creative services and conceptualisation, for design and information architecture and for build and development services.
Where does SEO come in to that?
I'm aware that the highlighted issues above may be a case of the plumber's bathroom, but when most of these issues are so easily fixed with simple technical ability, it makes me wonder about the care and attention put in by these agencies.
I'd expect an agency that considers it's self to be worthy of hiring would have a "lead by example" frame of mind for its output, especially when these sort of things should be fairly standard practice for anyone creating websites.
I dread to think what sort of state things would be in if I were to take my auditing further afield, and check a larger sample. Would the problems be replicated UK wide? Worldwide?
What do you think?