They say the devil is in the details. When it comes to search engine optimization, those details include some important quirks you need to know about.
- Conforming to search engine behavior
- Keeping-up with changes in search engine behavior
- Playing well with other websites to protect your SEO
- Avoiding common practices that obstruct SEO
Here are nine examples of what I call SEO quirks. See how many you know about.
1. In Subfolder & File Names, Use Dashes, Not Underscores
- Good: http://www.domain.com/sub-folder/file-name.htm
- Bad: http://www.domain.com/sub_folder/file_name.htm
Many developers favor separating words in file names with underscores (_) instead of hyphens (-). They are conditioned to this behavior because some programming languages reserve the hyphen, for example, as the subtraction infix operator.
On the other hand, Google was written for nerds by nerds; the search engine tends to see underscores as concatenation, or joiners, so technical terms like FTP_BINARY will appear on search results pages.
- If you are creating a new website, use hyphens.
- If you have a small website without a lot of inboud links, change existing URLs to hyphens and 301 redirect old URLs to new URLs.
- If you have an enterprise site that uses underscores, keep your old URLs and CMS rules, but switch from underscores to hyphens as the naming convention for all new file names.
A word of caution, keep the number of words and hyphens to a reasonable amount. On category name or topic level pages, I suggest short and sweet, one or two hyphens. When you create file names for articles, you have a lot more leeway; try not to go to town or stuff keywords.
2. Avoid Dashes In Domain Names
Select a domain that is your brand or represents your business in a concise, professional manner without dashes. Do not worry about keywords. While I do not know of any technical reason not to use dashes in domain names, from a practical perspective, they look cheap and compromising. That may raise a caution flag when you reach out for links and citations.
One of the primary reasons people select hyphenated domains is to insert keywords. Last year Google updated its algorithms to dampen the exact match domain benefit. However, long before this, the success of numerous brand name domains, many verging on the ludicrous, proved you do not need a keyword rich domain to succeed.
3. In Subfolder & File Names, Use Only Lower Case Letters, Numbers & Hyphens
Google and Bing are both terrific at handing complex URLS with spaces and non-standard or encoded characters. Where the problem lies is when other websites link to your documents. If you do not encode special characters, the content management systems of those websites that link to your documents may encode them.
For example, spaces become %20. If those websites use different character sets than what your site uses, they may not translate special characters correctly. The safest thing to do is keep it simple by using only a to z and 0 to 9 and hyphens.
According to the technical standard, URLs are case sensitive. Most content management systems handle mixed case addresses by rewriting them to lower case, but check yours and do not assume this.
Also, some analytics and SEO tools are case sensitive and will report different versions of the same URLs separately. The safest path is to make sure all your internal links are lower case and make lower case the style standard for all copywriters and coders.
4. The Great Subfolders Vs. Subdomains Debate
It used to be that search engines treated subdomains somewhat like different websites. Today, they are roughly equivalent. In fact, it has been this way for some time. This is good because most third-party applications, like hosted shopping carts, must be in a subdomain.
Search engines are pretty proficient at telling whether subdomains are related or not. For example, Tumblr, Blogspot, and WordPress.com subdomains are not related, while www.domain.com and store.domain.com are related.
If you use subdomains, do not isolate them. Make certain the navigation links between your primary domain and subdomains are well integrated. I have seen applications inside subdomains that will only link to the primary website’s homepage or employ nofollow links.
5. Be Careful With Parameters
Parameters are variables in URLs. The standard method for creating parameters is to end the address with a question mark, then list parameter names and values.
Your content management system may rewrite this into a user- and SEO-friendly format,
Both of the above URLs are fine. I prefer the second example as it is easy to read and removes unnecessary words and characters.
You definitely want to avoid missing or non-standard delimiters,
- http://www.domain.com?nineball (no parameters)
- http://www.domain.com,billiards,nineball (non-standard parameters)
I have seen some wacky delimiter schemes.
Be careful of user identification parameters like uid=142536 where each visitor gets a different number or tracking parameters like source=xyz where xyz is different for each referring document. These create duplicate content issues.
Your choices include:
- use the rel=”canonical” tag to tell search engines which URL to index and credit with links and citations
- tell search engines to ignore the parameters using webmaster tools (Google, Bing)
Another trick is to put parameters that do not affect page content after a #. Search engines almost always ignore everything after the # character in URLs, the exception being the AJAX hash bang.
6. Use Flash Or Silverlight To Insert Multimedia Elements, Not For All Content
While search engines tout their ability to crawl Flash and other rich media, they still do a poor job of it. Flash is great for inserting multimedia — like a video, animation, presentation, or sound file — into an HTML page.
Do not use an all Flash or all Silverlight website. Flash sites are particularly popular among artists, musicians, and photographers, which is a shame because these are people who could benefit from organic search. Keep in mind, Apple’s iDevices do not support Flash, so its popularity is waning anyway.
7. Pick Only One Per Page, HTTP: Or HTTPS:
Google does not care if you use http: or https: — not!
While Google welcomes both http: and https:, on a URL-by-URL basis, pick one and stick with it. Let us say you have a shopping cart with secure https: checkout. If your crawler-friendly catalog pages resolve to both http: and https: versions, you could be in for a world of trouble.
I have seen websites where all the offsite links go to http: addresses and Google indexes the http: URLS. Then, all of a sudden, the addresses in the Google index change to https: for no apparent reason, and the website’s rankings disappear.
The simplest way to avoid this is with canonical tags that force http: or https:, whichever is the version you want indexed.
8. Make Sure The Markup & Visible Text Matches
When the text in HTML markup does not match what users see, search engines call it cloaking. Sometimes, cloaking is unintentional. One example I saw occurred in a shopping cart where all the links to all the product categories and subcategories were included in the markup of every page. Visitors only saw links to the subcategories of the category they were viewing. The content management system hid the other subcategory links via CSS.
I do not want to get into a debate about white hat vs. black hat cloaking here, especially since Google engineers seem loathe to discuss specific cloaking techniques. Probably because they do not want to give people ideas. The two exceptions, ones they use for demonstration purposes, are serving different content based on user agents and using CSS to position text off the screen (-999 pixels).
They are always quick to say there are no good reasons for cloaking and that they have special detection algorithms that ring the red alert phone. The bottom line for this quirks article is avoid unintentional cloaking.
9. Using The Vertical Bar In Title Tags
Search for long winding road, long – winding road, long — winding road, and long | winding road. Notice how Google ignores the dashes but not the vertical bar? That bar separates long and winding, not just visually, but in the Google algorithm. If your website uses the vertical bar, experiment by replacing it with a dash and see what happens.
If you knew all nine of my SEO quirks, good for you. It is not easy to maintain a current, comprehensive knowledge of all things Google and Bing SEO. Do you have any SEO quirks of your own? Share them in the comments.