Solving Website Structural Problems With The Canonical Tag

Long time no blog! I hope you all had a good festive season. I thought I would kick off the new year with a technical post, as Google announced cross-domain support of the Canonical tag last month (worth reading for the explanations of when you might want to use it and how to implement).

You may remember from my earlier post on the canonical tag, that it is a way of telling the search engines the “master” address of a page, when multiple addresses for the same content might exist. Why would you have multiple addresses (URLs) for a page, you might wonder? Well, how about a product list on an e-commerce website with options for ordering the products alphabetically, by price or by manufacturer? It’s likely that the URL will be different in some way for each version of the list, even though its contents are actually the same. That means that a search engine will index all three versions (or possibly six if you have reverse-order options too).

Why the problem? Well, you probably want visitors to see that list in a certain order the first time they visit, let’s say ordered by price, cheapest first. If Google has all six versions of that page in its database, what’s to say it won’t link to your price: descending (i.e. most expensive first) list from its search results? That might make you look expensive and put off potential buyers.

The other issue is link juice – with multiple addresses for the same page, you might have some links to one URL, some to another, all essentially to the same page but for Google, they are different pages. That means the link juice is being split between those different versions of the page. So, using the rel=canonical tag, you can tell Google what the master version of the page is and that therefore, all link juice should be applied to that version and that’s the one that should appear in search results.

This is what it looks like:

<link rel="canonical" href="">

It goes in the <head> section of each version of the page, so in the product list example, your page would contain the above code regardless of what version is being displayed at the time. This would probably be done automatically by your content management system, so that when a different category of products is being displayed, the canonical tag references the correct category/product list, because it’s likely the same page template is used for all categories.

In effect, the canonical tag works like a 301 redirect, but without you having to mess around with server settings. What changed in December is that now, you can make cross-domain (i.e. cross-website) canonical tags, when before, you could only use it within one domain. So, even those of you with problematic servers (for example, you’re on shared Windows hosting without access to IIS Admin), you can now create “301”-style redirects, avoiding duplicate content issues.

As noted by Rand, there is no problem having the canonical tag in the “master” page.

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Thanks To All Online Marketing Conference 2009 Delegates

bl-logoThanks to all of you who attended the Online Marketing Conference 2009 on Thursday, organised by the Business Link eBusiness Programme. We had over 500 delegates attend and it was a pleasure to deliver my “What’s New in Search 2009″ presentation in the morning.

Special thanks to Diane and the team for their organisation and to those of you who took the time to speak to me during the day, your comments and compliments were much appreciated.

Those who want to relive the experience or who couldn’t attend, there is some online coverage, firstly on Twitter using the #ebizconf hashtag and also in these places:

eChampions Podcast (see video on right hand side)

Susi O’Neill’s Highlights (“uber-nerd of tech search”!? Blimey).

Red Creative Moves notes

Remember if you attended, you will be able to download the slides from me and from Susan’s afternoon Social Media Marketing presentation, via the eBusiness Programme website (username and password required).

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Changes to Google’s First Click Free Policy

You may recall that I wrote last year about Google’s First Click Free policy, allowing online publishers to protect their content whilst allowing Googlebot in to index the content, so that all their lovely keyword-rich content wasn’t hidden behind a “pay-wall” (i.e. password protected for paying users).

With a lot of hoo-hah about blocking Google from news sites, led by Rupert Murdoch (draw your own conclusions about that one…), Google have announced a change of their First Click Free policy, so that webmasters can block users from Google after five visits per day.

For those with paid-for content, this is probably good news, but you can’t help feeling that the site owners need Google more than Google needs them…

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On-Site Search Box Text Confuses Users

Do you have a search box on your website that contains a phrase like “Enter Search” or similar? Are you using Google Analytics to track Site Search?

I’ve noticed this on several sites for a while, so thought I would post about it. In most cases where there is text already in the search box, instructing the user what to do, that text tops the list of keywords searched for on the site. Take this example:


As you can see, the search box in the top left of the page has the text “Keyword/Code Search…” inserted by default, and it disappears when you click in the box. Can you guess what the most popular keyword used to search on the site is?


Yep, “Keyword/Code Search…” by a long way! What does that tell us about this use of text in the search box on a website?

My opinion is that it isn’t sufficiently clear to the user what they are supposed to do. So they click the arrow next to the box, expecting it to take them to a full search page, but instead, it gives them the search results from the site for “Keyword/Code Search…” In this site’s case, that gives you a full list of all the products in the catalogue, but not a search page – you get the same box and text again.

My take on this is that designers need to be more instructional about what to do with/how to use the search box on a web page. Just putting “Keyword” in the box is not telling people how to use the function, but “Type what you’re looking for in this box” might just work.

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Google Local Business Centre Updates Guidelines

google_logo_smallIt seems Google has updated its guidelines for businesses listing in Local Business Centre (which gets you on Google Maps/Local Search). You can see the new guidelines here.

The most important of the changes pertains to your Business Name: “The business name on Google Maps must be your full legal business name.” That poses problems for businesses who are “trading as”, with an often unconnected/irrelevant actual registered company name.

Why is Google hot on this? Well, keywords in the business name is a strong element of its ranking algorithm, so it’s been common for “mapspam” to use keyword-stuffed business names to rank highly.

Other changes include not being able to use a PO Box as your address, which may reduce the number of listings for businesses who don’t have a physical location in a particular town and the suggestion (but not requirement) to use the same domain name as your website for your listed email address. Hopefully most people reading this will be doing the last one as a matter of course!

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Red Bubble Creative Gallery & Shop

redbubble-logoRedBubble is a website where you can browse images and writing created by users, then buy the artwork/writing in a number of formats, say t-shirts, calendars, cards or posters.

Why am I writing about this? Well, my fiancee (Helen Foster Design) has just put some of her cute characters up as t-shirts, which you can see here: Helen Foster Pid T-Shirts.

I really like this model, as it allows creative producers to get their work out to a large audience without a huge cost, hopefully demonstrating demand and leading to greater things. That’s certainly what we hope will be the case for Helen. :) Meanwhile, consumers get access to unique products away from the mass-market high-street me-too stuff most people have, which really appeals to someone like me. ;)

Please have a browse and leave some feedback and don’t be afraid to buy something if you like it! Helen will be adding greeting cards and other artwork later this week.

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Online Marketing Conference in the East Midlands

bl-logoI’m pleased to announce the Online Marketing Conference 2009, organised by Business Link and being held on 3rd December at the East Midlands Conference Centre, Nottingham.

I will be speaking in the morning on all that’s new in the world of search engines, whilst Susan Hallam will be talking social media in the afternoon. This is all-new content that we’re both preparing for the day, so even if you’ve been on our courses before, you should attend! Not least as it’s free to small businesses in the East Midlands…

You can book online by clicking this link. :)

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New Google Webmaster Tools Labs Features

google_logo_smallGoogle launched a new Labs section of Webmaster Tools today, containing two features. The first is called Fetch as Googlebot, which shows you the page that Google gets when you enter a URL from your website. Quite handy to see what Googlebot sees, particularly HTTP headers. Here’s a screenshot of the tool showing the 301 permanent redirect from the old holding page to my new homepage on the Keyword Examiner site:


The other tool reports any Malware found on your site, but I’m happy to report I can’t give you a screenshot from one of my sites for that! ;)

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Google Conversion Guide Booklet

google_logo_smallI missed this when it was released a couple of weeks ago, but here it is now: Google’s “Make Your Website Work – Ten ways to convert visitors into buyers” ebook.

It’s all pretty simple stuff, but I like the format and particularly the examples of websites that tested and made improvements to their conversion rate. Go have a read! :)

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Keyword Examiner keyword research tool launched at last!

At long last, I’m pleased to announce the launch of my Keyword Examiner tool, which I’ve been trying to get finished for the best part of a year!

The software itself has been working since January, but I haven’t had the time to put the marketing and support elements together – until now. You can see for yourself at the new website here:

In a nutshell, the tool is a huge timesaver when conducting keyword research for organic SEO. It lets you search Google AdWords keyword data, just as you would with their external keyword tool, so that you can identify search phrases that people are actually using. It then runs up to three searches per keyword to see how competitive it’s likely to be if you optimised your page for that keyword, using exact match (“in quotes” searches), intitle (the exact phrase in the title tag) and allinanchor (the exact phrase in link text pointing to a page).

In this way, you can quickly tell whether a phrase is likely to be easy or difficult to optimise for, identifying the “low hanging fruit” as you go. To do this manually takes hours of cutting, pasting and searching, but Keyword Examiner automates the whole process once you’ve selected the keywords you’re interested in. You can even import WordTracker data if you want extra information (requires a WordTracker subscription).

I won’t explain further, you can read about it in detail on the website. If you think you can send some subscribers my way, there’s also a great affiliate programme that pays 40% lifetime commission.

I’d love to hear whether you like the product and from those who subscribe, what you get up to using it. :)

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