search engine optimization

It's becoming more and more clear that ranking reports are no longer reliable. Users are noticing personalized SERPs more and more and they're catching on to obvious inaccuracies generated by traditional ranking report software. These inaccuracies are caused by differences in query IP, query data, account status, web history, personalized settings, social graph and/or other. As a result, there is a growing shift away from rank report software to analytics for accurate SEO measurement.

Prior to personalized search results, SEO relied heavily on ranking reports in order to measure SEO campaign performance. SEOs create "ranking reports" with software that submits automated queries directly to search engines, a.k.a. "scrapes search engine results." Despite the fact that automated queries are against Google Webmaster Guidelines, waste energy and cost Google millions of dollars each year to process, scraping search engine results is still a popular practice. Obviously it’s in the engines best interest to take steps to prevent these queries.

Analytics software on the other hand is different, it works independently of search engines. Analytics relies heavily on code embedded within pages as well as human interpretation of data. Until recently, analytics software has been used only to “tell a story,” but not for the precise measurement SEO requires. Site analysis focuses on trending and establishing a “comfort level” with data determined to be "good enough" by the analytics specialist. Analytics platforms are designed for anyone to use, specialist and non-specialist alike. In many cases, analytics specialist themselves have little analytics experience, expertise, knowledge about how search engines work or an understanding of searcher intent. How can we expect anything different, when WAA itself still doesn’t teach things like transactional queries?

"To optimize scent trails, make sure that when the intent is transparent, the scent trail on any chosen term matches that intent. It doesn't matter if the trail starts with PPC (pay-per-click) or organic search. Prospects usually hope to find one of two things: the answer they seek or a link that takes them to the answer."

- The Web Analytics Association "Knowledge Required for Certification" (also available in non-www version)

Analytics tracking code is usually implemented by URL without consideration for user path, intent, source or origination. In most cases the implementation is performed by someone other than the analytics specialist interpreting the data. According to some estimates as many as 45% of pages implemented with Google Analytics contain errors. Conversions from organic SERPs are the most difficult to track back to the original referrer. To compound that problem, site issues often prevent even flawless analytics implementations from reporting. Analytics failures are costly, often go unnoticed and undetected because NOTHING is in place to report when analytics doesn't report.

Quick examples & thoughts:
- Even if Avinash himself, implements Omniture and Google Analytics tracking code on every page of your site, users entering from SERPs via 301 or 302 redirect won’t be attributed as “Organic.” According to Google, "If your site uses redirects, the redirecting page becomes the landing page's referrer. For example, if a user searches for a specific keyword, such as 'used books' on Google, there will not be any referring data showing that this keyword was searched on Google. Instead, the referral will be shown as the redirecting page."

- High traffic major converters or blank pages that send users to a competitor? Either way, nobody will ever know because these pages lack analytics tracking code. URL naming conventions for most sites follow a specific pattern. Use the site operator to quickly spot check for URLs that seem out of the ordinary to be certain they include analytics tracking code implementation and aren't redirected. It's pretty common to find legacy pages from older versions of sites indexed.

SEO Analytics

- If these folks are quick evaluators, analytics tracking code might not execute before a new page loads and this SEO conversion might be credited somewhere else. Analytics won't measure landing page load time even though it's a highly important metric for users. Flash or otherwise, pages like these always have issues when it comes to tracking organic conversions.

SEO Analytics

- If your site goes down chances are you'll never know because analytics reporting goes down as well. Using a website monitoring service is always a good idea, just to be sure that conversions really are down and not your entire site.

Takeaways, until SEO expectations are more clear to the analytics community, SEOs should insist on performing SEO analytics audits as usual. When hiring analytics specialists, look for applicants who are willing to address websites from the user perspective and outside of analytics. Folks willing to question data accuracy and those able to identify analytics obstacles are highly desired. Key being, SEO is as concerned with what analytics is tracking as it is about what analytics should be tracking.

The number one driver for organic conversions isn't usability or price it's intent. For that reason, I think it's great to see Google's Analytics guru, author & super nice guy :), Avinash Kaushik blogging about "intent". Engine officials rarely discuss "intent" outside academics or IR for obvious reasons. Analytics folks tend to avoid this topic altogether because analytics measures user action but not what users intended to do. This has always been a major disconnect between analytics, design, usability, PPC and the complex realities of organic search.

Back in May, Google introduced support for Rich Snippets in SERPs. These snippets can be extracted from structured data annotations provided to search engines via microformat or in RDFa embedded by webmasters. These structured data annotations can provide not only quality signals but also reviews, personal information, product details and even business contacts. Obviously, when this data appears in SERPs it's going to have a direct impact on click-through rates. As a result perhaps, Google has launched a new tool for webmasters to preview Rich Snippets. The new Google Webmaster Rich Snippet Testing Tool according to Google, is to help webmasters enhance "search results by marking up web pages with Microformats or RDFa." This kind of structured data could help improve the quality of SERPs and is already being used by sites like beu blog, Google Profiles, LinkedIn and others....

Rich Snippet SERP example

As you know Google recently caused havoc for some analytics platforms by including #anchors (aka pound signs, fragment identifiers) in SERP URLs. Just a quick post today to mention they're back! Noticed #anchors in my SERPs this morning and I've been seeing them on and off all day.

Update - Matt Cutts confirmed this issue last week but I haven't seen any hints of the new testing until now. Hat tip to Barry for the 411! :) Thanks to Ionut Alex Chitu for emailing to also point out that Google's new Wonder Wheel feature launched earlier this week, always uses AJAX URLs with #anchors. It's going to be interesting to see what impact this change has on various tools, something to be aware of for sure....

Google "Universal" has placed increased emphasis on image results. Prior to Google Universal, users viewed search results one vertical at a time. Now days, users have options and access to search results from across key Google verticals all within their main search engine results pages. The Google internal video below illustrates in real-time how one eye-tracking study participant migrates between verticals within universal SERPs.

This migration between vertical search results may explain Google's introduction of Image Ads. In addition to ads, Google Images offers more options than ever before. Users can search for images by size or in a variety of content types including news, faces, clip art, line drawings and photo content categories. While a lot has changed when it comes to image optimization, users still enter text queries for Google to translate into image results. For that reason, linguistics is still critical when it comes to image optimization. Images are indexed in ways similar to text but have their own flavor of PageRank.

Before diving into the finer points of advanced image optimization, let's see if the basics are still valid. In terms of basic image optimization best practices, the rule of thumb is to provide as much descriptive information about images as is possible, but without "keyword stuffing" which could cause your site to be perceived as spam. Focus on including images with relevant textual context. Be sure to provide hypertextual clues about the subject matter of pages where images appear. With images like everything else the key concept is relevancy when it comes to search. Again, image results are based on textual queries.

Basic Image Optimization Best Practices:

- Informative filenames provide important signals about images and/or their subject matter. For that reason it's best to incorporate descriptive wording into image file names. (IE beach-dog.jpg instead of 1.jpg) (Hint - In some cases, image filenames may be used as the snippet in SERPs.)

- ALT attributes provide users and engines alike, with textual information about image subject matter. Engines rely heavily on the structure present in hypertext, especially where images are concerned. It's best to always incorporate short but descriptive ALT attributes when using images. ALT attributes assist engines in determining the most relevant result for image specific keyword queies.

Basic Image Optimization Case Study Experiment:

To determine whether or not images ranking for the query used in Google's eye tracking study above, follow basic image optimization best practices.

Procedure:
To examine the hypertext structure related to images appearing in Google Universal search results for the query [how to tie a tie] and record observations related to basic image optimization.

Result:
Image A -
URL =
http://www.how-to-tie-a-tie-video.com/images/how-to-tie-a-tie-wind_1.jpg
ALT = "How to tie a necktie video"

Image B -
URL = http://www.tieking.com.au/images/hw.gif
ALT =""

Image C -
URL = http://www.jitterbuzz.com/esquire/tietie_big.jpg
ALT = "Tying the Tie"

Conclusion:
Two of three images in this case study have descriptive file names in conjunction with descriptive ALT attributes. In addition to file names and ALT attributes, there seem to be other key factors to consider when optimizing images. As Google states, "other factors" do seem to come into play based on the results of this case study.

Advanced Image Optimization:

It's important to note that Google uses crawl caching proxy techniques to make images available in other services and that Google doesn't index images directly. As a result, there is no need to include images in your XML Sitemap. Either way, quality images start with quality pages. Quality pages contain few errors and load quickly. In order to decrease load time for pages, focus on template images that appear in every page (navigational images, logos and/or other). When possible, consider converting static GIFs into PNGs. When using GIFs, be certain palette sizes are correct based on the number of colors in the image. For JPEGs use a lossless tool to like Photoshop to remove unnecessary information from your file unless it's important for users and/or search (see Exif below). Always define image sizes via (X)HTML by size and not scale and be sure to include a favicon for branding, bookmarking and to avoid 404s. These steps will help decrease load time and increase page quality.

Once quality has been addressed from a technical perspective, it's important to be sure URL paths aren't blocked by JavaScript, Flash, Robots.txt and/or other obstacles. Images, like text can be scraped and republished multiple times. To assist engines in identifying your images as "source images", provide as much information as possible via hypertext, metadata and link structure in your pages. When using Flash, always provide alternative images with static URLs in GIF, JPEG and/or PNG format otherwise Google won't display images from Flash in SERPs. As a webmaster, you may have little control over external anchor text but you can control internal anchor text within your site. Be certain internal anchor text for images is descriptive and relevant. For some images (ie product image in category page, video, other) you may want to use thumbnails with unique ALT attributes and create detail level (product, video, other) pages. Provide quality images in a variety of sizes and formats including JPEG when possible and allow others to use your images.

Place high quality images high up and above the fold if possible. When necessary create unique static detail pages linked via thumbnail. Don't prevent other sites from using your images even if it means loosing bandwidth. Posting and tagging sample images at other sites can help get more eyes on your images, but be sure to include links to your site as the objective isn't to donate content to social media sites.

"Google analyzes the text on the page adjacent to the image, the image caption and dozens of other factors to determine the image content. Google also uses sophisticated algorithms to remove duplicates and ensure that the highest quality images are presented first in your results."

- http://www.google.com/help/faq_images.html

Always provide textual content in close proximity to images. Obviously, at this point it's worth pointing out again that image accessibility is of paramount importance. In addition, TITLE elements, captions and image titles in your pages can provide important clues for search engines. When it comes to search, more data is better data so consider taking the extra time to include as much as possible while avoiding techniques that could be detected as an attempt to spam search engines. Be sure to place your images near or above relevant text in pages and always include descriptive captions. Don't embed textual content within vector graphic formats other than .pdf as engines can't extract text from other image formats. Fresh images accessible in various sizes are a good idea but be sure to define image length and width information via hypertext as well as for users. Enable Google Image Labeler via "Enhanced Image Search" in Google webmaster tools. While PNG is more optimal than GIF in terms of load speed, certain circumstance may require image metadata contained in JPEG. Consider a file structure for images that denotes individual directories for thumbnails, art, drawings, photos and/or other. Be sure not to mix Adult images with images for general audiences.

The Future of Image Optimization:

In terms of the future of image optimization, all signs seem to point to Exif. The Exif file format for image metadata is one specification used by digital cameras and was developed nearly 10 years ago. Exif metadata includes information such as the date and time an image were captured. When set properly, modern digital cameras record the date and time images were captured and this information is recorded in image Exif metadata associated with image files. In addition to date and time, digital cameras record image metadata pertaining to the camera's manufacturer, model, orientation, aperture setting, shutter speed, focal length of image, meter mode, ISO speed information, a preview thumbnail and copyright information.

So, what does any of the information in Exif have to do with SEO for images you ask? Well, Exif can also be used to record information about where images were taken and whether or not they've been "photoshopped" for example. For images or universal queries related to news or specific geographic areas, Exif could easily be used as a quality signal. I asked Matt Cutts about Google's use of Exif last year and his reply was "I'm not sure, personally. I could imagine that any stuff embedded in an image file might be used, though." Currently both Panoramio and Picasa use Exif and I'd expect to see this trend rise as new GPS enabled devices enter the market.

For more great information, check out Peter Linsley's latest post on the Google Webmaster Central Blog...