Pay Attention to Webmaster Tools HTML Improvements

Google Webmaster Tools features a section under Search Appearance called HTML Improvements.  As with anything else “Google”, they don’t tell you about things unless they are pretty important.  This section contains notifications about short and duplicate title and description tags.  This presents some pretty low-hanging fruit, but it can be very challenging to work through it all on larger sites.  I recommend you take some time and sort out as many issues as possible in this section of Webmaster Tools.  It certainly pays off!  Having all your issues resolved sends a clear message to Google: you operate a good site.  Your title tags are all unique and (hopefully) contextually relevant, you haven’t done mass automation to populate your tags, etc.  It shows that you have taken time, and your ranking will reflect it.

Below is a shot taken from Webmaster Tools for a client of ours with a pretty decent size site.  It took a long time to achieve, but we finally got a clean bill of health! (In this one area)

Perfect HTML Score in Google Webmaster Tools

It’s hard to get a perfect grade from Google, but worth working towards.

Google Kills Authorship in Search Results

Sometimes I feel like a jaded old man when it comes to Google.  Nothing they do really surprises me anymore.  They make people chase their “new feature” and shortly thereafter kill the benefit from it in the name of UX (think Google Sidewiki and Google Knol).  In my jadedness I lean toward conspiracy theories about how Google is manipulating people to get what they want.  I’ve got a good one about authorship…

Google needed to identify influential online authors but was having a very hard time with it.  The trouble was that they couldn’t REALLY tell how many people were following the authors, if the authors were real people or not, and even worse, Google couldn’t tell which sites these authors contributed to.  They needed to create a way for those authors to tell Google what content was theirs, what their guest-writing relationships were, and exactly how influential they are.  How could Google convince these authors to freely hand over that information?  Give them an incentive. Something that sets their content apart from the rest of the search results: a picture and a statement of how popular someone is by showing their follower count.  Feed their vanity to get them to try it and let the side effect of skyrocketing CTRs get authors to tag everything.  It worked.

Google is removing the authorship picture and follower count from the search listings in the name of good UX.  They are doing so to provide the same experience across all platforms.  They don’t include authorship stuff in mobile results and Google knows that mobile is going to surpass desktop soon.  They don’t want to dilute the experience for mobile users, so they’re diluting the experience for us all.  Google say they have tested the impact and found that displaying the authorship info has no impact on CTR.  Riiiiiiiight.  The SEO community has solid data to show that when authorship tags are displayed in search results they lead to a 30-150% increase in CTR.

Keep in mind that Google is only killing the CTR boost authors receive by removing the photos and circle counts.  The rest of the ranking factors that come from authorship are still there.  Don’t quit using it or you could see a drop in ranking.

For Posterity: Google Authorship in the search listings.

For Posterity: Google Authorship in the search listings.

Super Uncool Google

Google is always talking about how sites are not to reproduce content from other sites just to get traffic. Well, guess what? Google is the worst offender. They will do anything they can to keep a visitor on their site instead of heading off to someone else’s site to find the information they are looking for. Fewer exits from Google mean more pageviews for them which means more views of their ads.

Today I’m working on my presentation for an upcoming KCDMA event where I’m presenting to a group of about 100 Kansas City area marketers about the fundamentals of SEO. I am terrible at PowerPoint and was trying to figure out how to edit my presentation’s theme. When I went to Google to search for instructions I got exactly what I wanted from Microsoft, but it wasn’t on Microsoft’s own site!

It's ok for Google to steal and re-publish content in the name of "user experience" but try it for your site and you'll be banned as a content spammer.

It’s ok for Google to steal and re-publish content in the name of “user experience” but try it for your site and you’ll be banned as a content spammer.

What does Google do to people who reproduce content from other websites? Bans them! Google… you’re getting more and more evil and hypocritical all the time.

Title and Description Tags Increase CTR

Title and description tags are quite important; in fact Google thinks they are important enough to report on problems with these tags in Webmaster Tools.  Google likes them because they are a couple of the most important places to discuss the content and subject matter of pages.  Why?  Because Google displays them in the listings.  These tags are your first impression on potential visitors.  Tags that are not optimized are wasted opportunity.

The Title Tag
When properly optimized, the title tag controls the blue link you see in Google that points to your site.  This is your first real “hook” to capture the attention of your potential visitors.  To display properly in Google’s results, you get a width of 512px (about 55 characters, including spaces) to deliver your message. If your tag is too long Google will truncate it with an ellipsis, which prevents the entire message from being conveyed. I see this happen a lot and it really hurts organic click through rates because websites don’t deliver a compelling enough message within the allotted space.  This is especially true when some of the results have properly optimized tags – they are the ones that get the clicks.

The Description Tag
The description tag is another important tag, because when properly optimized it controls the two line summary about your site in Google’s results.  To properly optimize the tag, the content of the tag has to be unique within your site and topically relevant to the content on the page.  It’s also important that the content of the tag is relevant to the user’s query, and about 150 characters long.  If it isn’t, Google will choose other content to display that they think is more relevant, and a computer algorithm is not very good at choosing content that will offer an engaging message.  Google will sometimes piece together multiple sentences from the page’s content into one tag with several mid-sentence ellipsis.  Since the content of this tag is displayed right below your blue link in the search results, it is very important that it is the correct length because if it isn’t, it also gets truncated.

You can see in the image below that even big brands don’t always pay attention to titles and descriptions like they should.  The red indicates tags that are too long and being truncated by Google.  Title and description optimization is such low-hanging fruit and I’m always amazed when SEOs get it wrong.

It's so easy to get them right - why do people ignore these valuable tags?

It’s so easy to get them right – why do people ignore these valuable tags?

You should check out the tags on your own site to see if they are in good shape.  View the source code of your page and look for your title and description tags as seen in my screenshot example below.  They often don’t appear right next to each other like they do on our site, and sometimes they aren’t there at all.

Properly Optimized Title and Description tag.  Keep in mind they often don't appear next to each other in the code.

Properly Optimized Title and Description tag. Keep in mind they often don’t appear next to each other in the code.

I have provided the boxes below so you can easily check your title and description tag lengths. If they’re too long, edit them until they fit, and update the tags on your site.

Use this box to check your title tags. Max length is about 55 characters.
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Use this box to check your description tags. Max length is about 150 characters.
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Google CSE Does Not Auto Renew

We use Google’s CSE (Custom Search Engine) for our website and blog.  Today I used the search feature and found ads on our site!  That did not make me happy.  It turns out that Google does not auto-renew your subscription for CSEs, you have to pay manually.  They say that they will notify you a month before the subscription expires, but they did not do that.  I looked through all emails including spam folders and found nothing.  I guess Google think they’ll make more money off of ads than they will my $100 yearly subscription to an ad-free CSE?  I marked my calendar next year to remind me to renew the subscription.  If you have a CSE, you should too.

Google Does Not Auto Renew CSE