Onsite SEO Checklist from Google SEO Report Card

Formulating a detailed onsite SEO checklist is one of the most elusive tasks an SEO practitioner can do. The problem is that there is no such thing as a “universally accepted” standard list. This two-part article series will go some ways toward helping you devise your own list, based on Google’s SEO Report Card.

It’s true that you can deduce clues for a list of the standard SEO onsite items to check from the top SEO websites (such as SEO Chat). You can also get some sense of the most important items from the top communities, like Search Engine Watch. But getting a complete list is not that direct.

Luckily, Google has released the "Google SEO Report Card," which is an onsite SEO report all by itself. Google says it is issuing that report card to diagnose the onsite SEO and technical aspects of the Google product pages to maximize the user experience and visibility in search engines. The report itself is a 49-page document packed with onsite SEO analysis details.

Google has previously provided a lot of hints as to how to properly optimize your site to increase traffic and improve the user experience. Official information can be found in several places:

a. Google Webmaster blog: http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/ 

b. Matt Cutts blog: http://www.mattcutts.com/blog

c. Google Search Quality guidelines: http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=35769

d. Google Webmaster Central: http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/?hl=en  

However, they still had not published a complete and actual SEO onsite analysis of a website until they released "Google SEO Report Card." This report can help the SEO community to deepen and broaden their understanding of the important onsite SEO factors.

This two-part article series analyzes the Google SEO Report Card with the following objectives:

1. List the important things that Google checks during their SEO onsite analysis.

2. Evaluate what the Google SEO Report Card contains that SEO practitioners normally ignore.

The exact download link for the PDF report is here: http://www.google.com/webmasters/docs/google-seo-report-card.pdf. If you are ready, then let’s get started. The items I’ll be listing come from the SEO Report Card written by Google.

Let’s start with the most important: the web page title tag. In fact, this is checked first by Google, which means this is really an important factor. The following  important information can be learned from the SEO report card:

1. Since the number of characters allowed by most search engines for a title tag is around 60~66 characters, it is important to utilize this number of characters to the fullest.

2. Maximizing the use of this number of characters means having an "accurate" and "descriptive" title tag.

A good example, provided by Google in the SEO report card, is this:

<title>Google Product – Product keywords</title>

 

Example:

Google Talk- Chat Online and Make Free Internet Calls

If you are implementing this approach to title tags in your own e-commerce website, say you’re selling a product named "Samsung LCD Monitor," then you add more descriptive keywords to make it more relevant, substantial, complete and more user friendly, as this improves the click-through rate from the search results. Imagine writing a title tag that tells "exactly" what the page is all about in a complete manner.

Example:

Samsung LCD Monitor – Buy with 20% discount plus Free Delivery

This is a surefire flame generator in most SEO forums. Google admits that "although description meta tags don’t count in Google’s ranking (nor do keyword meta tags), the text contained in them is sometimes used in the snippet of search results."

So the main value of the meta description tag is user experience, and not Google rankings. However, it is true that with proper content structure and a page with a substantially high amount of content, like those on Wikipedia, there is no need to include a meta description tag. Search engines like Google will naturally pick  "relevant snippets" for the search query. For example, if I do a search for "ancestors of the modern classical guitar," the following is the Google search result for Wikipedia:

Of course, the advantage of having no meta description is the opportunity for Google to pick snippets specifically related to the search query instead of having them dictated with a meta description tag. For example, if I search for "Renaissance and Baroque guitars"

You may have noticed that even though I performed two entirely different searches which yielded the same URL as a result (the Wikipedia Guitar page), Google provides two entirely different search result snippets, depending on the search query. And Wikipedia does not use the meta description tag.

So what exactly is the information shown in the SEO Report Card regarding descriptions and related snippets in search results? Below is the list:

1. Take control of your snippets. Like the example and analogy shown above, you may or may not use meta descriptions if Google is successfully picking related snippets with respect to the user query.

2. Some of their pages lack content, so even Google search and other search engines like Bing, pick empty meta descriptions for some of the Google product pages. In this case, Google uses the meta description tag. For example: http://www.google.com/mapmaker lacks textual content, but Google uses meta description:

<meta name="description" content="Edit the map in more than a hundred countries and watch your edits go into Google Maps. Become a citizen cartographer and help map your world!"/>  

And that meta description is the one that is shown exactly in the search results if someone does a search for "map maker."

3. Lastly, your main objective when working on displaying related snippets in the search results covers four points:

  • Comes from text specified in the meta description tag, and is relevant text.
  • Takes advantage of the space given in the snippet, and maximizes the the number of characters offered by search engines to display the description.
  • Accurately describes the page and product to search users, which will improve click-through and user experience.
  • Includes words that users would likely search for to find the product. The snippet should contain the targeted keywords.

In Google search results, you can see "sitelinks." These are additional links found in the normal search result. For example, in the screen shot below, the links that appears inside the dotted red lines are called "sitelinks":

The Google SEO Report Card emphasizes the importance of sitelinks, since they can help the user find the needed information faster and more directly from the search result.

So how does Google classify a sitelink as good? Well, since sitelinks cannot be directly generated by the webmaster, the search engine offers the following suggestions that can help a website receive good sitelinks in Google’s search results:

  • Use a hierarchical website structure — top to bottom, or most general to more specific.
  • Use descriptive anchor text for links pointing to internal pages. This means using more than just one word, and making sure your text is relevant.
  • Avoid deep nesting of content behind many subdirectories. The more "flat" structure you have, the better the chances of speeding up sitelink generation.

There are times when Google does generate unwanted sitelinks; these can be blocked in Google Webmaster Tools.

Duplicate Content Check: Clear Main Page Result

It is surprising how Google pays attention to their own duplicate content issues in their website. These issues can cause an unclear main page result, which causes users to become confused as to which is the canonical page or the official page. For example, here is an unclear main page result for "Feedburner:"

The same thing happens when you do a Google search for their Picasa product. Google acknowledges this problem in their SEO report card, and there are two important corrective actions one can take to prevent this type of issue.

First, if you have content that is accessible in different sub-domains, URLs or directories, it is important to canonicalize them by applying either a 301 redirect or a link rel canonical tag (only if a 301 redirect is not possible).

Second, do not block duplicate domains if you are redirecting them. They need to be crawlable so that the redirect will be acknowledged. Google even commits this mistake; they have blocked the feedburner domain http://www.feedburner.com/  in the robots.txt  http//www.feedburner.com/robots.txt

Yet, they need this to be redirected to the canonical domain. This is why those two URLs are both showing in the search result despite redirections; the Googlebot cannot acknowledge the 301 redirects because the domain is blocked in robots.txt.

We will further analyze the rest of the Google SEO Report Card in the second part.

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