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Weekend Project: Correct Content Mistakes that are Damaging Your SEO

This guest post is by Sophie Lee of IBS Tales.

In February 2011 my website lost 50% of its traffic overnight, and a further 20% disappeared two months later. I was a victim of Google’s infamous Panda update, and like many other webmasters, my first reaction was to assume that Google had messed up—my site contains nothing but high quality, deathless prose, and I’m sure yours does too.

As time went on, though, I began to realize that my site had been penalized because it deserved to be. I hadn’t deliberately set out to produce thin content, or put duplicate URLs in the index, or make other amateur SEO mistakes, but that’s what I had been doing, regardless of my good intentions.

I set about fixing aspects of my site that should never have been broken in the first place, and one year on, I believe that my site has markedly improved. I need to be honest and say that I haven’t recovered from Panda, and so I can’t promise that this article will help you recover your rankings if you’re a fellow Panda victim.

However, I can tell you that Panda has been a massive wake-up call for me, and opened my eyes to some horrible mistakes that I was making as a webmaster. Are you making the same mistakes? Are you sure?

Mistake 1: Thin or shallow content

Panda quickly became known as the update that targeted thin or shallow content. I checked my site and found that around 10% of my pages had less than 100 words on them. Now, word count alone may not mean a huge amount, but what, exactly, can you say in less than 100 words? I had intended to develop these pages as I went along, but I’d never got round to it. They had to go, so I removed them completely and left them to 404.

I also looked at pages that might be useful to my visitors or to me, but could easily be flagged as thin content by an algorithm. For example, I had a page named blank.htm that I used as a template page. It was, of course, blank, and it shouldn’t have been on the server. I had an entire page that showed my search box and nothing else. Another page showed my mailing list sign-up box and nothing else. If I worked at Google, I’d have penalized these pages too.

Mistake 2: Duplicate URLs and pesky parameters

One issue that I had neglected almost completely was the way in which Google was indexing my content. Panda woke me up. A search for my site on Google came up with over 800 URLs. I had roughly 400 pages of content on my site, so what was going on?

Firstly, for reasons lost in the mists of time, I had used dropdown lists in some of my navigation links. These links were being indexed by Google with [?menu] parameters in the urls, resulting in duplicate urls for a whole bunch of pages. I replaced the dropdowns with simple [a href] links and put canonical tags on all of my pages to indicate that I wanted the plain URLs with no [menu] parameter to be the “correct” URLs.

I also realized that I had the syntax [Disallow: /*?] in my robots.txt file, put there because it’s part of the robots.txt file that WordPress recommend in its codex. This command meant that Google couldn’t see the content on any page with a question mark in the URL, and that meant that it couldn’t see the new canonical settings in any of the duplicate URLs. I removed that line from my robots.txt file, and a couple of months later, the duplicate URLs had disappeared from the index.

Secondly, my WordPress blog was producing duplicate content on category, tag, and monthly archive pages. Previously, I had believed the Google guidelines that said you shouldn’t worry about duplicate content that is legitimate: “If your site suffers from duplicate content issues … we do a good job of choosing a version of the content to show in our search results.”

However, the prevailing view of the SEO blogs I read was that noindexing these duplicate pages was the best way forward, because that would leave no room for doubt as to which URLs should be returned in searches.

I found that the Meta Robots plugin from Yoast enabled me to easily noindex all of the dupes, and they were gone from the index in a month or so. I did find that some URLs tended to get stuck in the index, presumably because they were simply crawled less often, and in those cases I used Webmaster Tools to get the URLs crawled more quickly.

If I found a URL that just wasn’t shifting, I used “fetch as googlebot” to fetch the URL, and then, once it was found, clicked on “submit to index.” This tells Google that the page has changed and needs crawling again, and this got the URLs crawled and then noindexed within a few days, on average.

Mistake 3: Not using breadcrumb navigation

Almost every site I visit these days uses breadcrumbs—those links at the top of the page that say “Home > Cameras > Nikon cameras” or similar, to let you know at a glance where you are on the site.

They stop your site visitors from getting lost, they help pagerank to flow, and they look good. I should have added them years ago.

Mistake 4: Not displaying social buttons

I know, I know—you can’t believe I didn’t have social buttons coming out of my ears already. I just don’t like the fact that I have to register with Twitter and Facebook and Google+ to run my own website. But I do. So I have.

Mistake 5: Ignoring blog speed and server location

I got a shock when a search at whois.domaintools.com told me that my server was in Canada. I checked with my host and they said that all their servers were in Canada, which I had been completely unaware of—I had blindly assumed that they were all in the USA.

I won’t make that mistake again. It may not make a huge different to rankings, but Matt Cutts has confirmed that server location is used as a signal by Google so it seems crazy to host your site anywhere other than the main country you’re targeting.

I switched from the dirt cheap host I had been with to a Hostgator business package. I stuck with a shared server, although I did ask for a dedicated IP address to isolate my site from any potentially spammy neighbors.

I also took a look at the speed of my site using tools like webpagetest.org. The tests showed that although my site was fairly quick, I was missing some easy gains, the most obvious being that some of my images were 40kb or 50kb when they could easily be compressed to 10kb. I also turned on mod_deflate/mod_gzip in Apache, which sounds impressively technical but involved checking one box under the Optimize Website section in the Hostgator cpanel. That setting meant that all my content would be compressed before it was sent to a browser.

Finally, I made sure I was using asynchronous code for those dastardly social media buttons, making them load in the background rather than holding up the display of my main content.

Mistake 6: Misusing h1 headings

I found that, for some inexplicable reason, I had set up many of my pages with two h1 tags—one in the main content, and one in the left-hand navigation bar. I got rid of the left-side h1s so that the main heading for each page reflected the main subject for that page.

Conversely, I realized that my blog theme put the overall title of my blog into h1 tags rather than the titles of the individual blog posts themselves, so every single page on my blog had the same h1 title. I switched to a different blog theme (Coraline) and the problem was solved.

Mistake 7: Ignoring Google authorship

I had been seeing little headshots in my Google results for months, often clicking on them because they stood out without asking myself why they were there and whether I could get them for my content too.

What I know now is that they’re called rich snippets, they’re part of Google’s authorship program, and you need to link your site to a Google+ profile with special markup code to get one. I found the Google instructions for this process confusing, but this post from Yoast was much clearer.

I then used the Google rich snippets tool to check that I had set things up correctly, and filled in this form to let Google know that I was interested in using rich snippets for my site.

Once I had submitted the form, it took around a week for my photo to start showing up in the SERPs.

Mistake 8: Running sister sites

I was actually running two websites on the same topic when Panda hit, and the update crushed them both. The main reason that I had chosen to run two websites was to protect myself against a drop in search rankings. That obviously worked out great.

I began to wonder whether Google frowned upon two domains on the same topic. Obviously, ten domains on the same topic, all targeting the same keywords, would be spam … so could two domains be spam too, or at the very least ill-advised?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that splitting my website into two had been a mistake. Surely one brandable, strong website was better than two weaker sites? One site with 1000 backlinks was going to be more powerful than two sites with 500 each. The consensus within the SEO world was that multiple domains on the same topic was simply a bad idea, Panda or no Panda.

I decided to merge the two sites together, and so I had to choose which domain to keep. One domain was much newer than the other, contained a couple of dashes separating exact match keywords, and had a really, really, really silly extension. The other domain was at least two years older, had more backlinks, was a dotcom, had no dashes, and was brandable. It didn’t take a genius to figure out which domain I should be using.

I 301-redirected the newer domain to the old one on a page-by-page basis, so www.newsite.com/thispage.htm redirected to www.oldsite.com/thispage.htm. This is the code I used for this, placed in the .htaccess file of the new site:

RewriteEngine on
RewriteRule (.*) <a href=”http://www.newsite.com/$1″ target=”_blank”>http://www.newsite.com/$1</a> [R=301,L]

I checked that the redirects were working using the Webmaster Tools “fetch as googlebot” feature. It took around a month for all of the main pages of the old site to be removed from Google’s index, and about another month for the entire site to go. I then went on a hunt for anyone who’d linked to my newer domain, finding backlinks through the link: <a href="http://mysite.com" target="_blank">mysite.com</a> operator at Blekko and opensiteexplorer.org, and asked them to link to the older domain instead.

Now what?

If these changes haven’t returned my blog to its old position in the SERPs after a year, what’s the point? Why don’t I just give up?

The point is that I’m proud of my website. It’s suffering right now, but I believe in it. And that’s the greatest advantage that a webmaster can ever have. If you believe in your website, you should fight for it. Sooner or later, it will get what it deserves.

Sophie Lee runs the irritable bowel syndrome support site IBS Tales and is the author of Sophie’s Story: My 20-Year Battle with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

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Comments

  1. Hi Sophie,

    Helpful breakdown here.

    I upped my SEO game a while back. I didn’t suffer from Panda – no real SEO at the time – but over the past few months I simply decided to correct many of the content mistakes you suffered from.

    SEO takes time. Real patience. I lacked this patience, and penned many low quality posts. In some cases, the idea behind the post was in the right place; I simply was way too short, writing 150 or 300 word posts which should have been in the 600 word range.

    Right now I am on page 2 for a super competitive keyword in my niche. I am happy but certainly want page one. With your helpful tips and a renewed effort to write value-packed, 600 word, keyword-rich posts, I believe I can make it. Like you said, if you believe in your site, no matter what happens you can make it a successful site.

    Thanks for sharing Sophie.

    RB

  2. Justin says:

    Hi Sophie

    Thanks for the post. There are loads of great tips there.

    At Wordtracker we’ve written a lot about the Panda update including producing a Panda survival guide.

    And last week we produced a site audit tool that helps identify some of the problems you mention, including duplicate headers.

    You can read more at http://www.wordtracker.com/academy/easier-seo

    I hope that’s useful.

    Justin

  3. Ehsan says:

    Great article to avoid mistakes that every blogger makes. I can’t believe you haven’t displayed social buttons to your blog and made it mistake 4 here. Sophie can u tell me anything else about webpagetest.org will it help me to improve my blogs speed?

  4. Bobby says:

    Some really useful information there. I didn’t realise that I was making so many mistakes. I’ll be going back through some of my shorter posts this weekend and filling them out and I’ll also be going through to my titles to make them more SEO friendly. I didn’t realise that Blogger also puts the blog title before the post title in Google and I think that is also damaging my traffic, time to do something about that. Thanks again!

  5. These really are great tips, especially the authorship one don’t know how many times I’ve clicked on these links because they had a photo lol.

    Thanks
    David

  6. You’ve rightly explained this topic Sophie. Google panda updates is for our own good, but oftentimes, we don’t want to accept it. Google is not wicked and even if they’re, they still have favorite blogs that enjoys a handful of organic traffic. I’ve always advised my students to stop worrying about Google and focus on people.

    I’m so glad you learnt your SEO lessons. I believe you web pages will come up again, and this time, nothing will happen to it. It doesn’t matter how weird the panda is this time, I’m not scared because I’ve quality contents on my blog. I take my time to produce what other people can read and better their lots.

    You’re on the right track Sophie, especially redirecting the new domain name to the old one. Keep crafting quality and relevant articles, whatever you’ve in mind is possible. I hope my ‘two cents’ help.

  7. Thanks for sharing the story Sophie. The biggest mistakes most site owners make is to rely too much on organic traffic from Google. In my own case, the blog traffic has experienced the biggest growth in traffic since the Panda update and more than 80% of that comes from social media (in particular Twitter), feedburner, various guest posts and direct searches for my blog name. Why? because I have tirelessly worked on building a loyal audience which you can say is almost “Google proof”.

    On a side note, I also wanted to point out the latest over optimization penalty from Google which is just now starting to penalize sites for too much “SEO”. For people interested I wrote a brief post here:

    http://www.nichesense.com/internet-marketers-guide-to-googles-over-optimization-penalty/

  8. Binny Oinam says:

    Hi Sophie
    I am hugely inspired with your story. I never knew pages could be flagged as thin content by google. Right now my site has a couple of pages which I thought I would develop as I move. Gosh I have to act now or delete them. Thanks Sophie for the useful article. And can you please tell what an asynchronous code is.

  9. Great post and something I should look into next weekend. Thanks for sharing all these tips.

    *Random aside: The link to Yoast’s Meta Robots plugin under Mistake 2 seems to be broken. Can’t be having that on an SEO post! :P

    • Georgina Laidlaw says:

      Thanks for the headsup, Jonathan. That link’s fixed now :)

  10. Gjivan says:

    Yes a great story. Its not only your site which is crushed by panda, but of many webmasters. I think the main reason behind the changes in google algo everytime is to provide high end user experience, i.e. When someone searches something, google must provide high quality and relevant information so as to quench the query of the searcher or asker. Another aim is to kick low quality site having spammy, copied or less information about what people are searching and this might be a reason for which an article less than 100 words indeed dont worth to be in first place, but not always is the same case. So, what i think is, the more we research and invest our time to create a high quality unique and relevant article, the more it will be valued both by SE as well as user. So, focusing to create an article having long term impact should be the mind-set. Because, we write for people first then SE, So if more and more people share, like and comment on your article, google is forced to count it as a value for that keyword or niche. Its like getting 1000 backlinks to one site is better than getting 100 in 10. So, instead of creating short and low quality post, better research, analyze and publish unique article which will be evergreen and fruitful always!!

  11. Sean Chang says:

    Thanks for the tips Sophie!

    This also shows the importance of diversifying traffic sources.

    While Google’s free orgranic traffic has been god-send to many webmasters, it can also be a two-edged sword. Given how temperamental mother Google has been lately, it’s risky for a business to completely rely on free search traffic. Having a diversified traffic source (e.g. social media traffic, opt-in traffic, direct traffic, paid traffic, offline traffic, etc.) can really help to offset the damage done when Google decides that she no longer likes your site.

    With regards to thin content, I do generally agree with you, but I’ve also seen some great content written with minimal word count. Here’s one by Pat Flyn from SmartPassiveIncome.Com for example: http://www.smartpassiveincome.com/the-only-100-words-you-should-read-today/

    Sometimes, less is more and if the content truly is best suited for the audience with a shorter word count, I’d still prefer to keep it that way. (i.e. Write for people first, SEs second.)

    Also, with regards to this, “They had to go, so I removed them completely and left them to 404.”
    I’d think it’d be better to keep the pages, add the no index, no follow meta tags to them and request for them to be removed from Google’s index from Google Webmaster. This way, it wouldn’t affect the user experience and wouldn’t result in broken links (which also affects search rankings).

    In any case, I think you have a very meaningful site. Hope to hear more good news about how your site progresses.

    All the best!

    • Jeremy says:

      Yeah, except with your Pat Flynn example, he has over 450 comments on that page for a word count in the tens of thousands.

      Plus, Pat Flynn gets a ton of non-Google traffic to that site from his 50,000 twitter and feedburner followers, links from tons of personal development/make money sites, and his email list.

  12. Well color me guilty as charged. Super informative. I need to step up my game.

  13. Hando says:

    All the changes you have made should not only improve your search engine rankings but are also good for general user experience. And that is what I try to do now, just concentrate on my website content and better user experience and not worry so much about search engines as it is really difficult to figure out what search engines really want, today’s best practice can become tomorrows penalty.

    I had a look at your site and seems that the social buttons are working nicely. :)

  14. Richard Ng says:

    Hi Sophie,

    Thanks for all the great tips. I didn’t know that running a sister site (which I am just about planning to do) can cause damage to our SEO (instead of helping up on our SEO).

    Once again, thanks.

    Cheers!

  15. My head spins when there is a blogger tech talk like this. At the same time it shows me that constant improvement is needed and I need to keep my game up. Solid article, although I have to reference to a few google searches to find out some of the terminology mentioned due to my internet-techno-challenged mind. Success to all!

  16. Vanita says:

    Hi Sophie, great article! I took quite the slap recently too so i feel your pain. i’d like to share one extra step you can take to help your ranking: look at your crawl errors list provided by webmaster tools. fixing crawl errors that display and external link pointing internally will help. links that look like this: http://yourdomain.com/twitter.com are caused by adding an external link without the http:// before it. i recently had a client who had 700 crawl errors like this and once i redirected all of them, her alexa dropped by over 100k. best of luck to you!
    Vanita

  17. Some really useful information there. I didn’t realise that I was making so many mistakes. I’ll be going back through some of my shorter posts this weekend and filling them out and I’ll also be going through to my titles to make them more SEO friendly. I didn’t realise that Blogger also puts the blog title before the post title in Google and I think that is also damaging my traffic, time to do something about that. Thanks again!

  18. Marc Ensign says:

    Thanks for the rich snippets piece! Gold I say, sheer gold!

  19. Hi there

    A great post. Some pointers that I will take into consideration as I go about improving my website SEO.

    Being a bit green in the game I was totally unaware of the importance that your site server locations plays. Something that I will also need to give some attention.

    Extremely useful.

    Thanks

    Keith

  20. Thanks for a really informative post, Sophie. I’d been trying to figure out the Authorship snippets for my site so many thanks for the Yoast link. As a fellow IBSer, I’ll check out your blog too.

  21. Marco says:

    This is a great article, I love it because of the many examples.

    One hint: I am not an expert in .htaccess files, but I guess in the example above the “oldsite.com” is missing somewhere…

  22. Vijay says:

    Another thing to note is you should have an optimal text/ad ratio. If your site is filled up with ads no matter what your site will not survive Panda.

  23. Tawanna says:

    This was a really informative post – just wish I knew half of the terminology. I’ve focused my efforts on simply writing posts and Lord knows I need to learn SEO or at least hire someone to do a site consultation to tell me what’s wrong with it and what needs to be improved or removed. This is definitely a task that non-techie bloggers like myself need outsourced. #5 I think I can handle myself but the rest? hmmm.. I’ll check out those links you’ve graciously provided and see where I fall. Thanks!

  24. Mistake 1 – thin or shallow content – makes a lot of sense. However, I run a quizzing website where I publish five questions daily. Unlikely that will contain a lot of words – so not sure how to tell Google that it is not actually shallow content but something which my visitors will value. I don’t want to get over this problem just by adding more questions daily – because I think five is a good number where people will tend to remember the answers. Any thoughts?

  25. James says:

    Re: social buttons.

    You don’t have to sign up to anything to display share links, only follow links, which is surely a given?

  26. Tudor Davies says:

    These kinds of error aren’t just damaging your SEO but also your conversion. Over optimised sites or sites with content errors make the user less trusting, hence they leave the site.

  27. Marco says:

    I don’t want to be an ass about this but your site design is pretty bad. I think all along you should think more about the users you put content for, as opposed to obsess about rankings.

    I think SEO is great and all, but a key ingredient is a solid design. I look at your site, I see a “leave in less than 2 seconds site”.

  28. Shalyn says:

    Hi Darren,

    Good blog. Never tried Google Rich Snippet before. Have you tried this on your blog? Did it help you?

  29. annalee says:

    Hey Darren,

    Good blog really helpful. These points can be kept in mind to stop your site from being affected.