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Google's SEO Report Card… Information Nuggets or Fool's Gold?

While ostensibly aimed at helping Google target potential weaknesses in its own product pages, and of no direct use to SEOs, there is nonetheless more than a little gold to be found here, if one just examines the document in a little more depth. So while the Google’s Webmaster Central Blog is already beginning to bristle with comments lamenting the fact that this isn’t a clear treasure map to the search-ranking mother lode, it’s worth sifting through the Report Card to see what informational nuggets are hidden inside.

Subject I: Search Result Presentation

It’s easy to see why some readers simply dismissed this document out of hand, as the first section starts off being little more than a rehash of the standard “Use Page Titles, Use Meta Descriptions” advice found in any SEO-101 manual. Only by persevering to the part talking about Google Sitelink Triggering, does one begin to suspect that there may be a little more to the report card than meets the eye. Here the authors throw out a couple of crumbs about categorizing website and link-structure, and consolidating a site’s URLs to maximize its informational focus with the aim of increasing the chances of Google generating Sitelinks.

Even so, it’s nothing most professionals haven’t heard before, and I suspect that by this time a lot of readers had given up, thinking that nothing interesting was in store.

Subject II: URLs and Redirects

This is where we see a little glitter among the rubble, as the section starts off with the statement that: “Google products’ URLs take many different forms. Most larger products use a subdomain, while smaller ones usually use a directory form…”

In itself this is not an exceptional statement, and the chapter continues to give handy, but hardly unique, information about canonicalization, URL structure, and redirects until Page 10, where we find the following declaration:

“Subdomains require an extra DNS lookup, slightly affecting latency, which is very important at Google.”

Page load-speeds are an important factor to Google. There’s been talk and speculation about this ever since Matt Cutts dropped the first hints last year, and these days most SEOs are busily proclaiming that slow websites are now a handicap.

Haven’t they always been?

Be that as it may, this fact is not common knowledge with the average webmaster, as demonstrated by a question I’m regularly confronted with over at the Google Webmaster Help Forum:

“Which is a better way to categorize my site, subdomains or folders?”

The standard answer to this question used to be “Whichever you prefer” before load-times became an issue. Now, however, we find a clear indicator that a folder-based approach is much-preferable unless a category actually contains enough information to merit its own site, which is effectively what a subdomain turns it into.

Subject III: On-Page Optimizations

While at first glance this chapter is more standard SEO-101 fodder, it’s where we find a sizable nugget, as the report talks about semantic markup, and how Google uses it to gauge a page’s content.

“Nothing new here; we all use H1 tags.” you might say, but you’d only be partially right, because this issue not only runs much deeper than H1 headings, it runs beyond Heading tags altogether, as I’ll explain shortly. For the moment, however, let’s stay with them.

In the past few years, a great many Optimizers have reached the conclusion that only H1, and, to a degree, H2 are of any promotional value, and that lesser headings (H3 – H6) carry practically no weight at all. But let’s take a look at the following statement, taken from Page 38 of the Report:

“Most product main pages have an opportuníty to use one [h1] tag (tags replaced with square brackets for formatting), like the example above, but they’re currently only using other heading tags ([h3] in this case) or larger font styling. While styling your text so it appears larger might achieve the same visual presentation, it does not provide the same semantic meaning to the search engine that an [h1] tag does.”

For starters it’s obvious that the lesser headings are alive and well, and being used by Google. We’re also told that Google does not, or cannot, judge the visual-context meaning of CSS styled text. The conclusion is to use more heading tags instead of CSS styles wherever your content calls for it. However, there’s more to it still. Let’s take another look at part of that statement:

“…but they’re currently only using other heading tags…”

It would appear that Google still places greater value on other semantic markup tags (em, strong, blockquote, etc.) than many professionals give them acknowledgment, for these days. Otherwise why would the author specifically note the fact that Google only uses headings and font styles?

I personally know quite a few professionals who have long-since abandoned most semantic markup tags in favour of CSS style, since the prevailing attitude of designers and SEOs has been that making text bold or italic no longer carries much promotional weight, following widespread abuses in the mid-2000s and Google’s consequent algorithm updates.

And although the above statement may be a tentative one, it might just point the way back to a more HTML-based approach to web design. Indeed, if it can be taken at face-value, it’s entirely possible that those SEOs and designers advocating CSS-based, table-less design as the way forward are barking up the wrong tree. Whatever the case may be, there is undoubtedly more to the SEO Report Card than first meets the eye, and at the very least, there is a little gold to be extracted from the mass of standard information. Only by reading the full document will you be able to make an assessment yourself.

What should also be remembered is that the SEO Report Card is not aimed at high-flying SEOs or E-lebrity industry pundits, but at the intermediate webmaster for whom even the report’s basic information is of immense value, if read alongside Google’s SEO Starter Guide.

About The Author
Sasch Mayer is a writer and consultant with a career spanning well over a decade and a half. Over the years, his web design and promotion advice and Professional Keyword Research have helped countless clients diagnose and solve problems with a wide range of site issues.

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