Webmasters frequently make mistakes with directive tags — HTML snippets that tell search engines how to crawl (and how not to crawl) a website. We draw attention to these issues when performing SEO audits and content audits, but the simple truth is that directives aren’t complicated, and we’d rather not spend our workdays worrying about them.
If you’re reading this blog, you’re in the same boat. We’ll skip past the basics and assume that you have some confusion about noindexing pages, and you’re concerned that you’ll make a mistake that costs you ranking position. Take a deep breath; search engines are fairly adept at figuring out webmaster intent, and even if you’ve made a serious mistake, fixing it is usually a fairly simple process.
Here’s how Google defines a noindex tag. We’ll warn you, it’s a pretty simple explanation:
noindex – Prevents the page from being indexed.
That was straightforward, right? The noindex tag sends a signal to the search engines telling them that you don’t want the page to appear in search. You might use this tag on category pages, duplicated pages, PPC landing pages, or other pages that you’d rather not see in search.
There’s a caveat, though, and it’s a big one. Google (and the other search engines) will sometimes ignore a noindex tag, indexing the page in question and showing it in search.
Why? We have no idea, but the folks at Google (and, again, the other search engines) leave a lot of room for webmaster error. Most website owners use tags improperly or inconsistently, so the search engines use directives as suggestions, not hard-and-fast rules.
We ran into this issue several years ago with a client’s store page, which another SEO firm had outfitted with noindex tags. The store was still showing up in search, but for specific reasons, the client didn’t want that — they didn’t want the store showing up until a customer actually clicked on the requisite link.
The solution was to block search engines from accessing the store via the htaccess file (if you’re dealing with something similar and you don’t immediately know what we mean, ask your web developer or drop us a line). We then used Google Webmaster Tools to request that the page be de-indexed.
The problem was resolved, but the client was lucky; Google alone decides whether or not to send traffic to a page. Once something is indexed, getting it scrubbed from the search rankings can be really difficult.
The entire purpose of a search directive is to direct search. With that in mind, why would Google ignore a noindex tag? We can think of a few reasons:
In all of these scenarios (well, except the last one), the search engine made the determination that the page was too important for the “noindex” tag to be legitimate; it must have been a mistake.
So, here’s the moral of the story: If you really, really don’t want a page to show up on search, the noindex tag isn’t enough. You’ll need to block the search spiders from accessing the page, then add the noindex tag, then make sure that your sitemap is up to date, then monitor regularly to make sure that the page doesn’t pop up.
If you don’t want a page to appear on search, but it’s not a life-or-death situation, go ahead and use noindex tags. As a general rule, though, webmasters should avoid using the noindex tag unless they have a good reason to use it. Let the search engine decide what should rank. They’ll figure it out.
Of course, most of our clients have the opposite problem — they want pages to appear on search, but they’re unable to raise their domain authority and capture that sweet, sweet organic traffic that they know is lurking out there. The solution to this problem is to perform keyword research and create an effective content strategy, ideally while addressing technical issues along the way. We can help with that, too.
For St. Louis businesses, SEO is often an afterthought. Search engine optimization takes time to do the right way — advertising, either through pay-per-click, social media, or traditional methods, offers much quicker results.
But SEO can offer a better return on investment overall. According to one study, organic search drives 51 percent of traffic online; that number is higher for the business-to-business sector. When you’ve got a steady stream of incoming traffic, you don’t need to pour money into advertising.
For local businesses, that’s a big selling point. We’ve been in St. Louis for several years now, and many of our clients come to us because they’re invisible to local searchers; if they could just improve their rankings, they reason, they could spend a lot less on marketing overall.
Granted, we’re writing this post for the same reason you’re reading it: We want more traffic and more business. If every single person who stumbled across our website contacted us for a quote, we’d be incredibly satisfied.
Still, we realize that some businesses have in-house resources that they’d like to utilize before contacting SEO contractors. Some business owners simply prefer to handle their content themselves. Some just don’t like us (we’d like to remind those businesses that we’ve refined our office’s personal hygiene policy).
If that sounds like you, understand this: You can create an SEO content strategy that works, and you won’t have to obsessively track keywords or pay hundreds of dollars per month for technical SEO tools. Most SEO is common sense, particularly local SEO, and if someone at your business can write competently, you can handle it. The first step is to create a content strategy.
Here’s everything you need to know to get started.
Develop a content publication schedule. Most businesses need to become publishers in order to function online. If you’re a florist, that means packing your site with up-to-date images of floral arrangements; if you’re an industrial supplier, that means providing helpful, actionable articles that will address customers’ questions about your products.
In any case, your schedule needs to be consistent. New sites should try to publish content at least twice per week. Once per day is better, but unless you write quickly, that might be feasible. Set a goal that you’ll be able to manage, and don’t get discouraged if you fall behind — just get back on it.
Running a business is difficult, and you’ll inevitably find yourself drifting behind your content schedule. When you’ve got downtime, try to get about a month ahead; in other words, you’re writing February’s blogs in January.
Start your schedule by listing the topics you want to cover for the next several months. We use simple spreadsheets (you can download a quick template here). Track word counts, keywords, expected publication dates, and anything else that seems pertinent. Tools like Trello can be helpful for keeping on track.
Use novel methods to find topics for your content. Keyword research can be time consuming, and if you’re starting from scratch, you’ll probably feel overwhelmed. I’ll write a piece on basic techniques at some point, but in the meantime, here’s the best tactic for beginners: Forget everything you know about your business.
Think about topics that your readers would ask about, assuming that they have no knowledge of how your industry works. As Brien pointed out in my favorite blog on this site (seriously, read it, it’s good), that involves a lot of sheer guesswork and listening to your customers.
Let’s say you’re selling web design services, and one of your customers asks what the difference is between Squarespace and WordPress. That’s a blog topic, right there — and probably one that you’d never think about, if you weren’t on the lookout for those types of questions.
When you’ve cleared your mind, you can come up with dozens of questions that require answers, and if you write a quick blog about every one of them, you’ll start to get traffic. Does WordPress cost anything? Where do web designers find their images? How important is font choice?
Approach your business as a newcomer, and you’ll find plenty of topics. If you can’t find a clear answer for a question with a quick Google search, you’ve probably found a spectacular topic.
Understand the basics of semantic search. If you’re website’s about auto repair, and you post a really thoughtful, well-written piece about real estate, you’re probably not going to rank for real estate. Write a piece about replacing the rear end on a Ford F150, however, and you’ll have a chance of climbing to the first page.
Why? Your domain’s semantic profile plays a role in how search engines see it. The more you write about a particular topic, the better your chances of ranking for that topic. That means that you should generally try to stay on topic — don’t use your business blog to write about events in your personal life, and don’t stray too far from your message.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t get creative. I wrote a blog about turkeys eating cigarette butts, which managed to get some traffic…but only because the real purpose of the piece was to discuss Google algorithm issues.
Likewise, understand that if you’ve got an on-topic blog that isn’t ranking, it’s still helping you — it’s adding to your semantic profile. Your domain is establishing authority. The process takes time, but every piece of content counts.
Use keywords appropriately, but sparingly. The most common mistake that business owners make is assuming that SEO works the way it did in 2004. At that time, a successful article for a plumbing website might look something like this:
St. Louis Plumbing Services From A Trusted St. Louis Plumber
If you need plumbing services in St. Louis, you’re probably wondering which STL plumber to use…
You get the idea. Now, those types of pages can still work, but only if the competition is really, really limited. Google’s algorithms can detect keyword-stuffed pages, and if you write unnaturally, you’ll end up getting penalized.
Keywords are still important, but it’s far, far, far more important to write naturally. Keep a list of relevant keywords near you as you write. Use them where appropriate, and try to use your main keyphrase in your first sentence, title, and at least one header tag. Otherwise, don’t obsess over keyword density. If your writing sounds natural — and if you’re providing useful information — the search engines will respect that.
(At this point, you might notice that we put “St. Louis SEO” into our title and added similar phrases to the first few paragraphs. Hey, keywords count for something. They’re just not a total solution.)
Watch your results. Every content strategy needs to adapt over time as more data becomes available. Make sure you’re signed up on Google Search Console and Google Analytics. Keep an eye on organic traffic, and if a particular blog is getting lots of views, try to determine what worked. If a page is sitting in the middle of the first page of results for a particular keyword, see if you can add some content to it to bump it up.
Those are the basics. Take a deep breath — You can create good SEO content, provided that you stay organized and write knowledgeably.
At Relay Online Marketing, we love our city, and we want to do our part to help new businesses get started. We offer free SEO consulting for small St. Louis businesses, with some limits (we’ll audit your website and give you advice, but if you need more than two hours of work, we’ll have to give you a quote. Unfortunately, our fancy mechanical keyboards aren’t free, although they were heavily discounted).
To speak with us, send us a note via our contact page or call 618-531-9073.
Recently, the Relay office spent an afternoon debating whether or not turkeys eat cigarette butts off the side of the road.
Don’t worry, it’s not as dumb as it sounds—it’s far dumber. Here’s the deal: Near St. Louis, you’ll often see wild turkeys walking along the side of the highway.
Around Thanksgiving, one of our partners suggested that the turkeys were looking for cigarette butts. He’d heard that turkeys get addicted to nicotine, so they frequent highways to feed their addiction.
I’d heard something similar from a friend of mine, but it didn’t seem too likely. We did a quick Google search to settle the issue, but we ran into a problem: Typing any combination of “turkey,” “nicotine,” “cigarette butts,” or “addiction” brought up hundreds of websites about quitting smoking cold turkey.
That’s useful info, but it wasn’t what we were looking for. We tried searching for scientific papers about birds and nicotine addiction, but didn’t find anything about turkeys specifically. Frustrated, we contacted the National Wild Turkey Foundation and received a quick response from biologist John Burk.
“I have been working as a Wildlife Biologist focused on wild turkeys for 30 years in 5 different states, and I can honestly say that I have never heard of this being a problem,” he wrote. “Turkeys have no sense of smell and therefore also no sense of taste.”
Burk went on to explain that turkeys have gizzards, and they walk on the side of the road to find small pieces of gravel that can help them digest their food. If a bird ate a cigarette butt by mistake, it would spit it out, since the experience wouldn’t be pleasant.
That would seem to settle the issue, but by this point, office alliances had formed, and the “turkeys are addicts” crowd wasn’t going to go down without a fight. For a second opinion, we reached out to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which put us in touch with another biologist.
After laughing at us for several minutes, he agreed with his contemporary.
“People have been dissecting turkeys for over 30 years,” he said. “We’ve never seen a cigarette butt. While I cannot say with certainty that a turkey has never eaten a cigarette, there certainly isn’t a significant population of nicotine-addicted turkeys out there.”
There you have it: Turkeys don’t eat cigarette butts, or if they do, they don’t do it on purpose.
After trying in vain to get one of our clients to run a blog about turkeys and nicotine addiction, I realized that there is a tangible SEO lesson here: Google’s semantic search isn’t there yet.
Semantic search attempts to match a searcher’s intent with the results; if you search for “dog training tips” all afternoon and suddenly search for “pet food,” for instance, the search engine will likely present dog food as one of the top results (rather than, say, cat food, or turkey food).
For the most part, it works well, and semantic search is a crucial part of our strategy. We tell clients not to focus on individual keywords, since the semantic profile of a page—the page’s tendency to use related terms and synonyms that appeal to the searcher’s intent—is more important.
But search for “turkey” and “nicotine,” and you’ll inevitably get pages about “quitting cigarettes cold turkey.” Even if you perform a long-tail search (for instance, “Do turkeys in Illinois eat cigarette butts on the side of the highway because they are addicted to nicotine”), the semantic link between “turkey,” “cigarette,” and “human smoking” is too strong.
The lesson is to be careful when branding. Think about how keywords interact. Consider whether you’re using phrases that could be misinterpreted by semantic search—and when that’s the case, be ready to change your strategy. When in doubt, create as much content geared specifically towards your audience as possible.
Another crucial lesson: Don’t spend all afternoon arguing about turkeys, or you’ll have to write a blog about it to justify the lost productivity.
“Why aren’t my landing pages ranking for certain keywords?”
That’s probably the most common question in SEO, and it’s not always easy to answer. We usually respond by asking clients why they want to rank for a given term; are they sure that their audience is using that term? Will the people searching for that keyphrase end up making a purchase, speaking with a salesperson, or reading an article?
But for the purposes of this article, we’re going to assume that you’ve gone through all that. You know where you want to rank, you’ve chosen your keywords carefully, and you’re not getting results.
What’s wrong with your landing page? What do you need to tweak to build a successful approach to SEO?
That’s a problem.
Here’s why: Google looks at your entire website in order to establish its semantic profile (semantics are words similar to the keyphrase, or related to the keyphrase, but fundamentally different). The more you write about a certain topic, the more authoritative your website seems.
As an example, consider two websites with roughly equivalent landing pages. They’re shooting for the search keyword “dog food.” One site has a single page about dog food; the other has 100. Even though the landing pages are equivalent, why wouldn’t the search engine prioritize the site with more content? It offers more resources for readers; it likely has more relevant links, more related keywords (think “nutrition in dog food,” “low-calorie dog food,” “canine chow,” etc.) and a better overall experience for searchers.
You might have the perfect landing page, but if it’s the only page on your site that uses a certain keyphrase, it probably won’t rank. Why should it? A website with dozens of high-quality, relevant pages should always beat a website with a single relevant page.
Yes, your landing page needs to be perfect, but you’ll need to make sure that you’ve got other relevant pages to improve your site’s semantic profile.
Oh, and quality is crucial. You can’t just fill a bunch of pages with keywords; make them real resources that will help your audience get the information they need. Cover broad topics and niche topics. To go back to our dog food example, you might write blogs like:
Don’t worry as much about fitting in keywords. Worry about making useful, functional articles. Ideally, you’ll write 400-600 words on each topic, but if you can get a few thousand words in without stretching, do it. As long as you’re providing quality content, you’re spending your time well.
SEO is a long process, and you’ll still have to pay plenty attention to your landing pages. Our point is simply that your landing page isn’t the only factor in your ranking for a certain keyword. Look at your entire site and consider whether you’re truly offering the best result—after all, that’s exactly what Google’s doing.
Recently, we had a few clients ask whether they should be putting a “noindex” or “nofollow” tag on their blog category, author, and tag pages. WordPress creates these pages to provide another avenue for site organization; they’re potentially useful to your users, and if you’re creating content on an ongoing basis, it’s usually a good idea to leave them in place.
But should those pages be crawlable? Won’t search engines see them as duplicate content, since they contain some of the same language as your blogs?
Plugins like Yoast give you an easy way to noindex these pages. In Yoast, the setting in question looks something like the image below.
Simply click those “noindex” buttons, and you’ll, uh, noindex the pages. It’s not rocket science.
Of course, before you take that step, you’ll have to determine whether or not you actually want those pages to be noindexed. You certainly don’t want to nofollow them, since there’s no real benefit to doing that (and the nofollow tag shouldn’t be commonly used, anyway; that’s a subject for another blog).
Is this page useful to readers in a unique way, and does it have enough content? If so, Google will probably want the option to show it in search.
“But wait,” you say, “these pages aren’t useful, and I’m worried that they’re preventing me from achieving my keyword ranking goals.”
First of all, stop talking out loud at your computer. I’m not the NSA, and I can’t hear you through the monitor (usually). Second, you’re probably not cannibalizing your own search ranking, because that’s really hard to do.
Here’s why: If you’ve got two pages that are great responses for a given query, search engines will simply show both. They’re generally not going to interpret your tag or category page as duplicate content, since hundreds of thousands of WordPress websites use those page types for organization; Google absolutely understands why they’re there and what they do. Google is smart. Google is wise. All praise Google.
Search for FiveThirtyEight’s reportage on Jon Ossoff, for instance, and the tag page comes up first, followed by FiveThirtyEight’s articles on the Congressional challenger. Google interpreted the tag page just fine, and determined that it was the best response to my query.
And you know what? Google got it right. That page provided a better resource than any of the individual blogs.
I should note that my approach here is atypical; many SEOs insist on noindexing tag pages by default. In fairness, there are some instances in which you’d want a blog tag, category, or author page to stop showing up in search.
I would noindex these types of pages in one situation: If I had a small site that was adding content slowly, and I believed that the tag/category/author pages would be useful at a later date. That situation is extremely common; if you’re just now starting a blog, for instance, this is the approach to take. In fact, we noindex our tag/category/author pages for this very reason.
Also, I don’t post as often as I should, since I’m usually busy writing stuff for clients, and our category pages are pretty bad as a result. The shoemaker’s children have no shoes.
Well, these organizational pages aren’t really duplicate content—they serve a unique purpose. And the whole “duplicate content penalty” might be scary, but it’s usually not a major concern if you’re not plagiarizing.
In most cases, if Google sees similar content on two pages, it’ll simply choose one of the pages to rank—it won’t ban your domain or anything like that. You’re not getting a manual penalty unless you’ve been doing some shady stuff.
The bottom line is that tag/category/author pages are absolutely fine on larger sites. On growing sites, the noindex tag is fine, but realize that it’s just a suggestion (and Google frequently ignores that suggestion if it thinks you’re mistaken). And before using any SEO directive, make sure that you’re not missing a cleaner solution.
Oh, and if you vehemently disagree with this post, we’d love to hear why. Post a comment below and I’ll respond (and call you names behind your back).
Squarespace is a rapidly growing web platform, promoted heavily through podcasts, banner ads, and even a TV spot during the Super Bowl. Unlike WordPress, it’s not free; personal sites are available for $18/month, while business accounts are available for $26/month.
So, can you build a ranking website for that money? Squarespace proudly proclaims that all of its sites are automatically SEO optimized, with powerful analytics and fully integrated e-commerce tools.
We decided to look at Squarespace’s SEO features in detail. In the end, we believe that it’s ideal for small businesses, but not quite as powerful or versatile as WordPress. Let’s dig in a little deeper.
Basic SEO Features – To optimize your content, you’ll need to start with optimized title tags and meta description tags. Squarespace provides resources for inputting these tags on a page-by-page or full-site basis. You can find instructions for inputting a page title and meta description in your Squarespace theme by visiting the platform’s support page here.
One issue with Squarespace is that, by default, it uses H1 tags throughout standard pages for page headlines. As a result, many pages have multiple H1 tags, which is typically thought of as bad practice.However, the company claims that this isn’t an issue, since HTML5 introduces new tags for page structure.
In our view, it’s not an ideal practice, and there isn’t much justification for preventing users from controlling their H1/H2 tags. Still, Squarespace is correct in saying that header tags aren’t a major ranking factor, and we doubt that Squarespace sites are meaningfully penalized. It appears that Squarespace is prioritizing simplicity over versatility, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.
Analytics – Website analytics play a huge role in any well-constructed SEO plan, and Squarespace sites automatically have access to the platform’s proprietary analytics tool. This is not the same as Google Analytics, and you’ll likely get different numbers from each tool, especially when looking at search engine queries.
Google Analytics is absolutely more powerful than Squarespace Analytics, but you can use both tools on the same site. The Squarespace tool is perfectly fine for businesses that aren’t looking for complex usage data, but as your site grows, you’ll probably want to become adept at creating filters in Google Analytics, as the service provides much more detailed information.
E-Commerce – For many businesses, Squarespace’s 2 percent sales transaction fee (3 percent for personal sites) will be a dealbreaker. If you can get past that, you’ve got decent control over the items in your e-commerce store, although you don’t have as much versatility as you might get with Magento or even WooCommerce.
Ultimately, we think that Squarespace’s SEO features work exactly as intended. Other than header tag manipulation, we couldn’t think of a single common SEO task that we couldn’t figure out through Squarespace, especially given the presence of their “code injection” tools.
There aren’t a ton of advanced features right out of the box, but unless you’re willing to really dig into SEO, advanced features can do more harm than good. While Squarespace takes a somewhat minimal approach to search engine optimization, that’s perfectly fine for 95 percent of websites—and if you’re in the upper echelon of sites, we’re sure that you can handle more auspicious SEO projects with a quick call to Squarespace support.
There’s no reason that you can’t build a ranking website on Squarespace, and because the platform updates automatically, it’s a perfectly acceptable option for small businesses, bloggers, and anyone who doesn’t want to mess around with WordPress installations. Just make sure you fill your new site with plenty of fresh, high-quality content (or better yet, hire us to do it).
If you run a website and you’ve found your way to this page, you probably understand the importance of unique content. Websites that copy all of their content won’t rank very high on Google search results (in most cases, anyways).
However, if you’re sitting down to write something new for your site, there’s a big difference between a 200-word blog entry and 1,600 webpage. Is there a substantial benefit to longer-form content — in other words, how long does an article need to be in order to rank well on the major search engines?
The answer is pretty unsatisfying: it depends on the purpose of the page. I’ve seen some great websites with only 150-200 words of written content, and I’ve seen 2,000 word behemoths that can’t manage to get a message across.
With that being said, you want a more complete answer, don’t you?
My typical recommendation for blogs, articles and other long-form content is 600-800 words. However, website pages can be significantly shorter for well-established businesses. 300 words of quality content is much more valuable for search engine optimization than 10,000 words of rambling incoherence.
Consider the following when setting a word count goal: how much information do you have for your reader, and is all of that information relevant to the subject of the piece?
Google wants to prioritize content that answers the user’s query — the text that they enter into the search engine to generate a list of results — so ideally, your content should be geared towards a certain query.
This means that you can sometimes strengthen your article by narrowing your focus. If you’re creating a page about changing the strings on a guitar, you wouldn’t want to talk about guitar amplifiers, pedals, or tuners unless you could relate those topics directly to the string changing process.
The more relevant content, the better, but you won’t win any writing awards (or high search engine rankings) by packing in a ton of useless information. Visitors will leave your page quickly, and Google will take notice. Long content can be bad content.
If you’re thinking about a new piece of content, try performing a few searches on Google or Bing. Look at the top links, then try to think of ways to make content that will be better than the top links. Think about what the average user might want — the current top-ranking page might leave out some important information, or it might gloss over technical terms that require explanation. You might also be able to add pictures, videos, web tools and other components that extend the functionality of the target page.
Content length is certainly important, but it’s not an especially effective means of evaluating a website. Use the 600-800 word threshold as a guideline, but always prioritize the users over search engine robots.
Q: If you’ve got a bunch of content to upload to your site, should you upload it one piece at a time or put it all up at once?
A: I received this question recently from a very active client. I told them to go ahead and upload everything, but I might not give the same advice to every site owner.
Here’s the thing: Google certainly doesn’t want to penalize you for uploading a bunch of great content. Your articles aren’t doing you any good while they’re tucked away in a folder on your desktop. You should certainly get them out as quickly as possible.
However, there’s an exception, and it’s an important one. If you don’t typically add new content — if your site is pretty much static other than the occasional update — you may benefit slightly from uploading a piece at a time. Fresh content is usually a good thing, and a site that keeps making good content will generally do better than a static site.
Therefore, if you don’t think you can afford a content creation service (cough, cough) and you don’t have the time or skills to write new content on your own, you may benefit from slowly working through that big backlog.
On the other hand, if you’re already creating fresh content on a weekly basis, go ahead and put all of that stuff up there. Just make sure that it’s all ready for prime time. With each piece of content, you should:
So, to reiterate: there’s certainly no penalty for putting a bunch of stuff up at once. However, regardless of your release strategy, make sure that your content is properly optimized.