Get it All

Anyone who’s serious about blogging – regardless of what it is they blog about – has found themselves consumed in the business of analyzing traffic.  If not financial reasons or effective political messaging, mere vanity compels us to find out more about the people who visit our pages, especially since there are so many people who view blog after blog without commenting or contributing.

But between your web-host’s analytic software, log files, link popularity checks and a whole host of other sources, you’d think that getting to know your audience would be a lot less difficult than it’s proven to be.  Knowing how many hits you get a day is fine; knowing how many bots are indexing your stuff is great; knowing what the average Pages Per Visit is helps on some levels.  But what you really want to know is: when a person checks out my page, how are they seeing it?  Where do they come in, where do they leave, what do they see along the way?

Enter pMetrics by Performancing.  Finally, we have a metrics system that tells us not only about the raw, statistical data of our webpage, but finally offers some insight into the browsing patterns of our readers.  Other packages attempt to do so, but in the case of the most popular ones, the data is so packed in amongst the interface that it becomes sterile and meaningless.  One of the major advantages of pMetrics is that, despite being packed with hugely helpful information, the interface is clean, baby!  Nice and readable.

With pMetrics, you get to use their “spy” mode and actually see folks on your page in real time, following them around the site.  Rather than boiling down the user experience into PPV, you can click on the “Visitors” tab and check out individual user experiences, seeing where they came in, everything they clicked on while on your site, and where they bounced.  Additionally, you can see their referrer and if they’ve come in on a search, you get to see their search terms.

It’s hard to imagine how you can overstate the critical nature of this kind of information.  It’s equally hard to overstate the paucity of this information prior to the launch of pMetrics.  PPV, while important, reveals nothing about *why* people view the number of pages they do.  Viewing individual users’ experiences can help you better understand why some people come to your page and bounce while others stay for an hour.  Are those early bouncers going places where there’s no compelling links elsewhere?  Are they going to places where there are compelling links out of your website?  Did you make a kind of “honey pot” of content for some users but not others?

Then for perspective, you can go back and look at that all-encompassing image of your traffic in a whole new light.  pMetrics offers the standard views of top referrers, content, search terms and others for your viewing pleasure.  But this time when you look at raw data, you know a whole lot more about how that data got where it was and what you might need to do about improving your site’s stats.

All in all, I’m very glad to have this service in my arsenal of SEO tools.  Best of all, the service is brand new, so improvement is bound to happen.

To that end, let me point out a few areas of potential improvement:

For one, while it’s fantastic seeing all the individual user experiences, there’s no reason to leave out the “bot experience.”  Those of us using Site Maps would really like to know exactly how the bots are moving through our sites, and even if your aren’t using Site Maps, knowing where the bots are going and how they’re indexing may give you clues as to where the site needs to be improved for indexing.

Another suggestion would be to develop a kind of “heat map” technology that allows us to see our site color coded to display where the majority of people are clicking.  Where they click is where they look, and that’s probably where you want your most important content.  You can sort of get this from context in the “Visitors” section, but a more intuitive UI would be hugely helpful.

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I’ve found this very annoying, myself: Google has indexed my RSS feeds, thus pulling some searchers into unexpected directions.  I’m sure I don’t need to tell most people who concern themselves with SEO: when people end up somewhere they don’t want to be, they don’t look deeper and they don’t come back.  They just leave.  Joost de Valk of SEO Egghead proposes the following intriguing solution:

SEO Egghead by Jaimie Sirovich » Noindex, follow for RSS Feeds?

I won’t go in to why search engines seems to be indexing feeds — fact is: they do. The feed for my personal blog has PageRank 4 at the moment, which goes to show that Google even assigns some weight to it. Now think about it, wouldn’t it be cool if you had the equivalent of a noindex, follow (not nofollow) robots meta tag for RSS feeds? That way, the feed could be followed, search engines could spider and assign weight to the links within, yet it wouldn’t show the contents of your feed in the SERPs.

I bet I already know what you’re thinking:  “Oh, yes, Tom.  That’s just what we need right now, more complexity for RSS!”  Well, I agree that RSS is a horribly disorganized pseudo-standard right now, and that writing for RSS is a pain.  However, are you really worrying that much about your feeds?  Wouldn’t it be far, far more productive to create a basic feed and leave the coding to someone like FeedBurner?  I certainly do.

Regardless, if you really care about your readers ~ if you really care about your ranking, in other words ~ you should be concerned about what does and what does not get indexed from your site.  Google putting up links guaranteed to drive users off your web page for good is not a good thing.

My question for him is: why would you even want your feed to be indexed at all?  His solution for the indexing problem is to allow Google, MSN and others to crawl your feed, index and the links off of it, but then just not put out the link to the feed itself for public consumption.  That’s predicated on the notion that you would actually want that information indexed, presumably a second time. 

One of the big challenges, especially where blogs are concerned, is eliminating duplicate content: information that can be found on your site more than once in exactly the same format.  For example, Google may index the root of your blog and grab an article once, the two or three categories to which that article is published (thus indexing the same article a second time), and then the actual article permalink as well.

Most of us understand this to be an invitation to a duplicate-content penalty, search engines having detected this duplicate content as an attempt to rank a page higher than it’s actually worth.  It seems to me that allowing the feed to be crawled but not indexed is more complex than it’s worth.

Far better would be to avoid indexing this feed altogether.  Just leave the feeds alone and stick with the content pages.  The only good reason I could think of for bots to search the feeds might be to catalogue the available feeds on the Internet, but as I understand it, no such service exists at Google, Yahoo! or MSN, exactly.

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Many of us have a natural aversion to using things like link TITLE tags or ALT tags for images as ways of enhancing the SEO benchmark of our websites. This is owing in large part to the fact that those attributes have so often been manipulated by the “Black Hats” among us that we presume those things will either be ignored or penalized.

But even though there is a long history of abuse, that does not mean that simply employing these attributes automatically means Google penalties. The fact is that Google has focused more and more on not only the content of a webpage, but its readability as well. The logic is that a page with readable content is more valuable than one that is a disorganized mess, but also that information which is unreadable may also be in some way hidden from the user, and therefore a classic Black Hat SEO trick.

So if you can’t see link TITLE attributes or image ALT attributes right away, doesn’t that mean they’re the sort of stuff Google avoids? No, they aren’t, because what they are is Accessibility options for the blind, among other things. They are necessary components of webpages which are helpful to the disabled, and even if your not interested in SEO, you should not ignore them. Besides that, link TITLEs often provide important information (such as the website they’re going to, or the fact that they point to a PDF doc) that doesn’t belong in the article, but which might be helpful to the reader. But since this discussion is about SEO, here are a few pointers to keep in mind when using them:

  1. Keep it Readable: remember that these are being looked at for readability and therefore sentences are useful, keyword lists are not. You can, of course, pack the sentence with as many useful terms as you like, but you should be able to read it and understand what it means.
  2. Keep it Relevant: an image of a bottle of wine should not be endorsing your political beliefs in its ALT tags. Similarly, links to webpages should have TITLE attributes that discribe what they link to. In fact, if ALT and TITLE tags are only used where necessary and are clearly relevant when used, they are helpful to readers and regarded as friendly by the Google bots!
  3. Keep it Brief: Most browsers only actually allow a limited number of characters to show up in tool tips. Be conscious of this and keep your TITLE tags as short as possible, lest you be accused of keyword-packing!

Hmm. . . come to think of it, this is a pretty good list of suggestions for just about all things communication in the first place! That’s no accident, that’s the way it is. These days, SEO is more about streamlining information than it is “magical HTML tricks” designed to fool anybody at all. Clarity is key, as is accessibility, as is usability. Before you go trying out the latest SEO gadget, ask yourself: “how does this new trick make my site better for the user?” If you cannot answer that question, you should not bother implementing your new-found gadget.
Keep that in mind and you’ll do fine.

It is always worth considering what changing your web layout will do to your hit rate.  If you’ve been out there a while, you’re going to need to consider that there’s some guy out there with a page of yours either bookmarked or even linked on his page.  When you delete that content and don’t follow up with a redirect, you suffer dead links and dead leads no one will bother to follow.  Jaimie Sirovich picks up with the 301 “Permanently Moved” linking discussion:

SEO Egghead by Jaimie Sirovich » Cashing In With Legacy Link Equity

Your computer sucks. The Core Duo is dead – now you need a Core 2 Duo! Well, at least nobody is selling them. And if the web page was located at /Core-Duo.html, one can 301 redirect /Core-Duo.html to /Core-2-Duo.html. This channels the legacy equity to related updated content. This practice is superior to returning a URL not found (404) error, both because it transfers equity contained by that URL instead of dispensing with it, as well as refers any old links to relevant updated content.

Over at my political site, DragonFlyEye.Net, creating the latest version of the site required many of the same considerations.  My last setup was largely produced with independent pages for the home page and each of the section home pages, with each calling a specific article ID from the database through a GET request (“index.php?art_id=25,” etc.).  When I went to the new “Clean URLs” schema, I had to provide a way that old links to content did not go away.

Even more vexing, the reason for moving to the “Clean URLs” schema was largely a security issue, so providing for the old style links meant allowing a certain amount of risk.  Moreover, making the changes via Apache was going to be inefficient because I go through a web host and would therefore need to rely on htaccess directives, which are much slower than httpd.config mods.

My solution, while not giving away the farm, was to use a fair amount of regular expression comparisons so that only those variables whose format I could predict would be allowed to work unmolested and all other queries would be pushed back to the home page of their respective sections. 

Now I am beginning to realize that my current naming convention leaves something to be desired, inasmuch as the URL does not include the title, which is a helpful SEO tactic.  Still, this is not the biggest problem the website has ever faced, and doubtless there are bigger fish to fry.  Perhaps in some later incarnation, this issue will be addressed; perhaps by the time some newer incarnation is developed, Google will have grown bored of title-bearing links.

Only time will tell.

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One point I did not mention on the other blog, which is definitely an SEO advantage of using the “sans w” address redirect:

Generally, your Pages Per Visit covers your entire website, but when ranking which pages get hit the most, once again is different than  Since Google Webmaster Tools allows you to set a Preferred Domain, it is logical to assume that the form of the domain that the Googlebot crawls is important to how it ranks pages.  In fact, the above-linked blog post more or less spells this out exactly.

So, get out there, set your preferred domain and make sure your server points users in the right direction.  As most of us who’ve been doing this a while can attest, it’s the little things that count. turns in a great roundup of tips on keeping readers and making a blog usable. The basics? Keep it readable:

Six Improvements to Your Blog –

Format Your Text- Take the extra time to write “pretty” posts, such as it were. Make it so that people can read what you’re typing, and do your best to keep the tone communicative, and not too dense. Translation: big fat paragraphs of dense text usually don’t make for “friendly” blog reading. (Look at David Byrne’s journal. Great stuff, but soooooooo long.) And get friendly with things like bulleted lists, shorter and longer paragraphs, use of bold, etc. But not too much. It’s a condiment.

The author of this post is spot-on in this article. Even if you think you’ve got it down, it never hurts to read the above article. You might find something you hadn’t considered. I like that he points out the need for short paragraphs, for example. Generally, large paragraphs that are well-written can easily be divided up a bit, since one thought should naturally lead to the next, anyway. But smart people tend to forget that their readers need logical breaks in the stream of consciousness, especially people used to writing in intellectual or academic circles.

On this level and so many more bulleted out for you in the above-linked post, some of the big blogs out there do more harm than good. Take the Daily Kos as one example. How many different ways to they violate LifeHack’s relatively simple rules of readability? Counting can make your head spin. In fact, I never go to Daily Koz ~ and I don’t care how much it affects my political blog not to be involved here ~ because the whole freakin’ page makes my eyes bug out of my head.

And because pages like this are so hard to read, other bloggers of like mind often emulate the unreadability and assume that this makes them hip. Some blogs made it big early and thus continue despite their readability shortcomings, others bull-dog their popularity with active and persistent SEO tactics, but for the rest of us, making the page readable is quite possibly the most essential component of achieving popularity.

So in the interest of furthering the usability discussion, allow me to add a few bullet points of my own using Kos as a “do not” example:

  1. Lines draw the eye, use them wisely: (I could write a whole blog on this, and maybe I just might) When creating borders around elements, be aware that the simple introduction of a solid line naturally draws the eye to follow where it leads. If you look at DailyKos, you can count at least twenty lines making up just the top three inches of the page. Moreover, they’re high-contrast lines separating orange and white and some of them are at 45 degree angles, besides. Holy crap! Keep borders to a minimum, and where you use them, try to see where they lead the user’s attention. It might lead them to move on.
  2. Sidebars are content, too!: When I read web pages, I like to be able to glance at the sidebars and see if there’s anything worth checking out elsewhere. So do other people, and that’s what sidebars are there for: to entice users towards increased Page-Per-Visit (PPV) or ad revenue. But in order to achieve this, the sidebar should flow naturally from the main content. When you look at DKos, it is impossible to see how the two right columns relate to the left. In fact, it almost looks as if you’re looking at three different web pages in frames. In Kos’s case, I would largely blame the use of ad content in the centre column for this “Islands in the Stream,” effect.
  3. Contrast is powerful stuff: I alluded to this in bullet #1, but I’ll state it explicitly here. Contrast is a powerful tool of usability, and thus you need to use it carefully. Kos looks like a creamsicle might in the midst of a bad acid trip. Once again, holy crap! They’re beating you over the head with the white and orange. Far better would be to use related or complimentary colors that blend into a whole while adding a small bit of contrast for the sake of drawing the eye and adding visual flavour.

That’s about all I’ve got at the moment. The big thing is to leave your page alone, walk away and have a beer, then go back and take another look. Or ask your friends to look, you’re probably always bugging them to, anyway. Get a fresh perspective on what you’ve got and think in terms of what you would think as a stranger to the website.

On a side-note, while I can’t prove it conclusively, I have a hunch that too much visual separation is probably not too good for SEO, either. Google has put a lot of effort forth in recent years to increase it’s search bots’ sensitivity to “readability” rules. That makes sense because things that aren’t readable on a webpage are more likely to be “Black-Hat” SEO tactics, and anyway, they’re not going to be terribly useful to the reader.

I also suspect, on this readability level, that keeping paragraphs short and focused is probably also good for SEO. That’s because a short, focused article is going to have a high density of related words that Google will see as an important article, but it is unlikely to have the same word repeated too many times, which will trip Google’s BS monitor.

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