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Start optimising your website or Google will do it for you

Andreas Voniatis | July 26, 2012

The risk is real and thus makes a strong call for web search optimisation, even if you’re not wholly dependent on Google for traffic.  I can’t believe there are many businesses and non profit organisations that don’t care how their website is presented in Google- i.e. that don’t care about optimising for web search.  The way the system of algorithms are moving fast towards usability means WSO acts as an additional incentive for a moderate usability check.  So what are the things Google is messing around with that could change the way your website is presented to unsuspecting search audience.  My lord and chief justice, I bring you exhibit A:

Meta Titles

Yes, meta titles.  The strings of characters and words you see in the tab of your browser window and thus not on the web page itself.  I pay little attention to the usual 65 to 70 character limits usually advised by SEO consultants or the idea of sticking a common keyword into the title to boost rankings.  Prior to Darren Slatten of SEO Mofo‘s study, I had tested previously that if you do write long titles, Google will simply add an ellipsis in the form of “...” which actually results in higher click throughs.  SEO Moz has found that Google will change your titles if you actually exceed the character limits (assuming this is 12 words), by attempting to find a better text string for your title tag which could be your url keyphrase string.  So that exceeding the documented 12 word limits is an example where Google may optmiise your site for you if you choose not to.

But what about short meta titles?  This I would say is more of an issue as there is no excuse for not having titles.  So although the limits are unknown to me and are quite frankly unimportant - what is important is writing clever prose like title tags.  Again, if you don’t - Google will write your short title tags for you.

Meta Description Tags

Meta Description tags are the snippets of text displayed in black text on Google’s results page.  As found recently by Mr Slatten, the text may be displayed up to 3 lines as Google may display up to 206 characters instead of the 156 character limit often prescribed.  Although, meta description tags are not likely to be used as a ranking signal, the content is used in the Google SERRs and thus presented to real human visitors which could influence their choice of site to click on vs other sites for a given search term.  Thus it makes sense to write a document abstract as recommended by Michael Martinez.  So you have a couple of sensible choices.  You could either write a document abstract that exceeds the 156 character limit, including a call to action or you could write a slightly longer extract in the full knowledge that Google will use the extracts of the abstract to form the snippet.

Sitelink URLs and Categories

As if it wasn’t enough that sitelinks management in Google Webmaster Tools is unpredictable, a patent analysed by Bill Slawski shows that Google will use various factors to decide on the sitelink categories that appear against searches for your website or brand name.  Seeveral factors were cited:

The above factors could also determine how Google may choose to modify Title tags that are too short or long as well as missing Meta Descriptions.  As a sidenote, it also looks like Google is looking to find ways of determine the content of destination pages more accurately where the internal anchor texts are just “click here”.

On a more positive note, there are things that won’t change regardless of whether you choose to take advantage of:

Rich snippets

Rich snippets are extra features Google will add to your listing in the Search Engine Ranking Results (SERRs) be it your photo to signify your authorship of the article or stars to display the ratings of your content using a gold five star system.  Thus by marking up content from a choice of microdata (as recommended by Google), Microformats, and RDFa tags - once Google recrawls your site, your content may be enriched by rich snippets, even if there is no guarantee.  The authorship option is made somewhat easier by having a Google Profile associated with the site you write for or should I say guest post for.  However you will need an email address based on the site domain to verify your authorship.

Videos

If your content has videos and is supported by a video XML sitemap uploaded in Google webmaster tools, then your listing could be enriched further with a video still image to improve click throughs.  The videos may be flash, mpeg - anything really as long as it’s a crawlable resource.  Here’s an example:

Final thoughts for now

It has been said that one of the most important things to learn about search optimisation, if you learn nothing else is to look at the search engine ranking results (SERRs), as they ultimately reflect what it is you are doing with your site in terms of the way you mark up your content, the way the content is organised and shows some glimpses into the technical configuration of your website.  It is also the first impression a user gets when they see your website listed in the SERRs for the first time.  A good friend once told me:

You only get once chance to make a first impression

So make it count.

Andreas qualified as a management accountant (ACMA) after graduating in Economics with honours from Leeds University. In 2003, pursued a career in Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and has since held various Head of Search roles for award winning agencies including Infectious Media and prestigious startups. In 2010, Andreas became an independent consultant to international agencies and brands worldwide providing SEO consultancy services and online PR, including Exxon Mobil, Tesco, HSBC, Zurich, Quorn as well as startups including Discount Vouchers. His work has been featured in the Telegraph and Search Engine Watch particularly for reverse engineering the Google Penguin algorithm to a 98% statistical confidence level in 2013.