In SEO, the small stuff truly matters, and consistency is especially powerful. At the enterprise level things like page titles, internal links and duplicate content may seem almost trivial compared to the overall complexity of the site. But they are hugely important, and when well-optimized in sum can literally make or break a site’s SEO potential.
I have been fairly vocal about the importance of looking beyond the basics of SEO to creating Big Ideas that scale well for both users and search engines. I have spoken and written repeatedly about why SEO at the 101 level (and beyond, actually) needs to be worked into the very fabric of a company. It is not nearly as effective as an outside force, making recommendations and working with teams who then implement (or don’t) the work. Yes, this is a fact of the SEO workflow and our daily reality (and it doesn’t have to be a problem). But marketing generally, and SEO specifically, works so much more effectively when they’re woven into the processes of a company. My agency works with many companies to try to accomplish this very thing.
And yet, it’s easy to miss the basics in all this. The basics of SEO are as important as ever. Just because something is basic does not mean it’s trivial or unimportant. The irony is, the basics of SEO in sum are probably the most important part of the work.
The Biggest Ranking Factor Of All: Consistency
There are only so many things that a website can do to communicate relevance and authority to a search engine. These are well documented in places such as SEOmoz’s SEO rankings study and David Mihm’s excellent local SEO study. Beyond these, too, there are technical issues that need to be accounted for, such as may impact crawling and indexation, canonicalization and site performance, but in general the basics of what makes a site rank well in search engines such as Google are fairly well documented (if unverified). The art of course is knowing which things to prioritize, which to ignore, and how to accomplish them in complex technical and often political environments. It’s a human endeavor, after all.
Among all this, very little attention is given to the importance of consistency and standardization of the various elements of SEO across a website.
Consistency Is King
We can think about SEO ranking elements as signals to a search engine. Each one of them communicates something to the engine, and is considered (or not) and applied to the internal algorithms. When all of these signals are pointing in the same direction, powerful things can happen.
This is especially well illustrated with the problem of duplicate content and canonicalization. There are several ways sites can communicate to the engines which URL is to be treated as the canonical, including:
- 301 redirects
- XML sitemaps
- rel canonical tags
- Internal linking
- External linking
Think for a moment about a typical website. It is likely to have many pages linking internally with multiple versions of URLs. The classic home page problem, for example, where sites often link to both mydomain.com and mydomain.com/index.html, is quite common. That doesn’t begin to cover the potential duplication that occurs on the enterprise level with large, complex websites and dynamic content.
In addition, there are likely common occurances of moved content, which have 301 redirects implemented to multiple versions of the same page (which may then be using rel canonical tags, as well).
When SEO teams begin to cover this problem, rel canonical implementation is likely going to be deployed. This is often done correctly, but because it’s such an easy thing to do wrong, errors do occur. For example, it’s quite easy to use the non-canonical version of a URL in this tag, such as mydomain.com/article/ instead of mydomain.com/article/index.html (or vice versa). Please note that examples such as this are solely meant to illustrate the point; in “real life” these problems are much more complicated, odd and uniquely difficult.
One of the problems I have with the rel canonical tag, is that websites lean on it in lieu of a strong and consistent internal link profile. The idea that a page is linked-to with a non-canonical URL (such as required by analytics like Coremetrics) on prominent locations of the site, but the non-canonical version actually has a rel=canonical tag to the canonical version, and therefore the problem of crawl duplication and link equity dispersion is averted, is absolutely wrong. Each URL is scored as a separate and unique entity. When non-canonical versions are linked within a site—even when they have rel=canonical tags implemented on them—internal PageRank dilution occurs and the website will have problems with SEO. Sure, Google Webmaster Tools (and Yahoo! before them) give us a parameter handling option, but we have found this to be pretty ineffective.
If the SEO teams are especially concerned about canonicalization, they may also employ XML sitemaps to help provide another hint to engines about a site’s preferred URLs. How easy it is for these to be in error, as well, for the same reasons as illustrated above.
Then there’s the problem of external links. It is my opinion that as much as 40% of the link equity a URL has earned through its backlinks (automate your blog) will rot away when it is 301 redirected. In our experience, especially very recently, it may even be more than that. It is absolutely essential that when important URLs move or change, sites linking to the moved URL are contacted and have their links updated. The days of 301?ing a URL and garnering most of the link equity on the new page are gone it seems, at least on Google.
The Sum Of Little Things Is Powerful
Each of the above examples illustrates that, while we have several tools at our disposal to communicate strong canonicalization to a search engine, each one is susceptible to human error. Each, in turn, is weakened when used in isolation. Or put another way—when each of these signals is pointing in the same direction, an extremely strong signal of canonicalization is realized. This can translate to powerful SEO for a website.
The same process and concept can be applied to on-page optimisation, site performance, internal and related linking, robots exclusion and even meta data.
The small stuff matters. Attention to detail is extremely important in SEO, and so is getting the basics correct. But the thought I want to leave you with more than any other is simply this: consistency is king in SEO.