Running a website can be stressful. In addition to keeping it updated, beautiful, and accurate, you need to be completely compliant with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines or risk search engine purgatory.
Google’s explanation of its guidelines is thorough, but not always accessible to those of us who maintain sites without the benefit of a computer science degree.
To help you make sense of this essential yet sometimes confounding document, here’s a layman’s guide to the Google Webmaster Guidelines.
Google’s Design and Content Guidelines
These suggestions on how to structure your site’s content aren’t hard to comply with, as long as you understand them. Remember that Google’s stated goal is to provide the best search results possible.
Our goal as webmasters is to make Google’s job easier so our site can rank better. Here are down-to-earth explanations of some of the more complex design and content guidelines (quotes are from Google’s Webmaster Guidelines):
Google Says: Every page should be reachable from at least one static text link.
Google Means: Landing pages need to be fully incorporated into a site, or noindexed.
Google Says: Offer a sitemap to your users with links that point to the important parts of your site.
Google Means: Your sitemap should be visible to users. Throw it in your footer.
Google Says: Keep the links on a given page to a reasonable number.
Google Means: The traditionally accepted number of links for a page is 100, but the Matt Cutts statements that led to that number are over 6 years old.
And even at the time he was cagey, saying, “It seemed about right to recommend 100 links or so, and in some cases, it might make sense to have more than a hundred links.”
Consider your user: how many links do they need to other sites to get context for your page? And consider yourself: how easy do you want to make it for users to leave your site, and how many links do you need going to other internal pages?
Also keep in mind that your navigation, footer, and sidebar links count toward the total for each page.
Google Says: Check for broken links and correct HTML.
Google Means: The reason this is important is that while many internet browsers correct broken HTML, it still creates problems for Google’s crawlers and may create a bad user experience as well.
If you’re unsure about the overall quality of your HTML, we have a great tool that will check this for you.
Google Says: Review our recommended best practices for images, video, and rich snippets.
Google Means: You really do need to review these best practices. But don’t worry, we’re here to help you out with that.
Write clear and descriptive alt tags and descriptions for images, and make sure they are included in your sitemap. A well-done image of two cats playing will look something like this:
<img src=”two-playing-cats.jpg” alt=”tabby and grey cat playing together”>
If you incorporate video, mark it up using the best practices outlined on schema.org. This involves some creating additional code to tell Google about the video, and allow them to possibly show the video in search results.
Google also suggests creating a unique landing page for each video, but remember that those pages need to be linked to at least one other page on your site, and contain some unique written content.
Linking to the video page from the page where it originally appears (the About Us page, or a blog post, for example) will satisfy the former requirement. A couple hundred words of original explanation of what your video is about satisfies the latter.
Rich snippets can make a huge impact on your search results, because they give people more details about the specific content of your page.
If your site contains products, recipes, reviews, events, and/or software apps, you should be using rich snippets. When setup correctly, they can display augmented search results like this:
Using rich snippets doesn’t guarantee that your special content will appear in search, but it definitely won’t appear if you don’t use them.
For detailed instructions on how to set these up, check out Google’s in depth guide.
Technical Google Webmaster Guidelines
Google wants to be able to crawl EVERYTHING on your website. That means you want to create an environment where it can do that as quickly and as easily as possible.
Log in to your webmaster tools and use the Fetch as Google and robots.txt tester to make sure all is well.
More Specific Technical Best Practices
Google Says: Make sure your web server supports the If-Modified-Since HTTP header. This feature allows your web server to tell Google whether your content has changed since we last crawled your site. Supporting this feature saves you bandwidth and overhead.
Google Means: This protocol tells Googlebot if your pages have been modified since it last crawled your site. If you don’t have this in place, crawlers will grab your whole site and compare it to what was last indexed to see if there have been any changes. This can suck up a lot of your bandwidth. If you have WordPress there are plugins you can use otherwise, this is probably an instance when you want to call in some technical help.
Google Says: Make use of the robots.txt file.
Google Means: Google can crawl your site without this file, but having it will give you more control over the particulars of how Google sees your site. Plus, Google clearly prefers that you have this file.
Don’t worry if you’re not thrilled about creating it. There are many services out there that will do it for you, and for simple sites these should suffice.
The important thing for any sitemap created by a third-party is that you review it carefully after it’s created.
Aside from your own visual review, test it in Google Webmaster Tools before you submit it.
Google Says: Use robots.txt to prevent crawling of search results pages or other auto-generated pages…
Google Means: Your robots.txt file can exclude search result pages, auto-generated pages, and stand alone landing pages used for PPC or other marketing with the robots meta tag.
It looks like this:
<META NAME=“ROBOTS” CONTENT=”NOINDEX, NOFOLLOW”>
Simply put it in the header of the page you want to keep out of search.
Google Says: Monitor your site’s performance and optimize load times.
Google Means: They likes fast sites, because people like fast sites. Test the page speed regularly (at least once a month) to identify any issues before they significantly impact your rankings.
You can get a page speed test by selecting “Page Speed Insights” from the list you’ll find under the “Other Resources” category when you’re logged in to Webmaster Tools.
Your site will receive separate scores for desktop and mobile, so be sure to look at both tabs to see if there are issues in either view.
Users expect pages to load in 2 seconds or less, and Google is all about user experience. For an in depth look at ways you can decrease load times, check out this post on KissMetrics.
The Golden Rule of Google: Quality Guidelines
You can think of the quality guidelines as an extension of the golden rule (Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them Do Unto You).
For Google, it’s Do Unto Users As You Would If There Was No Google.
Or, as Google puts it, “make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.”
In pursuit of this goal, however, people sometimes use practices that appear unethical. So in this section we’re going to focus on things you might inadvertently do, not super spammy things that no legitimate site would ever do (like link schemes).
The basic definition of cloaking is to show one version of your page to Google and another version to live human users to improve the page’s search rankings.
To avoid cloaking penalties, make sure that your pages display the same content constantly. This means not showing an HTML page to the Googlebot and a page filled with images and/or a Flash page to users.
Sure, sometimes pages move or change names and you need to setup a redirect. Google isn’t going to penalize you for that.
The problem with redirects comes when you set up a page that ranks well for a particular term, then shoot people over to a different page after they click on your search result.
When it comes to redirects, intent is crucial. If your goal is to get people onto the page they clicked on, redirect away. But if you’re trying to get them onto a different page that’s more valuable to you, even if it’s not what they would expect based on the search result, you’re setting yourself up for a Google penalty.
Hidden Text or Links
As mentioned earlier in the Content Guidelines for images, alt text and descriptions for images are types of hidden text that Google not only allows but encourages.
Where you’ll get into trouble is trying things like:
- Using white text on a white background
- Locating text behind an image
- Using CSS to position text off-screen
- Setting the font size to 0
- Hiding a link by only linking one small character, like a hyphen in the middle of a paragraph
(examples pulled from Google webmaster guidelines)
The most common type of doorway pages come from those trying to rank for local, place-specific searches. People who have several car dealerships, for example, may create doorway pages that are nearly identical to try and rank for “car dealership Dallas,” “car dealership Houston,” “car dealership Fort Worth,” etc.
Similarly, if you make a page for the sole purpose of ranking, and that page is designed only to funnel the user deeper into your site so you can make a sale, you could be setting yourself up for trouble.
Google’s problem with doorway pages is that they can create multiple search results that are almost identical, and this is a poor user experience.
Follow the golden rule of Google, and ask yourself if you’d make this page if Google didn’t exist. If the answer is no, proceed with extreme caution (or not at all).
This is basically the black-hat version of content marketing. Scraped content is something that you pull from another website and put on your own site without adding any additional value.
Value can come in the form of commentary, updates, or a new form of organization (e.g. creating a collected list of resources).
Problems arise when people try to take short cuts around the time consuming process of creating content by using automated methods of changing text just enough not to get dinged.
Write your own content. Don’t steal someone else’s.
Abusing Rich Snippets Markup
Basically, don’t use rich snippets to lie about what your page contains.
As with the prohibition against hidden text, the abuse of rich snippets is taking a Google webmaster guideline to its extreme to try and game the system.
If your site’s content is relevant for rich snippets, get familiar with their structure and make sure you’re using them correctly.
Google’s specific mandate is that they, “should be an up to date, accurate reflection of the topic and content already found on the page, such as text, images, and videos.”
Constant Vigilance for Webmasters
Finally, Google expects you, as someone in charge of website, to be vigilant about your site’s safety and compliance.
You need to have a system in place so that if the site gets hacked or becomes a haven for user-generated spam you can find out and fix it fast.
Unless you have a site that lets people make their own pages, the most common type of user-generated spam will be comments. It’s nice to have lots of comments on your site, but review them carefully and make sure they’re actually adding value to the discussion and not just trying to create links.
Keeping Up With Google’s Webmaster Guidelines
Hopefully this guide will help you get on top of what your site needs from Google’s perspective so you can give your site its best chance of ranking well.
But after you go through the full list, don’t walk away from your webmaster tools for months at a time.
Google is constantly changing and updating their guidelines and algorithms, and it’s our responsibility as webmasters and website managers to keep ourselves informed. Login weekly to make sure nothing appalling is happening to your site behind the scenes.
Ranking well is difficult, and you don’t want to create a more difficult situation for yourself than you have to.
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