What do you do if your traffic suddenly drops? Did something kill your SEO? What if it was a tiny technical error made months ago—can you find it and figure out how to solve it? These are the questions at the heart of a new piece on SEO disasters by Mark Munroe.
Mark’s article is aimed at SEO pros, but you don’t have to be an expert to understand the key problems that crop up over and over (and how to avoid them). Here are five of the most insidious, that you can easily prevent:
1. Nofollow/Noindex woes. Every time you add a link to a page on your site, you have the option of adding a “nofollow” tag to it. This tells search engines not to follow that link and associate your site with it. Similarly, each page of your site can be given a “noindex” tag or a robots.txt file that tells search engines not to index it. That takes it out of Google search results and nullifies its SEO value.
Obviously, these tags can be dangerous if misused. Most of the time you should never use them at all, but there are tactical reasons to deploy them on specific links or pages. The problem comes when they somehow get put in the wrong place, destroying your SEO value. The most common cause is when a code is used to automatically add or remove the tags to certain kinds of pages, or when one page’s tags get copied as a template for other pages. This can backfire both ways—adding the noindex/nofollow tags where they aren’t needed, or removing them when they were there for a good reason.
(You can see how to check these in our Guide to DIY SEO.)
2. Changing the H1. Blogs don’t (usually) use font sizes. Instead they have a few preset styles of different sizes for headlines and subheaders. The largest of these, H1 (Header 1) is meant for the title at the top of the page—its main headline. Google uses the words in H1 to determine what a page is all about, so your H1 text should usually contain keywords.
But not every web writer understands this. What happens if you decide to do some edits to an old page, and spruce up the title? If the new H1 text contains different keywords than the old one, you just changed your SEO. And on a high performing page, that one little change can affect traffic for the whole site. Always evaluate the keyword footprint of old content before revising it.
3. Broken redirects. One of the most common errors affecting SEO is when an old URL no longer contains the page it was supposed to contain. This could be because it moved to a new URL, because you changed your URL structure, or because you completely removed the page. It’s also a common problem when changing websites.
The problem is that old links around the web still point to the previous URL, and Google sees it as a dead end (so do frustrated users). The solution is to use what’s called a 301 redirect. Now the old links are redirected to the appropriate page. The easiest way to set one up is a PHP single page redirect, which you can learn to do here.
Often, 301 problems come farther down the line. This could be because someone on your team accidentally removes old 301s. Or it could be the result of multiple URL changes—the original 301 points at a new page, but now that page isn’t there. Developers often forget about 301’s that are three revisions old, but Google doesn’t.
4. Bad sitemap. A sitemap exists to help search engines find things on your site. The larger the site, the more the search engines will rely on it. That means that if there’s an error on your sitemap, search engines may believe that certain pages no longer exist, even though they’re still there.
Usually this is caused by a glitch to an automatically generated sitemap. Learn the safest way to make a sitemap here.
5. Link changes. Just like changing H1 tags, edits to old pages often involve changing or removing links—and that can be a disaster. Remember that the links on your website, both internal and externally, are the DNA of its SEO. Be very, very thoughtful in removing or changing links on any page. That includes removing pages altogether.
The SEO Technical Audit
These things go wrong for many reasons. On large sites, it may be frequent updates, patches, and using code to apply changes across hundreds of pages at once. Smaller sites may have an overworked web team or rely on a “friend of a friend” to serve as webmaster.
What makes all of these errors worse is that they’re hard to detect. You see the decline in traffic but you don’t see what’s causing it. Mark tells tales of sleuthing out obscure problems—perhaps by reading months of release reports, or by comparing Google’s cache to what’s actually on the site.
Your business doesn’t have to do all of that, however. When you partner with a good SEO company, the very first thing they’ll do is conduct an SEO technical audit. At EverSpark, our audit covers more than 50 technical factors that could be hurting your SEO. This helps us create a clear roadmap to improving traffic, boosting your ranking and pulling ahead of the competition.