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Wednesday, December 29th, 2004

Analytics and Expertise – Trusting the Pros to Know

 

Recently, a friend of mine bought a new car. Buying a car can be extremely stressful with an enormous array of important numbers, specifications and comparative measurements to consider before purchase. Now I was raised in the downtown core of Toronto which is a megalopolis stretching around the northwestern quarter of Lake Ontario. Growing up with a highly efficient public transit system and a decidedly urban lifestyle, I never even considered the need for a vehicle until I was in my mid 20′s. Ten years later I am still at the “this moves me where?” stage in my relationship with vehicles. Taking me to a car-dealership is sort of like asking another city-kid which mushrooms are safe to eat in the forest. “Hey that one looks cool…” Things can get pretty Mickey Mouse from here eh?

Being Mr. Urban-boy, I took a common sense approach to this problem. In order to appear less dense than I actually am, I did a bit of research on the types of cars my buddy was interested in. There is a lot of information out there. Being an SEO, I have a knack for easily finding information quickly. I found a lot of information and began to compile small dossiers on several vehicles that my friend mentioned. I can tell you about torque ratios and fuel efficiencies and anti-lock braking systems and all sorts of other stuff about several different models.

I was about to learn a very sad truth about such matters. When it comes to new cars, I don’t really know what I am talking about. I know enough to make conversation with another person but when it really comes down to it, lots gets lost in transmission.

Armed with numbers and knowledge, I felt somewhat comfortable helping my friend avoid getting sharked by a salesperson, at least in my head. In my heart however, I knew I was descending into a realm I’ve never really needed to understand before. While I already understood the basics of internal combustion engines, a glance under the hood of a 2004 model showed a very different design than the V.W. or Slant6 engines I’ve seen over other friends’ shoulders. After about five minutes, I decided my best contribution would be to simply stop asking questions and just watch the person selling the car. Let me tell you, people selling cars can throw numbers around and they sure know a lot about the vehicles they sell. Some of them where really nice folks. Others could have been typecast for their roles as totally scuzzy car dealers. The experience reminded me of a part of the cyber-world that is very close to my heart.

After my experience “helping” my friend find a new car, I thought about tools that provide businesses with information about their websites and online marketing efforts. There are a number of free SEO analytic tools out there for webmasters and site developers to work with. In many cases, these analytic tools offer a lot of numbers but very little actual analysis and function as sales devices for SEO or SEM firms.

Being able to access stats regarding the number of incoming links or the number of words found on a page does not necessarily give one the full knowledge needed to practice SEO. Search is a complicated field that has never provided a static environment. That complexity is the primary reason the SEO sector exists. When it comes to structuring an online marketing campaign, having hard facts about your website gives you the ability to make informed decisions, especially when you don’t have the luxury of examining the eyes of the salesperson on the other end of the phone.

Still, knowing all the numbers doesn’t really mean one knows the score. What do the numbers really mean in relation to each other or in relation to a competitor’s site? Here is a basic guide to analytic data you should be looking at.

W3C Compliance:

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the body that sets technical standards on the web. Being certain your site is W3C compliant helps ensure it can be read by any search engine spider. Look for a tag at the very top of your source code that looks something like this:

Title:

There are not common rules for the length of a page title but conventional wisdom says the greatest “power area” is found in the first 40 characters. If your page titles do not have keywords found in the first 40 characters, chances are you will want to have them rephrased. You will also want to ensure that each page in a site has a unique, topic-specific title.

Meta Description and Meta Keyword Tags:

There are two meta tags that are important to search engine rankings, the description and keyword tags. Of these two tags, the description is the most important but the keyword tag is thought to carry a very small weight on some search tools. Both tags should be kept below 190 characters and have the strongest keywords or phrases as close to the beginning of the tag as possible. It should be noted that alterations to either of these tags will effect another important analytic measure, keyword density.

Use of Heading Tags:

Headings should be used like page headlines. A good analytic tool will tell you how many H1, H2, or H3 tags are used on each page analyzed. Search engines tend to give a bit more weight to keywords phrased in heading tags however they also penalize sites that misuse headings tags. Knowing the number of times a heading tag is used doesn’t tell you if that is the optimal way to use such tags. It is also difficult to offer general advice on the use of headings tags except to suggest that limiting the use of these tags is generally wise.

Use of IMG-ALT Text:

A good analytics tool will tell you how many images on a page use ALT text, however, most analytics tools will not tell you if ALT text is used wisely. Image ALT text is the text that appears when a mouse hovers over an image. It is primarily used as an accessibility tool allowing page readers to describe an image for visually impaired visitors. Image ALT text is also being used as a SPAM tool by some search engine marketers.

HTML Size (or Page Size):

Good analytic tools will tell you the size of your website. Generally, the smaller the number the better as small pages load faster and are more likely to address one topic per page. If your analytic tool tells you your page size is very large that is likely an indication you need to restructure your website.

Keyword Density:

Keyword density refers to the keyword/non-keyword ratio of the site. This is a touchy area as many in the SEO community do not believe keyword densities play a factor in organic placements but it is an often analyzed page element. Scott Van Achte, head SEO at StepForth Placement does consider keyword densities however he believes that the “optimal” keyword density is directly related to the other pages listed in the Top10 placements. This is an area you would want to address with a professional SEO firm.

Site Structure:

This refers to how a website is constructed and is a fairly dense area to work through. Please note: Given the numerous types of sites, databases and design tools, a general view on site structure is rather difficult to present, an issue shared by all analytic tools, tech-writers included. If you think your site structure might have an adverse effect on site rankings, you should speak to an SEO. Here is some general advice on analytic tools and site structure though.

The first thing a good online analytic tool will do is tell you if a search engine spider can read your website. A problem here is that (generally speaking), most search engine spiders are more advanced than the free SEO analytic software. Quite often an older tool will tell a webmaster that their site is not open to search engine spiders when the site is in fact wide open.

Next, a good tool will offer a representation of link paths found within the site. Users should be able to see each link listed, including the anchor text used to phrase the links. Any dead links should also be exposed by the tool. If there are critical SEO issues posed by the structure of the site, a really good free tool will offer corrective suggestions as well.

An important thing to note is that most analytic tools examine individual webpages not entire websites. You want to be certain you have a full analysis of your entire website before undertaking a major redesign or SEO effort.

Incoming Links:

One of the biggest factors shared by all major search engines is that spiders find pages by following links. Furthermore, the number of links directed to a specific page has an effect on the placement of that page.

A good analytic tool will tell you exactly how many incoming links are directed to the page being studied. A really good tool will give you an active list of these links however, most free tools do not generate such lists. Link Analysis is an important part of SEO work however this is another area in which most analytic tools simply can not offer a full picture of the effectiveness of current incoming links.

Overall, website analysis is very complex, made more difficult by the fact that analysis of competing websites is critical to establishing useful baselines. It is important to remember that most online analytic tools look at pages, not entire sites. Webmasters and marketers are urged to gather as much information as possible before considering search engine optimization, whether in-house or out-sourced to a professional firm. Above all, use the numbers gathered in analytic study of the various pages in your website to quiz whomever you are considering for your SEO effort. If every topic addressed above generates a thoughtful response (even if it challenges what I’ve written), chances are you are talking to a pro.

By the way, my friend has a nice new car. At the end of what turned out to be a very long day, my friend settled on a great car purchased from the salesman he trusted the most. After I stopped trying to be an expert on cars, I reverted to an expertise we all share, I used my meager knowledge to probe my sense of trust.


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