As I’m mapping out a half day SEO training course for creative and technical employees, I started to think about the importance of the last mile in SEO. In the telecommunications industry, the last mile (or final mile) refers to the final connection to end users (usually referring to data connectivity to businesses and consumers). It’s often an area where issues can arise. In SEO, there’s also a last mile, although it’s slightly different. The last mile in SEO includes your copywriters, designers and developers. Let me give you a quick example. Let’s say you were hired to help a company with a large SEO project. Your job was to enhance the company’s SEO efforts by removing technical barriers, optimizing important categories of content, and increasing quality inbound links. You start by performing an extensive technical audit and you identify key barriers to indexation. Then you map out a full remediation plan. Your client is excited, you’ve built up some well-deserved credibility, and everyone involved believes that better rankings and targeted traffic are on their way. But hold on a second… Your changes still need to be implemented successfully. Enter the critical last mile for SEO, or your designers and developers that need to implement those changes. Needless to say, your technical and creative teams are extremely important to your SEO efforts.
Why The Last Mile In SEO Is So Important
It is critical that your creative and technical teams successfully implement your SEO changes. If they don’t, then your changes run the risk of having no impact at all (or worse, having a negative impact). That’s right, imagine you’re brought in to fix a problem and you end up making things worse! It’s definitely possible. Keep in mind that problems typically arise in the last mile of SEO when dealing with larger sites when there are more people involved. For example, a 500,000 page website with 75 people working on it. However, whether you hand off technical SEO changes to a single developer or a team of developers, you’re relying on them to implement something they might not be very familiar with. And you need to understand that without your designers and developers, it’s going to be extremely hard to get your SEO changes implemented swiftly and accurately. Like I said earlier, they encompass the critical last mile… That said, your designers and developers also need to understand that your SEO changes are important to the success of the website. It’s a symbiotic relationship and each party needs to understand the value that the other brings to the table.
Let’s take a look at some quick examples of last mile SEO breakdowns, and more importantly, how you can make sure this doesn’t happen in the future:
(Note, I’ve included just a few examples below and not an exhaustive list.)
Search Engine-Friendly Redirects
The Breakdown: Instead of search engine-friendly 301 redirects, 302 redirects or meta refresh redirects were implemented on the website. Both 302’s and meta refresh redirects are not search engine friendly and will not safely pass the link popularity from the old pages to the new ones. Needless to say, this is not good. If your redirects are implemented incorrectly, then you could waste thousands of inbound links and the search power they provide. In addition, you could have wasted countless hours of inbound link analysis.
XML Sitemaps Throwing Errors
The Breakdown: The database administrator generating your xml sitemap files didn’t know that each xml file cannot exceed 50,000 URL’s or 10MB in uncompressed file-size. The files released to the website exceeded those limits, and the engines wouldn’t process the files. Unfortunately, he didn’t know that the files were throwing errors until your SEO Coordinator received the errors in Google Webmaster Tools.
–I worked on a site with over 20 million webpages last year, and we definitely went through a few iterations of sitemap files before we settled on the final result.
Content Optimization, Keyword Research, and Wasted Opportunities
The Breakdown: Important new sections of content went live without being optimized based on keyword research. You’ve lost a great opportunity to provide optimized content and to possibly rank for target keywords. For example, a new product section goes live and it unfortunately contains generic title tags, non-descriptive links, no heading tags, a lack of target keywords, etc.
As part of your technical audit, you might find URL canonicalization issues, which could cause duplicate content problems. For example, you might find URL’s that resolve using mixed case, querystring parameters, index files and root URL’s. 1 URL might look like 5 to the search engines (all with the same exact content).
The Breakdown: Your developers fix the most obvious problem, www and non-www versions of each page, but don’t tackle the other canonicalization problems, including trailing slashes and mixed case. You will unfortunately still have an issue although the action item might be checked off by project management.
Flash and AJAX
Let’s say you have a killer promotion going live along with campaign landing pages. There’s lot of good content to optimize and you have a feeling this promotion will gain some valuable inbound links. You hand off your content optimization spreadsheet, excited to see the pages go live.
The Breakdown: Your new campaign landing page goes live, but the entire page was developed in flash or using AJAX. If you’ve read my blog before, then you know I’m a big fan of using flash and AJAX, when needed. That said, entire webpages or applications should not be developed using flash or AJAX (at least at this point). They should only be used for elements that require their power. If you do use flash or AJAX for entire webpages, then you run the risk of essentially hiding a lot of your content from the search engines.
Graceful Degradation and Progressive Enhancement
The Breakdown: User Experience wants to take 6 distinct sections of content on a product detail page and provide a tabbed structure instead (for usability). If the tabbed content launches without using Graceful Degradation or Progressive Enhancement, then you run the risk of hiding 5 out of 6 sections of content. For example, the search engines would only find the initial content on the page and not the additional five pieces of content. However, making sure your web developers use Graceful Degradation or Progressive Enhancement to expose the content would still put you in a good place SEO-wise.
So How Do You Prevent a Breakdown in the Last Mile of SEO?
Reading the examples above, you might think that SEO can be frustrating. It is sometimes, but there is a way to nip these last mile problems in the bud. Did you notice a common thread in the examples listed above. The common thread was simply a lack of information. So how do you make sure your designers and developers know about SEO best practices? The answer is training. SEO Training is critical to ensuring technical changes go live using SEO best practices.
In my experience, most designers and developers want to learn SEO best practices. Sure, there will be some push back (and I’m being nice with the term “push back”). But, it’s a great skill for your designers and developers to add to their skillset. They can still create killer applications and websites, but those sites will also launch using SEO best practices. SEO Training can also overcome conflict in the future by ensuring everyone developing a project understands SEO best practices. For example, there should be no surprises when reviewing projects if everyone understands how sites get crawled and indexed.
The Definition of Insanity
I’ll end this post with the definition of insanity. It’s doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Don’t become an insane SEO. :) Introduce SEO training, best practices, examples, etc. and you can make your life easier while helping everyone involved improve their skillset.
Now I need to get back to fleshing out my half day SEO training course. Actually, I think writing this post has helped me create a better training course. I’ll let you know how it goes.