Notes: Web Standards and Search Engines: Searching for Common Ground

The following are my panel notes from SXSW. As I am not the fastest typer I have paraphrased what was said. Should you notice any mistakes please do point them out in the comments for corrections.

Moderator: Molly E Holzschlag Pres, Molly.com Inc

MH: AS someone who advocates standards and semantic markup it's intriguing to me that in using html semantically this helps search engines find content.

AG: I was working on a small bank site and we switched the site from tables to standards and we went from position 10 to position 2
Using things like the Abbr tag trying to provide more value using meaningful markup

PM: I don't consider myself an expert in standards but we need to know about all of the issues that cross the boundaries of expertise. A while back I got an email from an entrepreneur in Italy he had hired a design firm to develop his website he was happy how it looked. He looked into the search engines and couldn't find any results. His site was completely unfindable 3 months later. I took a look at his website and it was basically a bunch of images. So it was a disaster in terms of making his website visible.

TM: In terms of standards and search you have to be clear to the search engine what the site is about. We are evolving our algorithms to see new signals of quality. If in the future looking for valid html became an important signal of quality then this might be soemthing that we do in the future. We are trying to lift the quality of the search engine results. Using web standards can be a concise way of doing that.

AH: I have been in SEO for 7 years. A lot of the accessibility guidelines overlap with SEO best practices. I would advocate knowing all three Usability accessibility and SEO. As the Tim said the search engines are more or less ignoring these signals of quality.

MH: What types of things really are signals of quality?

TM: With validation there�s so few out f 20 million pages that it's not something that can be used. SEO look at a site and see what the sites above them in ranking are doing. Can we look at sites and see if that is something that can be taken as a signal of quality.

MH: What is it about standards or not standards that make content stand out to search engines.

PM: Users are busy they are not all Albert Einstein we need to design for a distracted non-optimized user. We are all busy and trying to get things done in the real world. Findability.org I wanted my site to look good on my Treo. It was difficult to get this site to work across all platforms. From a business perspective was this something that was worth it. Standards is infused with a bit of religion. We need to recognise that we are asking people to do an awful lot.

AH: The benefit s form using standards are indirect. Sites won't necessarily get a boost if your site validates. If you use standards then you are using techniques that helps the search engines find your content. If you don't use standards then you are harming the search engines ability to access your content.

MH: How many people here see that using standards improves search results (most people raise their hands)

AG: I wonder if using web standards became a signal of quality would we see a major loading of title attributes within pages. In the same way that people use white text on a white background now.

PM: The title and content of the document come first and you've got to make sure that the code doesn't get in the way of the content. I populate the keywords meta data. The description tag helps to classify your site.

TM: I like to restate the question that molly is asking from the perspective of Search. Will people rank better if they give search engines more information then this will have a positive effect on your search engine ranking. We as search engines want people to be semantic about marking up their information. Rel no follow was created to enable sites to put it on sites that aren't trusted. We don't like the descriptive nature of this attribute. You should put this on a link to say that you don't trust this content and let the search engine decide what the relevance of this link. The semanticness is really good for us as search engines.

AH: Everyone's agreed that SEO and web standards overlap and that's going to have a benefit to your site. A lot of the benefits come from the lowest hanging fruit. If you have 508 then you are going to see the benefit of your approach. Disclaimer these don't wholly overlap.

MH: Best practices in web standards != to best practices in SEO.

PM: This slide is a number of SEO guidelines that I wrote as I wrote my findability book. SEO is cross-disciplinary and you shouldn't limit yourself to any particular discipline. I advocate that it's important to understand the technical details. We need to be speaking to the people in marketing and wee need to be getting them to work with us in supporting our requirements. We all need to recognize that evangelizing and to push for this work is as important as actually doing it.

MH: Let's talk about the relationships and linking strategies. How people are using title attributes in links and how this effects the how the search engines see it. What can we achieve through linking practices?

AG: Blogs decided to link to the bio of the president with the test miserable failure this became the top result for miserable failure. I would like to see the search take more interest in the textual context surrounding the link.

TM: The Google bombing happens when there's a term that's not very popular on the web. Spamming is something that can get you penalised from the search engines or ejected from the results altogether. In terms of using the text around the link it's something that can help relevance. This seems like something that would make sense. You want to get authoritative sites from around the web, which give a signal of quality rather than links from unauthoratative sites.

AH: Our company is most interested in link popularity. If there�s one thing you want to pay attention to it's the link structure of you site. Using descriptive anchor txt it is a usability and accessibility technique too.

PM: At the national cancer institute. I thought about the homepage not just from the perspective of the user and the organisation I also thought about the search engine as another kind of user group. Best to push for important links from the homepage. Harvard business school came in position 2 after London business school. They temporarily boosted their ranking. London school of business every marketing page for books also links to their site. This kind of thinking big picture that has really helped them achieve better results. What's important is who's linking to you? Being a good citizen and linking to other people is a good thing.

TM: Site explorer is a way to look at the entry and exit links http://siteexplorer.search.yahoo.com

MH: Stats programs help you see this kind of data too.

TM: Our product gives you this view from the point of view of the whole of the internet rather than just a sample.

MH: Can we talk about the abuse of these practices and spamming search engine results? Meta attributes aren't releveant any more if we hide text

AH: I have used dodgy black hart SEO techniques in the past. Black hat SEO using techniques outside of Search engine guidelines has got a lot harder in the last few years. People that use Black methods are switching to white hat methods because it�s getting a lot harder to spam the search results. If you have a long-term strategy you should stay away from black hat seo.

TM: One of things is to design for the user and not for the search engine. The other thing is when you feel comfortable using a specific technique there can be edge case where you can give the search engines more descriptive information than you are showing the user then this is ok e.g. flash. Things should happen naturally on the web and exchange links in a valuable way so you don't make things look unnatural.

AG: Keep your text legible and make sure you aren't repeating the same thing over and over should help and improve the chance that the search engine understand the content on the page.

MH: microformats are extensions to xhtml to use existing tags and attributes to define common information. Any comments on Microformats in terms of search.

PM: I learnt about microformats in the last week. If you think about a business card you think about coding that in xhtml if everyone follows the same standard then you can take your network of contacts and create a database. I am sceptical about this in the same way as the semantic web.

TM: It's a question of trust is someone doing this for the right reasons? For example people talk about not using keywords but they still have a part to play. It's all about understanding the trust relationship.

MH: You'll get a few early adopters and the search engine swill wade through it and try and make something useful out of it.

Questions:

Q: If you are using keywords and referring to content that's not on that page how does that penalise you.

TM: It's common that site only have keywords for the whole site rather than customised per page. So we can't penalise this.

Andy Clarke: search should reward sites that are adhering to accessibility guidelines.
TM: It's a good idea. We could maybe note this and flag a site as being accessible. It�s hard to know if there's an automated way of being able to evaluate if something is and isn't accessible.

Andy Clarke: Software validation tools are useful but they aren't the holy grail.
TM: Yahoo! has been on panels as far as accessibility is concerned.

Q: (inaudible)
TM:...
AG:...

AG: search is also what we use to find content within our own sites. Good linking goes a long way to improving that.

Q: If someone takes your content and copies that content how does that affect you?
TM: you should let the search engines know or file a DMCA complaint. There are lots of issues that could happen, you could be seen as not the original owner and taken out of the index.

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