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May 6, 2012

Your Most Common SEO Questions Answered

Today I browsed through the 3,500 or so SEO questions people asked at Google and chose the most common ones to answer. I figured that, if so many people were seeking out answers for these SEO questions at Google, many of you may also be wondering the same things.

Unsurprisingly, many questions were along the line of “How do I get my site found in Google?” (Answer: Read everything the High Rankings website!) And sadly, there were tons of questions about Meta keywords, as if they had anything to do with SEO. But there were lots of specific questions that you may also have wondered about recently, from very basic things that we in the biz assume everyone already knows to what’s happening right now with Google’s latest algorithm changes. (I’m starting out with the more tricky technical ones. If those go over your head, please scroll down to the “On-page SEO Question” section.)

Let’s dig right in…

Technical Google Questions

Q. Can I recover from Google’s “Penguin Update”?

A. For those who don’t know, Penguin is the name of Google’s latest algorithm change that came out toward the end of April 2012. At this point, it’s too early to have had any Penguin recoveries. However, as with any Google update, of course you can recover from it as soon as you understand what it was that your site had (or didn’t have) that caused it to be nuked from the search results. From what I’ve seen so far, Penguin is simply an extension of Panda. Reading what I wrote in “Why SEO in All the Right Places No Longer Works” is a good place to start your recovery.

Q. How do we know about unnatural links to our website?

A. You can use backlink checker tools to find some of them. Or ask the jerk spammer company who purchased them for you. 😉

Q. How do I find the number of pages of my site that Google has indexed?

A. The quickest and easiest way is via a “site:command” at Google. Go to the Google search box and type: and hit the search button. You’ll then see at the top of the page: “About xx,xxx results.” That’s the approximate number of URLs from your site that they have indexed. You’ll be able to scroll through the first 1,000 results, but that’s about it. Please note that site:command isn’t 100% accurate and you may find vastly different results from one day to the next.

If you want to see how many pages Google has indexed that actually bring traffic to your website, SEOmoz had a post from 2010 that shows how to find that number in your Google Analytics. I’ve taken that a step further and created a custom report that does something similar.

Q. How often does Google update its search results? (Or another variation: How long does Google take to index pages?)

A. In the early days of Google, it could take up to a month for pages to get indexed. And the search results would shift once a month or so during what was called the “Google Dance.” Today, due to much more processing power and many different data centers, most existing sites see new pages getting indexed almost immediately. This in turn causes the search results to also change constantly. Even brand-new sites will often be indexed within a few days if they ping Google and/or have a few tweets that announce it.

Q. Can you have two domains for the same site?

A. You can have as many domains for the same site as you’d like. However, you typically want only one of those domains to be indexed by the search engines. Use 301-redirects to point to your main domain from your extra domains for best results.

Q. Can a web crawler find unlinked pages?

A. They do seem to manage to find them these days, so be sure to exclude them via your robots.txt page and/or through a robots=noindex tag.

Q. Does the canonical link need to go on every page of the website?

A. The canonical link element (aka rel=canonical) doesn’t necessarily need to be on any page of your site. But if there is a chance of pages having URLs that get appended one way or another with stuff that doesn’t change the content, it’s not a bad idea to use rel=canonical to ensure that Google indexes only the correct (main) URL. It will also pass all the link popularity to the main URL as well. All pages where the URLs may get appended should use rel=canonical.

Q. Will deleting duplicate content from my website get me ranked again?

A. If the duplicate content on your site was what caused you to somehow lose rankings, then yes. Just remember that it’s doubtful that your site was penalized for having duplicate content. What may have happened, however, is that you split the link popularity of your content between multiple URLs, which can definitely affect rankings. In which case, using rel=canonical as mentioned previously can help.

Q. How are search rankings affected by a domain name change?

A. If you 301-redirect the old domain to the new, tell Google about the new website address within your Google Webmaster Tools (GWMT) account, set up a new GWMT account for the new domain, and change as many of the old links to point to the new domain, your rankings and traffic shouldn’t be affected.

Q. If forum signature links can be seen only by members, does Google count them?

A. If the forum has set the Google spider to be a “guest” and not a “member” (which is the norm), then no, they can’t see the signatures and therefore can’t/won’t count them. That’s how we purposely have it set at the High Rankings Forum, but every forum has its own unique settings.

Q. What is the best for SEO: PHP or HTML?

A. By the time it gets to the browser, PHP is in HTML form, therefore they’re both the same as far as search engines and SEO are concerned.

Q. Why are tables bad for SEO?

A. They’re not. They’re perfectly fine for search engines and SEO, and always have been. See SEO Myth #3.

On-Page SEO Questions

Q. What are key phrases?

A. Key phrases are simply the words people type into a search engine to find relevant websites. They’re also known as keyword phrases, and sometimes just plain old keywords.

Q. What is a web copy?

A. Web copy is simply what you write on your website.

Q. What is the purpose of writing keywords in an article?

A. Because keywords are what people type into search engines to find relevant websites (or pages from websites), using them as part of the web copy in your articles and other pages helps them to be seen by Google as relevant for those key phrases. Without keywords within your content, the search engines have a hard time figuring out what your pages should show up for in the search results.

Q. How many words should I use in an article? (There were many variations of this, such as How many words should I use in my Meta description tag, or in a Title tag, etc.)

A. As many as you need to use to say what you need to say. Period. There is no magic number of words for those things, nor has there ever been despite what you may have read elsewhere. Great SEOs do not get hung up on numbers.

Q. Can you see the title tag?

A. You most certainly can. It’s typically what is shown at the top of your browser window (or tab) and also the clickable link to your page when it shows up in the search results.

Q. How important are title pages in SEO?

A. I believe they’re still the single most important on-page SEO element.

Q. Why is Google making up their own title tags?

A. Because they suck? (Oops, did I say that out loud?) I’m not a fan of them changing title tags in the search results, but changing them they are. From what I’ve seen, the changes are query-specific, meaning that on some keyword searches they’ll change the title and others they won’t. They seem to be more apt to change them if the titles are fairly long and if the exact search query isn’t contained within it. Sometimes they’ll change them to whatever is in your headline, if that’s more inline with the search query.

Why they do it is anyone’s guess, but my thought is that they believe that shorter titles (such as just a 3-word phrase) look better in the search results and show more relevancy. I don’t happen to agree and wish they wouldn’t do this, or would invent a tag that we could use to tell them not to mess with our title tags. The good news is that even though they may change some long titles, they still seem to index the entire contents of your real title tag.

Q. 10 ways why and why not to dissect frogs.

A. No idea, but that was an actual search query for my site!

And on that note…

If you have any SEO questions not addressed here, see if they’ve been posted at the High Rankings Forum or have been addressed in a past HRA post. If not, please send it in via my question form.

Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings, an SEO Consulting company in the Boston, MA area since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen. If you learned from this article, be sure to invite your colleagues to sign up for the High Rankings Advisor SEO Newsletter so they can receive similar articles in the future!