Is your site ranking rank? Do a site review – Part 1 (SEM 101)

For webmasters who work hard to build and publish their sites, it can be frustrating when their sites are barely indexed and rank poorly across all search engines. They may think, "Why does this happen? What can I do to improve this?"

The reasons for poor ranking are nearly as myriad as the number of sites on the Web. Your site may be competing against some very well established, well-designed sites in your industry niche. Your competitors may have published a ton of useful, expert content, or have implemented a blog or forum where all of your industry's customers go for information, thus earning them tons of valuable visitors and backlinks. And frankly, it could be that those competing sites have seriously invested in search engine optimization (SEO) efforts when you have not. If your page ranking is not where you want it to be, your site may be due for a serious examination, one that looks for problems to solve and uses optimization techniques that are meaningful to both human visitors and search engine bots alike. You may be ready to consider a site review.

A site review is a method of diagnosing issues that may prevent a site from ranking well and/or driving user traffic. It works by looking at both on-page and site-wide factors that may be getting in the way of optimal performance.

While it can be helpful to have a professional consultant conduct a site review for you, with a little background on what to look for, you can perform a basic site review of your own site and develop a response plan for site improvement.

Why review my site?

Doing a site review is the first step in optimizing your site for search. But more importantly, it's also the first step in optimizing your site for users. The same problems that negatively affect search ranking often interfere with the user experience as well, so investing in a site review can make a very big difference in how your site performs for all of your visitors.

For many busy businesses and individuals, time is of the essence when publishing a new site. Corners are often cut, and well-planned optimization is often an early victim of a tight deadline or resource budget. Site improvements, promised after the initial releases are published, are typically iterative and happen as time and resources become available, if done at all (and as you well know, if you depend on the fire-fighting folks in the IT department for your site updates, free time and resources for them are rare commodities). And even then, if you get the opportunity to make improvements, someone first needs to determine what improvements need to be made.

The framework for site reviews isn't mysterious. There are clearly defined patterns of technical errors and oversights all webmasters should look for that can affect how well a site performs with ranking. A site review illuminates those issues for resolution.

A site review can be a way to focus efforts on identifying and prioritizing the improvement tasks that'll bring the biggest bang for the resource investment buck. In other cases, a site that ranks well may still not be performing well for users, or vice versa. The site review process can help identify why this is happening and how to correct it. Lastly, if you are ranking well today, it may be because your competitors have not yet optimized their sites (which could change at any time!). In this case, running a site review to look for ways to further improve your site's performance is an investment in maintaining your position at the top (and perhaps expand your reach into other keyword realms).

Time and resources

One thing to keep in mind about doing SEO work is that it's not an instant fix. Neither is it a one-time job. The optimization changes made to a site often take time to show the full extent of their benefit. And to continue to see benefits, SEO work needs to be done on an ongoing basis. It's important to communicate to your web team and/or your management that they need to reset expectations about level of effort and time needed for SEO work. This is not to say it's not a worthwhile effort to make or to too costly to do. To the contrary, it's an excellent investment if you want your website to be more successful in search and with users. Just be realistic about expectations. Short duration, small resource investments in SEO will usually not yield the results that folks typically want.

Over the next several posts, I'll share with you some problematic issues we here at Bing see as we crawl websites and break down each one so that you can conduct a productive review on your own site. Let's start with where to begin.

Examine site goals

A site review begins by actively thinking about what goals you have for your site. Why do you have a website? What do you want from your site's visitors? What do your visitors want from your site? If you are looking for conversions (where you "convert" a casual visitor into someone who actively buys your product or service, opens a document or media file, or provides their email address to subscribe to a newsletter), look at your site from a new visitor's perspective. Is the site easy to use? Is it easy for users to find the information they seek? Are there any obstacles in place that make conversions unnecessarily hard to complete? Solicit honest, objective feedback from people who have never been to your site or perhaps from customers who are critical. You might be surprised by what you hear. Consider constructive criticism to be an opportunity for improvement.

Site review task: Define the business goals of your website and what you want site visitors to do once there. Then, as a result of the site review process, determine what can be done to facilitate those goals, prioritized so that resource or budget constraints won't prevent you from picking the lowest hanging fruit.

Baseline your site's current performance

While you're soliciting feedback and reviewing site goals, take a baseline measurement of your site's performance today. Think about the performance metrics that you want to know and improve upon, in addition to search engine ranking (which is hard to actively control). If you haven't yet used web analytics, now is the time to start. If you do use them now, run a baseline performance report before any changes are made to the site. Note the metrics important to your business, such as (for example):

  • Total visitors per month/week/day
  • New vs. returning visitors
  • Most viewed pages
  • Entry pages
  • Exit pages
  • Bounce rate
  • Click-through paths from entry page to exit page
  • Referring domains
  • Referring pages
  • Referring search engines
    • and which keywords and key phrases they typed
  • Visitors by country
  • For site offering subscriptions to email newsletters: number of sign-ups
  • For resource sites: number of downloads
  • For e-commerce sites:
    • Conversation rate of visitor to purchase
    • Drop-off rate during shopping cart experience
    • Frequent purchasers vs. infrequent or one-time purchasers

Get a snapshot to see how well your site is performing today. After all, you can't truly improve what you don't measure.

If your site review uncovers issues that need to be changed (and they typically do), you can then document how the changes you made, if done incrementally and methodically, affected the performance of those metrics. Your business manager will appreciate that.

Site review task: Gather pre-optimization web analytics data on site performance.

Get your webmaster tools

To get a better handle on many of the issues that could be preventing your site from ranking as well as it should, one of the first steps should be to register your site with the various webmaster tools and services provided by the major search engines (we naturally suggest you start with the Bing Webmaster Center tools ;-). You'll need to retrieve and then place a custom authentication code on your site to use these tools, but once that's done, you'll get access to detailed information reflecting what the Bing search engine bot found about your site. With these tools in place, you'll be armed and ready to begin identifying the improvements you can make to your site that'll increase the likelihood of better rank scores and, as a result, more user traffic.

As a prelude to the deeper site review issues we're going to discuss going forward, I also suggest installing the Free SEO Toolkit from the Microsoft IIS team. Your site doesn't need to run on IIS Server to use this amazing tool. You only need to use a client computer that can run a local version of IIS 7 or better (such as Windows Vista and Windows 7). For more information on installing and running the SEO Toolkit, see the blog post IIS SEO Toolkit 1.0 hits the streets! (SEM 101).

Site review task: Download and install or register your site to use the many webmaster tools that will assist in your site review and optimization project.

Review the search engine guidelines

There are a whole slew of on-page issues that, if omitted or implemented incorrectly, can adversely affect the ability of search bots to effectively crawl your site and thus hinder your ranking. To see what Bing recommends you do to improve how your site is indexed by our bot, please first review our online Help topic Guidelines for successful indexing.

Once you have reviewed the Bing guidelines, it's time to see what on-page issues there may be on your site that could benefit from optimization. I recommend you use the Free SEO Toolkit discussed in the Site Review Part 1 post to run a report and review your page code to see if any of the issues mentioned going forward affect your pages.

Site review task: Review webmaster guidelines documents from Bing, Yahoo!, and Google.

If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, feel free to post them in our SEM forum. Coming up next: We'll look at some of the on-page issues that can hinder your site from reaching its optimum performance. See you soon...

-- Rick DeJarnette, Bing Webmaster Center

P.S. Now that they are all posted, here's a linked list to the rest of this series of posts: