Guest blogger Vanessa Fox is co-chair of the new O’Reilly conference Found: Search Acquisition and Architecture. Find more from Vanessa at ninebyblue.com and janeandrobot.com. Vanessa is also entrepreneur in residence at Ignition Partners, and Features Editor at Search Engine Land.
Yesterday, as President-elect Obama became president Obama, we geeky types filled the web with chatter about change. That change of change.gov becoming whitehouse.gov, that is. The new whitehouse.gov robots.txt file opens everything up to search engines while the previous one had 2400 lines! The site has a blog! The fonts are Mac-friendly! That Obama administration sure is online savvy.
Or is it?
An amazing amount of customer acquisition can come from search (a 2007 Jupiter research study found that 92% of online Americans search monthly and over half search daily). Whitehouse.gov likely doesn’t need the kind of visibility that most sites need in search, but when people search for information about today’s issues, such as the economy, the Obama administration surely wants the whitehouse.gov pages that explain their position to show up.
The site has a blog, which is awesome, but the title tag, the most important tag on the page, has only the text “blog”. Nothing else. Which might help the page rank well for people doing a search for blog, but that’s probably not what they’re going for. This doesn’t just hurt them in search of course. It’s also what shows up in the browser tab and bookmarks.
Search engines are text-based, so they can’t read text hidden in images. Some whitehouse.gov pages get around this issue well, by making the text look image-like, but leaving it as text, such as below.
However, other pages have text in images and don’t use ALT text to describe them. (This, of course, is an accessibility issue as well, as it keeps screen readers from being able to access the text in the images.) An example of this is the home page, which may be part of why whitehouse.gov doesn’t show up on the first page in a search for President Obama.
There are all kinds of technical issues, big and small, that impact whether your site can be found in search results for what you want to be found for. (whitehouse.gov using underscores rather than dashes in URLs, the meta descriptions are the same on every page…) Probably the biggest issue in this case is the lack of 301 redirects between the old site and the new site. When you change domains and move content to the new domain, you don’t want to have to rebuild the audience and links all over again. (Not that Obama or whitehouse.gov will have a problem with attracting and audience, but we all can’t be president!) When you use a 301 redirect, both visitors and search engines know to replace the old page with the new one.
In the case of change.gov, it’s unclear if they intend to maintain the old site. The home page asks people to join them at whitehouse.gov, but all the old pages still exist (even the old home page at http://change.gov/content/home).
And in many cases, the same content exists at both change.gov and whitehouse.org (see, for instance, http://change.gov/agenda/iraq_agenda/ and http://www.whitehouse.gov/agenda/iraq/).
As Matt Cutts, Googler extraordinaire pointed out, give them a few days to relax before worrying so much about SEO. And I certainly think the site is an excellent step towards better communication between the president and the American people. But not everyone has the luxury of having one of the most well-known names and sites in the world, so the technical details are more important for the rest of us.
If you want to know more about technical issues that can keep your site from being found in search and tips for making sure that you don’t lose visibility in a site move, join us for the O’Reilly Found conference June 9-11 in Burlingame. And if you’re in Mountain View tomorrow night (Thursday, January 22nd), stop by Ooyala from 6pm to 9pm for our webdev/seo meetup, and get all your search questions answered. Hope to see you there! (Macon Phillips and the whitehouse.gov webmasters are welcome, but my guess is that they’re a little busy.)