As the old saying goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” When it comes to websites, Google is hands down the biggest beholder out there. If the search engines like what they see, they will show it to others. If they don’t, your site can be lost to the obscurity of de-indexing. So what type of website is attractive to search engines? Like users on a dating website, Google has a whole list of requirements to provide results. These cover the quality of your content, technical specifications and even design elements.
On one hand, Google wants to make sure your website is easy for customers to use and navigate. They want to ensure that every website in their results is as close as possible to what a person is looking for. On the other hand, the algorithm Google uses to decide what pages it should show is not human, and you need to design the content on your website in a logical fashion that is easy to follow. The search engines are basically robots that scan the Internet, parse information and rank sites accordingly for any given query a user has initiated. If your website is difficult to scan, they may pass it by more often than not, allowing other websites to gain rank, stealing the attention of potential customers.
As you probably realize, many different factors are needed to ensure your business is web ready other than throwing up an online catalog and calling it a day. The principle behind search engine optimization (SEO) is to make sure that your website is ready for Google and the other search engines. We reviewed the Top 50 Distributors of 2015 to see which ones held up to search engine standards and which ones came up short.
Our methodology was fairly simple.
1. We ran each website through a program that mimics a search engine’s behavior and allows us to see what they would see, also known as a “crawler.” We evaluated the data for the following factors:
a. Correct Meta Data Usage +
b. Image Implementation & Tagging +
c. Content Density, Quality and Type +
d. Crawlability (was the crawler able to easily complete its scan of your website?) +
e. Use of Header and Site Structure +
f. Broken or Incorrect Links -
g. Clean URL Structure +
2. We reviewed each page from a design and technical standpoint:
a. Responsive Design (did the website function and look good on any device?) +
b. Use of Flash (outdated, vulnerable and increasingly unsupported web language) -
c. Use of Analytics (being able to track traffic and user behavior on your website) +
d. Clean & Modern Design +
3. We reviewed each website from a usability standpoint:
a. YouTube or Other Videos on Homepage +
b. Easy to find Social Media Links +
c. Easy to use Navigation +
d. Clear Call to Actions or Easy to Find Desired Actions +
e. Distracting use of banners and images (Site felt overwhelming) -
f. Use of Onsite Search Function +
These are just some of the factors that search engines use when evaluating a website or page’s ability to rank for a query. The company can easily control these factors. They exclude external factors that are hard to control or fix. We expected that out of the 50 websites we reviewed, most would be up-to-date with current search engine recommendations. After all, these are successful companies with development and marketing budgets. The results may surprise you.
Design & Usability
◆ Responsive Design – Responsive design is a website’s ability to adapt its layout to different screen sizes and devices without needing to reload or redirect to a different page.
▶ 82 percent lack responsive design.
◆ Analytics – Installing analytics on a website allows the company to view traffic and behavioral patterns for their site.
▶ 42 percent lack analytics.
◆ Flash – Flash is an outdated way of implementing animation and effects onto your site. Mobile devices do not support it, and search engines can’t crawl through it. It also leaves websites open to malware and hacking attempts.
▶ 8 percent still use flash.
◆ Social Media – Social media is becoming more and more of a necessity. For good user experience, social media accounts should be prominent.
▶ 58 percent do not provide links to their social media accounts or have no social media presence at all.
◆ Content – Content is one of the strongest factors in ranking as it impacts user experience as well as indicates the quality of the website.
▶ 72 percent have duplicate content.
▶ 68 percent have thin or low-quality content.
Meta Data & Site Structure
◆ 18 percent of sites have crawl errors or were blocked from crawling entirely.
◆ Title Tag Usage – A title tag tells the search engine and the user coming through a search engine, what the topic of your page is about, much like the title of a textbook. This is displayed in the search engine results page and should be tailored to common queries from users and the content.
▶ 20 percent of sites have pages missing title tags.
▶ 84 percent of sites have pages with duplicate title tags.
◆ Description Tag Usage – A description tag tells the user coming through a search engine what information your page contains and is displayed directly on the search engine results page. This should be a succinct summary and entice users to click on your website.
▶ 76 percent of sites have pages missing description tags.
▶ 46 percent of sites have duplicate description tags.
◆ Keyword Tag Usage – Search engines no longer use keyword tags. Its presence is more an indication of a website using out-of-date tactics than anything else. By itself, it is a neutral factor for search rankings.
▶ 48 percent of sites use the keywords tag.
◆ Header Tags – Used to tell search engines and users the hierarchy of information on a website. Headers start with H1 and go through H5. H1 is similar to the title tag in that it should be the title of your page. Use it only once on a page.
▶ 66 percent of sites have pages missing headers entirely.
▶ 62 percent of sites have duplicated H1s.
▶ 44 percent of sites have pages using H1 more than once.
◆ Broken or Incorrect Links
▶ 66 percent of sites have broken links (404 Response Code).
▶ 18 percent of sites have server errors (500, 501, 502, etc. Response Code).
▶ 80 percent of sites have incorrect links leading to redirects (301 or 302 Response Code).
Most of these websites resemble relics from the early 2000s when online business was really starting to boom. The navigation was often bloated and undescriptive, the color palette either muted or neon bright and the layout built for square monitors with a resolution of 800x600 only. The SEO grade on these websites was passing, even fairly good, at the time of their initial setup. Their meta data were stuffed full of keywords and repeated ad nauseam. The review of these sites was akin to walking through Roman ruins or a ghost town. Time and neglect trampled once great cities.
You might want to take a moment to remember that these are the top 50 distributors of 2015. These are successful companies. How are they so successful in this day and age if their web presence is so poor? There really is only one reason. They have history. All of these websites have come through the last 20-plus years and built up client bases that are willing, for the moment, to look past a poor showing on the web.
These companies probably launched these websites and saw very little change in business at the time. After all, we are still in the adolescent era of online business where transactions can be completed by either phone, catalog or online. However, we are steadily moving out of this stage. Paper catalogs are becoming museum pieces, and the people who are on the other end of the phone are placing orders through the same portal that customers expect to use in the first place. As online business continues to mature, there will be fewer places for people and businesses unwilling to change with it.
It wouldn’t take much for a new business to come in with a better website and outrank these established companies in search results. It would be an even easier win for one of these companies, with their extensive history, to update the look, feel, build and SEO factors of their site and rise above the rest. A lack of adaptation to the web seems to have already hurt a number of companies on the list. Some did not have a website. Others were either not listed in the search results, or unrelated pages (such as yellowbook) already outranked them for their own company names. For many, this would be a death sentence. New business often starts with one company doing a Google search for their potential partner. To be unsearchable is to be unhirable in this day and age.
We expect in the next two to five years to see one of two things happen to the companies on this list. The first and smartest move on their part would be to update their websites and establish themselves firmly as businesses that are future-proof. This would include building their social media, rebuilding their websites and making a streamlined online ordering process for customers. If they do not adapt, there will be a drastic change in the landscape of the top 50 distributors of 2017 and beyond. Younger, more tech-savvy companies will move in and take their place as they will implement far more efficient processes and rely heavily on online catalogs and ordering. Then, too, established companies on the list will move up or solidify their top spots against the competition because they took action to provide a website that’s relevant. Many distributors might scoff at the notion that a lousy or ineffective website will really make a difference. If you’re willing to take that gamble, fine. But even the tried and true method of the industry — relationships, location, product line and price — might start to fizzle if your competitor separates themselves from you because they have a “modern” website.