Google SEO Report Card, SMX West, plus new features

(I’m traveling, but lots of good stuff from the recent SMX West search conference is now live — plus some new stuff — so I wanted to talk about it.)

At the SMX West search conference I did an Ignite talk about Google’s SEO audit that it did on itself. This was part of a global week of Ignite talks. An Ignite talk has 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds, for a total of five minutes. Thanks to Aya Zook and Vanessa Fox for organizing, and Brady Forrest (the creator of Ignite) for being the emcee. To help you get the full experience, I’m embedding the video below, then the slides I used (complete with auto-advance every 15 seconds), so you can watch the slides while you listen to the audio:

Don’t miss the other Ignite talks from SMX! There’s some gems in there. :)

Also at SMX West, I did a live streaming video interview with Mike McDonald of WebProNews. I think the interview had 1800 live viewers, and at the end we took questions from Twitter users. (In the beginning I look like a jerk staring at my phone, but that’s because I was trying to tweet about the interview so that people would know they could watch). We covered some new ground in this video.

We also had a fun “Ask the Search Engines” panel with representatives from Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft. You can read the Lisa Barone live-blogging write-up if you want.

In the background was the normal amount of webmaster videos and blog posts. Around the same time as the conference, I also did a post on a Google blog about how Google communicates with webmasters and tries to be really transparent about Google works.

The SMX show was also a pretty good week for webmasters. We’re alerting webmasters more often when they get hacked, we released an SEO audit of google.com so that everyone could benefit from the advice, we pushed forward on the ability to crawl AJAX, and we added delegation to the webmaster console.

After the conference, the new stuff hasn’t stopped:
- The webmaster tools team added the ability to verify a site using the domain name system (DNS). If editing a meta tag or uploading a file on your website is hard (maybe because you have an unusual content management system), then DNS verification can be handy.
- We announced that we’re going to start emailing webmasters if we believe their site is serving malware.
- Earlier this week, the webmaster tools team added a bunch more data into our Top Search Queries features.

And of course we’ve had a ton of informational blog posts on the official Google webmaster blog. If you don’t read and subscribe to that blog, you should. :)

Google incorporating site speed in search rankings

(I’m in the middle of traveling, but I know that a lot of people will be interested in the news that Google is incorporating site speed as one of the over 200 signals that we use in determining search rankings. I wanted to jot down some quick thoughts.)

The main thing I want to get across is: don’t panic. We mentioned site speed as early as last year, and you can watch this video from February where I pointed out that we still put much more weight on factors like relevance, topicality, reputation, value-add, etc. — all the factors that you probably think about all the time. Compared to those signals, site speed will carry much less weight.

In fact, if you read the official blog post, you’ll notice that the current implementation mentions that fewer than 1% of search queries will change as a result of incorporating site speed into our ranking. That means that even fewer search results are affected, since the average search query is returning 10 or so search results on each page. So please don’t worry that the effect of this change will be huge. In fact, I believe the official blog post mentioned that “We launched this change a few weeks back after rigorous testing.” The fact that not too many people noticed the change is another reason not to stress out disproportionately over this change.

There are lots of tools to help you identify ways to improve the speed of your site. The official blog post gives lots of links, and some of the links lead to even more tools. But just to highlight a few, Google’s webmaster console provides information very close to the information that we’re actually using in our ranking. In addition, various free-to-use tools offer things like in-depth analysis of individual pages. Google also provides an entire speed-related mini-site with tons of resources and videos about speeding up websites.

I want to pre-debunk another misconception, which is that this change will somehow help “big sites” who can affect to pay more for hosting. In my experience, small sites can often react and respond faster than large companies to changes on the web. Often even a little bit of work can make big differences for site speed. So I think the average smaller web site can really benefit from this change, because a smaller website can often implement the best practices that speed up a site more easily than a larger organization that might move slower or be hindered by bureaucracy.

Also take a step back for a minute and consider the intent of this change: a faster web is great for everyone, but especially for users. Lots of websites have demonstrated that speeding up the user experience results in more usage. So speeding up your website isn’t just something that can affect your search rankings–it’s a fantastic idea for your users.

I know this change will be popular with some people and unpopular with others. Let me reiterate a point to the search engine optimizers (SEOs) out there: SEO is a field that changes over time, and the most successful SEOs embrace change and turn it into an opportunity. SEOs in 1999 didn’t think about social media, but there’s clearly a lot of interesting things going on in that space in 2010. I would love if SEOs dive into improving website speed, because (unlike a few facets of SEO) decreasing the latency of a website is something that is easily measurable and controllable. A #1 ranking might not always be achievable, but most websites can be made noticeably faster, which can improve ROI and conversion rates. In that sense, this change represents an opportunity for SEOs and developers who can help other websites improve their speediness.

I know that there will be a lot of discussion about this change, and some people won’t like it. But I’m glad that Google is making this step, both for the sake of transparency (letting webmasters know more about how to do better in Google) and because I think this change will make the web better. My takeaway messages would be three-fold: first, this is actually a relatively small-impact change, so you don’t need to panic. Second, speeding up your website is a great thing to do in general. Visitors to your site will be happier (and might convert more or use your site more), and a faster web will be better for all. Third, this change highlights that there are very constructive things that can directly improve your website’s user experience. Instead of wasting time on keyword meta tags, you can focus on some very easy, straightforward, small steps that can really improve how users perceive your site.

Things to do in Japan and Thailand?

Sometime in the next few weeks, my wife and I are going to take a trip to Japan and Thailand. Our tenth wedding anniversary flew by in January 2010, and now we’re taking the chance to celebrate and explore some new places.

I’m really excited because I’ve never been to Asia before (!). We’ve got our trip mostly planned out, but I wanted to ask for suggestions on things to do, places to eat, or cool things that aren’t in the tour books. Let me know if there are “can’t miss” things that you’d recommend in Japan or Thailand — thanks!

P.S. This is strictly a for-fun trip with my wife, so I apologize in advance that I won’t have a chance to meet up with any webmasters or SEOs on the trip. :)

Mini-review of the iPad

I played with an iPad yesterday. Here’s my mini-review. The screen is bright and the touch sensitivity is fantastic. Given that it reminds me the most of an iPhone, it’s surprisingly heavy. It feels dense with potential.

On the childlike-sense-of-wonder-scale (as fake Steve Jobs would say), the iPad is better than the Macbook Air but not as stunning as the iPhone when the iPhone first came out. I played with my wife’s iPhone for just a few minutes before I knew I had to have an iPhone. But I never really cared about the Macbook Air, mainly because the screen resolution was worse than my current laptop. The iPad fits between those two products in the spectrum of desirability for me.

The form factor is… weird. You’re going to feel strange carrying one of these into the grocery store, in the same way you felt weird using your cell phone in the grocery store at first. Leave it to Apple to blaze a trail of coolness though; the iPad will make this form factor acceptable, so you won’t feel quite as strange carrying a tablet into a meeting in a few months. The form factor fundamentally is awkward though: the iPad is book-sized, but much more delicate than a book. A screen this big with no protection will get scratched or scuffed. I’d expect to see plenty of articles about dropped iPads like you did about Wiimotes getting thrown into TVs and windows.

The gadget lover in me wants one, but the part of me that cares about open source and tinkering is stronger. I’m with Cory Doctorow on this one. The iPad is gorgeous, but it’s still not worth it for me. Yesterday, I also bought two books at the bookstore to read on a trip. Walking back to my car with “paper media” felt a bit dorky–why am I buying books on paper in 2010? If I could buy a book digitally and really own it (not just obtain a license to read a book, where the license could be revoked), I’d quickly switch to buying my books digitally. But the success of the Kindle shows that a lot of people care more about the convenience than completely owning what they’re buying digitally.

I think the iPad will be a huge hit. Non-tech-savvy consumers will love it because of the user experience, the simplicity, and the lack of viruses/malware/trojans. It’s like a computer without all the hassles of a typical computer (pre-installed crapware, anti-virus software, inconvenient software upgrades). Lots of tech-savvy consumers will love the iPad for the same reasons, and especially for the polish and user experience. The current iPad lacks a few things (such as a camera), which ensures that future generations of the iPad will also be a huge hit.

But the iPad isn’t for me. I want the ability to run arbitrary programs without paying extra money or getting permission from the computer manufacturer. Almost the only thing you give up when buying an iPad is a degree of openness, and tons of people could care less about that if they get a better user experience in return. I think that the iPad is a magical device built for consumers, but less for makers or tinkerers. I think the world needs more makers, which is why I don’t intend to buy an iPad. That said, I think the typical consumer will love the iPad.

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