Testing for SEO

If you ever find yourself testing a publicly available website then you should be considering Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). Basically this means ‘How easily can the website be found and indexed by search engines such as Google?’. Many users, maybe the majority of users, will go to somewhere like Google and search for a website name rather than entering the URL in the address bar. How far down the search results you appear can have a dramatic impact on the amount of traffic your website receives.
Websites with good SEO will usually have a clear site hierarchy and contain text links which provide access to all pages. Websites are indexed by bots which spider the site. Pages with no links leading to them are unlikely to be indexed simply because the bot cannot discover them. Bots do not behave like a real user so you should take care to actively consider SEO during testing.
Site structure is important for SEO, although possibly not something you can influence by testing. Do check that your site has a Robots.txt file to help Bots understand the site structure.
Search engines reward visitor satisfaction (likely a combination of visit duration and return visits), and site performance so make sure you thoroughly test the website in all supported web browsers and monitor page load times at the very least. If you have the opportunity to carry out more detailed performance monitoring or testing then take it.
When testing a website for SEO consider using the Lynx browser, a text only browser, to see the site as a bot would. If you can’t access any of the content when viewed text-only then neither will the indexing bot. All non-text content such as Flash videos or images which portray information, should have a descriptive html tag to provide the same information in a text form. Descriptive ALT tags will help your site’s accessibility as well as your SEO.
The search result link that you see in a search engine is the page title so it makes sense that page titles should be descriptive and unique. Either check the <TITLE> html tag or simply raise your eyes and read the top of your browser for every page you view. Search engines take the first terms to be the most important so it is usual to display relevant page keywords before the site name. Make sure the keywords are relevant to the page you are viewing.
Use scripts or test tools to make sure your website doesn’t contain any broken links and to check for invalid HTML.
Webpages requiring session ids or other arguments in their path are unlikely to be accessible to the bot. Depending on how your website works this may or may not be a good thing. For example I’m fairly sure you wouldn’t want users dropping in part way through a checkout flow simply because they clicked a link on Google.
A quick post-release check in Google to see exactly what has been indexed and how highly is also worth carrying out. Remember that the results you see will often be personalised to you so a website you view frequently should rank higher when you search for it.

Finally, although you want search engines to index the site, they can cause you issues with load. Use a tool such as Firebug for Firefox or the Chrome browser developer tools to check for the If-Modified-Since HTTP header, it probably won’t help in every case but in general this should allow your web servers to tell Google whether content has changed since the page was last crawled.

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