How Avoid Search Engine Suicide

So much has been written on the topic of search engine optimization that it can be a bit overwhelming. Do a Google search on the exact phrase "search engine optimization" and, as I'm writing this in November of 2004, Google will return a result set consisting of 6,130,000 matches! Think about it. There are more that six million pages written on the topic of search engine optimization. Oh, by the way, that doesn't count the idiots who misspelled it. Search for phrase "search engine optomization" and you'll get another 2,350 results. So what, exactly, is search engine optimization?

Simply put, search engine optimization (SEO for short) is the process of creating, or modifying web pages to ensure the highest possible ranking in the search engines. Why is this important? Sources may vary on the exact number and, of course, a particular target audience may differ, but generally, search engines supply somewhere in the neighborhood of 70-80% of the traffic to the typical web site. Do a Google search for the phrase, “Google is God” and right now, you'll get 954 hits. Of course, that's while I'm still writing this. I guess it will increase to 955 when I actually publish it.

Regardless of the source, or any minor variation in the estimate, 70-80% is a lot! If traffic is important to your site, then search engines are important to you. That is why search engine optimization is such a hot topic. On the other hand, if your site is a personal site, like this one, or perhaps to share photos with family and friends, then SEO is probably not important to you.

Now that I've said that, I'll tell you that the subject of this page is not search engine optimization. If you are looking for that information, there are links to some good pages at the bottom of this page. However, I'd suggest you read this page before you go because this page is related and even if its a small subset of the vast topic of SEO.

All I'll say on the general subject is that there are a number of companies whose business is SEO. Some are good; many are not. Be very wary of any search engine optimizer who contacts you through unsolicited e-mail (spam), or who promises a number one ranking. Be very careful with optimization. Some of the techniques that have been used can, in fact, have quite the opposite effect and, in extreme cases, get your site banned by search engines.

What we'll discuss here are some common errors developers make that can effectively result in search engine suicide. These are things that will just kill your site when it comes to search engine rankings. If you've read any of my other rants here, you probably know (or at least suspect) that I'm all about accessibility and usability. It's a pleasant coincidence that many of the things that make for an accessible and user friendly web site also lead to good search engine ranking. The converse is true as well. Sites that are not accessible and are not user friendly will rarely rank well in search engines.


There are a lot of really nice things you can do with JavaScript. Many of those provide tangible benefits to the user of the site. I would not recommend you abandon the use of JavaScript.

JavaScript can help users by providing menu systems that allow faster, easier navigation. JavaScript can provide form validation in the browser, which will alert a user if they have made an error entering data into a form. This saves the user waiting for a form to be submitted and the error result returned from the server. It also saves a request on the server and the required bandwidth to respond to it. JavaScript can be used to provide feedback to users by doing cosmetic things like swapping images, etc.

However, having a site, or even a page, that requires JavaScript to provide the content, is the killer. For example, if your only navigation is dependant on JavaScript, or the only way into your site is through a JavaScript pop-up window, you have committed search engine suicide. Think about some of the so called encryption programs that supposedly "encrypt" your source code to prevent someone from getting a copy of your code or your images. Those encryption schemes rely entirely on JavaScript to display every word on the page. What does a search engine see? NOTHING! A search engine will not see a single word on the page. The result? Search engine suicide.

Search engine crawlers that examine your site and index its content are not web browsers. They are called robots because they are dumb and they just examine what they see. They do not execute JavaScript. If you turn off JavaScript in your browser, can you still use the site? Can you still see all the content? Can you still navigate to all the pages? If you answered no to any of those questions, your site will not rank as high as it should and may not be listed at all: search engine suicide.

Images Instead of Text

Okay, I know that it's nice to be able to use some exotic font for headlines and such. Typography is important to the overall image a web site projects. Of course my mental image of a typographer is a guy with a tall pointy hat, long flowing robe, and a staff. I think Merlin may have been the first. Typography is one of the dark mysteries that is beyond my meager understanding, but I know it exists and I know that it's important. I'll concede that without needing to understand the topic.

If you need a specific font for a headline or headlines, go ahead and use an image. When you do that, DO NOT FORGET TO INCLUDE THE ALT ATTRIBUTE! I hope that's clear enough. Oh, in case I didn't mention it, always include the ALT attribute in images that display text. Limit using images to display text to those few places where you need a specific, non-standard font. Don't overdo it.

What is the ALT attribute? The ALT attribute can be used in an image tag to represent the text that should be displayed by the browser if the browser does not display the image. Whether or not a browser displays an image is configurable, by the user, in the browser preferences. Even if the user has the browser set to show images, a missing or corrupt image file can prevent the image from being displayed. If you assign the text to the ALT attribute, the browser will display the ALT text in place of the image. That means that the site is still usable.

Why are we talking about browsers in a page about search engines? Simple, the search engine crawlers, mentioned above, are like browsers that don't display images. Without the ALT text specified, for all Google knows, the image is a picture of your cat. It won't know that it's supposed to be an important heading.

Macromedia Flash

I won't say much about Flash here. I have a whole page devoted to that subject. All I'll say here is that Flash files are a binary format that cannot be read by a search engine crawler. Search engines will not index any content contained in a Flash movie and they will not follow any links contained in a Flash movie.

Pop Quiz

You didn't know there was going to be a test, did you? Okay, it's not really a test. If you'd like to see your site the way a search engine crawler sees it, go to get a copy of Lynx, the text only browser. Granted, it won't be pretty, but it will show you how a search engine sees your site. Alternatively, there is an on line Lynx viewer that will approximate the result you'll get with Lynx. When you do this, can you see your site? Can you see all of it? Can you navigate to all the pages? If you answered "yes" to all those questions, you're safe. If not, then you may have some work to do.

Search Engine Optimization Links  

Here are a few links to pages that deal with the topic of search engine optimization:

If you have a competitor who consistently beats you in search engine rankings by using deceptive practices, report them to Google: