Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 11:15 AMLast month, several of us with Webmaster Central hit the "good times" jackpot at PubCon Vegas 2007. We realize not all of you could join us, so instead of returning home with fuzzy dice for everyone, we've got souvenir conference notes.
Listening to the Q&A, I was pleased to hear the major search engines agreeing on best practices for many webmaster issues. In fact, the presentations in the duplicate content session were mostly, well, duplicate. When I wasn't sitting in on one of the many valuable sessions, I was chatting with webmasters either at the Google booth, or at Google's "Meet the Engineers" event. It was exciting to hear from so many different webmasters, and to help them with Google-related issues. Here are a few things that were on the minds of webmasters, along with our responses:
Site Verification Files and Meta Tags
Several webmasters asked, "Is it necessary to keep the verification meta tag or HTML file in place to remain a verified owner in Webmaster Tools?" The answer is yes, you should keep your verification file or meta tag live to maintain your status as a verified owner. These verification codes are used to control who has access to the owner-specific tools for your site in Webmaster Tools. To ensure that only current owners of a site are verified, we periodically re-check to see if the verification code is in place, and if it is not, you will get unverified for that site. While we're on the topic:
Site Verification Best Practices
- If you have multiple people working on your site with Webmaster Tools, it's a good idea to have each person verify the site with his or her own account, rather than using a shared login. That way, as people come and go, you can control the access appropriately by adding or removing verification files or meta tags for each account.
- You may want to keep a list of these verification codes and which owner they are connected to, so you can easily control access later. If you lose track, you can always use the "Manage site verification" option in Webmaster Tools, which allows you to force all site owners to reverify their accounts.
What's the difference between using subdomains and subdirectories? When it comes to Google, there aren't major differences between the two, so when you're making that decision, do what works for you and your visitors. Following PubCon, our very own Matt Cutts outlined many of the key issues in a post on his personal blog. In addition to those considerations, if you use Webmaster Tools (which we hope you do!), keep in mind that you'll automatically be verified for deeper subdirectories of any sites you've verified, but subdomains need to be verified separately.
Underscores vs. Dashes
Webmasters asked about the difference between how Google interprets underscores and dashes in URLs. In general, we break words on punctuation, so if you use punctuation as separators, you're providing Google a useful signal for parsing your URLs. Currently, dashes in URLs are consistently treated as separators while underscores are not. Keep in mind our technology is constantly improving, so this distinction between underscores and dashes may decrease over time. Even without punctuation, there's a good chance we'll be able to figure out that bigleopard.html is about a "big leopard" and not a "bigle opard." While using separators is a good practice, it's likely unnecessary to place a high priority on changing your existing URLs just to convert underscores to dashes.
Keywords in URLs
We were also asked if it is useful to have relevant keywords in URLs. It's always a good idea to be descriptive across your site, with titles, ALT attributes, and yes, even URLs, as they can be useful signals for users and search engines. This can be especially true with image files, which otherwise may not have any text for a search engine to consider. Imagine you've taken a picture of your cat asleep on the sofa. Your digital camera will likely name it something like IMG_2937.jpg. Not exactly the most descriptive name. So unless your cat really looks like an IMG_2937, consider changing the filename to something more relevant, like adorable-kitten.jpg. And, if you have a post about your favorite cat names, it's much easier to guess that a URL ending in my-favorite-cat-names would be the relevant page, rather than a URL ending in postid=8652. For more information regarding issues with how Google understands your content, check out our new content analysis feature in Webmaster Tools, as well as our post on the URL suggestions feature of the new Google Toolbar.
Moving to a new IP address
We got a question about changing a site's IP address, and provided a few steps you can take as a webmaster to make sure things go smoothly. Here's what you can do:
- Change the TTL (Time To Live) value of your DNS configuration to something short, like five minutes (300 seconds). This will tell web browsers to re-check the IP address for your site every five minutes.
- Copy your content to the new hosting environment, and make sure it is live on the new IP address.
- Change your DNS settings so your hostname points to the new IP address.
- Check your logs to see when Googlebot starts crawling your site on the new IP address. To make sure it's really Googlebot who's visiting, you can verify Googlebot by following these instructions. You can then log into Webmaster Tools and monitor any crawl errors. Once Googlebot is happily crawling on the new IP address, you should be all set as far as Google is concerned.
- To make sure everyone got the message of your move, you may want to keep an eye out for visits to your old IP address before shutting it down.
A few webmasters were concerned that proxy services are being indexed with copies of their content. While it's often possible to find duplicate copies of your content in our results if you look hard enough, the original source is most likely going to be ranked higher than a proxy copy. However, if you find this not to be the case, please drop us some URLs in the Webmaster Help Group. There are many Googlers including myself who monitor this group and escalate issues appropriately.
Update: Additional PubCon notes from Jonathan Simon are available in our discussion group.