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Web Search & Marketing Newsletter - April 2008

Welcome to the April edition of our monthly web search and marketing newsletter.

In this issue we look at the issue of improving web page load times, which will become an important factor for some Google AdWords advertisers since this element is now being included with the 'Quality Score' formula to determine advert rankings. We also look at the process of creating weblinks and how the 'nofollow' attribute can have an influence on this process and why it was introduced. Finally, following the completion of Google's acquisition of DoubleClick, we consider what this means for the combined business and the online advertising sector as a whole.

Read more about these stories below, or you can also browse through previous editions of the newsletter, either by month or by subjects covered.

On to this month's edition...

Improving web page load times

The announcement by Google last month that they will be extending the Quality Score feature of AdWords to incorporate landing page load times will have implications for some advertisers whose rankings (or bid levels) may suffer as a result. Google says that faster loading pages should help to improve the effectiveness of a PPC campaign, since it is also a usability issue. So how can the page load times of a website be improved?

Load time is the length of time it takes for a page to load in the browser, so it can be dependent on the size of the page, the text content, images and underlying page code. Google says that a faster loading page creates a better experience for users, and therefore pages that take longer to load will be penalised as part of the Quality Score ranking criteria. Google will be including load time evaluations within the Keyword Analysis page available to AdWords advertisers, which will provide some indication of potential issues that might need to be reviewed to improve the performance of the landing pages.

Experts in this field say that 80% or more of the end-user response time comes from the 'front end' performance of a web page – that is, how the browser deals with all the content with an HTML page, such as images, stylesheets, Flash content or scripts. If the number of these components can be reduced, then this will reduce the number of HTTP requests to display the page, which in turn results in a faster loading page. Very simply, by reducing the number of components on a page will speed up load times, but there can also be ways of reducing the number of HTTP requests while keeping the same content, such as by combining files or images, where appropriate.

Of course there are also factors that are out of the control of a website's development team to speed up load times, such as the end user's bandwidth speed, their ISP and proximity to the website's server, but other design elements can also be used to a positive effect. Cleaning up the HTML coding or use of scripts on a page can make small differences to load times and putting stylesheets in the section of the web page will make pages load faster as the browser is able to render the parts of the page progressively.

In contrast, external JavaScript files work better if they are positioned as low in the page as possible since progressive rendering is blocked for all content below the script so that by moving scripts as low in the page as possible means there's more content above the script that is rendered sooner.

Another important design element is to make JavaScript and CSS as external files. This generally produces faster loading pages because the JavaScript and CSS files are cached by the browser, so that the size of the HTML document is reduced without increasing the number of HTTP requests. The caching of these files won't help the load time of a page for a new visitor but if they then view multiple page views and many of website's pages re-use the same scripts and stylesheets, there is a greater potential benefit from having these external files cached.

With repeat visitors, using an 'Expires' header in the HTTP response will tell browsers how long a component on a page can be cached and so can reduce the number and size of HTTP requests in the future, making web pages load faster. However, this also has no effect on the load time for new visitors and if your website uses an Expires header you have to remember to change the component's filename whenever the component changes.

If you are running an AdWords campaign you should start to consider how the landing pages from the advert link are loading and whether there are ways to increase this performance, either through a few small 'quick fixes' or by getting your web designers to implement more structural changes. This process should also be a way of reviewing the usability of your site for visitors and how effective your landing page is with the objective of converting new visitors to a desired action as quickly as possible.

If you'd like to know more about the Quality Score requirements for Google AdWords or the load times for your website, please contact us now for a more detailed discussion.


Website links and the 'nofollow' tag

For some years now Google and the other main search engines have recognised the 'nofollow' tag as an attribute for hyperlinks between web pages and this is now commonly being used by blogs and other websites that attract user comments. It's therefore an important consideration for link building campaigns and something that needs to be checked within the source code of any page that offers potential links.

It was in early 2005 that Google first announced the introduction of the attribute (rel="nofollow") on hyperlinks in an attempt to stop 'comment spam' on blogs, guest books and other similar sites. You've probably seen the type of thing – meaningless comment added to the bottom of a blog post, or blatant advertising for another website which attempts to take advantage of the link made available with each comment. In short, content that adds no value to the original blog post with the direct intention of gaining some link value from the site.

This tag resulted from the new opportunities that were created to build links from blogs and forums to third party websites. It is also now being applied to other 'Web 2.0' applications like Wikipedia, or bookmarking sites (such as del.icio.us), photo sharing sites (like Flickr) and social networks (like Facebook). By recognising this “nofollow" attribute on hyperlinks, Google moved to cut out unnecessary 'link spam' by not giving such links any ranking 'credit' within their search results. In short, the tag doesn't provide a negative 'vote' for the site where the comment or link is posted, but it just ignores the link and makes sure that spammers get no benefit from abusing public areas like blog comments, trackbacks, and referrer lists.

By reviewing the HTML code of a blog, you are now likely to see a link that used to say something like:
Visit my <a href="http://www.example.com/">discount pharmaceuticals</a> site.
to a comment code that says:
Visit my <a href="http://www.example.com/" rel="nofollow">discount pharmaceuticals</a> site.

This is another example of an opportunity for SEO spam being restricted to avoid abuse and, consequently, the application of this link attribute has been the cause of much debate on the extent that it is now being used to block 'link value' from some sites. The tag performs much the same function as the 'nofollow' attribute within a robots metatag, but allows the 'blocking' of the link to be at an individual hyperlink level.

As a result, if you are undertaking any link building work then you need to check whether this tag is being used behind the links on a potential links page, as this can have an impact on the value of any link development work or exchanges with other sites. There has also been some debate about whether it can be used within a site to try to control the value of links between pages and 'sculpt' Google's PageRank score, although this is speculative and not recommended.

To find out more about the use of the 'nofollow' tag and its role in the development of link popularity, please contact us now.


Google finalises DoubleClick acquisition

Last month saw the final clearance of Google's year-long acquisition of DoubleClick when the European Commission ruled that the purchase could proceed in Europe. Google immediately finalized the deal and now begins the big task of making the acquisition work, by combining the companies and advertiser services into an integrated package and pushing new products into the market.

DoubleClick is primarily an ad-serving software and management service, handling many of the display adverts seen on leading websites. Google has been dabbling with alternative advertising options beyond search but hasn't been keen to work with other companies in this area. That's what makes DoubleClick the perfect acquisition for them, giving them access to a leading online advertising service and also a huge amount of traffic data which can be combined with Google's own search behaviour information.

The implications for the online advertising market are potentially immense as new targeting tools and analytics are incorporated into display advertising, so enabling advertisers to make better use of this medium and leading to a resurgence of this online medium, which has been significantly affected by the growth of search advertising in recent years.

The biggest opportunity for Google – and concern for advertisers and consumers - is how much or how well Google will be able to use DoubleClick's data on Internet users to target ads with the kind of precision that has made Google's search ads so lucrative. These ads have been displayed due to what people are searching for and so the development of display advertising is likely to rest in how well behavioural targeting can be used, raising privacy concerns about the way data will be used.

From another angle, the completed purchase has also provided another setback for Microsoft and may precipitate a more urgent attempt to buy Yahoo! so that they can strengthen their position within the search market and avoid losing share in the display advertising sector. Microsoft have just purchased Rapt - a company that enables advertisers to manage their online ad inventory - a further sign that this sector will become a new battleground between the two search rivals.

If you'd like to know more about Google's acquisition of DoubleClick and the possible implications for online marketing, please contact us for more information.


Recent articles from The Marketing Workbench

The Marketing Workbench is our regular web marketing blog covering news and comment on Internet marketing events and trends. If you want to keep track of current stories you can visit this section of our website on a regular basis, or set up an RSS feed. These are just some of the items posted over the past month:


We hope you've found this month's issue useful. Please contact us if you need any more information on the items covered, or our advice on any aspect of your website's performance. Also, if there are any issues you would like to see in future editions of this newsletter, please submit your suggestions to us.