My rules for Search Engine Optimization have always been straightforward and simple:
- Publish content that is unique and relevant to your target audience.
- Write clean html. Use CSS to lay out your page.
- Get links to your site in other high ranking pages.
- Do not hide your content in images, Flash, Silverlight, Java, etc.
It’s this final rule which brings me to the subject of this post. From 2007 to 2009 I managed, and eventually rebuilt, the geographic information powerhouse for Prince George County, Maryland known as PG Atlas. When I inherited the site, it was built with ActiveX, worked only in Internet Explorer, and had an interface that made the original Mapquest look like the slickest thing ever. During my work on the site, I re-built it on an ajax framework, introduced it to the non-IE world and redesigned the mapping interface.
A natural side-effect of this web-standards based approach was a web site easily indexed by search engines. I left that job not long after the new site went live and it grew and prospered on google, with no active human intervention. Google was able to use the site map to index a sitelinks listing for PGAtlas. With some human intervention, this could have been further cultivated with their Webmaster Tools.
Earlier this year, I learned that PGAtlas had been redesigned once again. Soon it would be released as a Microsoft Silverlight site. The new site had no significant new features. It simply was the “old” site, redone in a Silverlight interface. This seemed like an odd choice as Silverlight would severely restrict the availability of the site. The ajax site ran on nearly any device with a browser, from IE6 to iPad. For users that don’t or can’t have Silverlight: mobile phones, tablets & Linux computers, what once looked like this:
Now looks like this:
So what does this mean for SEO?
I had the opportunity to observe the effect of this new web site on PG Atlas’ Google ranking. In the days following the release of the Silverlight site, I tracked the Google results for the query:
“prince george county gis”
This screenshot was the search result for what is now the “old” site. There are prominent sitelinks for the three main sub-sections of the site: Mapping, Parks & Recreation, Development Activities. The page descriptions are appropriately taken from the introduction copy in the respective pages. The main page description was indexed from the “Announcements” section of the home page. Note the page snapshot feature of google gives a concise preview of the page.
5 Days After Launch
Google re-indexes the new Silverlight home page. The page description now says only “Get Microsoft Silverlight”. At this point the sub-pages return 404 errors. Google has already dropped the three main sub-sections from the listing and replaced them with other, less relevant, sub-pages which also return 404 errors. Note that the page snapshot now displays only a graphic about installing Silverlight.
7 Days After Launch
Nearly all of the sub-section links have been dropped. The remaining links point to a random blank page which is still live, and to a page which redirects to the pgatlas.com home.
11 Days After Launch
The site overall has dropped from first to third in the results. It has completely lost its sub-page sitelinks. The page title and a message to “Get Silverlight” are now the only information available when searching.
When maintaining a Flash/Silverlight only web site, the importance of the non-technology alternate page is critical to SEO. These technologies lock your content in a box ignored by all search engines. Equal attention must be paid to the non-Flash/non-Silverlight page as it becomes a guessing game of which elements in the site are most important. Every element which does not have a counterpart on the alternate page is one less search result for which the site qualifies.
If SEO is at all a concern for the current maintainers of PGAtlas, they have a long road ahead of them. The site’s ranking will only continue to drop until the non-Silverlight alternate page is re-designed. The deep linking which once existed in the site will never return. The growing tablet market it is now completely cut off from PGAtlas. It will be interesting to see what actions are taken to address these issues. For now, as far as search engines are concerned, the site remains locked inside a shiny silver box.