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By Brian Pasch
If you have been a student of Automotive Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategies over the past 5+ years, you have witnessed a number of changes in how Google rewards and/or penalizes efforts to rank on Google Page One for specific keywords.
A few years ago, it was about focusing on the quantity of inbound links and the quantity of website pages, which resulted in some creative efforts by website vendors and consultants to sway the search engines, especially Google.
Today, the relevancy of quality over quantity could not be more clear. Specifically, if you want your website pages to show in Google's index the content should be available on all device types (desktop, mobile, tablet) and it should be written to "connect" with local consumers.
Some website providers found that creating pages for completed service repair orders generated additional organic listings even though the content was not engaging. Other website providers decided to keep sold car Vehicle Detail Pages (VDP) in the website sitemap for Google to index. That "old" thought process was favoring quantity and not quality.
This brings me to a recent post that VinSolutions customers have been seeing when they log into their website dashboard. Here is the message:
Valid concerns over the continued indexing of sold vehicle pages by search engines have been heard, an enhancement just released will address this by returning a 404 response for sold vehicles that directs site visitors to a custom 404 page that includes content from the sold vehicle page and links to existing inventory.
Until recently, we returned a 302 response, directing users to a “Sold Not Found” page with links to additional vehicles. This type of response code indicates that the page change is temporary, and search engines continued to treat these pages as valid site pages for indexing. Ultimately, this can become problematic as hundreds to thousands of sold vehicle pages begin to rank highly in search results, leading to increased clicks by users but high bounce rates as potential leads are directed to pages where vehicle content is no longer available.
Many times, these pages outrank vehicle description pages for vehicles that are still available in inventory. For site users, this can be a poor user experience, as the user may be directed to pages that are irrelevant to their searches online. The 302 redirects also do not pass on critical page rank data to Google, so any clicks on links on the “vehicle not found” page or continued navigation to other site pages was lost and not counted by Google for ranking purposes.
With the new enhancement, when a vehicle description page becomes a “vehicle not found” page, a 404 response will be returned and the user will be directed to a customized 404 “vehicle not sold” page that retains links to inventory for similar vehicles.
The change to a 404 error page sends a message to Google and other search engines to stop indexing these pages, so they will no longer outrank or outperform pages for available inventory in user searches. The custom 404 pages will be designed to reduce bounce rate for users who stumble upon these pages so they will be encouraged to click through the inventory links to continue to your site and to viewing other inventory. Also, this click-through behavior to other site content will be tracked by Google and included in their PageRank algorithm for these page links unlike before when a 302 response was utilized.
Google’s recent Penguin updates reinforce the emphasis of quality content over quantity, and a high number of error responses (302 and 404) for pages that continue to be indexed can negatively impact SEO over time. This change may substantially reduce a dealer’s total indexed pages, but simultaneously, it will dramatically improve their SEO value and overall site rankings for key search terms as Google removes penalties for error handling and an overabundance of error-response content being indexed.
Without getting into the technical aspects of this message, VinSolutions has stepped up and made a very smart decision. They have decided to stop allowing Google to index sold vehicle pages. I commend them for recognizing this issue and being transparent about the steps they are taking to address the matter.
At one time, this may have been a good idea for SEO, but in light of recent Google index updates, VinSolutions customers had "run-away" counts of indexed pages. This bloat was dangerous. These pages had very low quality for the end consumer and in some cases were outranking vehicles in stock.
I once again commend the VinSolutions team for addressing this matter and being upfront about the changes, but this is NOT just a VinSolutions issue. The practice of inflated website pages in the Google index is an industrywide concern. There are many other "in production" situations where automated pages are being generated to bloat dealership websites.
This is a trend that I am very concerned about because it may be viewed as content spamming. It looks likes quantity instead of quality. I am not saying that all automatically generated website pages are bad; many are necessary for normal merchandising and thoughtful SEO. However, at some point the shear number of pages becomes ridiculous if the only thing that has changed on the page is the name of a city, a stock#, or a repair order#.
Every dealer who cares about their organic search traffic needs to honestly asses the quality of their website content. They need to ask themselves what is the purpose of each website page. Dealers need to ask if these pages align with our current understanding of what Google is looking to index in order to match consumer search results.
So, let's do some basic math on how many pages are in a typical dealership website. Let's say that you have 150 new cars in stock and 100 used cars in stock. Each vehicle has a Vehicle Details Page (VDP) which would generate 250 pages in this case. Each month new cars come into the dealership and the addition and substraction of cars each month, over their lifecycle could generate over 1,500 indexed VDP in Google.
Every vehicle can show up in some combination of a Search Result Page (SRP) which can be listed by price, styling, color, features, etc. Depending on the dealer's website platform, every combination of search results can generate an indexed page in Google.
This matrix of combinations can generate thousands of SRP combinations in Google which could be good or bad. In some cases this practice is bad because these SRP pages have duplicate Page Title and META Descriptions, which can cause indexing penalties. If you have not check Google Webmaster Tools for duplicate page titles, do that today and it will look something like this:
In addition to inventory pages there are some standard pages for hours, directions, staff, specials, product showcases, etc. These are often no more than a few dozen pages but for some dealers can add up to over 100 pages. So, the range should be a few hundred pages to ten thousand pages, if my math is correct.
So, how do some dealership website have hundreds of thousands of websites pages showing in the Google index? More importantly, Is it really good to have that many pages?
Please make that a priority to ask your website provider today!
The answer to extreme page bloat is something that every dealer must understand based on their website platform. There are some very "poor" decisions being made to bloat website indexed pages, which I feel will eventually hurt dealership organic results.
There are also good reasons to have higher than normal indexed pages, you just have to understand what the website platform is trying to present. Is it relevant content and engagement for consumers or are they trying to work a hole in Google's index, which we all know gets plugged at some time?
To see how many pages are in the Google index for your website, use the "site:" command as shown below. I have provided three examples:
You can see that the variations on the number indexed pages will vary based on which website platform you use and of course the number of cars in stock. But when a dealer has over 100,000 indexed pages in Google you have to start to wonder what kind of bloat is causing the inflated numbers.
Bloat can also be caused by the website vendor's decision NOT TO block certain internal indexing pages from the Google bot. Again, I call on all dealers to have an active discussion with your website vendor on eliminating bloat regardless of the cause.
Once you calculate how many pages are indexed in Google for your website, you then have to check at the indexing "trend" for your website. This is found in Google Webmaster Tools. You need to know if Google in dropping pages from your website form their index.
Also, keep in mind that there will be some dealers that have bloated sites that are on the rise, in regards to indexed pages. DO NOT ignore my warnings about bloat and content generation schemes; it normally will come back to bite you in the ass.
In the example below, this website is losing indexed pages at a rapid rate, (down 50%) which must be addressed. This drop could be a good thing if the bloat pages were eliminated by the website provider.
Likewise, if you are seeing your indexed pages skyrocket for no good reason, it is very likely that the platform you are using is generating website "bloat".
Bloat I am defining as automatically generated website pages that may not offer any real value to consumer and very well may trigger Google to suspect your website of content spamming or sloppy programming.
Take a minute to see how many website pages are indexed for your website. Share your results as well as how many cars you have in stock so we can see some trends by vendor platform. Also share if your indexed pages are on the rise or falling. This is an important discussion if your dealership is focused on quality website enagement.
Your comments can be formatted like this:
Platform: (Cobalt, VinSolutions, Dealer.com etc)
# New & Used Cars In Stock:
Indexed Pages In Google:
Webmaster Tools Trend: (Up/Down)
Brian Pasch, CEO