In the fast moving world of web 2.0, balancing user needs with attempts to improve your site’s search ranking can be challenging. However, a quick read of Google’s ‘A Spider’s View of Web 2.0‘ makes it clear that putting your users first is the best way for your website to be recognised by the search engine giant.

Primarily a guide for webmasters wanting to create Ajax-enhanced websites, ‘A Spider’s View…‘ connects the importance of creating sites with the user in mind and the need to design websites that can be easily read by the Googlebot spider.

As Google highlights, ‘many webmasters have discovered the advantages of using Ajax to improve the user experience on their sites, creating dynamic pages that act as powerful web applications‘. Despite these benefits, Google is quick to emphasis that Ajax can only be viewed by users with a JavaScript capable browser. Therefore it is important to think about the needs of users without such capability, for example those using screen readers and mobile devices.

According to Google, one of the easiest ways to test your site’s accessibility to this type of user is to put yourself in their shoes. By exploring the site in your browser with JavaScript turned off, or by viewing it in a text-only browser, such as Lynx, you can see what your site will look like to a user who cannot benefit from Ajax.

Viewing a site as text-only can also help to identify other content which may be hard for Googlebot to see. Thus considering user needs can help improve your site’s ranking by alerting you to content that may need to be altered to be indexed by Google.

In addition to putting your users first, the design of your site is important to ensure that it can be easily indexed by search engines. Google admits that ‘while Googlebot is great at following and understanding the structure of HTML links, it can have a difficult time finding its way around sites which use JavaScript for navigation.’ With this in mind, Google advises webmasters to provide HTML links to content in order to create a site that is crawlable by Google and other search engines, such as Yahoo! and MSN.

Although Google advises that site structure and navigation should be built using HTML and ‘spiced up‘ later with Ajax, the search engine understands that webmasters may have links requiring JavaScript for Ajax functionality. However, ‘A Spider’s View…‘ suggests static links and Ajax can coexist by formatting links so that they offer a static link as well as calling a JavaScript function. Such formatting means that user needs are catered for as sites will have Ajax functionality for JavaScript users, while users without this can ignore the script and follow the link.

Despite this ability to provide users with different experiences based on their capabilities, Google insists that site content should remain the same. This means that if a website includes an Ajax powered slideshow it should also offer an HTML version to ensure that non-JavaScript users receive the same quality of information. Offering a HTML version will allow the Googlebot to view the content, and thus catering for the user will increase the amount of information that search engines can crawl.

Although Google’s golden rule for webmasters is to ‘create pages for users, not just for search engines‘, a look through ‘A Spider’s View of Web 2.0‘ suggests that pages designed for users (structured through HTML) can actually be pages for search engines too.

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