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My colleague, Nick Andrews pointed out to me that one of the largest sites in the UK car industry recently updated its design – Auto Trader. Of course, being an SEO type, I couldn’t help but cast a professional eye over it, to see how well they’d incorporated search optimisation techniques. A new design or development should be the perfect opportunity to embed best practice SEO, and gain additional traffic as well as improving user experience. I say should, because it seems to have gone horribly wrong on the on-page side in this instance.

One nice feature of Google’s cache is the ability to view a “Text-only version” of a given URL. This is simplistic, but at the same time gives a reasonable view of the actual text Google will interpret when analysing the page’s contents. You can use the link below to view the text only cache of the Auto Trader homepage:

http://www.google.com/search?q=cache:www.autotrader.co.uk&strip=1

A brief glance at the cached page will immediately show you an obvious problem:

Stripped cache of Auto Trader homepage

Some type of on-page code is being written (and interpreted as) plain text. This has obvious implications for the keywords the page can target, and the overall relevancy of the content. If we look at the source code, we can see what’s causing this:

Snippet of source code

The text is written within a span, which is then hidden via a CSS rule – span.tracking{display:none !important;}. Search engines, of course, don’t routinely try to interpret CSS, so the text will seem like any other written to the page. It’s essentially hidden text, and the same technique is also used for keyword spam.

The reference to omnitureTracking in the link itself suggests that the text within the span is being used to monitor user activity for a web analytics system. But of course, writing it to the page in this way prioritises analysing visitors over actually acquiring them.Not something that is usually a sensible business decision.

The sheer volume of this text on every page of the site inadvertently “optimises” the site for irrelevant words – at the expense of performance for more relevant ones. Auto Trader now rank for the likes of subsection, topnav and linkname.

The lesson, of course, is to ensure that SEO is given due consideration before, during and after a site build, redesign or redevelopment. Otherwise, something as simple as web analytics can end up sabotaging good search engine performance.

I did notice the “beta” tag next to the logo, so perhaps this is just one of those bugs that won’t make it to final release ;)