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How Do Search Engines Find, Crawl, and Index Your Content?

I don’t often recommend clients build their own e-commerce or content management systems because of the unseen extensibility options needed nowadays – primarily focused on search and social optimization. I wrote an article on selecting a CMS, and I still show it to the companies I work with that are tempted to build their content management system.

How Do Search Engines Work?

Let’s start with how search engines work. Here’s a great overview from Google.

However, there are absolutely situations where a custom platform is a necessity. When that’s the optimal solution, I still push my clients to build out the necessary features to optimize their sites for search and social media. Three key features are a necessity.

What’s a Robots.txt File?

Robots.txt file – the robots.txt file is a plain text file in the site’s root directory and tells the search engines what they should include and exclude from search results. In recent years, search engines also requested that you include the path to an XML sitemap within the file. Here’s an example of mine, which allows all bots to crawl my site and also directs them to my XML sitemap:

User-agent: *
Sitemap: https://martech.zone/sitemap_index.xml

What’s an XML Sitemap?

XML Sitemap – Like HTML is for viewing in a browser, XML is written to be digested programmatically. An XML sitemap is a table of every page on your site and when it was last updated. XML sitemaps can also be daisy-chained… that is, one XML Sitemap can refer to another one. That’s great if you want to organize and break down the elements of your site logically (FAQs, pages, products, etc.) into their own Sitemaps.

Sitemaps are essential to effectively let the search engines know what content you’ve created and when it was last edited. A search engine’s process when going to your site isn’t effective without implementing a sitemap and snippets.

Without an XML Sitemap, you risk your pages never being discovered. What if you have a new product landing page that’s not linked internally or externally? How does Google discover it? Well, until a link is found to it, you won’t be discovered. Thankfully, search engines enable content management systems and e-commerce platforms to roll out a red carpet for them, though!

  1. Google discovers an external or internal link to your site.
  2. Google indexes the page and ranks it according to its content and the content and quality of the referring link’s site.

With an XML Sitemap, you’re not leaving the discovery or updating of your content to chance! Too many developers try to take shortcuts that hurt them as well. They publish the same rich snippet across the site, providing information that isn’t relevant to the page information. They publish a sitemap with the same dates on every page (or all of them updated when one page updates), giving queues to the search engines that they’re gaming the system or unreliable. Or they don’t ping the search engines at all… so the search engine doesn’t realize that new information has been published.

What Is Metadata? Microdata? Rich Snippets?

Rich snippets are carefully tagged microdata hidden from the viewer but visible on the page for search engines or social media sites to utilize. This is known as metadata. Google conforms to Schema.org as a standard for including things like images, titles, descriptions, and a plethora of other informative snippets like price, quantity, location information, ratings, etc. Schema will significantly enhance your search engine visibility and the likelihood that a user will click through.

Facebook uses the OpenGraph protocol (of course, they couldn’t be the same), X even has a snippet to specify your X profile. More and more platforms use this metadata to preview embedded links and other information when they publish.

Your web pages have an underlying meaning that people understand when they read the web pages. But search engines have a limited understanding of what is being discussed on those pages. By adding additional tags to the HTML of your web pages—tags that say, “Hey search engine, this information describes this specific movie, or place, or person, or video”—you can help search engines and other applications better understand your content and display it in a useful, relevant way. Microdata is a set of tags, introduced with HTML5, that allows you to do this.

Schema.org, What is MicroData?

Of course, none of these are required… but I highly recommend them. When you share a link on Facebook, for example, and no image, title, or description comes up… few people will be interested and actually click through. And if your Schema snippets aren’t in each page, of course you can still appear in search results… but competitors may beat you out when they have additional information displayed.

Register Your XML Sitemaps with Search Console

If you’ve built your own content or e-commerce platform, it’s imperative that you have a subsystem that pings the search engines, publishes microdata, and then provides a valid XML sitemap for the content or product information to be found!

Once your robots.txt file, XML sitemaps, and rich snippets are customized and optimized throughout your site, don’t forget to register for each search engine’s Search Console (also known as the Webmaster tool) where you can monitor the health and visibility of your site on search engines. You can even specify your Sitemap path if none is listed and see how the search engine is consuming it, whether or not there are any issues with it, and even how to correct them.

Roll out the red carpet to search engines and social media, and you’ll find your site ranking better, your entries on search engine result pages clicked through more, and your pages shared more on social media. It all adds up!

How Robots.txt, Sitemaps, and MetaData Work Together

Combining all these elements is like rolling out the red carpet for your site. Here’s the crawl process a bot takes along with how the search engine indexes your content.

  1. Your site has a robots.txt file that also references your XML Sitemap location.
  2. Your CMS or e-commerce system updates the XML Sitemap with any page and publish date or edit date information.
  3. Your CMS or e-commerce system pings the search engines to inform them that your site has been updated. You can ping them directly or use RPC and a service like Ping-o-matic to push to all key search engines.
  4. The Search Engine instantly returns, respects the Robots.txt file, finds new or updated pages via the sitemap, and then indexes the page.
  5. When indexing your page, it utilizes the title, meta description, HTML5 elements, headings, images, alt tags, and other information to properly index the page for the applicable searches.
  6. When indexing your page, it utilizes the title, meta description, and rich snippet microdata to enhance the search engine results page.
  7. As other relevant sites link to your content, your content ranks better.
  8. As your content is shared on social media, the rich snippet information specified can help properly preview your content and direct it to your social profile.

Douglas Karr

Douglas Karr is CMO of OpenINSIGHTS and the founder of the Martech Zone. Douglas has helped dozens of successful MarTech startups, has assisted in the due diligence of over $5 bil in Martech acquisitions and investments, and continues to assist companies in implementing and automating their sales and marketing strategies. Douglas is an internationally recognized digital transformation and MarTech expert and speaker. Douglas is also a published author of a Dummie's guide and a business leadership book.

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