Over the past 20 years, I’ve owned multiple audio products made by a well-known brand I’ll refer to as “the manufacturer.” It’s a consumer electronics company with Japanese roots, but which is now headquartered here in the U.S. Though the star power of this brand’s name lost some market share in the last decade, interest was reignited by a new product launch in 2015.
That new product, a premium Bluetooth speaker engineered and built to replace much bigger home audio systems, got my attention and I quickly snapped one up on amazon.com.
The manufacturer sells the unit direct to consumers on their website, and the user experience they’ve architected looks great. But until just a few days ago, the whole thing was accidentally concealed from the public at large.
Shortly after placing my order with Amazon, I hopped over to Google to do a little more in-depth research at the manufacturer’s own site. Sure, I’d read a dozen reviews about the speaker on high-profile industry blogs. I’d seen some YouTube reviews. And the company’s owner, himself, had been the focus of several other articles in which he’d been interviewed about the business’s reemergence in the market.
But the brand’s own website was oddly—shockingly—absent from every branded search I tried on Google.
It wasn’t until I employed some “deep” searching methods learned in my years of SEO work that I was able to track down the URL for this company’s website; it was that hidden. My investigation was hampered by the fact that for a short period in the early 2000s the company was owned by Sony. Even later when the name was abandoned by the electronics giant and passed over to new ownership, Sony still retained the branded domain name. This meant that the manufacturer was forced to build a new website with a slightly different top-level domain (TLD); in this case, .co instead of .com.
That wasn’t the problem, though. The reason I couldn’t find the manufacturer’s website anywhere, and nor could countless other would-be customers, was because one simple, errant HTML tag had been added to the website’s code—out of carelessness, ignorance, or something worse; I won’t speculate here.
Suspecting the presence of a “noindex” tag in the website’s head section, I opened the source code on my browser and did a control+F search for that word. Sure enough, there it was.
Pause for a quick lesson in SEO 101: A noindex tag is a directive to search engines you would only put on webpages you really didn’t want people to stumble across accidentally. These might include login pages, pages with sensitive information, and other content that strategically should be kept out of Google’s search results.
I couldn’t believe it. I had to double- and triple-check to see if I was missing something. Sadly, I wasn’t. This beautiful, user-friendly website had been created for the sole purpose of attracting visitors on a large scale and converting them into paying customers. But one of the smallest, most important details had been neglected: the website was actively telling search engines like Google to not index its content.
SEOs will understand why this sent me into a controlled panic, even on behalf of a business with which I had no working relationship.
But to put this into perspective for those who don’t work in this field, this was tantamount to building a Ferrari but not installing a transmission. It may look gorgeous and make a wonderful sound as it sits there idling. But without something to make it go, it’s ultimately purposeless and a ginormous waste of money.
The mystery of the noindex tag’s presence was compounded by the fact that something like this has to be manually added to a webpage’s code—it doesn’t just appear randomly. I want to believe this was an innocent mistake made by someone with good intentions, but that doesn’t minimize any damage done.
The Fix [“Holy Smokes!”]
I had recently connected with the manufacturer’s CEO on LinkedIn, because that’s how I roll. He was kind enough to reciprocate, and seems like a pretty congenial guy. Using that channel of direct communication, I sent him a message alerting him to what I discovered, noting that I wasn’t trying to sell him SEO services, and in the end, hoping he’d take my outreach seriously. To make the fix more turnkey for him, I copied and pasted the specific line of HTML code in question, and included instructions he could forward to his developers.
The CEO replied within a couple hours to say, “Holy smokes.” He thanked me for finding this, let me know they hadn’t been aware of the issue, and that he was looking into it right away.
There are always fires to put out in big companies, and I know this couldn’t have been the only concern on the CEO’s plate that day. But I was excited to see that his team made the change within just a couple days. With the errant code removed, it was then up to Google and other search engines to do their part by finding the website, indexing its content, and serving it in relevant searches.
It worked! Less than a week later, the manufacturer’s website is not only indexed and appearing in search results, but it’s near the top of page one in Google where it rightfully should be (Sony’s outdated page on the original domain is still ranking #1, but that battle will be fought by lawyers, not SEOs).
A week ago, someone like me couldn’t have found this brand’s website anywhere in Google. And, for most of us who were ready to spend money on their new speaker, that meant buying it elsewhere instead. Now, with a little technical SEO triage completed, the manufacturer should start seeing more visits, more users, and with the right web content, more direct sales.
Is This Normal?
No. The example I’ve talked about here is more the exception than the rule; one basic but critical step had been overlooked…with stunningly negative consequences. Fortunately, my part of the fix took only a few minutes of poking around, and a detailed message to the appropriate decision-maker.
Your website, however, is (hopefully) already configured the way it should be. Your developer or SEO should have also made sure the appropriate parties were aware of your new site by doing things like fetching and rendering it in Google’s Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools). When that happens, you can expect your content to be indexed by search engines speedily and accurately—though this is something you should be monitoring all the time. Forever. And ever. More on this in my follow-up post.
In my case, the resolution was simply a matter of understanding what was broken, knowing where to look for the problem, and having the experience to fix it. And that happens a lot in everyday SEO. Most websites looking to improve their performance in search, though, aren’t suffering from a single, hidden malady.
Most business websites need the kind of SEO that takes much longer to execute, and leans heavily on content strategy. Those engagements take longer, and they’re almost always a labor of love.