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Perfecting a web site is a long and involved process. There’s no getting around the fact that if you want every aspect of your site to be right — accessibility, search optimization, and just all-around pizzazz, you’ve probably got some significant work to do. However, that’s not to say that there aren’t things you can check quickly and efficiently to make sure you’re not making some of the more egregious errors!

Here are 8 speedy checkups (in no particular order) which you can easily perform on your site to inspect it for problems. No methods suggested require special knowledge of HTML or web programming. Excluding acquiring and installing software, these tasks shouldn’t take more than a few minutes for most sites.

That doesn’t include fixing any problems found, of course…

  1. Check Headings
  2. Check for Image Alternatives
  3. Behavior without Javascript
  4. Unique Page Titles
  5. Check for Broken Links
  6. URL Canonicalization
  7. Robots Control
  8. Download Times

1. Check for Headings

The use of appropriately coded HTML headings is important for both SEO and Accessibility. Headings should be used to define the content structure of the page, semantically demonstrating the importance of that text and providing additional in-page navigation tools for screen reader users.

Software required: Firefox Web Browser, FANGS Extension for Firefox.

What to do: After installing Fangs, navigate to the Tools menu in Firefox and select Fangs. Flip to the “Headings List” tab in Fangs. The output displayed in this list shows all of the headings on the current page and their heading levels. Sometimes you’ll see output with a number but no text — these are most likely headings which are using images within the heading element.

Which leads to the next point…

2. Check for Image Alternative Text

Providing alternative text attributes for your images is critical to accessibility. The logic behind how to provide alt attributes appropriately can be complicated, but the presence of the attribute itself is always necessary.

The quickest check for this problem is very simple: disable images in your browser.

Software required: Any browser.

What to do:

  • Firefox: Tools » Options » Content » "Load Images Automatically" -- Unchecked
  • Internet Explorer: Tools » Internet Options » Advanced » Scroll to "Multimedia" » "Show pictures" -- Unchecked
  • Opera: Tools » Preferences » Web Pages » "Images" -- Select "No Images"
  • Safari 3 for Windows: Although you can disable images, the browser does not automatically display alt attributes in their place.

The results will vary somewhat from browser to browser, but in general they’re fairly consistent. If an alt attribute is present and contains text, that text will be displayed in place of the image. Look at the text and decide whether it’s appropriate! If there is no alt attribute text, the image will be left as a blank space. If there is no alt attribute at all, however, the image will instead be replaced in some cases by the file name of the image, in others by a simple broken image icon. If the navigation button for “Purchase my Widgets” suddenly says “Nav_image_10x10_30.gif” then that’s really not useful.

3. Behavior without Javascript

The definitive key concern about Javascript is that search spiders browse the web without it. For accessibility, the issue is significantly more complex, but there can be no question that making sure that your site is usable without Javascript is a major concern for both concerns.

As with images, the simple test is to disable Javascript in your browser.

Software required: Any browser.

What to do:

  • Firefox: Tools » Options » Content » "Enable Javascript" -- Unchecked
  • Internet Explorer: Tools » Internet Options » Security » Scroll to "Scripting" » "Active Scripting" -- Disable
  • Opera: Tools » Quick Preferences » "Enable Javascript" -- Unchecked"
  • Safari 3 for Windows: Edit » Preferences » Security » "Enable Javascript" -- Unchecked

If there are problems, they should become immediately apparent. I’ve seen occasions where the entire content area vanished or the entire navigation menu suddenly disappeared. It may be more subtle, but the simple test is to look for key content which is no longer available to your browser.

4. Page Titles

A unique page title for every page of your site is a crucial part of best practices for both accessibility and SEO. It helps orient your visitors, and allows searchers to know what they’re coming to.

Test Page Titles (Simple version)

Software required: Any browser.

What to do: Look at the top of your browser window. Does it say something like “Untitled Document” or just read the URL of your site? You’ve probably got a problem. In order to really get anywhere with this, you need to check most pages of your site, so for larger sites, you may want a more thorough method.

Test Page Titles (Thorough version)

Software required: Xenu Link Sleuth or similar site spidering tool.

What to do: Install the software and run it. Navigate to the File menu and select “Check URL.” Enter the URL of your web site. Select “OK.” Wait. The tool will now spider your web site and generate a list of linked documents on your site. This will include all images, external links, etc., by default, although it can be configured differently.

One of the columns in the results is “Title.” If you sort the results by type (select the header of the column “Type”) such that text/html filters to the top, you’ll have a list of pages on your site. Simply scan down the “Title” column. Are they all the same, or are large numbers of pages the same? That’s a problem. Every page should have a unique title.

Don’t close Xenu yet — because it’ll also check for broken links. Re-sort the output by “Status.” Find the section with the status of “not found.” Any file which came up as not found is, simply stated, a broken link. Broken links can have a lot of consequences for your website — loss of trust, frustration for your visitors, or even causing an inability for visitors to get key information.

6. URL Canonicalization

URL Canonicalization is a big, fancy word which simply means that all possible variations on a page’s URL lead ultimately to the same URL.

The issue is simply that all of these URLs can be exactly the same page:

  • http://www.yourdomain.com/index.php
  • http://www.yourdomain.com/
  • http://www.yourdomain.com/index.php?t=success&r=fail
  • http://www.yourdomain.com/index.php?r=fail&t=success
  • http://yourdomain.com/index.php
  • http://yourdomain.com/
  • http://yourdomain.com/index.php?t=success&r=fail
  • http://yourdomain.com/index.php?r=fail&t=success

And it’s entirely probable there could be more. Now, checking for all variations can be a somewhat tedious task. However, the one big variation which is likely to apply to every page of your site is the “www” or no “www” conundrum. It really doesn’t matter which you choose as your preferred site — but you should absolutely choose just one.

Testing the behavior of your site with this problem is absurdly easy.

Software required: Any browser.

What to do: Go to your website. Place your cursor in the address bar of your browser and change the URL. If your site is currently displaying “http://www.yourdomain.com,” remove the “www.”. If it’s currently displaying “http://yourdomain.com,” add it in.

There are three basic possibilities for what will happen at this point:

  1. The site will automatically redirect to the alternate version. If you change the address, hit return, and the URL immediately switches back to what it was before, then this is what has happened. This is the correct behavior, although from a technical standpoint you’ll also want to check that the right type of redirect has happened. (You want a 301 redirect.)
  2. Nothing will happen. The site will reload identically with the new URL. This isn’t a total disaster, but it does mean that your site isn’t canonicalized — both versions of your URLs are available. You should investigate implementing URL canonicalization.
  3. You’ll get a file not found or server error. This is bad. This may mean that your hosting service is not configured to send both versions of your URL to your account, although this isn’t the only explanation. You can’t ever assume that people will link to the correct version of your URL or check their links, so it’s very important that every possible variation will eventually arrive at the right destination!

7. Robots Control

Most of the time, robots control isn’t a critical part of your site. The various directives, either in meta elements on your web site pages or in a robots.txt file on your site are usually intended to prevent specific information from being indexed by search engine spiders. If it’s missing entirely, it’s not really the end of the world.

However, if you have a robots.txt problem, you have a serious problem. If you’ve accidentally set your robots.txt file or meta elements to block robots from crawling or indexing your pages, then you’re simply dead in the water.

This is somewhat of a multiple step process:

  1. Enter your home page URL in your browser address bar like this: http://www.yourdomain.com/robots.txt. If you receive an error message, than the file simply isn’t there. You may wish to add one — to reduce the number of error messages in your server logs, if nothing else, but you can be pretty certain that you aren’t blocking search spiders with it.
  2. If you do have a robots.txt file, you’ll see it displayed in your browser. It’s a very simple file format, consisting primarily of three types of statement: User-Agent, Disallow and Allow. By default, everything is allowed; so most robots.txt files only contain User-Agent and Disallow statements. This is the Disallow statement you really don’t want to see:
    User-Agent: *
    Disallow: /
    

    In simple terms, this says “No search spiders are allowed to access this site.” The single forward slash means that the statement refers to all directories on the site. The * means all user agents — which includes Google’s search spider, Yahoo’s search spider, and so on.

    A more common file will be something like this:

    User-Agent: *
    Disallow: /private/
    Disallow: /images/
    Disallow: /admin/
    

    This is more specifically disallowing three folders which the web site owner does not want available to the public.

    If you want to check specific URLs, or find that your robots.txt is quite complicated (they can be!) Google offers robots.txt checking tools in their webmaster tools. (Requires a Google account.)

That’s taken care of your robots.txt file; but what about more specific directions? Meta elements can provide instructions to robots as well, which operate on a page specific basis. These are much harder to check, since it requires a page by page check — and, frankly, there may be specific pages which you don’t want indexed. Regardless, this is what to look for:



Or variations on that theme. The code states that, for the current page, spiders should not index the information and should not follow links from the page. If you find this on a page which you’re having trouble getting in the search index: that’s the reason!

8. Check your Web site’s Download Time

The time it takes your site to download can have a huge impact on the likelihood a visitor will stick around. Although broadband is popular, it’s still just barely a majority of the internet market. Assuming that visitors will wait around to see that high-resolution image of your product is simply foolish.

It’s easy to check approximately how long it will take your site to load at a variety of download speeds. The actual download times for a given user will be hugely variable, since there are many more factors than raw bandwidth at play when accessing a web site — but this quick test will at least give you an idea.

Visit the web site optimization analyzer. This tool will give you the total anticipated download time at a variety of bandwidths, and also breaks down, file by file, the total size of the elements of your web page.

Even if you’re satisfied with the time required to download your site (8 seconds at 56k used to be the benchmark; although you need to make your own decision depending on your site’s needs,) you can use this information to streamline your site. Optimizing graphics and only loading scripts on pages which actually use them can make a huge difference.

Conclusion

Touching on these issues won’t clear up every problem you could have: but they can save you a lot of headaches. Fixing these issues will generally improve the overall condition of your web site in a variety of ways. You’ll end up in a better position to work on SEO and you’ll offer your visitors a more accessible web site.

It can’t hurt to check!