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Wednesday, Mar. 25, 2009 at 7:39 am

Free Optimization Test Recommendation: The SEO Footer

By Brendan Regan
March 25th, 2009

One of the great things about testing and optimization is that you can use it to challenge assumptions and keep your site design’s effectiveness up-to-date.  No website element, no matter how pretty and well-designed, should be excused from an occasional test to make sure it’s giving you ROI.

In our fast-moving industry, what gave ROI six months ago might not today.

Take, for example, the design pattern I like to call the “SEO Footer.”  This design element takes many forms, but essentially it’s using the footer of your website navigation to house keyword-rich anchor links as a means of increasing Search Engine Optimization.  It’s a decent idea, and was extremely popular a few years ago, but I personally find them ugly, hard to scan, and hard to use.

Personal opinions aside, we’ve got a great candidate for an optimization test.  Why?  Because its impact on your site’s SEO is much less clear than it was a few years ago.  And if it’s not giving you ROI on organic search traffic, guess what?  It’s just cluttering up your site design and hurting your chances of converting customers.

I’m the first to admit I’m not an SEO expert, and the real SEO experts have written some good stuff on this topic, but in my research, I couldn’t see any evidence that sites are testing to see if this tactic is still “paying off” like it did 6, 12, or 18 months ago.  So, there’s your free test recommendation.

“Wait!  What Do I Test? And How Do I Interpret the Results?”

Run a simple test where some portion of your traffic sees a version of your footer stuffed with juicy keywords, and some portion doesn’t.  Measure its impact on whatever conversion matters to you, or whatever conversion might rely most on intuitive navigation.  Examples: Visiting a specific section of your site devoted to a business vertical and downloading a white paper, or browsing and finding a particular product and adding it to a shopping cart.

You may find the presence or absence of your SEO Footer has no impact on conversion.  That’s OK, because you’re also going to dive into your analytics and/or your SEO reports and see if the absence of the footer hurt your rankings/traffic.  If removing those extra keywords has positive or no impact, then you may as well remove it in the name of simple, clutter-free design.  If removing it has negative impact, then you should optimize the existing design to make it look as good as possible, and resolve to test it again in six months.

Use this method to make every site element earn its right to be a part of your design, and you’ll optimize your way to ROI.

Add Your Comments

Comments (38)

  1. I couldn’t agree more and with tools such as Google website optimizer it’s easier then ever to test site elements and gather precise data on what works and what doesn’t.

  2. Personally I don’t mind footers with links – but I do believe footer links have long been devalued by search engines but as a user they don’t irk me much. I have seen retailers that will remain nameless but are HUGE with great search rankings using footers to link to their brands in low contrast to their backgrounds so these are DEFINITELY not there for navigation purposes ;-)

    Personally it’s not something I would test, I’d rather find the best practice for SEO and do it. Suggestions are “page rank sculpting” – adding nofollow attributes to various links
    http://www.getelastic.com/killer-seo-trick-only-1-of-online-retailers-use/
    and fixing duplicate content problems like http://www.getelastic.com/too-many-urls-spoil-the-seo-fixing-a-common-ecommerce-duplicate-content-problem/
    and creating SEO optimized category pages like http://www.getelastic.com/karmaloop-seo/

    ~Linda

  3. It is easy to test for conversions, but how do you test for the SEO value of the footer links? Change it and wait 3 months to see if your ranking changed? Even if you had that kind of patience, how would you know it was *that* change that caused your rank change and not just a change in your competitors sites?

  4. I know for a fact that footer works, cause we had a site without any SEO opti at all, except for a footer like that, and it ranked well for all the footer links almost.

  5. [...] Free Optimization Test Recommendation: The SEO Footer … [...]

  6. @Chris: yes, you would “serial test” for SEO value. Since GWO and other tools don’t handle serial testing, you might have to do it as two separate tests, 1 to validate conversion impact, and 1 to validate SEO impact. On any serial test, you want to minimize other changes to your site to reduce the chances of “noise” in the data.

  7. Thanks for heads up. I think its worth testing for 1 page on your website that if you remove footer, how it affect SEO rankings.

  8. Like this line, “No website element, no matter how pretty and well-designed, should be excused from an occasional test to make sure it’s giving you ROI”. All that glitters isn’t pretty. :)

  9. nice tips. thanks an ciao from romania.

  10. I often use the footer to get in some text and to add any tags if my page is missing them. Also you need not wait moths to see results. Any time after your site is crawled you will immediately be able to see if your SERP’s have been affected.

  11. I know for a fact that footer works, cause we had a site without any SEO opti at all, except for a footer like that, and it ranked well for all the footer links almost.

  12. hmm…split testing your SEO efforts can be extremely difficult & I’ve yet to find someone who can accurately do it consistently.

    I might be missing something but with the example you’ve given above to split test this, the search engines wouldn’t have 2 indexed versions of your 1 page. If I remember correctly Google Website Optimizer is using Javascript, so I’m not sure you could test this?

    Any real test couldn’t be run side by side, they would need to be 3 months vs. 3 months (which has additional factors that mess with the test).

    As I mentioned I could be missing something, and would love to be corrected. If there is a split test idea for SEO – I’d love to see it!

  13. @City Smart, you are correct that split-testing would be messy and/or impossible. I’m recommending serial testing, not split testing.

  14. Thanks, great job guys! What’s hot today? SEO is basically eye candy for search engines, too much time and effort for little return. A/B split testing it’s the surest results oriented way to turn even a mediocre site into money machine. If you’re marketing online, you can make much more money simply by improving your landing pages to incrementally increase your conversion rates. Even a small boost can mean a big return on your bottom line.

  15. Hi Brendan,

    WebDesignerWall had a post recently about the usability benefits of putting a sitemap (and sometimes company description) in the footer. That might be another variation to test, to see if you can maintain/improve SEO and still create a better user experience. Look forward to hearing the results from any tests you might run!

    Here’s the link to the post:

    http://www.webdesignerwall.com/trends/modern-sitemap-and-footer/

  16. Here’s another link that I came across right after I commented above. Seems like everyone is interested in footers! More testing ideas:

    http://www.uxbooth.com/blog/6-things-to-include-for-a-user-friendly-footer/

  17. @all: i love that this has turned into a lively, multi-faceted discussion. One point of clarification is that I see a strong distinction between what I call an “SEO Footer” and what the UX community might call a “Fat Footer.” SEO Footers are just there for link juice, with little/no forethought given to the customer experience. Fat Footers (http://ui-patterns.com/pattern/FatFooter) are footers that have a lot of useful links in them. Take your pick, but I favor a “fat footer” or a standard footer approach, and if you can build in some link juice without damaging the customer experience, congrats!

  18. Since this article was published no less a site than the BBC (on its sports pages) has introduced a new link-heavy footer, although whether it would count as an SEO footer or a UX-approved “fat footer” is probably in the eye of the beholder (isn’t it all just down to a bit of styling anyhow?)

    See http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport – look for the A-Z of sport at the bottom of the page.

  19. I’ve been making minimal use of my footer, but think I’ll be giving this ‘seo’ footer a try. I’m currently on a big link building campaign, so I won’t be able to test it properly – I’ll probably just ‘do it’.

  20. Creating a flat architecture, so that internal urls are reached easily by users and search engines is very important. However this should not be done in exchange of cluttering any web design. There are ways and means to implement this and by having loads of footer links, it’s not the ideal way.

  21. Having SEO footers is an old tactic.Search engines count them as spamming if over done..But this tachnique works like a magic for when you are targetting for low competitive or long tail keywords..

  22. It is a fine balance between user experience and SEO optimization. Having the footers for the sake of optimizing those keywords is fine, but there is a fine line when it becomes a truly bad experience with the clutter.

  23. I think that SEO footers should be designed with the user in mind. It is becoming blatantly obvious that some sites are geared just for the search engines when you have a nice graphic design up top, but then this gob of text near the bottom, text that would be much more useful for visitors if it were at the top instead.

    It seems to be a controversy now though, as I have read lots of things recently saying that footers are now starting to lose their value in SEO.

    ~ Kristi

  24. I’ll probably just ‘do it’.

  25. Great topic.
    Its really hard to test though what type of footer works. Id suggest makeing one that doesnt have too many links in it, most are permanent (ie dont change each time you get on the page) and dont look too spammy so as not to pass a manual review. Remember that a good footer helps in indexing which is very important.

  26. Good stuff,guy.I will take it later.Thanks for the post!

  27. Really good! It’s a very good idea to keep testing your SEO choices as to see their impact on your ROI.

  28. if your ranking changed? Even if you had that kind of patience, how would you know it was *that* change that caused your rank change and not just a change in your competitors sites?

  29. think I’ll be giving this ’seo’ footer a try. I’m currently on a big link building campaign, so I won’t be able to test it properly – I’ll probably just ‘do it’.

  30. I have tried the SEO footer and thought it was clutter honestly.

  31. I have been adding items to the footer, but all the info I was reading was that was a waste. I am glad to hear others talking about this.

  32. The footer links are pretty useless from an SEO perspective and a waste of space for users. Links are best strategically placed within the body copy to aid users. Google looks for keywords and links that are semantically related as part of it’s ranking algoriothm. Bunches of links at the foot of a page and site wide will carry little or no weight. There is also a case for the Google link order prioritisation theory made by SEO MOZ http://www.seomoz.org/blog/using-anchor-links-to-make-google-ignore-the-first-link

  33. The various well written articles makes your sites very informative and enjoyable to come back and read the new posts.You are probably spending lots of time and effort on your blog.

  34. I am doing SEO of my own forum, and all i learn is from others writers articles and thoughts. I think its useless to add too many links in footer , rather then this its better to inner links between the pages or within the body thats count most.

  35. There is nothing worse than seeing a footer stuffed with hundreds of links in the hope it will be of some SEO gain, especially when it’s towns, cities or postcodes.

  36. This looks to be a very promising tool. I may take this one up for a spin as soon as I have some time on hand. Thanks for sharing.

  37. Love the point. The footer is one of that things we keep forgetting….

  38. I have just added a footer link, so I am hoping for the best. I do believe, however, that it’s benefits will be hard to measure as SEO is an on-going process, so the effectiveness of any 1 change is not entirely obvious.

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