Google isn't always perfect, and they'll be the first to admit it. I've seen Marissa Mayer speak, and she's consistently said that Google pushes out tests earlier than others would in order to grow and improve on their often brilliant ideas.
Many people aren't familiar with Google's sitelinks. There can be up to eight sitelinks per site, and you have some control over blocking them using Webmaster Tools. That's actually a topic worth its own column, so we'll save that discussion for next time.
For a live example of sitelinks, check out this Google search for "Search Engine Watch."
The eight blue links (Forums, Search Marketing 101, Stats, Blog, Subscribe to RSS Feeds, Links (Search Engine Watch), Experts, Subscribe) below the description and URL information are an example of good sitelinks. My criteria for a good rating is that the links are all going to live pages and that the site that has been assigned the sitelinks for this search term is the "right one."
Unfortunately, as with all tests of new technology, this feature has some pretty serious bugs. Some are Google's fault and some are a combination of Google and Webmasters' fault.
The biggest problem with sitelinks: it's difficult for Google to accurately determine what site should merit these for non-branded terms. When you search for a brand, in most cases it's pretty obvious which is the correct brand -- although even this can be a problem for organizations that share a name with another organization.
For non-branded searches, the algorithm that bestows sitelinks upon a site has some serious shortcomings. For example, check out this search for "fitness club." In this case, Google has unfairly deemed LA Fitness to be worthy of sitelinks for this search.
Who's to say that Gold's Gym, Bally's, 24 Hour Fitness, or any of the other fitness club sites that appear properly in the listings don't deserve the sitelinks? Google may argue that the inbound links, as well as the site structure of LA Fitness, are what makes it deserve the links, but I'd be pretty upset if I worked for one of the competing companies. Of course, Google can "do what they want," and it's unlikely that any of the other sites would have legal recourse to go after Google for this.
Another irony of this particular sitelinks assignment is that Google actually calls out related searches above the first result. If these are so related, why isn't one of them given the sitelinks instead of the non-included LA Fitness? It kind of boggles the mind. Other examples of bad sitelinks come in the results for "health insurance," "investment advice" (again ironic: fool.com gets tapped for these), "auto insurance," and "kayaks."
One site I've long bashed for being SEO-illiterate -- Coca-Cola -- disappointed me this year when they finally did something to improve their listings within search engines, thus ruining a go-to example for the value of basic SEO, such as using an accurate page title and meta description. The title used to be "Cocacola.com," and there was literally no description because the entire home page content was built in Flash. Congrats to Coke on adding some content and a meta description, but oops when it comes to your sitelinks.
This is where Google could do better in vetting the links they choose to include. Coca-Cola could also do a better job with their site's information architecture.
In the case of these sitelinks, only one offers true value: the one to the fact sheets. The Soft Drinks & Beverage Products link takes me to an international landing page, forcing another series of choices for me to find any more information. To boot, I couldn't back out of this page, which always annoys me. This page cookies the user, so on the next visit I was redirected from here immediately to the region I chose. Once I'm at the U.S. page, the only Coca-Cola "products" I'm introduced to are their advertisements, and God forbid if I'm a Sprite fan looking for information here.
The Happiness Factory link is OK, but the page takes forever to load. Congrats to Coca-Cola on at least keeping this decent piece of link bait on the main domain, instead of falling prey to the microsite strategy. Still, not sure this is the best link to put here.
The "United States (English)" link is bad because it's two clicks past the Soft Drinks link from above. Some may argue that each page deserves a sitelink, but there are likely some other pages with better content that should be included here. Per Google's explanation, this is something that Coca-Cola could influence by having better internal linking.
Another problem I've seen on other sites before is all the sitelinks pointing to dead pages because a site just underwent a redesign and changed its URLs, which is about as low on the user experience meter as you can get. This is Google's fault because the crawler should always check that pages linked to from sitelinks aren't returning a 404 or other error code.
Sitelinks are a valiant effort by Google. I can deal with ugly. The bad are what irks me, and I feel people are gaining an unfair advantage for very high volume terms as a result of having been given sitelinks undeservedly.
Do you have your own examples of bad and ugly sitelinks or just want to voice your opinion on Google's test of sitelinks? Please feel join the discussion in the Search Engine Watch Forums.
Frank Watson Fires Back
The sitelinks are getting more prevalent in Google results and, subsequently, many people are asking how to get them.
Google doesn't tell you how they're determined, just that "sitelinks are meant to help users navigate your site." I hadn't considered why a site would turn off its site links until your column. Google tells us "We're always working to improve our sitelinks algorithms, and we may incorporate webmaster input in the future."
How about giving us a better idea of how they're selected, not just how to block them. If you want to help Coke, et al., tell them to read this article and block bad links.