Website Critique: Ward’s Scientific Site Review

April 1st, 2007


Originally published in Multichannel Merchant

Ward’s appears to have done some search engine optimization (SEO), and it was a good start, but I discovered costly mistakes and much opportunity yet untapped. Currently its site is not present in the first five pages of Google for key terms such as â??lab equipmentâ?? and â??lab suppliesâ?? or for category names such as â??microscopesâ?? and â??chemicals.â??

The costliest SEO mistake I found was the duplicate site Ward’s has in Google, due to the lack of a permanent redirect from to Some sites link to the former URL; others link to the latter. Because all the links on the site are relative rather than absolute, when a spider starts crawling the site from (without the â??wwwâ??), it is able to spider an index of an entire copy of the site at the alternate URL. By combining the duplicate sites, Ward’s would aggregate the Google PageRank scores of the two sites into one.

For example, the home page has a PageRank of 6, as does that of Once aggregated, the resulting home page could end up with a 7 (which is markedly higher than a 6, due to the logarithmic nature of PageRank). You can confirm that these two URLs are seen as unique pages by Google by searching for â??cache:wardsci.comâ?? and â??cache:www.wardsci.comâ?? â?? each has a different â??retrieved onâ?? date.

Stop those characters!

Ward’s rewrote its category and product URLs to eliminate â??stop charactersâ?? â?? question marks, ampersands, and equal signs. But the approach it used is not ideal.

For one thing, variables are separated by underscores, and underscores are not word separators in the eyes of Google. Consider the URL â??â?? The word â??electrochemistryâ?? is not seen by Google or counted as a keyword. There also appear to be some superfluous characters in these rewritten URLs (â??_Q_c_E_â?? perhaps). Many of the product URLs have exceedingly long file names (e.g. â??â??), which may not seem very palatable to a spider (not that a sheep brain could be very palatable under the best of circumstances!).

The product category links in the top navigation and the sidebar are all text, so extra bonus points for that. All the major search engines associate those underlined words with the page being linked to.

The HTML code could be tightened up quite a lot. The HTML includes a number of comments, and tables are being used for layout, which is not very efficient coding practice. By tightening up the code in the various category page and product page templates, the relevant product-related copy could be brought higher up on the page. Also some intro copy should be added to the category pages, as there is nothing there to reinforce the page’s keyword theme.

From the category pages, there are links to view all products in that category; those point, however, to a search results page with six parameters in the URL â?? a complex, search-unfriendly URL structure. Those definitely need to be rewritten. Each product on the category page is linked to three times: from the product photo, from the product name, and from a â??More Infoâ?? button. It would be best to add â??rel=nofollowâ?? to the photo and button links so that they are no longer counted as â??votesâ?? by the search engines. That focuses the search engines on the remaining product link, which just so happens to be a text link containing relevant keywords.

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) should be used to reorder the flow of the HTML in the templates so that the keyword-rich body copy appears higher up in the page, above the navigation. Heading tags (H1, H2, etc.) should emphasize text important to the search engines; then CSS can style that text appropriately on the screen. On category pages, the category name should be an H1 tag. CSS code is currently included â??inlineâ??; instead it should be placed in an external .css file.

Product pages should link to related products, thus adding more â??votesâ?? for those products. Links to internal search results on related keywords would be nice too, particularly if those pages were search engine optimized.

Ward’s product and category pages include breadcrumb navigation links. Normally this is a good thing, because these are keyword-rich text links. But Ward’s breadcrumb navigation has been implemented incorrectly: The category and product URLs in the breadcrumb are not rewritten, thus providing the spiders with another version of these pages to index and more duplicate content.

Curiously, while surfing around the catalog I found that the top featured product in the â??Forces and Motionâ?? category had a breadcrumb containing â??404 Page Not Foundâ?? and a message at the bottom of the page that this item is no longer available. Clicking on that â??404 Page Not Foundâ?? link in the breadcrumb led me to an â??Oops! Sorryâ?¦â?? page that doesn’t actually return a 404 status code but a 200 instead â?? thus this â??Oopsâ?? page can get indexed and displayed in search results.

The title tags aren’t too bad. The category pages include the category name in the title; product pages include the product name. I’d recommend dropping â??Ward’s Natural Scienceâ?? from the title tags to help tighten the focus.

Spending its juice

The site has strong backlinks, many from relevant science-related sites, and good link neighborhoods. Being part of the VWR family of catalogs, Ward’s has a fantastic opportunity to acquire links from sister sites. The â??.eduâ?? and â??.govâ?? backlinks (for instance, â??â?? and â??â??) are like gold due to the pristine link neighborhoods they are in and the authority status bestowed on many of them; such links cannot be bartered, bought, or stolen. Ward’s problem lies in how it â??spendsâ?? the link juice given to them.

I would advise blocking all the â??quick orderâ?? product pages from being indexed, because they really are not good pages for SEO â?? or searchers â?? to land on. These pages have very little keyword-rich copy, no intro text, no product copy, just some product names. From an SEO perspective, Ward’s would be better off â??spendingâ?? its internal PageRank on more keyword-rich product and category pages.

More important, the page number links should be text links rather than a pull-down list. The pull-down is not search-engine friendly; spiders can not fill out forms. There is a â??Next>>â?? link at least, but it is crucial to have a better path into Ward’s rich supply of products besides following page after page of â??Next>>â?? links. By the time the spider gets to page 50, all the PageRank will have dissipated.

Ward’s has a good-size product catalog, so once its SEO is in order, the company should be able to capture a lot of â??long tailâ?? search traffic as well as a number of head terms related to the categories it sells.