I once overheard a conversation between a web developer and a project manager. They were discussing the case of a client who had raised an issue with their website.
The website had been built 18 months before and up until this point in time had had no problems. 18 months later and the client had uncovered an issue with the website. It was minor, but annoying nonetheless.
The client’s claim went like this; “I haven’t changed anything on the website since it went live 18 months ago, therefore the issue must have been caused by you (web developer)”.
The web developer had a similar message; they too had not changed the website since it went live and could also confirm that no one else had worked on it.
This leaves two questions:
To find the answer to these questions we need to look at another factor that could have caused the issue: progress or a lack thereof.
As we have heard, the website has not changed in the last 18 months. The developer built the site, the client signed it off, and it went live. Since then everything on the website has remained in a constant state.
However, the same cannot be said for the rest of the world. Whilst the website in question has remained static, the rest of the web has developed, changed, adapted and improved on previous versions.
Since the website in question went live (for the sake of argument we are going to say in October 2012) a lot has changed.
People are using different web browsers. Internet Explorer (IE) has suffered an impressive drop in market share while Google Chrome, following a successful marketing campaign, has further secured its position as the market leader.
Here is what has changed since the website went live:
When the website went live the following was true:
Today (as of April 2014) the following is true:
Why does this matter? It matters because different web browsers do things differently. Sometimes the differences are slight, sometimes (particularly when it comes to IE) the differences are very noticeable.
A website that worked in October 2012 may have only worked because it was being viewed in a web browser that made it work. Habits have changed and now, in 2014, the client and the web developer may have begun working predominantly in an alternative web browser.
Web browsers take the code of a website and then display it in a way that they believe it should be displayed. As a result, different web browsers interpret website code differently. Layouts can be slightly different and fonts can look slightly bigger or smaller for example. This can have the effect of breaking some website features where other browsers make them work.
A good web developer will be aware of the need to build a website to cater for cross-browser quirks. However, what a web developer cannot foresee are the negative side-effects of future browser updates.
As well as user habits changing, web browsers have evolved. The graph below shows the version release history for the top five web browsers since 1995:
Here are the most current browser version numbers comparing October 2012 and April 2014:
Each of the top five web browsers has gone through at least one major version update since October 2012. The market leader, Google Chrome has gone through 12 version updates. Second-placed in the market, Firefox has pushed out 13 new versions.
Looking further back in time, the period since 2010 has seen an increase in the rate at which web browsers are updated, particularly Chrome and Firefox, which have seen 31 and 27 updates respectively.
All of these updates represent an opportunity for a website to break. A website that works perfectly in Chrome version 22.0 could have any number of issues in version 34.0.
Taking this into account, we begin to build a picture of why the website in question has ‘broken’. The client and the web developer have both confirmed that 18 months ago the website worked. They have both confirmed that no changes to the website have been applied between then and now, meaning any changes have happened outside of the website.
Aside from the visual appearance of a website breaking there are also marketing issues to be aware of.
The graph below shows the number of reported Google algorithm updates since 2000:
In 2012 there were 37 reported algorithm updates, followed by 17 in 2013. Among these algorithm changes were various incarnations of the infamous Panda and Penguin updates.
These updates represent various changes in the way that Google decides who should be indexed in their search engine and where they should be shown when someone searches for a related keyword.
Some of the changes in algorithm mean that tactics that once worked no longer have an impact or, indeed, have a negative impact.
Back to the two questions from the start:
Because the website hasn’t been changed since it went live, we can assume that web browser updates have caused it to break.
The various updates applied to Chrome, Firefox, IE and all of the others have rendered the code used on the website from 18 months ago less effective.
But why should you care about all of this and how does it relate to SEO?
SEO is about keeping yourself moving. The role of an SEO consultant is to remain ahead of the changes being applied to the technology that defines our roles.
A website that falls behind can break physically, or it can fall victim to rule changes applied by search engines. Both issues can have a negative impact on how a website is found using search engines.
SEO isn’t just about pushing forward, sometimes it is about maintaining a position of power.
In a world where everything around you is moving forwards, standing still is as good as moving backwards.
In the process of putting this post together I brought together data on web browser and Google algorithm updates. The whole lot is in a spreadsheet and took a bit of time to do so, in the name of sharing, below is a link to download it and use it as you wish.
The spreadsheet includes the following nuggets of information:
A quick nod to the data sources: