Posted by Sam Battin, Senior Search Strategist
The other day a big company came to Performics with a natural search problem; when they typed the company’s name into Google, the #1 result was an HTTPS version of their site. Clicking on that result caused browsers to stumble; the URL’s security certificate had expired. Internet Explorer wouldn’t display the company’s home page, and instead showed a warning that said “There is a problem with this website’s security certificate.”
Naturally, having visitors see a warning instead of their site was a less-than-optimal visitor experience, and the company wanted the problem solved as soon as possible. In addition, they wanted to know why Google had selected that URL to display as the #1 result. This brought up an important point every Web owner should know: you absolutely need to make your home page URL clear to search engines.
The value of inbound links is finite; search engines will attempt to distribute this value within your site as evenly possible. For this reason, a search engine needs each site to have a home page. There has to be a central point from which the total link value will be distributed.
For most sites, it’s easy to figure out where the home page is. The home page is the document that appears when the root domain is requested, such as
Some sites, however, use a content management system that puts the home page contents on a different page than the root domain, like
It gets even more complicated. Some sites, like the client mentioned above, have an HTTPS site running in parallel with HTTP. This means that the following two home page URLs return valid results:
Most sites also have a logo in the top right that’s a navigational link to their site home page. In some cases, this goes to the root domain, but in other cases, the URL might be something different, e.g.
This can give the site two URLs with duplicate home page content. What’s a search engine to do when there are two (or more!) URLs in the site that all have the same content and really look like the home page?
In cases like this, Google will pick a URL and decide it’s the home page. Their decision isn’t arbitrary; it’s going to be the URL that makes the most sense to the crawler. When it has a choice, Google appears to prefer smaller URLs to display as the site home page. In the case of our client, the URL they picked as the home page was
This URL, of course, was the one that had the problem with the security certificate. Our client’s site had multiple URLs that could have been the home page as well, and also had interior home page links to a different URL, as well as several 302 “temporary” redirects to still more URLs. Of these, Google picked the shortest URL to display as the home page on their search engine results. We can’t say why Google seems to like the smaller URLs, but it’s possible Google makes an aesthetic decision to present a short URL on the Google results page.
You can see from the above examples that it’s not always obvious which page of your site Google will think is the home page. You will achieve better visibility if you take the following steps and make it obvious:
- Put your home page content on the root domain URL, e.g. www.yoursite.com
- If you have duplicate URLs with home page content, you can either 301 redirect these URLs to the intended home page URL, or you can add a “link:canonical” tag to all duplicate pages that states the actual location of the home page.
- Make sure all interior navigational links to the home page are written to go to the intended home page URL and nowhere else.
- Keep your home page URL as short as possible.