Crawler Traps: How to Identify and Avoid Them

crawl trap

You’ve invested time, effort, and money into optimizing your website. The ultimate goal is to climb up those search engine rankings and increase visibility for potential customers. But despite your best efforts, you might find that you’re not achieving the desired results. The culprit?

Sneaky technical issues called “crawler traps” could be sabotaging your SEO performance without you even knowing it. In this in-depth guide, we’ll explore the ins and outs of crawler traps—what they are, why they matter, and most importantly, how you can identify and avoid them to secure a robust SEO strategy.

What Are Crawler Traps?

Crawler traps aren’t talked about as much as keywords or backlinks, but they can have just as devastating an impact on your SEO. They are technical errors or misconfigurations on your website that consume the crawl budget allocated by search engines. This means that instead of scanning your important, revenue-driving pages, search engines like Google end up wasting time on irrelevant or redundant sections of your site.

Why Crawler Traps Are a Big Deal

Ignoring crawler traps can lead to a cascade of SEO problems.

Firstly, they eat up your crawl budget. Every site gets allocated a certain “budget” determining how many pages a search engine will crawl. Traps mislead the crawler into wasting this budget on unimportant pages, leading to less frequent crawling of your key pages.

Secondly, traps often lead to duplicate content issues. Crawlers end up indexing the same material under different URLs, diluting your site’s authority and relevance.

How Crawler Traps Mess Up Your SEO Goals

Crawler traps complicate two critical aspects of your SEO strategy: the crawl budget and content uniqueness. Here’s how:

Impact on Crawl Budget

Search engines have finite resources for crawling the web. When your website leads crawlers into a labyrinth of irrelevant pages, you’re exhausting resources that could have been used to crawl and index your more crucial pages. This can delay the indexing of new, valuable content and negatively affect your site’s overall performance.

Duplicate Content Dilemma

Even worse, traps can produce duplicate content by creating multiple URLs for the same page. This can mislead search engines into thinking you’re spamming the system with redundant content, which can severely impact your rankings.

Identifying Crawler Traps: Look for These Signs

The first step in addressing the problem is to spot it. While each website is unique and may have its own set of issues, these are common signs you’re dealing with crawler traps:

Overcomplicated URL Structures

If your URLs look more like encrypted codes than readable links, you may be inviting crawler traps. Long, complex URLs with multiple parameters can cause search engines to crawl redundant pages.

Bad Example: www.example.com/category/product/id=123456&sort=high-to-low&color=red&page=3

Correct Way: Opt for a simplified, readable URL structure like www.example.com/category/product/red-high-to-low-3.

Frequent URL Parameter Changes

Frequently changing URL parameters, such as session IDs or sort filters, can create multiple versions of the same page. This not only wastes your crawl budget but also confuses search engine algorithms.

Bad Example: URLs where the session ID keeps changing, like www.example.com/page?sessionID=123 and then www.example.com/page?sessionID=124.

Correct Way: Use cookies to manage sessions instead of incorporating session IDs into URLs.

Infinite Calendars or Paginated Content

Some websites have calendars or paginated lists that can, theoretically, go on forever. For a search engine crawler, this represents a trap, with countless irrelevant pages sucking up the crawl budget.

Bad Example: An event calendar that generates a new URL for each day, forever.

Correct Way: Limit the number of future dates that are crawlable, or use the nofollow attribute for future pages beyond a reasonable limit.

User-Generated Content With No Limitations

Allowing users to generate content without limits or guidelines, such as unrestricted tagging, can result in an overproduction of low-quality or redundant pages that attract crawlers for the wrong reasons.

Bad Example: Allowing users to create tags for posts without any restrictions.

Correct Way: Implement a system that suggests existing tags or subjects, and limit the number of new tags a user can create.

Canonical Tags Pointing to the Wrong Pages

Incorrectly configured canonical tags can lead search engines to crawl and index unwanted variations of your web pages, thereby wasting your crawl budget.

Bad Example: Setting the canonical tag for www.example.com/product-blue to www.example.com/product-red.

Correct Way: Make sure the canonical tag for www.example.com/product-blue points to itself or to a generic product page, if applicable.

Orphan Pages

These orphan pages that aren’t linked to from any other part of your website, making them hard to find. Yet, some crawlers can still stumble upon these and end up trapped in a cycle of irrelevant crawling.

Bad Example: A page about a discontinued product that is unlinked from the rest of the site but still live.

Correct Way: Either remove the page and provide a 301 redirect to a relevant page or include a link to it from a relevant archive section.

Redirect Chains or Loops

These occur when one URL redirects to another, which then redirects back to the original URL or to another set of URLs in a lengthy sequence. This not only wastes crawl budget but can also result in an infinite loop that traps search engine crawlers.

Bad Example: Page A redirects to Page B, which redirects to Page C, which then redirects back to Page A.

Correct Way: Directly redirect Page A to Page C, eliminating unnecessary middle steps and avoiding loops.

Automated Internal Search Results

If your website has an internal search feature, be cautious. Without proper controls, it can generate countless pages with low-value content that could serve as crawler traps.

Bad Example: Allowing search engines to crawl and index dynamically generated internal search results like www.example.com/search?query=red+shoes.

Correct Way: Use the robots.txt file to disallow crawling of search result pages or use meta tags to indicate they should not be indexed.

Broken Links Leading to 404 Errors

While not a direct crawler trap, an abundance of broken links can exhaust the crawl budget by directing search engines to non-existent pages.

Bad Example: Dead-end links that lead nowhere and return a 404 error.

Correct Way: Regularly audit your site for broken links and either remove them or update them to point to a live page.

Hidden Links in JavaScript or AJAX

Sometimes, crawlers find URLs hidden in JavaScript or AJAX that weren’t intended for indexing. Crawling these irrelevant links wastes your crawl budget and could potentially lead to traps.

Bad Example: Links dynamically created using JavaScript that lead to low-value or duplicated content.

Correct Way: Ensure that these links have a nofollow attribute, or better yet, don’t generate them at all.

Wildcard Subdomains

If not carefully configured, wildcard subdomains can create an infinite number of duplicate content issues and crawl traps.

By familiarizing yourself with these signs and regularly auditing your website, you can take a proactive approach in identifying and resolving crawler traps, paving the way for an optimized, efficient SEO strategy.

Bad Example: Automatically generating a new subdomain for each user like user1.example.com, user2.example.com, etc.

Correct Way: Use path-based URLs, such as www.example.com/user/user1.

Avoiding Crawler Traps: Best Practices

To fix the challenges posed by crawler traps and safeguard your SEO performance, we recommend following these best practices:

Employ a Clean URL Structure

Adopt a straightforward and clean URL structure, avoiding long strings of parameters. A clean URL is easier for search engines to understand and less likely to lead to crawl errors.

Example:
Bad URL: www.example.com/products/?id=123&color=red&size=small
Good URL: www.example.com/products/red-small-shirt

How to Fix:
Most modern CMS platforms have an option for URL rewriting. Change your settings to produce more readable, hyphen-separated words.

Utilize Robots.txt File Wisely

Your robots.txt file is a powerful tool that directs search engine crawlers on where they should and shouldn’t go on your site. Proper configuration ensures that crawlers aren’t stumbling into trap areas.

Example:
Block crawling of admin pages: Disallow: /admin/

How to Fix:
Edit your robots.txt file to include rules that exclude crawlers from indexing areas of your site that aren’t essential.

Implement Canonical Tags Correctly

Canonical tags tell search engines which version of a page to consider as the ‘original.’ Make sure these tags point to the correct pages to avoid inadvertent crawling of duplicate content.

Example:
If you have multiple URLs for the same content, pick one as the canonical (preferred) version.

How to Fix:
Insert <link rel="canonical" href="https://www.example.com/page/"> in the HTML header of the non-canonical pages.

Limit User-Generated Content

While user-generated content can be valuable, too much of it without quality control can become a crawler trap. Implement guidelines and restrictions to maintain a level of uniformity and relevance.

Example:
An open forum where users can create an infinite number of topics.

How to Fix:
Implement a moderation system and possibly use a ‘NoIndex’ tag on low-value pages generated by users.

Monitor Internal Linking

Be strategic about internal linking within your site. Poorly executed internal linking can direct crawlers to irrelevant or duplicate pages.

Example:
Linking to www.example.com/products and www.example.com/products/ (notice the trailing slash).

How to Fix:
Be consistent with your internal links. Pick a format and stick to it to avoid confusing the crawlers.

Implement NoFollow and NoIndex Tags

Sometimes, you may want to deliberately prevent search engines from crawling certain pages on your site. Utilize NoFollow and NoIndex tags to make this clear to the search engines.

Example:
For pages like ‘Terms of Service,’ or ‘Privacy Policy,’ which needn’t be indexed.

How to Fix:
Include a NoIndex, NoFollow meta tag in the HTML header of these specific pages.

Implement Pagination Carefully

If you have paginated content, it’s crucial to help search engines understand the sequence and hierarchy through the use of ‘rel=prev’ and ‘rel=next’ tags. This prevents crawlers from getting caught in endless loops.

Example:
A blog with 100 pages of articles.

How to Fix:
Use rel=prev and rel=next tags to indicate the relationship between paginated pages, or consolidate articles into fewer pages.

Regularly Audit Your Site

Frequent site audits will help you identify broken links, orphan pages, and other issues that could turn into crawler traps.

Example:
Broken links or 404 errors.

How to Fix:
Utilize website audit tools to identify and fix these issues, making sure to redirect broken URLs to relevant pages.

Limit Automated Internal Search Results

Ensure that your internal search results don’t automatically generate new pages that can be crawled and indexed. This could lead to search engines crawling low-value pages.

Example:
A site search for ‘shoes’ generates a unique URL.

How to Fix:
Use robots.txt to block these URLs or employ AJAX-based solutions to avoid URL changes during site searches.

Avoid Redirect Chains and Loops

Multiple redirects or circular redirect loops can trap crawlers and waste your crawl budget. Regularly inspect your redirects to ensure they’re pointing where they should.

Example:
Page A redirects to Page B, which redirects back to Page A.

How to Fix:
Identify and remove such circular redirect loops and chains through regular auditing.

Block Dynamic Pages

Pages that only change slightly based on user input can produce many versions of essentially the same content. Block these pages from being crawled whenever possible.

Example:
A news feed page where the content changes daily.

How to Fix:
Use JavaScript to load dynamic elements after the HTML page has loaded, making it less likely for crawlers to index the changing content.

Manage Cookies and Sessions

If your site uses session IDs, make sure they’re not part of the URL, as this can generate a new URL every time a session is initiated, leading to crawl issues.

Example:
Session IDs incorporated into URLs.

How to Fix:
Move session IDs to cookies or employ URL rewriting to keep the URL static.

Limit Infinite Scroll and Calendar Functions

If your site has functions like infinite scroll or perpetual calendars, try to limit how many pages of these features can be crawled to prevent traps.

Example:
A blog with an infinite scroll feature.

How to Fix:
Implement a ‘Load More’ button after a specific number of articles to break the loop for crawlers.

Be Cautious With Subdomains

Too many subdomains, especially those generated dynamically, can serve as a hotbed for crawler traps. Only create subdomains when absolutely necessary and ensure they are properly linked and indexed.

Example:
Using subdomains for country-specific content, like us.example.com and uk.example.com.

How to Fix:
If subdomains are necessary, make sure to implement hreflang tags and separate sitemap files to aid search engines in understanding the different versions.

By adhering to these best practices, you put yourself in a strong position to minimize the impact of crawler traps on your website. It’s about taking a proactive, rather than a reactive, approach to your SEO strategy.

The Ultimate Goal: A Streamlined User Experience

At the end of the day, SEO is about providing a high-quality, valuable experience for your users. When your site is free from crawler traps, not only do search engines rank you higher, but users also find what they’re looking for more efficiently. This symbiotic relationship between good SEO practices and excellent user experience is what will ultimately drive your online success.

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jay kang

Jay Kang, entrepreneur and SEO expert, is the driving force behind innovative platforms like linkilo.co and seorankserp.com. His latest creation, ProductReview.Tools, provides affiliate marketers with a powerful WordPress plugin for crafting high-converting reviews. Committed to empowering marketers, Jay continues to make a positive impact in the digital marketing space.

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