How to Build an Effective Footer

Footers are one of the most often underused, misused and abused areas of a website. In this post, I’ll be taking a look at footers and passing on some tips to help you get more out of them.

Link Brothel

Have you ever visited a website where they have 50, 100 or even 150 links down in the footer area? Then, friends, you have seen a link brothel. Search engines look at your website and try to isolate the template from the content, and weight different areas differently. They also try to break down the template and isolate masthead, sidebars, and footers and weight them differently (see How to Silo Your Website: The Footer). So by plunking down all of those static links, you aren’t helping yourself. My recommendation: keep the number of links in your footer to a minimum–under 25 if possible. You better have a really good reason if you have more than 50.

Dynamic Footers

One tip to make make footers more interesting to search engines is to make them dynamic. By dynamic, I mean mix up the content. You could include links to your 5 most recent blogs posts, add links to the 5 pages you updated last, or add links to your 5 most popular posts of the week, your 5 most emailed posts, or 5 of your featured posts. The key is to introduce and expose content that is changing on a regular basis to search engines. The New York Times does an excellent job of this in their footer. They may have added images, but the concept is the same.

New York Times Footer

Date Tagging and Crawl Debugging

If you have a large site, it can sometimes be helpful to tell what parts of the site Google doesn’t “like” and doesn’t crawl frequently. If you add the current month and year into the footer with a bit of unique text like “page generated on Jan 2011,” and then come back two months later and do a search for [site:example.com “page generated Jan 2011”]. It will give you a listing of pages that haven’t been crawled in over 60 days. It’s a low tech but easy way to figure out where you have crawl issues. WARNING: don’t go with a full date or Google might use it date tag your pages.

No-Follow and Pagerank Sculpting

Full disclosure: I used to be a strong advocate of no-follow and pagerank sculpting. I have since changed my position and no longer feel that it’s an effective tactic. So if you are using no-follow to keep search engines out of things like your contact page, privacy policy, terms of service page or similar pages, please stop. It’s likely doing you more harm than good. However there are some instances when you want to use no-follow. Do you have any login links, such as gift registries, customer accounts, or admin pages? If you do, those are pages you want to keep the search engines out of and where you should use no-follow. Additionally you should use robots.txt to block those pages as well.

Usability and Font Sizing

While this has nothing to do with SEO, usability is something everyone should be concerned about. When constructing your footer it’s ok to use a font size that’s slightly smaller than your normal font size. That said, micro fonts are bad, no matter what that beret-wearing designer tells you. You can use a lighter or different color font, but don’t make it invisible: that just makes it look like you are trying to hide something. If you have a lot of items in your footer, group them into logical categories or hierarchies, don’t be scatterbrained about it. Use sub-headers to make it easy to figure out. Use standard naming conventions: if you have a contact form, name it “contact” or “contact us”; don’t be cute and use “talk to us.” You don’t want to violate the “Don’t Make Me Think” Principle.

So let’s recap. What are some ways to make your footer more effective:

  • Limit the number of links, keeping only essential elements.
  • Introduce a limited number of dynamic elements.
  • Include a limited date on your pages to track crawling issues.
  • Use no-follow to keep spiders out of protected content, not for pagerank sculpting.
  • Organize your footer into categories, using sub-headers to keep things clear.
  • Use smaller and lighter fonts with care. Don’s sacrifice usability for looks.

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