Happy SEO Christmas: Vatican.VA Site Review

Ah Christmas!..

Don’t know about you, but I’ve managed to get myself a good distance over my fighting weight. Also – something strange has happened to the space time continuum, that has nothing to do with the Doctor Who Christmas special. I’ve lost a day somewhere. It is New Years Eve tomorrow and I have less than 24 hours to lose that weight and decide which party to go to. Or I could just stay in, scoff the remaining stilton and make a list of resolutions. (No. 1. Stop counting “hoovered the rug” as an excercise class.)

I digress. Christmas isn’t all about me. It’s about you. It’s about giving, growing, learning and (ahem) religious tradition. (And with the subtlety of Katie Price, she dumps a segueway to the point.) Ding Dong Merrily on High, let’s get cracking!

First, a friendly warning! Visit the site after you read the post, but do not go there now. You will spend days, lost in the labyrinthine tunnels and passages of inconsistent protocols, of sub-domains on parallel with folder structures, with shifts in look and feel, style and functionality. If you do go, take a turkey sandwich with you and an Enigma machine.

1. The User Pilgrimage

I searched for “Vatican” “The Vatican” and “The Holy See,”  and top of the pops I get…

Google SERP for "Vatican"

Holy SERP!

I’m using my dutty browser at the moment as you can see. No big deal at this stage, as I’m thinking around the user paths-to-entry. Personally I tend to adopt a WWMD approach. (What would Mum do?) My Mum would probably realise that any listing above Wikipedia, is truly the omnipotent and all powerful listing.

What I’m trying to get at is, though it is highly unlikely that a user has seen a .va TLD before (it’s the smallest Nation State to have a TLD and only 23 official Vatican sites have this extension); there are some pretty clear signs of legitimacy here.

[Random Aside: I had intended this post to be a light-hearted review with a tenuous link to Christmas; however things got very "Da Vinci Code" when researching the domain history.  It seems the history of The Vatican website is littered with episodes of domain squatting, and 'brand-jacking'. For the record, I called Gerry, owner of Vatican.org and the number did not exist; nor did the email address. He’s had the domain since '99, so perhaps the contact details are no longer relevant. I was interested to know if there had been any approach from The Vatican in respect to the domain. Had I gotten through, I would have asked if Gerry had any personal plans for the domain, and if he had any political or otherwise motive in retaining it.

When it comes to http://vatican.com,  this domain is privacy protected, though it is being commercially utilised, with a Google parked domains feed. On landing, we're shown a list of commercial keywords, which when clicked, generate a search and results shown are a full commercial implementation (ten sponsored links, ten algo, per page.)

Think that’s mercenary? Try www.madeleinemccann.com.

Anyways; I’m not about to debate the rights of The Vatican, to any TLD variant of 'vatican'. I was just genuinely surprised that they didn’t own all the domains. I hear they're quite powerful.

Okay... switching to clean browser, cookies off, etc. On to the Holy See!

2. On-site, first impressions

I land on a ‘select your language’ switchboard, which is pretty squinty on the eye, with an ancient parchment sort of background design.

Language Selection Switchboard

The Da Vinci Scrawls

On selecting my language I get to another switchboard style page, with four different navigation elements, all set around a circular graphic, which again has the look of a Da Vinci sketch. It is unclear as to which of the four lines (or semi-circles) of navigation has priority, if indeed any. Nor is it clear to me if there is any commonality between items on the same navigation ‘curve’, though the left-hand curve does seem to be for Vatican buildings/Institutions. Some navigation headings are images, which reveal on rollover, some are abbreviations and some are in Latin!

The Da Vinci Scrolls

Da Vinci Scrolls

Holy Sepulchre! I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. Let’s just say that there’s an Information Architecture job, which could make mapping the human genome look like the vegetarian option.

3. Design and Usability

Inextricably linked and often overlooked; trying to SEO a site with poor usability is a waste of everyone’s time. So what if the search engines can see the content, if the user can’t?

We’re looking for a clear navigation structure, above the fold and with rollover states. Main headings should contain logical sub-headings, and so on to the next level. Calls to action should be consistent and clear, and fonts should be highly legible and 12pt minimum. A site with a lot of content needs a good search facility; and best position for search engagement is top and centre or top right.

Looking at www.vatican.va usability and site’ search box, perhaps the Google ‘domain-restrict’ [site:] under the first listing on the SERP wasn’t just another example of trying to serve as much of the webs’ content on a G SERP as possible?

4. URLs

On the switchboard page, post the language selection page, each navigable element seems to have its own rulebook (or set of commandments’ – *coughs* not funny *coughs*).

We have on the left hand ‘curve’ navigation: (possibly buildings/institutions);

http://asv.vatican.va/home_en.htm

http://www.vaticanlibrary.va/

http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/MV_Home.html

http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/institutions_connected/lev/index.htm

On the inner circle (to the right of His Holiness’ Pope Benedict XVI):

http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/index.htm

http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/index.htm

http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/index.htm

http://www.vatican.va/various/index_it.htm

http://www.vatican.va/news_services/index.htm

http://www.vatican.va/archive/index.htm

Okay, I think I can leave it there and omit the remaining two right-hand navigational ‘curves’. We’re seeing a picture here and it ain’t pretty. We have subdomains and directory styles all sharing the same ‘curve’. We have completely separate domains (vaticanlibrary.va) and we have links to second level folders on apparently top level navigation headings. Quite the mishmash!

Another thing to note: the navigation image and heading is often meaningless, e.g. “various”.

We’re ideally looking for meaningful names for navigation headings, which should correspond with meaningful URLs. (Not exactly, but some consistency and relevancy is required).

URLs of the same type, should be used for sites or sub-folders of the same type. So it is not a problem that they have used sub-domains for the apparent institutions, however, perhaps ensuring all of the Vatican Institutions, have a sub-dom URL and are titled as such would help.

Different URLs such as http://vaticanlibrary.va (and I’m sure there are more) might be more logically housed in footer links to “Other Vatican Websites”.

As for the remainder of the navigation, if a directory/sub-folder style is in play, then consistency in the on- page position of the navigable item and consistency in the level of the corresponding URL would be nice.

5. Links

2,442,479 inbound links shown in (the soon to be missed) siteexplorer; including many authority sites, such as Theopedia (who knew?) Holy links from authority sites! (Literally.) There are some 200,000 internal links looking at the difference in ‘All pages’ and ‘except from this Domain.’

6. Code, Tags, MetaData

I’ve said it before, I’m no technical expert. I’m my company’ founder (I do the invoicing and make good builders tea); however even I can tell this is basic. No code standards compliance such as W3C, there are no header tags, (then again there are not really any headers to tag, but such things could always go on the Da-Vinci scrawls).

When we get to the meta-keywords on the homepage, it’s a good job no search engine is looking at this stuff.

In terms of meta-titles and descriptions, it gets as complicated as the URL structure. I’m coming to the conclusion that each page has been created by a different person or agency, and in different centuries. Sometimes there is metadata, sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes it is multi-lingual, sometimes Latin.

Okay; we’re looking at the website of possibly the largest religious institution in the world, where the domain is the same as the TLD and there are 2MM inbound links. I guess the site has been around since the 80s. Who needs on-page or consistent good-practise in build; or clean code for that matter???

My Final Confession:

Forgive me SEOs (or whatever you’re called now, if you’re following Scobles’ last crusade) for I have sinned. I’ve missed a whole bunch of stuff out, as I can no longer see straight. I’ve not addressed the content, as I have no idea who this site is aimed at; even having spent days looking at it. Ordinarily we would know through customer consultation as to whom the site content is aimed at and be able to identify relevant keywords; assess content organisation, relevancy of keywords within content; plus the flow-thru from section to section. Oh and the error page has been ex-communicated.

If you fancy a grail quest: have a go yourself; though be more patient and noble than I!

(Please bring me an Egg Nog; I am too weak to move. I’m somewhere in Latinitus, Opus Fundatum in Civitae Vaticana. It’s like Tron in here, but with robes.)

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11 Responses to “Happy SEO Christmas: Vatican.VA Site Review”

  1. Wow! Fantastic post – fun and funny and just great! I think that sites like this often show the confidence that people have (wrongly or rightly) that Google can overcome any design flaws.

    I saw a site completely in javascript once and it was completely invisible to Google. They fixed it eventually but it just goes to show that you need to have decent design and some semblance of logic whether you are the Vatican or a small shop in Soho ;-)

  2. Julie Joyce says:

    Hi Nichola. I hope you have a nice place to hide for the next decade since I bet the Pope’s gonna send a scary monk assassin after you. I mean, that’s what I would do if I were the Pope. Good luck!

  3. Kurt says:

    Let me say that up front, that I am not a great designer. However, the main navigation is hideous. I can just see my devout, 84 year old grandmother twisting her neck to make out “Saints Blessed”.

    They should have at least made the “sitemap” button horizontal text.

    The lack of a rollover state on the main navigation is shameful, and the left-side navigation is a mortal sin. (Check out the Roman Curia page if you want an idea of how messed up this really is.

    Thanks for taking the time to break this down.

  4. Jean Wolfe says:

    Maybe they just decided they were an authority site like no other with a direct hotline and didn’t worry about the detail! Perhaps you could offer to help?
    Nichola what a great post to liven up my computer on a rainy day between Christmas and New Year..
    Many thanks and a bonus newus annus to all (?)

  5. @Judith @Kurt – thanks. You’ve reinforced my main point. No matter who or what you are, people are looking for you online. (In fact 1 million global searches a month for the term “vatican” alone, according to Google external Keyword tool). I can’t imagine all of those people are clergy, or liturgical scholars. I’m sure many are like @Kurt’s Grandmother; looking to find information about the current Pope, or perhaps plan a pilgrimage tour of the city.

    @Jean – I’m pleased you found my post entertaining. Really nice to hear! Not sure, I’d have the required patience (or staff numbers) to take this one on though ;-)

    @Julie – no problem. I’ve seriously Tronned myself into the tertiary level navigation. Not even John Rambo could find me…

  6. Julie Joyce says:

    Nice Rambo mention! You know I did love Colonel Trautman…

  7. Hobo says:

    Real enjoyable post :)

    It’s an old site indeed (1997-03-25 according to meta) so it might be a bit unfair on picking it apart.

    I thought the lack of creator meta was interesting though:

    Id have had fun with that….

  8. @Hobo Glad you enjoyed it.

    Yep 97 in the meta, my remark about “around since the 80s” was just a flippant gag. But trust me – I stopped waaayyyyy short of picking the site apart.

    I’m glad you picked up on the creator meta, or rather lack thereof. I’d thought about it; but decided that I have the ability to cause great offence at the best of times and should stay away from any discussion of the content theme (physical or meta-physical.)

    But go on… you can have fun in the comments if you wanna??? ;-)

  9. Luci says:

    Lol, funny post but I think your point stands – that site is… awful. As Kurt says, it’s especially the lack of rollover states that gets me. I knew I was over what was supposed to be a link (just on the first ‘switchboard’ for language) and yet I wasn’t quite sure!
    Ok, the site has been around since 1997, but it has been updated since then – there’s a Christmas 2009 banner so it’s not like it’s forgotten about or is no longer accessed by anybody. Maybe you could sort work for them to help sort it out? :)

  10. @ Luci – I saw an email come in that said “comment from Luci on SEO-Chicks” and I panicked and thought “I bet Luci is Italian and short for Lucia or Luciano, and they’re going to berate me for blasphemy”.

    So, sorry my response is late; but now you know why ;-)

    Yep, even putting the more technical SEO aspects aside the site has the worst usability that I’ve seen in years.

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