Developing an SEO-Friendly Website : Content Management System (CMS) Issues

1/6/2011 9:08:43 AM
When looking to publish a new site, many publishers may wonder whether they need to use a CMS, and if so, how to ensure that it is SEO-friendly.

It is first essential to determine whether a CMS is necessary before embarking on a web development project. You can use the flowchart in Figure 1 to help guide you through the process.

Figure 1. Flowchart to determine whether you need a CMS

Due to the inexpensiveness of customizable, free platforms such as Drupal, Joomla, WordPress, and Mambo, it is increasingly rare for a publisher to develop a static site, even when a CMS isn’t required.

The next step involves understanding how to ensure that a CMS will be search-engine-friendly. Here is a list of basic SEO issues that frequently plague CMSs (both prebuilt and custom-made). By dealing with these, you will ensure a relatively smooth platform for content delivery.

Title tag customization and rules

A search-engine-friendly CMS must allow for title tags to not only be customized on a page-specific level, but also enable rules for particular sections of a website. For example, if the title tag always has to start with your site name followed by a colon followed by your article title, you’re sunk—at least as far as your SEO is concerned. You should be able to revise the formulas used to generate the title tags across your site to make them more search-optimal.

Static, keyword-rich URLs

URLs have historically been the most problematic SEO issue for CMS platforms. Nowadays, search-friendly CMSs should feature custom URL creation. In WordPress, a custom URL is referred to as a post slug. Figure 2 is an example from SEOmoz’s custom-built CMS.

Notice how the first line allows you to create the title of the post, and the second enables manual sculpting of the URL structure (and an automatic Generate button if you prefer to simply use the post title).

Figure 2. Example of custom URL creation

Meta tag customization

Being able to implement custom meta descriptions and meta robots tags is critical. Enabling editorial control is essential for a good CMS.

Enabling custom HTML tags

A good CMS has to offer extra functionality on HTML tags for things such as NoFollow on links, or <hx> tags for headlines and subheadlines. These can be built-in features accessible through menu options, or the CMS can simply allow a manual editing of HTML in the text editor window when required. Having no H1 tags on a given page is not desirable. Too many H1 tags on the page are not desirable. Low-value content (such as the publication date) marked up as an H1 is not desirable. The article title is typically the best content to have wrapped in an H1.

Internal anchor text flexibility

To be “optimized” rather than simply search-friendly, customizing the anchor text on internal links is critical. Rather than simply making all links in a site’s architecture the page’s title, a great CMS should be flexible enough to handle custom input from the administrators as to the anchor text of category-level or global navigation links.

Intelligent categorization structure

Another problem is poor category structure. When designing an information architecture for a website, you should not place limits on how pages are accessible due to the CMS’s inflexibility. CMSs that offer customizable navigation panels will be the most successful in this respect.

Pagination controls

Pagination can be the bane of a website’s search rankings, so controlling it through inclusion of more items per page, more contextually relevant anchor text (e.g., not “next,” “prev,” and page numbers), and careful use of NoFollow and meta NoIndex tags will make your important content get more link juice and crawl attention.

301-redirect functionality

Many CMSs sadly lack this critical feature, disallowing the proper redirection of content when necessary; 301s are valuable for expired content, for pages that have a newer version, and for dodging keyword cannibalization issues similar to those we discussed earlier in this chapter.

XML/RSS pinging

Although it is primarily useful for blogs, any content, from articles to products to press releases, can be issued in a feed, and by utilizing quick, accurate pinging of the major feed services, you limit some of your exposure to duplicate content spammers who pick up your feeds and ping the major services quickly in the hopes of beating you to the punch.

Image-handling and alt attributes

Alt attributes are a clear must-have from an SEO perspective, serving as the “anchor text” when an image is used as a link (note that text links are much better than images with alt attributes for links, but if you must use image links you do want to have the alt attribute implemented), and providing relevant, indexable content for the search engines. Images in a CMS’s navigational elements should preferably use CSS image replacement rather than mere alt attributes.

CSS exceptions

The application of CSS styles in a proper CMS should allow for manual exceptions so that a user can modify how a strong headline or list element appears visually. If the CMS does not offer this, writers may opt out of using proper semantic markup for presentation purposes, which would not be a good thing.

Static caching options

Many CMSs currently offer caching options, which are a particular boon if a page is receiving a high level of traffic from social media portals or news sites. A bulky CMS often makes dozens of extraneous database connections, which can overwhelm a server if caching is not in place, killing potential inbound links and media attention.

URLs free of tracking parameters and session IDs

Sticking session or tracking information such as the user’s click path into the URL is deadly for SEO. It usually leads to incomplete indexation and duplicate content issues.

Customizable URL structure

If the default URL structure of the CMS doesn’t suit your needs, you should be able to change it. For example, if you don’t want /archives/ in the URLs of all your archived articles, you should be able to remove it. Or if you want to reference the article name instead of the article’s database ID in the URL, you should be able to do it.

301 redirects to a canonical URL

Duplicate content is the bane of many a dynamic website owner. Automatic handling of this by the CMS through the use of 301 redirects is a must.

Static-looking URLs

The most palatable URLs to spiders are the ones that look like they lead to static pages—no query strings in the URL.

Keywords in URLs

Keywords in your URLs can help your rankings.

RSS feeds

The CMS should auto-create RSS feeds to help your site rank in Google Blog Search and other feed engines.

Tagging and tag clouds

This Web 2.0 feature is powerful for SEO, thanks in large part to the keyword-rich text links.

Multilevel categorization structure

It is awfully limiting to your site structure and internal hierarchical linking structure to have a CMS that doesn’t allow you to nest subcategories into categories, sub-subcategories into subcategories, and so on.

Paraphrasable excerpts

Duplicate content issues are exacerbated on dynamic sites such as blogs when the same content is displayed on Permalink pages, category pages, archives-by-date pages, tag pages, and the home page. Crafting unique content for the excerpt and having that content display on all locations except for the Permalink page will help strengthen your Permalink page as unique content.

Breadcrumb navigation

Breadcrumb (drill-down) navigation is great for SEO because it reinforces your internal hierarchical linking structure with keyword-rich text links.

Meta NoIndex tags for low-value pages

Even if you use NoFollow attributes in links to these pages, other people may still link to them, which carries a risk of ranking those pages above some of your more valuable content.

Keyword-rich intro copy on category-level pages

Keyword-rich introductory copy helps set a stable keyword theme for the page, rather than relying on the latest article or blog post to be the most prominent text on the page.

NoFollow links in comments

If you allow visitors to post comments and do not NoFollow the links, your site will be a spam magnet. Heck, you’ll probably be a spam magnet anyway, but you won’t risk losing PageRank to spammers if you use NoFollow attributes.

Customizable anchor text on navigational links

“Contact,” “About Us,” “Read More,” “Full Article,” and so on make for lousy anchor text—at least from an SEO standpoint. Hopefully, your CMS allows you to improve such links to make the anchor text more keyword-rich.

XML Sitemap generator

Having your CMS generate your XML Sitemap can save a lot of hassle, as opposed to trying to generate one with a third-party tool.

XHTML validation

Although HTML validation is not a ranking signal, it is desirable to have the CMS automatically check for malformed HTML, as search engines may end up seeing a page differently from how it renders on the screen and accidentally consider navigation to be part of the content or vice versa.

Pingbacks, trackbacks, comments, and antispam mechanisms

The problem with comments/trackbacks/pingbacks is that they are vectors for spam, so if you have one or more of these features enabled, you will be spammed. Therefore, effective spam prevention in the form of Akismet, Mollom, or Defensio is a must.

If you want more information on picking a quality CMS, some great web resources are already out there, among them and, to help manage this task.

1. Selecting a CMS

There are many factors to consider when choosing an existing CMS. Many CMSs are free, but some of them are proprietary with a license cost per site. The majority of CMSs were not designed with security, stability, search friendliness, and scalability in mind, though in recent years a few vendors have developed excellent CMSs that have search friendliness as their primary focus. Many were developed to fit a certain market niche, but can be expanded to fit other purposes. Some are no longer maintained. Many are supported and developed primarily by hobbyists who don’t particularly care if you’re having trouble getting them installed and configured. Some are even intentionally made to be difficult to install and configure so that you’ll be encouraged to pay the developers a consulting fee to do it all for you.

Once your CMS is up and running, ease of administration is a consideration. For instance, the CMS MODx would be very tough for a newbie to administer compared to If you just want to get content on the Web, Blogger will do about 90% of the most important SEO features, and any nontechnical user can use it—which makes it really attractive compared to MODx.

Selecting a CMS is an important process. If you make the wrong choice, you will doom your site to failure. Like most software, CMSs are a moving target—what’s missing today may be a new feature tomorrow. In addition, just because a feature exists doesn’t mean it is the default option, so in many instances the desired functionality will need to be enabled and possibly customized to work to your specifications.

2. Third-Party CMS Add-ons

Many CMS platforms offer many third-party plug-ins or add-ons that extend the core functionality of the CMS. In the WordPress plug-in directory alone there are nearly 6,000 plug-ins. Plug-ins provide a simple way to add new SEO features and functionality, making the CMS much more flexible and future-proof. It is particularly helpful when there is an active community developing plug-ins. An active community also comes in very handy in providing free technical support when things go wrong; and when bugs and security vulnerabilities crop up, it is important to have an active developer base to solve those issues quickly.

CMS add-ons can also come in the form of independent software installed on your web server or hosted services. Such tools come in many forms, discussion forums, customer reviews, and user polls. Discussion forums, for example, come in two forms, with bbPress, which is installed software and is optimized for search, and vbulletin, which is a hosted solution and therefore more difficult to optimize for search.

The problem with hosted solutions is that you are helping to build the service providers’ link authority and not your own, and you have much less control over optimizing the content. Some hosted solutions can pose even bigger problems if the content and functionality are embedded into your site with JavaScript. Examples of this are leading customer review solutions such as BazaarVoice and PowerReviews.

One novel solution to the JavaScript problem is to execute the JavaScript, extract the content from its encrypted form, and present it in plain-text format so that the search engines can see it. This does require programming expertise to execute, but one tool that allows you to do this in a more automated fashion is Netconcepts’ GravityStream.
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