Nowadays, a great many websites are powered by a content management system (CMS) along with a back-end database. And for good reason. It’s too unwieldy to code HTML on a page-by-page basis, as you expand your content offerings to the thousands or tens of thousands of pages (and beyond). Content managements systems to the rescue! But there can be downsides too.
My biggest gripe with the content management systems of today is their lack of SEO features. And I’m not talking about meta keywords, which are a complete waste of time.
I’m patiently waiting for the day when a CMS-based site can rival static HTML sites in SEO. No bones about it, hand-coded sites offer complete, granular control over each page, and every single tag contained within. That’s real flexibility. Too bad they don’t scale. Therefore, the SEO practitioner is going to need a CMS that will at least be cooperative.
Which SEO features should you be shopping for in a CMS? Glad you asked. Here’s my wish list of features, broken down into critical, important, desirable and optional…
Critical CMS features
- URLs free of tracking parameters and session IDs — Sticking session or tracking information such as the user’s clickpath into the URL is deadly for SEO. It usually leads to incomplete indexation and duplicate content issues.
- H1 tags — No H1 tags on a given page is not desirable. Too many H1 tags on the page is 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.
- 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 canonical URL — Duplicate content is the bane of the existence of many a dynamic website owner. Automatic handling of this by the CMS through the use of 301 redirects is a must.
Important CMS features
- Static-looking URLs — The most palatable URLs to spiders are the ones that look like they lead to static pages, i.e. no query strings.
- Keywords in URLs — Keywords in your URLs can help your rankings. It would be a shame to miss out on the opportunity this presents, if your CMS doesn’t support keyword-rich URLs (e.g. only article IDs in the URL).
- RSS feeds — RSS feeds are essential if you want to reach bloggers; email newsletters won’t cut it for the hip, Web 2.0 crowd. Hopefully this feature also comes integrated with Feedburner, for improved visibility on RSS feed consumption by your subscribers.
- Pings — This lets blog and feed search engines like Google Blog Search know you have published new content so they can come and grab your latest RSS feed.
- Tagging and tag clouds — This Web 2.0 feature is powerful for SEO, thanks in large part to the keyword-rich text links. This is your opportunity to rejig your internal linking structure and how you flow PageRank without having to completely gut your taxonomy/ontology.
- Individually customizable title tags and H1 tags — Each title tag should be decoupled from the post/article/product title. Same goes for H1 tags. That way anchor text can be varied from H1’s which can, in turn, be varied from the title tag. Thus, you can work in additional keywords (synonyms etc.) into the H1, and even more into the title tag — without spamming of course!
- Multi-level categorization structure — It’s 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.
- Canonical tags — Although I don’t trust Google to always reliably obey this new tag, it is definitely worthwhile having it available as an option if the need arises (hopefully that need won’t arise if you have 301’s in all the right places).
Desirable CMS features
- 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 the permalink page will help strengthen your permalink page as unique content.
- Breadcrumb navigation — It reinforces the hierarchical nature of your internal linking structure using text links which are hopefully keyword-rich.
- Flexible rules for automatically generating title tags — 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 “recipes” used to generate the title tags across your site to make them more optimal for search.
- Page-specific meta descriptions — A cardinal sin of dynamic websites is using the same meta description across all the pages. This can be a contributor to duplicate content issues.
- Meta noindex for low-value pages — Even if you nofollow links to these pages, other people may still link to these and you run the risk of ranking those pages above some of your more valuable content.
- Keyword-rich intro copy on category-level pages and tag pages — Keyword-rich introductory copy helps set a stable keyword theme/focus for the page, rather than relying on the latest article, product, or blog post to be the most prominent text on the page.
- Granular control over nofollows on links — If your site allows the posting of user-generated content through “comments,” your site will be a spam-magnet if you don’t nofollow the links posted by commenters. Heck, you’ll probably be a spam magnet anyways, it’ll just be worse for you without the nofollows. Additionally, regardless of your stance on PageRank sculpting and its value for SEO, you should be able to selectively decide when and when not to pass PageRank to an internal page within your site.
- Customizable anchor text on navigational links — “Contact”, “About Us”, “Read More”, “Full Article” etc. all 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.
- Mass Edit, or Bulk Upload (or both) — It’s not efficient to go to each page’s Edit screen. Instead, mass modify the titles, H1’s, filenames, and perhaps even meta descriptions, within Excel or a “mass edit” web interface (like the one provided by my SEO Title Tag plugin for WordPress.
- Declared search term — When you decide on a page’s primary keyword focus, you should be able to tuck away that crucial bit of information somewhere where it will be safe from the prying eyes of competitors. That means it should not be parked anywhere in the HTML — including the meta keywords tag — since all a resourceful competitor would need to do is “View Page Source” within their web browser. There should be a field in the database, displayed and accessible to your editors/administrators within the admin interface of your CMS.
- Auto 301 redirect previous versions of URLs — Imagine updating a permalink or product page URL (e.g. “post slug”) multiple times. Each previous version of a URL could lead the search engines to discover duplicate pages if you’re not careful. Why worry about these old URLs and whether they will stop working or will create duplicate content; let the CMS “worry” about this instead and seamlessly 301 previous iterations to the latest version.
- Google Product Search feed — If your CMS is powering an online catalog site, then this feature is for you. It can be a real timesaver. And if you are an online retailer not submitting your products into Google Base, heed this warning: neglect Google Product Search (formerly Froogle) at your peril!
Optional CMS features
- XML Sitemaps generator — A XML sitemap can be submitted to the major engines to improve indexation, but it’s usually unnecessary if you have a search engine friendly CMS; the engines will usually do a good job crawling and discovering your site’s URLs on their own. Google will use your Sitemaps file as a canonicalization signal, but hopefully you don’t need it since your CMS isn’t generating duplicate pages.
- XHTML validation — When entering your content, 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 consider navigation to be part of the content or vice versa.
- Pingbacks, Trackbacks, Comments and Anti-spam mechanisms — The problem with comments/trackbacks/pingbacks is that they are vectors for spam, so if you have one (comments/trackbacks/pingbacks), you will have the other (spam). Therefore, effective spam prevention (e.g. Akismet, Defensio, Mollom) is a must.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.
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