Although the interrelationship between SEO and CMS is probably one of the most complicated topics when it comes to web design mistakes that can hurt your search engine optimization efforts, it is also one of the most important things to get right upfront.
Why SEO is Fundamental to CMS Selection
In this day and age of relatively cheap (including many free) content management systems (CMS), it’s no wonder why so many businesses and organizations are choosing to forgo a typical static HTML site in favor of a full featured web platform capable of many dynamic and advanced features straight out of the box.
There’s no doubt, content management systems are a quick, powerful, and affordable way to get on to the web in an advanced way, but as they say nothing ever comes free and the same is true of content management systems. They do not come without their challenges, particularly in terms of how well they can be tuned for search engine optimization.
The Problem with Content Management Systems and SEO
As a search engine optimization specialist, I’ve had the pleasure of optimizing some of the more popular content management systems like Joomla and WordPress. I’ve also been asked to estimate search engine optimization projects for some fairly esoteric content management systems. In the process, I’ve identified some of the key issues that exist with many of the systems out there.
The main issues with content management systems are unfortunately a result of their greatest strength – the ability to quickly and easily create and deploy content. A CMS is a publishing tool, first and foremost, and on that point it cannot fail. As a result, it has to be relatively simple to use. But with all that usability goodness, the ability to continually bend and mold to the ever changing search engine landscape was certain to be overlooked.
Of course in some situations, that’s perfectly fine. Maybe you don’t care about search engine visitors finding your site. Maybe the ability to manage content efficiently across your organization is the primary goal (as would be the case with an intranet). However for many businesses, free search engine traffic is the lifeblood of the website and generating sales opportunities and needs to be given top priority when selecting a CMS.
Fortunately, some of the content management systems we discuss and recommend have been able to strike the delicate but important balance between design aesthetics, usability, and search engine friendliness.
How to Choose an SEO friendly CMS
Choosing a CMS is not all about SEO. There are many other factors to bear in mind including cost, support, usability, aesthetics, syndication tools, and performance. Ultimately, the goal is to strike a healthy balance between your organization’s requirements, your audience’s requirements, and the search engines’ requirements.
A search engine friendly CMS should have most if not all of the following attributes. The “why it’s important” of many of these specific points will be covered in more detail in future posts, but for now this should serve as a good start when evaluating a platform yourself or developing a list of questions to ask a potential web designer or CMS vendor.
Checklist: What to Look For in a Search Engine Friendly CMS
- Size of the supporting community. A massive user base and developer base usually means that you’ll be able to find the components and resources you need to SEO your CMS quickly and affordably.
- Support for customization of Title tags, Meta tags, image Alt tags, and link rel=canonical tags on a per-page (or per-image) basis.
- Control of Meta Robots tag on a per-page basis.
- Support for static, customizable URLs (sometimes called permalinks).
- Automatic link management. Moving a page to a new location shouldn’t require a manual site-wide update of links pointing to that page.
- Automatic updating of a sitemap.xml file when site content is added or changed.
- Support for a custom 404 (page-not-found) page.
- Availability of search engine friendly design themes and/or support for tweaking a theme to make it more optimized for search engines.
- Ability to customize the link anchor text in content embedded links that point to other pages internal and external to your site.
- Flexibility to add custom attributes to the HTML tags that define the structure of the page. This is particularly useful for adding the rel=nofollow attribute to internal or external links as required.
- Support for web 2.0 and community oriented features such as blogs, forums, and social tagging and bookmarking.
- Support for custom URL redirection (typically using a 301 redirect). Sometimes this can be accomplished by using mod_rewrite and editing the .htaccess file, but that can get complicated. Some CMS platforms provide a much easier and elegant way to manage redirections directly through the administrative user interface.
Some Recommended Content Management Systems for SEO
The following content management systems have a reputation in the search engine optimization community for being particularly well suited for search engines. Some work reasonably well straight out of the box but most will need to be customized to truly embrace SEO best practices.
- WordPress (Traditionally a blogging tool, but makes for a nice lightweight CMS)
- Expression Engine
What’s your number one choice for an SEO CMS? Let us know in the comments below.