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Dear CMS: Don't Hinder My Search Results

by Jim McFadyen

Whether you're an established SEO or an aspiring one, it's safe to say we all understand the importance of content. As the web continues to grow at an astounding rate and Web sites expand in scope, there is a growing need to house and manage massive amounts of content.

Content management systems (CMS) come into play here. Many CMS solutions are available, ranging greatly in complexity and cost. Regardless of size and price, many tools have the same problems when it comes to SEO.

Common Technical Issues

URLs: Setting up your URLs to maximize SEO can be impeded by a CMS. Not only does this cause diminished SEO benefits, but in some situations, a CMS can also cause problems. Some systems use parameters to uniquely identify pages or employ other unique identifiers such as numbers for file names in the URL. These methods neither enhance SEO nor general web usability.

Intelligent CMS solutions will accommodate ways to set up directory structures and file names that allow the use of keywords in the URLs to help with your SEO. This is a more intuitive method of organizing of a website. Caution must be used however, as some CMS implementations will allow the creation of unique URLs for your pages, while still making it possible to reach the pages via the default method.

By allowing both the optimized URLs and the URLs made up of a parameter or other ID, this introduces an entirely new set of SEO inhibitors, which manifest themselves as duplicate content issues.

File Management: Most CMS tools offer basic file management, but unless the proposed architecture is well planned out, it may cause problems. If you update documents, such as PDFs or other downloadable files on a regular basis, you might be forced to upload new file names.

This can create a bloated file system and cause additional maintenance overhead, because you have to update the sitemap.xml each time you upload a new document. Another possible issue that arises from a poorly built file management system is server caching.

Server Errors: Another technical issue to consider is how the CMS handles server errors. Some CMS tools will handle custom 404 error pages by responding with a server code 200 success. This is problematic to the way search engines manage pages and server codes.

It will also prevent the verification of the site with Google Webmaster Tools using the file upload method. Besides being problematic for search engines, this is also not a best practice technical implementation.

How Can an SEO Overcome these Technical Issues?

If your technology team is shopping for a CMS, you must make yourself a part of the process. When you request inclusion in the selection process, your technology team will appreciate your list of additional requirements. In most cases, your needs will not contradict the technical requirements.

Key SEO Requirements
Unique Title & Meta TagsYour CMS must have the ability to create unique title and meta tags for every page. This is one of the most important features of a CMS; luckily, most tools now incorporate it. Also, ensure the CMS can uniquely create custom directory and file names (the CMS should not offer this at the risk of creating the aforementioned duplicate content issues).
Minor Technical RequirementsIf you plan to create a multilingual site, ensure the CMS supports UTF-8 character encoding. Another key point is to check that your CMS allows you to create mod_rewrites so you can handle proper 301 server redirects.
Analytics SoftwareEnsure that you can easily add site-wide web analytic software. It should be obvious to all SEOs why this is critical.
Sitemap.xml & Robots.txtTry to get a CMS that automatically creates a sitemap.xml file and dynamically creates a site map page for your site. Some CMS solutions will even offer the ability to manage your robots.txt file.
Additional Features to Consider
Multi-Language SupportA CMS feature that isn't necessarily SEO-related but will offer some great benefits is the ability to handle multiple languages. This can either be a run-time or publish-time implementation.
Digital Asset Management (DAM)Properly created, a DAM can be a great benefit because it can help manage all your asset files, such as images, videos, PDFs, and more. The DAM is even more valuable if it offers file version control. This will allow you to revert back to old versions of files should the need arise. Often, if the DAM offers file versioning, your content can be version controlled too.
Workflow ManagementOnce the time is taken to set up a proper method of workflow management, all teams can work together in a more streamlined, efficient process.

CMS Takeaways

Most CMS vendors will tout their product as being equipped with all the necessary tools. They will likely be able to show you examples of how their product addresses your requirements one by one. Oftentimes however, the individual examples don't work well collectively.

If they're serious about selling you their CMS, ask the vendor to provide a sample solution that takes all of your requests into consideration. All too often, issues arise after you have already committed to your CMS implementation.

Have confidence when selecting your CMS. You have many options to consider, and making sense of all the information can be time consuming, difficult, and overwhelming. Your new advantage is that you're now armed with some valuable, critical questions that can help you make an informed decision.

By systematically analyzing all available options, you can select a CMS that addresses all your requirements. This will ensure your website is poised to maximize factors influencing your success.

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the June Issue of SES Magazine.

Jim McFadyen is the technology and search marketing director at Wizardworks Web Design Inc, located in Calgary, AB, Canada. His work consists of developing strategies for clients, primarily focusing on SEO and social media marketing. In addition, he still does occasional web development work. Previously, Jim worked as a front-end engineer at Yahoo and a web development manager and the search technology expert for Critical Mass, Canada's largest interactive agency.


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