Solving content management system (CMS) issues is one of the 10 most important lessons SEO professionals need to learn. Let’s explore from an SEO perspective the 10 issues that are the most important watch items when considering a CMS, as well as address some of the functionality that you should look for when evaluating the SEO-friendliness of a CMS.
1. Must be Able to Customize Page Titles, Meta Data
Any good CMS should allow for customization of:
- Page title
- Meta description tag
- Meta keyword tag
- H tags
All of these fields should be able to be independent of one another (H1 not based on Page Title, etc) if desired even if the default behavior does make them dependant. The option should be available to customize any of these fields without a character limitation. However, there should also be a capability to auto populate these fields based on custom rules in order to automate the population of these fields if necessary.
2. Drop-Down Navigation Menus Built in CSS
Drop-down navigation menus are very important internal link structures that contribute to SEO performance. They serve as votes of relevancy from every page of your site back to your most important pages. It's critical that search engines can index them.
Also make sure that you can customize the link text in your drop down menus and that the link text is not dependant on the title of the page that it points to.
3. URL Structure
Ensuring that your CMS system is capable of producing SEO-friendly URLs is a must. It is preferable but not required that you are able to create static, keyword focused URLs (for example http://www.domain.com/keyword1/keyword2/index.html).
However the biggest issue with CMS systems that must be considered is that they only produce one unique URL for any given page of content. For example, if you have a product page where the URL is dependent on the navigation path, you may have issues if the product appears in more than one category.
Here is an example: I once had a client that sold dresses. A particular dress could be a wedding dress or it could be a prom dress depending on how the user found it on the site. The same dress lived in two locations: www.domain.com/wedding/item1.html as well as www.domain.com/prom/item1.html. Therefore the same content was displayed on two unique URLs. This system created a lot of duplicate content. The solution was to reconfigure the URL path to the dress to one absolute URL: www.domain.com/item1.html.
If your CMS produces multiple URLs for the same page of content, you may have a duplicate content problem. Also, avoid CMS systems that use session IDs or dynamic URLs that change every time they get a new visitor.
4. Support for the rel=canonical Tag
The rel=canonical tag is a great way to prevent many duplicate content issues. It essentially specifies a URL path for any specific page of content.
It is especially useful for anyone using tracking codes on links to track campaigns. If you don't know what this tag does, please visit this page.
Make sure that your CMS is able to add this tag and customize it on a per page level.
5. XML Sitemap Creation Function
There are actually a number of ways to produce XML sitemaps so this isn't a deal breaker if a CMS can't produce an XML sitemap. However, it sure does make life easier if your system can automate the production of your site map.
6. No Frames / Iframes
Search engines have a very difficult time understanding frames and can't properly index iframe content (the engine will credit the iframe URL and not the URL where the content is actually displayed). CMS systems shouldn't use frames or rely on frames or iframes for displaying content.
7. 301 Redirects, Not 302
Make sure that any redirects produced by your CMS return a 301 header status code and not a 302 to ensure proper indexing. CMS systems should by default support 301 redirects and avoid 302 redirects or meta refreshes. 301 redirects are the only mechanism that transfers link connectivity metrics from the old URL to the new URL.
302 redirects do not transfer link connectivity metrics and may cause duplicate content problems. To check your redirects, enter a URL that has a direct into the tool on this page.
In order to consolidate link metrics across multiple product pages that feature the same type of products, it's useful that your CMS system support the rel=next / rel=prev tags. For more information about the proper use and implementation of these tags, please see this page.
9. Custom Alt Tags
The ability to customize the text of all attributes is a mandatory requirement for your CMS. Search engines see non-linked image alt tags as page content which contributes to the keyword relevancy of the page that the image is hosted on.
Search engines see image alt tags that are links as a replacement for link text. They affect the pages that they are hosted on but have even more impact on the pages that their links point to. Matt Cutts has recommended that alt tags be 4 to 7 words in length.
Note that link title attributes on text links are useful for user experience but don't impact search.
10. Breadcrumb Navigation
CMS systems should support the customization of breadcrumb navigation. Breadcrumb navigation is very important for user experience as well as link connectivity for pages not found in the Global navigation template.
Breadcrumb navigation can be driven by page titles as a default behavior but should allow for unique, keyword focused customization where appropriate. Additionally, breadcrumb navigation functionality shouldn't create unique URL paths.
Bonus Recommendation: Supports Microformat Data
A number of data types have specific microformats that increase their visibility in search. Your CMS should support the implementation of these microdata formats.
Microformat data types include:
- Businesses and Organizations
Each of these data types has a unique micro data format.
Google provides more detailed information about micro-formats here.
Extra Bonus Recommendation: Avoid Flash
Small Flash elements can be useful in augmenting the appearance of a website, but avoid using Flash to display important content, especially navigation menus, as search engines still don't index Flash that well.
I have had numerous experiences where someone’s entire site was built in Flash and they have asked me why they don’t show up in search. When I show them Google’s text cache for their homepage and they see a blank page, that’s when the light bulb usually turns on.
Hopefully these watch items give you a better perspective in what to look for when evaluating the SEO-friendliness of a CMS system.
A good CMS can have a dramatic impact on your SEO performance and conversely, a bad CMS can kill your SEO program and any hope you have of success. Take the time to evaluate how yours may be affecting your program.
Meet Your Favorite Search Engine Watch Contributors
Many of SEW's leading expert contributors will be at ClickZ Live, the new online and digital marketing event kicking off in New York (March 31-April 3). Hear from the likes of: Thom Craver, Josh Braaten, Lisa Barone, Simon Heseltine, Josh McCoy, Lisa Raehsler, Greg Jarboe, Dan Cristo, Joseph Kerschbaum, John Gagnon, Eric Enge and more!