Basic Info: CMS and SEO

Posted on January 22, 2012 in Blog

CMS and SEO are two topics I find myself attempting to explain to clients more than any other. I hope the information below will be useful in assisting non-technical clients in understanding these two important aspects of web design and development.

 

What is CMS?

Almost all our client websites are built on Content Management Systems (CMS). This has become optimal for our own workflow and productivity, as well as that of our clients. To help explain why we do this, here we outline the differences between what is now the de facto method of Web site design and development, and the old page-by-page designs of years gone by.

A CMS is a dynamic way of controlling a Web site, offering distinct separation of the content (copy) of a site from the style and code. Previously (and in some die-hard IT circles, still) a Web designer would craft each individual page of a Web site. When a change was needed to be made, the Web designer would be called and he would open the page (or pages) he needed to change, and make the edits required. Thus, clients are at the mercy of their webmaster to a great extent.

On a site with just a few pages, this wouldn’t be such a big deal. However, it also isn’t the most efficient method, as site owners are paying a Web designer a premium for his Web design skills simply for correcting spelling mistakes in the text or changing a date, adding a photo, etc — the only other option was the site owner faced the daunting task of opening up an HTML file and scanning through the markup for the text they needed edited and editing it themselves. Considered dangerous and intimidating, at the very least.

With the adoption of a CMS-based system this all changes. The site is setup using a layered system. Under the old static HTML page system, when a visitor came to a site and viewed the page in their browser the physical HTML page (ie. about.html) was accessed on the server and loaded in their browser. With a CMS the content is all stored in a database, and there are no physical HTML pages to speak of. Instead, when the visitor accesses the URL of the page they’re looking for, the CMS generates the page dynamically — loading the code, applying the style and inserting the content in the appropriate areas of the page.

This difference does make a CMS a slightly more technically complicated animal to setup initially — but the payoff is well worth it. As mentioned above, it allows an end user (ie. site owner) to edit the content of their site without ever having to touch code or open messy and confusing HTML files. And because a CMS-based site uses a template or theme, making layout and/or style adjustments down the road does not require editing every page on the site (potentially hundreds or thousands of pages on a large site with lots of content).

The other benefit of a CMS-based system is its expandability. There is a huge list of Content Management Systems to choose from, but here at EMG we specialize in one of the most popular, full-featured and well-established open-source projects: WordPress. WordPress has a large active community of developers and users working around the clock to improve the core CMS, as well as develop thousands of add-on components/modules/plugins.

What does this mean to our clients? Massive expandability of the site features offered at a fraction of the cost it used to require.

Ultimately, which CMS is right for your project largely depends on the scope and features it requires — but unless you are creating a single landing page Web site, there is no doubt that a site built on a content management system is the appropriate path to take. A CMS makes a site easier to edit, and also makes your site more flexible, feature-rich and expandable – without costing an arm and a leg. And when EMG is done, you no longer “need” our services to maintain your site. You may elect to have us make major changes – but it will be by choice…not because you do not have control of your own website.

What is SEO?

As a Webmaster, I am often asked by clients if I can help with search engine optimization (SEO), to which I almost always answer “yes, but I prefer not to”.

The truth is, I can help with SEO, but more often than not I choose to avoid the arduous task of managing expectations when it comes to SEO results. The problem, in my opinion, is that I would say most non-technical clients have a rather skewed idea of what good SEO means. I blame this largely on the seedier side of the SEO industry, which tends to utilize the layman’s lack of knowledge and implausible slogans (“Let us put you at the top of Google’s listings overnight!”, etc.) for profit – which is simply impossible.

What this creates is a climate whereby SEO becomes a product that can be packaged and purchased, which in-turn fosters an attitude of being able to buy good Search Engine Results Page listings;

ie. I pay an SEO expert $X,XXX.XX and I get to be #1 for my targeted Google search terms.

Of course, if this was possible — those top spots would simply be consistently taken by the companies with the largest budgets and search engine results would become irrelevant, which would then lead to the search engine becoming irrelevant as well. So logically speaking, I’m willing to bet Google and its contemporaries have their eye on that.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t good SEO experts, it’s only to say that in an industry with so many charlatans, it can be a painfully time-consuming process determining who to trust. All the more reason to at least have some understanding of SEO yourself, if for no other purpose than to know what you should expect.

The biggest thing to understand is that SEO is labelled as “organic marketing” for a reason. While the tasks are relatively simple, maintaining great SEO can be time consuming, as well as require constant vigilance and flexibility, as what worked last year might not work this year.

I personally hold value in a few key things when looking at setting up good SEO on a site I am creating, they are:

Content

Having good content on your site may seem like a no-brainer piece of advice, but it’s a bit more complicated than it sounds.

There is a bit of an art to writing content with a healthy balance between keywords (read: terms people would search for at a search engine), marketing-ese to sell your topic to visitors, and useful content that people actually want to read. Good content will present itself in an organized manner that stays on a well-focused topic. It should be rich in keywords, but not so much so that it takes away from the prose itself.

I have clients for which I write the initial content (copy) for their site with the intention that they would revise, alter or altogether rewrite what to me is “placeholder” text.  However, there are many who never make the effort, leaving the initial text inserted – often not even a part of the original scope or cost of their project – and then wondering why they are not at the top of the search engines.  Sigh…

Page titles

By page titles, I mean the <title> tags in the <head> of your HTML. I’ve seen SEO gurus load these with a straight list of keywords, but I dislike this as its SEO value is questionable and it takes usability away from the site. Rather, I suggest making sure page titles are on-topic to the keywords you are looking to attract, and relevant to the specific page they are being displayed on. They should be relatively short and to the point, with the most relevant keywords at the beginning.

Example: GOOD: “Cat care tips for pet owners” On-topic, short, solid keywords BAD: “cats, tips, pets, dogs, cat food, dog food, house cats” Keyword rich, but not unique to the page, plus fugly for site visitors BAD: “Petland Food Inc.” Many sites have the same page title (often company name) on every page. This will do little to help yourSERP ranking

URLs

You’ll notice when you search for a term in Google the results display the keyword (in bold) as found in the page title, a relevant chunk of the content, and in the link’s URL.

With straight-HTML created sites it was easy to maintain decent URLs that contained keywords. If you had a page about cat grooming, you called it “cat-grooming.html” and you had inherent SEO. However, most modern Web sites are built on content management systems (CMS) that are often built in PHP or ASP. Because of this you can get some very ugly URLs that have no connection to the content.

Fortunately, any CMS worth its weight will have built-in (or add-on) Search Engine Friendly (SEF) functionality to re-write the URLs into something friendly to search engine bots (and site visitors).

HTML structure

This is something that may be more difficult to adjust if you are not the one designing your site. However, if just getting started with a site’s design, it is worth mentioning to your designer that you want to make sure your markup is semantically laid out.

What this means is, you want to be using proper heading tags (<H1>,<H2>,<H3>, etc.) in a hierarchical way. The page’s title/topic should be in the largest heading tag on the page (<h1> or <h2> usually), and subheading should be in a gradient transition to higher-numbered tags (<h3>, <h4>, <h5>, etc.).

Additionally, you will want to make sure the page’s overall structure also fits this ideal. To the bots that search your site don’t get the benefit of your ace designer’s well-crafted eye candy. To them it is a simple list of code. Where that code falls can effect what it views as important.

Take the following common design mistake as an example. You have a site with a header, left sidebar, content and footer. a pretty common setup.  A designer not concerned with semantic markup may simply layout the page in the following order: HEADER, SIDEBAR, CONTENT, FOOTER. Unfortunately, this causes the bots to believe the text, links, etc., of the sidebar are more relevant than that in the content area – which rarely is the case. It is therefore important to layout the page as HEADER, CONTENT, SIDEBAR, FOOTER in the HTML, while using CSS to control the end display.

Semantic layout is not black and white, but rather very much a sliding scale. Sometimes it is simply not possible to have the most logically hierarchical markup and maintain particular features of the site. Take the hits where you need to, and just do your best.

Linkbacks from other sites

I should say, linkbacks from other authority sites. The principle goes something like this: Site A is a great and powerful site that has been around for ages (think NYT.com, Yahoo, TechCrunch, etc.), Site A links toSite B for whatever reason. Google sees this link and figures, “hell, if Site A thinks Site B is good, and we think Site A is good, then Site B is probably good too.” And the value of linkbacks for SEO is born.

Now, any fool can go out and get your site linked to on a hundred thousand sites overnight, and many fools will try to charge you bags of money to do just this. Don’t buy it. Getting natural linkbacks from other sites is tough work, but is the only truly valuable form of linkbacks.

There are a number of ways to do this, but really, in principle they all relate to creating content that people are interested in reading.

Age of site/Page Rank

This goes back to the “authority” bit in the section above. With new sites created and abandoned every day, it makes sense that some attention is paid to sites that have been around for a long time, or have earned a higher Google Page Rank. It doesn’t necessarily make them a better source of information, but as a fuzzy rule, it does hold some weight.

Additionally, this is often the reason sites that have followed all the rules above still aren’t owning their desired keywords – particularly when those keywords are in highly competitive markets (travel, web, consumer electronics, etc.).

If you feel you’ve done everything perfectly, and still you’re not getting the SERPs you feel you deserve, perhaps a bit of patience is in order.

Meta Descriptions and Keywords

Ah, meta tags. If I had 10 cents for every time I’ve had clients sweat about their meta tags, I would be writing this from a tropical beach somewhere and not worrying about the piles of work I still have to get done today.

Well, here it comes folks – they don’t matter. I think I just heard the SEO community collectively frown and growl. So, perhaps an explanation, before I get hate mail.

There was a time when the top search engines used meta descriptions and meta keywords to determine what a Web page was about. The meta keywords tag was the first to be dropped as a decider, and for several years now has not been used by any major search engine to help index the page. Why? 1. because they’re too easy to fake, and 2. they’re just not needed, bots can scan the entire contents of a page and get their own keywords. In short, they are valueless.

Though it has taken longer, the meta description tag is quickly going the same way. When the meta keywords tag became obsolete many webmasters/designers/SEO folks turned to the meta description as a way to bulk up their site’s keywordiness. Somewhat predictably this caused search engines to develop better ways to determine what a site is really about. As, remember, a search engine has a responsibility to the end user – the dude searching for “all-natural woven monkey-hair toupees” – not the company trying to make sure their listing is at the top of the SERPs so they can sell more toupees.

And that brings us right back to content. Without much value left in the meta description and virtually no value in meta keywords, it makes it all the more important to ensure that your content is well written and keyword rich.

Certainly there is much more that makes up the rather complex “science” of search engine optimization, but that should give at least a basic overview of what I feel are the key elements to good SEO. I look forward to additions, corrections or questions in the comments.

Note: I would like to thank the owner of DaoByDesign.com for providing this – the most comprehensive explanation for clients I have ever seen.  It was so well written that I lifted the content for use on my site – and for that I am linking back to his site!  Well done!