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SEO for CMS stands out because of its difference from that for standard websites with HTML pages. The big difference is how much more technical knowledge the consultants need - and therefore how difficult this area is for non-technical SEO personnel, who are the vast majority. Neither search marketers nor standard website designers can cope here, and you need technical specialists.

SEO for content management systems is an area where two technical disciplines meet. An excellent knowledge of database-driven web applications is needed, plus a good grounding in modern SEO. Especially, it is necessary to know exactly what can be accomplished and what is not feasible, using dynamic server technology to create a website. A familiarity with many CMS types helps.

This is important because search optimising for websites is carried out differently according to the type of site, the web applications used, the market area the site is in, and precisely what you want to achieve. The basic principles are always the same but there will be many variables.

CMS SEO will gain more importance as database-driven server software replaces more and more hard-coded sites. It is probable that most enterprises will change to a CMS eventually, since there are so many disadvantages to using a hand-coded site for organisations, for large sites, and even for small sites with regular content changes.

Why SEO for CMS is different

Database-driven websites use server-hosted software to generate the site pages as required. There are no pages on the server. The application, working with its extensions (usually called plugins), determines the entire website content. There are constraints in many areas, and opportunities in others - but you have to know the technology.
And when you change anything drastically, there will be a knock-on effect. There couldn't be anything much more drastic than deleting  all your web pages and changing to a database. Instead of having many web pages on the server, now there are none. Instead of having your web publishers or webmaster do the page edits over a week or a month, now you do it yourself in two minutes.

So a CMS is different in many obvious ways, and in plenty of hidden ways as well. There are a number of improvements; many things are just different; and one or two that are a step backward. The only real negative is that art-based layouts are either not possible (on some CMS), or expensive - they need a capable designer who knows CMS intimately; and such people are unlikely to be bargain-basement.

Always go for quality

In the first place a CMS should be a quality solution. There would be no point in buying into a low-quality solution so, although these exist, it is important to avoid that situation. An enterprise needs a modern CMS that, in addition to doing the job required, accords with the following ideals:
  • is legally compliant
  • is standards-compliant
  • is search engine compliant
  • and is visitor friendly
It's surprising how many CMS fall down in one or more of these areas, and of course the implementation is critical. All these factors should be built in to the CMS implementation contract.

The simplest way to check a basic level of quality, as ever, is to go to the W3C online validator at http://validator.w3.org and check the website's index page. Of course, this is the first step when evaluating your proposed solution provider's own site and portfolio sites. It is reasonable to assume that if CMS websites they are associated with are of obvious low quality, they may not be the right people to contract with.

If it passes with that nice green text confirmation, you are quite likely to find you are safe and secure in many website departments. If it fails, especially with more than 10 errors, you've got problems - and they could be major ones. If a website fails this simple, basic test with over 30 or 40 faults, it's a major warning sign that cannot be ignored. It tells you a lot about the competence of the designers and/or implementers - and what it tells you won't be good news if you just paid for the site.

It is true that this test simply checks the most important factor in standards compliance, to see if the site actually uses correct code; it cannot of course check for legal compliance or any other important quality factor. But it is a remarkable fact that we have never seen a website that fails this test badly that complied in other areas. And the converse, that websites passing this test usually have less problems in other areas, is also true.

It's because it is not just a test of correct web code, it's a test of your website builder's competence - and attitude. If they cannot write simple code, which might be regarded as the foundation, or the most basic level of ability needed to actually build a site - then what chance is there they will know enough to get all the rest right? And if they cared so little about the project that quality control was not even on the agenda, what chance is there that the website is legally-compliant?

This principle applies very strongly to a CMS: if the brand new site (with the default template and simple content added correctly) cannot get the index page to pass validation at the W3C, then prospects are not good. It means either the application developers couldn't write simple code, and didn't even care enough to get the simple basics right, or the implementers wrecked it - or both.

Many CMS now, though, are built to very high standards. This applies especially in the open-source software world, to large CMS projects. That is because these large global teams of developers take legal, accessibility and quality issues very seriously, and frequently do a better job than commercial rivals (even the big ones in fact). You will find that the modern, clean xHTML code these CMS output is often of a very high standard. Not only that, it is the finest foundation for a web campaign and the SEO project that should accompany it.

Poor SEO factors in CMS

There are always areas that can be improved of course; for example the code layout scheme very often hasn't caught up with modern requirements yet, and is still 6 years or so behind. This is the case if the application uses tables as the layout base, since tables and cells became obsolete for this purpose around 2002. Since that time, the layer / CSS method has been the correct choice, since not only does this score higher for accessibility but it is also a far superior code foundation in every respect.

One way to visualise this and understand it better is to see the code layout scheme in the same way as graphics or CAD: either using layers (vector) or all on one 'flat' layer (raster). The old, simple way to run graphics, CAD and web page code was the raster method, which ruled in the 90s. By 2002 this method was obsolete and the vector system, which has massive advantages since it can utilise depth of field, became the norm. Any application with a raster-type, single-layer output now is either very outdated or deliberately simplified for ease of use or low cost.

These simplified or obsolete applications include 2D CAD systems (as against 3D  systems which can employ an x,y, and z-axis); gfx apps such as Photoshop (the top applications now produce vector files such as .ai that can be scaled, which is needed for commercial graphics work); and web authoring programs or server-side apps that output the old table-based layouts (these have big disadvantages compared with the vector-style div / CSS layers of modern applications).

Unfortunately the code layout is at the very heart of the application, so that to change it would entail rewriting the entire program. This applies to one or two quality CMS that are still behind here; it will have to be done eventually though, since they are already 6 years behind and there is a limit.

Correct source-ordering is another aspect that CMS developers have generally not got around to fixing yet. Unfortunately the source-ordering cannot be corrected unless the CMS runs on a modern code layout, ie divs (layers) and CSS.

This and other similar areas can only be advised on by an up-to-date SEO consultant, though, so if a CMS development team doesn't include one then they don't really have much chance of getting it right.

Low quality development and implementation

One of the key areas where you can state with absolute certainty that developers are years behind is in SEO - there is so much concrete proof of this around, visible everywhere, that it is a given. Developers as a group do not appreciate the factors that affect commercial success, and icommerce is not their strong point. This is of course understandable - but it means that both application developers and project implementation developers need correct advice.

This situation will continue as long as you can find job descriptions advertising for developers, using terms such as "...needs a good working knowledge of JavaScript, AJAX, and SEO." A fine juxtaposition of opposites and a contradictory statement of course. AJAX has been neatly described as "Good for cleaning toilets, not wanted on a website" or words to that effect.

As a general rule, developers are the last people to put in charge of quality control, as 75% or more of them have no inkling of the meaning of the word. To a developer, 'quality' means a nice-looking website with the functionality described in the brief. The idea of web standards compliance, search compliance, usability or indeed commercial success being critical factors that take precedence over almost everything else is anathema to most developers. It would mean that their job would be ten times harder - it would have to be done properly.

The job of a business website is to make money first and strengthen the brand second, and the best route to those objectives is via the quality control inherent in both top-class implementation and top-class SEO. Quality management in CMS implementation is crucial, so that the choice of a manager (and the contract) for this stage is important.

Choosing a quality CMS

Choose a quality CMS in the first place. Forget the advertising copy and marketing hype - you need to see hard facts. Surprisingly, you can also ignore the license or implementation final cost, as this seems to have no relevance. This is stage 1 in CMS SEO.

Step 1: have an independent expert in modern CMS SEO tell you if it is indeed a quality, SEO-friendly application.
Step 2: validate a reference site with the W3C.
Step 3: an accessibility testing pass at (as a minimum) single-A / level 1.
Step 4: have an independent website law expert tell you if it's legally-compliant for your location and market. 

Your SEO consultants won't have to do all the basic work, if you choose the right CMS and have it implemented with a strict quality-control procedure.

Is a CMS better or worse for SEO?

Taking codebase differences first, the most obvious thing is that CMS code is often better. It may have had a team of the best coders in the world work on it, and a significant number of them will have been enthusiastic supporters of accessibility issues and so on. The xHTML code these modern CMS output is an order of magnitude better than the old flat HTML, ASP and PHP code that people knock out with Dreamweaver and all the rest. It's just a simple fact that the majority of web designers create terrible code when using Dreamweaver. You can check yourself, it's easy to do - just use the W3C validator; and then also run an accessibility test. Around 75% of websites tested will fail these basic tests; the rest vary from acceptable to very good. These aren't good statistics and point up immediately the steps you must take to succeed commercially.

That's not to say that you can't get perfect code out of Dreamweaver - of course you can - but as stated, only a small percentage of developers even validate their code. 75% or more of developers have never heard of code validation or any other form of web standards-compliance - or don't care.
The implication is that there are far too many people in the web design industry now who would be better employed elsewhere.

Now it could be that this is too complex for them. Dreamweaver doesn't help here as although it has excellent validation tools built in, they are complicated to use. It would be easy for a coder to give up, when using this method. Many do. In any case, you'd have to go a long way to find someone who could write better code than the result from a modern quality CMS.

At least, then, when you use a modern high-quality CMS, you can be assured that you have left the less-competent behind.

SEO-friendly URLs in CMS

There are many potential issues, some of which are unknown in the world of HTML websites. One such issue with content management systems is the URLs - the page addresses. There are all sorts of problems here, but essentially, most CMS churn out uncorrected ones (known as 'raw' URLs) from the core application and you'll need to fix them. This is not a fault, it is simply because in the world of CMS everything is done with plugins. One way of looking at a CMS is that it is a framework to expand as needed with plugins.

Therefore it is reasonable to assume that, apart from basic publishing, it may not do anything you need, out of the box - since you must add the plugins to accomplish your additional publishing tasks. All it's really required to do at this stage is be a quality framework that you can add to as desired. It doesn't matter too much about correctable 'faults', as they are not really faults - just areas in which you must make a choice about which direction to take.

It is certainly the case that poor URLs are not an error state, simply an uncorrected default condition. As with all defaults, you should adjust them to suit. On the other hand there are CMS that output perfect URLs - such as Plone - but they are not normally the easiest to work with or arrange hosting for.

In the URLs department, you should find yourself a plugin that will produce an URL in the format:

...if that's your preference. Out of the core application, it might look like this for instance, so it's preferable to fix it:

[this is one long line, and we had to put a break in it...]

There is nothing 'wrong' with this - if you look at at it, it is simply the precise specification of the task and the filepath, and is absolutely accurate. It's just that this is machine language (so to speak) and we don't like it. We need human language - and that's what your choice of plugin will convert it to.

This principal applies all down the line: find what you want to change - then find a plugin to fix it. The right CMS will have the plugins.

SEO-friendly metadata in CMS

Again, with metadata, we find that the norm in default CMS output is not acceptable. We need to find the right plugin if this is not correctable within the CMS.

The three items most in need of unique, per-page values are the title, description and keywords attributes. For reasons of brevity these are often referred to as tags (they aren't, but fashion and brevity rule). If the page is about widgets, the title needs to be shown in the form:

And nothing else - no full stop (period), and most certainly not like this:
| Widgets

A3webtech.com is the site title.

The meta description also needs to be variable on a per-page basis. Ditto the meta keywords: ideally you will have about 3 keyphrases here that occur within the page text. Don't use more than this; and just one term in the keywords is fine, if your page only has one theme.

Don't listen to ignorant forum talk that for instance keywords are no longer of use. Google will use your keywords as part of the snippet (the search results page cherry-picked text shown to enquirers) if they cannot find the enquirer's search term within the title or description but they feel the page is relevant and the term appears in the keywords. They won't do this if you spam the keywords though; but if you have a sensible, minimalist keyword policy then search engines will follow your lead.

You should also be able to change the robots meta tag per-page, and other items needed for an accessibility testing pass such as the author tag.

There is a good rule for CMS meta tags we developed that you can follow if in doubt:


If you cannot change the metadata on a per-page basis then don't have any at all. It's better to have no metadata whatsoever than to have boilerplate meta (cloned metadata, identical sitewide).



If your CMS or other web application defaults to boilerplate metadata, and you cannot switch it off or fix it with a plugin, this is one of the classic signs of Stone Age SEO and developers who are about 10 years out of date. If you are looking at a CMS here, then you would almost certainly be better off looking at another application since there will be other serious problems if this level of ignorance is demonstrated.

What's good about CMS SEO

The great thing about modern website CMS is that a lot of the basic SEO grunt work will have been done. Indeed, a large proportion of work on standard HTML websites often involves simply repairing page code so that it better resembles that put out by a standards-compliant CMS. In many cases that would be impossible, so that in general you could make a blanket statement that many websites not employing a modern standards-compliant CMS are at a considerable disadvantage.

The quickest and simplest way we know to improve a website's search positions is to change it over to a top CMS. Without doing anything else, the search positions will rise immediately.

You will see straight off that this makes a mockery of any statement that correct, validating, standards-compliant code is not needed for good search positions. Sure - where every other website has trash non-validating code. Up against a good CMS they don't stand much chance though, assuming other factors such as link numbers are roughly equivalent. Trash sites (websites with non-validating code, lots of JavaScript etc) normally compensate by buying in thousands of links. If this were denied them, they could not compete.

The key is Quality with a capital Q. It makes so much difference that someone with only basic knowledge of SEO can place a site with only average content and relatively few links directly right at the top of the search positions against 20 million competing pages, using a high-quality CMS. We've seen this done, and it should clearly demonstrate to you, better than anything else, that quality code is critical to commercial success. Don't settle for second-best as it will hurt you.

You will see a huge volume of arguments contradicting this. They all appear eminently sensible, but the facts prove different. Any simple testing routine proves it, and therefore it seems better to go with fact-based methods. The facts are that quality makes a difference.

Disadvantages of CMS for SEO

Are there drawbacks for SEO with CMS websites? To be honest, plenty of them. We should qualify this by saying this mainly applies to default CMS settings, and to low-quality applications of course.

Even a good WCMS can be almost unusable out of the box. You'll probably have long raw URLs, boilerplate metadata, multiple URLs for the same page, and many other nasty sins. As all users of modern webapps know, though, these are fixed with plugins.

A CMS can be quite simple out of the box, just a basic publishing tool and with many sub-optimal default configurations. It's simply a framework. The basic pagecode should be good, of course, but that is only the start.

Multiple URLs for the same page
We talked about how to fix the URLs and metadata, let's look at another common fault: multiple URLs (addresses) for the same page. What happens is that the software creates a different address for an item for each different route it can be reached by. This is an integral feature and nothing can be done about it at core level. We need to fix it by using a plugin that allows you to choose the most valid address for that content item or page., this being referred to occasionally as the canonical URL. If this facility is not available to you, then basically the CMS cannot be used for a commercial campaign as it will have many versions of the page indexed by search engines, and therefore the rank and weight of each page will be dispersed. It is possible to have over 50 URLs for a page even in a small CMS, so you can see that correction by a plugin is vital.

A list of default errors that may or may not be correctable is fairly long. The basic code of the application you chose is no doubt very good; you'll also need the right plugins to fix the rest of it. There are very few CMS that are excellent in all departments on install, and all of these are either expensive commercial apps or open-source ones that are expensive to host, manage, or extend.

A plugin is the simple, generic term we use for additional software added to a CMS. There are many such terms but using the entire range would be confusing. In addition, most authors use different terms. There are various terms that are intended to indicate additional functionality or features - the difference being that functions are in theory related to core performance ('core functionality'); whereas features are an additional low-level capability. These terms include: plugins, extensions, add-ons, components, templates, modules, themes, mambots, wobjects, and so on. We refer to all as plugins unless there is a specific reason not to.

SEO for ecommerce CMS

There are some extra considerations here. Firstly, combining two major functions increases the complexity level. An ecommerce CMS is the most complex website software possible. In the open-source world there is only one fully-capable contender offered at no cost, which points out the difficulties that must attend.

In addition, ecommerce applications are famously difficult to work with in many areas, and SEO is no exception. All sorts of nasties are in evidence, such as SIDs (session ID URLs) and very poor page code. Adding a CMS to this cocktail can prove fun.

Because ecommerce apps perform so poorly in many areas, some solution providers take the co-install or bridging route. This means to add on a CMS or other content pages to the frontend. This can be a successful solution because you can choose the best ecommerce application for your business, and then the best CMS to present your frontend content.

Some providers who are unfamiliar with CMS use Dreamweaver-created pages on the frontend instead. These can look attractive but this is a step back into the 90s and should be avoided. Any kind of editing or structure changes are so much more difficult than with a CMS. And the new media-rich content management systems may even do a better job of presentation, in any case.

Cut and run: changing to a better CMS

If you find your web application is not compliant in modern terms, you may need to make a change. Changing to a new CMS can be relatively painless and the key is the planning phase. However, if your new CMS is faulty than some pain is inevitable. If for example it fails validation with 40 or 50 code errors per page, then you undoubtedly have legal redress, since this is the equivalent of supplying a new house with holes in the roof or shallow foundations. And the worst factor here is that this is almost always a pointer to other faults, since a big failure on validation clearly shows a couldn't-care-less attitude.

Choose the replacement CMS carefully. Ensure the hosting, geographic location and domains situation is thoroughly researched and analysed. Ensure the maintenance and upgrade path is clear. Ensure training and documentation are covered. Satisfy yourself that your chosen solution performs flawlessly in the SEO area since this is the foundation of commercial success. Employ a website law consultant briefly. Ask your consultants for a list of all the factors they will be looking at when specifying and arranging implementation of the new CMS. Make sure that web standards compliance is defined precisely and not just mentioned - the validation and accessibility test results must be precisely specified.

When your new CMS goes live you can give a sigh of relief that your previous, non standards-compliant solution has been consigned to the dustbin. Y
our new project will have emphasised quality as against marketing hype.

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Correct SEO for CMS is the starting point to improve website results, and is facilitated by making the right purchase choice. Don't choose the wrong new CMS. Don't accept excuses from your staff, providers or consultants. Prioritise your contracts for Quality.

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