Content management systems (CMS) place the responsibility of content creation and maintenance squarely in the hands of non-technical users. With the promise of reduced IT involvement and expenditures, the benefits of CMS are clear. Or are they? For those leveraging Web CMS tools to manage their online content, there is a risk to be mitigated while implementing your WCM solution. In a series of two articles, we explore how a CMS deployment, without careful consideration, can have a detrimental effect on your search engine rankings and the general findability of your content.While this two-part series does not present a “silver bullet” approach to improving your rankings on competitive search terms, it does sketch established tactics for improving your search engine visibility and strategies for enforcing these tactics during your CMS implementation.

The Contentious World of What Matters

None of the major search engines make public the algorithms they use to sift through billions of documents. As a result, just about every Search Engine Optimization (SEO) practitioner holds a different perspective on the factors that matter. In the absence of a definitive understanding of search engine algorithms, SEO practitioners have experimented, observed, messed-with and republished web site content to try to gain insight into their inner workings. In general, these factors can be divided into four categories:
  1. On-page factors
    Factors that vary with each page on the site, such as the title of the page. Individual authors frequently control or influence these factors.  Appropriate CMS configuration can help ensure authors follow best practices.
  2. Site-wide factors
    Issues that can be addressed for the entire site, such as the creation of a site map. Frequently, site or content management administrators can control or influence these factors.
  3. Off-site factors
    Search engines are increasingly relying on factors such as the number of external sites linking to a page and behaviour of visitors on a given site to determine rankings.  CMS solutions can only address these factors tangentially.
  4. Negative factors
    A wide variety of issues can lead to search engines reducing the ranking of a page; these range from unreliable site uptime to the inappropriate use of redirects. Many of these factors can be addressed with an effective content management solution.
We'll addresses only those factors thought to influence search engine rankings that are relevant to content management deployment. For a comprehensive discussion of all search factors see Search Engine Ranking Factors available at www.seomoz.org (DOC). The following tables are a short summary of the more comprehensive discussion available in the complete report.

Site-Wide Factors

W3C Compliant Code

A page that is coded to match W3C XHTML standards is simpler for the search engines to parse and ensures all content is readable.

Site Maps

A comprehensive site map ensures that search engine spiders can find and index each page on the site by following a single link.

Google Site Maps

Google site maps significantly increase the likelihood of all of the content on your site being indexed by these engines.  Yahoo! and MSN have also adopted Google’s standard.

Site Navigation as Text

Create main navigation as text links – not images – to ease the job of search engines crawling through the site.

Use Search Engine Friendly URLs

Avoid dynamic URLs; use static URLs.  If you must use dynamic URLs, use no more than two parameters.

Publish to a Flat Directory

By using a relatively flat file structure – no more than two directories deep – you may be able to increase the relevance assigned to pages by some pages to search engines.

Eliminate Broken Links

Establish a process for finding and eliminating broken links and create a custom 404 page.  Search engines may penalize sites for out-dated links.

Appropriate Use of robots.txt

An improperly constructed robots.txt page can prevent your site from being indexed at all.

On-Page Factors

Effective Title Tags

The text within the title tag of a page is one of the most important factors influencing its ranking at major search engines.

Effective Meta Description Tags

Every page should include a compelling description of the content of the page as a meta description.

Reduce Code Clutter

Eliminate extraneous HTML and JavaScript code through the use of “includes” and cascading style sheets.

Image Alt Attributes

Search engine spiders cannot read images, but they can parse and process the “alt attributes” associated with an image.

Ensure Links can be Processed

Don’t bury links inside JavaScript or Flash Macromedia.

Avoid Spelling Errors

Invest in a spell checking utility to improve page quality.

Use Key Words in URLs

The use of the search terms within a page’s URL appears to contribute to search engine ranking – include terms separated by dashes.

Effective Content Structuring

Make use of formal heading tags (<h1>, <h2> etc) to organize content and signify importance of specific terms.

Use Descriptive Text in Internal Links

Include key terms within the links that point to a page from other pages on your site.

Negative Factors

Duplicate Content

Ensure each page on your site is substantially different.

Duplicate Titles

The same title should never appear on more than one page on a site.

Avoid Session Variables

Avoid dynamic systems that assign a different session variable to each visitor – including search spiders.

Canonical Issues

Make sure that search engines do not see similar URLs (www.url.com and url.com for example) as separate pages.

Associating with “Bad Neighbours”

Beware linking to sites that practice underhanded search engine optimization techniques – avoid “link farms.”

Next Week: We'll discuss how these factors can be addressed within a CMS. Read: SEO and CMS: Best Practices During Deployment (Part 2)

About the Author

Randy Woods is a co-founder of non-linear creations. With his breadth of knowledge and experience in online strategy, content management and search marketing, Randy shares his lessons learned through the non-linear creations Leadership Series; a number of published whitepapers including: Best Practices in CMS Governance, SEO and CMS: Best Practices and the NLC Performance Framework.