Having recently assisted a client during a CMS (content management system) pitch selection process, I thought it would be useful to look at the type of features and capabilities I felt were important – or essential – from an SEO perspective.
In terms of finding out this information, I would recommend the following steps:
- CMS product demo – giving a clear idea and overview about how the system works, how to manage content etc. Obviously if you are in a pitch situation the demo is likely to be a key part of this, but if not, you can request a webinar demo instead.
- Review some of their customer sites - to look at how well optimised they are and to highlight any potential issues. I’ve found a lot of CMS providers will cater for most of your SEO needs, but it may not be set as default and could require hours of development time in order to get there. So this should help to give you an idea about any potential limitations and help you come up with some questions to ask.
- Q&A – most pitches will be interactive, so ask any questions as they arise and try to find out more detail about SEO implications of the features being demonstrated.
The type of questions I would typically ask would include the following:
- Ability to generate user-friendly URLs - are these fully editable? User-friendly URLs not only improve the overall customer experience, but they can have an effect on rankings as well. Ideally, we would like to be able to implement user-friendly URLs to be concise (shorter URLs are thought to rank better) and to include relevant keyword terms, so any restrictions here are likely to reduce the site’s organic search performance.
- Management of country-specific content & language translation – how does the CMS manage country-specific content? Does this allow for organising content into subfolders? So all US content located underneath a /us folder, for example. Also, if automatic translation is provided (and is a feature that you’d use), how does that affect URLs? Does it redirect you to a country/language specific subfolder URL? One CMS provider here displayed content based on the country of the user’s IP address, but all content was served on the exact same URL – so only one version will be cached. Which presents potential issues, as you want to ensure the English version is cached in Google.co.uk/.com – with multilingual content indexed in the relevant country-specific search engines.
- Site performance / page speed – how quick are their websites compared to other CMS providers? What type of servers do they best run off? Do some of your own tests on their customer sites.
- 301 redirects – a regular issue with CMS systems is that they tend to create SEO issues when redirecting pages, by not being easy to implement and creating 302 rather than 301 redirects. Redirects can be a very important part of an SEO strategy, especially if content updates regularly or you’re going through a re-design process which requires the renaming of URL structures. Also, how are these managed? As part of the CMS software? Or via IIS or .htaccess?
- Ability to set unique page titles & meta descriptions – page titles are accepted as the single most important on-site ranking factor (apart from quality content), so the ability to set unique page titles and meta descriptions on every page is vital. It sounds like common sense that you would be able to edit page titles manually so that these are unique – but based on some of the CMS systems I’ve seen in the past, common sense really isn’t that common! And while meta descriptions are not a direct ranking factor, they will have an effect on the click through rates from the search engine result pages (as they are displayed below the title). The ability to set each to include certain components, such as a call to action, will aid achievement of KPIs.
- Define <h1> tags on every page and for it not to affect the navigation/menu system – H1 tags are still thought to play a part in ranking, although with diminishing significance. As with title tags, the ability to set these individually is important. With some CMS implementations, the navigation is built around the page header tag, which is not ideal; it limits our ability to draw maximum SEO benefit, as we have to compromise on layout, length and content. Also, the ability to add additional header tags into the page is an important feature to have.
- Define ALT tags – ALT tags are an accessibility feature used to define an image for people using screen readers, but they are also widely thought to be an important ranking factor. Using appropriate keywords within an ALT tag can boost the ranking performance of a page. A number of CMS systems limit the ability to define these tags. Often they are set at image library level too, as opposed to page-level, so if an image is used on 20 different pages it would have to share the same alt tag.
- Does the CMS have blogging software? And how good is it? If blogging is a key part of your content strategy this is a key area to check – if not, is the system compatible with a more widely used blogging platform such as WordPress?
- Can you have access to the robots.txt file? You may need to make updates to control search engine access to sections of your site. This is much easier if you can have direct access to the robots.txt file.
- How does audience content personalisation affect SEO? Similar to the automatic language content-serving by IP detection, many content management systems are now offering personalised content – this is based on the user’s history of visiting the site. Content personalisation can be a very nice feature (think Amazon book suggestions), but it’s important to ensure that when the search engines visit, it is treated as a first time visit and that your best optimised content is available to be indexed.
I also found it very useful to be part of a pitch process where you can take a look at other features and think of them from the perspective of how it impacts an SEO project – for example, if the CMS is linked with backend CRM software, this can impact how you provide reporting and analytics goal/conversion tracking.
I would be interested to hear what SEO issues you’ve encountered with CMS platforms before and which questions you would ask to make sure you avoid any potential SEO headaches further down the line?