It would be fair to say that pretty much every major change to the online environment is greeted with the same two questions by the vast majority of the SEO community –
- What is it?
- How can I use it to boost my SEO campaigns?
So with adoption of the next major evolution of HTML becoming more common, and having a growing feeling that it was about to come up in more client meetings, I decided it would be a good time to check how I can potentially make the most of HTML5.
I won’t go into a whole explanation of what HTML5 is now – I will leave that for the web design blogs – but the highlights as I understand them are:
- A more descriptive set of markup tags; for example, nav, article, aside and footer
- The introduction of Canvas element could be used for rendering graphs or images dynamically without the need for browser plugins
It is apparent from this list that there are some pretty big changes between HTML4 and HTML5. For example, I’m guessing that every SEO will spot the third bullet point – video without the need for Flash – and realise the obvious content indexing benefit this will offer as a result.
But will you get any direct benefit from being first to the party (so to speak)? Will changing your site to HTML5 be a quick route to top spot in the rankings? Well, the simple answer is no! And you don’t have to just take my word for it either; Googler John Mu left the following responses to related questions on the Google Webmaster Central Help Forum:
In general, we work hard to understand as much of the web as possible, but I have a feeling that HTML5 markup is not yet as widely in use (and in use correctly) that it would make sense for us to use it as a means of understanding content better. As HTML5 gains in popularity and as we recognize specific markup elements that provide value to our indexing system, this is likely to change, but at the moment I would not assume that you would have an advantage by using HTML5 instead of older variants.
In general, our crawlers are used to not being able to parse all HTML markup – be it from broken HTML, embedded XML content or from the new HTML5 tags. Our general strategy is to wait to see how content is marked up on the web in practice and to adapt to that. If we find that more and more content uses HTML5 markup, that this markup can give us additional information, and that it doesn’t cause problems if webmasters incorrectly use it (which is always a problem in the beginning), then over time we’ll attempt to work that into our algorithms. With that in mind, I definitely wouldn’t want to stand in the way of your implementing parts of your site with HTML5, but I also wouldn’t expect to see special treatment of your content due to the HTML5 markup at the moment. HTML5 is still very much a work in progress, so it’s great to see bleeding-edge sites making use of the new possibilities.
Although both of these comments date from late 2010, there doesn’t seem to have been any further opinion put forward to suggest that this is not Google’s current view, or not that I have found anyway.
So does this mean that you should ignore it all together? Well, no. This may sound odd having seen the opinions offered by Google, but there do seem to be some credible theories of the indirect benefits of implementing HTML5.
First, due to the fact that HTML5 is still a relatively “new” technology, a number of people will link to other sites that are using it. This means that an HTML5 site or piece of content (an infographic for example), if implemented well or uniquely, will accumulate links and social signals naturally. Check out this music video from Arcade Fire, which makes use of HTML5 and Google Maps to personalise the video to you. I’m not a fan of their music but I shared the link. Obviously this will only be a benefit until HTML5 becomes commonplace.
As well as this, it is believed that HTML5 will reduce the volume of code required to render a page, so it therefore has two indirect benefits. The first is that it will improve page load speed, which is a minor ranking factor, as well as having an effect on conversion. Secondly, it should increase the likelihood that information would be found by the search engine bots, as a result of them being able to process more site pages (if you believe that the search engines expend a limited amount of resources on a site).
Finally, you will be ‘future proofing’ your site. Even though Google’s current position is that it will not aid rankings, the Webmaster Tools responses imply that it may do in the future once it is more widely adopted.
When HTML5 becomes a web standard, I believe that at some point it will be worked into the algorithm as a result of its wide use. Being an early adopter means there should be an immediate boost if and when it is added to algorithm. It is also safe to assume that this change wouldn’t be publicly announced, so you will get a short competitive advantage until everyone else catches on.
Anyone who has read some of the other posts around on HTML5 and SEO are probably thinking I have missed out one of the most obvious benefits – the new markup. From what I have seen, a lot of people believe that it will indicate to the search engines what type of content is on a page and how important it is, meaning you are really able to draw attention to content.
While this may be the intention, I personally believe the ease with which this may be manipulated to promote low quality sites is such that it is likely only ever going to be a low value ranking factor, if it is one at all. It is very similar to the keywords metatag, which was so easily abused that Google finally discounted it as a ranking factor. If all you have to do is to put content within a certain tag to boost its rankings, everyone will do it.
So overall, while I personally wouldn’t recommend that a site change to HTML5 as some kind of SEO silver bullet, there are enough incidental SEO benefits to make it worthwhile to work into new builds or redesigns, or to use for content generation (such as infographics).