The Internet is the most widely used business tool in the world. In theory, it is the least expensive and most pervasive medium for global communications. At one time, the Internet was the exclusive playground of the technical minded, otherwise known as the “nerds” and the “geeks”. It’s not nearly as cool to be a geek as it was five or six years ago. The Internet is not our exclusive playground any longer. As proven by last week’s Google IPO, the sandbox in which we shared ideas and inspiration is now the largest commercial community in the world. Everyone who is anyone in business uses it and therefore, everyone who is associated with anyone in business needs to be able to use it quickly and easily. As acceptance and usage of the Internet has grown so rapidly, every business, NGO, governmental department, school, church, and even favorite great-aunt has developed a website to communicate their message to the greater world. In order to meet a growing demand, programmers and designers have had to develop products that are easy to use for employees all businesses, regardless of those employee’s technical ability. The world of basic HTML has, for the most part, gone the way of the dinosaur.
Welcome to the world of Content Management Systems (CMS)
A Content Management System is generally defined as software that allows anyone to contribute information to a website via a graphical user interface (GUI). They are usually based on a pre-written template that acts as a platform for each page in the site as those pages are created. From simple CMS systems built on PHP-Nuke to extremely complicated proprietary systems, the use of CMS in commercial websites can present significant challenges to search engine spiders and obviously to search engine optimizers. One of the problems is the development field is still quite young, even in Internet years and, for the most part, there is no form of standardization in the creation of CMS systems. This lack of standardization creates several unique issues that need to be addressed in order to advance a strong SEO campaign. For us, the biggest issue is the fact that each new CMS system presents a new learning curve which eats hours of billable time. As SEOs don’t like to charge our clients for our own education, CMS contracts often have hidden costs for SEOs.
Templates for CMS developed sites should provide the SEO with as much leeway as possible. In my experience, most templates are extremely rigid, providing very little room to make the necessary modifications to a site needed to achieve strong placements. If you are developing a site from the ground floor, or if you are a template designer, I strongly recommend getting a professional SEO involved in the process. Even on a basic consultancy basis, a good SEO can tell you which elements need to be fluid and which elements can be left static. It is also important to provide a different template for the INDEX page as there are important areas on the INDEX page that must be made open for SEOs to work in. Designing templates with search engine optimization in mind goes a long way to guaranteeing a strong and successful promotion.
Most CMS systems are designed around sites with highly dynamic content, often drawn from a database. As most databases continue to use extraneous characters in the URL paths such as the “?”, “&” and “=”, along with numeric datacodes, it is almost impossible to keyword enrich internal URL paths without redesigning an entire database. While search engines are now able to transit through almost any URL path without too much difficulty, the common use of extraneous characters in database production removes a fairly powerful tool from the hands of your SEO. Again, this is a case in which consulting with a professional SEO firm during the initial development stage may put your business one step ahead of your competition. Finding work-arounds and clear-paths for URLs is much easier in development than it is finding solutions for sites that are already being used, linked to from external sources, and added to by your employees.
Titles, tags and footers
Perhaps this section should have been included in the Template Structure section but I feel so strongly about this I think it needs its own section. Titles, meta-data and footers are among the most powerful tools in our inventory, and most CMS systems we’ve worked with severely limit our ability to make changes in these site elements. We have turned clients away when their tech-department tells us we won’t be able to place specific titles, meta-data and footers on unique pages. Imagine being asked to conduct a multi-keyword phrase campaign but being told you could only use one universal title across an entire website. This happens too frequently with CMS developed sites and is rather akin to handcuffing your SEO and asking him or her grab a bat and hit a homerun.
The same can be said for footers. One of our simpler but more powerful tools is the use of text-based navigation maps applied to the bottom of each page in a site. While this should be standard practice for site designers, it is often overlooked. Placing a footer on a CMS site should be as simple as writing an include file but is often far more difficult and in some cases, impossible. Designers should note how important it is to provide clear paths for spiders to follow from the start of a site to the last page of a site.
One of the biggest challenges for SEOs today, regardless of the technology used to build a site is stating a theme or topic for the website in such a way that various search tools can group the site in amongst other sites with similar topics. While much of the information needed to provide a theme is found in the body text, the description meta tag is, in my mind, extremely important. The necessity to provide a topical description meta tag is even more important when one is trying to achieve placements for multiple keyword phrases as internal pages will need to rank well in order to get multiple placements. Many CMS systems limit the meta data to one set of universal tags. This limitation makes multiple placements very difficult to achieve. Designers of CMS systems should go out of their way to allow for specific titles and meta data for unique pages.
Several Cooks or Too Many Changes Spoil the Broth
A final issue with content management systems, modern business and SEO is the aspect of a multi-user website with several departments or persons updating the site. This has been a constant issue with CMS systems for several reasons. The first reasons is totally logical. Businesses need to change product information and sales information from time to time. Often, the busier a business, the more changes are necessary. Provided a business lets their SEO know what changes will happen and when, this issue can be dealt with. As CMS systems makes these changes easy, it is worth noting that changes will happen with more frequency. This may necessitate a 100% paid-inclusion submission model in which the website owner is paying search engines for extra attention from spiders, or an XML feed to Yahoo under the SiteMatch XChange program to ensure Yahoo receives the freshest data each day. A more difficult issue is the ease in which different departments, sometimes in different geographic locations can update a section of a website, often overwriting work the SEO has performed. This happens because the CMS system has freed the client’s company from having to pass all changes through the company geek before those changes could make it online. (Now everyone in the company can be the geek.) What is missing is the control point telling the other site contributors that their contributions may damage a well planned SEO campaign. The only way we’ve found around this problem is to issue a policy notice stating that multiple changes to a site will have a detrimental effect on search engine placements.
CMS is the Future
There is no way around it. CMS is an important innovation that will be used more and more often in the months to come. There are a number of resources online that can help CMS designers and users of CMS systems but the most comprehensive we’ve come across is CMS Watch. I strongly recommend a visit. In the meantime, businesses using CMS systems should communicate with their SEO team regularly and set out a series of standards for updates and new product information. CMS designers should consult with an SEO company they can communicate with on a regular basis.