No CMS Is a (SEO) Magic Bullet: A Quick Guide on SEO Within the CMS
When a stakeholder says "Wordpress is better for SEO," how do you convince them it's simply not true? We tackle the CMS-agnostic nature of search engine optimization.
A few months back, I received an email from a client. They were working through approvals on a large technical plan, and had run into a snag: a stakeholder who was convinced that we should ignore the custom news feed built within their content management system and instead implement Wordpress as a separate news feed. In this stakeholder’s words:
“Wordpress is better for SEO.”
There’s a lot to unpack here, but, at its base level, this is simply not true. There are a lot of adjustments that can be made to this sentence to make it more realistic — you could say “Wordpress is better at SEO out of the box, or you could say “Wordpress is easier to configure for SEO,” or you could even say “Wordpress has a better reputation for SEO.”
But Wordpress, as a content management system, is not better for SEO. It is completely neutral. The fact that it’s Wordpress has nothing to do with search engine optimization.
Let’s talk about why.
Wordpress is still good.
First off, let’s get this out of the way. I love Wordpress.
I have been blogging on Wordpress in various forms for 16 years. I know a ton of great sites that have been built on Wordpress — from basic sites to larger content managed sites.
But, while Wordpress is an amazing system for certain types of sites, it is also limited in its capacity to work with complex content models. Wordpress is built to handle certain things really well — news or blog feed content, first and foremost — but as the model becomes more complex, your Wordpress install requires more and more custom solutions. Walk too far down this path, and you’ve effectively removed any of Wordpress’ built-in benefits — you’re practically building a custom CMS.
We say this because, with a lot of the sites we build at Blend, Wordpress simply isn’t robust enough to handle the level of complexity required. That doesn’t mean it’s not the right choice for the right projects.
So, yes. I love Wordpress. But that’s not the issue here. The issue is that there’s nothing about Wordpress as a system that affects search engine optimization. Google simply does not care.
Google does not care about CMS.
When Google crawls your site to index content, it looks for a lot of things. It looks for certain markers — HTML tags, frequently used words, site structure and order — in order to gather context for the content on each page. This forms the basic underlying principles of writing and building for search engines:
- A well-structured site allows for inclusion of certain context clues for search results.
- A well-written site allows for simple translation of page content into related search queries.
One thing that is not considered is “what CMS is this being built within.”
(As far as we know, of course. Given Google’s secrecy about its search algorithm, there’s no hard and fast proof that Google doesn’t include some kind of tweaks for a particular content management system. But, it’s easy to imagine the negatives of skewing results based on content management system — it’s one thing to skew speed and usability best practices due to changes in the algorithm, but could you imagine the outrage if it came out that a specific commercial or open source content management system was getting preferential treatment?)
Thankfully, this is not the case. Google cares about tags and code, not the containers in which those tags and code live.
Wordpress is not better for SEO by nature of it’s very existence as Wordpress. Because, simply put, Google does not care about CMS.
Shortcuts can be built in any system.
Which brings us to the next point: Google may not necessarily care about the CMS itself, but it does care about the results of some CMS features.
This is where the perception of Wordpress as a SEO juggernaut originates. Wordpress — and more specifically, unique SEO tools and plugins available to Wordpress installs, such as Yost’s SEO plugin — do a great job of providing shortcuts and guidance toward building pages with SEO at the forefront. It’s this correlation that fuels the Wordpress praise.
But Wordpress is not the only CMS that provides these shortcuts. Most modern systems include some system of plugins or add-ons that allow for supercharged SEO.
More to the point, these shortcuts aren’t cheats or hacks — more often than not, they’re one of two things:
- An added context layer. If your CMS doesn’t come equipped with tools to help manage metadata or allow for easy maintenance of canonical links, these plugins can add those on as an added layer.
- An added editorial layer. Since a major tenet of search engine optimization is tied to editorial content, plugins provide simple editorial reminders — recommendations on how long a title should be, or notifications if an image’s alternative text is missing.
If you’re working with an existing content management system, take a look around the community. There might be a plugin or upgrade available. If you’re using Wordpress, there’s probably dozens.
SEO is more than a plugin.
Of course, there are a lot of things that a plugin can’t solve — problems that can plague even the most search-engine-optimized Wordpress site: all the tools and extra fields don’t mean a lick if your site isn’t optimized for performance.
Performance issues — and performance fixes — aren’t unique to any one content management system. In fact, they’ve become table stakes — every major content management system provides the base level of support for accessibility and search engine optimization. However, it’s all of those custom tweaks, content updates, and template-level decisions that tend to cause SEO issues — issues that can affect a Wordpress site just as much as any other.
In other words, your site’s performance and optimizability are only as good as the skill and attention of your development team.
A good development team — from Wordpress and Drupal developers to enterprise-level Optimizely developers — will make sure your site is built for search engine optimization. This includes:
- Light and fast code for fast loading on mobile
- Proper configuration of XML sitemaps
- Implementation and maintenance of canonical links
- Implementation of industry- and content-type-related schema
None of these are unique to any one system.
The algorithm will change; don’t view technology as the only answer.
One final note: placing all of your search engine optimization hopes on a single tool or system might feel comforting, but know that, as with all things in the world of technology, the parameters are bound to change.
Through all of this, regardless of which fields are measured, regardless of the impact of specific plugins at this moment, one thing will always fuel positive search engine results: human-centered writing and design. As Rebekah Baggs and Chris Corak write in their Book SEO for Everyone:
The secret to a search strategy that holds up over the long term is this: when we stay focused on what matters to our users, we’ll be ready for whatever technology and time bring our way.
Staying on top of trends is key to keeping ahead of the curve, and it’s a big part of understanding how we may need to adjust our existing CMS to allow for better search results. But the bulk of the work still comes from the words. Smart, plain, accessible words, written for humans, are always more likely to be shared and engaged with.
That, after all, is what search engine optimization is all about, and no single content management system will ever change that.