How To Choose Content Management Systems For SEO

Nowadays, a great many websites are powered by a content management system (CMS) along with a back-end database. And for good reason. It’s too unwieldy to code HTML on a page-by-page basis, as you expand your content offerings to the thousands or tens of thousands of pages (and beyond). Content managements systems to the rescue! But there can be downsides too.

My biggest gripe with the content management systems of today is their lack of SEO features. And I’m not talking about meta keywords, which are a complete waste of time.

I’m patiently waiting for the day when a CMS-based site can rival static HTML sites in SEO. No bones about it, hand-coded sites offer complete, granular control over each page, and every single tag contained within. That’s real flexibility. Too bad they don’t scale. Therefore, the SEO practitioner is going to need a CMS that will at least be cooperative.

Which SEO features should you be shopping for in a CMS? Glad you asked. Here’s my wish list of features, broken down into critical, important, desirable and optional…

Critical CMS features

  • URLs free of tracking parameters and session IDs — Sticking session or tracking information such as the user’s clickpath into the URL is deadly for SEO. It usually leads to incomplete indexation and duplicate content issues.
  • H1 tags — No H1 tags on a given page is not desirable. Too many H1 tags on the page is not desirable. Low-value content (such as the publication date) marked up as an H1 is not desirable. The article title is typically the best content to have wrapped in an H1.
  • Customizable URL structure — If the default URL structure of the CMS doesn’t suit your needs, you should be able to change it. For example, if you don’t want /archives/ in the URLs of all your archived articles, you should be able to remove it. Or if you want to reference the article name instead of the article’s database ID in the URL, you should be able to do it.
  • 301 redirects to canonical URL — Duplicate content is the bane of the existence of many a dynamic website owner. Automatic handling of this by the CMS through the use of 301 redirects is a must.

Important CMS features

  • Static-looking URLs — The most palatable URLs to spiders are the ones that look like they lead to static pages, i.e. no query strings.
  • Keywords in URLs — Keywords in your URLs can help your rankings. It would be a shame to miss out on the opportunity this presents, if your CMS doesn’t support keyword-rich URLs (e.g. only article IDs in the URL).
  • RSS feeds — RSS feeds are essential if you want to reach bloggers; email newsletters won’t cut it for the hip, Web 2.0 crowd. Hopefully this feature also comes integrated with Feedburner, for improved visibility on RSS feed consumption by your subscribers.
  • Pings — This lets blog and feed search engines like Google Blog Search know you have published new content so they can come and grab your latest RSS feed.
  • Tagging and tag clouds — This Web 2.0 feature is powerful for SEO, thanks in large part to the keyword-rich text links. This is your opportunity to rejig your internal linking structure and how you flow PageRank without having to completely gut your taxonomy/ontology.
  • Individually customizable title tags and H1 tags — Each title tag should be decoupled from the post/article/product title. Same goes for H1 tags. That way anchor text can be varied from H1′s which can, in turn, be varied from the title tag. Thus, you can work in additional keywords (synonyms etc.) into the H1, and even more into the title tag — without spamming of course!
  • Multi-level categorization structure — It’s awfully limiting to your site structure and internal hierarchical linking structure to have a CMS that doesn’t allow you to nest subcategories into categories, sub-subcategories into subcategories, and so on.
  • Canonical tags — Although I don’t trust Google to always reliably obey this new tag, it is definitely worthwhile having it available as an option if the need arises (hopefully that need won’t arise if you have 301′s in all the right places).

Desirable CMS features

  • Paraphrasable excerpts — Duplicate content issues are exacerbated on dynamic sites such as blogs when the same content is displayed on permalink pages, category pages, archives-by-date pages, tag pages, and the home page. Crafting unique content for the excerpt and having that content display on all locations except for the the permalink page will help strengthen your permalink page as unique content.
  • Breadcrumb navigation — It reinforces the hierarchical nature of your internal linking structure using text links which are hopefully keyword-rich.
  • Flexible rules for automatically generating title tags — If the title tag always has to start with your site name followed by a colon followed by your article title, you’re sunk — at least as far as your SEO is concerned. You should be able to revise the “recipes” used to generate the title tags across your site to make them more optimal for search.
  • Page-specific meta descriptions — A cardinal sin of dynamic websites is using the same meta description across all the pages. This can be a contributor to duplicate content issues.
  • Meta noindex for low-value pages — Even if you nofollow links to these pages, other people may still link to these and you run the risk of ranking those pages above some of your more valuable content.
  • Keyword-rich intro copy on category-level pages and tag pages — Keyword-rich introductory copy helps set a stable keyword theme/focus for the page, rather than relying on the latest article, product, or blog post to be the most prominent text on the page.
  • Granular control over nofollows on links — If your site allows the posting of user-generated content through “comments,” your site will be a spam-magnet if you don’t nofollow the links posted by commenters. Heck, you’ll probably be a spam magnet anyways, it’ll just be worse for you without the nofollows. Additionally, regardless of your stance on PageRank sculpting and its value for SEO, you should be able to selectively decide when and when not to pass PageRank to an internal page within your site.
  • Customizable anchor text on navigational links — “Contact”, “About Us”, “Read More”, “Full Article” etc. all make for lousy anchor text — at least from an SEO standpoint. Hopefully your CMS allows you to improve such links to make the anchor text more keyword-rich.
  • Mass Edit, or Bulk Upload (or both) — It’s not efficient to go to each page’s Edit screen. Instead, mass modify the titles, H1′s, filenames, and perhaps even meta descriptions, within Excel or a “mass edit” web interface (like the one provided by my SEO Title Tag plugin for WordPress.
  • Declared search term — When you decide on a page’s primary keyword focus, you should be able to tuck away that crucial bit of information somewhere where it will be safe from the prying eyes of competitors. That means it should not be parked anywhere in the HTML — including the meta keywords tag — since all a resourceful competitor would need to do is “View Page Source” within their web browser. There should be a field in the database, displayed and accessible to your editors/administrators within the admin interface of your CMS.
  • Auto 301 redirect previous versions of URLs — Imagine updating a permalink or product page URL (e.g. “post slug”) multiple times. Each previous version of a URL could lead the search engines to discover duplicate pages if you’re not careful. Why worry about these old URLs and whether they will stop working or will create duplicate content; let the CMS “worry” about this instead and seamlessly 301 previous iterations to the latest version.
  • Google Product Search feed — If your CMS is powering an online catalog site, then this feature is for you. It can be a real timesaver. And if you are an online retailer not submitting your products into Google Base, heed this warning: neglect Google Product Search (formerly Froogle) at your peril!

Optional CMS features

  • XML Sitemaps generator — A XML sitemap can be submitted to the major engines to improve indexation, but it’s usually unnecessary if you have a search engine friendly CMS; the engines will usually do a good job crawling and discovering your site’s URLs on their own. Google will use your Sitemaps file as a canonicalization signal, but hopefully you don’t need it since your CMS isn’t generating duplicate pages.
  • XHTML validation — When entering your content, it is desirable to have the CMS automatically check for malformed HTML, as search engines may end up “seeing” a page differently from how it renders on the screen and consider navigation to be part of the content or vice versa.
  • Pingbacks, Trackbacks, Comments and Anti-spam mechanisms — The problem with comments/trackbacks/pingbacks is that they are vectors for spam, so if you have one (comments/trackbacks/pingbacks), you will have the other (spam). Therefore, effective spam prevention (e.g. Akismet, Defensio, Mollom) is a must.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO


About The Author: is the author of Google Power Search, creator of the Science of SEO and co-author of The Art of SEO now in its second edition, both published by O'Reilly. Spencer is also the founder of Netconcepts and inventor of the SEO technology platform GravityStream. He also blogs on his own site, Stephan Spencer's Scatterings.

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  • nickstamoulis

    This is an excellent list and I agree with you 100%! It drives me crazy when I have to deal with a hack job and unstable CMS when I try to implement the on site optimization recommendations for a client…I seriously think your post should be given to any company that is trying to find a new CMS…

  • Aaron Bradley

    Fabulous post, Stephan. Traditionally out-of-the-box CMS solutions are SEO-hostile, and I’ve had to use a lot of development resources to hammer content management systems into place. Those tasks have included many of your checklist items, particularly related to URL structure, duplicate content and title customization.

    I would add to the list SEO-friendly image coding capabilities, including the ability to add alt attributes to both linked and unlinked images, and control over image file names and locations (many systems, particularly, create impossibly long and meaningless image file names).

  • Jono Alderson

    WordPress cheerfully does about three quarters of these straight out of the box, and the rest can be bolted on in ten minutes with half a dozen popular plugins. Job done?

  • TriExpert

    Stephan, I don’t get the “Declared search term” bullet point. Invisible in page source would imply invisible to crawlers too, no?

  • Jono Alderson

    @TRiExpert There are a number of cases I’ve had using WordPress where I’ve wanted to have information pertinent to a page available from it, but not to crawlers or the public. For example, if I’m logged in and an admin, I might wish a page to show keyphrase targetting information, debugging, etc, but otherwise hide it.

  • TriExpert

    @Jono, so was Stephan after a type of “note to self” functionality to remind authors and editors what keywords to emphasize in that page/section, do you think?

  • SEOsamba

    I think you need to unleash your imagination Stephen. A solution exist today and goes beyond what you describe. SEO Samba does all of this and a lot more out of the box, including automated deep-linking, multi-site management from a single interface, Google news compliant section, interfacing with email marketing, single sign-on with Google, creation AND upload of XML sitemap to Google Webmaster Tools, point and click integration of Google Website Optimizer. All of this with an architecture that allows deployment of published webservers to segregated web servers to maximize cross-linking value.

    I’d be glad to give you a demo Stephen.

  • Pixelsilk

    Stephen, nice post.

    The good news is there is a CMS that can handle this list and more. Full HTML control is a must, 100% flexibilty with the URL structure, multi site management, keyword assignment , robots.txt editor, 301 redirecter, search advice for editors to help them obtain on page goals set by the SEO, Eric Ward approved link flexibility, Bruce Clay ToolSet Integration, plus Integration with 50 more best of breed solutions and the list is growing…

    Of course for full transparency I need to state that I am the President and CEO of Pixelsilk so, I have a little bias towards the work we are doing. ;-)

    Stephen, would you like to see this in action?

  • Stephan Spencer

    @TriExpert, absolutely correct, I was referring to a ‘note to self’ function. Actually more importantly, I see it as a ‘note to colleagues’ function – specifically to those who might update that page in the future. i.e. “Don’t derail my intended keyword focus or heads will roll!”

    @Aaron, great addition! I’ll have to make a note to add that to the list.

  • RobRose

    First off. Thank you. What an excellent post. Thanks for such a great and succinct list of excellent suggestions.

    Full disclosure, I work for a Web Content Management provider. And, it bears mentioning (as is evident in the comments) that there are *many* CMS systems that can meet this list. And, there are real differences between WCMS and Blogging Tools – which all too frequently are lumped together (but that’s a different post).

    But just one thing I’d love to point out – especially from an SEO standpoint – is that it’s good to keep in mind the differences between Best Practices, CMS “Features” and Design/Format Functions. You have examples of each in your post – and each have their place in a well formulated SEO Strategy.

    For example, your suggestion under “Desirable” functions to have “Keyword-rich intro copy on category-level pages..” This is an excellent suggestion – but it’s something that even the most capable CMS in the world can’t solve. CMS’s are great – but they don’t yet write wonderful, compelling copy (I hope for my sake they never do). Anyway, that’s a best practice. Further, your suggestion of Tag Clouds are again an excellent suggestion – but there are innumerable applications of tag clouds (trust me we’ve had to integrate to many of them) from little Flash Apps, to Static Tags, to Ajax versions etc.. etc… Tag Clouds are a display function.

    As you appropriately point out in the beginning, it’s too unwieldy to code every page by hand. But if you could, that would be the optimium – as you’d have full control over every single page. That’s what a good CMS does. Put simply a CMS focused on SEO:

    * Gives you full control over every aspect of hierarchical structure, meta data, page level content and URL Construction – without adding anything proprietary to the page as it’s published.
    * Can publish to any online format (E.g. HTML, RSS, ATOM, XML) and to any schema applied to it (e.g. Google XML Sitemap vs. Bob’s Content Syndicate Feed).

    In short, from an SEO perspective, best practices inform the display and format, and the CMS should simply enforce the display and format without getting in the way. We all know too well how frequently the sands of SEO change. A good CMS should simply get out of the way of that process, and enforce the new best practices as they are discovered.

    Thanks again for great info.

    Rob Rose
    VP Marketing & Strategy

  • geoff


    This is a great article and it has good timing for me. I have been thinking about a lot of this as I have a small site that is hand coded, but I want to grow my site and have been thinking about starting to use a CMS.

    I am leaning towards wordpress, do you have any suggestions for plug ins or would you recommend any other (low cost) CMS systems? How do you feel about the thesis theme?

  • Harry

    I definitely agree with your SEO “needs.” However, I can say that Drupal at least can do most of these things either out of the box or with the help of community-contributed modules. Check out this article on Drupal & SEO –

  • RonnieB

    You say that wordpress can “cheerfully” do 3/4 of what Stephan writes of, can you tell us what plug-ins you suggest to get to that level and what is not covered by those plugins with WordPress?

  • timkilroy

    Completely terrific article Stephan. In my SEO work, we are consistently finding platform and cms providers that are using an outdated code base and are stuck without the very fundamentals of SEO. I hope that they read this article. CMS is the way that organizations both large and small make their web site manageable and they shouldn’t pay a penalty because software designers ingnored SEO.

  • shan4426

    the article is useful for me,thank you!

  • Eric Ward

    Incredibly useful stuff here Stephan. I’ll include this in my consults and thank you for your generosity.

  • Domino

    Dear Stephan,

    Do you have any recommendations for the best CMS software out there on today’s market that covers most of your guidelines and SEO needs to be effective? As myself and my webmaster are right now looking for the best possible CMS software to update my website so I can update myself. But something that won’t be too much work on his end to make it SEO Friendly.

    Any feedback would be greatly appreciate that I can pass to my webmaster, as I don’t know too much about website and CMS programs.

    Thank you kindly!


  • http://gThankYou gThankYou


    Many thanks for an excellent post. I’d be grateful for your take on some of the questions posted above, e.g. optimal available CMSs and recommended plug-ins (in addition to yours).

    gThankYou! Rick Kiley


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