Moving to a new website platform can be a huge undertaking, but one that should put your business on a stable footing for a good few years. There is an abundance of SEO checklist style posts highlighting essential tasks to undertake when launching a new website, but in this post we’ll focus on the functional requirements of a website platform to ensure your new site is able to support current SEO best practices and avoid another costly re-platform sooner than you’d hoped.
While some of the requirements listed below may seem quite basic, it’s clear that many SEO professionals still regularly encounter crap websites missing even the most basic of features. It’s important then to ensure SEOs are involved in the early stages of a new website project to ensure the following features are achievable with whichever platform is decided upon.
Custom Control of Page Titles & Meta Descriptions
Each page title and meta description should be unique and relevant to the page they represent. Rule based auto generation of page titles and meta descriptions is completely fine and is often the most efficient way of tackling larger sites when configured correctly, however for advanced SEO your website platform should allow you to customise the page title and meta description on each page too.
Being able to customise these fields can help you test strategies for improving click through rates from organic search, which could in turn help boost your rankings.
Editable, Search Engine Friendly URL Structure
A descriptive URL provides both humans and search engines with an indication of what a page will be about.
An example of a search engine friendly URL can be seen below:
In contrast, the following URL is not descriptive to humans or search engines and therefore would not be classed as search engine friendly:
To further back up the argument for search engine friendly URL structure – Google state the following:
Consider organizing your content so that URLs are constructed logically and in a manner that is most intelligible to humans (when possible, readable words rather than long ID numbers).
Other considerations for URLs when choosing a new website platform include:
- Exclude session IDs: if the pages are not properly canonicalised and/or excluded within Search Console, the parameters can cause duplicate content issues. Fortunately, few platforms use sessionIDs in the URL any longer.
- Ensure product URLs are not solely dependent on which category they sit within – this can cause duplicate content issues for ecommerce stores that wish to have products in multiple categories
Customisable Page Headings
Heading tags are still important for SEO, and as per the advice on page titles and meta descriptions, all headings should be customisable and unique for optimal organic performance.
I still encounter sites on which the heading is automatically generated based on the page name, which also controls the anchor text used on the website navigation menu.
To avoid complicating matters and restricting how much you’re able to optimise page headings, ensure you’re able to edit the headings of each page independently of the navigation menu.
Editable Image Titles and ALT Text
Image titles and ALT text are used by Google as one way of understanding what an image represents. Editing these attributes is an essential element of on-page SEO and indeed optimising for Google image search.
Any new website platform must offer simple customisation of image titles, alt text and captions whenever images are uploaded to a page on the site.
Dynamically Generated XML Sitemaps
While it is sometimes claimed that a well-structured site doesn’t need an XML sitemap to help search engines discover and crawl its pages, it’s important to note the following:
- XML sitemaps are a great way of signposting key pages to search engines through webmaster tools platforms, while search engines will flag up any pages that they aren’t indexing or are having trouble crawling.
- Dynamic sitemaps allow site owners to immediately highlight the existence of new URLs to Google vs. waiting for Google to discover the URLs through crawling the internal link structure of a site
Optional Breadcrumb Navigation
Using a breadcrumb navigation can improve how your website looks in Google’s search results and thus should be factored in to any new website build.
Google has recently replaced URLs with the site name and breadcrumb trail in the mobile search snippets.
Webmasters are now able to highlight their breadcrumb navigation to Google using breadcrumb schema, which brings me nicely on to the next requirement.
Ability to Implement Structured Data
Structured data is a system of pairing a name with a value that helps search engines categorise and index your content better than they could by crawling raw HTML.
Popular methods of utilising structured data that should be factored in to any new website build are the use of:
- Schema.org (often called Schema markup) – this is a specific vocabulary of microdata that you can add to your HTML (hence the ‘markup’) to improve the way your page is represented in SERPs. The ability to add product schema on ecommerce sites helps ecommerce retailers stand out in the SERPs, while the ability to mark up product reviews can also help boost CTR:
- Facebook Open Graph & Twitter Cards markup – these are types of markup used to parse out information like which image and description to display from a URL in a social media post
Popular content management systems such as WordPress and Magento offer a range of plugins and extensions to support the implementation of structured data.
Custom 404 Page Functionality
The ability to customise a 404 page can help keep visitors on a website even if a product has sold out or been discontinued. This is a great way of retaining search visibility for products that still retain a healthy search volume if you’re able to provide credible alternatives to users landing on your site.
One great example of the use of custom 404 pages to retain rankings and traffic can be seen with Evans cycles, who instead of deleting pages show an out of stock message and signpost similar products to users landing on the page:
There are a tonne of creative examples of custom 404 pages but one thing to bear in mind is that these pages must still serve 404 status codes too – otherwise they run the risk of causing soft 404 errors which can severely impact organic performance.
Built in Search Functionality
On average, 30% of visitors will perform a site search if it’s enabled.
Site search functionality enables users to quickly find what they’re looking for, but can also help webmasters to identify new page opportunities and build organic visibility for a broader range of keywords.
Mobile Friendly Functionality
This is a no brainer – any website must be fully mobile friendly to stand a chance of ranking well in Google and other search engines, ideally designed with mobile UX as the foundation.
Two major elements of being deemed mobile-friendly:
- Pages must specify a viewport matching the accessing device size
- Contents of pages must fit within the viewport
In short, a platform that supports a responsive website is the easiest way of meeting these viewport requirements.
Site Speed Requirements
Site speed is now a Google ranking factor. Any new website platform must therefore be able to fulfil the following requirements:
- Server response time <500ms.
- Server supports browser caching and file compression.
- Supports minification of JS and CSS.
Blog Integration with RSS
A blog is an ideal method of hosting content designed to attract inbound links to a site and should be factored in to any new website build.
RSS can help your content be picked up quicker and indexed faster by search engines too.
On any website, you should be able to choose to include (or not include) certain pages in your primary navigation.
Ecommerce sites should also offer the ability of linking to sub categories from more than one area of the navigation vs. relying on the category hierarchy to automatically generate the navigation menu (which can cause duplicate content if you wish to link to a sub category in more than one area of the nav!)
Other considerations for website navigation include:
- Navigation should be rendered in plain HTML text (links still clickable for users with JS, CSS and cookies disabled)
- Anchor text used on navigation should be customisable outside of page names
Customisable Canonical Tags & Pagination Tags
This is one of the most important elements that people often miss – does the platform support canonical tags? And how easy is it to integrate advanced rules and insert custom canonicals where relevant?
Canonical tags allow you to avoid duplicate content by highlighting the ‘preferred’ version of sets of similar pages to Google:
Planning the required functionality of a website to meet SEO best practices will save costly redesigns and tagging features on to platforms over time. While there is no way of completely future proofing your website platform, opting for a CMS used by a large number of global users is a safe bet.
And If All Else Fails..
Of course, getting a new website platform can be costly and simply isn’t feasible for all businesses.
If you’re stuck with a CMS that doesn’t allow for customisation then it can often seem that your advice and efforts are in vain – but did you know that you can actually implement HTML changes via Google tag manager? This will enable you to make certain changes such as adding structured data markup to boost organic performance, even on the most restrictive of website platforms!