July 27, 2010
How To

Adopt a Content Management System that Supports SEO Goals: 5 Tactics to Choose a New Platform

SUMMARY: A content management system is the foundation for your website's content. If the foundation isn't strong, it won't support some of your key marketing goals, such as SEO.

Find out how to ensure your CMS update will incorporate SEO best practices and support your team's strategy. Includes tips on working with the IT team, and getting to the truth behind vendors' claims.
by Adam Sutton, Reporter

Adopting a new content management system is a major undertaking. You need to design a system that incorporates your team's overall online content strategy, which involves nearly every part of your company.

There are seemingly endless technical details, which is why many CMS updates are managed by an IT team. The problem is, IT can easily lose sight of goals beyond getting a CMS up and running -- goals such as search engine optimization.

"Frequently when a CMS project is being led by the IT team, SEO is not brought up as a concern early in the process, and the result can be tragic," says Randy Woods, Co-Founder, Non-Linear Creations.

But SEO is all about content, which makes a CMS integral to a website's natural search performance. We spoke with two CMS experts, Woods and Jeff Cram, Chief Strategy Officer, ISITE Design, to learn how to ensure a CMS update incorporates a strong SEO strategy.

Here are five tactics they recommend:

Tactic #1. Be involved from the outset

As mentioned, CMS projects are often run by IT departments, which is good. IT departments ensure systems run smoothly. However, you cannot let an IT team run the entire project. You must be directly involved from the very beginning.

This is the only way to ensure that your marketing goals -- such as better natural search performance -- will be addressed in the new system. Coming into the process after a vendor is chosen and integration has begun is far too late.

"Probably the biggest mistake folks make in regards to SEO in a CMS is they think about it too late," Cram says.

Tactic #2. Balance customization with automation

There are going to be many technical details that will affect your long-term SEO strategy. It will be helpful to have an SEO expert on hand to make sure all your bases are covered in terms of URL formats, HTML coding, display and other technical details.

If your team creates a lot of site content, examine the CMS platform to determine:
o Which content attributes contributors can customize
o Which attributes editors can change
o Which attributes are auto-generated

Your team may have a very savvy group of content contributors who need very little guidance on how to create content within SEO best practices. In this case, you can design a CMS dashboard that allows contributors to customize a broad range of page attributes, such as the title tag, h1, headlines and others.

However, few teams are in this position. Usually, content contributors have limited SEO knowledge, and can benefit from having some page elements auto-generated by the CMS, and others tweaked by an editor. Your editor should have a good understanding of SEO.

Your team will have to find the best balance to meet your needs -- and make sure you're aware of this balance during planning. Also, be sure that someone on your team who has a solid foundation in SEO can make granular changes, and that any auto-generated attributes follow best practices.

- System prompts

Although few CMS systems are equipped with it initially, Woods has helped customize systems to prompt contributors with tips to improve optimization. For example, an image-uploading tool could prompt users to enter an "alt" tag which describes the image using targeted keywords.

Tactic #3. Keep the assets you have

Well-established websites typically accumulate a significant amount of assets, such as inbound links, pages that rank well and dominance over certain search phrases. Make sure your new CMS does not discard these assets.

"If CNN has linked to a press release on your website, you don't want to lose that link. You have to be careful about the way you republish the site," Woods says. "You want the equivalent of that page -- ideally with the same address. Or at the very least, redirect it appropriately [with a 301 redirect]."

"If you don't do that, you can find that suddenly all sorts of rankings disappear that you didn't even know you had."

Tactic #4. Know how long it takes to get what you want

There are many different CMS options. Some are very inflexible but are easy to launch. Others are essentially programming platforms which are difficult to launch but can support a wide range of systems.

"Overwhelmingly, good search engine optimization with a CMS is really more about how you implement the CMS and not necessarily which CMS you select," Cram says. "With that said, some CMS systems make you work a lot harder to get what most people would consider to be a best practices SEO implementation."

You should not have to bend over backwards to make a CMS work for your site's content strategy, including its SEO.

"The challenge is that the software vendors marketing CMS know just enough to market with the right buzzwords that you really have to dig a little bit deeper so that you understand how much work will be involved to get you to where you need to be," Cram says.

How much work could be involved?

"Depending on the product, it could be enormous," Woods says. "And they'll always say it's ready out-of-the box, whether it is or not. Understanding the delta between what comes out of the box and what it takes to get it there is critical, not just to the search side, but to everything."

Here are a few ways you can make sure you're buying the CMS your team needs, and that you're not falling for some slick sales tactics:

- Ask the vendor to deploy

Some vendors will deploy the CMS on your site -- which shifts the risk of extended development times to their side of the table. Ask them how long it will take, get a contract and make sure your needs are met.

- Ask for a proof of concept

You can ask a vendor to work with your IT department to build a prototype system, launching the same CMS software on a test website with a few pages of content. This will give your IT team a sense of the project's difficulty, and you can test the system to see if it meets your needs.

- Ask for a "sandbox"

If you have a remarkably competent IT team, you can ask vendors to provide access to a system they've already set up, on which the IT team can test to better understand the platform.

"This is probably the least effective [tactic] because you have technology folks wandering into a new product without much guidance on how it works," Woods says.

- Ask for references

Always ask for references and make sure the references are relevant to your business. Inspect their websites and call their marketing teams to ask how the implementation went, how long it took and if they're happy with the results.

"SEO is fairly visible from an external perspective and you can pretty quickly run through references to see if they have a site that you would consider conforming to SEO best practices," Cram says.

Tactic #5. Know what you want in a CMS

Your team will have a much easier time ensuring a CMS will meet your marketing needs if you enter the project knowing exactly what you want.

From an SEO perspective, list your needs for the following areas:
o Content elements you want to control
o Content elements you want to automate
o How and where content appears on the site
o How content is archived
o Account access for editors and content creators
o Any other relevant areas

This tactic will prepare you for meetings with vendors, the IT department and other parts of your company. You want to be sure whether their plans or suggestions align with your needs.

When it comes to SEO in CMS, an ounce of planning is worth a pound of cure.

Useful links related to this article

Members Library -- New Sherpa Research: Search Engine Optimization Marketing Benchmarks for 2011

Members Library -- New Chart: The Allocation of SEO Budgets

ISITE Design

Non-Linear Creations

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