Website architecture has been a focus for SEOs for a long time now, but over the past few years, it’s become even more important. That’s because architecture is the foundation of the entire website. It affects both how visitors interact with your site and whether or not search engines are properly able to analyze your optimized content.
But website architecture shouldn’t just be a concern for SEOs. It should be a concern for website developers, as well. Whenever we hear someone is designing a new website, we are quick to recommend that they build a strong, search-engine-friendly website right from the start, even if they don’t immediately hire an SEO. Failure to do so can cause problems that will hamper SEO efforts, ultimately leading to higher development costs to fix the problems.
Who Is This Guide Meant For?
• Website Managers. If you are responsible for the development and/or marketing of your company’s website, and you don’t want to pay for yet another set of eyes on the site, this handy guide will help you out. Put this information into the hands of your developer, and, should they choose to follow it, your site will pretty much be search-engine-friendly and ready to be optimized and promoted once it goes live.
• Website Developers. If you are an internal developer for a company or are part of a development agency, this guide will help you create search-engine-friendly websites for all of your clients, potentially saving them thousands of dollars when you bring in a Web marketer to analyze the site later. Keep in mind, the items here are not search engine optimization, nor should they be presented as such. This is just foundational stuff that allows actual SEO and Web marketing to be more effective.
• Web Marketing Consultants. Whether you are consulting during the development stage or picking up the ball after the site is fully developed and rolled out, focusing on the issues noted here first will allow other optimization and promotion you do to be far more effective. In many cases, these issues should be taken care of before any other marketing starts.
Search-Engine-Friendly Website Development Guide
1. Consider using HTTPS encryption. In the past, HTTPS/SSL security was reserved solely for the e-commerce sections of the website. This was to protect sensitive personal information, such as credit card numbers. However, Google is making a push for “HTTPS everywhere” by factoring this into its ranking algorithm.
For now, it’s only a small factor — but that could change as more sites make the move. The key to going fully secure on your website is making sure it does not impede site speed, which is another (probably more important) issue.
2. Keep your security certificate current. Expired security certificates can wreak havoc for your visitors, giving them all kinds of nasty notices in their browser that are likely to scare them off. Keep an eye on your certificate renewals to stay ahead of this.
3. Allow spidering of site via robots.txt. Every now and then when a new site rolls out, the developer forgets to change the robots.txt file to allow the search engines to crawl the pages. If your Web marketer doesn’t think about checking this file, you could spend months wondering why you’re not getting the traffic you should be. Double-check your robots.txt file to make sure it does not “disallow” search engines from crawling your site.
4. Declare your document type. The page’s “doctype” tells the browsers how to translate each Web page. Without a properly declared doctype, the browser has to guess. For the most part, its guess will be correct, but some things simply may not translate properly. Search engines use this to make sure they are analyzing each part of your site correctly.
5. Use valid HTML. While invalid HTML won’t necessarily affect your rankings, it is yet another thing that can cause your page to be translated incorrectly by the browser or the search engine. Proper translation of each page ensures everyone sees what you think they see.
6. Use valid CSS. See above.
8. Avoid using HTML frames. Admittedly, this is old-school Web development that you don’t see much these days, but it’s a worthy precaution to keep in mind in case you are working with an old-school developer. But honestly, if you hired a developer that uses frames, you hired the wrong guy.
9. Add descriptive image alt attributes. Any image that is called for in the code of the page (rather than via CSS) should use an appropriately labeled alt attribute. This is a minor thing, but it’s generally just a good practice to remember as the images are being added.
10. Redirect old URLs. Inevitably, there will be some URL changes in any site redesign. Before you remove the old site, capture all the current URLs so you can 301 redirect any URLs that may have changed or are no longer valid. By 301 redirecting these URLs, you can capture most of the authority value any of those pages may have earned in the past and pass it to the corresponding new pages.
11. 404 bad URLs. And just in case you missed any 301 redirects of old URLs, be sure that any invalid URL returns a 404 code with a properly designed 404 page.
12. Forget printer-friendly pages. Developers used to create “printer-friendly” pages that had their own URL. This is no longer necessary and is in fact bad practice. Use CSS to make sure any page on your site is printer-friendly, removing things that don’t make sense for the printed page and using formatting that is better suited for paper.
13. Underline clickable links. Underlined text is still the universal indicator that the text is a hyperlink. It’s generally not a good idea to break protocol (or expectations) in this area.
14. Differentiate link text. Aside from underlining your hyperlinks, your link text should be different in at least one other way, as well. Visitors should not first have to mouse over text to figure out that it is a link.
15. Implement canonical breadcrumb URLs. Your breadcrumbs should consistently point only to canonical URLs. Quite often, content can be viewed from multiple URLs based on how the visitor was brought to the page. Don’t let your breadcrumb URLs follow the visitor’s navigation path; instead, make them consistent regardless of how the visitor found the content.
16. Establish a proper page hierarchy. Page URLs should use an established hierarchical format that mimics the navigation of the website. Navigational categories and subcategories should be represented in all URLs.
17. Have a balanced directory structure. When developing the navigation/page hierarchy, strike a good balance between shallow and deep. You don’t want visitors to have to make too many clicks before finding the content they want. However, too many options from the home page generally prevents visitors from making a reasoned selection. Instead, they tend to click the most convenient link rather than searching for the right one.
18. Write unique title tags. Every page of the site should start with its own unique title tag. You don’t have to go all SEO on it if time doesn’t permit, but having a title that represents the content of the page is a must for rolling the site out. Keep each one between 35 and 55 characters.
19. Write unique meta descriptions. See above. A good description should be between 100 and 155 characters.
20. Use properly coded lists. Use proper HTML code (<ol>, <ul>, <li>) for bulleted and numbered lists. This tells the browser and search engine that a piece of content is an actual list item, which can affect how that text is being translated for search value.
21. Reduce code bloat. As development progresses and new features are added to a site, it’s easy for the code to become bloated. Many times, developers are looking for the easiest/quickest way to do something — but that is often the most bloated way, as well. Code bloat slows down page speed, so it’s best to keep that to a minimum.
22. Reduce HTML table usage. Like frames, tables are on their way out of common usage, as there are much more streamlined ways to do the same thing. Unfortunately, it’s often easier to create and manage tables. Avoid using tables whenever possible, and use CSS instead for content that needs to have the table-style layout.
23. Use absolute links in navigation. Developers like to use relative links because it makes it easy to move a site from a development server to the live URL. However, relative links can lead to problems with interpretation and scraping. I recommend using absolute links whenever possible, but at the very least in the site navigation.
24. Implement non-spiderable shopping cart links. Any link into your shopping cart should not be spiderable by search engines. You don’t want search engines adding products to a cart just by following a link. Keep them out of all these areas so they stay focused on your content.
25. Disallow pages to keep search engines out. Use your robots.txt file to keep search engines from spidering pages they shouldn’t have access to. Disallowing these pages will keep the search engines from reading any content on the page; however, links to those pages can still end up in search results if the engines find other signals that give them an indication of the page’s value.
26. NoIndex pages to keep them out of SERPs. If you want to keep pages out of the search engine results pages (SERPs) completely, using the noindex meta tag is the better route to go. This tells the search engines not to index the page at all.
27. NoFollow links to keep them from passing value. If you don’t want any particular link to pass value to another page, use the nofollow attribute in the link code. Keep in mind that the link itself will cause a loss of link value from the page — it just won’t be passed to the page you are linking to.
28. Check for broken links. Before you roll the site out, check for and fix any broken links. When crawling your site, you don’t want Google to find errors like this out of the gate, as that can diminish the site’s overall value score. You should do this again once the site is live, just to be sure something didn’t go wrong in the transfer.
29. Find ways to increase page load speed. There are always things you can do to improve site speed. Look for even the smallest of opportunities to make your pages load even faster.
30. Reduce the number of on-page links. Search engines recommend that any single page have no more than 100 links. But that doesn’t mean you have to approach that number before culling excessive links. Review your site navigation and key pages to ensure you haven’t used excessive linking.
31. Eliminate duplicate content. Do your best to prevent any duplicate content. This is especially important for e-commerce sites with multiple paths to similar information. Each page of content should have a single canonical URL. The rest should be eliminated. If you can’t eliminate all URLs that produce dupe content, use the canonical tag as a stop-gap measure.
32. Implement proper heading tag hierarchy. Each page should have one, and only one, H1 tag. The remaining top-level heading tags (H2-4) should be used for content areas only, reserving H5-6 for navigational headings.
33. Don’t use session IDs. This is another old technology that, perplexingly, is still being used today. There are far better means of tracking visitors through your site, so avoid using this method at all costs.
34. Use search-engine-friendly links. Make sure all your links (except those you deliberately want to keep away from search engines) are using search-engine-friendly link code. Using the wrong link code can inadvertently keep search engines away from very valuable content.
35. Implement structured data. Structured data is additional coding around key elements of content that help the search engines understand the purpose or value of that content. This can affect how your site displays in the search results, as well as what information is presented to searchers altogether.
Implementing each of the suggestions above will push your site one step closer to being search-engine-friendly. My suggestion would be to pay attention to all of them because rolling out a new site that isn’t completely search-engine-friendly can have disastrous results. If you wait until after the site rolls out — even if you fix problems quickly — you can still experience some negative long-term ramifications.
I suggest going through this list with your developer to make sure each has been completed before approving the site to go live, even if that bumps the deadline a few weeks. Better to roll a site out slightly late than push out a site that will tank your business and create more problems you have to dig yourself out of later.