I first met Carolyn when she spoke at SEJ Summit Chicago 2015. Her talk mesmerized the crowd, and she was the highest-rated speaker. We are looking forward to having her at this year’s Chicago SEO conference, taking place June 23rd. Carolyn will be speaking on how to tune up your technical SEO and ensuring that speed and other factors aren’t weighing your website down. Below is her insight on CMS, SEO, and more.
Want to see Carolyn and other speakers from The Home Depot, Grainger, Google, and more? Chicago tickets are on sale now!
This is a transcribed version of Carolyn’s Marketing Nerds podcast:
Your SEJ Summit presentation will be about tuning up your SEO. Are there any horror stories you’ve heard of when it comes to platform upgrades?
I’ve witnessed a few catastrophes in my day. One of the bigger catastrophes I saw was someone who was taking a website.
For some reason, because they had the ability to arbitrarily set their pass for the pages, someone decided that they would keyword stuff the URL. They would make up URLs for every page and put in a zillion sub directories just so they could squeeze in more keywords.
If it was a page about, let’s say, scoliosis, it would be website.com/backpain/spinecurvature/curvedspine/geneticdisease/scoliosis. Every single one was unique, and there was no pattern to the URL structure. Because there was no pattern or rhyme or reason to how they were set up, we had to write a one-to-one redirect from the old URL to the new URL for 3,000 different URLs.
URLs have a systematic naming to them. You can take things like, all right, take this entire website.com/spineproblems, let’s say. Keep the variable for the actual file name. Everything that’s in there, let’s redirect that carrying over the variable to this different directory. That’s easy. Depending on how many directories you have, your HTXS files maybe going to be ten lines long, right? Not 3,000.
I’ve seen some other ones, though, where someone changes to a menu structure that can’t be crawled. One of the things that we had happened when we did our new platform last year was some very important things for Google News.
They were being delivered via CSS so that people would see the word Buy in the byline. The search engine would just see this random name floating out in the middle of nowhere or the date. The date was being inserted with CSS and you couldn’t see it in the code.
One of the things that I really had to beat the drum about was if when you view the source on the rendered code, if the word is not in the code the search engines cannot see it. You can’t count on just because people can see it then the bots can see it because it’s not the way it works.
Rendered code versus source code – that means two different things to developers. Developers write code or source code, it’s the stuff that makes the web pages and before it actually makes the web page and outputs it, it looks a lot different.
What you need to look at as an SEO is the rendered output so that you’re looking at exactly what the bots are going to have access to. It doesn’t matter what happens on the back end internally. It matters what gets put out there on the web for people to access.
What are the common mistakes people make when launching their new sites?
One of the things I’ve seen the most frequent is when people launch new WordPress sites.
I cannot tell you how many times someone comes to me week after launching saying, “I don’t know what’s happened. The site is just not in Google anymore. We turned it on. Everything looks fine.” Once you know it, guess what they forgot to turn off in WordPress? The privacy settings.
Seriously, you should check that.
I saw one site where they couldn’t figure out why certain characters were getting rendered strangely. It didn’t matter what they did, the characters got rendered in an ASCII equivalent. It was annoying. It had been happening for ages. It was something that I would never would have thought to check but I stumbled on it. In the settings, the format was set, it’s usually UTF-8 general. Everyone has it set like that.
For some reason, it was set to be UTF Swedish. Who does that?
The settings in WordPress, you have to double check them and for God’s sake, you have to turn the privacy off. You’re basically giving the finger to Google every time they come by to try to index your site.
Are there any other common mistakes people make when they are upgrading to a different platform besides just checking the basic settings like the privacy?
One of the biggest things I see is people not making an effort to properly redirect their old URLs to their new URLs.
You can’t do a blanket redirect and say if it comes in on a bad URL just send it to the home page. That is the worst thing you can do. You should also not just 404 things that are deprecated. If you had a page about pink widgets and you have a new page about pink widgets, you have to 301 the old URL to the new URL and there’s a couple of reasons why.
One, it’s a bad user experience if you don’t. Two, search engine needs to find that new page, and you want to preserve the value you’ve accumulated by transferring it to the new page. You don’t know who’s been linking to that old page. There could be really valuable links. That’s one of the reasons you should pull a back link report before you do these things.
Another hugely common thing that I see: People forget to put in all the attributes for their images because they are in such a hurry to pull the images over that they just don’t bother. That’s not good.
We have to go through and basically run an audit of the new site before you turn the new site on. That’s the worst thing that I ever hear is, “It doesn’t matter, we just need to launch. We can SEO it later.” You cannot SEO it later.
If somebody is looking to make the process as painless as possible, are there any platforms or CMSes you would recommend that are the easiest to move to?
I don’t think any one CMS is particularly better or easier than any other. They are all systems that will do the same thing, really.
If you got a programmer or developer who knows how to work within the code, you’re not going to have a difficult time making sure that your basic SEO fundamentals are met, as long as your developer understands what those basics are.
It’s a different story, I guess, if you don’t actually know how to do any coding or programming. In that case, I generally recommend WordPress to people just because it’s so widely used, there is such a large development community, and it’s about as close to “what you see is what you get” as you can get. That doesn’t mean that you couldn’t accidentally download a free really bad theme.
It all boils down to it doesn’t matter what tool you’re using, you have to know how to use it properly.
Should developers go out of their way to get some SEO experience and knowledge?
Absolutely, because what’s going to happen if you don’t have that, some SEOs company is going to come by 10 seconds after you launch and be like, “You have to rebuild the site because there’s all these things wrong with it.”
You’re going to end up going back and retrofitting the site that you just launched and your customers not going to want to pay for all that extra time.
It will save you time and save you money if you can build in the best practices from the get-go and not have to do it after your customers complain to you about it.
There’s a lot of developers who have no knowledge of SEO but say they do and when the SEO comes around as well, “You got to fix this. You got to fix that. I already SEOed it; you don’t need to do anything. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Saying you have SEO experience or you bake the SEO in is one thing but you actually kind of need to do it right.
Besides those basic SEO tips, with the h1 and the alt tags, are there maybe three to five things businesses should also be doing when it comes to making a platform switch regarding SEO?
If you’re going to be making a platform switch at this point in time, doing the switch and including HTTPS is probably pretty standard at this point. If somebody is proposing that you go through the hassle and pain of an upgrade and not do the HTTPS, I would really have to question the sanity of that.
It really depends on what you’re switching to, I suppose. Switching to HTTPS is a good thing, switching to responsive, naturally, I think everyone should be doing that. If you are switching to responsive and you go with something like an infinite scroll which is what we did recently. That gets a little trickier because you do have to make sure that the people that are developing your infinite scroll know how to make the URLs change.
Google provide some guidance on how to do that, we actually developed a different process for forcing the URLs to change but as long as the URLs are changing and the bots see definitive pages not just endless possibilities, you should be okay with that.
Another thing that I don’t think you should be doing when you change platforms is going to a three million item navigation bar, especially one that’s at the top of the page.
I have the good fortune of working with a company that did a massive rebuilt on a platform that they should not have even picked in the first place. Funny story, they were going from a relatively 1996 looking website to big fancy, splashy new one and they didn’t sell anything online.
They kept saying “We don’t need e-commerce, we don’t need e-commerce,” but when you look at it, they had a 30,000 part list catalog that they were basically going to put online. I’m like, “Okay, what you have here is an e-commerce site that doesn’t sell anything.”
Someone talked them into buying Red Dot. Red Dot is proprietary. I think the database is like Oracle or something like that like. Who does that? Oracle is expensive. Red Dot cost $250,000 for the license. It’s for content; it’s a publishing platform. We spent two years and millions of dollars building what should have been a pretty simple e-commerce site that just didn’t have the pricing turned on.
Making sure that you’re choosing the right tool for your application. Make sure that you’re switching to HTTPS because if you’re going to go through the pain of doing this you might as go all the way. Just get it done, rip the Bandaid off.
Don’t do anything dumb like let someone talk you into just a ridiculous design element because no one else is doing it. Maybe no one else is doing it because it’s bad.
What can small businesses and companies that don’t have a lot of money do when they need someone who has experience in switching and tuning up their SEO?
Hiring a consultant can be expensive, and I get that. For companies that don’t have a lot of money, at the very least buy an hour of a good SEOs time and take them your designs and what’s been proposed for your site. Because in an hour a good SEO can say, “This is what you had before, this is what you’re proposing to go to, these are the pitfalls that I see. These are the things you need to make sure you avoid them.”
They can help you tremendously by pointing out things that are already red flags. Then they can give you some pointers and maybe some good questions to go back to your team.
Thanks for the great interview Carolyn! Appreciate the insight. See you in Chicago!