W3C Validation for SEO – Myth and Reality

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A topic that has been discussed extensively by some people in the SEO community is the notion that having a W3C compliant web site is either critical to SEO or it’s not.  Most recently, Edward Lewis and I debated back and forth on Twitter, with Edward holding firm to his long-standing position that compliance is necessary and me taking the stand that 100% compliance is not necessarily a factor in ranking.

This latest back and forth was prompted by a tweet I posted while listening to Matt Cutts being interviewed by WebProNews during SMX West.  In that tweet, I summed up what Matt had said regarding SEO and having a site that passes code validation.   My tweet stated :

W3C compliance is NOT an SEO factor to Google #MattCuttsQuote #SMX

Edward then followed up to our Twitter conversation on this by writing a very lengthy and quite detailed article backing up his position on the matter.  I’ll leave it up to you to take the time to read that article yourselves.   And here, I would like to speak to my own position and the logic behind it.

How Much Compliance Is Important?

If the goal is to ensure that a client site has the best possible chance at it’s highest organic rankings, then we need to acknowledge that even just factoring in Google, there are about 200 indicators to consider.  Now, I don’t know about you, but here’s the reality.  With 200 factors to consider, I also have just as much of a responsibility to my clients to focus on those factors that I believe will yield the most results for the investment of time and resources.

Because of this, I do not check client web sites for 100% W3C compliance as part of my audits.  Even though having a site 100% compliant with W3C standards is a best practice concept, I am not a web developer.  And I have not been hired to ensure that W3C compliance is being met in every way possible.

So if a page has an opening paragraph tag without it’s subsequent closing tag, I don’t ultimately care as much to document such findings.

Sure, it might only take me a few minutes to run compliance tests.  But as Edward is so capable of doing, documenting a site’s shortcomings at that level could, potentially, just as easily take hours – if you’re going to include details on how to resolve those specific problems.  Multiply that by cross-browser testing work.  Because we all know perfectly well that not one single web browser truly complies 100% with W3C compliance either.

So just because a site is 100% compliant doesn’t even mean it’s going to be properly displayed across web browsers.  And that means compliance isn’t so straight forward either.

Maximized Return On Recommendations

There are so many other fish to fry, that I need to use my time wisely.  Telling clients that their site is not properly validating due to some P tag problem might earn me a pat on the back for being thorough.  Yet if they fix that issue, I do not believe it’s going to have enough of a positive impact on their SEO as compared to them focusing on any one of the dozens of other action items I usually come up with that are direct SEO issues.

Competitive Reality

Here’s where the two camps differ.  In one camp, if a site is not 100% compliant, it’s not a truly optimized site.  In the other camp, if a site, when held up to the competitive landscape, is just as fast, and has just enough compliance aspects to get by, then an SEO focus is better spent on quality content depth, site architecture from a content topic relationship perspective, internal and external link depth and relationships.

Limited Budgetary Resources

How many clients do you have where the budget for web initiatives is unlimited? Maybe I don’t work with the right clients, because none of my clients has EVER fit that bill.  Instead, they’ve got specific budgetary parameters from within which they can work.  And if a 5,000 page site has to have its entire dynamically generated URL structure rebuilt from the ground up in order to address just the Page Title to URL relationship for SEO, I guarantee you that this task is infinitely more critical, being specific to SEO, than ensuring there’s a proper closing to a paragraph tag.

No Disrespect

Now this isn’t about disrespect to people who believe that strict W3C compliance is important.  Let’s face it – while most of us in the SEO industry know that we can make use of image alternate attributes, personally, I make sure I’m very careful in clarifying to clients that making use of them is first and foremost an issue of providing content to visually impaired people that helps them understand the purpose of an image they may not see.  With that caveat in place, I then go on to communicate how this is an opportunity for SEO because the search engines interpret images on a page to be one indicator as to the purpose of that page.

So if I have to choose between instructing my clients to work on the alternate attributes of their site’s photos or alternately, making sure paragraph tags are closed, given those aforementioned budgetary limits, I’m always going to go with the one that’s going to help the search engines learn more about the page’s focus or purpose.  Whether a paragraph tag is closed or not does not help or hurt this either way.

W3C Standards For SEO

In addition to the image alternate attribute, there are several other HTML standard tags, that when properly used (in accordance with W3C guidelines for valid coding of web pages), are clearly SEO best practices as well. Whether it’s proper use of header tags, bolding, bullet point implementation, or any one of dozens upon dozens of elements to HTML, it’s clear that a site IS better off from an SEO perspective, when that site meets those standards.

Heck, if a site is so botched up in the validation process, it’s even possible that Google won’t even be able to index it.

The Elephant In The Room We Can’t Ignore

Any discussion about validation and SEO must, by nature of this arena, include addressing the primary causality of 100% validation not being a “have to”.  One that Validation evangelists refuse to acknowledge as being a serious consideration.

There are many millions of sites that already exist,  and millions more being deployed all the time, that are NOT 100% compliant. I’m not here to debate the cause of that or rail against anyone who might have caused it.  Heck.  My own sites fail to meet complete validation.  Because, as stated earlier, I am NOT a developer.  I use OFF THE SHELF solutions.  Programmed by other people.  Because that is what I felt was justifiable in costs to create my own sites.

And that’s just reality.

If any of the top search engines were to put more emphasis on w3C compliance than on those aspects that help the engine learn the purpose of a site or indicate importance of specific content, or help indicate 3rd party verification of a specific site’s authority, then the SERPs would be spitting out even more garbage than they do now.  Honestly.

At The End Of The Day

That’s what it really comes down to at the end of the day.  Because even if they DID say compliance is a factor, they could NEVER say it’s more important than those factors that are currently most important.  Because at the end of the day, if two sites are both fully compliant, that’s a one-time thing.  Either they are compliant, or they’re not.  But if two sites have different depth of content, the amount on one site or the other can change at any time.  And the relationships between pages can continually change. And the number of other sites that mention or link to either can change.  Frequently.

And even if I tell my clients they have to get their sites to validate, in cases other than ones similar to those I describe here that are clearly specific to SEO, that validation is NOT going to move my client’s site up in the SERPs.  Because while they were busy revamping their P tags, sixty of their competitors were adding new content.  Or building quality inbound links.

Yeah, But

Okay so I just said that ensuring a site validates for things that are not specific to current SEO isn’t necessary. Well, if that’s the case, then why is half the SEO industry freaking out over page speed?

Clearly, on the surface, page speed has nothing to do with SEO. Except Google has given enough indication now that we are recommending page speed issues be addressed. Because Google has changed their tune. They say that a faster page load is providing a better user experience. Well surely then, if that’s the case, what’s to stop them from saying that 100% validation is also providing a better user experience?

Simple. It’s that pesky P tag.

Let me know when that changes.

Alan Bleiweiss has been an Internet professional since 1995, managing client projects valued at upwards of $2,000,000.00.  Just a few of his most notable clients through the years have included PCH.com, WeightWatchers.com, and Starkist.com.  Follow him on Twitter @AlanBleiweiss , read his blog at Search Marketing Wisdom, and be sure to read his column here at SearchEngineJournal.com the 2nd and 4th Tuesday each month.

Alan Bleiweiss
Alan Bleiweiss is a Forensic SEO audit consultant with audit client sites consisting of upwards of 50 million pages and tens of millions of visitors... Read Full Bio
Alan Bleiweiss
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