How to Teach Developers to Think Like SEOs

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Sure, as an SEO professional, you know certain truisms about how the search engines identify and evaluate information online. But try telling your developer that the brilliant flash-based navigation system he’s just coded is killing your internal linking structure, and you could find yourself in for a mighty unpleasant conversation…

Obviously, the solution is for both parties to work together towards a shared goal – so how do you get your developer on board when it comes to your website’s SEO needs? Start with the following issues, which represent some of the biggest intersections between SEO and web development work:

Item #1 – Site Speed

SEO professionals know that Google is placing an increasing priority on site speed – even going so far as using it as a ranking factor – given the role this key item plays in a user’s site experience. However, not all web developers are aware of this, meaning that the code they develop may not be initially optimized for speed.

To get your developer on board, send him over to Web Page Test and have him compare your site with your competitors. If your site loads noticeably slower than the others in the test, ask him to either remove the white space contained with your site’s Javascript and CSS files or to call resources that aren’t loaded within the head section of your website from a subdomain, reducing the server calls that can slow down site speed.

Item #2 – Site Redirection

When you involve a web developer in the process of redirecting on site URL to another for any reason, there are a few important SEO distinctions that your developer may not be aware of. Let’s look at a few of them…

301 versus 302 redirects – A 301 redirect is used when a page moves permanently, while a 302 redirect is used to indicated a temporary change of URL (for example, if a page was briefly down for maintenance or a split test). Because a 301 redirect passes on PageRank, link juice and other site authority factors, it offers a major SEO benefit if a page is being moved permanently. Some developers use these two redirects interchangeably, so it’s an important point of distinction to make when moving pages around on your site.

IP-based redirects – When designing a website, developers can insert code into the head sections of web pages that enables them to detect the IP address of the viewer and issue a redirect based on the geographic location of the address. For example, if a viewer accessed the “website.co.uk” version of a website from France, an IP-based redirect could automatically pass the reader on to the “website.fr” version of the page (if one existed).

The problem is that while this type of redirection is great from a user experience standpoint (since it automatically delivers the most relevant content based on the viewer’s location), it has some pretty big hang-ups in terms of SEO, as the search engine spiders – which are based primarily in the US – will be automatically redirected to the pages built for US-based IP addresses. This leaves a large amount of site content uncrawled.

“Rel=canonical” tags – Adding the rel=canonical tag to your site to manage duplicate penalties is often much easier to execute that creating the appropriate 301 redirects, but it’s important to understand the SEO implications of this move. According to Paddy Moogan of Distilled,

“This tag is not a strict rule. The search engines do not have to take notice of it and can change how they treat it at any time they want.”

Although the search engines do seem to follow the tag now, there’s no guarantee that they’ll continue to do so in the future, making it a more precarious choice from an SEO standpoint.

Issue #3 – Javascript and Flash

Don’t get me wrong, Javascript and Flash can be used to do some pretty amazing things on your website. They can add tremendous user functionality and improve the user experience through good graphics and design. However, they have limitations when it comes to SEO, and it’s important to be sure your developer is aware of them.

As a general rule, important content from a search engine spider’s point of view should never be placed in either Javascript code or Flash animations. This could include the content of your navigation system (as mentioned earlier), the text located under a “More Information” tag (which is often served up through Javascript) or important title and headline tags (which may be encompassed by Flash headers and graphics).

When you store relevant information in these areas, the search engine spiders simply can’t read it. Although they’re getting better at processing these types of content, the technology simply isn’t there – which means that you could be missing out on important SEO benefits if your developer uses either of these tools.

As an alternative, consider the use of the Jquery language, which provides the visual benefits of Javascript, but in a more SEO-friendly way. In terms of imagery, limit the use of Flash animations to areas without information that’s critical for SEO or utilize additional scripts or plugins to replicate the information contained in these graphics in a way the search engines can understand.

Issue #4 – Source Code

Although your goals for your source code and your web developer’s objectives might be different, there are a few things you should both be able to agree on. First, the code should be cleanly written and free from errors, as this plays a role in both SEO and the development-oriented performance of your site. In addition, the code should accurately create the look and feel you’re aiming for – a goal that should be evaluated with the help of your creative team as well.

But beyond simply ensuring that the code is complete, there are a few things your developer can do within the code of your page to ensure optimal SEO results. For example, as Scott McClay describes on the SEOMoz blog, a “meta http-equiv” tag can be added to the head section of each page on your site that displays the date when the content was last updated:

“Another change that is important is the last modified header; I believe this should be entered on every page as it tells search bots if your content is fresh or not, something that we all know Google loves. Adding the last modified header to your pages is easy as most CMS systems record the last edited time of the content within the database so it’s just a case of calling the data with a few lines of code.”

Use these issues as a jumping off point to open the dialog with your web developer in order to create an environment where the success of the website is the top priority. Although it may not always seem like it, developers and SEO professionals really are on the same team, as everybody wins when a website is executed correctly and ranked high in the SERPs because of both party’s contributions.

Image: Rusfet

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