SEO is a Team Game: Back End Development

SEO is a Team Game: Back End Development

Back end developers are often the unsung heroes of successful web applications. Oftentimes the design gets the glory (or shame) because you can’t see all the work going on behind the scenes. And in many cases the developers only get mentioned when something is wrong or somebody is wondering why their site is loading so slowly. This relationship translates directly to SEO rankings as well.


As I mentioned before, page load time is a key contributor to your ranking. The two biggest bottlenecks when it comes to WordPress application performance are almost always external requests and the database. That’s why we try to cache everything that can be cached. Check out the Voce Platforms Afterburner site for specific details on how we leverage cache on WordPress projects.

Voce Performance Tools is a plugin we released that combines all of our favorite back-end optimization tools together in one plugin. Most of the plugins listed in this section are included in this plugin. This plugin also includes our Cached Queries plugin.

Aside from overall site performance, there are additional areas back end developers contribute to SEO. Some of these could fall under the front end developer section, depending on how your team splits out work.

Presence of Sitemap: A sitemap helps search engines index your pages easier and more thoroughly, improving visibility.

Priority of Page in Sitemap: The priority a page is given via the sitemap.xml file may influence ranking. Microformats: Pages that support microformats may rank above pages without it. This may be a direct boost or the fact that pages with microformatting have a higher SERP CTR

Use of Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools: Some think that having these two programs installed on your site can improve your page’s indexing. They may also directly influence rank by giving Google more data to work with (ie. more accurate bounce rate, whether or not you get referral traffic from your backlinks etc.). Even if using webmaster tools doesn’t directly help you, it provides you ways to help…

  • Check your site’s health for potential issues that Google has detected.
  • Understand your search traffic and learn how users are finding your site.
  • Make optimizations to help Google better understand and represent your site.

With all of the tools available to front end and back end developers, dedicating even a small amount of time towards SEO can make a big difference.

In this series:


SEO is a Team Game: Front End Development

SEO is a Team Game: Front End Development

Google PageSpeed InsightsFront end developers have always, inevitably, had a role in SEO. Initially, meta tags and keywords were all the rage and many dirty tricks were used to hide keywords all over the site, trying to make it seem like it was filled with good content. And while meta tags and keywords still have a large role, these and almost all of your quality content strategies can be virtually nullified by a slow loading site.

Page Loading Speed via HTML: Both Google and Bing use page loading speed as a ranking factor. Search engine spiders can estimate your site speed fairly accurately based on a page’s code and filesize.

Page loading times and perceived loading times aren’t just a concern to performance junkies, site speed should be a primary concern for everybody. Server admins and back end developers contribute to this, but I feel the brunt of this falls on front end developers. In addition to page load time, here are some other factors that front end developers should be responsible for.

As we reference this list again, there are a number of tools or plugins that can help give you complete control over the next few items. Yoast is one of the most popular WordPress plugins around.

Keyword in Title Tag: The title tag is a webpage’s second most important piece of content (besides the content of the page) and therefore sends a strong on-page SEO signal.

moz-title-tag-preview-toolTitle Tag Starts with Keyword: According to Moz data, title tags that start with a keyword tend to perform better than title tags with the keyword towards the end of the tag. Google recently redesigned their results and the slightly larger font size may affect your previous search listing. Fortunately, Moz offers a Title Tag preview tool that reflects the new design.

Rel=Canonical: When used properly, use of this tag may prevent Google from considering pages duplicate content. Duplicate content is a negative factor with rankings.

Keyword in Description Tag: Another relevancy signal. Not especially important now, but still makes a difference.

Keyword Appears in H1 Tag: H1 tags are a “second title tag” that sends another relevancy signal to Google, according to results from this correlation study

HTML errors/W3C validation: Lots of HTML errors or sloppy coding may be a sign of a poor quality site. While controversial, many in SEO think that WC3 validation is a weak quality signal.

Alt Tag (for Image Links): Alt text is an image’s version of anchor text.

Site Over-Optimization: Includes on-page factors like keyword stuffing, header tag stuffing, excessive keyword decoration

In this series:


SEO is a Team Game: User Experience/Design

SEO is a Team Game: User Experience/Design

I think this is an unintentionally undervalued part of SEO. I say unintentionally because measuring the quality of the user experience isn’t easy to do. Even the Google Quality Guidelines doesn’t really clear that up for us:

“We may focus on different parts of the page or different aspects of the page. One rater might rate based on the content of the page and another based on the layout of the page.”

“We may even have different ideas of what High quality means for a landing page. What makes an encyclopedia article High quality? What makes a product page High quality?”

While there aren’t hard guidelines for making a page layout perfect, here’s your direction:

“The page layout on highest quality pages makes the Main Content immediately visible.”

Site Usability: A site that’s difficult to use or to navigate can hurt ranking by reducing time on site, pages viewed and bounce rate. This may be an independent algorithmic factor gleaned from massive amounts of user data.

Screen Shot 2014-07-24 at 11.05.09 AMSite Architecture: A well put-together site architecture (especially a silo structure) helps Google thematically organize your content. It also helps the user find what they are looking for -> improving the user experience -> potentially leading to more time on the site -> all other related factors.

Dwell Time: Google pays very close attention to “dwell time”: how long people spend on your page when coming from a Google search. This is also sometimes referred to as “long clicks vs short clicks”. If people spend a lot of time on your site, that may be used as a quality signal.

Popups or Distracting Ads: The official Google Guidelines Document says that popups and distracting ads is a sign of a low-quality site. Unfortunately ads are often an obstacle that we must overcome. To keep them from negatively affecting the user experience, ads need to be part of the planning process and not an afterthought.

Breadcrumb Navigation: This is a style of user-friendly site-architecture that helps users (and search engines) know where they are on a site. This is an example that directly affects user experience and how well your site gets indexed.
Coyier Breadcrumbs

Mobile Optimization: Google’s official stance on mobile is to create a responsive site. It’s likely that responsive sites get an edge in searches from a mobile device. There’s no doubt that when sites are responsive, it’s a win for clients and users. Planning this from the beginning is best but even retrofitting in some responsive behavior can have dramatic benefits.

Mobile optimization is best done when design, user experience and front end development work together. Each team plays an important role in producing an intuitive design that loads quickly. We’ll expand upon this on our next post focused on SEO and Front End Development.

In this series:


SEO is a Team Game: Intro

SEO is a Team Game: Intro

Google’s search ranking algorithm factors in over 200 different things. The exact list is not public but there are a number of generally agreed upon factors. I spent time digging through that list, and others, and it was apparent that the old adage ‘content is king‘ still rings true with search engine rankings. But content isn’t a one man army, nor should it be. Despite the fuzziness that we have around SEO, or rather because of the fuzziness, SEO must be approached with a team effort.

Google SEO

I have taken a large number of commonly agreed upon SEO factors and grouped them by team responsibility. I split up that work into a series of posts that will follow this post. There was some overlap and debate about which team would handle a few items so you may find a few items in a different spot than you would arrange them. Here are the groups I split them into:

In this series:


Boost your Performance (this is not spam)

Boost your Performance (this is not spam)

fry-slow-websiteDon’t worry, I’m not here to tell you about Low T. But it does seem like everything today is about performance. From boosting your car’s performance, eating and drinking better to improve athletic performance and of course that other performance. You know what I’m talking about… wink wink… the performance you either brag to your friends about or the one you hope nobody mentions… how well your website performs.

The rise of the mobile web has placed the spotlight on performance. Your site may have been able to load ‘fast enough’ before when your only users were on a wired cable connection, but how does it look on a crappy hotel wi-fi connection? Or 3G? You already have slower connections working against you, but now you have to work against the growing on-demand mentality as well. Users have a shorter acceptable waiting threshold than before, even more so on mobile devices. 1 extra second can easily cost you millions or even billions of dollars. On top of all of this, page load time is becoming a more important factor in search engine rankings.

The good news is that smart people have realized this trend and have given us some fantastic tools to work with. The most comprehensive two, Google’s PageSpeed and Yahoo’s YSlow, have been around for a while and continue to evolve. They also provide instructions on how to alleviate bottlenecks. Get these into your workflow now!

Google PageSpeed with Chrome
PageSpeed is even included in Google DevTools when you right click and use Inspect Element. It’s another great tool along with the Network, Timeline, Profile and Audit tabs as well. It’s great for telling you what areas need to improve. My favorite part is that it gives you separate mobile and desktop grades. They also just released a handy command line integration that gives you a quick snapshot.

YSlow has a great browser extension that allows you to grade your website’s performance based on a number of factors including http requests, minifying styles and scripts, utilizing cache, and more. Easily find out which elements are weighing down your page.
Yahoo YSlow

Rather than sitting there embarrassed, you need to identify the source of the problem. You could be doing everything right but your partner, let’s say 3rd party javascript, is causing the problem. Diagnosing the source of the slowdown is the key to successfully treating your performance problems. Here’s a list of some other tools that are newer and, in some cases, more specialized to certain areas:

There are plenty of other quality tools out there, with more popping up weekly. With all of these tools at your disposal, performance issues should never weigh you down again.