Choosing an SEO-ready Content Management System

Ian Lurie

Companies jump for joy at the promise of a CMS: They can update their site without hiring a web developer! They can publish quickly and easily! The internet is theirs for the taking!
A few months later they’re stomping their feet with rage. What do you mean our new site is driving away search engines? Why can’t I edit my title tags? The salesman said it was SEO-ready!!!
Here are some selection criteria that’ll help you pick a content management system that’s ready for search engine optimization. A good CMS:

1: Leaves your code alone

Any CMS you look at must be capable of generating standards-compliant code. If the sales person tells you “oh, sure, we’re standards-compliant” without hesitation, roll your eyes and say “Suuuure you are. Can you show me a standards-compliant site using your sytem?”
If they can’t, move along. A good CMS will leave your code alone, instead of adding a bunch of additional crap.

The site doesn’t have to be 100% w3c standards compliant. If you run it through a validation tool and get 10-20 minor errors, don’t worry about it. If you run the tool and your page fills up with errors and dire warnings, something’s wrong.

2: Lets you edit title and description tags, independent of article titles and descriptions

In the image below, the title tag, which you see at the top of your browser window, is different than the article title, which you see highlighted on the page.
This is the most common mistake I see in CMS selection and implementation. Make sure you purchase a CMS that will allow you to do this, and you hire a developer with the brains to implement it.

3: Lets you create your own filenames and directory structure

Search engines don’t demand so-called ‘search engine friendly’ URLs any more. You don’t have to have a page address like this:
It could just as easily be:
(no, there’s nothing at that address)
But man, it sure helps if you can provide sensible, understandable folder and page names. They’re easier for other folks to link to, so they promote links; they’re easier to remember; and yes, keywords in the URL still help with SEO.
So make sure your CMS lets you do that kind of custom naming.

Many CMS sales people, when asked if their CMS is SEO friendly, will nod vigorously and point out their search-friendly page addresses. While they’re shaking their brain loose, check for the other features I name here. Chances are they have no idea.

4: Lets you move stuff around

A really great CMS will let you move pages and sections around without a lot of fuss. If you have a page about turnips that’s in the ‘Roots’ section right now, but you want to move it to ‘Disgusting’, you ought to be able to do that with a minimum of fuss.
This isn’t always possible. Nor is it always a good idea. But it’s nice to have this available if and when you need it.

5: Makes changes easy

SEO is all about lots of little changes. How long does it take to, say, edit the heading tag on one page?
Assuming you have a fast computer and internet connection, and you know your way around cut-and-paste and such, it shouldn’t take more than 2 minutes from start to published.
5 minutes might be OK.
A half hour is not.
More than an hour means you’ll likely lose your mind at some point and end up wandering the streets of your home town muttering curses under your breath.

6: Supports analytics

The fact that I still have to mention this one makes me sad. But there are still a few systems out there that claim to have ‘integrated analytics’.
What that really means is “our system is so convoluted it’ll take a team of developers 2 weeks to set up Google Analytics”.

7: Supports RSS

Your CMS should generate an RSS feed out of the box. Movable Type, WordPress, Ektron and HotBanana all do it. So do countless others.
You can use the RSS feeds to build a subscriber base, provide a sitemap to search engines and create a ‘latest headlines’ widget for bloggers to add to their sites.
You do not want to have to build this yourself.

How Can You Be Sure?

If you’re not technical, how can you be sure a CMS will be SEO-ready?
Well, you can’t.
Selecting a CMS is a major decision for your organization, whether your 300 people or 3. No matter how much or little you pay for it, it will affect your ability to market yourself online for years to come.
Go find a geek. Preferably a friendly one. Preferably an internet marketing geek. Hire them for a few hours of their time. It’ll cost you, at most, $1000. Ask them to review your site and the systems you’re looking at.
That $1000 could well save you tens of thousands of dollars in lost time and therapy bills.

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. I have had several clients get talked into getting CMS’s that just didn’t do any major SEO. One response I got back after asking about SEO ability was “Sure, the CMS can optimize if you know where to edit the code in Dreamweaver.”
    SOOO, what CMS’s are getting closer to SEO ready? WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, others?
    So far, the ones I have played with that LOOK like they are SEO ready always require more plugins & code tweaking.

  2. @Joe my favorites for small sites are WordPress and Moveable Type.
    For bigger sites I like Ektron’s CMS 400 .NET (in spite of being .net), Hotbanana and, if you’re a Java hound, Magnolia…

  3. Ian,
    Great post. As the developer of a .NET SEO friendly CMS system, this is a topic near and dear to my heart.
    Joe’s comment is also right on target — people evaluating CMS systems really need to understand what server configuration / plugins are required to enable the advertised SEO features of a CMS. Our system requires none (it can run on a shared server with no root/admin access), but the forum posts I see about many systems make it clear that this can be a real issue.

  4. Hi Ian,
    Good to see things are well!
    I just had a tour of the Ektron 400 and was not impressed with its capabilities. The web2.0 capbilities look a bit hacked in there just to market the buzzword. I know people will say why reinvent the wheel.. well I want to work for our needs and so many of these CMS’s must appeal to the masses that they get diluted in the process.

  5. Oh, I was supposed to be able to choose my CMS? Wow, my developer sure didn’t make it seem that way. I wound up with Joomla and so far wish it could do at least one of the things mentioned in your post: Keep the page titles separate from the browser title. When I asked my developer (who I no longer work with by choice) if we could separate the two, he said no. Is he wrong? I’m on version 1.0.15
    Thanks for the great articles, Ian. I stumbled here and now have you bookmarked and even just posted a link on Twitter! You are the man!
    Kind regards,
    PS I hope you survived the slumber party with all the 6-year-olds OK. 😉

  6. Do a search on: dave barry SEO and see what his reputation is. He created Site Search Architect, which is CMS that is devoted specifically to SEO. Lots of happy clients are enjoying their consistent high ranking on Google.

  7. Phoebe, you should move to joomla 1.5 as soon as possible since 1.15 will not be supported by joomla team very soon. The new Joomla is a good choice for seo and also security. The important thing for seo here is to develop or by good template. Then I’m sure, there are better choices, but this one is really lean in total cost as well as in amount of evaluable extra modules.
    Good luck

  8. To me the one of important features for the CMS is the inclusion of various tags by the customer without any problem. The customer (90% non-technical person) should be able to make the self generated pages in the categories as well. I have seen many Denver Website Designs and CMS for various online stores where the website structure is really mixed up. If the CMS is SEO-friendly, taking care of all the URLs & tags, I don’t think there is so much left for the SEO professional to do in regard on-page changes. Half the problems are solved in the rankings due to on-page score of the CMS only.

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