Practical Ecommerce

SEO 201, Part 1: Technical Rules

In my 8-part “SEO 101” series, I addressed the basics of utilizing content on a website for search engines, including keyword research and optimization. With this article, I’ll start a new “SEO 201” series that explains technical, backend aspects of site architecture and organization.

Typical search marketers’ skill sets run deep in marketing and shallow in the technical and development areas. That’s why the architectural side of search engine optimization so often ambushes ecommerce marketers. It’s so far outside the typical marketing skill set that many don’t even see it coming.

Think of it this way: Search engines are just a different kind of influencer.

We know that the opinions of influencers affect the purchase decisions of a network of customers. This could be as small as a CEO’s choice of tablets influencing the executives he manages, to Consumer Reports influencing the purchase decisions of its more than seven million readers. These are examples of human influences affecting the purchase decisions of other humans.

Google is also an influencer. Google consumes a site’s content and algorithmically determines if it’s worthy of displaying to the customers it influences. Many searchers incorrectly interpret high rankings as Google’s recommendations on the “best” content and products, rather than as the pages most algorithmically authoritative and relevant to the searcher’s query.

Google is also an influencer. Google consumes a site’s content and algorithmically determines if it’s worthy of displaying to the customers it influences.

The perception that Google recommends one site over another creates influence, and to a much larger extent than any other influencer. Google answered around 12 billion U.S. search queries in June, according to comScore’s “U.S. Search Engine Rankings” report. The other search engines contributed another five and a half billion searches combined.

In addition to influence, search engines offer a direct path to purchase. It’s like the executives who covet their CEO’s tablet being able to click a button in the conference room to buy the tablet instantly.

What other influencer has this kind of power, to influence and enable direct purchase?

Technical SEO to Reach the Influencers

Unfortunately, the ultimate influencer also works by a set of poorly understood rules. Many of these rules are technical or architectural in nature, and breaking these rules can result in complete lack of visibility in search engines.

Content optimization is easier to understand because it involves words. Searchers type words into the search box, and sites that use those words optimally have a better chance of ranking well. For a refresher on keyword research and content optimization, take a look at my “SEO 101″ series.

Technical SEO is based not on words, but on rules. Search engines are just complex pieces of software that feed data from the web into huge server farms for processing according to algorithms that match each web page’s relevance and authority to searchers’ queries. Because the pieces that affect SEO are software-based, they necessarily follow rules that the developers have written.

Once you understand the rules — how signals search engines interpret signals and what they can’t interpret — you can piece together many technical SEO issues.

3 Rules of Technical SEO

  • Rule 1. If you want your site or section of your site to drive organic search visits and sales, the content must be crawlable and indexable.

Search engines exist to return results that most closely match queries entered by searchers. To do this, a search engine first has to discover web content with a piece of software called a crawler or bot, and index or save the content in its server farm. If the crawler can’t discover the content or is unable to index the content it finds, the content can’t be processed algorithmically and cannot be ranked for searchers to consume.

Put simply: No crawl means no indexation, no rankings, and no customers.

The good news is that determining whether a site has broken this rule is usually fairly clear in that pages are either indexed or they are not.

  • Rule 2. Don’t trust what you can see as being crawlable.

You look at your home page and see a wonderland of content and links. You think to yourself, “What a feast of content for the search engines to crawl and index.” But when the crawler visits your home page, the only content it can index is your simple footer links. What happened?

The content we see on a web page – images, video, text – can be coded in many, many different ways on many, many different platforms. Those platform and development choices can limit what the bots can crawl and index. And as discussed in Rule 1, if it can’t be crawled or indexed, it can’t be ranked and drive customers via organic search.

Determining whether your site has broken this rule is fairly straightforward, but fixing the issues is usually far more involved.

  • Rule 3. Optimal architecture enables or disables optimal crawling, though it is equally critical to all three areas of SEO – technical, content and authority.

The site’s architecture refers to the mapping of pages and the interlinking between those pages. Architecture is a technical SEO element because it impacts crawling. The HTML links in header and footer navigation, the links in cross-selling elements, and other internal linking elements – each of these can enable or disable crawlers to access content.

Optimal architecture is included as Rule 3 because it has a gating effect on SEO as well as influence on all other aspects of SEO. Any factor that affects the first basic need of SEO – the crawl – is first and foremost a technical SEO issue.

Architecture also determines the keyword segments for which a site will be relevant. Whether a page exists or does not exist, and how deeply in the site’s hierarchy it’s positioned, has far-reaching consequences for SEO.

Architecture also crosses into content optimization because optimizing page templates for organic search involves technical aspects such as how they’re coded and content aspects such as how much and which types of content will be visible on the page. Authority is affected because the same HTML links that the crawler needs to index content also serve as conduits to pass link authority deeper into the site.

Addressing the 3 Rules

The next several articles in “SEO 201” will be dedicated to diagnosing and resolving the issues that arise from breaking these three rules.

Naturally, in a field as complex as SEO, there are many examples and edge cases that can be tested against these three rules. All of the issues I’ve encountered can be boiled down to these three root causes. If you have other technical SEO rules to posit, please post them in the comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

For the next installment of our “SEO 201” series, see “Part 2: Crawling and Indexing Barriers.”

Jill Kocher

Jill Kocher

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  1. Carlos Rivera September 9, 2014 Reply

    I’m looking forward to following this series! Thank you!

  2. Brian Mathers July 26, 2016 Reply

    Hey Jill
    Like what you are writing about and in a way that is important for the website owner to understand who might not be tech savvy.

    I am doing a lot of website audits right now here in Scotland that both helps the business owner become more educated about what they should know about so that they can challenge their web developers about their site having a poor performance record.

    I am looking forward to your technical SEO instalments yet to come.

    Right now I am just getting ready to host a gig here in a couple of weeks where my guests will be Rand Fishkin, Matt Bailey and Jeff Ferguson all coming over from the USA.

    Maybe for one of my Digital Excellence Scotland events in the future we should have you as a speaker and guest on the panel. I would like that.

    Keep up the good work – lovin it!