Headless CMS and pure Content-as-a-Service providers cleanly separate your channel-agnostic content from the implementation of your website. But what does this mean for traditional CMS features that were designed specifically to optimise how your website presents, such as on-page Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)?
I recently heard whispers from multiple sources – a CMS vendor, multiple potential customers, and even an SEO expert – that using a headless CMS can have a negative impact on your website's SEO, compared to using a 'traditional' Web Content Management System (WCMS) such as Umbraco or Wordpress, or a Digital Experience Platform (DXP) such as Kentico Xperience, Episerver or Sitecore. I was a little surprised to hear this, since we've had great success with our own website (this one!) which uses Kontent as a headless CMS.
Why would headless CMS hinder SEO?
I scratched my head and it occurred to me that on the surface, there could be a reasonable rationale for this opinion, since a traditional CMS will typically provide features out of the box to assist you with SEO, for example providing templates for SEO metadata, through to either automatically implementing or helping you audit minimum SEO practices or standards, or automatically producing an XML sitemap. A headless CMS will not or cannot do some of these things, as it's not directly in control of your website's output, which is a big part of what needs to be optimised for search engines.
However, this doesn't mean headless CMS is going to provide bad SEO, it just means it's not done for you by the CMS. This puts SEO in the same category as any number of other website features you just need a good plan for in a microservices architecture, such as search, forms, email marketing, or personalisation.
The case for headless
What this simple 'headless CMS doesn't have SEO features' rationale fails to consider is some of the other inherent benefits that you can get from going headless, including flexibility, stability, and speed, which can have a direct impact on SEO.
Standard practice versus best practice
Most good CMS platforms include features designed to help you with your SEO efforts. These range from basic options such as editing the page URL and basic metadata (description, keywords), through to more sophisticated auditing of your implementation. Many will provide integration with specialist third-party optimisation services such as Monsido or Siteimprove too.
The problem with this solution isn't the features themselves, in fact it's similar to the argument for headless hurting SEO: if you just leave it how it is and don't actually put some effort in, you won't see the benefits. Too often we see content editors trusting that their shiny CMS features will sort out their SEO optimisation for them, which leads to them leaving defaults set, or in some cases not giving any attention at all to key factors such as page titles, descriptions, and structured data. In the worst case scenario, this can lead to issues with a negative impact, such as duplicate titles or descriptions being set for all pages in a website.
It's also quite possible, or even likely, that your traditional CMS platform's default SEO implementation is based on slightly older or out-of-date SEO implementation best practices. When your SEO agency asks you to change the implementation, for example adding or removing certain meta tags, you may not be able to without customisation or development effort. Once you go beyond the features available 'out of the box' in your traditional CMS, you're playing in the same arena as headless CMS implementation (custom dev or third party integrations).
In a headless world, implementation of your SEO optimisations is not tied to your CMS at all. You're able to choose whichever framework or set of standards you want to implement, and free to modify or replace it at any time. You can model your channel-specific metadata however you wish with no constraints, and implement exactly what is required for the best SEO possible.
Being in complete control of the markup your website produces means you're able to implement literally everything your SEO agency recommends. Often there is a bit of a battle between an SEO expert and a web developer over what's easy (or what's even possible) to implement within a CMS platform, and sometimes compromises need to be found.
Whether it's smart snippet metadata, OG tags, Twitter cards, canonical tags, AMP, adjusting the order of things on the page or the way tags are implemented, all of this is completely in the hands of the site's developer.
One of the most popular ways to implement a site using a headless CMS is on the Jamstack. By pre-rendering your pages and making them available over a CDN the moment they're published, you're no longer reliant on the CMS to actually process and serve up pages on visitor request. This means your pages are always available worldwide, even if your CMS is offline, with no disruption or unexpected results for search engine crawlers or social media networks.
Another benefit of the Jamstack and headless of course, is the sheer speed of a static site. It allows you to deliver your website to your visitors (and search engine robots) incredibly quickly.
Cancer Council Australia (CCA) and Luminary created a system that was able to push out the content into static HTML - which is a dream for SEO.
Anecdotal evidence existed for years, but now Google has gone one step further and openly stated that site speed directly affects search engine page rankings.
It's not all about content management
Of course, we can get hung up on what options your CMS gives you, and forget that SEO is about more than just key words, meta tags and semantic HTML. There are plenty of other factors that impact SEO, from domain names, to your site's age, to in-bound links. No CMS is going to to help or harm these factors.
Can a headless CMS provide better SEO?
So can using a headless CMS result in bad SEO? Maybe. Can it give you fantastic SEO? Yes, it can!
A traditional CMS is likely to give you a head start on your implementation, and it's likely to prevent objectively bad SEO. If you use its tools and features properly, you're likely to get reasonably good SEO.
With a headless CMS, you're on your own. You might do a terrible job, or you might do it incredibly well. The sky (or the floor) is the limit!
Or if you are a nerd from the 80s like me, think of it like the arcade game classic Daytona USA. Traditional is automatic - less risky, but lower top speed. Headless is manual - if you know what you're doing, you can go faster! 🏁🏎
How do you make sure?
So you want to use a headless CMS and you want to make sure you're at the right end of the graph above?
Use the right people. Use bright people. Employ someone internally who knows what they're doing. Engage a reliable SEO expert. Or, of course, engage the right digital agency. 😉
This all sounds very hypothetical, but I do have some numbers to back it up. We've implemented quite a few sites using Content-as-a-Service now, but there are two I'll focus on in this post.
Yes, that's this site!
We rebuilt our own site just over two years ago, moving from a traditional CMS to Kentico Kontent. The new platform enabled us to implement a modern SEO strategy from the get-go including a range of suggestions such as more effective URLs, better 301 redirection management, AMP for blog posts, and highly customised metadata targeting a range of social platforms. The new site is clean, modern, and fast, and our main landing pages are performing far better than they did on our old site.
We're currently in the process of re-implementing the front end of the site on a Jamstack architecture using the Gatsby static site generator and Netlify for CI builds, preview and production hosting, which will allow us to unlock even more benefits listed above, primarily around blistering speed.
Cancer Council Australia rebuilt their website using Kontent as a headless CMS in 2020, in partnership with Luminary (that's me!) and a number of others, including Overdose Digital, who specialise in SEO. As part of this process, we worked closely with Overdose, in particular Seb Griffiths, whose quotes you will have seen scattered about this post!
I had a chat with him after the project about his expectations of a headless CMS and the results he saw on this project:
"Post-migration, CCA has seen great results across the board. Migrations are often associated with some temporary rankings decline while Google reassesses the site, and any value from old pages gets transferred. After some shuffling in rankings, CCA has ended up with the best average rank score since we have begun monitoring (up 9.3% from initial measurement)."
"We also noticed impressive speed measurements using Google's new Core Web Vitals. These are a new set of metrics that are selected to measure how fast a website feels to a user. The bar that Google is setting for these metrics is not easy to satisfy. They are also set to be integrated into Google's ranking algorithm sometime in 2021."
"Overall, this project shows what's possible with a well-crafted headless setup. The site is robust, flexible and SEO friendly."
Does headless CMS mean bad SEO? No. Does traditional CMS mean great SEO? Not necessarily.
As Seb eloquently puts it:
Headless brings a different set of challenges: but the stack used to create a site is only as good (or bad!) as the team building the site. Out of the box solutions aren't immune to serious SEO issues - and it's possible to make a colossal SEO mess with any CMS.
A traditional CMS or Digital Experience Platform usually gives you reasonably good SEO (if you're careful).
A headless CMS guarantees nothing, but allows you to do anything. In theory, this means potentially perfect SEO.
I think a good childhood friend of mine from the 1990s, Captain Planet, said it best:
Our Kontent experts
Luminary has some of the most experienced headless CMS experts in the world, including Kentico MVP Andy, and Emmanuel, the developer of the first Kentico Kontent powered website in the world!
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