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Does content management ruin organic search?

I came across a post from Ben Kemp (SEO Guy) entitled “Content Management Systems Equal Business Suicide!” (Hat tip: Laurel Papworth). Despite the apocalyptic title, Ben does make some good points, but I wonder if he unfairly tars all content management systems (CMSs) with the same brush. (And before I start, I want you to know that my employer sells CMSs.)

Let’s examine several of Ben’s points one at a time. First, Ben examines the important question of duplication of content: “Search engines loathe duplicate content. In the average CMS, there are numerous common design elements, images, HTML and/or JavaScript code blocks etc, which are portrayed across ALL sites using the same system, and this is not a good thing.”
In my experience, Web sites that duplicate common design elements suffer no penalty from search engines, and, while CMSs make it easier to duplicate these elements, doing so is just good Web design. I don’t think Ben is advocating that you have different mastheads for every page on your site, but he may be worried that other ancillary elements that might occur in the left and right columns might incur the wrath of search algorithms. In my experience, duplicating such common elements across pages (navigation, ads, and other small pieces of content) has no ill effect.
What does ruin your search rankings is duplicating main body content, such as publishing the same article under several different URLs. And CMSs do make it easier for you to do that, also. Because spammers frequently duplicate entire pages as a shortcut to creating new, real content, the search engines sometimes downgrade the rankings for pages they find duplicated. In addition, providing the same content in multiple places fractures the effect of other sites linking to your content, because some will link to one URL and some the other.
The bottom line on duplicate content is to use a CMS to duplicate design elements, not the main content of the page. If you do that, you won’t hurt your search rankings at all and you will gain the benefits of updating each design element in just one place.
Next, Ben attacks shortcomings in CMSs for metadata: “Many CMS systems make it hard to impossible to generate unique page Title, Description & Keyword meta-tags, meaning all pages can look identical in search engine results. Many CMS systems do not permit you to assign keyword-rich image names, or apply unique and specific image ALT tags, and the page file names are usually not directly controllable.”
Ben’s comments here are right on—some CMSs do not allow you to assign individual metadata to each page, which is death to organic search optimization. Each page needs a unique title, at least, to have a good chance of being found (and page-specific descriptions help, too). Rather than damning all CMSs, however, I think that better advice is to ensure that you choose a CMS that allows page-specific metadata.
Moreover, my experience is that using a CMS system can actually improve your metadata, because you can automate checking of titles (for example) as pages are published. You can update the workflow component of your CMS to automatically check to ensure that the author’s title is unique before it is published. If you do so, you’ll eliminate duplicate titles. If you don’t use a CMS, however, you will find that authors routinely duplicate metadata when they make a copy of an existing page as a template for a new one—they frequently fail to change the metadata to reflect the new content.
Ben also assails CMSs for operating on shared domains, but I think that’s a separate issue. Clearly, sharing your IP address with any other business can muddy your search results, but many sites with no CMS do the same. In short, if you can afford dedicated Web hosting with a unique IP address, do it, but don’t let that affect your decision on a CMS.
Ben rightly addresses the danger of being held captive by a Web design firm that charges you for every change to your site: “In terms of the proprietary CMS systems, you are also seriously at risk of being captured and held hostage by your web design company, because they now ‘own’ your site and you cannot easily escape without sacrificing your total investment. In this respect, use of CMS demonstrates a complete lack of business risk analysis. From that point on, you can also be systematically milked like a cash cow for every amendment, change, edit etc that they carry out on your behalf! Believe me, it happens every day… and I’ve seen people charged $90 for a simple edit that took me less than 2 minutes to implement!”
Small businesses, especially, run into that problem all the time, but I don’t think it has anything to do with use of a CMS. To avoid this problem, anyone contracting with an agency or design firm should insist on training so they can make simple changes to their site after the initial work is done. That won’t completely avoid the lock-in problem, however, because moving to a new agency is complicated by the use of any tool that generates HTML, including CMSs (and including DreamWeaver or other page design programs). If your new agency does not use the program your old one did, it can be expensive to switch. I don’t think that the answer is to build all Web sites with a simple HTML editor, however. All information can be exported from one tool to be imported to another—it’s painful, but possible.
Ben concludes by questioning whether a CMS is cost-effective for Web sites: “CMS Saves You Money?
Yeah, right!!! The overheads of managing a CMS are usually far in excess of managing a conventional site. Content percentage-wise, most sites actually change very little, and the majority of pages are static and do not change at all. CMS is total overkill for the average business site.”

On this one, he has a point, given the way Web sites are done today. Most Web sites are no more than online brochures or product catalogs, and don’t change very much. But that is the wrong approach. Instead, you must be tweaking your Web site all the time and measuring the results. You must constantly change your navigation, your design, and your content to optimize sales. You should even be changing your content to improve organic search results. CMS systems do make it easier to make global changes in HTML templates, and they make it easy to tune content.
Just as you can automate the checking of unique titles, you can also set up your content management workflow to analyze the keyword density of your content to ensure that you are using the right keywords and are emphasizing them sufficiently. That can help your authors create better organic search results.
Ben has raised some good points, but I think his points are about the misuse of CMSs, not about CMSs themselves. Most CMSs I have worked with (high-end ones, admittedly), provide enough flexibility to actually improve search marketing, rather than to defeat it.

Mike Moran

Mike Moran is a Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also served as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website,, most recently as the Manager of Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He was a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research and is now a Senior Fellow of The Conference Board. A Certified Speaking Professional, Mike regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide

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