Why Coding Is The Most Important SEO Skill

Last week in response to Lee Odden’s What type of SEO skill is most important? poll I argued that copywriting was that SEO skill. I mentioned that you could really make a case for many of the items on Lee’s list and thought I would take my own challenge and build a case for coding skills as the most important for an SEO to have.

Let me say once again that I think the best SEOs are the ones who can develop the majority of these skills and quite a few others as well. I still stand by what I said about copywriting, but if you’re writing copy for the wrong target market you may end up with brilliant prose and very little sales. Shari Thurow wrote an article about a year ago on why the best seo experts are named Mike and while the title is a bit tongue-in-cheek, Shari is making the case why a variety of skills lead to the best SEOs.

Coding gained only 3% of the vote in Lee’s poll. Actually it was 2% until I just voted again. Sorry Lee, I’ve tainted the poll with my double vote. I wonder why such a low vote since the way you code a site can have some of the biggest impact on your SEO efforts. Just as I did with copywriting in my previous argument I’m going to look at coding in the liberal sense of anything you might do in developing a site, from the information architecture to the use of css to the way you name your files and folders. If it’s the kind of thing you have your developer do we’ll count it here.

Small Coding Changes Can Make A Big Difference

SEOmoz member, Dr. Pete posted an article on Monday in which he describes eleven small changes he made to a site to get it out of the supplemental index. If you look over the list you’ll note it’s some pretty standard seo. It’s the kind of stuff you probably want to do to all sites. A couple of the changes are beyond the obvious, but most really are basic. Those basic coding changes though, have helped move over 24,000 pages from the supplemental index to the main index.

It’s too soon for Dr. Pete to know what increases in search traffic the changes will lead to, but if you remember my own escape from the supplemental index and the subsequent increase in traffic I’d suggest Pete will begin to see an increase of traffic to the site very soon.

It’s important to note that in neither Pete’s experience nor my own are the coding changes responsible for increased marketing of the site. When you build another link into a site you create a new avenue for someone to find you. When you participate more actively or advertise in places where your customers spend their time you increase your brand recognition and gain mindshare. Coding for seo often works in a sort of reverse way.

Poor Coding Builds SEO Dams

While the way you structure a site can have a positive impact on seo, much of seo coding is about making sure you don’t make mistakes that hinder the rest of your seo efforts.

Take for example the relatively simple canonical URL issue. It’s standard seo practice to use 301 redirects to make sure both the non www and www versions of your domain resolve to the same place. Visitors should not be able to access both versions of your domain as search engines will see domain.com and www.domain.com as two different domains. Imagine for a moment that you haven’t done the redirects.

You get two links to your home page, one pointing to domain.com and the other pointing to www.domain.com. That should be two backlinks for your site, but from the perspective of a search engine it’s one link each into two different sites. You’ve just cut your links in half by not paying attention to a coding issue.

Again the good code hasn’t increased anything, but rather the poor code decreased what you should have been getting. Think of traffic into your site like a flowing river. Each of your coding mistakes is akin to another block in a dam that impedes flow. Put up enough blocks and complete that dam and what happens to the water? The water is there and it wants to reach you. The search traffic is there and it wants to reach you too. But the dam prevents the flow of water and coding mistakes prevent the flow of search traffic.

Another way to look at the effects of coding on your seo is to think of it in terms of good coding maximizes everything else you do. With the canonical issue the lack of 301 redirects halved our backlinks in the simple two link example. Poor coding in that case minimized your link building efforts. The same is true of unfriendly URLs, unspiderable navigation, and a host of other common cosing issues.

SEO coding can improve how a search engine sees your site, but more importantly poor coding can hamper everything else you do in your seo campaign. If your code isn’t it order it may not matter what else you do. You could very well have put up so many obstacles to getting crawled and ranked that the rest of your optimization has much less than the effect you’d like.

Again I’m curious to know your thoughts. Do you think coding is important to seo? Can a poorly coded site overcome itself? Should basic coding skills be required of all SEOs?

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28 comments

  1. You see, what you described seems to be some basic HTML/CSS/.htaccess/mod_rewrite coding. Yes, every SEO should know that – and they have to, because, as you described, the issues arise and have to be solved.

    But this isn’t the most important skill. If you create lots of great content, your site can get to the top, even if it is on tables, without .htaccess redirect and with ugly URLs. But, if you fix all that stuff in a matter of days, you’ll be significantly boosting your traffic.

    • Yuri, I agree with your comment and I agree with steven’s article on coding for SEO as well. I think coding + kw research + onpage + off page optimization is required to make sure your website ranks on page 1 of google. Content is very important as well and valuable content that people actually enjoy reading and sharing with their crowd is important.

  2. Yuri I am describing some basic skills like you say. Just as I think you could make a case for most things on the poll being the most important you can also make the case why they aren’t the most important. I still think copywriting is the most important on the list, but I wanted to show how something like coding mistakes could derail even great copywriting.

    Imagine a situation where a developer uses images to create all the text or creates a Flash based site. In both instances you can have the greatest copy in the world, but the search engines won’t see it at all.

    Thanks for stopping by Lee. It’s an honor to have you here. It certainly does depend and realistically you can’t look at any of the skills in isolation. They all work together in the end and like you say different sites have different problems and need different solutions.

    It is an interesting discussion and you can probably tell I’m having fun with it. I think I could make a case for a few more of the items and who knows, maybe next week I’ll try to build the case for another skill.

    If I had to pick one I’d still go with copywriting because I think it’s the one skill that can best overcome a lack of the other skills. If your content is that good you’re going to do well even if you don’t practice any other seo skill, but it certainly helps to be good at a few things.

  3. It really depends on the situation doesn’t it? While there are common issues with solving SEO related problems, each web site is different. Plus, there are more ways than one to solve “ranking” problems involving varying measures of code, content and links.

    Picking one thing isn’t practical, but that’s the limitation of the poll software I use on my blog. :)

    It makes for interesting discussion though.

  4. Hi all-

    I disagree with almost all of the posts. I absolutely do not agree that copywriting is the most important SEO skill. If that were true, then my mother should be an SEO because she is an incredible writer. I can give her a list of keywords (I have done this), and she will create great persuasive and informative copy. But my mother does not pretend that she understands the information retrieval process, in spite of her exceptional writing skills.

    Web copy does not exist in a vacuum. Web copy is part of an interface. Before interface development comes information architecture. (At least in an ideal situation, information architecture comes before interface development.) People come up with information architectures, good and bad, without realizing it.

    Copywriting means nothing if information retrieval systems have no means of accessing that copy. So to put it at the top of the list? Not in my opinion.

    Information architecture should come first, not the interface. Organizing information, both text and non-text information, is just as important as copywriting.

    My 2 cents.

  5. Hi all,

    They are all good points I think… My thoughts on this would definately have to be Keyword Analysis and Research as the most important points of SEO. At the end of the day (in laymans terms), SEO is about achieving high rankings and website traffic which converts into sales leads. Yes, good copywriting will get you those sales, but it won’t always get you the traffic on it’s own. If your copy is written around a bad set of keywords, then your website won’t even be looked at in the first place.

    What is the point in being ranked number 1 for a term when there is virtually no traffic for it? Or why be ranked number 1 for a term which has a heap of traffic, but brings you no sales leads? So having the right keywords and research is probably the most important thing, otherwise you may have to redo all your other SEO efforts (including copywriting) if don’t get it right the first time.

  6. Thanks for stopping by Shari. You couldn’t possibly know this, but I owe you a debt of thanks. Your book, “Search Engine Visibility” was really my entry point into seo and I think it helped set me on the right path.

    Shari I think we all agree that none of these skills can be looked at in isolation. I thought I was clear about that in both this post and the previous one where I tried to make the case for copywriting as the most important skill. My bad if I wasn’t

    This is really in response to a Lee Odden poll I found interesting. My point in writing both posts was just to show some of the reasons why first copywriting and here coding are important skills for an SEO.

    I’d still say if I had to choose one thing from Lee’s list as a skill to have it would be copywriting. It has nothing to do with seo either and I’m looking at copywriting in a very liberal sense, more writing in general, or simply content creation. My rationale is that if I can write well and create engaging content then people will find it and return to it. They will tell their friends about it and link to it. The copy will naturally include a fair amount of relevant keywords and as the links come in the site will do well in search results. It may not technically be seo, but it would still be a successful site.

    I’d argue that if your mom, while not familiar with information retrieval, created a site that site would still be very interesting (I’m taking your word she’s a great writer) and it would gain loyal readers. She wouldn’t necessarily need seo to be a success. I think copywriting is really the only skill on Lee’s list that can work like that. I think of all the skills it’s the one that can still succeed without the others. And again I’m referring to copywriting more as content creation than as what’s technically considered copywriting.

    Interesting David. You’re not alone in choosing keyword research and analysis. A couple of people commented similarly in my previous post on this poll. I agree that keywords are important and I’ll say one more time that all these skills really need to work together. You can know all the right keywords and even rank well because of it, but if you’re page is too slow to load no one will get there and if your copy isn’t readable it won’t make a difference if they do.

    It’s a fun poll though isn’t it. I We all have our opinions and I think I was right in saying you could easily build a case for most of the items in Lee’s poll. Maybe next week I’ll make a case for keyword research as the most important skill.

  7. I totally agree, thinking in terms of how a robot crawls your site and what indicators it has as to important content all relates to coding. I find that sites that are coded well with reasonable emphasis on keywords and regular updating is very important in doing well in Google. Factor that in with a good page rank and the site should do well.

    Dynamic content generally does not do as well as static but leading from a static page to dynamic content can help here.

  8. Phil I agree with you that coding is important. I’d even suggest that in less than competitive markets if you do your keyword homework, write some decent content, and have a well coded site you’re going to do well even with only a few links.

    I don’t think PR is all that important though. It’s in there, but not nearly as much as it once was.

    As for dynamic content it can do just as well as static content. The issue are generally in the way a dynamic site is set up. It’s another coding issue. But as long as you code the site to be search friendly there’s no reason why it would perform any less than the same content on a static site. It’s not the dynamic nature of the site as much as it is the way the site is coded.

  9. Yeah, i was surprised about how much seo knowledge my programmer had :D. When he was cosing one of my sites, he was coding it so that the architecture will be pleasing to the search engines, i believe coding is a very intricate process of seo. So is the copy writing and the number of quality links pointing to your site.

  10. It is good for those developing your site to have a solid foundation in seo. It really doesn’t take much more time to build a search friendly site as it does a search unfriendly site. It’s not complicated though for the most part. It requires learning of course, but after that a lot comes down to practicing good habits.

  11. for me, there are several factors which plays equal amount of role in SEO….. So we can’t nominate any one skill as important….

    Sourav

  12. Sourav I completely agree. I hope you caught the semi-disclaimer at the start of the post. The idea beyond this post and the similar one I wrote arguing for copywriting as the most important seo skill was more to point out why the skill is valuable. But in truth I agree with you that many skills work together in seo.

  13. I do agree that many skill should come together in seo. Coding is one of the important part other than copywriting, keyword analysis, link popularity.

    In my opinion, when come to the search engine world, over all, we need to win our competition because search engine will going to index our website anyway. And in order to win the competition we need to be more perfectly than them.

    One of my customer, they need to win all of their competition, while they don’t want to reduce the amount of the images on their website, they don’t want to add any content on website, they don’t want to fix a lot of coding errors, they don’t want to combine css or put external javascript because on their eyes, their website look fine. Until I can bring their website to position 1 and 2 on google via other seo methods. Well, it’s not hard because they have good website name (their main keywords).

    I said them, I cannot do anything more if they don’t follow my advise. So that their programmers start looking on their code and fix it, not completely finish yet but it’s much better than before. Within 1 week, we get a lot better rank for several keywords and more traffic as well.

    • It can be frustrating when clients don’t want to follow your advice, don’t you think?

      Sometimes all you can do is explain to clients why you think they should do something and how it will help their site and business.

      I let them know the pros and cons, but in the end it’s their site and I let them make the final decision on how to proceed.

      Sometimes client’s reasons are valid even if they don’t help with optimization as much as we’d like. Other times you just have to let them know what they’re giving up by keeping something.

      And it’s always up to us to find the best way to bring rank and traffic and conversions to our clients within their given constraints.

      It’s a balance a lot of the time.

  14. Hi all

    i am new in this field. i have many question . can anyone give the answer of my questions.

    1. please tell me the important terms of SEO

    Thanx
    Aliyah

  15. This “debate” reminds me alot of the debates regarding Nature Vs Nurture… Or should I even go as far to say Mac vs PC… :P Its obvious (even as a novice just getting started with SEO about 10 minutes ago) that everything is equally as important. I really liked the comment that Copy will get you sales and Good coding will get you traffic. The moral of the story… Get good at both and you have to worry about it. :) Maybe…Maybe not?

    • Good examples. Really all this stuff works together. No one thing is going to make your site a success. What you’re looking to do is the best job you can right now and then consistently and continually improve as many aspects as you can.

  16. I have the problem described above of two versions of each page, a www one and a non www one. Must I put a redirect on all pages to fix this? Or can I get away with only putting a redirect on the home page, assuming all traffic comes in through it. Will webcrawlers still get lost on the other versions of each page?

    • Well from what I understand and its not alot…. :\ That issue should be resolved by registering both versions of your website with the search engines. In other words tell the bots to crawl each page as if they were individual sites. I would like to hear what other people have to say on this though…. Im rather new. :)

      MAY THE SEO FORCE BE WITH YOU!

    • You don’t need to add code to each page. You want to set up a 301 redirect to point one to the other. The usual way is to point the non-www to the www, but it’s fine to do it the other way to.

      You can check this post on 301 redirects for information on how to set up the 301.

      The how depends a little on what kind of server is hosting your site. With Apache (mostly like your server) it’s just a few lines of code in your .htaccess file.

  17. Aliyah,

    Just a thought…..

    Your on your computer which obviously has access to pretty much every bit of information that humans have ever created.(the internet) Why are you asking for a list of pertinent terms?

    Rule of thumb when learning something new for the first time solo: http://www.google.com

    HERE’S YOUR ANSWER: http://www.seomoz.org/blog/smwc-and-other-essential-seo-jargon

    Basically in light of saving time which to me is the most precious commodity try to keep your questions more specific. Otherwise I’ll bet you 5 bucks you can find the answer on google…..

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