There are a lot of little things that can junk up your code, but, for the most part, the search engines don't really care. It doesn't matter to them if your HTML validates or if you keep your code "clean" or not. When it comes to analyzing your pages for search engine rankings, none of that really matters a whole lot. But when it does matter, it matters a whole lot.
Here are some typical coding issues that can screw up your on-page optimization processes:
These are pretty much simplifications of the complexities of how the search engine algorithms work, but this will help us better understand the problems that arise from junking up your code. Let's look at each of these individually.
I'm a huge proponent of using proper HTML markup and validating your code. No, there is no search engine ranking benefit from having valid code vs. invalid code. But some invalid code can cause problems with the search engines.
Browsers tend to be very forgiving of these kinds of coding errors but the search engines may not be. For example, if you forget to close your
<head> tag the search engines may not take your body copy into consideration, not knowing that it's actual content.
There are numerous coding errors that can essentially stop the spiders from grabbing, indexing and evaluating your copy properly. By using validated code you are 100% certain to eliminate these kinds of potential problems.
Should you worry about all the other little things, like making sure each image has an ALT attribute? I say yes. Not because those things will trip up the search engines but because by validating your code completely, it makes it easier to find new validation issues that may appear with re-designs and site changes. Such new errors can easily be hidden among the "acceptable" coding errors if they are not all attended to up front.
I'm not obsessive about code-to-content ratios but I do believe that if you have so much code on your pages that it makes it hard to dig out the content, then you might have some issues. Especially when you have hundreds or thousands of lines of code with very little accommodating content.
I'm not suggesting the search engines won't be able to parse the code and pull the content out, they will, but each engine has a limit as to how much data they will download per page. If they reach that point before finding your content then they won't get the content at all.
For most sites this isn't an issue as their pages are not large enough to reach that point. But many have reported that by simply reducing the code-to-content ratio on some sites they saw an immediate boost in rankings. This isn't some magic SEO strategy, it's just good web development.
I don't believe that search engines are looking to reward sites that adhere to good development techniques, but I do think that eliminating excessive code can certainly help the more important elements of the site stand out a bit more prominently, and therefore get weighted as they should.
There have been published patents from the search engines that show how they try to break down the code of a page to determine how it might be displayed in the browser. With this information, certain sections of the site can be weighted differently than others.
For example, the search engines can try to determine how much content is "above the fold" (what is visible on the screen before scrolling) vs. below the fold. There are some extreme limitations to this kind of analysis. The search engines don't have a "screen size" so what is above the fold can vary from one visitor to the next. Also, it's possible to use absolute placement using CSS. This can allow you to make things appear higher up on the page than they really are.
A good example of this is the Pole Position Marketing website. When you look at the code, the content is pretty much the first thing that appears just after the closing
<head> tag. The top navigation actually comes close to last. Even when the site had a side navigation bar the same rule applied, all these elements were furthest down in the code leaving the content up near the top.
The search engines, looking to determine where certain elements are displayed, would come to the conclusion that the header is really the footer. We did this so as to push the content up higher in the code than it otherwise would have been. While this may give the search engines a false impression as to the on-page placement of the actual content, we are emphasizing the importance of the content over all.
Site's with lots of extraneous code can become a burden. The search engines understand that if a user suffers from long download times they are more likely to bail on a site. If the engines determine that your code is causing longer-than-usual download times (and they would know... they are downloading your code too) then they are likely to score your page differently then they might an otherwise equal competitor.
Stoney deGeyter is the President of Pole Position Marketing, a leading search engine optimization and marketing firm helping businesses grow since 1998. Stoney is a frequent speaker at website marketing conferences and has published hundreds of helpful SEO, SEM and small business articles.
If you'd like Stoney deGeyter to speak at your conference, seminar, workshop or provide in-house training to your team, contact him via his site or by phone at 866-685-3374.
Stoney pioneered the concept of Destination Search Engine Marketing which is the driving philosophy of how Pole Position Marketing helps clients expand their online presence and grow their businesses. Stoney is Associate Editor at Search Engine Guide and has written several SEO and SEM e-books including E-Marketing Performance; The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!; Keyword Research and Selection, Destination Search Engine Marketing, and more.
Stoney has five wonderful children and spends his free time reviewing restaurants and other things to do in Canton, Ohio.
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