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:

  1. Errors that prevent search engines from properly spidering your pages
  2. An extremely high code to content ratio
  3. Placement of content within the code structure
  4. Over-burdensome code creating longer-than-usual download time

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.

Errors that prevent search engines from properly spidering your pages

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.

An extremely high code to content ratio

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.

Placement of content within the code structure

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.

Over-burdensome code creating longer-than-usual download time

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.

For this reason alone it's a good idea to keep your code as clean as possible. Eliminating excess tables, on page JavaScripts and CSS can all be contributors to bloating your code and decreasing download speed. In the next two parts of this series I'll discuss these areas and show you how you can easily reduce excess coding to better site performance.

June 26, 2008

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.


With Google now giving pages a score for download speeds the less code on a page the quicker it downloads... the better you score.

I'm not one to care much for W3C standards, but making sure that the code is as clean as possible not only makes it quicker to download and easier to spider, but also makes it easier to make changes or fixes.

Like the tip about moving your top navigation bar to the end of the file whilst keeping it at the top of the page. Might give that one a try if I can get it to be cross browser compatible.

A really obvious tip that people still forget is to store your CSS & Javascript in separate files from your HTML. Drastically reduces code size for spiders that don't understand either.

@ andymurd: I believe that the search engines are supposed to ignore common content on pages. So this boiler plate content shouldn't make a difference... then again, why take the chance.

Well apart from reducing code, keeping your CSS and Javascript in separate files is simply good design practice. It makes it easier to make global changes.

@andymurd, I'll be addressing the Javascript and CSS issues next week!

On code to content ratio - what could be a safe number?

There is no correct number. The idea, however, is to reduce unnecessary code as much as possible by removing code bloat, junk code, etc.

Would the JavaScript associated with banner ads have a negative impact? In particular what I would like to hear people weigh in on is the impact of banner ads on a site. I'm working with a site that sometimes has up to 6 banner ad placements per page. I've been considering having the developers place the code into an iframe in the hopes that it would cut down on the noise/code bloat. To my knowledge, spiders do not follow content placed in an iframe. Would others agree that this would be a good solution?

Rotating banner ads won't have any effect on your SEO. If the links are JavaScript then the search engines likely won't follow them so you won't even lose any link juice. You don't really need to worry about this at all.

What about the amount of javascript?

As little as possible. Bet option is to move the javascript off the page into external files.

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Search Engine Guide > Stoney deGeyter > How to Fix the Bloated Code that is Jacking Up Your SEO