W3C Compliance & SEO
From reading the title many of you are probably wondering what W3C compliance has to do with SEO and many more are probably wondering what W3C compliance is at all. Let's begin by shedding some light on the later.
What Is W3C Compliance?
The W3C is the World Wide Web Consortium and basically, since 1994 the W3C has provided the guidelines by which websites and web pages should be structured and created. The rules they outline are based on the "best practices" and while websites don't have to comply to be viewed correctly in Internet Explorer and other popular browsers that cater to incorrect design practices, there are a number of compelling reasons to insure that you or your designer insure that the W3C guidelines are followed and that your site is brought into compliance.
In an interview with Frederick Townes of W3 EDGE Web Design he mentioned a number of less SEO-related though very compelling arguments for W3C-complaince. Some non-SEO reasons to take on this important step in the lifecycle of your site are:
- Compliance help insure accessibility for the disabled.
- Compliance helps insure that your website is accessible from a number of devices; from different browsers to the growing number of surfers using PDA's and cellular phones.
- Compliance will also help insure that regardless of the browser, resolution, device, etc. that your website will look and function in the same or at least a very similar fashion.
At this point you may be saying, "Well that's all well-and-good but what does this have to do with SEO?" Good question.
We at Beanstalk have seen many examples of sites performing better after we had brought them, or even just their homepage, into compliance with W3C standards. While discussing this with Frederick he explained it very well with:
"Proper use of standards and bleeding edge best practices makes sure that not only is the copy marked up in a semantic fashion which search engines can interpret and weigh without confusion, it also skews the content-to-code ratio in the direction where it needs to be while forcing all of the information in the page to be made accessible, thus favoring the content. We've seen several occasions where the rebuilding of a site with standards, semantics and our proprietary white hat techniques improves the performance of pages site-wide in the SERPs."
Essentially what he is stating is a fairly logical conclusion, reduce the amount of code on your page and the content (you know, the place where your keywords are) takes a higher priority. Additionally compliance will, by necessity, make your site easily spidered and additionally allow you greater control over which portions of your content are given more weight by the search engines.
The Beanstalk website and the W3 EDGE site themselves serve as good examples of sites that performed better after complying with W3C standards. With no other changes than those required to bring our site into compliance the Beanstalk site saw instant increases. The biggest jumps were on Yahoo! with lesser though still significant increases being noticed on both Google and MSN.
As we don't give out client URLs I can't personally list off client site examples we've noticed the same effect on, however we can use W3 EDGE as another example of a site that noticed increases in rankings based solely on compliance.
So How Do I Bring My Site In Compliance With W3C Standards?
To be sure, this is easier said than done. Obviously the ideal solution is to have your site designed in compliance to begin with. If you already have a website you have one of two options:
- Hire a designer familiar with W3C standards and have your site redone, or
- Prepare yourself for a big learning curve and a bit of frustration (though well worth both).
Assuming that you've decided to do the work yourself there are a number of great resources out there. By far the best that I've found in my travels is the Web Developer extension for FireFox. You'll have to install the FireFox browser first and then install the extension. Among other great tools for SEO this extension provides a one-click check for compliance and provides a list of where your errors are, what's causing them and links to solutions right from the W3C. The extension provides testing for HTML, XHTML, CSS and Accessibility compliance.
Other resources you'll definitely want to check into are:
- CSS Zen Garden
- A List Apart
- Holy CSS ZeldMan!
(Frederick lists this one as one of the best resources for the novice to find answers. I have to agree.)
Where Do I Get Started?
The first place to start would be to download FireFox (count this as reason #47 to do so as it's a great browser) and install the Web Developer extension. This will give you easy access to testing tools.
The next step is to bookmark the resources above.
Once you've done these you'd do well to run the tests on your own site while at the same time keeping up an example site that already complies so you can look at their code if need be.
To give you a less frustrating start I would recommend beginning with your CSS validation. Generally CSS validation is easier and faster than the other forms. In my humble opinion it's always best to start with something you'll be able to accomplish quickly to reinforce that you can in fact do it.
After CSS you'll need to move on to HTML or XHTML validation. Be prepared to set aside a couple hours if you're a novice with a standard site. More if you have a large site of course.
Once you have your CSS and HTML/XHTML validated its time to comply with Accessibility standards. What you will be doing is cleaning up a ton of your code and moving a lot into CSS, which means you'll be further adding to your style sheet. If you're not comfortable with CSS you'll want to revisit the resources above. CSS is not a big mystery though it can be challenging in the beginning. As a pleasant by-product you are sure to find a number of interesting effects and formats that are possible with CSS that you didn't even know were so easily added to your site.
But What Do I Get From All This?
Once you're done you'll be left with a compliant site that not only will be available on a much larger number of browsers (increasingly important as browsers such as FireFox gain more and users) but you'll have a site with far less code that will rank higher on the search engines because of it.
To be sure, W3C validation is not the "magic bullet" to top rankings. In the current SEO world there is no one thing that is, however as more and more website are born and the competition for top positioning gets more fierce it's important to take every advantage you can to not only get to the first page but to hold your position against those who want to take it from you as you took it from someone else.
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