Barry Adams feels that, in 2023, SEOs need to start seriously looking at doing SEO on the edge and explains how you can take advantage of the power of the CDN.
Barry says: “We all know and love CDNs; platforms like Cloudflare can help our websites perform better. The beauty of CDNs is that you can ensure your international users connect to a version of your website hosted close to their location. CDNs are a great way to avoid communicating over the internet via servers located on the other side of the planet.
SEO on the edge involves leveraging the power of the CDN. By utilising advanced, expansive features, you can adjust your website on the CDN rather than on your own servers.
The cached copy will contain web pages that the host can manipulate when implementing SEO practices like redirects, canonical tags, hreflang tags, schema markup, etc. Why would you want to do this on a CDN? Primarily because it makes it easier to test things rather than entering a busy developer’s queue on your own server. It’s a great mechanism for testing changes on a limited set of web pages - for example, a set of category pages on an eCommerce website.
The ability to perform split testing for SEO can elevate your technical SEO to new heights. You can also experiment and see which things actually work under your specific conditions. You can then avoid a potentially lengthy and expensive development project for an untested and untried implementation.
It’s exciting to see how edge SEO will continue to evolve over the next few years. As a concept that’s been around for at least five years, it’s starting to reach a level of maturity and is ready for the limelight.”
Is Cloudflare the best CDN for this?
“Yes. Cloudflare is at the cutting edge of edge SEO. Its features and capabilities are second to none, and to top it all off you can sign up for free and benefit from testing things at no extra cost. This is something that you can’t accomplish on other CDNs, but with Cloudflare, you’ll have a chance to confirm the definition of SEO on the edge free of charge.”
There are quite a few websites that use multiple CDNs depending on where the user happens to be in the world. In these instances, there will be some kind of layering of the CDN sequence that the page loading has to go through to ensure the most up-to-date versions of web pages load. This is one of the downsides or risk factors when manipulating web pages on the edge.”
Do you need to know exactly where in the technology stack it’s happening and keep very close documentation of what you’re changing?
“On the edge, in the CDN, you’ll need to build a very robust internal process - where you use the CDN to do certain things and document them extensively. The ultimate aim will be to implement it on your actual technology, on your actual live server where the CDN takes its root copy from. You’ll want to avoid scenarios where changes suddenly disappear from one day to the next.
Your live web server gets updated with a new set of production codes and, if you operate effectively, the CDN caches to make way for this production code. However, sometimes changes on the edge won’t be taken over by the new version and there are lots of other risks you can be subjected to. It’s not just something you can jump into willy-nilly and think ‘let’s go and try this stuff out!’. There are actual providers to help with this, including SearchPilot which has a Meta-CMS that does it on the edge.
There are also new providers emerging with platforms to do A/B split testing for SEO on edge. Other platforms have emerged to help you automate this process and make sure it becomes part of a robust strategy. The goal is to prevent creating huge gaps between the website and your end users. Googlebot sees the website as if it exists on your own live server. When doing SEO on edge, arguably the biggest risk of all is creating a fork of your website on the edge. This could easily diverge too much from your actual website or what your life server is like.”
Is there a recommended minimum size or genre of website that SEO on the edge is most suitable for?
“You can do it on any website of any size and any scope. Having said that, if you have a very simple brochure website that runs on a simple CMS like WordPress, doing SEO on edge is probably a bit overkill - because it’ll be easier to do it directly on your website.
However, the more complex your website is the more advantages you can get from doing SEO on the edge. Generally speaking, for those sorts of websites, making major changes to your life site can seem high risk, expensive, and very time-consuming. That’s why making changes on the CDN is so advantageous. You can bypass all those obstacles and get it done fairly quickly under limited circumstances so you don’t risk the success of your entire web page when making changes.”
If you’re working on a site and implementing SEO on the edge for the first time, what are some of the potential biggest initial wins?
“One of the easiest, most impactful things to implement is automatic redirects. As things currently stand, managing redirects of large websites can be a daunting, difficult task that’s not worth the enormous amount of time and effort. This is especially true when you’re dealing with a large-scale website that potentially has millions of disconnects. On the edge, you can fairly easily write simple scripts that map redirects almost entirely automatically. In doing so, you can make sure that your end users never end up on pages that previously existed but don’t anymore.
At scale, redirect mapping - especially if you do site migrations - is one of the most difficult and time-consuming processes. However, on the edge, it probably makes life a bit easier, as is also true when implementing hreflang tags. It’s one of those things that can be very difficult to build on, but can be done in a relatively straightforward fashion on the edge when updating your schema markup.
If you have additional attributes you want to add to your schema markup but you’re not sure of whether you should do it across the entire website or on the edge, just do it for one section of your website and see what happens. These types of practical implementations are the best and simplest ways to get started.”
How would you start using the edge for SEO testing? What elements would you tend to test initially?
“Well, there’s almost no limit to what you can test. This is one of the advantages of using SearchPilot because they have a newsletter where they regularly write about case studies of clients that run tests and see what happens. The outcomes can be quite counterintuitive. One of the tests they ran involved using emojis in titles, or listing prices in meta descriptions to see whether or not Google picked those up. The beauty of doing these tests on the edge is that you can just pick one category of your website and make the change for just that category without having to worry about how it performs compared to the rest of your website.
By doing this, you can fairly effectively isolate the particular change you’ve made and see what the actual impacts are. This is something you wouldn’t typically be able to do because, if you build out across a whole site, you’ll see that websites are complicated and yours might have different levels of topical authority for different product categories. In this situation, you can very easily get lost thinking about what is causation and what is correlation. With SEO on the edge, you can find a tighter connection between the changes you make and the impacts they have.
Often, we implement these things on websites because they are the best SEO practices. However, just because that’s assumed doesn’t mean these approaches are guaranteed to improve your traffic and rankings. That’s why performing an initial test is a smart thing to do. It’s better to do a test before you implement it across your entire website. It will enable you to undermine a certain practice by testing its effectiveness. You can then gather data and do a proper test on a significant number of pages to see whether they get more traffic and rankings. Let your test run for a couple of weeks or a couple of months before seeing what the actual impact is. You can then implement that change wholesale across your entire website.”
It can be scary to think about potentially incorporating a price or an offer somewhere in the SERP because you won’t be in full control over getting rid of them if that particular offer finishes. Should that be a concern?
“It’s a concern because Google has a mind of its own. The SERP snippets that Google shows don’t always necessarily reflect what the webpage itself says. Google is increasingly deciding for itself what to show there, so the best thing you can do is send strong signals to Google. This is what you’ll want to show, but that doesn’t mean to say it will be too much of a concern providing you back things up with structured data.
Google tends to show accurate data as part of its accurate search results. Legal restrictions often bind websites to display accurate content. It would be wise to avoid experimenting with inaccurate information on your web page. Google has a habit of overwriting your snippets in search results with its own copy that may not be an accurate representation of events.”
What shouldn’t SEOs be doing in 2023? What’s seductive in terms of time, but ultimately counterproductive?
“It’s very seductive to focus on the volume of content you produce. Many companies tend to put more articles out and try to cast their net as broadly as possible to capture traffic with what can honestly be considered low-quality content. Just having a content calendar and saying we’re going to write X amount of articles with certain keywords, yet failing to consider the value of that content, is a seductive strategy. The intent of the search for your content is supposed to fulfil the quality of the content you deliver.
It’s best to have different industry conversations with your clients, and with websites in general, to sway from the ‘X amount of words, X amount of articles, and X amount of links’ approach. What’s more important is to focus on the value add you’ve brought to a website via the quality you’ve delivered to your audience. By doing so, you’ll be positioned to positively contribute toward the business goals of your organisation.
Things should be less output-based and more value-based. When it comes to generating content for websites, you should put more effort into the individual pieces of content you can be truly proud of. You should genuinely feel like your article deserves to be a top-ranked result in Google because it fulfils the needs of the searcher when they enter specific queries.”
Barry Adams is an SEO Consultant at Polemic Digital and you can find him over at polemicdigital.com.
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