Why Clean Code Helps with SEO

Marc Avila

Code that powers websites generally falls into one of two categories: code and clean code. The truth is, you can probably get by with even the most basic code that’s not written in the best possible way.

But clean code gets you something more. Something worth the effort in doing it right…Clean code improves your website’s search engine ranking performance.

Don’t listen to the naysayers denying the fact. They argue that because the impact of clean code is “indirect,” or that it seems irrelevant when the reality is there’s a significant difference between the SEO value of clean code versus bulky or poorly written code.

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Understanding How Google Ranks You and Why Clean Code Matters

The Google algorithm decides your website’s ranking value by crawling your website with a bot. The bot runs regularly to ensure all new pages are registered and valued. Ideally, your website and all the majority of its content is visible to Google’s crawl bot.

In fact, it is a net-negative to your SEO performance if you block content. (There are only a few instances in which you wouldn’t want the bot to “see” certain content on your page. For example, customers’ private account pages that shouldn’t be publically available.)

Googlebot is the generic name for Google’s web crawler. Googlebot is the general name for two different types of crawlers: a desktop crawler that simulates a user on desktop, and a mobile crawler that simulates a user on a mobile device. Your website will probably be crawled by both Googlebot Desktop and Googlebot Smartphone.”

Google

Now, as Googlebot is reading your site, it is gathering the most fundamental content. This includes things such as your headers, sub-headers, any metadata, the types of media and sizes, etc.

Yet, a jam in your website’s code can complicate the bot’s ability to absorb all the information on your site. When that happens, unfortunately, it hurts your ranking.

This can be troubling at times, such as when you are working with a highly customizable WordPress theme like millions of websites already do.

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How To Tell If Your Site Has Clean Code

When looking at the coding for your website, focus on things you can do to make it cleaner and lighter. 

code writing clean code at desktop computer
Ask your web design agency to take a look at your website’s code if you are concerned it is hurting your SEO.

First, run some quick tests. 

A good starting point is a Pingdom Website Speed Test. We like this particular tool because it has been designed with experts and novices in mind—it’s smart, but not overly complex to use. Just enter your website URL and the tool will report back with its findings. 

You’ll be able to see content load times from the CSS to the JavaScript on your website. The tool points out what’s slow, what’s fast, and if files or images are too large, giving suggestions on what needs to be fixed. 

Validate your code

You can also type in your URL into a search engine spider simulator to see how search engines like Google interpret your site. If you notice in the results big sections of text missing from the pages on your site, you will need to validate your site code to check for specific errors. 

To validate your code, you can use the W3C Markup Validation Service. Although this is typically something most business owners will not have to deal with personally. Rather, their web developer will take care of these details.

The Characteristics Of Clean Code

Clean code has a common set of characteristics to make it easier to identify. Each serves its own purpose. If you’re reading through your code, or when a web developer is reading it for you, you want the code to exhibit as many of the following attributes as possible.

Clean Code Is Efficient 

When code is developed with specific ideas and goals in mind it is almost always faster. It trims the fat, creating a lean, efficient website.

Clean Code Is Easy To Read

two web developers accessing clean code
A reputable web developer understands the importance of clean code.

Any time a new designer or developer looks at the code on your website, you want them to instantly be able to understand what the code does. Clean code is the best way to do that.

Clean Code Is Easily Maintained

The developer who writes your site code won’t always be the same person who has to update it. So, the code needs to have a clear logic and be as short and simple as possible. That way you avoid any unnecessary confusion and slow-downs in the maintenance.

Clean Code Conforms To Web Standards

Web standards, such as those put forth by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), make your site a powerful communication tool. Without uniform and consistent web standards, it is more difficult for web developers to understand source code. (Further reading: Web Design Standards: Guidelines for Consistency)

Clean Code Is Extensible

You can future proof the code on your website, at least to some extent. Clean code makes it easier for your website to adapt to new functionalities or other evolving conditions that may pop-up down the road.

Clean Code Is Reliable

Simply put, clean code makes your site more secure and reliable. The less downtime your site experiences, the better it is for your business.

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How To Optimize Your Website With Clean Code

computer screen displaying clean code for website

So, now that we know a few things about what makes code clean code and why that’s so important to the Googlebot and your website’s success, let’s explore a way to improve the quality of your site’s code. Thus, giving it an SEO boost and giving it a better chance to rank well in Google search results.

You might be surprised to know that there’s one big culprit we often see when clients come to us wanting to speed up their slow websites and make their code clean…

…big, bulky WordPress themes.

Avoid WP Themes With Heavy, Bulky Code

In all fairness, the perception that premium WordPress themes are great is understandable. It’s a quick way to get a website launched with a decent design and customization options.

But, it doesn’t really work out like that.

The “quick fix” WordPress themes allure you with can be more trouble than they lead on to be in certain ways. 

At their core, WordPress themes need to do the impossible. They need to be everything to everyone. Because of that, they’re usually bogged down with a ton of stuff the average user doesn’t need.

Because WordPress themes have to pack so much into their code in order to make everyone happy, you end up with a website that’s bloated and slow. Not to mention that once you start adding plugins, it only gets slower.

Slow websites, of course, impair the user experience. 

Page abandonment rises as page load speeds increase. Many all-in-one WP themes take a good four seconds to load and, by then, you have lost 25 percent of your traffic.

Yikes.

At that point, it’s safe to say that Google’s crawl bot might not walk away with positive information about your site.

“At Google, users come first. Studies by Google show that average 3G loading speed is very slow. They also show that users leave the site after about 3 seconds. This means that their experience is bad and Google doesn’t like ranking sites which provide a bad user experience.”

-Cognitive SEO

Sure, you could remove everything you don’t want from a current template and tweak it to stay functional, but this causes headaches if done wrong. And, in the end, that takes time and resources, canceling out the main appeal of using WordPress in the first place.

Use Custom Code From The Beginning

two books about writing clean code for seo

You are better off having your web developer coding a clean HTML5 template instead. This lets you start from the beginning, which creates the cleanest code possible

Clean custom code is made specifically for your site and is built to suit only those needs. This makes it far faster than WordPress themes. 

Further, if you work with a good web design agency or developer, you will be able to fully customize your site however you want it. You are not losing out on customization options by not using WordPress.

You’re just going about customization in a way that’s more efficient for Googlebot to read, understand, and rank your website.

The biggest appeal, perhaps, is that your faster page load speed will lead to a higher percentage of visitors taking in what your site is about. Additionally, it will boost your website’s ability to rank well. 

There’s this added benefit as well:

“Since you know the web structure easily [on a custom HTML5 site], the sitemap will have a simple index which is recommended by all the search engines. You can also specify the frequency in which the contents are modified so that crawlers can come and do their job at the same time frame. An advantage in SEO.”

Sankar Gopinath, Asst. Digital Marketing Manager, SIVA

A Clean Code 101 Checklist

  • Use only one <title> tag per page.
  • Use one, unique meta description on each page. They are essentially free advertising, so use this space to write an informative description of the page. Don’t just copy/paste your homepages meta description into the header of all your site’s pages!
  • Make your <H1> tag engaging to a real person, not a Googlebot. 
  • Use descriptive anchor text in your links to give search engines an idea of what the page is going to be about, which in turn helps it to understand the topic of your site as a whole.
  • Add <nofollow> tags to all the links posted by users of your site in the comments section. This prevents people from spamming your comments with junk links that will damage Googlebot’s trust in your site as authoritative.
  • Make sure all non-decorative images have descriptive alt tags that tell what the image is and about.

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Clean Code Gets Two Thumbs Up

Clean code can be difficult, but any website developer worth their own weight will swear by it. The setbacks of clunky code are too severe. You do not want to scare visitors away—Google won’t like that. 

Plus, you want to appease Google’s standard ranking method, and a site with clean code gives Google only the best things to digest. If you are not a professional developer — even if you understand web design — hire a professional to at least clean your code up when the design is done!

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