SEO faces many challenges, ranging from daily tweaks to Google’s algorithms and occasional Google core updates, to internal struggles overcoming the usual business bureaucracy and red tape.
One of the biggest problems many organisations face is delays in implementing technical SEO tweaks. The responsibility for this often lies with internal IT teams, but they, in turn, might be hampered by IT technical debt.
Understanding and overcoming this can help to accelerate optimisation efforts, so SEO campaigns have more immediate results, and ultimately drive rankings and revenues higher in a shorter space of time.
What is technical debt?
Technical debt is a measure of how much your technical development is held back by the systems you already have in place.
This can relate to legacy hardware that doesn’t support further development, or software systems that don’t allow you to carry out the improvements necessary for your SEO efforts.
Although it is not directly a financial term, technical debt has big implications for finance.
The bigger your technical debt, the more likely it is to translate into loss of revenues as you fall further behind your rivals, not only on SEO but on other aspects of IT.
Other symptoms of technical debt include:
- Delays and long timelines to implement new initiatives
- Projects going beyond deadline and/or over budget
- Failure to meet all the intended goals of a project
Technical debt is a concern for all organisations and especially for those who have been online for longer, which increases the likelihood of technology becoming obsolete, or at least surpassed by newer hardware, operating systems and applications.
Why does technical debt happen?
Technical debt is not only caused by systems becoming obsolete and out-of-date, although that can be a primary cause.
Other risks of technical debt include:
- A lack of technical documentation, leaving teams unaware of how websites function
- Inflexible workflows that make it difficult to attack technical problems in new ways
- Poor/old website architecture that does not allow new solutions to be implemented
Some of these problems can be overcome through better working practices, such as documenting the website and CMS better.
Others need the site’s underlying code to be updated and may be better resolved by creating a completely new website.
How technical debt holds you back
Technical debt hamstrings your ability to innovate. This can hinder your development and hold back projects, as well as affecting your public brand perception if consumers see you as a company that does not embrace change.
Research published by Nesta in February 2020 showed that consumers hold businesses responsible for much of the innovation that drives economic growth and social change in the UK:
- 59% believe businesses should be responsible for developing new ideas
- 60% believe businesses should be responsible for innovation in service delivery
- 84% believe businesses should deliver innovation in manufacturing goods
All of these figures are comfortable majorities, compared with the percentage of respondents who believed government or private individuals should be responsible for any of the above.
But the chilling effect of technical debt prevents private organisations from being able to evolve.
In the online sphere, this can affect technical aspects such as support for mobile responsive websites and AMP pages, eCommerce revenues and communication with customers.
Technical debt and SEO
Obsolete and legacy systems are inherently more difficult to update, short of upgrading or replacing the system itself.
In terms of SEO, some examples of this can include:
- No way to add good support for mobile devices (including responsive web design)
- No way to add Schema.org microdata for improved search engine visibility
- Obsolete page elements e.g. frames, tables, Flash and hard-coded CSS
Without using current web design and SEO techniques, you cannot truly optimise your website for the best possible search performance.
You risk losing traffic, and may be left with a website that looks visible old-fashioned to visitors, reducing their trust and confidence when it comes to placing an order or handing over their payment details to you.
Making IT aware of SEO
It’s essential that IT teams understand the importance of SEO. Many have a wealth of experience when it comes to hardware and macro-level software like server configuration, operating systems and essential applications like spreadsheets and word processing.
But unless they have a background in web design, IT technicians are unlikely to fully appreciate the value of SEO elements like metadata, page loading speeds, canonical tags and 300 redirects for moved or deleted pages.
More communication between the web design team and the IT team can help to create better two-way understanding, so that the IT crew appreciate what your SEO campaigns are trying to achieve, but can also feed back about any physical limitations to work around.
How to solve technical debt in SEO campaigns
A simple three-step process can start to overcome technical debt in SEO campaigns:
- Raise awareness of SEO across your organisation. SEO should not be mysterious witchcraft. Make sure all departments and employees – at least down to a sensible middle management level – are well briefed on SEO and why it matters.
- Implement small, quick wins on existing technical debt. Eliminating technical debt will not happen all at once, so start with the easiest ways to remove the barriers you already have in place. Online you can do this with a website audit to identify issues with server speed and page performance, along with specific technical problems like broken links and missing page redirects.
- Prioritise the ‘worst’ technical debts. Rate and rank the individual examples of technical debt and determine how difficult they will be to fix. If an issue needs a lot of work to put right, but its current impact is extremely high, it may be worth making it a priority even though it will take longer to fully overcome.
In terms of SEO, some in-depth improvements can still be worth doing. These can involve migrating your website and/or database to faster server hosting, implementing a completely new mobile responsive website template, or transitioning to a new content management system (CMS) that has better support for adding microformats and metadata.
Technical debt is a challenge but also an opportunity, as it gives you ways to improve by bringing systems up to date, and this can, in turn, ensure your SEO campaigns deliver even more return on investment.
Stay aware of your technical debt over time and take action on the elements that hold you back the most. You don’t have to fix everything at once, but start with the priorities and you should see quick results.
From there, you can reinvest the gains you make on putting right the lower priority, more niche issues for a truly optimised website and eCommerce operation.