Explore the Core: Native SEO Options
It’s often said that Content Management Systems other than Joomla are best for SEO. What’s not said so often is that it’s only true if that CMS has plugins installed to manage its SEO. Joomla comes with SEO tools out-of-the-box, so you’re already one step ahead.
What do we mean by SEO?
SEO is Search Engine Optimization. Or Optimisation if you’re reading this in the UK. In this case we are referring to on-page elements that a search engine can use to index content. We usually think of this as the title and the meta description. In addition we need to ensure that the search engine is welcome to index our pages and to follow links in the page to other content on the website.
This article is not a guide to how to do SEO, but it is about the tools Joomla includes to enable technical on-page SEO.
We are the Robots
For web content to be indexed by a search engine such as Google, Bing or Yahoo, it needs to be able to read the website’s content using a web crawler, or bot. The simple instructions we give the crawler as to whether to index and follow our content are controlled by a Robots setting. This was once a separate text file but is now often set within the website configuration and output as a meta tag in the website’s “head” area, which precedes any visible content on the page.
Index, Follow - Global settings
There’s an overall Robots setting in Joomla under Global Configuration > Site > Metadata which globally sets how search engines should interact with the site.
There’s four options:
- index,follow - this means index the contents of a web page and include links within the page that lead to other content
- noindex, follow - this means read the content of the page, don’t index it, but do include links within the page that lead to other content that may be indexable
- index, nofollow - this means index the current page but don’t follow links to other content
- noindex, nofollow - this means no content should be indexed and no links should be followed
We can however overwrite these settings in individual articles and menu items.
SEO Title versus H1 title
The title we see in a web page, often referred to as the H1 tag, isn’t necessarily the same title that we see in a list of search results on a search engine page. That title is set either in the article publishing settings or under the Page Display tab of the corresponding menu item.
But why in both places? Well, it’s possible to view published content without it being assigned a menu item, if for instance you create blog content and the articles are linked to from a Category Blog menu type.
In this example, showing the website code, we can see the article title, “Strong Gusts”, is actually displaying a different Page Title. Besides showing a title set by the menu item, it is preceded by the site name, “Sea Watch”, so “Strong Gusts” becomes “Sea Watch - Strong Gusts Expected Later.”
When a search engine displays the result for this page, it uses the Page Title like this:
We’ll discuss search engine results some more below.
As with the title, the meta description can be set in one of two places. In the preceding example we can see text under the search results title. This “blurb” is the meta description. It can be set either in the article itself or the menu item.
In an article Metadata is set under the Publishing tab and, like the global setting, includes Meta Description, Keywords, Robots, Author and Content Rights (ie copyright of the author / website)
SEO is only concerned with Meta Description and Robots. In this case you’ll see that we can restrict indexing using the Robots setting on an individual basis. Imagine the site is globally indexable but this article is a “Thank You” page, for when someone submits a form. We don’t need search results to show this page, so we can selectively choose to noindex it.
Keywords, do we still need to fill that in?
The simple answer is no. Once upon a time a web page would have a meta tag for keywords but this is now ignored by search engines. The words in the content are the keywords and the more popular words and phrases are the ones that get the page ranked.
So why do we still have keywords as an option in the article? If you ever use any of the article modules you’ll know that one is called Articles Related and it shows other articles based on related keywords that are set in the publishing options. All the keywords of the current Article are searched against all the keywords of all other published Articles.
Which SEO setting takes priority?
OK, so now we know that we can set SEO details in 3 places within Joomla, and depending on your site architecture, one or more of these settings may be relevant.
Articles - if you create content that doesn’t have a menu item, ie blog articles, then set your description text in the Publishing tab in the article.
Menu items - use this if your content is a static page. You can set a meta description and robots preferences under the Metadata tab. Under Page Display we can set a Browser Page Title, which, as I mentioned earlier, can differ from the visible page title in the article which can be set using the Page Heading box under the same tab or in the article itself.
Global configuration - if you didn’t set any metadata in articles or menu items then Joomla will serve up the global meta description and site title.
Having previously had to trace back where a meta description was set in a website, so it could be changed, I will share with you a small “gotcha”. If you set a meta description in the article, it takes priority over both the global setting and the menu item setting. If you don’t set an article meta description, then the menu description shows instead of the global one. This might save you a few hours while trying to fix erroneous search results one day.
Search-engine friendly URLs
By default articles are accessed by a set of parameters including the article ID. Joomla offers a means of making URLs friendly to search engines by ticking at option in General Configuration > Site > SEO and enabling the htaccess.txt file by renaming it to .htaccess in the file manager of your web hosting, or via FTP, if your site runs on Apache. Other server types, such as NGINX and IIS, need config changes too, so follow the appropriate instruction below the Use URL Rewriting section.
These days I think this is a bit of an archaic step as almost everybody wants their page addresses to look nice in search results. Maybe one day Joomla will come with this option enabled by default.
My article URL looks like this by default:
And like this once I change the settings to Search Engine Friendly URLs:
Put it together and what do you get?
Have you ever heard of the term SERP? It stands for Search Engine Results Pages and it shows the results from a user’s search. You’ll no doubt recognise the format. Let’s take a look at this one:
See how the details we put into the Joomla configuration appear in the result? It gives the title of the website and then the page it’s showing the results for. In our screenshot you can see it says, “Site Name In Page Titles” and we have 3 options:
How you use this option depends on whether you want every SERP to include the name of your website. It might be a bit tiring to see the sitename appear in every result and there’s reasons why you might not want to do this. You might want to search for reasons to show the site name. These include “branded search” which is worth a search so you understand how it might work for your website.
Something else to bear in mind is that while the recommended number of characters in a meta description is 160, a search engine may cut this off or even change the description depending on what it thinks is the most important information on the page.
What Joomla doesn’t do out-of-the-box
Sitemaps are used by popular search engines to help them reach all content on a website. This can include images and other documents such as PDFs. A sitemap used XML to list these details. To create a sitemap you’d need to install an extension such as JSitemap, OSMap or JL Sitemap. Once created the XML can be linked to from the Google Search Console or Bing Webmaster Tools.
Other extensions help add Structured Data / Rich Results to a web page. This is extra information that helps a search engine understand more about the content and may enhance the SERP. This isn’t a built-in feature of Joomla, in case you couldn’t find it.
Also by default Joomla doesn’t offer a means of scoring your content for readability, keyword density or other ranking factors, like some plugins offer. I’ve known clients who spent days trying to get a green light to appear for their article having manipulated the content, keywords and title accordingly. Similarly Joomla doesn’t help with off-page SEO techniques such as backlinking, ie getting other websites to link to yours.
Set up for action
Now you’ve seen all the native SEO options in Joomla, you should be equipped to create SEO-friendly content that is easily indexable by search engines. To find out whether your website is indexed, and how it appears in search results, check out this article ( 10 Ways to Get Google to Index Your Site (That Actually Work) ) for starters.
Fantastic article. It does pretty much all you need. Combine it with Tassos Schema extension for even better results or Yannick's 4SEO.