Google Hates Your WordPress Theme

Inexperienced & amateur “web developers” are building shoddy and unprofessional websites and themes at an alarming rate. As a digital marketing agency, we are getting almost as many requests to fix broken websites as we are to build new ones!

Today we’d like to tell the story of a website from an awesome company that we’ve only been working with a short while. Like many websites, this one used WordPress as a CMS but unfortunately used a theme that was poorly developed and in as we say at Elite Strategies: “incompatible with Google.” It was a parallax theme with tons of bells and whistles.

While Googlebot is getting more and more “OK” with a lot of JavaScript, it still disagrees with a lot of WordPress themes out there, and will disown them from the search engines if not properly setup.

Image courtesy of webdesignerdepot.com

While many people might read this post and say “ugh, another pre-made WordPress theme” please remember that sometimes SEO is about dealing with the hand you’ve been dealt. Not all clients can afford a custom made solution, nor do they want them. Many clients want a specific theme and don’t want to hear otherwise. It’s either use this theme, or they take their business elsewhere.

Some Background

About 30 days ago we started working with a new client. Unfortunately this client arrived on our doorstep with a parallax style WordPress theme. Whenever we see one of these sites, our whole office collectively cringes. We’ve just had really bad experience with these type of sites, and are opposed to them for a variety of reasons: from UX, to web development, to design we just are not fans.

cringe

This theme referenced 23 JavaScript libraries and 20 CSS stylesheets! Kind of nuts. The scariest part is that there are 500+ sales of the theme floating around out there. Most likely a lot of frustrated webmasters.

This really isn’t an isolated situation either. There are 100’s if not 1000’s of these themes out there. They look pretty, they have oodles of “features” but when Google comes to visit, it’s not a good thing.  As an SEO, one of our biggest jobs is working with misconfigured websites, old frameworks, and broken themes.

Many companies just don’t have the luxury (read: budget) to re-program a site if they find out there are glaring issues. Business owners don’t want to hear that their beautiful new website has SEO issues. “Isn’t that your job?,” many of them ask. And so it is our job to fix them, and we do it however we can within the budget given.

This really isn’t an isolated scenario in the consulting world. Electricians, car mechanics, even home builders deal with other professionals producing a suboptimal product, only having people come in at a later date to find shoddy workmanship. But we live to work another day.

A Brief Anecdote

So when we took possession of the site, we started doing normal SEO stuff. Adding analytics, getting it in webmaster tools, building citations, doing on-page. 1 week  passes and no index…then another week. Finally our web developers and SEO team have a meeting and determine the theme is totally bogus (that’s our official diagnosis).

index-status

In this case, the client was dead set on keeping the theme, so we had to do some work-arounds. We un-parallaxed the website, so that each page resided on its own URL. That is, instead of it all being on one page:

http://www.example.com/home#
http://www.example.com/about#

The pages / posts would get their very own page:

http://www.example.com/about
http://www.example.com/services

We also took a look at our robots.txt file, and made sure it was unblocked:

User-Agent: Googlebot
 Allow: .js
 Allow: .css

Another reason why this is horrible, is the website basically only has one giant title and meta description (also structured data, other meta info, etc). I hate saying things are “bad for SEO” but yea, that’s bad for SEO.

From there, we started hacking away at the theme. We removed a ton of “required” plugins and swapped it out with code. While we don’t think this was the cause of the plugin, it definitely helped reduce the overall footprint of the website. We also removed probably 50% of the theme’s functions. Just not necessary. We are used to dealing with page builders at this point in the game. We don’t like them, but we are forced to use them most of the time.

Once that was completed, we gave it a few “fetches” and voila! It fetched fine. Within 7 days it was indexed with everything looking good, and even starting to rank!

google-crawl

A Blind Audit by Cyrus Shepard

That’s an excellent question. It’s an odd situation because Google seems to be able to index the demo page:

cyrus shepard SEOGenerally speaking, there are a few reasons why Google might have trouble with any JavaScript-heavy framework, assuming the rest of your technical SEO is in order (things like canonical tags, robot directives, etc). The most common reasons are that

1. The JavaScript load event happens too slow for Googlebot to read the page

2. JavaScript resources are blocked by robots.txt

3. Lack of indexable URLs Justin Briggs recently wrote an excellent summary of these (and other JS considerations for SEO) on his blog. It’s a highly recommended read:

Another consideration is: how well does the site work without JavaScript? Does it degrade gracefully? In the case of SKROLLEX the answer is no. This theme appears 100% reliant on JavaScript, and I’d be hesitant to bet my SEO life by placing important content on it. Especially if I knew it was important and had to be indexed. 📈 Cyrus Shepard 😃.

Closing Remarks

I’m a die hard SEO, and I love technology. While I love a lot of these new JavaScript frameworks I just don’t trust them. Most web users also expect a certain format when browsing the web, they don’t want most of the features being offered by theme developers. And I’m not blaming JavaScript or saying don’t use JavaScript or even saying Google doesn’t like JS. In fact, there have been plenty of studies claiming otherwise. We’ve seen how well Google reads and understands the DOM, but I still don’t trust WordPress themes out of the box.

While there are tons of case studies showing how well Google crawls, reads, and understands JavaScript, they should all be prefaced with: “when implemented properly.”

Most people really dislike parallax / scrolling style websites. I could quote tons of studies here, but its just the way it is. People like compartmentalized web pages. It keeps things organized and tidy. One thing I’ve learned about Google: if people don’t like it, Googlebot probably doesn’t either.

I again, want to echo Cyrus Shepard’s remarks and reference his post – Core Principles of SEO for JavaScript. It is a fantastic write-up and I can’t begin to recommend it enough.

Some more references:

Making AJAX Applications Crawlable

 Understanding web pages better (2014)

Why All SEOs Should Unblock JavaScript & CSS… And Why Google Cares

 

 

Patrick Coombe
Patrick Coombe is the founder and CEO of Elite Strategies Llc. Patrick takes a hands on approach to managing Elite Strategies and loves to get involved with technical projects relating to clients inbound marketing needs.
Patrick Coombe
Patrick Coombe
  1 COMMENT
Blog Search SEO WordPress
  • Written by: Clay Smith

    Hi there Patrick,

    I never thought that WordPress theme does have a big impact to search engines. I’m using on my site an outdated and simple wp theme, but after I read this, I think must change it.

    Regards,

    Clay Smith

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