Tumblr, SEO, and Why I Moved To WordPress
A number of people have asked about, or questioned my SEO-influenced move from Tumblr to (self hosted) WordPress for this blog. A lot of people know a little about SEO, which has caused a number of, “It’s not Tumblr, you just haven’t configured it; just edit the template” style responses, which I’ve seen repeated elsewhere on the web too. I’m writing this post to dispel those myths; deep down, Tumblr is currently pretty limited for good SEO.
I should first qualify that I think Tumblr is amazing – from the minute I started using it, I became an advocate. And I still am. A lot of people use Tumblr for many good reasons, and it’s the perfect product for them. Tumblr is not meant to be a WordPress competitor, it’s a very different thing: the simplicity and underlying social principles give it a different feel to standard blogging platforms.
Unfortunately, a standard blogging platform is what I need. Simplicity isn’t at the top of my list, and I get my social connection fixes elsewhere. I need flexibility and power, and don’t mind paying the price of tweaking time and expertise to get there.
I’ve been increasingly suspicious of Tumblr SEO qualities over the last 6 months. Of all the blogs I run, most of them are on WordPress (e.g. The Januarist, Amorphous Blog, Contentini), and a few are on Tumblr (including, previously, this one).
I launched my personal site on Tumblr just over a year ago; The Januarist about 8 months ago; Amorphous Blog about 2 months ago; Contentini about a week ago. Page ranks are: Contentini (0), Amorphous Blog (0) – both because they are too new to be assigned one – The Januarist (4) and my blog domain (5). Even though my personal domain has a pretty good pagerank (5) and is fairly old, I’d rarely get any search traffic that didn’t include my name. Maybe a couple of referrals a day. The Januarist, on the other hand – with less Page Rank, a newer domain, and less content – gets 30-40 search engine referrals on a bad day, for a wide variety of search phrases. Even the incredibly new Contentini and Amorphous Blog get more search engine traffic than my personal (higher ranking, more content) blog.
Not that search engine traffic is my top priority, but if you’re investing time writing posts and trying to make your way in the world of web professionals, it makes sense to optimize the traffic you get from any source. On (very rare) occasion, I’ll write something that I think is fairly important or interesting, and it would be good to know that relevant people are finding and reading it. Currently, most are not.
So anyway, on to some specific reasons. I’ve started to set up a test Tumblr site for this, using a tweaked default template (I tried searching for SEO optimized Tumblr themes, but couldn’t find any).
- Page title <title> is the most important element of the page for on-page SEO, and Tumblr just doesn’t cut it. No matter how many tweaks you read and try, the lack of flexibility really lets it down. Sure, you can put your post title first, and if you really try (and you really do have to), get unique page titles for paginated archive pages. But I want a unique, descriptive page title for my home page – can I do that? I don’t know, but I can’t find a way of doing it. What if I want to include my blog title at the end of all pages EXCEPT individual blog posts? Again, not sure if I can do that, but it’s certainly not easy. Or include a different postfix to the title depending on the category/tag of post? I don’t necessarily want to do that last one, but at some point, I might. And it would be nice to have a counter that displayed as you were approaching the 60/64/66 character limit that most SEO people use for titles. For WordPress, install the “All in One SEO” plugin, and the world is your oyster.
- Similarly for meta description. OK, so this isn’t particularly important for SEO, but it would be nice to have SOME kind of flexibility if you did want to use it in earnest. I know, you can put some summary blurb in there and that kind of thing, but there’s no way of explicitly defining it per post/page/whatever.
- URLs: there’s no flexibility over the structure of URLs. This may be subtle, but I don’t want my title to come after some random ID number in the URL. Even if it only has a minuscule affect on ranking, it may have a bigger impact on SERP (Search Engine Results Page) click through rates (based on both the perception of the user, and the length of URL displayed by Google before cut-off).
- H1. After the page title, the <h1> is probably next on the priority list for SEO. I think it’s terrible that the default Tumblr template doesn’t mark-up post titles as headings, not just from an SEO perspective but from an accessibility (structure of the page) angle too. Sure, you can change it, but shouldn’t that be default? There’s no excuse. Anyway – have you tried creating a “Photo” post in Tumblr? You don’t have an option to set a title (and therefore <h1>) for it! You may say, “Well, just use the Text type” – but then you miss out on the specific photo functionality. And…
- Image alt attributes. Again, this is an accessibility as well as an SEO issue. By Tumblr allowing easily preventable accessibility issues to prevail, they are potentially promoting the creation of illegal websites (at least, in the US and UK, and I’d imagine in many other countries too). When you’re in a “Text” post and you use the “+ Upload a photo” option (which you have to, to upload a photo from your computer), it will upload and insert the image without prompting you for alt text. You have to remember to then highlight the image, and click the depressed “Image” button in the WYSIWYG in order to assign it some text (or alternatively, edit the HTML). Why should you have to remember to do this each time? Alt text is a necessity, not an option, in terms of accessibility.
- Inter-page linking. It’s important, in terms of SEO, to ensure you have an excellent internal linking structure for your content. Tumblr makes it difficult (again, as far as I can tell – let me know if I’ve missed something) for you to create ‘related’ pages between posts, automatically display relevant/recent posts (e.g. in the sidebar), etc.
- Miscellaneous tweaks. As you get more heavily into SEO, you want to start playing with PageRank sculpting, adding noindex/nofollow to certain pages/links, and other techniques, which Tumblr makes difficult (at least, more clumsy than simply downloading a plugin for WordPress).
So there you have some of the reasoning. To reiterate: I like Tumblr, and don’t think it should integrate advanced SEO features (except where they need to make some simple changes for accessibility reasons) – it needs to retain the simplicity that makes it successful. But if SEO is particularly important to you, look elsewhere.