Putting lipstick on a pig: Fix the website or fail at SEO

You’ve landed a new client and you’re digging into the website. One look tells you this is not going to be easy.

Sure, you could do some SEO activities to make the client happy. But there’s bigger fish to fry. 

The information is out of date, it’s not well written and the formatting is hard to read. The website looks old and the CMS is clunky.

The client has big expectations of your SEO program. What do you do?

There’s an old saying about putting lipstick on a pig. Sure, you can “do some SEO.” But you and I both know that we need to address the fundamental problems if we want to succeed in SEO and rank on Page 1 out of millions of results.

At this point, you need to get real with the client. This can be a hard conversation; what if they don’t have the budget for what you are proposing?

You have to prepare to walk away from the project or else get creative with the budget. Because neither one of you will win if you don’t get it right.

That said, there are two major categories you need to fix in any website before you kick an SEO program into high gear:

  1. The content on the website
  2. The technical back-end of the website

I’ll touch on what to look for in each category next.

Updating the content

A common lipstick-on-a-pig mistake is when a client asks for more and more new content and fails to address the content they already have on the website. I encourage clients to divert equal resources to updating their old content in addition to creating new. 

How often to update the content on a website depends on the topic. In general, there are three things to consider:

  1. If the topic is evergreen. Some topics are evergreen, meaning the information can stay relevant for a long time. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t tweak and optimize evergreen pages for best results. It simply means that there will likely be less work.
  2. If the query deserves freshness. You will need the most up-to-date content for a website if it is targeting queries or keywords that require the freshest content in the search results. A social or political event is one example. Google discusses that here.
  3. If the topic is deemed “your money or your life” (YMYL). Google discusses YMYL topics in its Search Quality Rater guidelines (think financial or medical advice) and holds webpages that contain them to a higher standard.

In addition to updating the content itself, websites need a strategy for how they will organize the content to get the most SEO value from it — and to create a better user experience.

This includes things like the navigation and how you link pages internally. SEO siloing and internal linking best practices are foundational SEO strategies that will streamline your SEO program’s efforts if done well early on.

Updating the website

At first glance, does the website look trustworthy? Or does it have an outdated look and feel? What about the performance of the website — does it provide a good user experience?

These are the fundamentals we must get right before driving more traffic to a website. 

Some things to work on right away include:

  • Spider-friendly code: The website needs clean, streamlined code the search engine spiders can crawl with ease.
  • The content management system: That custom CMS the client built may have been great at first, but it has SEO problems, and you can’t easily update things inside it. There’s a reason why WordPress is the most popular content management system because it is always up to date.
  • Site speed: How fast a webpage loads impacts the user experience, which is why it’s a part of Google’s ranking algorithm.
  • Mobile usability: Most websites have a large number of people visiting from a mobile device. Websites need to be responsive to desktop and mobile users.
  • Robots.txt: Robots.txt can block unnecessary crawling to reduce the strain on a server and help bots more efficiently find good content.
  • XML sitemaps: It’s a best practice to tell search engines about the pages, images and videos on a website with an XML sitemap.
  • 301 redirects: 301s prevent error pages by redirecting old pages to newer, more relevant content as needed. This can improve user experience.
  • Fully qualified URLs: When you link internally and include the full URL starting with the “https:” instead of a relative URL it can fix certain crawl issues.
  • Canonical tags: The canonical link element tells search engines which version of a URL you want in the search results and can resolve duplicate content issues.
  • Server maintenance: Server diagnostic reports help you address common errors right away to improve the user experience.
  • Plugins: For security reasons, update all plugins.
  • The design: Make sure the web design/user interface is in keeping with modern functionality and trends. Usually, an update every three to five years works.

Of course, there are more ways to address the technical aspects of a website, but this is the minimum to give an old website some new life. For more, an SEO checklist can help.

Just say “no” to pigs

I believe as SEO professionals, we have a duty to advise potential clients in a way that sets them up for success.

If we know that what the client is asking for is merely putting lipstick on a pig, then we need to be upfront about it. Cosmetic changes can add curb appeal, and may be needed — but don’t let the work stop there if the site is still just a pig.

SEOs must go beyond the lipstick and help create a good user experience to succeed. Updated content, Core Web Vitals, and especially page speed are examples of how SEO changes the pig into something better.

And, we should be prepared to either walk away from a potential client who does not want to follow our advice, or get creative and know how to make the most impact with their budget.

That may mean you address the fundamental problems of the website bit by bit on a slower timeline before kicking it into high gear. It’s not the job of SEO to make a pig fly … it’s the job of SEO to transform a website so that it becomes an eagle.


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