SEO for Decoupled Drupal Websites

May 22, 2019
Chris Baker
Vice President & Chief Strategy Officer

SEO / Content, Web Development, Digital Marketing, SEO, Drupal, Web Development, Digital Marketing

The term “headless CMS” or “decoupled CMS” refers to a content management system that is set up purely as a content repository, nothing more. It serves only in a backend capacity as a platform stripped of its entire front facing and content rendering functionalities. In other words, it simply exists to create, manage and deliver content. 

The advantage is that a decoupled CMS essentially frees up content for use anywhere across multiple devices and platforms instead of being handcuffed to the front-end of your website design. That’s because the website, or whatever is displaying the content, is no longer built right on top of the CMS itself. Rather, it is a separate system altogether, then connected to your CMS via custom developed APIs. And when it comes to establishing a decoupled architecture, savvy developers prefer Drupal as their CMS of choice due to its scalability, flexibility, security, and general ease-of-integration without having to rely on 3rd party add-ons as often. 

For most marketers, however, decoupled environments can cause some issues if things aren’t set up optimally. That’s because some of the front-end functionalities (and many of the add-on tools, similarly) that we rely on to market the website won’t function properly, if at all, without the head of the system - the website design - at least not without some custom development time. 

Specifically, several new SEO challenges have emerged with decoupled Drupal, though they’re solvable if your team is fully aware of them before development planning begins. Regardless, you should understand the pros and cons of launching a decoupled Drupal environment or any headless CMS environment. 

WHEN TO AVOID DECOUPLING DRUPAL 

If you are building a basic responsive website, a decoupled Drupal CMS might be overkill. Why? Because it takes extra web-development hours to build the APIs that connect the front-end design to the back end (i.e., your headless CMS). As a result, working with a decoupled Drupal along with a separate front-end design introduces new challenges and complexities that require a dedicated team of both front-end and back-end specialists working closely together.

So, if you’re only planning to use the CMS for a single website, it’s probably best to stick with a standard non-headless CMS like Drupal or Wordpress, as both are fully capable of delivering a superb digital experiences to users right out of the box. Without decoupling, you’ll have more access to front-end tools that allow for web editors and developers to leverage existing design themes and page templates, as well as add-ons.

WHEN TO DECOUPLE DRUPAL

A decoupled Drupal environment opens up enhanced capabilities, however, the extent of those capabilities are dependant upon skillful Drupal developers. Ultimately, decoupled CMS strategies are a great option when future scalability, additional build-outs, multiple web properties, and/or consolidating content on multiple platforms are proactively important to your organizational growth. 

With a headless CMS approach, the content can be used in virtually any way imaginable, displayed in multiple formats across numerous front-end experiences, whether through an API, on multiple websites, in local applications, across digital signage in the physical world, or apps built in a JavaScript framework. 

Basically, if a large-scale digital transformation is in your future plans, decoupling is certainly a step in the right direction and very much worth considering. However, marketers should stay cognizant of the digital marketing implications associated with decoupled Drupal, particularly in regards to SEO. 

DECOUPLED DRUPAL SEO IMPLICATIONS 

First of all, we should note that all the same modern SEO best practices still apply to websites powered by a decoupled CMS. As in:

  • Keyword and topic strategies supported by high-quality content are still relevant and absolutely essential to your rankings.
  • Metadata for pages and high-quality imagery featuring ALT tags are also still important.
  • You still need to rely on strategic link building to reinforce your credibility and domain strength.
  • URL structure, XML sitemaps, and indexing are still critical.

Now, before we cover the new SEO challenges that a headless CMS (specifically, decoupled Drupal) introduces, it’s worth mentioning the primary SEO benefit with decoupling: the loading speeds. 

Decoupling Promotes Faster Loading 

According to Google, 53% of mobile users will abandon a website that takes longer than 3 seconds to load. When using themes and templates that are directly linked up with your CMS, your site can become unnecessarily bloated with unneeded features. This slows down your loading speeds, sometimes significantly. 

However, when your Drupal CMS is decoupled, developers can pick and choose exactly what is and isn’t needed to build only what is needed. This increases loading site and page speeds, which Google and humans alike will surely appreciate. In the end, faster loading means better click-through-rates, and better click-through-rates are sure to increase your site’s ranking in Google’s search engine results. 

While this certainly is great news, marketers and SEO-minded developers need to stay mindful of some of the Drupal SEO challenges that decoupling introduces.

Decoupling Can Block MetaData Outputs 

The first big challenge related to decoupled Drupal systems is that data entered into the default metadata editor won’t be viewable to search engines. In Drupal 8, for example, the meta tag module comes standard with the software, but in a decoupled scenario, the data doesn’t get pushed to the front-end like it used to. Thus, search engines are unable to see pages and content unless you have a developer recreate the functionality of this particular module. 

Sitemaps & URLs With Headless Drupal 

A headless CMS could cause issues if you add content to the site or update URLs frequently, especially if you like to use custom URL aliases (another core module included in Drupal 8). In a worst-case scenario, you might need to create and manage the sitemaps manually, or ensure that you have a custom-developed system in place that updates the sitemap automatically when URLs change or new content is added.

Oftentimes, decoupled websites opt to use a third-party XML sitemap application because recreating this type of functionality through custom development can be a large task that eats up a development budget. Regardless, without some sort of solution here, search engines won’t quite know how to get around your site, crawl it, and figure what to index. 

SEO Tools Don’t Work

Relative to the above site mapping issue, it is very possible that common SEO monitoring and management tools won’t function properly for you when trying to keep tabs on your site’s performance on search engines. This too is fixable.
On the flipside, however, your decoupled website will be much better positioned for enhanced integration with marketing automation and campaign management software like Hubspot, assuming a developer is on hand to help with these integrations.

Image Styling & Rendering  

Most CMS platforms include image-rendering functionalities that help control how images look and respond on various devices and screen sizes. For example, if you upload a massive 9MB image file (please don’t ever do this) to your backend, then the full-bodied CMS will automatically resize it and prepare it for an optimized display on any device. Decoupling removes this functionality entirely since it is tied to the front-end facing part of the CMS. 

There are a number of ways to solve this issue with code, but once again, it’s on your developers to recreate this type of useful yet complex functionality. Regardless, marketers and content editors will have to remain extra cautious to ensure that the imagery they upload to a decoupled CMS is optimized appropriately.

Is a Decoupled Drupal CMS Right for You? 

We’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible with a headless Drupal. If your organization is considering new digital experiences powered by Drupal, check out our helpful Drupal whitepaper, view our Drupal agency services, or simply shoot us any questions you might have.