Mordy Oberstein

Closed CMS for SEO: Why a More Nuanced Conversation Is Needed

If you’d asked me a year ago what CMS you should build your website on, I would have said a custom CMS because I worked for a development company. If I came off my high-horse, I would have said what every other SEO says, WordPress. 

However, joining Wix has changed my perspective. You might say ‘I have to say that, they’re my employer.’ But if that was really my goal, the title of this post would be “Why You Should Use Wix to Build Your Site.” 

I’m not here to advocate for the adoption of a certain CMS over another. I’m here to advocate for a more nuanced conversation around using a closed CMS like Wix when considering SEO.

Why? Well, because like much in the SEO sphere, our current conversation about open vs. closed CMS is a bit hyperbolic. Shocking, right? 

You Can Do More Than You Might Think 

The general perception with a closed CMS is that there’s not a lot you can do with it for SEO. That’s not really true and even when it is, it’s more complicated than you might think.

In doing a bit of research for this post, one of the common ‘cons’ of using a closed CMS is the perceived inability to customize title-tags and the like. 

While I can’t speak for any other CMS, you can certainly edit your title-tags and meta-descriptions with Wix. In fact, you can set up custom patterns within your title-tags and so forth, so that all it takes is one click to add your business name to all your title-tags, etc.

Similarly, you can: 

  1. Edit robots.txt files
  2. Create 301 redirects in bulk 
  3. Establish canonical tags 
  4. Add custom meta-tags 
  5. Add custom schema to static pages 
  6. Customize your URL slugs 
  7. Cache pages 

And more.

Of course, there are some things you can’t do when it comes to customizing within a closed CMS and each CMS has its limitations. 

The bulk redirect option found within Wix’s Redirect Manager tool
The bulk redirect option found within Wix’s Redirect Manager tool 

My point is not to get into what Wix can or can’t do.

What I’m trying to get at is that the conversation around customization, or lack thereof, when it comes to a closed CMS lacks a bit of nuance. It’s not that you can’t customize various things for SEO as a general rule of any kind. It’s that there are limitations to that (and benefits that come with it, but that’s for later). 

A Lot Is Done for You Out-of-the-Box

The very notion of customization is one of the ways I feel the conversation around the right CMS for SEO gets pigeon-holed. Customization is thought of almost as an absolute, as if it were a part of the SEO gospel. But what if that’s not true, or at least not true to the extent we as SEOs often think it is?

I’ll give you a good example. Wix creates product-structured data for its users out-of-the-box. For every product in your Wix Store, schema markup is automatically created. You don’t have to do anything. 

Our initial instinct as SEOs is to say, “But I want to customize it! What if I want to add specific modifiers that don’t exist in the standard product markup?” OK, good question. But what if you don’t? What if all you want to do is apply the standard product markup to hundreds of product pages? In such a case, you literally have to spend 0 time doing that. (For the record you can override the makeup that Wix automatically creates with the developers’ tools we offer.) 

A preview of a rich result containing price and availability info for a page as produced by Wix’s out-of-the-box Product Markup
A preview of a rich result containing price and availability info for a page as produced by Wix’s out-of-the-box Product Markup 

Do you get my point? Sometimes not having the customization or having the CMS do things for you can save you a ton of time. 

It’s a trade-off in a lot of ways. And that’s fine. It’s not that full-on customization is inherently good and that out-of-the-box solutions are inherently bad. It’s more of a question of what’s good for a particular site in a particular situation. 

In other words, it’s a bit nuanced. (Are you seeing a pattern here yet?)

Harder to Break Things and for Things to Be Broken 

The entire idea of a closed CMS is that it’s a more controlled environment. Hence a closed CMS, as a rule, is not susceptible to the same security concerns as a site built on an open CMS. Retaining control over the platform, and by the very nature that a closed CMS is not open-sourced, means there’s less risk of your site being hacked.  

That same controlled environment also means that it’s harder for users to ‘break things.’

Despite the number of sites built on WordPress (and other open-sources CMSes) only 15% of sites are currently ready for Google’s Core Web Vitals update come May 2021 according to one study. How can that be? If you can customize whatever you want, why aren’t more sites ready for Core Web Vitals? Because it’s really easy to foul up performance by using the wrong plugins, running too many scripts, not optimizing images correctly, etc. 

This is really a part of a much larger conversation around performance on both open-sourced and closed CMS’. It’s a conversation that should consider the role and tendencies of the user when working with either a closed or open CMS, the role of themes and templates when working with a closed CMS, etc. 

Again, it’s a really nuanced topic that we generally relate to in sweeping terms.

When using an open-sourced CMS, you really need to know what you’re doing technically in ways that you don’t when utilizing a closed CMS. One thing to consider is what happens when you, the SEO, leave? What will happen when a certain type of client tries to work on their own site once you leave the scene? 

It’s not a good or a bad thing. It’s just a fact of life on the web. 

There’s also the other side to this equation in that it’s harder for things to break when using a closed CMS. When using a closed CMS, there is no update that breaks sites. That’s entirely antithetical to what a closed CMS is. It’s a clear advantage of these CMSes retaining control over their platforms. 

The web is literally filled with content on how to handle WordPress updates that break your site. If you’re using a theme that is supported by outdated code or plugins of the same nature, you can have a real problem on your hands. A very time-consuming problem. 

My point here is not to advocate the use of a closed CMS over an open-sourced CMS. Rather, and as you might have guessed, it’s to add a degree of nuance around the SEO advantages of an open CMS.

There May Be Some Hidden Surprises 

There can actually be really interesting benefits when working with a closed CMS. The control a closed CMS retains, at times, gives you a bit more flexibility by default. That’s an odd statement, I know. 

Here’s a good example. Let’s say you change the URL of a page. Now any internal linking you did with that page needs to be updated. If you did a considerable amount of internal linking with that page, well that can be a considerable headache. 

On a Wix static page, this link gets updated automatically. Why? Because a closed CMS like Wix doesn’t care about the URL per se. Rather, it ascribes a ‘page ID’ to each of your site’s pages. This ID stays the same regardless of the change to the URL that you made. Meaning fundamentally, on our end, nothing really changed and we easily update the URL’s slug to the new one for you. 

You don’t need a plug-in and you don’t need to remember to go back and use a plug-in to update your URLs in such an instance. 

I’ll just shower you with another example of where a CMS retaining control can be a good thing. When using Wix (again, I can’t speak for other CMSes) you don’t need to use Google Tag Manager to set up events. Wix sends Analytics everything it needs. 

There can be a lot of these “little surprises” when using a closed CMS. That’s because the retained control allows for certain abilities. Assuming the CMS platform has its users in mind, this can work to your advantage in a way unbeknownst to many. 

So when we of the SEO ilk decry any sort of advantage to using a closed CMS… well really that outlook needs more nuance. 

Beyond the SEO

If what I have already said isn’t SEO heresy, this definitely is… it’s not all about the SEO. Sites have needs beyond pure SEO (though, I’d argue these needs all eventually touch on SEO in some way). 

If a business sells products online, they’ll need a deep set of eCommerce analytics. This will mean both internal data on sales and so forth, as well as third-party data from sources like Google Analytics. 

Such a site will need to evaluate how deep and easy to access this information is. As funny as that sounds, an open-sourced CMS might not be the best option in every case. 

If you’re asking how that’s possible, it’s because retaining control over the platform again does have its advantages. My example of circumventing the need to use Tag Manager to set up events in Analytics is the perfect example. 

There are really a host of scenarios to consider. Does a site rely heavily on social media or email marketing? What are the best options supported by a given CMS for promoting your site or product on these channels? What is the most cost effective way to do so? It might not be an open-sourced CMS, it might very well be a platform that includes a lot of the wider marketing capabilities. 

The main marketing dashboard inside of Wix offers a deeply diverse set of digital marketing tools
The main marketing dashboard inside of Wix offers a deeply diverse set of digital marketing tools 

It’s again a question of the CMS naturally wanting to help give its site owners a boost. For example, our data analysis said, “Hey Wix users could use some help promoting their sites.” So it naturally made sense for us to create an entire in-built marketing suite that, for all intents and purposes, bundles platforms like MailChimp, Canva, and whatever video creation tool you prefer into one offering. 

In other words, while an open-source CMS might make things available to you, a closed CMS will actively help you. It’s a different product philosophy that has a staunch impact on what product offering you get. 

My point is, you have to consider the CMS as whole and what it means to a site/business. Meaning, the conversation is more nuanced than just SEO. 

Evaluate According to Your Needs 

You can boil it down to different strokes for different folks. The right CMS for SEO is not a one-size-fits-all equation. Choosing the right CMS to build your site on is like everything else in SEO, it depends. 

It depends on the type of user building the site and their level of knowledge and resources. It depends on the amount of time and flexibility you, as an SEO, need for what you tend to focus on when working on a site. It depends on a lot of things.  

My point is, the question of open versus closed CMSes is a lot more complicated than we tend to make it out to be. There are a lot of nitty-gritty details to understand about the people building the sites, workflows, and of course the abilities supported by the CMS itself. 

I can’t tell you what CMS is right for you or for the people you advise. What I can say is there’s a lot of misinformation out there and a lot of details that get glossed over. 

Here’s a more nuanced conversion about SEO and CMSes! 

Mordy Oberstein

Mordy Oberstein

Liaison to the SEO community for @Wix . Writing & thinking about #SEO. Husband, dad, & Steelers fan! Opinions are my own.

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