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PE is good for SEO

Progressive enhancement is just as important for SEO as it is for design and accessibility. PE helps make sure your site delivers the best user experience.

Stephan Spencer
Search engine optimization expert Stephan Spencer shares late-breaking SEO tools, tips, trends, resources, news and insights. Stephan is the founder and president of Netconcepts, a web agency specializing in search engine optimized ecommerce. Clients include Discovery Channel, AOL, Home Shopping Network, Verizon SuperPages.com, and REI, to name a few. Stephan is a frequent speaker at Internet conferences around the globe. He is also a Senior Contributor to MarketingProfs.com, a monthly columnist for Practical Ecommerce, and he's been a contributor to DM News, Multichannel Merchant, Catalog Success, Catalog Age, and others.
Stephan Spencer
3 min read

No, I'm not talking about running laps or playing dodgeball...although a dodgeball challenge of white-hat vs. black-hat SEOers is certainly something to get the adrenaline pumping. The PE here is progressive enhancement, the better looking sibling of graceful degradation.

Progressive enhancement and graceful degradation are common topics in design and accessibility circles, but these are just as important to SEO as well. These techniques are often used along with advanced technologies like JavaScript, Ajax and Flash, but are even applicable to basics like application of CSS.

Let's start with some basics...using neither of these means that visitors or search engines may come to your Web site and see "garbage" or blank pages--not a good presentation and akin to slamming the door in someone's face.

Graceful degradation was a step to overcome this, where sites were designed for the latest browsers and technology, but were also made to degrade gracefully, hopefully delivering most of the content to the visitor, or at least informing the visitor that he or she may not be "getting" everything. This was meant to make for a nicer, friendlier Web experience. An overly simple example is the use of noscript tags for JavaScript functions to at least inform the visitor that JavaScript was necessary, rather than leaving the person clicking on something with no result, or whatever effect that apparently wasn't working.

Graceful degradation might be seen as being focused more on the developer than the end user. Progressive enhancement though is the opposite, developing for the lowest-common-denominator, and then progressively building on top of that. PE has delivery of content at the forefront, with presentation and the bells and whistles as added enhancements.

So why is PE so good for SEO? Well, simply put, search engines are rather limited in their abilities. Sure, they may have patents to their names, highly complex algorithms directing them, supported by multimillion-dollar data centers and the most advanced computing technology, all backed by Ph.D.s in various flavors and more engineers than us average folk could ever imagine, but their spiders are pretty much limited to following simple HTML links from page to page.

Without progressive enhancement, many sites add lots of great interactive functionality at the expense of cutting search engines off from the rich content on the pages. Maybe the best way to really understand this is through a live example.

REI progressive enhancement on product detail pages.
REI progressive enhancement. REI
REI tabbed content sections on product detail pages.
REI tabbed content sections. REI

REI, one of Netconcepts clients, is probably familiar to most readers. With stores all across the country and an extensive Web presence, most of us can't help but think of REI whenever we are in need of new outdoor gear or clothing. Online retailers face some of the most challenging SEO issues. Major e-commerce sites often contain hundreds of thousands of product pages below layer upon layer of category pages. Unfortunately, more times than not, these product pages, the ideal pages for serving up highly targeted, keyword-rich content to search engines, are content lean, with little more than a few product bullet points.

Adding to the challenge, thanks to all the focus on adding rich user interfaces using JavaScript, Ajax or Flash, many e-commerce sites have hidden away what little bit of content they had on their product pages.

REI just launched a new design of their product pages. Along with adding even more content to better serve their visitors, they added a tabbed interface to keep the pages cleaner looking and limit the amount of scrolling that users will have to do. Best of all though, they did this through progressive enhancement so that users with older browsers or who for whatever reason may have turned off JavaScript, can still access nearly all of this great content. (The reviews are currently delivered through JavaScript.) And yes, search engine spiders are still able to access this content as well.

The image to the right shows how the page would appear with JavaScript off and the tabbed content revealed and nearly all of it accessible to search engine spiders. You can take a look at the product page for the Hobitat tent and see how much content is on the page in the tabs.