What's True About The Myth About Squarespace SEO

 Speaking the truth about problems with Squarespace SEO.

Speaking the truth about problems with Squarespace SEO.

A Review Of Problems With Squarespace SEO

This is not a Squarespace SEO guide, though it does contain advice. It's a review of SEO problems with Squarespace and a measured consideration of the "Squarespace SEO myth" question. In the future I'll be writing more hands-on articles on these issues where you'll get specific guidance to optimize your Squarespace website's SEO.

The "Myth": Squarespace Is Bad For SEO

Squarespace has suffered for a long time now from a reputation that it's not good for SEO (search engine optimization). You'll read that in the slew of Wordpress vs. Squarespace articles and in comments on various forums. You can also find a lot of articles online defending Squarespace against the "myth" that it doesn't do SEO well.

What's the truth in this argument? Can you just go ahead and use Squarespace and rest easy in the knowledge that they have everything covered, as some of its proponents claim? Or can you never really rank a Squarespace site as well as a properly set up Wordpress site, so you should just go with Wordpress and save yourself the grief?

The truth, in my view, lies more on the side of Squarespace's defenders. But this article isn't another one of those pieces defending Squarespace—which I'm obviously a proponent of as I specialize in working in it professionally.

No, I'm going to review the most important areas where Squarespace has real SEO problems. I'm also going to put these problems in perspective so you can get as clear-eyed a view as possible.

The Missing Squarespace SEO Plugin And The Virtues Of Squarespace

Let's get this out of the way. It's true that there's no Squarespace SEO plugin like Yoast in Wordpress. But what is an SEO plugin? It's really just a checklist that helps you do what you need to do for search engine optimization purposes. That Squarespace doesn't have such a plugin speaks to both its strengths and its weaknesses.

With Squarespace, there is no such checklist built-in partly because a lot of the work has already been done for you. You don't have to worry about getting an SSL certificate, generating a sitemap, dealing with the robots.txt file, or implementing a CDN, among other technical tasks. Squarespace has that stuff taken care of. Social media integration is easy and intuitive.  Sites are mobile responsive out of the box, though sometimes CSS (code) is needed to get them to really look right on mobile or tablets. It's in taking away the need to worry about these things that Squarespace really shines, including for SEO. It's really Squarespace's main virtue.

Still, Squarespace is a wee bit misleading when they remark, in their article on what Squarespace does for SEO, "Squarespace has the technical side covered for you—there's no need to search for plugins or get under the hood." In fact, you'll need to make sure you get any number of things right and avoid a variety of pitfalls, some of which are indeed "under the hood." And without a plugin like Yoast to guide you, doing Squarespace SEO really does require attention to detail.

It makes sense to utilize any number of well-written Squarespace SEO guides out there, such as the one by Style Factory, and follow their recommendations closely. The most important elements will be site and page titles, meta descriptions, URLs, appropriate H1-H3 headlines, body copy, and alt text. Headlines can be a problem (as we will see) but these are the most important elements of on-page SEO and there's no reason why a competent Squarepace user can't implement them fairly well with a sufficient amount of patience and attention to detail. Of course, there is also the broader problem of information architecture (the page structure of the site). There are also off-page elements like setting up Google Search Console properly and registering your sitemap, not to mention getting backlinks. And of course, you won't be able to do any of this without decent keyword research. Content strategy is a whole other ballgame that has little to do with Squarespace itself as a platform.

Now let's move on to areas where Squarespace does present you with roadblocks.

Problem #1: Templates And Cover Pages

Unfortunately, some templates are better than others from an SEO perspective. It's fair to say that template-specific issues present the most impactful challenges to doing SEO in Squarespace.

Generally speaking, the older, more rigid, and more image-centric templates do worse, and the newer and more versatile templates do better. The reason for that is inherent to how Google works: Google reads text, not images, and likes to see a logical hierarchy of what are called H1-H6 headlines (Squarespace offers you H1-H3 in the text editor) and body text, which it considers to provide the best experience for the user. Not having "real" headlines and/or having minimal body text, as is the case with some older templates, definitely hurts you. Also, as we'll see, older templates have additional weird problems with meta descriptions and headlines.

One of my first Squarespace sites was for an artist. Since I wanted to showcase his fantastic work, I chose the portfolio template Forte. It features great looking full-bleed index pages which act like a slideshow. Each page has a full-bleed background image, with the index name and individual page title in the lower left corner.

The site still looks good several years later. However, from an SEO perspective, it isn't very good at all. On the individual index pages the single headline you get doesn't actually get coded as an H1-H3 headline, just body text. Furthermore, this is one of those templates that sets the site title itself as an H1. So each of the pages within the index has a single H1 headline which is identical to the other pages! Google likes differentiation, not duplication. Not good.

The lesson here is that when you set up your Squarespace website, you need to be very careful about what template you choose. It's the most important decision you will make for your site, and the deeper you get developing a site in that template, the more firmly you will be tethered there, because switching templates is a pain. If you have added CSS styling, much of it will need to be redone, and you will have pages that will need recasting.

This website used to be on the Pacific template. Switching it to Brine was a multi-day pain. (SEO wasn't the only reason I switched to Brine—the design flexibility is far greater.)

To make matters worse with that old artist's site, I naively created a nice cover page for the homepage with two buttons. It looks pretty good. But what isn't good is adding a needless navigation level and burying the main navigation structure on an inner page. Google has made clear that it considers too many levels of navigation to get to content to be a negative experience for the user. It also makes it harder to crawl your site. Note that it has been observed for a long time that Squarespace cover pages don't do very well with SEO. You want your homepage to have your main navigation and be as close as possible to your content. So my advice is to avoid using cover pages as your homepage. They can be good as landing pages or for other purposes, however. 

Problem #2: Page Descriptions

Page descriptions, which Squarespace draws on for meta descriptions (the usual source of Google's search snippets), can be problematic. In some templates, not only do they act as the source of meta descriptions, they also get surfaced on the page.

 This Page Description for the Bedford template ("Description") will surface what looks like a headline, body text, and button on the page, but Google uses it as the page's meta description.

This Page Description for the Bedford template ("Description") will surface what looks like a headline, body text, and button on the page, but Google uses it as the page's meta description.

Among the most popular templates is Bedford, which is a great looking template that is particularly easy to build out quickly in a logical structure. Unfortunately, Bedford is one of the templates that surfaces Page Descriptions on the actual page as well as using them for meta descriptions, which Google will generally show in search results as the snippet for a specific page.

There are a few problems with that. You may (and probably will) want a different snippet for the SERP (search engine results page) than what you want as a headline or text on the page. Compounding the problem, this template uses part of the Page Description for the headline, part for the body text, and part for an optional button. It's a cool way to give you quick and easy design flexibility. But, as with Forte, none of these are H1 to H6 headlines as Google understands them. Which isn't good.

There is a workaround, though only a partial one, for Bedford's Page Description issue (it involves using a gallery with a single image). But for some of the other templates there's nothing you can do. Of course, workarounds are time consuming.

Your best course of action is simply to choose your template wisely. If you are not strongly attached to a particular template, I recommend choosing one in the Brine family of templates. You'll have flexibility for a lot of design issues, as well as great ease in including headlines even on pages like the main blog page, which on a lot of other templates just presents a list or grid of posts.

Problem #3: Headlines And The SEO Symbiosis

Sometimes in Squarespace, headlines and an effective, hierarchical headline structure are difficult to set up or doing so wastes the attractive features of the template.

The symbiosis of headlines and body text is crucial to SEO. You generally want to have a single H1 headline on the page and most likely include a primary keyword, and additional, possibly multiple H2 and/or H3 headlines as further elaboration of your page's theme in a logical hierarchy. Your body text supports and elaborates on the page's theme. Google can understand your page better that way, and it thinks humans will understand your page better that way too. Which is often the case.

Is this absolutely necessary? No. Some pages will just have a headline or two and relatively little text. While that's not ideal, it's not a major problem if other pages take up the slack. It isn't even absolutely necessary to avoid multiple H1 headlines, as folks used to think. The hierarchy just needs to make sense. That has been confirmed by Matt Cutts, formerly of Google. On the other hand, it's a great way to go, and it should be your default headline structure. I try to limit pages to a single H1 if it isn't too much trouble and it doesn't deform the page to do so.

So it's a significant problem that on some Squarespace templates, there's no way to have an H1 headline on certain pages.

On other templates, there's an issue with the site title showing up as an H1 if you have no logo. On some, like the York family, there's something called an "upper logo" and "lower logo" in the source code, so that it shows the site title as two identical H1's. (Google may be able to parse this.)

Furthermore, as we've seen with Bedford, on some templates, because the Page Description is surfaced prominently on the page, what ought to be an H1 due to its importance, or at least a headline of some kind, isn't one at all.

Then there are image blocks. Squarespace introduced a bunch of versatile image blocks ("card", "poster," etc.) with integrated text some time ago. They're a great addition to Squarespace's design flexibility. I do have some quibbles with how responsive they are, as they can get rendered pretty weirdly on different devices, forcing the use of CSS with media queries. But I'm glad to have them.

These blocks (the ones that integrate text) have a problem, though, from an SEO perspective. They provide no headlines. The "headline" you're offered just gets put in between <p> tags. It's seen as body text by Google.

It's not a catastrophe, but it's worth keeping in mind as a notable limitation. In particular, you should be wary about using one of these blocks alone on a page since the page will then have no headline at all. Index page sections are not as bad a case as standalone pages for such use (and it's more likely you'll want to use them that way there). But the lack of a headline is not ideal.

Not ideal doesn't mean big deal, though. If you're strategic about how you use these image blocks they can be great tools for Squarespace websites. Certainly they won't "harm" your SEO, you just won't get the benefit of using a "real" headline.

So the verdict on headlines is: not ideal, but mostly dependent on template. Choose the Brine template family and you'll avoid most of these issues. 

Problem #4: Schema Markup (Structured Data)

Schema markup is a subject I've already covered elsewhere, so for that I'll direct you to my article on three SEO problems with Squarespace's implementation of Schema markup.

To summarize, the author field does not get marked up in Schema in a way Google recognizes, so you'll need to use Google's Data Highlighter or add Schema yourself to get complete Schema for your blog posts. Also, you need to avoid entering anything into Business Information in Settings if you are not a business, as that will get you unwanted Local Business Schema markup.

Squarespace does a somewhat ok job adding Schema (code that tells search engines about your website). But it can still be helpful to add extra Schema.

Problem #4: No Meta Descriptions For Products

When you add a product in Squarespace, the description you enter becomes the product's meta description in search results and is cut off at 300 characters. It will be cut off right to the letter, so you will likely get a part of the last word as the end of the meta description in the source code. That doesn't mean this is what will appear in Google's SERPs, though, which has mostly reverted to a 150-160 character length for meta descriptions.

So this is an overly lengthy meta description. In any case, you probably don't want the entire product description to be the meta description, which is supposed to be a short summary of what a page is about. It's possible that you have little to say about a product, in which case it's probably okay. "Our flaming aqua shorts are a great way to get noticed on the boardwalk" is fine. But what about a reasonably comprehensible description of, ahem, Squarespace SEO Audit services? You'll need to make your first sentence or two a summary you'd like to show up in search results, and even then it will get cut off inconveniently somewhere.

As with the Page Description issue in Bedford and other templates, this is a situation where Squarespace should really offer a field specifically for the meta description, but doesn't, taking away your ability to write up an appropriate summary and forcing you to violate Google's current guidelines if you need some length to fully describe your product.

SEO Problems With Squarespace That Aren't Much Of A Problem

Here are a few issues that have raised eyebrows about Squarespace. Their impact on SEO performance ranges from slight to nonexistent.

Speed

The speed of Squarespace sites is ... okay. Not great, okay. Sites are not as fast as they could be if unnecessary scripts weren't loaded. If you put some effort into it, and you have significant experience building Wordpress sites, you will likely be able to get a similar Wordpress site to run faster.

On the other hand, site speed is not a catastrophe with Squarespace. It's unlikely you'll get penalized unless you've bloated your site with too many large images. And what if you are not so familiar with implementing a CDN and trimming JavaScript files? You're better off with Squarespace.

To make up for speeds that are not lightning fast on Squarespace, you can make sure your image sizes are as small as they can be and avoid loading excessive numbers of fonts, among other actions.

Built-In Domains

When you sign up for a Squarespace website you automatically get what's called a built-in domain. Then, when you get a custom domain (either directly from Squarespace or by pointing an existing domain to your Squarespace site), Squarespace makes the custom domain canonical. The built-in domain doesn't just disappear, though. Depending on how long you've had it live, it can have quite a bit of persistence in search results, even outranking your custom domain in some instances and for periods of time that can be surprisingly lengthy. I've seen it go on for many months.

Since you definitely don't want a duplicate site, this would seem to be a significant problem. Yet over and over again I've seen it just work out by itself. Yes, if you search specifically for the site using Google's "site:" function the built-in domain will come up. But highly specific searches will only return the canonical site's page. What this means to me is that Google understands what's going on and is making allowances for it. If you're really concerned you can simply rename your built-in domain's name and those results should slowly disappear, as Colin Irwin described in an article from 2015. I won't do that, because why mess with something that doesn't seem to be a problem? It's the same reason why I won't update my motherboard's BIOS unless there is a definite need to do so. 

Deleted Pages

I've also noticed an incredible afterlife for deleted pages, even after I've emptied Squarespace's page "trash." (You do need to empty your page trash. I've seen pages last months beyond 30 days there.) At one point I even engaged in a rather lengthy back-and-forth with customer service because pages that had been deleted over a year prior kept showing up in Google Search Console. Even after removing the URLs from Search Console using the removal tool, they would reappear weeks later, meaning that somehow Google was crawling the site and finding them. Yet they were not in the sitemap or anywhere else I could identify them. What does it mean? I don't know.

Trailing Slashes

Then there is the notorious trailing slash issue. It has concerned folks for years, and Squarespace hasn't done anything about it. The issue is one of duplication. In the source code, a page's canonical URL will end with a trailing slash, though you can go to either page without a redirect. In the sitemap, there's no trailing slash at the end of URLs. Links in the navigation have a trailing slash, but links in the body don't. The result is that SEO scans like Screaming Frog or SEMrush will sometimes tell you you have a serious problem. I've seen both URLs get flagged as duplicates in Google Search Console in the HTML Improvements section, which is more concerning, though it doesn't usually happen. It may also mess with your Google Analytics data.

How serious is it from an SEO perspective? I'm not entirely sure, but I don't believe it's much of a problem, for the simple reason that there is a canonical tag. Yes, Squarespace should fix it, but I assume this is a technical debt issue that they can't be bothered to deal with because although it may alarm some folks, it doesn't actually affect results. Of course, they've allowed various other issues that really are problems to fester without doing anything about them, so the mere fact that they haven't done anything isn't necessarily reassuring.

Is Squarespace Good For SEO, Squarespace vs. Wordpress, And What SEO Really Means

As we've seen, Squarespace does have real challenges with SEO. If SEO is important to you, and for most people it is, you need to put some real thought into how you will implement your site in Squarespace. Keep the main problems we've outlined in mind and act to work around them by choosing the right template, developing a good keyword strategy, paying attention to headlines and titles and meta descriptions, and taking a look at a good Squarespace SEO guide to get things right. If you follow an effective content strategy, your efforts will likely trump any of these issues and render them almost unimportant.

Is Squarespace as good as Wordpress for SEO? If you use the right template and follow best practices, you can definitely rank your Squarespace website as well as a Wordpress site. Quite possibly you'll do better, since you'll be sure to avoid a number of back end issues you need to make sure to take care of with a Wordpress site, and you'll never get hacked or have a problem with plugins, updates or hosting.

On the other hand, if you're currently using a problematic template, consider what you can do to mitigate its issues. It might be worth it to switch, but in most cases, you're better off just putting out excellent content that follows a good content strategy.

If you're not using Squarespace yet, consider it. You can definitely do well, and you shouldn't listen to the naysayers. By being aware of the issues that do exist, you can create a site that will perform superbly and save yourself the headaches that sometimes come with other platforms.

It's important to keep in mind what SEO is: a zero-sum competition. You're struggling with other people trying to achieve the same thing you are. Those efforts are what get them their rankings. No platform is going to spare you the hard work you need to put into your website's search engine optimization, from thoughtfully setting up your information architecture, to implementing your SEO keyword research and content strategy, to getting backlinks. This essential SEO work is mainly what is going to matter. And all of these areas are there for you to work on if you have a Squarespace site. You just have to do the work.