Single Page Applications and SEO: Breaking Down the Myths


Making a website or app that your audience will love is important for any business that wants to be successful on the internet. That’s why building websites as Single Page Applications or SPAs has started gaining popularity. The SPA approach provides better UX through fast and seamless interaction and is a great fit for mobile browsing. However, lots of companies heavily rely on search engine marketing as one of their main lead generation channels. And SPAs are widely known for not being SEO-friendly.

What are SPA and SSR?

In this blog post, we’ll explore why Single Page Applications are challenging for search optimization. And what can be put in place to make things work properly. But before we dive deeper into the problem between SPA and SEO we need to understand what Single Page Application is. How it works, and why many companies today choose this approach to build their digital assets. 

The best way to explain this is to compare a SPA with a traditional Server Side Rendering (SSR).

Server Side Rendering

Server Side Rendering is one of the most common techniques to build websites. Lots of the traditional pages you access on the web use SSR. 

With this technique, when you request a website, the server generates HTML, CSS, and Javascript and sends it back to your browser as a fully-formed webpage. Every time you request a new page by navigating through the menu or clicking buttons, the process will happen again. The server will render a full web page on your request and send it back to your browser. 

Single Page Application

Using the Single Page Application, the whole web page loads only for the first time. After that, the content is pulled dynamically in response to what the user requests. This means the web page doesn’t have to be refreshed and recollected every time you click on a link or push a button. All the constant elements stay just like a shell around the data your request, and only what needs to be changed according to your interactions is changing.

Even if you’re not personally familiar with SPAs, you most likely use them every day. Services like Gmail, Google Maps, Pinterest, Netflix, and many others use the Single Page Application approach.

What’s so cool about SPAs?

You might ask – if Single Page Applications are not SEO friendly and many websites successfully work with the SSR technique, why should I bother? Of course, not every company needs to build a Single Page Application. This depends on your type of business and the goals you want to achieve. Here are a few good reasons to consider SPAs for your web asset development.

Better User Experience

In today’s highly competitive world, an efficient User Experience is more than a must. And SPAs do improve UX. Without pages being refreshed all the time, the overall interaction becomes much more seamless and fast. You may not notice it but think of Gmail which pulls in just the letter you wanted to open. Without reloading all the stuff around it. It makes the experience feel more intuitive.

Improved Mobile Experience

SPAs are usually considered a better fit for mobile browsing. And this makes sense if we remember that in 2023 – 92% of users access the internet using a mobile phone. These are approximately 4.32 billion active users, that expect from you nothing less than a perfect mobile UX. 

With SPAs businesses can create the look and feel of a real mobile application. Without having to force users to download apps on their smartphones, which we all know can be annoying. And there are even some big companies out there like Starbucks who prefer the SPA approach rather than building their own apps.

Better Performance and Scalability

Since SPAs load initial resources once and then only pull in the content that is needed – the load time is usually faster than with traditional websites. At the same time, most of the work is moved to the client side, so the load on the server is significantly reduced. With that, your server can handle more requests. This gives better performance and scalability and even allows you to reduce costs on server maintenance.

Single Page Applications (SPA) and SEO

The core of the problem between SPAs and SEO lies in the field of technology. Search engines use crawlers to browse the internet and collect data about websites and their connections. Crawlers are robots and they need to understand the code of your website to include it in the search engine’s index. And even if with traditional HTML everything works perfectly, JavaScript still has limitations in terms of crawlers understanding code. In fact, JavaScript was never intended for web page content delivery, and Single Page Applications heavily rely on JavaScript. 

Does this mean that you have to say “goodbye” to Google if you are using SPAs? Not at all. Optimizing single-page applications for search engines is a more complex task. But let’s consider it a challenge rather than an obstacle. 

Now we’ll identify what are the most common problems appearing for SPA in terms of SEO. And then explore some advice on how these issues can be prevented or fixed.

Common SEO problems with SPAs

Just a Single Page 

With SPAs, when requested information dynamically loads on the same page – in some cases the URL doesn’t change. This causes problems for search robots in understanding the website structure and content differentiation. 

Soft 404’s 

If a user lands on a non-existing page within a traditional website – it would send back a 404 error page. Thus informing users and search engines this content doesn’t exist. But as Single Page Applications are handled on the client side and don’t use URLs – broken links will often return the wrong header. This confuses browsers, search engines, and people, resulting in soft 404s that can harm the overall SEO.

Heavy code on the 1st load

As SPAs load, all the data and code to render the page only for the first time, and change content on request afterward, this first load may become quite heavy. With significant amounts of code to be downloaded and executed. This can result in slow loading, a poor user experience, and a final negative impact on SEO.

Spider Traps 

Spider Traps are endless loops of URLs. When you are clicking around in SPA it might start creating an almost infinite number of links. As a user, you won’t identify this, but search engines will often find these traps and get stuck in them. Subsequently, the page won’t be indexed and won’t appear in search results.

Duplicate Content

SPAs rely on dynamic content that is loaded using JavaScript. However, search robots might not wait until JavaScript content is fully loaded. And won’t be able to properly crawl and index it, considering the page as a duplicate.

Completely Untracked

For traditional websites, we use solutions like Google Analytics to track users’ behavior and conversions. But as SPAs content changes dynamically and tracking tools are not able to capture users’ actions accurately.

Fragments and Hashtags

Fragments and hashtags(#) are sometimes used in SPAs to indicate which part of the page should be loaded and displayed when a user clicks on a link. However, search robots don’t consider these separate pages, and can’t crawl them correctly. 

No XML Sitemap

Search engines use XML sitemap files as a guide for all pages that need to be crawled and indexed on the website. With a traditional website, you can create an XML sitemap manually or by using automation tools. But as SPAs usually have only one URL, it becomes a complex task to collect an accurate sitemap that will represent all the content on the website properly. 

Inconsistent URLs

Continuing the challenge with XML Sitemaps – one other common issue with SPAs is inconsistent URLs. This is when you have implemented internal links in your web application code, specified canonical pages with canonical tags, and created a sitemap – but that all doesn’t match… and then it doesn’t work. 

No Open Graph 

Social sharing is important. And we’ve all gotten used to having some picture, title, or small description pulled up when we share links on Facebook, LinkedIn, Slack, or other social platforms. This happens because of a special Open Graph protocol that social media can read. But with SPAs, there is no Open Graph and your links won’t look nice and attractive while sharing… at least until you manually resolve the issue.

Troubleshooting Single-Page Application SEOs

As we promised at the beginning, there are solutions for all the issues mentioned above. For this blog post, we won’t go deep into the technical steps, but we’ll share possible paths you can consider and study for improving your SPA’s search performance.

You don’t have to build the entire website as SPA

The first thing that is important to know – you don’t have to build the entire website as a Single Page Application. However, you might use this approach for certain sections where it brings the most value, and will help focus your SEO strategy on other areas that are built with server-side rendering. 

Some website owners that still need their whole site in SPA use this type of strategy by creating a separate traditional website for a blog, for example. This is where they put all SEO efforts. And then put in links that guide visitors to the main SPA asset. It brings an extra step in the user’s journey, but in some cases might be a solution.

Think through your search strategy before you start building SPA

The second thing is that the best approach to SEO with SPAs is to think through your search strategy before you start building a Single Page Application. This is a common situation when business owners face SEO issues after everything else is completed. As usual, fixing something always requires more effort than doing things right from the beginning. Ask yourself – how will Google find all our pages? What would happen if the page is removed? What are the key landing pages?

Leverage technical work and continual testing

And third – almost all of the problems with SEO for SPAs can be solved with proper technical work and continual testing. With a traditional website, (at least until some level of business growth) you could find a junior SEO specialist or even a marketing manager to handle search engine optimization, and have some help from developers on request. But this strategy is unlikely to work for SPAs if you want to succeed. Single Page Applications is the story where technical SEO comes to the fore. You need an experienced specialist to work hand-in-hand with your developers’ team to make it work.

Pre-Rendering, Dynamic Rendering, and SSR for SPAs

JavaScript frameworks that are used for SPA development such as React, Angular, and Vue provide solutions for single-page application SEO challenges. They all support pre-rendering, dynamic rendering, and server-side rendering (SSR). However, while these techniques are proven to be effective, they come with some drawbacks.

Involving them can make your SPA more complex. Additionally, you’ll have to extend your app tech stack and increase the requirements for your servers. As a result, before choosing any of these options, it is important to consider whether the expected benefits outweigh the added development and maintenance costs.

  • Pre-rendering generates static HTML files for specific routes of your application during the development process. You can pre-render your SPA using plugins or third-party services. Pre-rendering is simpler and lighter but may not work well for large websites with frequent content updates.
  • Dynamic rendering is an approach that builds on pre-rendering and serves the same content to users and searches robots differently. Your users will experience client-side rendering, while bots will be redirected to a dynamic renderer that serves pre-rendered HTML. To set this up, your web server needs to distinguish between crawlers and users by checking the user agent.
  • Server-side rendering is more complex to implement. But is suitable for online stores or apps with countless dynamic pages to be indexed by search engines. SSR requires setting up a Node.js server to execute your JavaScript code in the Node.js runtime environment, render HTML pages in real-time, and send them back in response. However, SSR may bring performance issues and require a more powerful infrastructure to handle the data loads.

Are You Ready to Build an SEO-effective SPA?

The importance of search engine optimization can’t be overestimated in today’s world. According to Hubspot’s Research “State of Inbound Marketing Trends,” SEO was named as one of the most effective channels for acquiring new customers in 2022. 

Creating a Single Page Application that will be effective with search engines is a more complex task than with traditional websites. But, it can be accomplished with an experienced development team working in tight collaboration with SEO experts. 

At First Line Software we have extensive experience in building web applications and other forms of web assets for a wide variety of industries. If you are looking for a close-knit team of professionals ready to execute your business strategy and create an application that will benefit your organization – talk to us today!

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