The question came up in today’s Google Webmaster Office Hours.
Is unique design a real factor in ranking? Using already built templates can hurt in search results?
No, that’s not something I would focus on in regards to ranking. So just because it’s a template that other people are using as well doesn’t mean the site is suddenly lower quality or less relevant to users. So that’s not something that I would say is a problem there.
I think you might see some effects from users if it is so generic that it doesn’t even look like a legitimate website. For example, if you are trying to sell watches, and you use a generic template that 500 other sites are also using, then it might be that users come across that site and go “Whoa! This looks very vague, I don’t know if I would trust this website with my credit card information for example. And that might be something you want to take a look at from that point of view.
But just because it is using a template that other people have used as well shouldn’t really affect its rankings, if it’s a general website.
For example, lots of blogs use the same template that is available on Blogger or WordPress. And just because they use a default template doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re lower quality.
That said, there are definitely some major issues to be aware of that template companies are likely hiding. A demo of a template might work beautifully, but it isn’t always the identical version you will get – there are a ton of “free” templates out there loaded with links to pharmacies, poker sites, designer (and counterfeit) goods, but while some will be obvious, others will obfuscate the code so un-savvy website owners won’t know how to remove it if they try. And others will run a ton of links and ads of their own, while hiding it all from the site owner by turning it off to any admin user.
You also want to make sure the code is clean and not rampant with bloat that can delay load time.
And don’t forget, if you are a spammer, the templates you choose can often be traced back to a spam network or your own network, particularly if you leave other footprints.
But as long as you are using a clean template, from an SEO perspective it won’t hurt you whether you are the only site using the template or the one millionth person. Just bear in mind the “look” it gives your site, as you want to make sure the template you choose isn’t “too generic” for the site’s topic and market area.
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