Starting an SEO Project with Python, Pelican, and AWS

I’ve been thinking about the best way to put a “course” together to demonstrate the overlap between web development and SEO. There are a lot of directions this could go in but I wanted to strike the right balance between technical depth and feasibility for someone who hasn’t done much in the way of web development. 

This is the beginning of this so-called “course,” though it’s more of a guided SEO project. Though this is just the beginning, I hope to teach something about technical SEO and SEO analytics by playing around with website code and hosting infrastructure and different measurement tools. Hopefully, you’re interested in Python too 🙂

Launching an web development and SEO project

To start the project in the right direction, I had to determine what technologies to use that balance of technical complexity and ease.

I had some considerations:

  1. Should I choose WordPress? Sure, it’s popular, but there are already tons of WordPress tutorials out there but the last thing I want to do is tell people they should go out and learn PHP and tear at the internals of a 15+ year-old web framework. 
  2. Python continues to grow in popularity. And that’s awesome, but I feared that, if this project were dependent on the audience’s ability to  deploy a Flask or Django site, it would steer the focus away from SEO toward web development,
  3. What about Jekyll? A static site generator seemed like a good balance between simplicity and technical depth.  (They are also really affordable to maintain!) Jekyll seemed like a good option but I opted against it because it’s built on Ruby. And Ruby, like PHP, just isn’t as hot as Python these days. 

This meant the focus would be a static site generator based on Python. This made Pelican an easy choice. Pelican has been around long enough and garnered enough support to have a decent ecosystem and plenty of well-written “Hello World”  tutorials. 

How Static Site Generators Work

Static site generators are a good balance between the power of a full-blown CMS and the simplicity of a pure HTML site. With a static site generator like Pelican, instead of worrying about hosting an application and a database, you only have to manage “flat files” and host the fully-rendered HTML pages on a server or file store like S3. 

Most static site generators, work like this:

  1. Choose or develop a theme that determines the style and layout of your pages
  2. Edit your site’s content in markdown files locally on your computer
  3. Run a command to build all the HTML files that make up your static site
  4. Transfer these pages from your computer to the hosting service of your choice
  5. Your website is up and running!

This means this project can be more about demonstrating SEO levers than web development. 

Introducing Pelican: A Static Site Generator, Powered by Python

Pelican is conceptually pretty simple. At a high level, you can think of it like this: 

  1. Your content: The “flat files,” commonly markdown or reStructuredText files, that you write and update to generate content on your site
  2. Pelican configurations: The settings in pelicanconf.py and publishconf.py that Pelican refers to when building your site
  3. Pelican itself: The processes that reads your content and configurations and generate the HTML files that make up the complete static site
  4. Pelican themes: Either pre-built or custom-build, themes make up the page templates (based on Jinja), CSS, and Javascript files that create the look and feel of your site
  5. Pelican plugins: Add-ons that allow you to change how Pelican reads your content, outputs your site, or does just about anything else during the build process

That means if you want to modify your site, you basically have one of two avenues: modify your themes or add/build plugins. 

That’s really nice compared to WordPress, where you would have to think about a MySQL database schema, WordPress’ architecture, and… writing PHP to generate pages. This isn’t the answer for the next Yelp, but it will let you do some interesting things with SEO for .0000001% of the complexity!

Getting Your Web Project Started

With any web project, there is some groundwork to be done before the real construction begins. If you’ve done any kind of development project before, you’ll find most of this looks pretty familiar. 

If you haven’t done any development project, I recognize that getting started can be the most challenging part. Hopefully, these resources should be sufficient for you to get started with enough coffee, grit, and free time.

Setup your Development Environment

If you’re unfamiliar with a development environment is more of a state of preparation than an actual “thing.” A development environment means having all your necessary software, packages, settings, and tools loaded, working correctly, and understood generally understood.

If you want some guidance with this step, I suggest Peter Kazarinoffs’ guide to setting up a development environment for Pelican. In his first post he covers:

  • Installing Python 3
  • Setting up a virtual environment (to keep this project’s packages separate from other Python packages on your computer)
  • Installing Pelican and other required Python packages
  • Creating a GitHub.com account
  • Making a directory for the site and linking it to GitHub

That’s a great guide to follow if this is your first Python development project ever (and even if it’s not).

Getting started with Github the easy way

This project assumes that you’ve never worked with git or GitHub before. For that reason, the demonstrations will use Github Desktop and the Atom code editor because they take a lot of the complexity out of git. So when it comes to the “Making a directory for the site and linking it to GitHub” step above, I’d suggest following this video about creating a repository with Github Desktop

Getting your site running locally

At this point, you can find numerous tutorials to get your site up and running on your “local machine” (aka your computer). I think Matthew Devaney’s tutorial series is pretty easy to follow. To get your site running locally follow his tutorial about installing Pelican, choosing a theme, and running it locally. You can also continue ‘s tutorial for guidance on using a virtual environment and build automation

You’ve completed this project step once you have done the following:

  • Installed Python and set up a virtual environment
  • Installed Pelican and the required Python packages
  • Created a GitHub account
  • Created a directory for your Pelican project
  • Linked your project site to Github
  • Setup Pelican via pelican-quickstart
  • Successfully ran pelican content to generate your pages locally
  • Opened your bare-bones site in your browser after running pelican --listen

If you’ve made it this far, congrats! You’ve made it past one of the hardest parts of this whole project.

Up next: Play around with Pelican and see if you can generate some posts. Our next step will be to host it live on Amazon S3!

2 Comments

  1. Joe Robison

    Wow this is exactly the type of series I’m looking for. As an SEO trying to bridge the gap between tech SEO and web dev, this hits the nail on the head. Can’t wait for the rest of the series!

    1. Trevor Fox

      Dude, I’m so happy to see that comment! Just figuring out how this will go forward is a little daunting. I appreciate the inspiration. Feel free to email me via the contact form to let me know what you’re interested in.

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