Tumblr SEO - Surprise Results!

Bob Leggitt | Tuesday, 27 March 2012
I mentioned at the close of my Things You Should Know Before Using Tumblr epic that I was going to spend some time properly experimenting with the rather fascinating blogging platform, and then report back on my findings. Since then I’ve added some Tumblr technique tutorials covering how to add emoticons, coloured text, etc, but until now, I haven’t really answered what could perhaps best be described as: that question. It's taken some time to research, but I now have the full picture…

One of the most common allegations levelled at Tumblr is that it performs very poorly in terms of SEO (Search Engine Optimisation). I don’t think there was ever any doubt that for the average user, Tumblelogs do perform badly with search engines. You rarely come across them during the normal course of a Google search, and it's a common observation that Tumblr is almost like an enclosed community, largely invisible to those on the outside.

But can a Tumblr blog be Google-friendly? Well, I’ve now seen enough evidence from my own experiments to state with a fair amount of confidence that it can, and that if you follow standard SEO guidelines, it will.

A Tumblr Post on Google Page 1
My Blog Comments Suck post on Tumblr is currently third from the top of Google's search results for the search term which matches its title. The green highlighting is mine - not Google's. My Tumblr blog is at present very small and quite new, but Google still recognises a substantial, original post, and for this search, seems to value it higher than similarly titled content on some pretty big sites.


One of the most annoying things about the way Tumblr pulls in search referrals, is that it treats your blog posts not only as posts on your specific blog (in my case, that would be twirpz.tumblr.com), but also as pages on its own huge root domain (tumblr.com). Because Tumblr’s root domain is so vast and popular, it inevitably has inflated power with the search engines – certainly in comparison to a small blog, anyway.

So what happens is that people searching Google for your more unusual post tags, in conjunction with the Tumblr name, will find your work fairly easily. In other words, If you’ve tagged a post “bulldog chewing wasp”, and someone Google searches “Tumblr bulldog chewing wasp”, it’s likely they’ll find your post. But, when they click Google’s search link, they won’t go to your blog – they’ll go to Tumblr.com. Your post won’t be seen in its proper context, surrounded by all your other material. It’ll be seen detached, with stripped down formatting, and flanked by other people’s posts which just happen to have the same tagging as yours. In short, Tumblr gets a visit, but most often, you don’t. For Tumblr as a company, the setup is brilliant. For you as a blogger, it’s not.

Tumblr tag Google search
This capture shows what happens if you search Google for 'tumblr electric guitar'. None of the depicted links take you to a Tumblr blog - they all take you to Tumblr.com.

Tumblr tag search referral
And this is the layout you get when you click Google's referral links. I've blocked out the actual posts for copyright reasons, but those white areas would contain the post content. The visitor sees the work of multiple Tumblr users as they scroll down, along with what's effectively a prompt to join Tumblr and a 'Sign up' button. As I say - great for Tumblr; crap for the blogger.

You can see why Tumblr does things this way, because in all honesty, if they didn’t use the power of the root domain to bolster search engine presence, then the vast majority of Tumblr posts would never be visible to Google users at all. But it’s annoying for the blogger who puts a lot of work into making their blog look great and creating an overall concept, only to be essentially queue-jumped on Google by their own blog host. True, the Google user has entered the term 'Tumblr' in the search, so Tumblr has a right to share in the recognition, but other blog hosts don't do this. With WordPress and Blogger, a platform-specific search referral takes the visitor to the blog - not the root domain.


But there’s good news. Because I’ve been able to demonstrate that even with a small Tumblr blog, you can hit the front page of Google, in your own right, and with a link to your actual blog – not Tumblr.com.

Here’s how I did it…

I went for the format of detailed, non-repetitive, original text, plus one image. The detailed, original text, I believe, is immensely important. I set the content into a Text Post, because that’s the only Tumblr posting option at present which allows you to properly manage SEO in the traditional way.

I gave the post a title which wasn’t already widely used, and which would match the search term I wanted to play for.

Whether this makes any difference I don’t know, but I hosted the post’s single JPEG in the WordPress.com Media Library (via a hotlink), and not on Tumblr. It’s probably not of any significance, but I wanted to mention it just in case.

I added some tags to the post, relating to its subject matter.

I added a custom URL to the post, reflecting its title.

I linked to multiple posts on my Tumblr blog from this blog, and from a blog I have on WordPress - in the process generating some backlinks which don’t have anything to do with Tumblr’s internal backlinking system. If you don’t have other blogs, a similar or better effect could perhaps be gained from placing links to your Tumblr blog in your signature on a number of sizeable forums.

For the record, I’m using the Single A design theme. That probably does matter because some Tumblr themes are said to require attention in the SEO department. Single A looks very much on the ball. One small SEO change I made was to replace the dynamic keywords meta designation with my own small list of keywords. Single A’s original dynamic version appears to use all the tags from your posts as keywords, and I feared that over time, Google could interpret this as keyword stuffing/spamming or whatever, and react negatively. That said, I’ve read that the keywords meta is no longer taken into account at all by Google, but I’ve always been prone to extreme caution, hence my playing safe. I've illustrated the change below. The top capture shows the theme's original code; the one beneath it shows my revision. I've marked the line in red at each end for clarity. The upper capture is from a separate blog, hence the blog title being different.

Tumblr code snippet

Tumblr code snippet

And that’s basically it. I did exactly as I’d do with any other significant blog post, and Google seems to be quite happy with that. Google doesn’t seem in any way bothered that the post is on Tumblr rather than WordPress, Blogger, TypePad or wherever else. So I’m concluding that there’s no serious handicap for Tumblr blogs on Google per se.


Perhaps the most interesting part of this has been monitoring what happens to my Tumblr blog within Google’s Webmaster Tools utility. After I added Twirpz to Webmaster Tools, verified ‘ownership’ and put up a sitemap, progress was a lot slower than it would be for, say, a WordPress blog. Undoubtedly, Google was more suspicious of my Tumblr blog than my Wordpress blogs, and it was ages before Googlebot even crawled the homepage of Twirpz for a visual (thumbnail) representation. But once Google began to pick up the external backlinks, it did appear to properly ‘recognise’ the Tumblr blog and, at least in principle, take it seriously.

Webmaster Tools Tumblr blog backlinks
Above you can see that my Tumblr blog is currently showing 580 backlinks in Webmaster Tools. The majority of the links are external, from WordPress and Blogger. The totals of 319 from WordPress and 202 from Blogspot don't mean I've personally created that many links. Once you've started the ball rolling with a few links from the sidebar, the size of the blog you're linking from multiplies them accordingly. And the higher the status of the blog you're linking from, the more powerful the links.

Analysing the blog post by post, it starts to become totally clear what the problem is with most Tumblelogs. At present, I have 38 posts on my experimental Tumblr blog. Only 11 of them have been properly indexed by Google, as posts in their own right – i.e. not merely as pages of the Tumblr.com root domain. Which ones have and which ones haven’t? Well, it’s exactly as common SEO wisdom would predict. The posts made using the Text format, with substantial original and fairly unique text, have been indexed. Photo posts, Quotes, short, inconsequential Text Posts, etc, have generally been ignored.

Tumblr blog sitemap indexing (Webmaster Tools)
This capture, again from Webmaster Tools, shows how seriously Google is taking my Tumblr posts. There are 38 posts and 2 static pages. Both static pages have been indexed, but only 11 out of 38 posts have been taken seriously by the search engine. The Tumblr blog has two sitemaps: one for pages and one for posts. With Blogger and WordPress blogs, a single sitemap covers everything.

The message I’m taking from this is that if you use Tumblr as a micro-blog or photo-blog, the way most Tumblr users do, then Google will ignore you. But actually, that’s the case if you micro-blog full stop. I’ve tried out a micro blog here on Google’s own Blogger platform, and if anything, it performed worse than micro-posts perform on Tumblr. I can now, however, say from experience that if you use Tumblr to make substantial, text-based posts, and blog in the traditional way, it appears you’re at no greater disadvantage than with any other blogging platform.

The one caveat is that I haven’t yet been able to gauge the effects of mass reblogging on Tumblr SEO. Whether it makes things better or worse I don’t know. But what I can say is that if you run a ‘tradtional’ blog with substantial text-based posts, avoid ‘following’ other users, and truncate your RSS feed in the blog Settings, then there’s little likelihood that you’ll get extensively reblogged anyway. By far the most popular posts for reblogging are impactive photos, or short, soundbyte quotes – or a mix of the two. The native Tumblr audience doesn’t seem vaguely interested in the long and elaborate, and that, conveniently, contrasts with the hankerings of Google. You can probably reduce the likelihood of being reblogged even further by avoiding internally-popular tags, which a lot of Tumblr users are likely to be searching. After a while you realise you can give your blog such low visibility on Tumblr that it’s barely subject to internal scrutiny. That leaves you free to aim it at the wider market, via Google.

So, there it is. Tumblr's SEO, based on my experiments so far, is not a problem in itself, and it doesn't look to me as if the great Google 'handicap' exists. I'd bet that if you blogged out about a hundred 1,500-word Text Posts, each with good SEO and images with proper surrounding text, then built up external backlinks to your work in the time-honoured way, a Tumblr blog would be no less successful than a Blogger blog, and it may even perform better. I'll be continuing my experiment, so if there are any further surprises, I'll post full details.