The Ultimate Guide to Technical SEO
List three things you’ve done this year that pertain to search engine optimization (SEO).
Do these tactics revolve around keyword research, meta descriptions, and backlinks?
If so, you’re not alone. When it comes to SEO, these techniques are usually the first ones marketers add to their arsenal.
While these strategies do improve your site’s visibility in organic search, they’re not the only ones you should be employing. There’s another set of tactics that fall under the SEO umbrella.
- Technical SEO Audit Fundamentals
- Crawlability Checklist
- Indexability Checklist
- Renderability Checklist
- Rankability Checklist
- Clickability Checklist
Technical SEO refers to the behind-the-scenes elements that power your organic growth engine, such as site architecture, mobile optimization, and page speed. These aspects of SEO might not be the sexiest, but they are incredibly important.
The first step in improving your technical SEO is knowing where you stand by performing a site audit. The second step is to create a plan to address the areas where you fall short. We’ll cover these steps in-depth below.
What is Technical SEO?
Technical SEO refers to anything you do that makes your site easier for search engines to crawl and index. Technical SEO, content strategy, and link-building strategies all work in tandem to help your pages rank highly in search.
On-Page SEO vs. Off-Page SEO vs Technical SEO
Many people break down search engine optimization (SEO) into three different buckets: on-page SEO, off-page SEO, and technical SEO. Let’s quickly cover what each means.
On-page SEO refers to the content that tells search engines (and readers!) what your page is about, including image alt text, keyword usage, meta descriptions, H1 tags, URL naming, and internal linking. You have the most control over on-page SEO because, well, everything is on your site.
Off-page SEO tells search engines how popular and useful your page is through votes of confidence — most notably backlinks, or links from other sites to your own. Backlink quantity and quality boost a page’s PageRank. All things being equal, a page with 100 relevant links from credible sites will outrank a page with 50 relevant links from credible sites (or 100 irrelevant links from credible sites.)
Technical SEO is within your control as well, but it’s a bit trickier to master since it’s less intuitive.
Why is technical SEO important?
You may be tempted to ignore this component of SEO completely; however, it plays an important role in your organic traffic. Your content might be the most thorough, useful, and well-written, but unless a search engine can crawl it, very few people will ever see it.
It’s like a tree that falls in the forest when no one is around to hear it … does it make a sound? Without a strong technical SEO foundation, your content will make no sound to search engines.
Let’s discuss how you can make your content resound through the internet.
Understanding Technical SEO
Technical SEO is a beast that is best broken down into digestible pieces. If you’re like me, you like to tackle big things in chunks and with checklists. Believe it or not, everything we’ve covered to this point can be placed into one of five categories, each of which deserves its own list of actionable items.
These five categories and their place in the technical SEO hierarchy is best illustrated by this beautiful graphic that is reminiscent of Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs but remixed for search engine optimization. (Note that we will use the commonly used term “Rendering” in place of Accessibility.)
Technical SEO Audit Fundamentals
Before you begin with your technical SEO audit, there are a few fundamentals that you need to put in place.
Let’s cover these technical SEO fundamentals before we move on to the rest of your website audit.
Audit Your Preferred Domain
Your domain is the URL that people type to arrive on your site. Your website domain impacts whether people can find you through search and provides a consistent way to identify your site.
When you select a preferred domain, you’re telling search engines whether you prefer the www or non-www version of your site to be displayed in the search results. For example, you might select www.yourwebsite.com over yourwebsite.com. This tells search engines to prioritize the www version of your site and redirects all users to that URL. Otherwise, search engines will treat these two versions as separate sites, resulting in dispersed SEO value.
Previously, Google asked you to identify the version of your URL that you prefer. Now, Google will identify and select a version to show searchers for you. However, if you prefer to set the preferred version of your domain, then you can do so through canonical tags (which we’ll cover shortly). Either way, once you set your preferred domain, make sure that all variants, meaning www, non-www, http, and index.html, all permanently redirect to that version.
You may have heard this term before — that’s because it’s pretty important. SSL, or Secure Sockets Layer, creates a layer of protection between the web server (the software responsible for fulfilling an online request) and a browser, thereby making your site secure. When a user sends information to your website, like payment or contact info, that information is less likely to be hacked because you have SSL to protect them.
An SSL certificate is denoted by a domain that begins with “https://” as opposed to “http://” and a lock symbol in the URL bar.
Search engines prioritize secure sites — in fact, Google announced as early as 2014 that SSL would be considered a ranking factor. Because of this, be sure to set the SSL variant of your homepage as your preferred domain.
After you set up SSL, you’ll need to migrate any non-SSL pages from http to https. It’s a tall order, but worth the effort in the name of improved ranking. Here are the steps you need to take:
- Redirect all http://yourwebsite.com pages to https://yourwebsite.com.
- Update all canonical and hreflang tags accordingly.
- Update the URLs on your sitemap (located at yourwebsite.com/sitemap.xml) and your robot.txt (located at yourwebsite.com/robots.txt).
- Set up a new instance of Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools for your HTTPS website and track it to make sure 100% of the traffic migrates over.
Optimize Page Speed
Do you know how long a website visitor will wait for your website to load? Six seconds … and that’s being generous. Some data shows that the bounce rate increases by 90% with an increase in page load time from one to five seconds. You don’t have one second to waste, so improving your site load time should be a priority.
Site speed isn’t just important for user experience and conversion — it’s also a ranking factor.
Use these tips to improve your average page load time:
- Audit redirects regularly. A 301 redirect takes a few seconds to process. Multiply that over several pages or layers of redirects, and you’ll seriously impact your site speed.
- Trim down your code. Messy code can negatively impact your site speed. Messy code means code that’s lazy. It’s like writing — maybe in the first draft, you make your point in 6 sentences. In the second draft, you make it in 3. The more efficient code is, the more quickly the page will load (in general). Once you clean things up, you’ll minify and compress your code.
- Consider a content distribution network (CDN). CDNs are distributed web servers that store copies of your website in various geographical locations and deliver your site based on the searcher’s location. Since the information between servers has a shorter distance to travel, your site loads faster for the requesting party.
- Try not to go plugin happy. Outdated plugins often have security vulnerabilities that make your website susceptible to malicious hackers who can harm your website’s rankings. Make sure you’re always using the latest versions of plugins and minimize your use to the most essential. In the same vein, consider using custom-made themes, as pre-made website themes often come with a lot of unnecessary code.
- Take advantage of cache plugins. Cache plugins store a static version of your site to send to returning users, thereby decreasing the time to load the site during repeat visits.
- Use asynchronous (async) loading. Scripts are instructions that servers need to read before they can process the HTML, or body, of your webpage, i.e. the things visitors want to see on your site. Typically, scripts are placed in the <head> of a website (think: your Google Tag Manager script), where they are prioritized over the content on the rest of the page. Using async code means the server can process the HTML and script simultaneously, thereby decreasing the delay and increasing page load time.
Here’s how an async script looks: <script async src=”script.js”></script>
If you want to see where your website falls short in the speed department, you can use this resource from Google.
Once you have your technical SEO fundamentals in place, you’re ready to move on to the next stage — crawlability.