Search engine optimization has become an important requirement of websites. It is no longer optional.
Along with all of the factors that make up a good website, thinking about SEO or “organic search” is a given for a new site and is important within most digital marketing plans.
We’re way beyond the era of “if you build it, they will come,” in terms of website thinking.
At the same time, I know that a lot of website owners ranging from startups to small companies to nonprofits and even large brands are struggling with self-implementing SEO or are already stretched in website budgets that don’t leave much left over to put into SEO.
Because of the competing noise and focuses, I want to give you a single checklist to use as a website owner to work through the important aspects of SEO that you can address now and to build on going forward.
I have categorized the aspects of SEO into those I traditionally do in my process including:
- Technical SEO
The indexing and on-page items are controllable within the website, while external factors shouldn’t be forgotten and need to be part of a larger SEO strategy down the road.
Technical SEO Cheat Sheet
This all falls into the category of technical SEO.
Free Reporting Platforms
Start off by making sure you have Google Search Console, Bing Webmaster Tools, Google Analytics, and Google Tag Manager tied into your site.
These tools all bring great diagnostic and analytic data to you and will help you along the way.
This is a table of contents for your website. The sitemap file is the modern way of “submitting” your pages to the search engines.
Most website platforms have this built in or have plugins/add-ons that will create a dynamic sitemap that stays in sync with the pages on your site. At worst, you should at least have a static one that you can generate through a number of free tools.
This file provides instructions to the search engines on what pages or parts of the site to not index. By default, the search engines will look at all the content they can find.
Even if you don’t want to restrict the search engines from indexing any pages on your site, make sure this file:
- Is accurate.
- Validates in Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools.
- Doesn’t accidentally block important content from being indexed (or your whole site).
If you own more than just your primary domain name, make sure you know what each of your additional domain names are doing. If they are parked and not in use, that’s fine.
If they redirect to your website, check to ensure that they 301 redirect to it (versus mirroring the site or doing a 302 redirect). This could be a quick area to simply check and move on from, but don’t overlook it as it can cause issues with duplicate content and confusion over which domain name is the real one.
The more hierarchy and structure you can build into your navigation and sections of your site, the better. This will benefit users and the search engines and present organized topics and content (more on that later). Getting your directory structure and URLs to match the literal page and file structure of content on the site is a great goal.
Stepping back and mapping out your site structure or sitemap is a great starting point. It forces you to think about the content, how you prioritize certain aspects of your site, and how you want to funnel your users (as well as the search engines) through it.
We continue to see stats showing that users spend less and less time before bouncing.
There are some great developer tools that can help you identify the right areas to optimize in your own website to get your page load times to competitive levels.
It’s a given that we have to be mobile-friendly. However, just because you built your site in a mobile framework like responsive design, make sure that it actually validates.
Be sure to run it through Google’s mobile-friendly test. Also, do as much user experience (UX) and quality assurance (QA) testing as possible to make sure it truly works for your users on all devices you anticipate them using.
Don’t forget to create a custom 404 page and put helpful information on it. You don’t want to lose a visitor to your site by having a default browser error come up.
You should create a 404 page that includes helpful links, navigation, site search functionality, and contact options.
Much like mobile-friendly and site speed needs, having a secure site is important. If your website isn’t under an SSL, you may lose users before they even get to your site when they see a security warning in Chrome or other browsers.
Instill trust in your website by taking the typically simple step of implementing an SSL certification on your site.
Plugins, Add-ons, or Extensions
If you’re using a content management system, chances are that you are already using plugins or other code extensions that you trust. Most platforms have tools that you can add into your site that provide additional control over SEO and analytics functions.
Whether it’s WordPress SEO plugins or others for Drupal, Magento, etc., you should watch for trusted plugins that give you maximum control and functionality.
Do you have baggage from a previous site or old, outdated SEO tactics? Or, maybe you have a legitimate reason for having duplicate content all over your site and the web.
Knowing what you’re facing is important before you get into on-page optimization. If you have multiple duplicate pages, for a good reason, you’ll want to consider a canonical strategy or how you want to use robots instructions for indexing.
This is important to be aware of and sort out before you invest time and effort into page-level optimization. Copyscape is one of my favorite tools along with Screaming Frog for finding duplication and analyzing content before digging into on-page stuff.
On-Page SEO Cheat Sheet
Most people tend to think about on-page factors (e.g., keywords, content, title tags) whenever SEO is mentioned. However, the days of optimizing just single parts of pages or websites are gone.
The search engines care about context way more than keywords so don’t be tempted to just update meta tags or body copy and move on.
The way we build context is in all of the on-page elements within a page and then thinking about how pages relate to each other within sections and navigation of the site.
Keywords & Topics
Before you can really focus on building context, you have to know what you want to build it for. If you haven’t done keyword research or broader research on your target audiences, you’ll need to pause here and take some time to learn what topics and phrases your audience will use to find your website.
Remember that the days of stuffing terms into pages or tags are long gone.
We have to use SEO tools to uncover the right terms, phrases, and topics that align with what we do. From there, we can drill down into individual words to apply within the site architecture.
Basically, you need to know the terms that matter, map them to your content, and then get to work on the rest of the on-page factors list to follow.
Content is necessary to show relevancy.
If you have few words and aspects to your website it is hard to compete with sites that are robust and full of content. More isn’t always better as high quality definitely beats high quantity. But, if you can achieve both, you’ll be in an even better place.
Rich content written for users that resonates with them and is clear to the search engines is where you win. Don’t be tempted to use outdated tactics that will harm the user experience and put you at risk with the search engines.
This is the first element of a page and one that is sometimes overlooked. The search engines can index ugly, faceted URLs just fine.
However, the URL is an opportunity to present a clean directory structure that includes keywords and context as to what the page is about. Don’t miss the opportunity of your site allows you to customize the URL paths.
Again, the title tag alone is not going to do much for you. However, you need to have a relevant, unique tag for each page.
Be mindful of best practices for length and the keywords that are most relevant to the page topic and write and implement static tags or ensure that you have dynamic formulas in place to populate the title.
Like the title tag, we need to have a custom and topically relevant meta description for each page. Whether static or dynamic, make sure it is helpful to the user, contains keywords relevant to the content, and helps build context with the title tag.
Heading or “H” tags are debated in importance for SEO. Again, I’m not focused on a single element, but how all elements work in concert to build context.
If you can use heading tags, do so in an organized fashion and make sure they use keywords that are relevant. Try to use just one H1 tag and have it be the first.
Often website platforms or developers use these for CSS purposes so you might have no H1 tag on a page and a bunch of H6 tags. Be mindful of these and how they are woven into your code and content.
While much of the old school focus on latent semantic indexing, keyword density, and formulas for how many times words need to appear in a page are obsolete, you can’t ignore the fact that body copy on the page often accounts for the biggest block of indexable content.
Don’t skip out on including your focus keywords in the body copy as you need to tie into the context you’re building in the other areas up to this point.
However, don’t obsess over using a keyword 37 times. Do what’s natural and focus on the bigger picture and you’ll be in good shape.
Image Alt Attributes
One of the biggest red flags I get in results from accessibility and on-page auditing reporting tools is missing alt text. Alt text is helpful for the search engines to understand what an image is about.
This is another opportunity to work keywords into a page. Plus, you need to consider those in your audience who may be using a screen reader and ensuring that your site is fully accessible.
While not necessarily a direct ranking factor – Schema.org markup goes right to the heart of building context.
Using the appropriate structured data markup for your website content can help provide another cue to the search engines as to what segment or category your subject matter is in.
If your website platform doesn’t have an easy way to add this and if it is a big line item in terms of cost or time, put it at the back of the line behind the items noted above. However, keep it on your radar.
External SEO Factors
This is the bonus section.
External factors are things that you can’t control on your website and don’t necessarily fall into a checklist. However, I’d be remiss if I painted a picture that all you need to do are the indexing and on-page things and that you’re going to rise to the top of the search engines.
On-page factors influence relevance and trust of your content to the search engines. External factors influence you’re “authority” status and validate your site as the subject matter expert.
Inbound links (a.k.a., backlinks) to your website from credible and authoritative websites play a huge role in SEO. Also important are unlinked brand mentions (a.k.a., citations) and how much your website is talked about on the web.
There’s a lot to be said about creating great content that people naturally want to link to. To supplement your awesome content, it doesn’t hurt to look for great sources of quality links through natural relationships, accreditation and possible traffic sources in your industry.
You want to focus your efforts on quality sources that are relevant to your subject matter – and never pay for a link in a way that violates the search engines’ respective guidelines.
If you have a physical business, local directory and search site citations are key.
While claiming and properly owning your listing helps protect your brand at a basic level, you need to make sure your name, address, and phone number (NAP data) are accurate and consistent across all local and social directory listing sites that are relevant.
There’s an entire local directory ecosystem and if you can at least tackle NAP data, you’ll build a good foundation.
Social media can also enhance your SEO (and other digital marketing) efforts, even if it won’t directly impact your rankings.
Ensuring that your website links to your owned and active social media accounts and vice versa is an important first step.
Beyond that, you need to ensure that your level of engagement is on par with your high-ranking peers. This is a relative scale, but by understanding what your competition is doing you can ensure that the SEO aspect of social is covered.
Optimizing your website isn’t quick, easy, or a one-time affair. But you have to start somewhere.
If you can master your technical SEO and on-page optimization, and influence the right external factors, you’ll set your website up for success.
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