Search Engine Optimization (SEO) has been a song for many while a good number are not doing it right, something that results to poor ranking by search engines. There are three approaches to SEO that include:
Today, am going to cover the technical SEO part; which seems to be a scary to those who are familiar with search engine optimization. In that case, technical SEO just refers to any SEO work that is done aside from the content. Essentially, it’s laying a strong foundation to give your content the best chance it can have to rank for relevant keywords and phrases.
Just like they have for on-page SEO, technical aspects of SEO have changed as search engines have become more sophisticated. While there isn’t much you can do to “game” search engines from a technical standpoint, there are some new factors in 2015 that you need to consider if you want to improve your or your clients’ rankings.
I’ll go over the most important aspects of technical SEO from a beginner’s perspective as well as give you a few specific tactics and next steps to fix common problems in each area.
To get fast rankings, you need a fast site
This fact isn’t new: if your website loads slowly, a large portion of visitors will quickly leave. What you need to know from an SEO standpoint is that a slow website can harm you in two ways.
First, site speed is one of Google’s ranking factors. First announced in 2010, it started to affect a small number of rankings at that point. We now know, the “time-to-first-byte” (TTFB) correlates highly with rankings.
TTFB is exactly what the name suggests: the amount of time needed for a browser to load the first byte of your web page’s data. If that was the whole story, we’d only focus on improving TTFB. But there’s more.
We also know that 40% of people will close a website if it takes longer than 3 seconds to load. Further, 47% of polled consumers expect a page to load within 2 seconds. Google may not take total page speed into account, but users do.
Even if your TTFB is good, if it takes 3-4 seconds for your full page to load, many visitors will leave without waiting. The worst part is that they’ll click the “back” button and choose a different search result. This is known as “pogo-sticking,” and it’s one of the most important signs that a user isn’t satisfied.
If it happens too often, your rankings will drop in favor of a competing search result that doesn’t have the same issues. Finally, while it isn’t a strictly SEO point, consider that just a one-second delay in loading time can cause conversions to drop by 7%. Even if site speed didn’t affect search rankings, you’d still want to optimize it.
Not all site speed problems are of equal importance: While there are hundreds of factors that affect site speed, some are much more common than others.
Zoompf analyzed the top 1,000 Alexa-ranked sites for site speed and found that the following four problems were the most common (in order from most to least):
- unoptimized images
- content served without HTTP compression
- too many CSS image requests (not using sprites)
- no caching information (expires header)
Keep in mind that the sites in that analysis were some of the best on the web. They fixed many basic problems that may affect you, especially if you use WordPress:
- excessive plugin use
- not using a CDN for static files
- a slow web host
Don’t guess your site speed problems; diagnose: You very well may have one of those issues that I just listed, but first, you need to confirm them.
There are a lot of great tools out there, but I always recommend starting with Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool. Enter a URL, and let the tool do its thing:
Any score above 80 is decent. That being said, higher is better, and improving sophlix’s speed is on my long list of things to do. If you’d like a second opinion, use a tool such as GTmetrix. Notice that some tools will give you different scores. That’s because they weigh problems differently.
The following are the two most important things you need to ensure: that (1) your page loads quickly (under 2 seconds) and (2) your page is as small as possible with the least number of requests.
The Google tool is the simplest and a good place to start. It will give you the most important issues to fix (in red). Fix the orange ones if possible, but they don’t usually cause too much of a slowdown in your loading speed.
I do recommend using another tool to get more details. With GTmetrix as an example, you can click on the “waterfall” tab to see the exact amount of time each request took to fulfill.
This lets you see if your hosting isn’t up to par (a lot of waiting) or if one request on your page is taking way longer than another.
Once you know what your problems are, fix them. As I said before, there’s no way I can go into everything in this guide, but I’ll show you what to do if you have some common problems.
Start with your images: If you do nothing else, compress them. Most types of images have unnecessary metadata that take up space, which can be deleted without causing any harm.
In addition, pick your file size carefully. JPEG files are usually smaller once compressed although not as high quality as PNG files. If possible, use vector images (SVG is the most popular format), which can scale to any dimension with no loss of quality.
Next up: Combine images into sprites.
A “sprite” is simply an image file that contains many small images. Instead of having to make a separate request for each image, you only have to get the one. Then, you use CSS to tell the browser which area of that image to use. Sprites should include often used images such as navigation icons and logos. Here is a complete guide to CSS sprites if you’d like to do it manually. An easier way to accomplish this is to use an online sprite creator.
How do mobile visitors see your site?
The biggest recent changes to technical SEO have revolved around increasing the importance of mobile friendliness. On April 21, 2015, Google released the “mobilegeddon” update. While it was hyped up as a huge update, it only had a slightly higher impact on rankings than normal:
Test your website’s mobile friendliness: The first and last place you need to test your site is on Google’s mobile friendly checker tool. Enter your URL, and the tool will show you exactly what Google thinks of your page. Most sites do have mobile issues. In fact, 44% of Fortune 500 company websites are not mobile-friendly. So if your site is not currently mobile-friendly, you are not alone. But, it’s something you should fix as soon as possible.
To start with, you can choose from three different approaches to mobile-friendly design.
Approach #1 – Responsive design: This is the best option in the vast majority of cases. A responsive design shrinks and expands according to the visitor’s device. Instead of setting widths for elements, you set a percentage.
Approach #2 – Separate URLs for desktop and mobile visitors: This method has mostly died out in favor of responsive design.
This approach involves creating at least two different versions of each page of your website: a mobile one and a non-mobile one.
Approach # 3 – Serve different content based on the visitor’s device: Finally, you can have a single URL for each page, but first check for a mobile user agent. If a visitor is on a mobile device, you can load a specific page, but if they aren’t, you can load the default page.
It’s similar to Approach #2 in that you’ll have to code for two different pages. The one upside is that all backlinks will point to a single URL, which will help content rank better.
Common mobile design mistakes: Making a site mobile-friendly really isn’t that hard. In most cases, it’s much easier than optimizing page load speed. That being said, there are seven fairly common mistakes to keep an eye out for:
- Unplayable content: don’t use flash videos, which aren’t playable on many mobile devices. HTML5 videos are a better option.
- Faulty redirects: don’t just redirect mobile users to your home page. Redirect them to an equivalent page they were looking for.
- Mobile-only 404s: if you’re serving dynamic (separate) URLs, make sure they both work.
- Avoid interstitials and pop-ups:Pop-ups are always a controversial subject. While they’re annoying to some on desktops/laptops, they are much more annoying and often difficult to close on mobile. If you can, don’t have anything that blocks your content on a mobile device:
- Irrelevant cross-links:If you have a separate mobile version of your site, always link within that. Don’t make the mistake of linking to a desktop site page from the mobile site.
- Slow mobile pages:Remember that most mobile users are on a slower connection than desktop users. This makes optimizing your load speed crucial (see above section).
Stop confusing search engines
Redirects are necessary to keep any site up to date, but you need to do it the right way. Use the wrong codes, and it will not only hurt your visitors but also affect your search engine rankings. There are two popular types of redirects:
- 301: a permanent redirect
- 302: a temporary redirect
Simple rule: If you no longer need a page, create a 301 redirect to an updated page.
Describe your content like a pro with structured data
Modern search engines are pretty good at putting together what your page is about just by looking at the on-page content. However, you can make it even easier for them by using structured data markup.
While there are multiple libraries you can use, stick to schema.org, which is a project created by all the major search engines. Structured data isn’t new, but it’s still heavily underutilized. Usually, it’s because an SEO hears the term and gets squeamish, just like with “technical” SEO. It’s actually really simple, and I’ll show you how to use it for your site in this section.
What schema is – the simple version: The schema vocabulary is just a way of describing content to search engines. You can insert schema terms into your existing HTML.
While Google doesn’t use schema markup as a direct ranking factor, it can use it to help categorize a page and to create rich snippets. Rich snippets are those things you see in certain searches, e.g., star ratings, pictures, and anything else besides the plain text:
Rich snippets can affect your search rankings. They almost always the increase click through rate, which could tell Google that your page is more important than the surrounding results, leading to more traffic and better rankings.
You can add schema terms to existing HTML code to describe a section of content. For example, the following common term—“itemscope”—tells search engines that the entire “div” section is about the same topic:
<span>Director: James Cameron (born August 16, 1954) </span>
But there are thousands of other terms you can use. Here’s the full list.
Ever wonder how some SEOs charge tens of thousands of dollars per month for their services?
This is why. Consider that this is just a beginner’s guide to technical SEO, and we haven’t really scratched the surface.
Expert SEOs learn as much as they can about all these individual elements and practice their skills for years to master them.
For now, you don’t need to do that. Instead, pick one or two of these technical SEO aspects. Then, see how they apply to your site, and fix any errors. Track your work and the results so you can quantify how much the mistakes hurt you.
I realize that there are some fairly complicated topics in this article, so if you need any clarification or you have some experience with technical SEO that you’d like to share, leave a comment below.