Oftentimes when I begin working with a client, I wonder where to even begin. There are so many different things that need to be researched, tested, and improved with an SEO campaign. To me, best practice is to start with the things that take the least time and have the biggest impact. Eventually, we’ll get around to making the website strong in its entirety, but we’ll always continue to improve.
In my 4 years at webFEAT Complete, one of the most important things I’ve learned is that every little thing counts. You could be having a rough quarter as far as rankings go and then make a simple change, and it can end up making a world of difference.
SEO is about connecting with your target audience through content and behind-the-scenes work that delivers a positive website experience. The following items may be considered minor components to the big picture, but they can have a big impact on the results of an SEO campaign.
Speaking to the Searcher
When you optimize a site for search, what you’re actually doing is making it easier for certain people to find it through Google. Those people fall under one of two categories: people who know they need your product or service, or people who need them but don’t realize it yet. Either way, your job is to make it as simple as possible for those people to find your content, because your content provides answers or solutions to the questions or wants they come to Google for. There are lots of ways you can makes web pages easier to find for the people they’re relevant to. Here are a few:
Provide Relevant Meta Information
Regularly on my twitter feed or search/digital news sites I’ll see articles saying “meta descriptions aren’t a ranking signal,” and it bothers me. To clarify, ranking signals are things that tell Google to rank a page higher on search pages. For something to not be a ranking signal means that no matter how well it’s done, it won’t affect a site’s position in search rankings.
There are a lot of things that aren’t ranking signals (or maybe they are) that indirectly send positive signals to Google and other search engines. Meta information gives you the opportunity to directly talk to a prospective customer. With this opportunity, your pages can be more relevant and useful to searchers queries, which generally improves bounce rate (visited your website and left immediately/total site visits) and click through rate (the ratio of people who saw your site in searched and clicked vs didn’t). Meta information isn’t a ranking signal, but bounce and click-through rate are. By improving your meta information, you influence two other ranking signals, making meta information a great way to cater to users and assist with improving rankings. In the long-term if you’re serving relevant results and users are engaging with your website, you can grow and sustain your search presence.
Use Headings for Efficient Content Organization
Headings are important. They can show that a page is relevant to a searcher, they help site visitors to flow through the page and continue reading, and they can even be set up to be more easily interpreted by search engine robots. Let’s say someone is searching for a lasagna recipe. With that search, they probably want to know the ingredients, cooking instructions, and perhaps some photos of the process to confirm they’re doing it properly. Your primary heading or H1 could be “Mama’s Lasagna Recipe,” with the subheadings (H2s) being the key components: ingredients, cooking instructions. If those are broken down any further, you can use H3s. The most important thing is that there is one H1. For users, having a primary heading as an overview of the page that is relevant to the meta title, as well as segmenting the content through subheadings, will help your users confirm that your website is where they should be.
Optimize Navigation Elements for Clarity
Along with being relevant, your website should be easy to navigate and help the user find what they’re looking for. One of the most important elements for this is the website’s navigation. We often encounter websites that have too many items in the navigation—so many that it’s hard to even pick a place to start. This is especially true if the navigation items have dropdowns and subsections of those dropdowns. My preferred method to designing a websites navigation is to identify the core of a business, then simplify the options of where users can go. If more direction is needed, it can be given on the page that users click through to. This should also create a better flow through your website and help you to create funnels for a conversion such as a form completion.
Giving the Searcher an Ideal Visit on Your Website
Once you’ve spoken to the searcher (and hopefully gotten them onto your website), you need to make sure they have a good time when they’re there. This is called user experience (UX), and it’s important because Google keeps track of your site’s experience through something called engagement metrics (among other things). I’ll get into it more later, but for starters, if users frequently click onto your site from Google, click the back button, then click onto another search result, that signals to Google that the user probably didn’t have a good experience on your site. Similarly, if users click onto your site but leave without visiting other pages of your site, that also signals to Google that your site offers bad user experience. When these negative engagement signals pile up Google will rank your site lower in search, because you’re not satisfying the user. Here are some ways to improve user experience on your website:
Optimize Page Speed and Load Times
Things like speed and load time, and the items to follow shouldn’t be noticed by a visitor on your website. What I mean is, your website should be doing things really well so that they aren’t distracted. For example: You and a friend are having a discussion at lunch and ask “I wonder how bread is made.” Where do you turn to next? Google, of course. If the first link you click on that seems to have your answer is really slow, you may back out and go to another website. The page should load quickly, allowing the user to maintain focus on their goal and allowing your website to satisfy their search. Slow load opens up the door for distraction, frustration, and worsening engagement metrics.
Properly Direct Links for Logical Flow Through The Website
Let’s say your website has a lot of informative content. At certain points in the content, links are appropriate to help a user learn more about something that is related but off topic. Perhaps your content cites some statistics from an external source and you link to it. If you make it open in a new tab, the user can save that read for later, or read and easily make it back to your website. On top of this, users will spend more time engaging with your content, which can influence engagement metrics positively and ultimately results in higher rankings.
On an internal level, it’s important to link strategically, create funnels, and make sure your links stay updated. Sometimes we change our URLs and implement redirects, but it’s important to update those existing links. If you have a link that goes to an old URL which then redirects, that creates extra work/time for the site to load and for bots to crawl your site. Eliminate those redirect hops.
Eliminating 404s—the errors that appear when a page doesn’t exist—can be a big job, but it is extremely important. I wanted to mention them because they really do make a big difference for users and robots. If you have 404s appearing in the search results, everyone that finds your page is going to come to your site and find nothing. This is terrible for engagement metrics and rankings. If you’re linking within your site and the link doesn’t function, it can disrupt a funnel, and not allow the site visitor to accomplish what they came to do/find. These can be identified (along with redirect hops mentioned above) by crawling a website. We use Screaming Frog, and then export the response codes report for 4xx (or 3xx if you’re getting rid of redirect hops.) The reports show the URL’s, along with the pages that they’re coming from. This will help your website be clean for robots, but it also ensures users aren’t stumbling upon any broken pages.
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Having fundamentals like the items noted above as a base for SEO, followed by strong content that satisfies searcher intent, good user experience and the development of a link profile will allow your website to flourish organically. That is an extremely simplified strategy for SEO, but they are some core components that really count. As you can see from this article, each element has a subset of components (little things) to make everything come together. So if you’re doing SEO or having someone do it for you and you think “ah well that isn’t really a big deal” or “doing that will have little to no impact on our rankings,” think again! Everything comes together in an SEO campaign, and when you pay attention to detail, you’ll reap the benefits.
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Also published on Medium.