Search Engine Optimization (SEO) can often be intimidating considering you don’t always see a direct impact on the optimizations you make, sometimes it takes a while, or external factors affect performance. However, SEO is an incredibly powerful and sustainable marketing approach that drives high-quality organic search traffic to your website. Although there are hundreds of elements that come into play, SEO today is heavily content-focused. If you have great content that follows SEO best practices, Google can overlook some missing elements.
SEO can often be broken up into three main areas; technical, on-page, and off-site. I put these best practices in the order that I normally recommend others to focus on as they build out their website. Use technical optimization so Google can give you the most credit for your on-page efforts. Spend your time & resources on-page so that you don’t have to worry about off-site optimization.
This first area of search engine optimization deals with Googlebot visiting your website, navigating around, finding your content, indexing, and rendering it. At the most basic level, you want to make sure Google can find & render all of your content as quickly and effortlessly as possible. For this, you’ll need to work on the following:
Use intuitive navigation that lets users find your content easily. Rely on main menus, sidebars, footer, and contextual links to interlink all your content.
Create a robots.txt file to show Google your XML Sitemap. Squarespace and Shopify automatically do it, while WordPress has to be updated using the Yoast SEO plugin.
Squarespace and Shopify automatically do it, while WordPress has to be updated using the Yoast SEO plugin.
You can use HTML Sitemap plugins for WordPress to create a directory type of page that lists all of your pages. Add this sitemap to your footer. On other platforms, you will have to create it manually.
Update the design of your pages to include breadcrumbs that reflect the structure of your content. This helps improve navigation and improves the accessibility of your content. Some platforms have these enabled by default or may have an option to turn these on.
The faster your content loads, the better the user experience. Google also provides a small boost to pages that load quickly on mobile phones. Compressing images and caching static files immensely helps. I believe this is on by default on Squarespace & Shopify but has to be configured on WordPress using plugins.
Core Web Vitals
Providing a positive user experience is important for Google and the results it provides to searchers. As long as you make sure your content loads quickly without code bloat, you should be ok.
Deprecating content (or lack of) throughout the years can become a problem if you’re not familiar with SEO best practices. Any time you take content down, make sure it’s redirected to a similar page. Pages with broken links or removing content without redirecting the page can negatively impact user experience. Since Google is sending its users to these pages, they want to make sure they offer the best user experience possible.
If you take content down or move it to another URL, just make sure to create 301 permanent redirects. You will need a plugin on WordPress but most platforms have built-in capability to redirect.
You can use meta tags to provide instructions on how you want your content treated in search engines.
If you want to create a private page for exclusive programs or campaigns, you can use the “noindex” metatag to keep it out of search engines. Adding the following HTML at the top of the <head> on your page tells search engines to not index the page, or remove it (if previously indexed):
<meta name="robots" content="noindex">
This metatag can also be used as a useful tool to remove low-quality pages from the index if you don’t necessarily want to take them down (in moderation). This tag tells search engines to not use the content of a page against you.
You can use the Yoast SEO plugin to noindex content on WordPress, while most platforms have this as a built-in feature.
Most people don’t have to worry about this but sometimes avoiding duplicate content (which negatively affects the quality of your content) can be fixed using this rel=canonical tag.
If you want to create a few different variations of the same content for whatever reason, you can use the Yoast SEO plugin to canonicalize content on WordPress, while most platforms have a built-in feature to change canonical tag.
Other Technical Considerations
Think of technical SEO as a means to an end. The means to remove obstacles hindering crawling, rendering & indexing issues so that Google can get to see our on-page SEO. A website in perfect technical state will do nothing for you if you don’t have content.
Fortunately, most modern Content Management Systems (CMS) like WordPress, Shopify, SquareSpace (and others) deal with most of this for you so you don’t really have to worry about it.
As your website matures and you develop more content, other aspects of technical SEO will play a bigger role in how Google can understand the “big picture” of your website. In other words, understanding the ecosystem of content on your website and how each page plays a role in the overall value you have to offer to search engines.
- Site Architecture
- URL Structure
There is never a one-size-fits-all approach to this. How you decide to structure your website is entirely up to you.
TLDR; My best advice on technical SEO best practices is to keep the pages on your website organized in folders. As long as your website has intuitive navigation and your users can easily access your content, I wouldn’t worry too much about technical SEO.
If you have terrible content, technical SEO won’t do anything for you. But if you have amazing content, technical SEO can benefit you tremendously.
While Technical SEO deals mostly with broader elements of your website, On-Page SEO deals directly with your content. In other words, how you write and optimize each and every one of your pages so they can reach the highest visibility in search results.
One of the biggest principles in on-page SEO is content “quality” or how much value you provide to search results outside of what they already have indexed. If you don’t add anything new to the conversation, there is no need for them to surface your content.
Think of all the websites that exist & have existed on the web & how much content they produce on a daily basis. Writing something that has been regurgitated for decades may not be of value to search engines. After all, the goal of search engines is to provide the most relevant content for their users, and you have to abide by their rules if you want a part of their product.
This is the single most important on-page element.
This title (different from the article title, or H1, that users read) is heavily used by search engines to understand what a piece of content is about. Make sure to use keywords early in the page title.
- Keep it under 600 pixels or under 60 characters
- Make it click-friendly, why should people come to your page vs the others?
- Make it descriptive, keep branding at a minimum
- Don’t make it redundant or stuff with keywords
Make sure the objective of the page is reflected in the way you write the title. For example, if you’re optimizing a store make sure you use “buy”, “shop”, “browse” in the title. Matching your optimizations with the intention of the searcher will always help you reach higher visibility.
Although search engines don’t use meta descriptions to rank content, this is a space where you can describe your content with more detail and tell searchers what they can expect when going to your page. This space can be used to stand out a bit more from other search results.
- Keep descriptions under 160 characters. Using SERP Preview tools can make this easier for you.
- Use keywords throughout the meta description without being redundant.
- Try to incorporate special characters! You’ll stand out more in search results even if you’re not at the top.
- End the meta description with a call to action that reflects the objective of your content;
- If educational, use “learn more”, “find how”, etc
- If commercial, use “get started”, “get the free trial”, “get a demo”, etc.
- If ecommerce, use “shop now”, “get free shipping today”, “browse”, etc.
Structuring your pages with the right headings not only makes it easy for users to consume the content on the page, but it also increases your chances of acquiring featured snippets (short snippets of text that appear at the top of Google’s search results in order to quickly answer a searcher’s query).
These headings communicate the organization of the content on the page. Web browsers, plug-ins, and assistive technologies can use them to provide in-page navigation. In other words, outside of the SEO benefits, people with visual impairments using screen readers will have a better user experience if they use these wisely.
You should only have a single H1 on each page of your website. You can use as many H2-6 as you need to structure your content.
From W3, you should be nesting headings by their rank (or level). The most important heading has the rank 1 (<h1>), the least important heading rank 6 (<h6>). Headings with an equal or higher rank start a new section, headings with a lower rank start new subsections that are part of the higher-ranked section.
Use the keywords throughout your copy. Add them to the page title, meta description, H1, H2’s if it makes sense, image alt texts, etc. Keywords should capture what the topic of your page is about. Keep your keywords focused on the same topic. If you try to cover too many topics you will be spreading a very wide net that will cause more harm than good.
Make sure images are compressed so they render faster and use image alt text to describe it to search engines.
If you have pages on your website with video embeds, keep in mind that search engines are unable to “read” that content. Traditionally, search engine specialists recommend you use captioning, subtitles, and written transcription below the video.
If your video is hosted on Youtube, you can also optimize your videos and channel to double-dip on the visibility by using the same on-page SEO best practices listed here. After all, Youtube is another search engine.
The length of your content is a tricky one and has been debated in the SEO industry for ages. The length of your content does correlate to higher visibility, but it ultimately depends on the topic and competition.
You have to find a balance between “enough copy to provide expertise, authority, & trust” all while remaining focused on a single topic without redundant or “fluffed” copy.
The easiest way to approach this is by searching what content is showing up at the top of search results. Considering content is one of the most important aspects of high visibility, you can safely rely on the top-ranking pages to see what you’re up against.
Another way to think about content length is by focusing on the searcher. How complex is the topic at hand? How much do you have to write to expertly cover the topic at hand? Here are a few examples to consider:
- “when to replace tires” featured result has 800 words
- “house hacking” featured result has almost 2,500 words
- “Home buying guide” top result has over 3,000 words
Internal linking forms semantic connections between your content. As you create content focused on specific topics, try to always link to relevant pieces you have covered in the past. This helps resurface older content (which strengthens it) and improves crawl efficiency (makes it easier for Google to find all your content).
The worst-case scenario here is that you never link to any of your content leaving every piece of content isolated and impossible for users to find. In this scenario, Google will assume that this content is not important. On the other hand, however, if you interlink all of your content, it improves the accessibility of the content you spent so much time on and tells search engines that the page is still relevant.
There is another SEO concept inherently intertwined with internal linking referred to as “anchor text”, or the words you use to create a hyperlink.
In SEO, the words you use to hyperlink a page are referred to as anchor text since we use an <a> (HTML anchor tag) surrounding text. Anchor text is extremely important for SEO since it tells users what the page you’re linking to is about. Search engines use these signals heavily and understand how your content relates to each other and what topics they focus on.
Use descriptive anchor texts like “SEO best practices”, as opposed to generic ones like “click here”, “learn more”, or branded with your company name. The goal with anchor texts is to tell others what content they can expect before they click the link.
Off-site SEO is all about backlinks, or links from other websites pointing to your pages. These links act as vouches of confidence telling search engines you have something great to offer to the web.
Think of off-site SEO as a popularity contest where other people get to vote. You may say you have the best resource for a given topic but if nobody confirms it, it means nothing.
Optimizing the off-site signals of your brand is one of the most difficult & time-consuming aspects of SEO, but it’s also one of the most powerful initiatives you can engage in. For that reason, it’s also one of the most expensive if you try to outsource or hire an agency. In short, you have no direct way to affect this, but there are a lot of initiatives you can do to influence this.
Do not buy links from link vendors or from online marketplaces like Fiverr or Upwork. This is the easiest way to get on Google’s watch list as it constitutes a violation of their webmaster guidelines. They have special ways of dealing with websites that try to “manipulate” search results by buying links. I have helped more than 100 businesses recover from Google Manual Actions and algorithmic penalties and let me tell you, it’s an arduous process that requires a whole lot of cleaning up.
Instead, focus on building relationships with people in your industry. Leverage the connections you already have to get your name out there. Check with them to see if you can feature your brand on their website, help them out, write a piece of content for them, feature them on your website. Everybody loves when they get a shoutout, why not start the chain & show them?
Find where your target audience spends its time (which social media platform are they on?) to share your content and engage with your audience.
If you are a local business, make sure local directories have your name, address, and phone number. If you want to increase foot traffic, make sure to use the Google My Business platform to increase your visibility in Google Maps.
Great content is shared. If you have a young website without a lot of content, my best advice is to focus on creating that content first & foremost.
Parting Notes On SEO Best Practices
Words are critical for SEO. Make sure your copy is aligned with the way your audience is searching for the questions you answer or the pain points you solve. Of course, you can still use imagery, video, and amazing design to provide an incredible user experience, just be mindful of what search engines look & use accordingly. Keyword Research and competitive analysis can be an incredibly insightful process to help you understand your target audience.
- Write expert, authoritative, and trustworthy content
- Don’t beat around the bush, fulfill the user search intent
- Don’t make assumptions, elaborate your points and link to related sources
The Google Search index contains hundreds of billions of webpages and is well over 100,000,000 gigabytes in size. It’s like the index in the back of a book — with an entry for every word seen on every webpage we index. When we index a webpage, we add it to the entries for all of the words it contains.Google
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, focus on providing value in advance & being a reliable resource for your users and the rest will come in due time. You are free to experiment with whatever works for your brand while being mindful of SEO best practices. Soon enough you will see what works & what doesn’t work using Google Search Console.