Search engine optimization (SEO) focuses on ranking higher in organic search engine results. These best practices include actions you can take immediately to help positively impact your organic results.
For a detailed list of SEO tips, we suggest referring to the Google Webmaster Guidelines, which include a long list of steps you can take to improve your organic rankings. However note that, while Google makes regular changes to their Webmaster Guidelines, the guidelines is not typically the first place for SEO news. In fact, Google communicates most algorithm changes throughout the SEO community prior to formally publishing the updates.
Table of Contents:
- Prepare for Core Web Vitals
- Secure your site
- Think mobile first
- Implement a clear hierarchy
- Leverage competitive data
- Perform a backlink audit
- Incorporate structured data
- Optimize tags
- Eliminate duplicate content
- Increase site speed
- Utilize accelerated mobile pages (AMP)
- Focus on user experience
In May 2020, Google announced a new set of metrics called Core Web Vitals to help measure website performance as it relates to user experience (UX), something that Google consistently prioritizes, saying “we plan to incorporate more page experience signals on a yearly basis to both further align with evolving user expectations and increase the aspects of user experience that we can measure.”
As of May 2021, Google has started using Core Web Vitals as a ranking signal. The three components of Core Web Vitals are related to loading, interactivity and visual stability. Site owners can use Search Console’s report to see how a website is currently performing. If there are areas where improvement is needed, Google recommends using tools like PageSpeed Insights and Lighthouse to help diagnose and update issues.
Core Web Vitals is a ranking factor, so be sure to know how your website pages perform and take actions to enhance UX when needed.
Google prefers sites that deliver safe user experiences. Therefore, Google has given secure sites (those with HTTPS in their URLs) a minor ranking boost since 2014. Switching to HTTPS is a very easy site change that all website owners should make if they have not already. As of May 2021, it is estimated that, across most platforms, more than 90% of pages in Chrome are loaded over HTTPS.
In addition to protecting your data and your visitors, adding secure sockets layer (SSL) encryption to your site also results in more accurate data within Google Analytics. Instead of traffic from referral sources appearing as “direct” traffic, as it often does on HTTP sites, the referring domain details are preserved.
SSL encryption gives your site a ranking boost and results in more accurate Google Analytics.
The Google algorithm change known as “mobilegeddon” occurred in the spring of 2015 and significantly boosted the rankings of mobile-friendly sites. In 2019, mobile-first indexing began for new websites and expanded to include the most currently crawled sites. Mobile-first indexing expanded to all websites in March 2021. This shift from Google prioritizes UX, as it is estimated that nearly 55% of global website traffic takes place on mobile devices. With most users accessing websites from mobile devices, Google is prioritizing fully functional and mobile-optimized websites.
Google provides a full Mobile Usability Report for website owners to receive lists of mobile usability issues that should be fixed. Of course, working to ensure your site provides a positive experience each time it is accessed – no matter where it is accessed – will deliver you more than just better rankings. Strong mobile experiences also help provide users with positive experiences.
Verify that your site is prepared for mobile-first indexing. You’ll deliver a better UX and avoid related penalties.
Google has a desire for clearly descriptive and findable links, stating that you should “verify that Google can reach the pages on your site, and that they look correct. Google accesses the web as an anonymous user (a user with no passwords or information). Google should also be able to see all the images and other elements of the page to be able to understand it correctly.”
In general, website owners should not hide important links within a sitemap or the footer navigation of your site. Although Google is able to crawl HTML content within navigational elements, such as tabs or expanding sections, Google bases content importance on its accessibility. As such, Google focuses on anchor text, including alt attributes and link text, to provide information regarding the purpose of a page.
In the words of Google, you should “design your site to have a clear conceptual page hierarchy.” That doesn’t mean every page should have a primary link. Instead, make sure your site is structured the way you want your content to be presented. Develop a content hierarchy for your visitors, and make that hierarchy clear to Google’s spiders.
If you want to rank for something, make this information visible in your default page view. It’ll boost SEO results and get users to the right content quickly.
Perform a gap analysis to identify the keywords your competitors are ranking for, and determine how you can add content to your site to appropriately compete against them.
One way of finding out what keywords are most important to your competitors is by using Link Explorer (a freemium tool that is part of the MOZ toolset). To use this tool for keyword ideas, enter the competitor’s URL, then click on “anchor text.” This will show you up to 20 keywords that your competitor uses for anchor text when link building, letting you know what they are targeting and the strength of their link building campaigns.
Review your competitor link profiles also. Using tools like Link Explorer or Majestic to identify top competitor links, you can discover sources that might be drivers of high-quality traffic, then reach out to those sources in an attempt to secure links to your site.
Supplement your keyword list with terms that perform well for your competitors.
Backlinks, or inbound links, are incredibly desirable when coming from credible sources. But backlinks from questionable sources can negatively impact your rankings. Don’t make assumptions. Do an audit to discover all your traffic sources, using a tool like SEMrush or Moz, and take action to eradicate anything you don’t want through link removal outreach. Links can also be recanted using the disavow tool within Google Search Console.
Not all backlinks deliver the same results. Audit your sources and take action as needed.
A Simple Example:
Because reading and writing JSON-LD is straightforward, using it can save a lot of time. It makes markup reviews more streamlined because it’s easy to troubleshoot (especially for those less experienced with visual editors), and you don’t have to make changes to your CSS file.
JSON-LD is supported by Google, and it is the recommended data format and a good option for most website developers looking to add more structured data to a website. JSON-LD markup also no longer needs to be wrapped around HTML elements, but instead can live on its own. Put simply, this structured data helps Google understand the content of the page it is crawling.
Google has a Rich Results Test tool that website developers can use to test if pages support rich results. Reports from this tool can help address any potential errors.
Websites should incorporate structured data, preferably in the JSON-LD format.
If you have a large site with hundreds of products or services listed, it is implausible to quickly perform a detailed optimization of every page. But you can still take quick action by optimizing key tags, including title, meta description, H1 and other headings and alt (or image) tags. Make sure every primary tag throughout your website is unique and representative of the content on that particular page. And, if you have keyword research that fits a page, consider it when defining your tags. Regardless of size, all websites should have optimized tags in order to help Google and other search engine crawlers better understand the website content.
If your site is large, focus on the primary tags across the site first.
Duplicate can confuse a search algorithm, making it difficult to determine which page should rank higher than another. Although fixing duplicate content issues can be a massive undertaking, requiring the resources of copywriters, SEO professionals and web developers, it is worth the effort.
When first getting started, evaluate the programming structure of your site to determine if it is the root cause of the duplicate content. Many ecommerce sites, for example, use visitor trail-based breadcrumbs, multiple-categorized products and product filtering options that generate multiple URLs with the exact same content. When duplicate content is intentional for UX and navigation efficiency, you can indicate to Google which URL is preferred. This process is called canonicalization.
Because developers typically don’t always understand the complexities of SEO, you shouldn’t exclusively rely on your developers to correct duplicate content issues. Partner with developers to ensure they understand both the objectives and the optimal solutions for SEO purposes.
Fixing duplicate content may be time consuming, but it’s well worth the effort.
Site speed is an incredibly important factor for algorithms because it is a major contributor to the customer experience. In fact, several case studies have demonstrated the impact of fast-loading sites on conversion and sales performance. For example, the 2020 Deloitte study Milliseconds Make Millions found that just a 0.1-second mobile-site speed increase led to an 8.4% increase in conversions and a 9.2% increase in average order value for retail sites and a 10.1% increase in conversions for travel websites.
While mobile sites have taken over as most important, be sure to optimize your site speed for both desktop and mobile versions of your website. While there are lots of steps you can take to improve your site’s download time by a few fractions of a second, there are also a number of changes you can make to dramatically impact your site speed.
Your first goal is to help ensure there is no uncomfortable wait for your pages to load. As your site gets faster and faster, you will likely experience diminishing returns on your speed enhancement efforts. Plan to get each page to load within two seconds or less, and then move on to something else. Use Google’s PageSpeed Insights to test your website speed. The tool will provide suggestions if your speed is not where it should be. Common action items include file compression, reducing redirects, minifying CSS, optimizing images and enabling browser caching.
Optimize your site for faster load until you experience diminishing returns on your efforts.
The Google-backed AMP Project should be part of your mobile strategy. AMP pages typically have quicker load times (their median load time is around one second) and have, therefore, received boosted rankings over time. Google maintains that AMP is not a ranking factor itself, but considering that page speed is, it only makes sense that AMP would impact rankings. AMP results also appear at the top of SERPs.
AMP pages provide an enhanced mobile experience and receive a rankings boost as a result.
Google wants to provide users with relevant search results, driving traffic to websites that deliver strong user experiences. So despite all the technical recommendations, maintain a focus on user experience every step of the way. If any change feels like it may negatively impact how your users navigate through your site or consume your content, don’t make that change.
Throughout the past decade, a number of questionable SEO tactics have shown their ability to drive rankings in the short term. But search engines are wise, and they tend to catch on to these approaches quickly. Avoid “black hat” tactics, like link buying, keyword stuffing and anything else that feels wrong. These techniques negatively impact your user experience and your long-term search rankings as well.
Always keep your customers’ needs in mind.
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Last updated: June 2021