Search engine optimization (SEO) is focused on taking measures to land higher in the search engine results. For this reason, our best practices include only our top actionable recommendations. These are the steps you should take immediately to help positively impact your organic results.
For a detailed list of SEO tips, we always suggest referring to the Google Webmaster Guidelines, which include a long list of steps you can take to improve your organic rankings. But while Google makes regular changes to their Webmaster Guidelines, don’t expect it to be the first place for SEO news. In fact, Google communicates most algorithm changes throughout the SEO community prior to formally publishing the updates.
SECURE YOUR SITE
Because they prefer sites that deliver a safe user experience, in 2014, Google announced that secure sites (those with HTTPS in their URLs) would get a minor ranking boost. Although Google claimed this factor would only impact 1% of all queries, it is an easy site change that has shown to influence performance.1
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.
BE MOBILE FRIENDLY
The Google algorithm change known as “mobilegeddon” occurred in the spring of 2015 and significantly boosted the rankings of mobile-friendly sites.
21% decrease in non-mobile friendly URLs
Content marketing company Brightedge tracked more than 20,000 URLs since the update, and reported a 21% decrease in non-mobile-friendly URLs on the first three pages of search results.2
Non-mobile friendly sites lose 0.21 positions in rankings on average
Searchmetrics found that the average loss of rankings for the non-mobile friendly sites they measured was 0.21 positions.3 Many sites experienced a significant drop in mobile rankings while remaining relatively stable (or even growing their visibility) in desktop search, suggesting that the change in visibility was due to the mobile-friendly update.
Increase in the percentage of page 1 mobile-friendly results
Dr. Peter Meyers of MOZ wrote an in-depth analysis of the 7-day impact of Google’s mobile update.4 Their mobile MozCast — a Google algorithm weather report — reported a slight increase in the percentage of first page mobile-friendly results.
As part of this change, Google provided a mobile-friendly testing tool for web owners to review designs for all device types and sizes and to receive enhancement recommendations.
While Google has done what they can do to force mobile-friendly designs, developing a mobile-friendly site is really just a matter of providing a strong user experience. The world and how we digest content have changed. Consumers are no longer behind personal computers each time they access the web. Ensuring 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.
Verify that your site is mobile friendly. You’ll deliver a better UX and avoid related penalties.
DON’T HIDE THE IMPORTANT STUFF & IMPLEMENT A CLEAR HIERARCHY THROUGHOUT YOUR SITE
In January of 2016, Google tweaked their language regarding internal linking and site structure to say: “Ensure that all pages on the site can be reached by a link from another findable page. The referring link should include either text or, for images, an alt attribute, that is relevant to the target page.” With this change, Google has expressed a desire for clearly descriptive and findable links.
In general, this means you 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, they base content importance on its accessibility. As such, they focus 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.”5 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.
LEVERAGE COMPETITIVE DATA
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 great way of finding out what keywords are most important to your competitors is by using OSE (Open Site Explorer, a freemium tool which 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, hence letting you know what they are targeting and the strength of their link building campaign.
Review your competitor link profiles as well. Using tools like OSE or Majestic to identify their top links, you can discover sources that might be drivers of high-quality traffic, then reach out to them in an attempt to secure links to your site as well.
Supplement your keyword list with terms that perform well for your competitors.
PERFORM A BACKLINK AUDIT
Backlinks, or incoming 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, and take action to eradicate anything you don’t want through link removal outreach. Links can also be recanted using the disavow tool within the Google Search Console.
Not all backlinks deliver the same results. Audit your sources and take action as needed.
FEEL FREE TO USE JSON-LD… IN FACT, IT’S RECOMMENDED
A Simple Example:
Because reading and writing JSON-LD is straightforward, using it can save a lot of time. It makes markup reviews effortless 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 now supported by Google. In fact, their Knowledge Graph search results (the content that appears within search engine results pages to quickly answer queries) are only returned in JSON-LD format. This simplifies things for developers, because JSON-LD markup no longer needs to be wrapped around HTML elements, but instead can live on its own.
JSON-LD makes your life easier and can land you in the Google Knowledge Graph results.
OPTIMIZE YOUR TAGS
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 heading, other heading and alt tags. Make sure every tag throughout your full site 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.
If your site is large, focus on the primary tags across the site first.
ELIMINATE DUPLICATE CONTENT
Duplicate content can be perceived by Google as malicious. More importantly, it 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 e-commerce sites, for example, use visitor trail-based breadcrumbs, multiple-categorized products and product filtering options that generate multiple URLs with the exact same content.
Because they typically don’t always understand the complexities of SEO, you shouldn’t exclusively rely on your developers to correct duplicate content issues. Work with developers to ensure they understand both the objective and the optimal solution for SEO purposes.
Fixing duplicate content may be time consuming, but it’s well worth the effort.
INCREASE SITE SPEED
Site speed is an increasingly important issue for algorithms, because it is indicative of customer experience. In fact, several case studies have demonstrated the impact of fast loading sites on conversion and sales performance. For example, Walmart recently announced their conversions peak with a load time of approximately two seconds and progressively drop as page load times increase.6
And 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 ensure there is no uncomfortable wait for your pages to load. As your site gets faster and faster, you will experience diminishing returns on your speed enhancement efforts. So plan to get each page to load within a few seconds, and then move on to something else.
Optimize your site for faster load until you experience diminishing returns on your efforts.
CONSIDER USING ACCELERATED MOBILE PAGES (AMP)
The Google-backed AMP Project is gaining steam, as Google announced that AMP pages were integrated into its search engine in February of 2016. Because these pages typically have quicker load times, they have received boosted rankings over time.
Google has provided a demo, inclusive of content from several major publishers such as The Guardian (example AMP page) and The Washington Post (example AMP page), of what an AMP feature looks like in the SERP. You can try it out by searching for something like “Mars” at g.co/ampdemo on your mobile phone (or emulate it within Chrome Developer Tools). You will see a carousel toward the top with AMP articles. Click on one for a reading experience embedded in the SERP. It’s quite different than simply navigating to a publisher’s AMP page. After you click, you can swipe right or left to read another AMP-enabled article.
AMP pages provide an enhanced mobile experience and receive a rankings boost as a result.
FOCUS ON USER EXPERIENCE AND AVOID ANYTHING THAT FEELS SKETCHY
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.
LOOKING FOR SOME HELP WITH YOUR SEO?
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Last updated: May 2017
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