The SEO industry moves fast. All the talk at the moment is about voice search, algorithms, machine learning, AI and so on, and while it’s easy to get swept up in all that exciting-sounding stuff, it’s important not to neglect your SEO basics. Good SEO still relies on a technically-sound website that Google can easily access – without this, you have no chance.
In order to re-visit some of the key SEO essentials, we asked some of our experts for their advice and tips:
HTTPS – Sam Osborne
HTTPS is a secure version of HyperText Transfer Protocol, or HTTP. The ‘S’ stands for secure. It ensures secure communication between a user’s browser and a web server. Security is high on Google’s agenda and it announced that HTTPS is a factor in its ranking algorithm, as well as hinting that it will be strengthening HTTPS signals in the future.
If you’ve not moved over from HTTP to HTTPS, do it now. Google recommends getting a certificate with a 2048-bit key, in case you have one with a weaker 1024-bit key at the moment.
Sitemaps – Kerry Dye
A sitemap is a file where you provide information about the pages and other files on your site, and the relationships between them. Search engines read this file to enable them to crawl your site.
Audit your sitemap file to check it for content that shouldn’t be exposed to search engines. It’s easy for low-quality pages to creep into it that shouldn’t be published, especially with a CMS such as WordPress.
Images – Steve Masters
Make sure you optimise your images for Google Image Search. Add alt attribute to describe what is in the actual image as opposed to what you want to rank for. Remember to add captions – what’s below the image is important.
Further reading: SEO best practices for images and video content
Meta descriptions and title tags – George Stone
It’s important to optimise the title tag and meta description for your page because it’s the first thing a potential visitor will see on a SERP (Search Engine Result Page). Use your top keyword in the title tag of your page but don’t stuff it with too many keywords, especially if they aren’t relevant. This space is precious as Google generally only displays the first 50-60 characters of your title tag. There is no exact limit because characters will vary in width, but there are various tools available to help you test whether your title tag will appear fully in SERPs.
The title tag specifically helps search engines to understand what the page is about and, although meta descriptions don’t directly impact Google’s search ranking algorithm, they provide a user with an insight into what they can expect to find on the page or entice them to visit your page over your competitors. This can improve a page’s CTR (Click Through Rate) which can positively affect a page’s organic rank.
Do your keyword research. We have our in-house software, called Apollo, but there are other tools you can use such as Keyword Planner, SEMRush and Ahrefs – we pull all of these into Apollo so that we get a complete picture. Also check out what your competitors are doing for keywords you want to target.
Schema markup – Stu Clark
Schema markup is the ‘behind the scenes’ information that you can send to Google and other search engines to let them know how your data is classified. All sites should carry basic Organisation or Local Business schema, but there are specific content types that benefit specifically from additional features e.g. recruitment websites carrying correct schema get to show the “Google for Jobs” boxes for specific searches, which have an ‘apply’ button directly within Google results. Putting schema on a site can involve a lot of backwards and forwards with a developer, but the pay-off should be worth it. We’ve also had success with using Google Tag Manager to add schema without altering the code on the site.
Use the Google Rich Snippets testing tool to see what you already have enabled.
Blog titles – Tom Light
Make sure you do your keyword research when creating a blog title. This will make up other elements of the page, including the title tag, so you want to ensure you are using the most targeted phrase for the piece of content you are writing about.
A range of tools can help with this: Apollo Insights, SEMrush, Keywords Everywhere, Answer the Public. When using these tools and gathering the data, you’ll be able to pull out further phrases with lower search volumes that can aid the content planning and page structure. I personally always like to look at what competitors’ titles look like and try to differentiate from the crowd.
Adding insights to the blog title so that the user knows what to expect before they read can also help increase the engagement and reduce the bounce rate of a page.
An example of this would be:
“PPC tips from our experts”
“Easily-actionable and practical PPC tips from our experts”
You could also include other snippets of information within the blog title, such as ‘5-minute read’, or phrases such as ‘in-depth guide’ to further ease the user into the content piece.
Do your keyword research, add in calls to action (CTAs) and help the user evaluate if the content is the right piece for them.
Speed – Gabe Keegan
Ensuring a website loads quickly is a top SEO priority, not least because it’s now a Google ranking factor. According to Hubspot, 47% of customers expect a web page to load in two seconds or less, 64% of mobile users expect pages to load in less than four seconds, and a one second delay in page load time results in an 11% loss of page views and a 7% reduction in conversions. No-one likes a slow loading website.
- Ensure you enable GZIP compression
- Optimise your images
URLs – Lee Wilson
URLs for your website should be descriptive, short and easy to remember. Consider the main topic, service or product for the page and ensure that your descriptions match that of the wider/general public search behaviour and long term trends. There isn’t an ideal number of words for a URL, however, I would query URLs outside of blog/news sections being longer than three to five words.
When creating URLs, remove unwanted words (like and, of, the etc) to keep them clean, concise and topically relevant.
Indexing – Kerry Dye
We deal with a lot of WordPress websites, and it is important to control what is and isn’t indexed. Category pages, tags, author pages, archives and sliders can generate many more pages for your site than you think you have. It’s important to be on top of these to minimise the number of low-quality pages that you are showing to search engines. Some are needed to ensure a good hierarchy and maintain internal linking, but others are just taking up crawl budget and cannibalising the pages that you’d prefer to be ranking for your keywords.
Auditing these pages so you know what they are is the first step, followed by no-indexing the ones that are not required.
Using a “site:” command in Google (e.g. site:www.vertical-leap.uk) is a great way to see what Google is seeing. I also recommend looking at your XML sitemaps to see what is being shown to search engines.
Answer box / featured snippets – Adam Futer
Google Answer Boxes are a great way to improve the traffic to your site for specific queries, as these are generally the first search results a user will see. Best practices to help your site appear for these searches are:
- Identify queries in KW research that, implicitly or explicitly, ask a question
- Seek out queries that already use the answer box
- You don’t have to rank position one, Google will pull information from any first page result
- Format and language are essential. Match the paragraph, or table, and use the logical answer to the query terms in your title/caption/label/section header
- Be accurate with your content – Google will only pull the most accurate content
- Get more clicks by using Google maximum snippet length
Use keyword research tools such as Apollo, Google Keyword Planner or Semrush to help identify queries using Google Answer Boxes. This will form the foundation for the next tasks to help your site rank for Google Answer Queries. Remember to keep an eye on competitors appearing for these as well.
The coolest SEO tool of all is, of course, our in-house software Apollo – it does all the grunt work for us, runs thousands of audits 24/7, collects all the data, carries out the analysis, shows us where the threats and opportunities are, and tells us where to focus our efforts. Boom!
Some other recommendations from the team are:
Google Tag Manager – Ben Olive-Jones
Although it can take a little while to develop your understanding of GTM, once harnessed it can be a very powerful tool. From deploying schema, to tracking everything from on page events to video interactions to scroll depth and so much more, it’s an essential tool in the modern marketer’s arsenal.
Google Marketing Platform – Sam Osborne
The full Google Marketing Platform includes a wide range of tools from A/B Testing to survey tools and attribution solutions. These are often greatly underused (mainly because they can come with a cost) but are often affordable and of value.
Internal linking – Lee Wilson
Effective internal linking enables you to sculpt the authoritative hierarchy of your website, tell search engines which pages are most important to the business, and help drive more people to the pages that matter most. Authority and internal page views can be passed from appropriate internal linking. Internal links are also a great way of driving the user journey so that they convert faster, and access all the information they need sooner. Google Search Console provides information on pages linked to the most internally, which can be useful for targeted updates if this does not reflect the core business areas served.
Check out the Google Search Console Internal Links section to see your most linked to (internally linked) content. Then compare that to the pages and services that drive the most business/revenue/value. Prioritise the differences for your first phase of improvements.
Local SEO – Sally Newman
When Local SEO is done well, it allows businesses to build authority and therefore rank locally for their products and service offerings. Local visibility is achieved through building relevancy for a certain location or a range of locations. This can be done by adding the business address, local business schema markup, a local phone number and a range of local search terms to a page.
Apollo Insights allows us to keep an eye on a broad range of keywords, but you can also use Keyword Planner or SEMrush. The Structured Data Testing Tool is the best way to test whether your schema markup code works properly. If you’re a local business, local SEO signals are vital for your success!
Relevance – Steve Masters
Google’s John Mueller has said that Google cares about relevance more than anything else. Making sure you are as relevant as possible to the audience’s intent is the goal. At site level and page level.
Spend some time examining which pages show up for which search queries (something you can do with Google Search Console). See whether you have pages that compete on relevance, and whether your pages are as relevant as other competitors for a particular search.
You also need to think about the intent behind a search query. There’s no point trying to be relevant to “what is a bobbin?” if you don’t sell bobbins, but you just happen to mention them. Site relevance means being obvious about what you are – a shoe shop should look like a shoe shop, an estate agent should obviously be an estate agent (and say that is what they are).
Further reading: The 5 pillars of a successful SEO campaign
Content optimisation – Steve Masters
Always revisit old content, which can be more valuable than adding new content. Each piece of new content dilutes the rest of the website, and it should be there to fill gaps, not just for the purpose of adding something new. Look for opportunities to update or refresh old content, or add in more content to answer more questions relevant to the page, that the page currently doesn’t answer. Constantly work on your internal content hierarchy.
Further reading: How to reduce, reuse and recycle content
Promote cornerstone or hub pages’ authority by linking to them from other relevant lesser pages on the site. Also make sure parent pages link to relevant other pages on the site, through links in body of text, or navigation links. This always needs revisiting as the site grows.
Google Business Profile – Kerry Dye
Google Business Profile is easy to do once and then overlook. It is important to maintain this listing. Add new images, update your posts, add to the description text. Google has added a couple of new features to this in the past few months and it’s easy to miss these details.
You also need to ask your customers for reviews. It’s easy to fall behind your competitors in terms of number of reviews, then have to play catch up. Alternatively, if you don’t have many reviews, it’s easy for someone to come along with a negative review and sabotage your score. Getting the reviews in advance stops you having to go through a damage limitation exercise if this happens.
Further reading: How to get more Google reviews
Use the review link generator to create a link you can send directly to customers to ask them to review you.
Mobile-first indexing – Sally Newman
Mobile-first indexing means Google will predominantly use the mobile version of the content for indexing and ranking. It has already moved a lot of sites to mobile-first indexing – mostly those that were mobile-friendly – but it will soon be moving sites that aren’t mobile-friendly. It will only use your desktop site for mobile-first indexing when it’s the only version of the website, and if this is the case you will rank lower.
If you want to rank higher in mobile search results, get ahead by making sure that your site is mobile-friendly!
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