What does SEO mean to you? For many business leaders, search engine optimization (SEO) reminds them of the free SEO audit they received…
…in an unsolicited email
…from a spammy looking internet marketing company
…from a country far, far away
…warning their website SEO score is 2/100
This audit probably pointed out the 1.37 million things that are keeping your business from “not showing up on Google” and need to be “urgently” fixed.
But don’t worry! The email usually ends will a huge promise that if you just…
- pay them money, they’ll fix your website
- get you a perfect technical SEO score
- and get your website on the first page of Google
- all within 48 hours
These scare tactics leave many business owners with the questions… Is that just a scam? Is technical SEO even important? If so, how important is it?
If you’re getting emails like this that make you anxious, you’re not alone! Let’s relieve some of that anxiety without throwing the SEO baby out with the bathwater.
So, instead of losing your mind and money trying to get a 100% score on an SEO audit, let’s start with the basics.
Here’s how we’ll walk with you through the often-misunderstood topic of technical SEO audits:
- Google is Like a Librarian (how Google works)
- What is Technical SEO? (hint: it’s probably a lot of what that SEO audit includes)
- Why is Technical SEO Important? (it can help get you new leads)
- 4 Dirty Secrets of Most SEO Audits (don’t get scammed, but don’t ignore SEO either)
- What Actually Matters in Technical SEO? (prioritize and conquer)
- Checklist: Most Important SEO Items (address these now)
- Checklist: Somewhat Important SEO Items (do these later)
- Checklist: Not Important SEO Items (address these later or not at all)
- Free Technical SEO Tools
One last thing before we start — No, we don’t make an audit tool that we’ll ultimately try to sell you, but we do have some good recommendations. And yes, we do have a free, reliable tool that will only give you useful information (we’ll get to that later). Let’s begin!
Google is Like a Librarian (the helpful kind)
To understand what is and isn’t important in technical SEO, you need a basic knowledge of how Google works.
If the internet is a library, Google is the librarian.
And like a librarian, Google helps users quickly find what they are looking for in the massive archives of the internet.
Now, think of your website as a book in this massive “internet” library, and then think of a chapter in that book as one of the pages on your website.
However, unlike a physical book, these “online” books are constantly being edited. Chapters are being added/deleted, paragraphs are sometimes re-written, and sources are being updated. Unlike a real library which might add, remove, or update books a few times a month, this “internet” library is changing, adding, and removing thousands of items per second.
Let’s say you ask your local librarian where to find information in the library about hiking in Pennsylvania. They must quickly sift through all the sections of their library in order to find you the most relevant resource on hiking in PA.
It’s the same with Google. When users do a Google search, they’re essentially asking Google to show them the most relevant and accurate information about their search query.
However, Google’s not just trying to get you to the right book (website), they want to get you directly to the “chapter” (webpage) that will answer your question.
How does Google answer your question in your search query? Simple: Google has to know what’s already there.
How does it find out what’s on the web? It discovers content on the internet by using technology called a “bot” that “crawls” (or scours) the web and indexes what it finds (think of it like a concordance).
Bonus Fact: Did you know that Google says 15% of all queries have never been searched before?
Here’s the problem… If Google can’t efficiently crawl your website, it’s not able to show your site to users in search results (even if your website would be a helpful result to show the searcher).
If Google can’t understand what your website or webpage is talking about, how credible the information is, how detailed it is, or how likely it is to answer a question about the topic, then it’s not going to show your website highly in the search results, meaning you miss out on leads and potential profit. (But don’t worry, Google will show your competitors…)
Just like the librarian looking for a book on “Hiking in Pennsylvania”, in order for Google to recommend your website, it has to understand the content, including:
- What the content says
- What the content means
- What the main topic of the book/website is as a whole
- What the main topic of each chapter/webpage is
- How thorough the book/website is about the subject
Google also doesn’t want to recommend a website that isn’t an authoritative, reputable source. That’s where other SEO tactics like link building, on-page SEO, and local SEO come into play (but we’ll get into that later). In the past, Google has called this “E-A-T”, which stands for the expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness of the content on your site. Your website needs to be understood by Google and be seen as a reliable source of information.
What is Technical SEO?
Technical SEO helps spoon-feed information about your business (and other content) from your website to Google, so that Google can properly understand it and be more likely to rank the page higher in the results.
Essentially, technical SEO makes sure that Google’s bots can crawl, index, and understand the content of your website. It’s part of what’s called “on-site SEO” (improvements to the website itself).
Why is Technical SEO Important?
It helps Google have the best understanding of:
- What your business does.
- Who your business serves (ex. geographic service area, who a good customer is, etc).
Technical search engine optimization helps Google understand your business/website in a way that’s most likely to get you to show up higher in Google search results.
Higher ranking on Google can help you get more leads and new customers.
But are all aspects of technical SEO important?
The 4 (Dirty) Secrets of Many SEO Audits
The real goal of SEO is having your potential customers find you on Google when they are searching for terms (keywords or phrases) related to your products and services.
So if you’re the business leader from the beginning of this article, and are reading that haunting SEO audit, you need to filter through the list of warnings and errors in the report to determine what is and is not important.
Here’s 4 things to look for:
Secret #1: Not all SEO checklist items are created equal.
Just because something could be done doesn’t mean that you should invest in fixing it.
The law of diminishing returns in technical SEO can be dramatic and fall into 3 buckets
- Do now (it’s impacting Google’s ability to see your site, your site’s ability to get visitors, or other top priorities of your site)
- Do later (after other, more impactful on-site and off-site SEO has been done)
- Do never (you could spend many hours fixing them, but it won’t impact search results)
Some issues raised in an SEO audit report should be addressed right away because they actually do impact Google’s ability to show your website, impeding your ability to get more leads, sales, and profit (sometimes in a dramatic way).
For example, if Google can’t crawl/index your site as a whole (or important pages), that’s a huge issue that should be addressed ASAP. If it’s not fixed properly, Google won’t show your site (or the affected pages) in search results, holding your site back from attracting new customers. You’ll lose business to competitors and miss out on potential profit if you don’t solve the problem immediately. See the checklist of what’s most important »
However, not everything the report warns about should be optimized right away. There’s other low-hanging fruit that will give you a much better ROI when you first begin making improvements. Once the high-value things are resolved, come back to this list and evaluate the next priority. See the checklist of what’s not most important »
There are many things that a technical SEO audit can point out that are not worth your time (or money).
Those items in the report are simply meant to overwhelm and scare you into paying the company to fix the “issues.”
For example, unless you’re a large company in a cut-throat competitive industry, it’s (probably) not going to be beneficial to pay someone to decrease page size by 10 kilobytes or add more keywords to the open graph description of a page. See the checklist of other things that don’t matter »
While there certainly are types of technical SEO issues that should be fixed/optimized because they are hurting your site’s ability to reach potential customers, spend your resources where SEO can make the most impact on your bottom line.
Secret #2: Quality > Quantity
Fixing a few major technical SEO problems can be much more impactful than if you were to spend that time and money fixing many smaller issues flagged on an SEO report.
Prioritize. Be focused on optimizing things that matter most.
Secret #3: Audits can provide false hope that you’ve optimized your site.
Ironically, an SEO assessment can also show “false positives,” meaning it says things are fine when they’re not. A common example is title tags and meta descriptions. In many SEO audits, just having meta titles and descriptions (with or without relevant keywords) is enough to get the green light in the report. But that’s simply not good enough to entice users to click on your website in a search result page. They need to be persuasively written and help Google understand the context of the webpage.
Also, SEO is more than just sneaking keyword variations onto a page.
A page (including title tags and meta descriptions) should be written for SEO and for users.
In fact, they go hand in hand: Write better content for users, they’ll share it on social and their own websites, which will help you rank better on Google. Rank better on Google, and you’ll get more users visiting your site and sharing your content.
Don’t just check the technical SEO box and call it a day. You’ll miss out on doing impactful SEO that can’t be measured by a computer-driven audit.
Secret #4: A perfect SEO audit score can be a vanity metric.
Did you know that Google doesn’t know how well you did on an SEO audit?
Don’t let the good feeling of a 100% score (which may look impressive to superiors) blind you from opportunities to significantly grow your business through other types of SEO (such as content creation and optimization).
Technical SEO isn’t the end-all-be-all of getting new customers from Google. Getting links from relevant websites pointed to your site, optimizing the written content on your website, and creating new pages with more information about the products and services you provide.
Don’t miss out on ranking for keywords that make your business money, in exchange for getting an A+ SEO report card to show your parents.
Caution: Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
With all of that said, does this mean technical search engine optimization (SEO) should be ignored or avoided?
Regardless of the multitude of SEO scams out there, technical SEO does matter, but only when you focus on the most important issues in the right order.
You wouldn’t stop going to the doctor just because you receive a bunch of spammy emails, would you?
The same is true for SEO. If you know what to focus on, investing in SEO can help your bottom line.
A balanced approach is needed.
So, what actually matters in SEO?
What Should You Care About (and Ignore) in an SEO Audit?
How We Approach Technical SEO
At Improve & Grow, we don’t just work on fixing a technical SEO issue because it came up in an audit. Rather, we prioritize the work based on what will get the best results for your business. Sometimes that means working on technical SEO, but other times it means optimizing on-page content.
The 80/20 rule applies to SEO:
- Invest in fixing the most important 20% of SEO tasks that will get you 80% of the results.
- Don’t get stuck spending 80% of your time fixing SEO items that are only 20% effective.
Instead of wasting time and money on things that don’t matter, focus on prioritizing what needs to be fixed now, what could be optimized later, and ignore the rest.
Here’s a checklist to help determine what you should do first.
Technical SEO Checklist: Things to (Probably) Do Now
Websites large and small can have problems with their site that can impede Google being able to crawl, understand, and index the site. While this list isn’t meant to be inclusive, here are some of the most important (and common) technical SEO issues you (or an SEO expert) should assess.
If you look at the source code of your website and see
<meta name="robots" content="noindex"> in it, that means the page isn’t letting Google crawl it (there’s other ways to tell Google not to crawl a site, such as in a robots.txt file). Make sure that pages that you want Google to show users are indexable. There’s other things to look for – see what Google says about it.
We’ve seen businesses that are running two separate versions of their website, competing with each other. Google looks at https://www.example.com as a different site than https://example.com (the same is the case with https:// and http://). You should only have one version of the URL that works; the other URLs should redirect to it.
It’s 2019 and this should go without saying, but your website (even if it’s a B2B site) should be “responsive” (it should look good and work well on tablets, phones, and desktop monitors of every size). We design websites for our clients with SEO best-practices at the forefront. Not sure if your site is mobile-friendly? Test it on this free tool from Google.
Mobile Content Matches Desktop Content
The actual content of your desktop site should match the content of your mobile site. In fact, for many sites, Google only crawls/indexes the mobile version of the site, so if the content only shows on a large monitor, Google won’t see it and it won’t help your search rankings.
If the site is too slow to load (especially on mobile), Google will be a lot less likely to show your website in a search result. Even if Google does show the site, slow-loading pages aren’t acceptable to most users and they’ll likely “bounce” back to Google and find another site. Things like large images (file size itself and/or the image dimensions being larger than what shows on the page to users), too many plugins, lack of caching and using a CDN, and slow hosting servers can play a large role. Google’s free PageSpeed Insights tool can be useful for identifying issues that slow down your site. Pingdom also has a useful tool for this.
Broken Internal Links
When users can’t navigate the site because the links don’t point to the right page, Google won’t be able to either. Note that these can also take the form of broken redirects (a redirect is where one URL automatically sends a user to another URL).
Broken Incoming Links
“Backlinks” are links from other sites that point to your site. If those links aren’t working, you’re missing an easy opportunity to help Google understand the authority and trustworthiness of your site. We like using Ahrefs’ broken link checker tool. Here’s a simple guide to fixing broken backlinks.
Title Tags & Meta Descriptions
Simply having them is not enough. The title tag is used both as a ranking factor and as a tool to entice a searcher to visit your site. A meta description (in and of itself) isn’t technically a “ranking factor”, but a carefully thought out one will attract more visitors to your website. The more users that click on a website in a search result, Google’s going to assume that it was a useful answer to the query and will be more likely to rank it higher for that keyword in the future. Here’s some tips for optimizing title tags. Hint: Don’t let an intern do this.
No Duplicate Content
No two pages should be nearly identical. If you have location pages for your business where the only difference is the address and phone number (and the city names are swapped out), you’re not providing valuable content to users and Google isn’t going to know which page it should show a searcher (so it might not show either page). A “rel=canonical” tag should be used (our favorite WordPress SEO plugin, Yoast, has an advanced setting for this).
Secure (SSL Certificate)
Your website’s URL should begin with https://, not with http://. If it doesn’t begin with https, you should get an SSL certificate for your site. Google has specifically said this is a ranking factor.
Think of it like the index of a book. Google’s only going to crawl your site for so long before moving onto another site. By providing an organized sitemap in XML format, you’re spoon-feeding Google the most important pages that you want to make sure it crawls. But, there are some pages that you don’t want Google to show searchers (ex. “Thank You” pages) and don’t want Google to waste its (limited) time crawling. If you have a WordPress site, try using the free Yoast SEO plugin, which can generate an XML sitemap. Note: You’ll want to customize the settings in Yoast – you don’t want every page in your sitemap. Also, make sure to add your sitemap to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools.
Schema (Structured Data)
Depending on the type of website you have (ex. online store or restaurant), having the right structured data helps Google show things like review stars in search result pages (“SERPs”). Here’s a primer on Schema.org markup.
H1 tags should be on every page, but only once. They should have that page’s target keyword.
Users should be able to easily navigate the site. Linking from one page to another within a site both helps the user and Google to browse the site, understand its hierarchy and what’s most important on the site. Think of an internal link as a sign that guides users (and Google) where to go to find more information about a topic. For example, if you mention a service you provide in the body of another service page, you should link to that other service page. Here’s a simple guide on internal linking SEO tactics.
These are pages that are only linked to in the sitemap. Sometimes that is intentional, but other times it indicates to Google that the page is not important. If the page isn’t important enough to link to from the website, why would Google think it’s worth linking to in a SERP? Here’s the tool we like using to find orphaned pages.
Technical SEO Checklist: Things to Do Later
What’s somewhat (but not immediately) important SEO tactics to address on your website?
Alt tags & Image File Names
Image “alt tags” (text descriptions of an image that the user doesn’t see) are kind of a middle ground. They can help improve rankings for target keywords (especially as Google continues to focus on images and image search) and should be optimized, but they’re lower on the totem pole of technical SEO priorities.
Short Title Tags
While this can be an indicator that the title tag is missing opportunities, depending on the parameters of what the SEO audit tool is considering “short”, in-and-of-itself, it doesn’t matter.
Short Meta Descriptions
A short, well-written meta description is much better than a poorly-written one that’s a standard length. That being said, you don’t want to miss out on a chance to draw more people to your site.
Short or Long URLs
It might be an indicator of missing SEO opportunities or keyword stuffing (putting a bunch of keywords in the URL), it doesn’t necessarily mean anything is wrong.
Technical SEO Checklist: Things to Ignore (or Never Do)
Lengthy Title Tags
Unless they’re stuffed with keywords that make them unreadable for users, you have bigger fish to fry.
Lengthy Meta Descriptions
Same as lengthy title tags.
This used to be popular in the SEO community, but Google has gotten much smarter. Google seeks to reward the best content with high rankings, not how many times a keyword is mentioned on a page. In fact, it’s typical to see Google show pages that don’t even mention the search query on the page at all!
FAQs About On-Site (Technical) SEO
- Can’t I just install Yoast SEO or another plugin and call it a day?
No. Yoast is a helpful tool, but it’s limited in what it addresses. Also, as mentioned above, just because a page has a title tag/meta description for the page doesn’t mean it’s persuasively written to attract searchers to your site.
- Is technical SEO a one-time or ongoing thing?
Like all of SEO, it’s an ongoing thing, but (depending on your site) it can quickly take a back seat to more impactful SEO campaigns. Unless you never publish more content or make any other changes to your website, it’s something to at least keep an eye on. Some of the tools below can automatically notify you when technical SEO issues crop up.
Free Technical SEO Tools
- ScreamingFrog’s SEO Spider (crawls site to check for errors; free version is limited)
- Google Search Console (various tools; completely free)
- Bing Webmaster Tools (various tools; completely free)
- Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool (test Schema markup; completely free)
- Google PageSpeed Insights (see how to improve page load speed; completely free)
- Pingdom’s Website Speed Test (see what’s slowing down the page; completely free)
- SpeedMonitor.io (track site speed over time; completely free)
- Squoosh.app (image compression; completely free)
- Yoast SEO Plugin (manage title tags, meta descriptions, etc in WordPress; free version is usually sufficient)
Search Engine Optimization is just like any other technical field or industry. It takes time to learn how to do the job well, and there are always people trying to scam their way through by promising too much, too quickly, and for too little. Those scammers often use highly-technical jargon and language of impending doom to design to pressure and confuse their victims into purchasing.
The thing that makes their scheme work so effectively is that their lie is fitted with hints of truth.
Do not take a technical SEO audit at face value. It may point you in the wrong direction and cover up things that really should be addressed.
Lastly, when you are trying to improve your website and grow your business online, remember the analogy at the start of this post of your local librarian and Google. The better your librarian understands the books in their library, the more accurate they can lead you to the thing for which you’re looking.
And, as the librarian of internet, the better Google can understand the value of your website, the more likely they are to recommend your website to your potential customers.
P.S. – Check out our free technical SEO audit tool. We’ve meticulously reviewed it to make sure it only points out the important things. Plus, we manually go through the audit before sending it to you.
P.P.S. – If you already know you need help you with technical SEO, we can help. We love helping small and medium-sized businesses grow, and SEO is just one tool in our belt to help you win more customers with your website.
Contact us to start a conversation to see if we’re a good fit for your business.