What Is Technical SEO? A Checklist for Higher Rankings

You’ve defined a keyword strategy, invested in content marketing, and built a strong backlink profile. You’ve even mastered keyword research, and niche marketing. So why isn’t your website ranking as well as it should?

Technical SEO problems could be scuppering your search marketing goals. Often the last thing search marketers tackle, it’s assumed to be outside the team’s remit. But failing to address technical SEO problems can lead to rankings dips, negative engagement metrics, and crawl errors. It could even lead to your website disappearing from search engine results pages altogether.

If you want to understand the basics of technical SEO and how to create an action plan that won’t waste developer resources and will help improve your site’s ranking, read on.

What Is Technical SEO?

Search engines use numerous ranking factors—site speed, security, mobile-friendly design—to decide what to show in search results. Technical SEO is the umbrella term for activities that help search engine crawlers do their job, enabling them to index your site properly.

Helping search engines do their job implies knowing how indexing works. Search engines tweak their ranking algorithms all the time—it’s thought that Google changes its search engine algorithm between 500 to 600 times a year! Technical SEO has to keep changing as well to keep up with search engines.

The details may change, but the ultimate goal remains constant: to improve SERP rankings through website and server optimizations. These activities, when done in conjunction with the on-page optimizations of non-technical SEO, increase your website’s chances of being crawled, indexed, and ranked.

Get up to speed with our guide to What Is SEO?

How Is Technical SEO Different from Other Types of SEO?

Think of technical SEO as anything and everything you do to improve rankings outside of content and links. This is its main divergence from on-page and off-page SEO.

  • Technical SEO: Website and server optimizations built into the code or architecture of a site, from meta-tags to site security.
  • On-page SEO: On-page SEO refers to everything on your site’s front end that improves search rankings, including content formatting, image optimization, and internal linking practices.
  • Off-page SEO: Securing high-quality links through media pitching, guest blogging on high-authority sites, and other things that build externals links back to your website.

Off-page SEO implies a certain reliance on third parties—getting sites to agree to host your content or link back to you. On-page and technical SEO are entirely within your control. This opens up a great opportunity to focus on getting both right, and it’s a surefire way to increase your site’s chances of appearing on results pages.

Related Reading: Local SEO: How to Optimize Your Site for Local Search

7-Step Technical SEO Checklist

Improving a site’s technical SEO needn’t be daunting. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to identify and fix common mistakes, plus how to optimize technical SEO factors to win at search.

Step 1: Find Errors

One quick way to get started is by finding and fixing existing site errors. Technical errors can mean crawlers don’t index your pages properly or, in worst-case scenarios, don’t index them at all. Cleaning these errors up is a necessary first step in any technical SEO project.

Running a Technical SEO Audit is a good start. Alexa’s Site Audit tool identifies related errors, generates downloadable reports, and advises on common problem fixes.

run a technical seo audit to help find errors

Site errors are marked with red dots, as on the left side of the Site Audit tool and in the image above. Once you click on the error, you get advice on how to fix the problem plus a list of all the affected URLs.

How to Improve Site Errors

Download the findings into a CSV file. Tackle each of the errors methodically and rerun the audit to ensure that your fixes worked. Alexa will automatically re-audit the site every two weeks to help you keep technical SEO errors to a minimum.

Step 2: Revise Site Architecture

Site architecture refers to how information is structured on a website; for example, how pages are organized into categories or the pathways used to navigate between sections of the site. Website architecture impacts how both human users and search engine crawlers experience the site.

Logical site architecture is best for crawlers because it allows them to traverse and index your website easily. If you’re an e-commerce site, for example, consider dividing your product pages into categories, flowing into a series of subcategories. This allows site managers to maintain a logical structure, slotting new pages into the established structure when necessary.

Sites with bad architecture are likely to have subdomains or subdirectories that have gotten unwieldy, as well as dead-end pages. A well-structured site will not use crawl budget needlessly and will rank faster in results pages.

How to Improve Site Architecture

Make sure your site has an XML sitemap. This is a list of the most important pages, formatted to make sure search engines understand, find, and crawl them.

Next, organize the site’s URLs into a logical flow, from domain to category to subcategory. In the future, new URLs will fit right into the architecture.

optimize your url structure

Finally, optimize URL structures for search. Include main keywords close to the root domain and keep URL length to 60 characters or 512 pixels.

Step 3: Get Rid of Duplicate Content

Duplicate content is content that appears on multiple pages on the same domain or across domains. It’s not malicious and doesn’t get a Google penalty, but it should still be rectified. That’s because if crawlers don’t know which version of a webpage is the original, or canonical page, they won’t know which result to show in SERPs.

When this happens, your site could rank lower than it deserves to or be filtered out of results pages altogether.

How to Improve Duplicate Content

Alexa’s Site Audit tool identifies on-site duplicate content. Some errors have a quick fix: for example, duplicate meta-titles and descriptions just require you to rewrite the meta so that it’s original and matches the search term intent. Whole pages of duplicate content could require a 301 redirect or a rel-canonical header tag.

Step 4: Improve Site Speed

40% of people will abandon a webpage if it takes longer than three seconds to load. Those bouncing users all send incremental negative signals to search engines about your site quality, making it harder for it to be ranked in results pages.

But slow loading doesn’t bode well just because of bouncing users. Page speed is also a direct ranking signal, as Google confirmed back in 2010. Fixing a slow-loading site should be a priority in technical SEO projects.

How to Improve Page Load Times

Check your site’s page load speed by running it through PageSpeed Insights. This Google tool calculates how fast your site loads on both mobile and desktop.

you want a page score to be at 90 or more

  A score below 90 means your site speed can be improved. Make your site faster by:

  • Cleaning up site code: Minimize and combine JavaScript, HTML, and CSS files, and eliminate unnecessary code such as line breaks.
  • Compressing images and videos: Tools like TinyPNG and HandBrake compress large files quickly. Consider taking it a step farther and serving your images in highly compressed formats..
  • Reducing scripts, plugins, and redirect chains: Yahoo says that 80% of a page’s load time is spent downloading things like stylesheets and scripts. Keep these code elements to the bare minimum.

The leaner your website’s code and files are, the faster it’ll load. Keeping page weight and page requests to a minimum is best practice for site managers.

Step 5: Heighten Site Security

Servers used to run on Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). The system was a fast way to send data, but it wasn’t secure. It’s better to use HTTPS, a system with an added protocol on top. This added protocol—Secure Sockets Layer (SSL)—encrypts data and transports it safely across the web.

Google introduced HTTPS as a ranking factor back in 2014 and, while it’s only a lightweight signal, it’s good practice to secure users’ data. 84% of users abandon a site if they notice it’s unsecured, according to GlobalSign.

How to Improve Site Security

If you’re still running on non-secure HTTP, get your developers to change to HTTPS (secure) as soon as possible. You’ll need to purchase an SSL certificate and set up 301 redirects from the HTTP pages to the new secure pages. Anyone following links to your old site is automatically redirected to the secure version.

Step 6: Introduce Device-Friendly Design

Mobile accounts for approximately half of web traffic worldwide, according to Statista. And that’s only set to grow in the next few years: Ericsson predicts that by 2022 the traffic generated by smartphones will increase to 10 times the rate in 2016.

a graph of data traffic per smartphone

Source: Ericsson

Despite this, 44% of Fortune 500 company websites are not mobile-friendly. Pretty surprising considering a responsive site is a heavyweight ranking signal.

How to Improve Device-Friendly Design

Test your site on Google’s mobile-friendly checker tool to discover pages that don’t fully load on mobile. Also consider introducing Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), a Google project that speeds up pages for mobile browsing. You can get started with AMP by creating basic AMP HTML pages or by installing an AMP-enabled plug-in on your CMS.

Step 7: Use Structured Data Markup

Structured data is information about your site or specific pages on your site that’s neatly organized in a database. This organization makes it easier for search engines to parse the data fast. Using structured data improves the chances of ranking in SERP features, such as rich snippets, which can lead to increased click-through rates from results pages to your site.

How to Improve Structured Data

Schema markup is the easiest way to structure website data. Schema markup is code that sits on your site and helps search engines return better results by letting crawlers know what keywords mean. For example, schema markup tells crawlers that “5/17/2019” is a date and not a random number string. Follow these steps to get started adding structured data to your site:

  1. Go to Google’s Structured Data Markup Helper. Then select the type of data you want to identify. For example, you might want to add Article markup to your blog posts, or Recipe markup if you have a cooking site.
  2. Add the URL you want to mark up. Add the elements, or tags you want to include in the markup.
  3. Add the generated source code to your CMS.

Finally, test your markup with the structured data testing tool to make sure it’s correct.

Read the details in our guide to schema markup.

Support Technical SEO with Ongoing Optimizations

Technical SEO doesn’t end when you’ve fixed common errors. Measuring and tracking the impact of these fixes over time helps you learn which technical SEO factors most harm (or help) your rankings. Prioritize future activities based on that, and you’ll see positive impacts on organic traffic.

Sign up for a free trial of Alexa’s Advanced Plan, and you’ll get an updated Site Audit report every two weeks. Track your progress fixing site issues and monitor for new ones to guarantee a website that works for users and for crawlers.

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