11 Technical SEO Elements to Help Your Site Win a SERP Rank Gold Medal
SEO is an extremely competitive sport. So competitive, in fact, that sometimes competing for a page one ranking in the SERPs can feel a lot like competing in the Olympics, with the coveted number one SERP spot shimmering as a distant dream like one of Michael Phelps’s 18 gold medals.
Like the sizable number of factors that contribute to whether an athlete is able to snag the gold for her home country, there’s a corresponding list of ranking factors that contribute to whether a web page is able to beat out the competition and seize the golden first SERP spot.
At the top of both those lists not to be overlooked is qualifying to compete. For athletes this means training and paperwork; for optimizers this means technical SEO. In both cases, you can’t just show up before a series of met requirements deem you eligible to stand at the starting line.
In other words, just like a swimmer can’t possibly win a race if they never qualify to compete, a web page can’t possibly beat out the competition and win a number one SERP position if crawl, server or indexing errors prevents it from being discovered, cached or recalled.
Technical SEO is all about making sure your website is eligible to take that first step off the starting line.
Because I know your ranking reports deserve to be filled with high-quality content decorated with bushels of number one SERP rankings (metaphorical gold medals), I’ve compiled this 11-point technical SEO guide to help you make sure you content gets to the game on time.
Please use this guide as a technical SEO primer, and then feel free to join me for a discussion of the topic on Google+, or – if you’re ready to make a big step toward being a SERP gold medalist – consider joining Bruce Clay in March 2014 for SEOToolSet Training or an SMX SEO Workshop. Both are comprehensive ramp-up training sessions with ample one-on-one time.
11 Technical SEO Elements That Help Your Site Rank
1. Create an HTML Sitemap
An HTML sitemap is a regular page on your website that contains a collection of links intended to help both humans and search spiders navigate your site. Since web crawlers use links to navigate from one page to another, having an HTML sitemap in the footer of every page of your website allows the search spider to enter your site at any page and then, from that page, systematically discover a significant portion of your other pages quickly via the sitemap. Human users also reference the HTML sitemap and use it to navigate your site, so human-friendly presentation and organization is recommended.
2. Create an XML Sitemap
An XML Sitemap lists all of the pages on your website that you want a search spider to crawl and index. The XML Sitemap is only for search spiders, so it doesn’t have to be pretty; it can literally just be a one URL per line list of links saved as a text file. To help ensure that all the important pages on your site get crawled and indexed, it’s important that you keep your XML Sitemap up to date. While an XML Sitemap doesn’t guarantee that all yours pages will be crawled or indexed, it definitely can help.
4. Make Your Site Speedy
Since Spring 2010, Google has been using website site speed as a known ranking factor. Google loves speed; Google Senior Vice President Amit Singhal has said it himself many times. One way to make your website faster is to clean up your code, since less code means smaller file sizes and faster load times.
5. Include a Robots.txt File
A Robots.txt file is a publicly accessible text file that guides search spider crawling directives. It is placed at the root of a website host, and is commonly used to stop search spiders from indexing specific directories and designated files. It’s important this file exists, even if it’s empty. Approach your Robots.txt file with caution and make sure you don’t accidentally exclude any important files!
6. Be Thoughtful About Your Internal Linking Structure
Implementing a website siloing strategy can help search spiders more easily understand the theme of your content and its perceived relevance in relation to keyword phrases.
Learn more about website siloing for SEO and the importance of site structure in the absence of keyword data.
7. Check Your Server Configuration for Errors
Search engines may reduce the rankings of a website if search spiders encounter web server errors. In severe cases server errors can cause web pages to be dropped from the index all together. In less severe cases they can negatively affect PageRank as spiders are always looking for the “least imperfect” option and are likely to rank a cleaner, error-free site above a site laden with server errors. To aid your content’s rankability, make sure to regularly check your server for errors that need to be resolved.
8. Avoid Flash and Text Contained in Images
An old lesson that still remains valuable: Search spiders can’t “see” Flash content or text contained in images, so don’t use them to convey important information! Instead, use HTML and Alt tags to make your content crawlable.
9. Use the Canonical Tag to Make Sure Dynamic URLs Aren’t Creating Duplicate Content
Google can see and index dynamic URLs, like those that contain sessions IDs, but there is a chance the search engine will crawl and attempt to index each of your dynamic URLs as unique pages – which, if not prevented, could trigger a Panda penalty for duplicate content. To prevent this, make sure you use the canonical tag and Webmaster Tools to indicate the primary page you want Google to return in search results, and to tell Google to ignore the other dynamic versions of your page URL. Google calls this “setting your preferred domain.”
10. Make Sure Your Site is Optimized for Mobile
User experience is the number one priority of Google, and the search engine has been very open about their preference for responsive websites that seamlessly adapt or respond to multiple devices.
That said, since Google sees not having a mobile optimized website as a major user experience flaw – and they are always looking to rank the “least imperfect” websites in top SERP positions – it can be deduced that having a website optimized for mobile is essential to see improved rankings.
Google has several resources to help you improve your mobile optimization including this YouTube video explaining how to improve mobile pages, a Webmaster Tools checklist for mobile website improvement and recommendations for building smartphone-optimized websites.
11. Consider Using Schema Markup
Disclaimer: This recommendation is based on predictive intuition, not actual ranking-factor facts. Last year Matt Cutts publically stated flat out that Schema markup is not currently a ranking factor. In other words, Schema markup makes SERP listing more prominent – which can undoubtedly increase CTR – but the addition of Schema markup does not send any signals to Google that help a web page rank any higher.
That said, this is the reason why I am going out on a limb to suggest you might consider making Schema one of your technical optimization priorities for 2014:
We are in the era of the semantic web where Google is hungry for context and the ability to deliver page one results that answer queries, rather than repeating them back to searchers. Schema markup gives Google additional, crawlable information about the contents of web pages, as well as advanced information about a page’s theme and contextual purpose (for instance, consider product/offer schema markup). So, in my speculative opinion, I think it’s safe to say schema markup may be able to help Google further determine a web page’s relevance in relation to a search query – which could also help Google see your content as “less imperfect” than another competitor website. Why wouldn’t Google take into consideration all the available crawlable clues? If they aren’t already using Schema as a secret ranking factor, I see a good chance they will be in the future. (And if they don’t, I consider implementing Schema markup to be a no-lose SEO strategy since Schema is indisputably an incredible click-through driver.)
Technical SEO is Hard…
Like winning a gold medal, earning a top spot in the SERPs is hard – and so is technical SEO. If you’re new to the left-brain side of optimization and feel lost in the abyss of robots, siloing, canonicals, and Sitemaps don’t feel discouraged; even Michael Phelps had to start somewhere!
Please use this guide as a technical SEO primer, and then feel free to join me for a discussion of the topic on Google+, or – if you’re ready to make a big step toward being a SERP gold medalist – consider joining Bruce Clay in March 2014 for SEO ToolSet Training or an SMX SEO Workshop. Both are comprehensive ramp-up training sessions with ample one-on-one time.