The Always Up-to-Date SEO Checklist
This page last reviewed and updated: March 14, 2021
SEO Checklist: a list of best practices and reminders that help websites perform better in search engine rankings. Not making mistakes is an important first step for helping the search engines, notably Google, reward your site in rankings.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is an evolving discipline. It’s rooted in both best practices and trending strategies. This is why having the latest information on hand is vital when you’re optimizing a website for search engines.
I first introduced an SEO checklist in my training course, and quickly realized its value for both new and seasoned professionals. Today, this page is a popular resource that we update regularly.
We try to keep this a short list for easy reference. If you want more details, please visit our SEO Guide helping you learn how to do search engine optimization.
One checklist can’t uncover everything an individual business should do when it comes to SEO and its website. But this one is pretty close with 40 SEO categories that will improve the way both customers and search engines find and use your site.
I hope you’ll find it to be a helpful reminder of the many items to check during your SEO projects.
I’ve divided the SEO checklist into sections, so jump around as needed:
- Content Optimization
- On-Page Optimization
- Local Optimization
- Mobile Optimization
- Sitewide Optimization
- Webmaster Tools
Many of us already knew by the time Google confirmed it: Content is one of the top three ranking signals (out of hundreds). If you do nothing else, your content strategy is an essential part of your online success. We believe that a proper SEO content strategy is the difference between good content and noticed good content. Do it right or do not bother.
1. Target Audience Research
This is a biggie: Know your target audience, the questions they have, and their pain points. Knowing what questions they ask and what types of queries they might ask Google helps inform your keyword research.
This, in turn, will help you create content that answers those questions and solves their pain points. (You’ll use keywords you select as a basis for this content — one main keyword topic per webpage — but more on that shortly.)
Understanding searcher intent is an important step in crafting content. Answering typical questions your target audience might have also helps your page be found for voice search queries.
2. Keyword Strategy and Research
Keyword research needs to be an ongoing process. It starts by identifying a focus phrase or two for the topic you want to write about (using your preferred tools — there are dozens of good ones out there).
When you have a keyword phrase in mind for a page or a section of your site, check it in Google search. View the top results, the “People also ask” questions, and the rest of the search engine results. This search engine results page (SERP) provides your best clues to the searcher intent for this query. Make sure your content fulfills what searchers want when looking for this keyword, or look for a more appropriate keyword phrase.
I could write volumes about this topic; just know that keyword research is part of any solid SEO checklist. Our SEO Guide will get you started and includes a free version of the SEOToolSet Keyword Suggestion tool.
Given these first two items, it reminds me of fishing. If you want to catch fish you need to know two things … what bait the fish are biting, and where the fish are swimming. Content and keywords play together to attract and convert your fish.
3. Featured Snippet Opportunities
As you conduct keyword research, you might find that featured snippets show up at the top of Google’s search results for your targeted keywords. This means you have an opportunity to claim a featured snippet if you provide answers to question-type queries. This has become a significant SEO focus, and that area of the SERP is called Position Zero.
To win a featured snippet spot, you’ll need to structure the content according to the type of snippet (video, text, list or table). Optimize the answer and formatting, whether it’s a table, bulleted list, ordered list, text question-and-answer, or other (see “More Structured Data” below).
If you’re optimizing for text, you can also conduct competitor research to find the typical length of a featured snippet For example, the average word count for a paragraph-type snippet is 40 to 60 words.
4. Word Count
The amount of content you need on a webpage varies by topic, keyword, competition and the intent of the query (read about the three types of search queries in the table below).
|3 MAIN TYPES OF SEARCH QUERIES |
How many words is enough? There’s no black and white rule. To determine an approximate minimum page length, look at the top-ranked URLs for a keyword you’re targeting. How long are those pages?
A tool like our SEOToolSet® Multi Page Analyzer comes in handy for this kind of competitive analysis. For WordPress users, our patented SEO plugin feature handles this analysis in real time, for each of your keywords. It produces target word counts and displays them right in WordPress.
Averaging the top competitors gives you a ballpark for what a search engine considers the normal word count for that topic. It’s safe to say that informational webpages almost always warrant more text.
Quality content is the priority for any good SEO checklist. Google’s Panda update, which is now part of the core algorithm, detects low-quality content and demotes its rankings. So avoid thin content. Focus on robust coverage of your website topics to prove your subject matter expertise.
5. Call to Action (CTA)
For each of your pages, ask yourself what the user would need/want to do from here. Then make it easy to do!
Your key pages should make it clear what primary action a visitor can take next.
- On a product page, the call to action (CTA) should be prominent (for example, “add to cart” or “start a free trial”).
- On a service page, the CTA might be “call us” or “get a quote.” Make the CTA clear and easy to select.
- On the homepage, help the visitor to take the next step in your conversion funnel.
The actual language of a CTA should be active (usually an imperative verb). The placement and design of the CTA should draw the visitor’s attention. But test variations to see what works best for you.
A page doesn’t have to be transactional in nature to warrant a call to action. If an informational page is a top-performing traffic driver, such as a blog post (like this one) that answers a common question or an FAQ page, the call to action might encourage the visitor to “find out more” and enter the conversion funnel or to tell two friends.
For instance, you should do this now:
Bookmark this SEO checklist for future reference. And if you find it helpful, please consider sharing it!
6. Content Freshness
Periodically review your content (webpages and blog posts) to make sure that the information is up to date.
For example, we refresh this very checklist regularly. SEO best practices have to evolve as search engine guidelines and technology do. If your industry also moves quickly, your content needs to keep up.
From Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines (PDF):
“… unmaintained/abandoned ‘old’ websites or unmaintained and inaccurate/misleading content is a reason for a low E-A-T [expertise, authority and trustworthiness] rating.”
Tip: If parts of your website could use a refresh, see our guide to refreshing your site content for a step-by-step.
7. Static Content on Homepage
Your homepage acts as a central hub to pass authority to top pages on your site through internal links. It’s probably also where people land most often when they search for your brand or main products/services.
It’s important to have static text that talks about your brand and top theme(s) on the homepage.
If you have a homepage with content that constantly changes, such as nothing but headlines, it can dilute the theme of your site. This results in poor rankings for key terms. So try to maintain sections of consistent text on the homepage.
8. Duplicate Content
Do searches to see if your content exists elsewhere on the web. You may want to check out CopyScape.com and use it regularly. If your site appears to have copied content from another source, that’s a low-quality signal to search engines and may cause your site to rank lower. Similarly, if other sites have copied your content, it could be a problem from an SEO standpoint.
If you have duplicate content within your site, such as three URLs with the same content, a search engine will filter out the dupes. Only one will display in results for relevant queries — and the page that Google chooses might not be the page that you want to rank. One option would be to use a “canonical tag” to tell the search engines which version should be indexed.
Here’s more on duplicate content.
Review each important page, from the homepage to a high-priority product page, with an eye to the following issues in this on-page SEO checklist.
9. Title Tag
Almost always, as in 99% of the time, if your title tag does not contain the query keyword(s) or synonyms, then you will not rank. SEO has always stressed this as a vital tag that should contain the keywords you want to rank for on this page.
In general, title tags should be about 9 words (within the range of 6 to 12). You want to make sure that each page’s meta title is unique and describes the most important information about the page. Use the top keyword before the cutoff in the SERP, which for Google is roughly 60–70 characters including spaces. (Tip: You can use a title preview tool to estimate how much will show.)
Remember, the title tag often becomes the title that searchers see in search results. Both the title and description text can influence click-throughs to your site. So craft compelling tags. You don’t want to waste your prime real estate in the SERP with boring copy.
10. Description Tag
The meta description tag should also include the most important information and keywords near the beginning. If the search engine chooses to display your description text, it will include approximately 24 words or 160 characters with spaces.
Google indicates that it does not consider this tag an important ranking factor. I personally think that anything that appears on a Google SERP page is important. It certainly helps us get clicks — so be sure to act like it is important, because it is.
Keep in mind that Google reserves the right to replace your meta description text with a search snippet generated by Google, which is usually pulled from the page’s body content. A search snippet (aka auto-snippet) appears instead of your meta description whenever Google deems the snippet of text more relevant for a given search. This is common when your description does not contain the query keyword.
11. Heading Tags
Headings allow a reader to see the main sections and points of a page. They give visual cues for how body content is organized. They also signal to search engines and readers what topics are covered on a page.
As a technical point, make sure the first heading tag within the body of a page is an <h1>. The following heading tags can be <h2>, <h3>, <h4>, etc., and should be used like a page’s table of contents. You may have more than one <h1> on a page. And be sure NOT to use heading tags to control font sizes as that confuses the search engines. Fonts are fonts and headings should describe content hierarchy.
Navigation elements and other global text should be styled with CSS and not heading tags (watch our Ask Us Anything video for more about this).
12. Image Optimization
Images greatly enhance your pages. Content needs visual elements to break up the text and keep a reader interested.
Images also provide additional ranking opportunities through image searches and blended web search results.
Images can slow down a page’s loading time. To reduce file size and to increase speed as much as possible, resize the files to their display size rather than uploading the original file and making the browser shrink it. Also, include width and height attributes in image tags.
NOTE: We use a plugin that automatically provides JPEG and PNG images in the WebP image format to browsers that support it, reducing image size by approximately 50%. This seriously improves SEO by decreasing page size and speeding page loads.
File names should describe the image and include a keyword when possible. You can also optimize the caption and the text surrounding an image to reinforce what the image is about.
13. Alt Attributes
Make sure to include an alt attribute with each image. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that a website should describe the image on a page for the vision impaired when the description contributes to an accurate understanding of the content. And please take this seriously; although not mainstream SEO, compliance failure can lead to serious fines and penalties.
Accessibility is important to users and to Google. According to Google, having alt attributes is a primary indicator that your site is accessible.
As an SEO checklist item, ensure that your images have accurate alt text that, if appropriate, includes a keyword for the page. If an image is purely decorative, it should still have an empty alt attribute within its image tag. Alt attributes are required of validated HTML code (per W3C standards).
14. Video Optimization
Videos are powerful engagement objects that add multimedia interest to keep visitors on your page longer. Highly consumable content, videos give you additional SEO benefits and social sharing opportunities. Also note that video is one of the formats for featured snippets in the SERP. To go further, I imagine that a significant portion of how-to query results (in the organic results area) will evolve to be video answers. Start now — you cannot say you have not been warned.
Optimize your videos to be found in search. Video content provides ranking opportunities both in regular searches and in video-only search engines where they’re uploaded, especially YouTube.
Like images, embedded videos can slow down the load of a page. There’s a slew of optimization best practices for YouTube, Vimeo and other video hosting sites. Read our guide on 10 video SEO tips to improve SERP rank.
15. Structured Data Markup
Structured data clarifies for the search engine what content on your page is about. Specifically, it helps the search engines understand what type of information you’re presenting.
For example, you could use structured data markup to indicate an upcoming event your business is hosting, specifying its date, time, location, and other details. If Google is clear about what’s what on your site, then additional bits of information have the potential to show up in your search results.
Google’s guidelines outline the three supported formats:
- JSON-LD (recommended)
This is a technical SEO checklist item: Google requires your markup to include all of the required properties for an object to be eligible for enhancements in your SERP listing. To make sure you’ve done it right, check your page or code snippet using Google’s Rich Results Testing Tool. For more on how to implement structured data on your site, check out How to Use Schema Markup to Improve Your Website Visibility in Search.
16. More Structured Data
Besides the schema markup we just mentioned, there are other ways you can structure data to make it more digestible for search engines.
- HTML tables
- Bulleted lists
- Ordered lists
- Table of contents at the top
- Headings that contain a key term or question, followed by the answer in body text
- TL;DR (“too long, didn’t read”) summary near the top of your article
All of these structural formats can help people read your content more easily. They also encourage Google to use your content in featured snippets. Google gives more information about structured data in the search results here.
17. Social Meta Tags
Social markup, or social meta tags, refers to the code used to enhance content on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest. Content in these tags dictates what image and text will show up when someone posts a link to your content on a social network. While not a link for SEO, social mentions about your pages are believed to at least temporarily assist with rankings.
By specifying social markup in your HTML, you can ensure you look your best on social media. Facebook Open Graph tags, Twitter Card markup and Pinterest Rich Pins are the major social markup tags. Click through if you want more details on each platform’s options:
18. URL Optimization
This item is featured in nearly every SEO checklist. Long ago URLs were heavily keyword stuffed, and it is believed that they now have minimal impact on rankings. Still, a descriptive URL can certainly assist with clicks by users.
Use dashes rather than underscores in page URLs. Underscores are alpha characters and do not separate words. Dashes (or rather, hyphens) are word separators, but should not appear too many times or it could look spammy. For more on this topic, check out this post by Google’s Matt Cutts (an oldie but a goodie).
You also want URLs to be descriptive and contain keywords, without being spammy. And shorter URLs are preferable to long URLs.
19. Fully Qualified Links
If you make your internal links fully qualified, there’s no question by search engine spiders, browsers, etc., as to where the file is located and what it’s about. If your link looks something like “../../pagename” (a relative link), then it may cause crawl issues for some search engines.
Rather than relative URLs, use fully qualified links, which means beginning with https:// (hopefully not http://). Note that your sitemap should always have fully qualified URLs. (You can read more about sitemaps below.)
Businesses with a local brick-and-mortar presence or local service areas have a special set of SEO factors to pay attention to. Here are a couple of important local SEO checklist items.
21. Claim Google My Business Listing
A Google My Business listing is free and is a critical first step for local brick-and-mortars and businesses with service areas. A Google My Business listing can enable your site to show up in Google Maps, the local pack of Google Search results, and Knowledge Graph panels for your business. Since the goal of SEO is to send traffic to your site from search engines, these appearances are important as SEO items.
There’s a lot more involved in local SEO, but claiming your listing in Google My Business and in Bing Places gets you started.
22. Local Schema Markup
Local businesses can benefit from on-page schema markup related to their business. (You can browse the available codes at schema.org). Especially important for all businesses is the NAP + W code, which designates the business’s name, address, phone number and website.
Check out my list of other local search ranking factors. There are many factors that you have not considered that are all vital to SEO.
We’re truly living in a mobile-first world. Businesses need to ensure that their websites cater to the mobile browsing experience. Google looks at the mobile version of your content when it comes to indexing and ranking. Yes, you may edit your pages on a desktop for convenience, and perhaps you have very few mobile users on your site. But the Google spider is only concerned with mobile formatting, and that is how your site is viewed.
As an SEO checklist to-do, make sure you’re using a mobile-first strategy. I’ve listed a few specifics below.
23. Mobile Usability
Search engines are invested in providing users a great mobile experience. See how your site is performing on mobile devices with the Mobile Usability report, located within Google Search Console.
This report lets you know if your touch elements are too close, if your content is sized to the viewport, your Flash usage, font size and more.
You can also use the URL Inspection Tool within Google Search Console to understand the way Google sees a specific page rendered on different mobile devices.
Page load speed is also a ranking factor. Skip to Site Speed & Performance in this SEO checklist for the SEO tools to check page speed.
24. Mobile and Voice-Related Keywords
When was the last time you tried a voice search for your keywords? Try to find your business and competitors as your customer would with a voice search. Consider:
- Are you coming up for relevant voice search terms like “[keyword] near me”?
- Are you accounting for searches formed as questions or full sentences? (These are more and more common with the advance of voice queries.)
As an additional test, are your keywords easily pronounced? Do you have an exotic sounding product or company name? How well do you perform in voice search right now? Are you ranking No. 1 but getting no mobile traffic? Keyword recognition is an important part of a query, and the wrong query throws off SEO data.
25. Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP)
Accelerated Mobile Pages, known as AMP for short, is an open source project that enables webpages to load almost instantly for mobile users.
Since its inception, AMP has added more features to support a variety of websites including e-commerce, publishers and advertisers. Because of the visibility of Google’s AMP carousel, AMP pages may get more visibility in the mobile search results.
As a sidebar, I absolutely recommend that you avoid AMP unless you cater to rural or low-bandwidth areas of the world. Google recognizes the need for AMP is in areas of reduced bandwidth, and for much of the U.S., Google has started to discontinue advantages for AMP.
Google’s Quality Evaluator Guidelines (here’s a PDF of the most recent version) introduced the terminology E-A-T to the SEO community. A shorthand way of referring to expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness as the top indicators of page quality, E-A-T is now a pillar of search engine optimization.
A website as a whole should signal expertise, authority and trust while conveying subject relevance and optimizing for search engine accessibility. While your basic content strategy is a big piece of this (see the Content Optimization section, above), the following items help support E-A-T.
26. Contact Information
An explicit E-A-T signal is to have the business contact information, such as a phone number and physical address, clearly visible on the site. The search engines expect that a trustworthy site will provide this for users. Seriously, be easy to find.
Testimonials located on your site support your trustworthiness as a business and your value to your customer base. Testimonials are great for signaling your value to your human visitors, too!
Make sure your testimonials and reviews can be indexed, too. That means display them in text (not just images) that’s easy for search robots to digest. Schema markup allows review ratings to be displayed, extending SEO value by increasing traffic.
28. Privacy Statement
Another E-A-T signal, having a privacy statement on your site helps establish trust. A privacy statement lets site visitors know what you’re doing with any data you collect about them.
EVERY site should have a privacy link in their footer to their privacy page. You are welcome to take our privacy statement from our site and modify it for your use.
In addition to bolstering your trust with Google and Bing, offering a privacy statement is a best practice. Privacy laws such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (aka GDPR) require many sites to clarify their privacy policies, have visitors opt in to allow data collection, and more. For those not concerned with Europe, there are equally strong laws for the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) that are expected to expand nationally, so this applies to you. Be sure to research the privacy laws where your site visitors are located and make sure your website complies.
29. Text Navigation
Verify that there is text navigation within your site. You want text links, which are more SEO-friendly than using images for menu items. Make sure you have text navigation at least on the bottom of the page if there aren’t any crawlable navigation links in the top menu. This is a search engine accessibility issue.
As a note, I strongly encourage you to use breadcrumbs with their schema markup throughout your site. And replace “Home” in that breadcrumb with a top-level keyword appropriate to your homepage (unless you sell homes). Having internal links that point up from lower-level pages gives an SEO advantage and is also a usability factor.
Your site should have an HTML sitemap (see Google’s sitemap info). Every page should link to that sitemap, probably in the footer.
You should also have an XML sitemap that you submit to search engines. If you already have sitemaps, check and update them regularly to make sure they contain the pages that are currently active on your site.
You can learn how to create a sitemap for users and search engines to easily access all areas of your site in our SEO Guide.
31. Robots.txt File
The robots.txt file tells the search engine spiders what not to index. It’s important that this file exists, even if it’s empty. Also make sure the file doesn’t accidentally exclude important files, directories, or the entire site. (This has been known to happen!)
One important item in this file is the locator for your XML sitemap file. We encourage you to actually have a reasonable robots.txt file (see our robots.txt file if you are an SEO — and read the top eight lines).
32. Linking Strategy
This section warrants way more than just a few sentences, but it should be noted as part of the SEO checklist. Your internal linking structure typically stems from your siloing strategy, which is vitally important to establishing relevance for SEO.
In addition, your inbound/outbound links should be part of an organic, natural strategy in compliance with search engine guidelines. As part of site maintenance, monitor your link profile regularly.
It is definitely worth mentioning that with Google promoting PageRank, the voluntary link became a sellable commodity. As such, a big money business developed around selling links. Google has considered this spam for a long time, has enforced several penalties around it, and has built a great amount of technology to fight it. We can expect significant consequences to SEO consultants that still prosper by fabricating and distributing such links. See my post discussing Guest Posting for Links.
33. Server Configuration & Maintenance
Regularly check your server looking for 404 errors, improper 301 redirects and other errors. The many diagnostic reports in Google Search Console also point out errors to be fixed.
Server configuration also impacts site speed. As speed is a significant SEO issue, this is a major checklist item.
Server maintenance, especially plugin maintenance is important at many levels. For instance, you may have suffered a malware attack. In such cases, a hacker may have exploited a system weakness and installed hidden links or transfers to other sites into your code without your knowledge. Such attacks will harm your SEO efforts by poisoning your content.
34. Static URLs
Complex, dynamic URLs can be a problem. If your site has any of the following, consider converting your URLS to static URLs:
- More than two query string parameters
- Dynamic pages that aren’t getting indexed
- A lot of duplicate content getting indexed
You can also use mod_rewrite or ISAPI_rewrite as appropriate to simplify URLs. Rewritten URLs will appear to be static URLs. This tends to be a lot of work, but is a surefire way to address this issue. You can also use the canonical tag to tell search engines which page is intended to be indexed as the canonical version.
35. No Spam Tactics
Make sure that your SEO strategy follows Google Webmaster Guidelines and Bing Webmaster Guidelines. If ever in doubt about any of your tactics, you can also refer to what Google recommends for SEO (PDF).
Note that many sites just have no idea why they do not rank. They have used cheap SEO consultants that perhaps have done cheap tricks to fool the search engines into thinking you deserve rankings. Such deceptive acts are spam, they may have hurt your site, and until repaired you are not going to rank. Do not buy cheap.
What’s an SEO without their tools to surface data that leads to analysis? Just remember, there’s a difference between data and wisdom. SEO tools can help you discover what’s going on with your site, but plotting an action plan requires an understanding of SEO.
36. Web Analytics
No question — analytics data is important for SEO. Ensure your analytics are properly set up and monitor them regularly to find out if the keywords generating traffic are in your keyword list, and if your site is optimized for them. A ranking monitor (such as the one in our SEOToolSet) is also useful to track SEO changes across search engines.
Admittedly, this is more difficult without specific keyword-tracking data. Google long ago decided that it would suppress that data (but keep it for PPC) for privacy concerns. Now that argument is invalid, but the data remains lost to the SEO community.
Our SEO Guide unpacks the role of analytics in How to Monitor Your SEO Rankings.
37. Webmaster Tools Accounts
Webmaster tools by various names for Google and Bing give site owners insight into how search engines view their sites. These free tools collect data and provide essential reports on issues like what search queries bring traffic to your site, crawl errors you need to fix, and penalty notifications.
- If you haven’t already, set up Google Search Console for your site.
- Install Google Analytics, as well.
- For help setting up a Bing Webmaster Tools account, view the Bing Webmaster Help & How-To Getting Started Checklist.
38. Manual Penalty Review
If a manual penalty has been levied against you, Google will report it to you within Google Search Console. Check the Manual Actions Report and the Search Console message center. Read more about dealing with manual penalty actions.
You can also find out if you’ve suffered a penalty from Bing. Review the Index Summary chart with the dashboard of Bing Webmaster Tools. If the number of pages for a given site is set at zero, you have been hit with a penalty.
Note that a manual penalty is the kiss of death for your SEO efforts. Once you have one, you cannot see the consequences of your improvements until the penalty is lifted. And a search engine never forgets … a penalty can last for months even after repair.
39. Algorithm Updates
If your site is running Google Analytics, use the Panguin Tool to check your traffic levels against known algorithmic updates. If you see big drops or rises in search referrer traffic that coincide with known algorithm updates, or you receive a manual action notice from Google, you may be affected by a penalty. Read more about penalty assessment and recovery.
Google changes its algorithm all the time, much to the dismay of SEO consultants everywhere. Google results dances are simply not fun. RankBrain and machine learning — powered by artificial intelligence technology — are changing the search results. While optimization for AI is not as straightforward as checking for traffic drops, familiarize yourself with the real impact of RankBrain and my advice on the shrinking of organic results in Google SERPs.
40. Site Speed and Performance
For more details on improving page speed, read our Page Speed Issues Overview for SEO.
This is a very high-level summary of the things you need to consider about performing SEO on your site. Many people only do what is convenient. Some work cheap and get it wrong. Some SEO teams do not have management support. I wish that you would, please, download this Declaration of SEO: 6 Fundamental Truths To Live By ebook and share it within your company. It also comes with a video presentation. This is important if you are an SEO. Trust me.
Want more SEO tips? Use our SEO Guide and learn how to optimize your website step by step, including free tools.
Bookmark this SEO checklist for future reference. And if you found it helpful, please consider sharing it!