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SEO checklist for developers to improve Google search rankings

A friend of mine recently started testing his new interior design site and had a few questions about how to manage his Google ranking and search engine optimization in general.

Now I'm not an SEO expert by any means, but here's a short checklist which I have found useful based on my experiences so far. It is focussed on on-page SEO (as opposed to off-page SEO) since this is intended to be a starting point for discussions with his web developers. 

Here's the checklist, or read the full article for a detailed explanation of each.

SEO Checklist:

  1. Install Analytics - Google Analytics, Webmaster Tools, PageSpeedInsights
  2. Decide on http vs https, www or no www
  3. Create sitemaps
  4. Check robots.txt
  5. Develop internal site links - breadcrumb, pagination, related content, main navigation menu
  6. Create readable page URLs
  7. Declare Canonical Links
  8. Insert meta tags - title, description, social media tags
  9. Check h1, h2, h3 header tags
  10. Understand your keywords
  11. Describe your images - filenames and alt tags
  12. Add Structured Data (optional)
  13. Run site analyzers

Background - Why SEO?

Most people understand that working on their SEO will (hopefully) improve their Google search rankings and therefore bring (hopefully) more visitors to their site. 

What is not immediately obvious however, is that you should start working on this straight away, as soon as your site is publicly available in any way. It usually takes a while for any SEO efforts to show results, and you want this process to start as early as possible, and with the correct URLs appearing in Google's index.

Trust me, start today.

You NEED Analytics

First thing I would advise is to make sure you are looking at the correct analytics. There's 3 main ones to start with - they're all free services so make sure you use these.

  1. Google Analytics

    Absolutely vital. Adding a few lines of javascript code to your site will give you insight into where your users are coming from, what keywords they type to find your site, and so much more.

  2. Webmaster Tools

    Creating a webmaster tools account will let you see any errors Google encountered while crawling your site, broken URLs and hints to fix these.

  3. Pagespeed Insights

    How fast your site loads is one (of many) factors which affect your search ranking. Use this tool for tips on how to increase your speed.

Site Structure - Get the big picture right

Site structure is all about changes which affect your site as a whole, rather than changes to any particular page. These are relatively simple to make, so you might as well get them done early.

  1. Prevent duplicate protocols, domains, subdomains

    This is about deciding whether your site will use http or https, www or no www, or any other subdomain (eg blog.mysite.com).

    The reason this is important is due to the duplicate content rule, which basically penalizes sites which are copies of other sites. Unfortunately if your site is accessible from http://mysite.com, https://mysite.com, http://www.mysite.com, *and* https://www.mysite.com - you may be in danger of violating this rule. 

    Basically you have to decide which version you want as your "main" URL. Start reading about using canonical links, and redirecting for Apache or Nginx.

  2. Create sitemaps

    Sitemaps are lists of the URLs on your site, which helps Google index your site. They may not be too useful for a smallish site (< 50 pages), but can be useful for larger ones.

    There are 2 types of sitemaps - either a human-readable page which links to most sections of your site (useful for your users), or a XML file which you submit to Google. Understand the different sitemap options here.

  3. Check robots.txt

    This is a simple text file kept at mysite.com/robots.txt, which tells Google which sections of your site should be crawled or not.

    Check out some examples, but the important thing to check is that you are not accidentally disallowing your entire site - yes I've seen this happen when a developer keeps the site blocked while testing and forgets to undo this after launch!

  4. This is all about how you use links throughout your site for your users to navigate. It's important as Google follows links on each page, so make sure your links are logical and lead deeper into your site.

    Four types of internal site links to check are your breadcrumb links, pagination links, links for other related content, and your main navigation menu.

Page Structure - make each page a winner

Page structure is all about the changes you make to each individual page to help each page rank higher. 

  1. Readable Page URLs

    You want your pages to exist at URLs which describe that page's contents, rather than a long URL with lots of undecipherable parameters. eg https://mysite.com/handbags/black-leather-bag instead of https://mysite.com/products.php?id=1234.

    Your URLs should also be relatively short, and with the "folders" in the URL sections kept to a minimum. https://mysite.com/handbags/black-leather-bag would be better than https://mysite.com/products/womens/handbags/leather/black-leather-bag.

  2. Firstly, check that your site is not serving duplicate URLs. There may be legitimate reasons to show similar content on different URLs, the most common being if you have multiple language versions of your site.

    If this is the case, add a canonical link to the head section of your code, such as:

    <link rel="canonical" href="https://blog.example.com/dresses/green-dresses-are-awesome" />
  3. Meta Tags

    Meta tags are snippets of code in your page which are not usually visible to your users, but which Google uses to understand your page contents a little better.

    The title tag is important, so make sure it is an accurate summary of your page and is approximately 70 characters long. This is what shows up as the link in Google search results.

    The meta description tag is the short summary which appears under the title in search results, so make this approximately 155 characters and a nice, human-readable summary of your page.

    Social media tags are used by sites like Facebook and Twitter to decide what to show as the title, description, and image when somebody shares your page. Help them by using the correct tags for Facebook and Twitter.

    If your page has an author (eg a blog post), you can also include a rel-author link like this:

    <link rel=“author” href=“https://plus.google.com/[YOUR PERSONAL G+ PROFILE HERE]”/>

    Note that meta tags for keywords are no longer useful, and specifically ignored by Google.

  4. Header Tags

    Header tags are the headlines which mark out each section on your page. They are arranged in a hierarchy from h1, h2, h3 etc, with h1 being the most important.

    So make sure you have at least a h1 tag on your page, which should closely restate your title with similar keywords. The other h2, h3, etc tags should be added where appropriate.

    These headers should be short and meaningful, and don't use common text with very little meaning in them. For example, "Details" is not as useful as "Warranty Conditions".

  5. Keywords

    Each page on your site should be targeted around a few main keywords which summarise the page. These keywords should be present (sparingly) throughout the site.

  6. Images

    The images on your page are also important clues for Google as it tries to determine what your site is about. The actual image you use is more for your human users, but for Google check your image filenames and alt tags.

    Here's an example:

    <img src="puppy.jpg" alt="Dalmatian puppy playing fetch”>
  7. Structured Data

    Structured data is a more advanced technique to add more information about each page. You will want to leave this last after the other items in this checklist, but you can read more here.

Simple SEO Checks

Once you have completed these items, there are a few simple steps you can take to verify your efforts:

  1. Check what has been indexed

    Just type site:mysite.com into Google to see how your pages appear.

    Check that you have a good number of pages indexed (it may not be all of them but that's ok), page titles and descriptions are displaying correctly.

  2. Run a SEO Site analyzer

    There are plenty of sites which check your site for SEO improvements, just test out any one of them.


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