Building a website is a time-consuming process, whether you’re a hobbyist who works alone or a professional with a full team behind you. After populating the site with content and developing your front-end, it’s easy to plough ahead and launch the site without sparing a thought for search engine optimisation. This is a massive mistake.
At best, your site is doomed to obscurity before you even launch – at worst, you could be penalised by Google and blocked from appearing in the listings at all. Building a website without implementing basic SEO techniques is like building a house on the moon – it can be as flashy as you like, but no-one’s going to visit.
Luckily, focusing on SEO doesn’t have to be a challenge – there are many one-off changes that you can make that will make a huge difference, and while no list could ever cover all of the 200 factors that Google takes into consideration when populating its results pages, we can cover off the most important.
So, without further ado and in no particular order, here’s your SEO checklist.
Not many people know this, but there’s a difference between http://example.com and http://www.example.com. Despite the fact that they appear the same to human visitors, search engines will see both as separate sites. Try visiting both versions of your own site and seeing if they load separately – some content management systems, like WordPress, automatically redirect you from one version to the other. If both variations load, you’ll need to apply a site-wide 301 redirect to direct visitors from the non-www version to the www version, or vice versa.
A site’s robots file contains instructions for search engine spiders and other non-human visitors, and are most frequently used to stop search engines from indexing pages on the site. As a consequence, some developers place a robot file on their development site – double check to make sure that it’s been removed or updated once you go live, otherwise Google won’t even try to access your brand new website. You can also consider using a robot file to block Google from indexing your admin and image directories, as well as any other files or directories that you don’t want the general public to access.
3. Webmaster Tools
Google’s free Webmaster Tools are a must-have for any web professional or amateur, thanks to the vast amount of information that they provide. By integrating your website with Webmaster Tools, which doesn’t take a great deal of time or expertise, you’ll receive regular updates from Google whenever there’s a problem with your website. While receiving updates for downtime is useful on its own, Google will also inform you if they experience errors while trying to crawl your site – you can then correct the errors to give your site the best possible chance of appearing in the results pages.
4. XML Sitemap
XML sitemaps are automatically generated lists of all of the different pages on a site, and they can help Google and other search engines to index more pages more quickly. After creating your site map, be sure to link to it in the footer of your site and submit it to Google through Webmaster Tools to ensure that they pick up on it as soon as possible. Sitemaps are also useful for human visitors who are struggling to find the information that they require through normal methods.
5. Meta Information
Most content management systems will allow you to manually add meta information for each of your pages – do so. Meta titles are displayed in search engine results and in the title bar of visitors’ browsers, and Google analyses them for keywords when deciding which results are relevant. Meta descriptions appear beneath the meta title in the search engine results pages (SERPs), and keywords are also taken in to account – Google even emboldens any keywords that match words in the user’s search terms. Meta tags are largely ignored by Google, but they’re still used by other search engines. Smart webmasters take the time to optimise their site for all three, focusing on the keywords that the page is targeting.
Google+ allows webmasters to assign both a publisher and an author to blog articles and web pages, and while this doesn’t necessarily affect your rankings, it does increase the number of click-throughs that you receive because the author’s profile picture and username are displayed beside the result. If your site has a single contributor, consider using Google+ authorship to link their name to the site in the SERPs; if you welcome multiple contributors, link your Google+ page to the site as a publisher and invite your contributors to link their profiles to their articles as authors.
7. URL Structure
Your URL structure has a huge impact on your search engine rankings and you should optimise for it accordingly. Avoid using filler words, such as “to,” “and,” “of,” and “the,” as well as unsightly strings of letters and numbers. Visitors should be able to get a good idea of what the web page is about by the URL alone. For example, compare the difference between ‘yoursite.com/page.php?=201’ and ‘yoursite.com/jobs/web-designer-london’. Many content management systems, such as WordPress, allow you to specify your URL structure from within the admin panel.
8. Google Analytics
While using Google Analytics isn’t an SEO measure in itself, the data that you can gleam will help you to make informed decisions about what content resonates with your users and what content does not. Improving metrics such as time spent on the site, the number of return visits and number of pages viewed will signal to Google that your content is meeting the needs of your visitors, and Google has always been obsessed with putting the needs of searchers first. Google Analytics will also help you to identify any problems with your website – if an abnormally large number of visitors are dropping off on a certain page, for example, then you know to examine the page and to see what might be causing it.
9. Load Time
Your website’s load time is taken into consideration by search engines when deciding whether to include your site in the results pages, and it’s also important to optimise your load time to stop visitors from getting bored and wandering off. You can use tools like Pingdom’s Website Speed Test to analyse your site, and Webmaster Tools will also give you recommendations on how to optimise – remember to optimise for mobile too, as research shows that 40% of people abandon a website that takes more than three seconds to load.
10. Social Media
Finally, develop a social media strategy and implement social sharing icons on your blog so that interested visitors can quickly and easily share your content with friends. Social shares and the viral buzz around URLs are used as a ranking factor by many search engines, and Google have clearly signalled their dedication to social and search with the integration of Google+ in to search results. Optimising your site for social will help you to bring in social traffic as well as search traffic, so what have you got to lose?
By implementing some basic SEO measures while setting up and launching your website, you can avoid spending heaps of time in the future to make your site compliant. Not only is it quicker to make changes now than to update them in the future, but it could also stop you from getting blacklisted from search engines before your site even gets off the ground.
When considering the design of the site, you should also bear in mind that iFrames are terrible for SEO, and flash can’t be read by either search engines or mobile devices. In the end, Google will continue to update their algorithms – the best way to future-proof your site is to focus on making it as useful and as usable as possible.
Are you in the process of launching a new site? Perhaps you’ve launched one successfully before. Either way, if you’ve successfully implemented SEO measures on a new build, we want to hear from you – leave your tips for other webmasters with a comment.