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A Complete Step-by-Step Guide to Optimizing Your Website for Search Engine Success

By Ata Khan | April 8, 2018

SEO has evolved into an elusive and vastly misunderstood science. These days few marketers get it right. These few understand that the fundamental ingredients for SEO success never change. To achieve higher rankings and long-term results it is important to optimize your website for the end user (and the crawlers), strictly adhere to all of Google’s guidelines, and create compelling content that your target demographic loves to read. This post will list out everything you need to know to optimize your website and become an on-page SEO superhero!


Write Your Website Content as If Google Doesn’t Exist

Remember the good old days when people wrote content for people (and not for keyword rankings)? If you want to achieve great SEO results then the first thing you have to do is get out of this mindset that you have to target keywords and then build content around those keywords. Instead, you should write your content naturally, talk about your products, talk about your business and industry, and address your audience’s pain points. Write your content as if Google doesn’t exist! You will find that not only will the big G reward you with better and more apt keyword rankings, but you will increase your chances of converting your users into customers (because of the trust you build with them as an authority in your industry).

Sometimes it is okay to do a little bit of research to understand the language your prospects/buyers use and stay relevant with your messaging. That is fine so long as you are not writing content for search engine rankings. Others who may find this type of research useful are agencies writing content for clients (since these agencies need to learn about their clients’ respective industries).

Use Google’s Keyword Planner to do this research. It’s a powerful took which allows you to peer inside Google’s database, and see what people are searching for. To access the system, you will first need to create an Adwords account, then jump to the keyword planner and hit the “Find new keywords and get search volume data” dropdown and input a keyword describing your industry (as seen below).

Google Keyword Planner Snapshot.JPG

Upon hitting the “Get Ideas” button you will be redirected to a page that presents a list of the different permutations of that seed keyword (as seen below). Use these to get ideas (as the button implies) on how to position the language and angle of your website content.

Google Keyword Planner Snapshot2


Set Up Your Analytics Monitoring Platforms

Having the appropriate analytics and monitoring platforms is crucial to SEO success. You must track how Google views your website, identify issues, set search preferences, monitor your traffic, etc. The foundation of on-page SEO starts here, be sure to use a single Google Account for all applicable platforms mentioned below.


Google Tag Manager

There are many tracking platforms out there and each requires a script to be installed on your website to collect data. Scripts slow down your website which negatively impacts UX and your on-page SEO score. The best way around this is to use a tool by Google called Google Tag Manager. GTM uses a single script that acts as a “container” and can be used to house and deploy numerous other platform scripts (such as a Universal Analytics code, Google Adwords Remarketing script, Facebook Pixel, etc) without installing the additional scripts on your site. All the respective scripts are enabled through the GTM backend and once the container is installed no further developer intervention is needed. It makes life a whole lot easier for everyone.

To install a GTM container on your website, hop over to GTM and hit the “Sign In” link on the top right-hand corner, and then hit the “Tag Manager” link in the dropdown. Once inside GTM, create an “Account” (which would essentially be your company name). Think of accounts as the folder that houses all the properties your company owns (such as websites, web apps, etc). Then create the “Property” inside the Account, which would be your main website (so we usually name it “Main Website”).

Google Tag Manager Snapshot

Click the link on the top right-hand corner that says “GTM-xxxxxxx”. A popup will display the last tracking script you will ever need to install on your website. Go ahead and copy and paste both scripts on every single page of your website (include all subdomains, login pages, etc). One script goes right below the opening <head> tag and the other goes right below the opening <body> tag. After those are installed, jump back over to GTM and hit the “Publish” button. Use Google Tag Assistant to verify that the container was properly installed on your website.

If you are looking for a more detailed breakdown of how to install GTM on your site, check out this video by Julian Juenemann from Measure School (he manages an online course on GTM).


Google Webmaster Tools

Google WMT is a free service created by Google for webmasters looking to identify on-page SEO issues with their websites. Log into your Google Account and go to the Webmaster Tools Portal. From there you can create your website property (you will want to create all versions of your properties – i.e. with “www” and without, with “https” and “http”, etc). See below snapshot to get an idea of what this would look like.

Google Webmaster Tools Snapshot

Then verify yourself as the owner of all four properties (which is easy to do because you have GTM installed on the domain using the same Google Account). Simply choose the GTM verification option for each of the four properties and they will auto-verify themselves.

Next, choose the property that corresponds to your canonical domain and set it as the preferred domain for the WMT account (you do this by responding to Google’s notification in WMT regarding the specific property – as seen below). Also, set your preferred location (i.e. the location of your target demographic).

Google Webmaster Tools Snapshot2

Now you can start to address any SEO issues that Google has identified, as well as set your preferences. Start navigating to every single link on the left-hand sidebar to familiarize yourself with WMT, and to address all issues as you see them.

Google Webmaster Tools Snapshot3

Going through the highlighted list above:

  • Use data highlighter to highlight bits of content on search results pages and control the way your listing is displayed (such as highlighting reviews, business addresses, events, promotions, etc). Think of this as another way of using Schema Tags (just for Google).
  • Check for HTML improvements and address any errors you may find there.
  • View your search analytics and measure your SEO progress via metrics and KPIs.
  • Identify if there are any manual actions on your website.
  • Identify what (if any) pages are not being indexed (and whether pages are accidentally blocked by robots.txt file).
  • Check for crawl errors (address them by applying 301 redirects for 404 pages and then hitting the “Fixed” button in WMT). Do this for all four of your properties.
  • Fetch your robots.txt file.
  • Submit your sitemap.
  • Check for any detected security issues or malware.

Bing Toolbox

Bing Toolbox is Microsoft’s version of Google WMT. Setting this up with the same completeness as Google WMT will help your site rank higher on the Bing and Yahoo search engines. Simply duplicate all the above-mentioned efforts.


Google Analytics

Google Analytics is the preferred tracking platform used by most webmasters. It is a great way to identify how much traffic your website is receiving, where that traffic is coming from, and what that traffic is doing. It also helps you report on the performance of your SEO efforts.

Log into your Google Analytics account and create your first “Account”. An account is the highest level in the hierarchy – it represents the entire organization. Call the account your company name. Then create your first “Property”. “Properties” represent the online assets within an Account (they are each given a unique identifier or tracking script). Call your first property “Main Website” (since it denotes your main website). Copy the unique identifier and install it on your website using your GTM container (please view the video above by Julian Juenemann on how to install a Google Analytics script using GTM). Then create your first “View”. “Views” represent the place where you can see the actual reports and access data visualizations and tools. Call your first view “Raw Data” since it will have no filters applied to it but is the baseline for all your tracking going forward.

By creating your “View” and installing the Google analytics tracking script, you have essentially set up your Google Analytics instance.


Optimize Your Website for the End User AND the Bots

Google wants every website to provide a good user experience to people (as well as its bots). The reward for doing this is higher rankings. This means your website’s pages must be crawl-friendly, user-friendly, mobile-friendly, quick to load, and use clean code. Here is a list of all the things required to make this happen.


Migrate to a Dedicated IP Address

Typically, hosting service providers will group as many client websites together as they can on a single IP address. This helps them save costs. Problem is that one bad apple can ruin it for the rest. If one website is involved in shady tactics (such as link schemes, email spam, etc) it will taint the entire IP address (which can get blacklisted, or even deindexed by Google). If your website is on such an IP address it could spell doom for your business. To circumvent this, make sure to host your website on a dedicated IP address. Talk with your host and find out if you are on a dedicated IP. If not, work with them and your developer to migrate your website to a brand new dedicated IP. It may cost a little more, but it is well worth it.


Install SSL Encryption

It’s not news to anyone that cyber-attacks are on the rise. The security of your web visitors should always be top priority above everything else. Protect your online audience (and brand reputation) by purchasing and installing a 256-bit SSL (secure socket layer) for your website. There are many reputable providers, but if you talk with your host they can guide you in the right direction. Get the SSL certificate installed (you will need your developer for this) and verify that it is working properly.


Pick Your Canonical Domain

Your website can be accessed in many ways, for example, folks may manually type http://yoursitename.com, they may type https://www.yoursitename.com, or they may type yoursitename.com. All these variants yield the same user experience for visitors; however, Google sees them as separate sites (which dilutes your ranking power). To avoid this, pick a single main version of your domain (i.e. the canonical domain), and then apply 301 redirects for all other versions, pointing to that main version.

We recommend using “https” in your main version (to always ensure your visitors have a safe browsing experience) and to remove the “www” (keeping the URL short and concise). In the case of Xoobo, our canonical domain is https://xoobo.com.


Increase Page Load Speeds

Your website should be optimized to load as quickly as possible for its end users (or else they will leave frustrated). Google will also reward those websites that are quicker to load with higher rankings. As such, it is important to take every measure to make your website as fast as possible.

To do this, go to https://developers.google.com/speed/pagespeed/insights/ and input your website’s canonical domain into the URL bar. Look at the score (we recommend a minimum score of 90/100 or higher). Upon receiving your score Google lists out things that you can do to optimize your website. Send this list to your developer for implementation (do this for both mobile and desktop). The result will be a faster loading website.


Ensure Mobile-Friendliness

With nearly ¾ of the world’s population owning a mobile phone, it’s no wonder why your website should be optimized for mobile devices (as well as tablets and other non-desktop devices). Desktop web pages simply do not render well on non-desktop devices, and they do not offer a great user experience (for example, mobile devices do not use a cursor for interfacing). Because of this, Google has placed emphasis on making your website mobile-friendly.

We recommend your website be responsive in design, which means that design and development should respond to the user’s behavior and environment based on screen size, platform, and orientation (it’s not a good practice to have two separate websites for web and mobile – i.e. adaptive design). The coding language we recommend is HTML5/CSS3.


Use SEO-friendly URLs

Your website’s URLs should be “SEO-friendly”. Your website URLs should:

  • Concisely describe the content on your pages.
  • Not be excessively long (you can drop sentence connectors like “and”, “the”, “an”, etc),
  • Accurately describe where the end user is located on the website’s hierarchy (i.e. use of breadcrumbs in file path).
  • Be clean and not use suffixes like “index.html”, or “.php”, etc.
  • Be canonicalized for trailing slashes and lowercase letters. For example, if I type in a URL directly into my address bar that has a mix of lowercase and uppercase letters and no trailing slash at the end, when I hit enter I am automatically 301 redirected to the canonical version with all lowercase letters and a trailing slash like so https://xoobo.com/marketing-services/search-engine-optimization/. For URLs pointing to files like PDFs, it is not necessary to use trailing slashes (for example, your URL could end with https://yoursitename.com/read_this_case_study.pdf).

Install Canonical Tags

Canonical tags help search engines understand which pages are the original source of your content, and when not to treat duplicate content as duplicate content. For example, your homepage may be accessible through two URLs https://yoursitename.com and https://yoursitename.com/index.html. Google will treat these as two separate pages with duplicate content on them. This dilutes your ranking power. By adding a canonical tag on both pages, you can redirect crawlers to the original source. In this case you would place a canonical tag on https://yoursitename.com that says the following “<link rel=”canonical” href=”https://yoursitename.com”/>”. Now, anytime this page renders (using any variation of URLs) the crawler will be redirected to the source.


Build Your Sitemap

A sitemap what a bot uses as a guide to crawl all relevant pages of your website. Start by going to https://www.xml-sitemaps.com/ and generating a sitemap of your website. Then take the XML file, name it “sitemap”, and upload it to your root directory. Now, for example, if a bot requires access to this sitemap it must navigate to https://xoobo.com/sitemap.xml. This is the standard URL format for sitemaps that Google is most familiar with.


Upload Your Robots.txt File

A robots.txt file tells crawlers what to do on your website (i.e. it sets the rules, boundaries, and expected behavior). Because this file has the power to revoke Google’s access, it’s very important to get it right. These days Google’s crawlers can render nearly all aspects of a webpage (including Javascript), so they see your pages much in the same way that a real person would on their browser. What this means for your robots.txt file is that you do not have to disallow crawling of Javascript files anymore. To the contrary, for the purposes of just SEO, you want to allow everything to be crawled. The only time you should disallow pages from being crawled is when they contain sensitive information, duplicate content, or iFrames and other unreadable code.

To give you an example, here’s what our robots.txt file looks like:

sample robots.txt file snapshot

Here, we are telling all user agents (i.e. crawlers and robots – denoted with an *) to allow crawling of all pages of our website (by not disallowing anything – and additionally allowing crawling of even our WP plugins, scripts, and backend files – as denoted with the “Allow” parameter). Including a link to the sitemap URL is always helpful as this is something Google is familiar with.

If you want to learn more about how to create your own Robots.txt file, check out this great post on robots.txt file by Moz.


W3C Validation

It’s just as important to have clean code on your website. Clean code is easier to crawl and has a greater chance of rendering on more browsers for users. A good way to check your code is to run a W3C HTML Validation test and a W3C CSS Validation test. Run both tests for every single page of your website. Have your developer fix all Errors and Warnings. One thing to keep in mind is that every measure should be taken to fix Errors, but Warnings are not as important and sometimes cannot be fixed (still you should make every attempt to mitigate them).


Check for Duplicate Content

One of the biggest things that can hurt your website is if your content is being duplicated on the web (i.e. plagiarized). It’s important to frequently scour the web for duplicate content (we suggest weekly at a minimum) because if Google finds that duplicate content your website could be dealt a serious penalty. A useful tool you can use combat this is called Copyscape. Create an account and use the system to do automated scans of your website content daily.


Update Your Meta Data

This is the one aspect of on-page SEO everyone’s heard of but is mostly misunderstood.

You should make every attempt to completely fill every single meta data field on every single page of your website as completely, and thoroughly as possible (except for the Meta Keyword field, always leave that blank). Write the content in these fields for your target audience and not keyword rankings.

Here is the list:

  • Meta Titles: as the name implies this is the title of your page (it may show up as your listing title on Google’s search results pages). Optimal meta title length is 50-60 characters. Stick to title case here and refrain from using special characters like ampersands, asterisks, etc, as well as characters like quotation marks. We additionally recommend using the pipe separator followed by your company name (as seen below).

search results page listing

  • Meta Description: this is a quick summary of your page (it may show up as the listing description on Google’s search results pages). Optimal meta description length is anywhere from 50-300 characters. Please use complete sentences (in sentence case) with proper punctuation, and no spelling or grammatical errors (as seen in the above example).
  • Header Tags: these tags are used to divide up the content that is on a page. Think of your web page as a book. The book has chapters, and within chapters there are sections, and within sections there are paragraphs. For your web page the H1 tag wraps the title that is the highest level of division (i.e. the chapters), the H2 tag is the title that is the next level down (i.e. the sections), the H3 tag wraps the title that is the next level down (i.e. paragraphs), and H4 would wrap the title that is the next level down and so forth. Use these to concisely describe the various sections of your web page and to provide a good reading experience.
  • Alt Text: Better known as alternate text, these snippets are the tags that describe your images (mostly used for visually impaired readers using a screen reader). You should make every attempt to fill in the alt tags for all your images. It’s a lot of work, but it’s well worth it because your images may rank for relevant searches because of those alt tag descriptions (every little bit counts and it really ads up). Our recommendation for this is to simply write a concise description that describes the image and nothing more.

Double-Check Your Outbound Links

Your website must link out to other websites otherwise Google will ding you for not passing equity throughout its democratic society. You should link only to reputable, relevant websites with real traffic on them. Additionally, try linking to main pages of websites to reduce the possibility of webmasters deleting pages in the future that you are linking to (this would result in your website linking to a 404’d page – which is a bad user experience).

You should not need to use a “rel=nofollow” tag because any site you link to should be reputable enough to not require it. That’s not to say that there are some technical cases where a “rel=nofollow” tag is required, such as when using affiliate links, or when dealing with redundant links to the same domain.


Set Your Internal Linking Structure

Creating a vast web of internal links from page to page on your website is a great way to spread link equity and get as much ranking power out of your website as possible. It also makes it easier for bots (and people) to find their way around your website. As a rule of thumb, don’t overdo it, only link when it’s relevant, use appropriate anchor text, and do it for the user (not rankings).


Install Schema Tags

Schema tags are a great way to highlight important content accompanying your website on the search results pages. This makes your listing stand by showing your target demographic more of what they want to see (such as product reviews, events, promotions, business addresses, etc) and by taking up more web-estate (the result is higher click-through-rates). Google rewards websites that have higher click-through-rates with higher rankings.

Go to Schema.org and locate the type of content you want to highlight, and then have your developer drop the code on your web pages.


Create a Custom 404 Page

A custom 404 page is good for SEO (because it offers a better user experience than a dead page), but it also gives you an opportunity to guide the user into your sales funnel. You can do this by creating CTA (or call-to-action) buttons and phone numbers on your 404 page (as seen below), coupled with limiting movement by removing other navigation links.

phew - that is a long post

 

Yes, I know, that’s a lot of stuff! Unfortunately, the stark reality is that it’s not easy to rank well on the search engines (at least with lasting results). It takes a lot of work, a great team, and true dedication. But the long lasting revenue generation is well worth it. This is why it’s so important find a knowledgeable, reputable SEO agency to do all the heavy lifting for you so you can focus on what you do best.

Ata Khan

Ata is President and Chief Operating Officer at Xoobo. He co-founded Xoobo in early 2015 and now works to ensure the integrity of the business' vision, grow the client portfolio, and introduce its service offering to the market. Ata calls on more than 10 years of hands on marketing experience to guide Xoobo across the industry. More notably, he managed various marketing campaigns for fortune 500 client NVR (parent company to Ryan Homes), as well as other reputable companies like Rockefeller Center NYC, and tech conglomerate Ellucian.

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