Onsite SEO Guide
By Alexander Bussy, Content Specialist
In our last guide, we looked at the importance of building up a strong foundation, and the long-term benefits associated with fixing on-site issues before embarking on any paid marketing campaigns.
The foundation is only half the story though. On-site (or technical) optimizations are also an important factor. These seemingly minute tweaks to things like your URL structure, your error handling protocols or your XML sitemap can have a profound effect on the way your site ranks on key SERPs – boosting the signals that your sending to providers like Google, and helping to ensure that any off-site SEO has the best possible chance of generating exposure.
Better still, on-site tweaks are normally quite quick to implement. As long as they?re deployed in-line with modern best practices, they?re also maintenance free, which means that you can relax – comfortably in the knowledge that your site is now optimized for maximum ranking potential.
Here, we?re going to walk you through all of the most important elements of technical SEO and explain the things that you should be looking for whenever you audit your on-site setup. If you work with a development agency, you?ll end this article with a handy list of questions to ask at your next meeting. And if you manage a website yourself, you?ll have a handy checklist to run through the next time you get a chance to sit down and work on your site.
What is On-Site SEO?
First things first, it?s important to establish what we mean by the term ?on-site SEO?. For the purposes of this article, on-site SEO is an optimization that?s carried out on your own domain. It is distinct from off-site work like link-building, or work designed to build authority for your brand, and most of it can be carried out with the help of a single, capable developer.
For the most part, on-site SEO focuses on technical details, like the aforementioned sitemap or the way that canonical tags are used on your site. Some people use the term to cover on-site content too, but we aim to tackle that subject in a bespoke article later in the series.
And if all of this is making your head spin, don?t worry! We know that this is a complicated subject which is why we?re going to walk you through it step-by-step, as follows:
Perhaps the most straightforward bit of on-site optimization that you can carry out, checking your metadata can normally be done in a few short hours. Metadata is the information that Google, Yahoo, and Bing use to construct the little snippets that are generated when your site ranks on a search page, like this:
You can manually input this data to help search engines build these snippets, but they?ll only use your suggested wording if it?s unique, detailed and of the right length.
It goes without saying that there?s a huge benefit to being able to pick your own metadata: This will be most people?s first introduction to your site and being able to fine-tune the messaging that they see will help to set their expectations and get them invested in your brand.
On very competitive SERPs, good metadata can also help your listing to stand out from the competition; improving your chances of snaring traffic, and ensuring that you get a steady stream of inbound traffic.
To ensure that you get to pick your own metadata, we?d strongly recommend going through, and checking that you have provided a unique meta title/meta description for every page that you want to rank. This will also provide you with a golden opportunity to tweak the messaging, and double-check that you are within the recommended character limits. At present, these are:
50-70 characters for meta titles
130-300 characters for the meta description
It?s also worth noting that you shouldn?t stuff keywords in your metadata. One or two organic mentions of the target phrase are fine, but anything more and you may find that search engines ignore your data because it?s ?over optimized?
Cleaning up your URLs can really enhance your ranking potential. Google prefers simple, straightforward URLs like the one pictured below:
And we do find that Google generally doesn’t like URLs like this:
Notice the difference? As a rule of thumb, a good URL should not contain random characters or unnecessary clauses. It should also make good use of target keywords, and avoid complicated query strings to ensure that search engines actually understand what your page is about.
It?s also worth noting that you don?t want your URLs to be stuffed with keywords either. Over-optimisation is a sure-fire way to ensure that your pages don?t rank, so look out for strings that seem to repeat keywords unnecessarily.
If you have poor URLs, there?s a good guide to restructuring here. Take care before you jump in though – URL restructures often yield great results, but they do have to be carried out properly – with good 301 redirects and a failsafe – or you risk a drop in rankings.
Pagination markup tells Google (or Yahoo/Bing) that a page is part of a longer series. You generally use it on large product categories, where there are too many items to fit on one page, or on long forum threads.
Implementing proper pagination makeup helps to reduce the chances of a duplicate content penalty and signposts the fact that a page isn?t really relevant in its own right. This helps to prevent issues like page 6 of a product category ranking on a valuable SERP and generally helps to ensure that people enter your site on the designated landing pages.
To see if it?s been implemented correctly, go to page 2 of a category and search the source code for a rel=?next? or rel=?previous? tab. If not, there?s a handy guide pagination here.
Your XML sitemap tells Google how to access and navigate your site. If your XML sitemap is incomplete, there?s a risk Google won?t crawl certain sections of the site, particularly if you don?t have a lot of cross-linking in place, and pages aren?t listed in the top menu.
To check your XML sitemap, head over to Search Console and take a look at the listings under the Sitemaps tab. If you need to make any changes, you?ll have to talk to your developer as the file will be needed to re-uploaded before Google can pick up any alterations.
Schema markup is a special type of formatting used to flag up important details about a page or product – things like the authorship of an article, the review rating of a service or the price of a product.
When marked up correctly, these elements can be detected by Google, and brought through to populate search listings as shown in the screenshot below:
This can help Google, Bing or Yahoo to better understand the content of your pages, and help to improve click-through rates for organic channels.
Implementing schema markup is relatively straightforward, but it can be quite time-consuming. You?ll find a guide here, and if you use a development agency it is definitely worth sitting down to chat about marking up your pages as soon as possible.
Robots.txt files are used to tell search engines when to ignore pages on your site, or ?no index? them, which means visiting them without listing them on SERPs. Adding pages like account sign-in forms, your checkout or your admin to the robots.txt file can help to improve security and preserve some of your ?crawl budget? which means that search engines will have longer to spend on other, more important areas of your site.
Your robots.txt file is normally found at the /robots.txt extension, and your developer should be able to help you update it. In general, we?d recommend adding most of the ?back-end? URLs that you don?t want customers to use, and any areas that you don?t want to appear in search listings. Be careful though: if you accidentally add a category page you may find that your rankings take a hit!
Having read through this guide, you should hopefully have a good grasp of the optimizations that you can make to your site. A great many of these tweaks seem intimidating at first glance, but working through them step-by-step will help you to maximize your site?s ranking potential, and boost the performance of any off-site marketing campaigns.
In the next part of these series, we?ll be looking at the importance of content. Until then, happy marketing!