Most organizations have heard the term “SEO” – search engine optimization. But they often don’t know what that term means, especially in 2016, let alone how to incorporate it into their new site design.

In this guide, I’ll explain the essentials and provide you with a checklist so you can ensure your new site works as well for Google and Bing as it does for your users.

First, What is SEO?

google-resultsSEO is the process of making a website more findable by search engines when someone types in a query.

The goal of SEO is to have your website show for search queries related to your services and/or products in what are called the “organic” results listings (i.e. not the ads or the maps – those are separate disciplines called search engine marketing and local SEO). http://searchengineland.com/guide/what-is-seoYou can find more details and a video here.

There are many things that help a site rank well, and Google changes its ranking formula hundreds of times a year.

Why You Need SEO

If you’re going to the time and expense of redesigning a site, you need to consider the SEO aspect, the same way you consider how it looks and how a user will find information. It won’t matter how awesome your site is if no one can find it.

Planning SEO at the same time as your site build will:

  • Bring in more traffic so there are more users to hear your message.
  • Help your site earn more money for you, whether it’s sales (for a business) or donations (for a non-profit).
  • Save you time and money versus trying to add it in later.

Here’s why you can’t just build your site now and stuff the SEO in later:

SEO and User Experience Go Hand in Hand

SEO has completely changed over the years. In 2016, a lot of what works to make a better user experience on your site actually helps your rankings too. Things like a fast loading speed, quality informative content, and lack of annoyances like broken links all help both your rankings and the people using your site.

SEO is not just about picking keywords and adding them to the page. Yes, keywords still help but ever since the Hummingbird update Google has become better at understanding intent behind searches and word similarity.

For example, Google knows that a search on “free kittens” is related to “adopting a cat”, even though none of the words are exactly the same.

The 7 Factors You Can’t Ignore When Redesigning Your Site

Here are the basics you need in place for your site to do well.

1. Make Your Site Easily Crawlable

In order for search engines to rank your site (and all its pages), they have to be able to find it. To discover sites and pages, they use programs called “bots” or “spiders” to crawl through the site, link by link.

Use Robot-Friendly Technology

Using Flash and Ajax on your site will make the content impossible or difficult for search engines to find and “read”. Some people use these methods because they allow for some pretty exciting effects. If you’re a household name like Porsche this is an option; everyone else should stick to what the search engines can see.

Have a Sitemap.xml File That Updates Itself

A sitemap.xml file is just a simple file that lists the pages on your site to help search engines crawl them. Some site platforms, like WordPress, have plugins that allow you to easily manage this file and keep it automatically updated. However you manage it, make sure it’s up to date and there are no errors.

Robots.txt File

A robots.txt file is another way to communicate with the search engines. It is usually used to tell them what not to crawl and/or index.

It’s a common practice is for web design companies to use it to hide the new site from search engines before it’s made live. But one common error we come across more often than you would expect is developers forgetting to “unhide” the site in the robots.txt file once it’s live. The result? You guessed it: the site is essentially invisible as far as search engines are concerned.

The easiest way to see if your robots.txt file is working is to check it in Google Search Console. You should also submit your sitemap.xml in Search Console and go through the verification process.

2. Make Sure Your Site is Mobile Friendly

More than 50% of searches are done on a mobile phone as of August 2016. If your site isn’t responsive, you may be missing out on a lot of traffic.

A responsive site has a layout that automatically adapts to different screen types and sizes, from desktop through tablets and phablets to phones. Extra images are sometimes eliminated, and menus visually simplified.

AMP: Accelerated Mobile Pages

If you want to go one step further, AMP pages are super streamlined to load faster, and stripped down to provide mobile users with a better experience. While AMP is not a ranking signal yet it can have a huge effect on your bounce rate which is a ranking signal. Bounce rate is the rate of users who abandon your site after viewing just one page.

3. Make Sure Content is Organized

For the sake of users as well as your crawlability by search engines, organize content into sections. In the web design world we call this “site architecture”. When you’re redesigning a site, that’s a perfect time to do a site content audit and remove the unnecessary and consolidate the redundant.

Serve Your Users

Start by thinking about what your users are looking for and group related content together. Have a specific purpose for each page, and make a plan for where an interested user could go next if they’re ready to talk to you or if they still want to get information.

Goals

A goal is any action a site user could take. It can be anything like signing up for a newsletter, viewing a blog article, placing an order, or filling in a form. While not all of your pages will connect directly to a goal of some sort, make the goal easy to find on the ones that do. Make sure that all pages are in some way leading people to the completion of a goal.

Link Your Pages Together

Add links between the pages on your site – it will help search engines crawl your site more thoroughly. It will also help spread the “link juice” throughout your site.

Incoming links from other sites can help you rank better if they’re from trustworthy sites. “Link juice” is the ranking boost to the page from other good sites. Link juice helps not only the initial linked page, but can help other pages it links to further down the line.

You don’t want to go overboard with the links, but 3 to 5 should be a good start. And make them as natural looking as possible (ideally within the body content of the page).

4. Make Sure Pages Load Quickly

We’ve all done it…clicked on a link then given up before the page loads because it’s just taking too long. Google has a free tool you use to tell how fast your page loads.

Image Size

One of the causes of slow loading pages is unnecessarily massive images. The larger the image, the bigger the file size, and the more time it takes for the browser to load it.

It’s also one of the most technically easy speed bumps to fix. Within a graphics program, simply shrink images to the pixel width you need for the page, instead of just uploading the massive poster-quality stock photo to your site and then scaling it down on the page. Even infographics can be optimized. There are tons of free programs like Picasa and Paint.net or Pixlr you can use.

Code

Websites have code that presents your content visually, and these scripts, shortcodes, and stylesheets can slow down your website. Your developer can minify coding, enable caching, and even substitute bloated plugins for swifter ones for things like banner rotators.

5. Fix Anything Broken

One of the most common problems with new sites is that the number of broken links and missing pages (also called 404 pages) skyrockets.

It isn’t practical to click on every link on your site, so use a tool to crawl your site and look for:

  • 404 (page not found) errors
  • Broken internal links
  • Broken external links
  • Pages that redirect but could link directly to each other

To find these, we use a tool called Screaming Frog, but there are other great tools you can use to find and fix issues like these. Don’t forget to have a proper 404 page, and don’t be afraid to get creative with them.

6. Ensure Your Site Can’t Be Hacked

google_malware_screen

Would you want to see this screen when you go to a site? Google now puts up “the red screen of death” if your site has a known hack. It’s a lot easier to take steps to safeguard your site than to have a developer spend hours or even days finding a removing the malware. Meanwhile, you lose visits and revenue.

How do you minimize the chances of getting hacked?

Lock Down Passwords and Login Pages

Ensure you use secure passwords on anything that can get you into the back end of the site, from the server access to the content management system to any plugins you may be using. A secure password is not “admin” or “password” or your name – use at least 8 characters, including numbers and special characters.

It’s also critical that any file upload or login pages are not findable by Google: have your developer mark these as “noindex, nofollow” in the robots.txt file (more on that later). If someone can do a search on yoursitename.com/wp-admin and find your CMS login page, then there’s a greater chance they can hammer away until they find the login.

Transition to HTTPS

You’ve probably started seeing the “s” after the “http” in a lot of site addresses. The “s” means that there’s an extra security layer called SSL on your site. It costs a bit more to do, but it means your site will have the online equivalent of bank vault level protection. It’s also a known ranking signal, if only a small one for now.

7. Last But Not Least…Track and Measure

google-analytics-logo

Hooray – your new site is live! But that doesn’t mean it’s time to kick back and relax. This is just the beginning, because Google values fresh content and it’s ranking formula is always changing.

But how will you know what’s working if you don’t have any data? Registering your site with Google Analytics and Google Search Console will give you enough information to measure and evaluate your traffic, count leads, watch for issues, and make decisions.

The SEO Rabbit Hole Goes Deeper Still

This is a just a high-level list of the essentials to help your site do well online. There are lots of other things you can do on your site to improve its performance – and we haven’t even started on rich snippets or earning incoming links from other sites, which are huge when it comes to helping your rankings.

Stay tuned for more related posts in our blog. Meanwhile, if you want to chat about how your site is doing, ask about our SEO audit services.