Traffic from organic search has consistently proven to be the highest quality traffic you can get on the internet because users that find your site through a search engine query do so at the precise time they’re actively searching for the products or services that you sell. This is why top organic search ranking on Google is the number one goal for any online business. Essentially, the increased visibility that comes with a top ranking translates to a consistent flow of “targeted” traffic as well as increased sales and profits.
This checklist covers the most important on-page and off-page factors you need to perform from an SEO perspective to increase your chances of ranking high on the major search engines.
On Page SEO
Is the Title Tag optimized on every web page?
The page title tag is viewed as the most important on-page SEO ranking factor due to the weighting traditionally accorded to it by the search engines. It is typically used to determine the page’s theme or topic, and needs to be an accurate and concise description of its content.
With Google’s move to semantic search, keyword targeting has been rendered much less effective for increasing a web page’s organic search ranking. This was confirmed in a search engine ranking factors study by Backlinko which found that the relationship between optimizing the title tag for a particular keyword and the webpage ranking for that keyword was smaller than it once was. However, optimizing the title tag for the main keyword is still important due to the influence the tag can have on clickthrough rate (CTR) from the search results page (SERP).
The title tag should read naturally, be fairly short, descriptive and targeted to the theme of the webpage. It should be no longer than seven words and no more than 60 characters including spaces even though technically, it can be as long as 70 characters.
It is important to include your most relevant keywords at the beginning of the title tag, and the main part of the title that could show up in search results should be engaging enough to draw the click from the searcher in the SERP. Each title tag must also be unique across each webpage.
Is The Meta Keywords Tag Optimized?
Although the major search engines don’t use the meta keywords tag in their ranking algorithms, populating the tag is still recommended because some smaller search engines still index and use the information contained within the tag to determine relevancy. In addition, the keywords tag allows you to optimize for technical information, misspellings, typos and other relevant keywords or phrases that you may have not been able to fit in your page content.
Is there a unique Meta Description tag for every web page?
The Meta description tag is used to display snippets of information about a specific website. The major search engines have all confirmed that this tag has no direct influence on search engine rankings. However, a well optimized Meta description tag is good practice, and it is important because a well-crafted description tag can entice readers to click through from the SERP. You have 155 characters to craft something compelling.
Google looks at user engagement metrics like CTR when evaluating the relevance of a particular webpage listing to a keyword. This can influence your ranking for a particular keyword in the search results.
Domain Name: Are You Using the Right Domain Name?
Choosing the right domain name for your online business is critically important. There’s a lot more to choosing a domain name than finding something that sounds cool or is related to your business and easy to remember. What you choose will have a significant effect on your Internet traffic and the overall effectiveness of your online campaign. If you choose the wrong domain name, you may be inadvertently sabotaging your website.
Do You Have a SEO-friendly URL Structure?
The URL structure of each page on your site is extremely important because it helps search engines understand the relative significance of the given web page and how useful or relevant it is to a given search query. A descriptive, succinct and well optimized URL structure can actually have a positive impact on rankings. On the other hand, keyword stuffing or over-optimizing the URL could trigger an algorithmic filter such as Google Panda.
Mobile SEO: Is Your Website Responsive?
With the exponential growth in the use of mobile devices worldwide, more and more consumers are choosing to use their mobile devices to search for information. In fact, Google has confirmed that there are now more searches on mobile than on desktop. In May 2016, Google released an update to its Mobile-Friendliness Algorithm Update, which it released in April 2015 and gave a ranking boost to mobile-friendly websites in the mobile search results. It also penalized sites that were not mobile-friendly in the mobile search results.
Keyword Optimization: Are your web pages keyword optimized?
Google Search is a contextually-driven semantic search engine which means it no longer relies on keyword-optimized webpages to establish relevance to a search query.
Google uses artificial intelligence to understand the searcher’s intent and the “contextual” meaning of keywords being searched for. It considers the entire query as a whole and then identifies the most “contextually relevant” results for the search query. This means that Google’s algorithm is now better able to find and return the “most relevant” web pages to a particular search query even if a particular web page does not actually contain keywords used in the search query. This means that the way to optimize a webpage for a particular keyword has completely changed.
When optimizing a webpage for keywords, you need to be strategic by optimizing for specific, long tail keywords rather than targeting exact match keywords.
Are You Using HTML Heading Tags?
HTML heading tags are used to provide proper context to the content of each web page and can be very effective in helping to shape the search crawler’s perception of each page’s content. Search engines are known to give more weight to text that is inside a heading tag.
Heading Tag Structure
The way in which you structure the HTML heading tags on your web pages is important in maintaining a page structure that is useful and meaningful to users as well as the search engines. Each tag should be specific to the targeted keyword phrase, descriptive and give the user reading the page a clear idea of what the content below it is about, much like the headline of a newspaper article.
Are your web pages over-optimized?
When optimizing the on-page elements of the web pages of your site, keep in mind that simply repeating your keywords on any given web page over and over again is known as keyword stuffing. Not only is this ineffective, it is likely to trigger Google’s over-optimization penalty. Over-optimization is an indication that the website in question is trying to manipulate the search engine algorithms rather than provide quality information or content for its site visitors. A great tool you can use to analyse your webpages is the SEO Book Keyword Density Analyser. Furthermore, building links to pages that are over-optimized could affect the ability of that page of ever ranking on the first page of Google.
Has your site been filtered out by Google Panda?
A website’s content is the most fundamental ranking factor in Google’s organic search ranking algorithm, even though the algorithm considers over 200 ranking factors when ranking websites. Google Panda was based entirely around the concept of quality content and is key to your Google organic search ranking.
Google Panda was aimed primarily at websites that offered little in the way of original or meaningful content. In 2014, Google added some clarity to what they meant by “thin and duplicate content” and changed it to “thin and duplicate content with little or no added value”. If your site has a certain amount of what Google describes as poor quality content, the entire site will be categorized as a low quality site, and it will be filtered from ranking high in the search results.
It is therefore critically important to identify and weed out pages that might be deemed as “low quality” in the eyes of Google Panda. And the most efficient way to do this is through a content audit.
Do you have any duplicate content on your site?
Google puts duplicate content into the same category as low quality content, and if you don’t have lots of original, remarkable and unique content, this may affect your ability to rank high, especially if you have competitors that do. As far as Google is concerned, the more URLs you build for the same page, the more it appears that you are trying to game the system, and the more likely you are going to be filtered out of the search results. The bottom line is that every different URL the search engines see on your site should display substantially different content.
Google Search Console. Are you registered for the Google Search Console?
The Google Search Console is essentially a control panel for websites in Google’s index, and is the primary way that Google communicates with webmasters. In effect, Google Search Console analyzes your web presence and provides valuable information based on this analysis. The tool provides great traffic data and valuable insights into what is going on with your site. It also identifies issues, and is an excellent way of gathering Google-specific data about your site’s performance. It monitors your website’s health so to speak. You should also register for the Bing Webmaster Tools.
Knowledge Graph. Is your website optimized for the Knowledge Graph?
The Google Knowledge Graph is based on the Hummingbird algorithm and is the “brain” of semantic search. It provides structured and detailed information right in the search results page about the topic being researched. The goal is that users would be able to use this information to resolve their informational query without having to navigate to other sites. It is designed to help Google provide more accurate and contextually relevant results by understanding the searcher’s intent and the real-life context of the search. The ultimate objective is to deliver a better search experience by understanding the intent of the searcher when they use certain keywords that have ambiguous meanings.
Blog. Do you have a quality blog?
Blogs are the lifeblood of any web property. They inject fresh, meaningful content to a website and allow you to consistently provide something of value to your visitors. Essentially, it builds trust and familiarity with your brand. Blogging can also function as a key part of your sales funnel to answer questions from prospective customers who might currently be in the awareness stage of the buyer funnel. If you’re publishing quality content using keywords in the right way, people in your target audience will discover your content much more easily in the search engines. Essentially, blogging offers you the opportunity to improve your organic search ranking every time you publish something new – as long as it is original and hasn’t been published elsewhere.
Sitemap. Do you have a sitemap?
A site map is essentially a map of your site that lists all of the webpages that exist on your site. It is conceptually similar to a table of contents. The sitemap is then submitted to a search engine to tell it about all of these pages so that each page can be indexed you have a much better chance of showing up in the search results for relevant searches. A well-planned sitemap can help improve the organization of a site and focus its theme, which may in turn influence rankings. In addition, a well-planned site map can ensure your website is well crawled and fully indexed by the search engines. If your site doesn’t have a sitemap, an XML sitemap can be created and submitted to Google through Google Search Console.
Are You Implementing an Internal Linking Structure?
Optimizing the internal link structure within a site enables individual pages to get spidered by the various search crawlers. A well-planned linking structure alerts search crawlers to the most remote pages on the site, builds the relevancy of a web page to a given keyword or phrase, and can help to increase the ranking of a given internal page. For this reason, it is extremely important to include links to all of the important pages on your site’s home page, as well as in your site’s menu and navigation system.
It is important to build out a sensible navigational structure that will connect the top-level pages with more specific content on the site. If you have a very small site, there may be no need to create these levels, whereas in larger sites, you may require two or even three sub-categories for sub-navigation.
Robots.txt: Do You Have a Valid Robots.txt File or Meta Robots Tag?
A robots.txt file is a text file that contains commands that tell search engine robots what directories and files they are allowed and disallowed from accessing on a particular website. A robots.txt file is the first thing a search crawler looks for when it arrives at your site. The robots.txt file is a highly versatile tool for controlling what the spiders are permitted to access. The robots.txt file can be a very flexible way to exclude thousands of pages (or more) from being indexed.
Images. Are your images optimized for organic search?
According to a search engine ranking study by Backlinko, content with at least one relevant image significantly outperformed content without any images. Search engine spiders cannot read or understand the content of a picture, and you must explain what is in the image using textual content.
Using topically relevant keywords to name your images can have a powerful impact on the search ranking of your website in relation to the images. For example, if your website is about cars and all of the images on your site are well-optimized using relevant keyword-rich names, all things equal, this will significantly increase your website’s overall search ranking for those keywords in image search and universal search.
When using images, don’t simply add any random image for the sake of it. Any image you add needs to be a relevant image that reflects the topic of the post. This is because an image that is surrounded by contextually relevant text ranks better for the keyword it is optimized for. Note that a significant amount of traffic can come from image search, and the number of people competing effectively for that traffic is much lower than it is in general web search.
Navigation Menu. Are your navigable menus indexable?
Site navigation is crucial for SEO because it helps search engine crawlers determine what pages you consider the most important on your site. It is also useful for establishing the relevance of pages to specific topics. Furthermore, the search engine spiders need to be able to read and interpret your website’s code to properly spider and index the content on your web pages. A poorly designed or unreadable navigation system that makes spiderability difficult will affect the ability to get pages listed in the search engines’ indexes.
The optimal structure for a website should look similar to a pyramid. This is because a pyramid structure would maximize the link value and spread the value across the entire domain. This means that all of the high-level categories of pages should be linked to on the home page, and get some ranking benefit from the homepage.
Competitor Analysis: how does your site measure up to your competitors’?
Even though it is often overlooked, competitor research should be a key part of your SEO strategy. Analysing the top-ranking websites that the search engines find most relevant for your target keywords is a very important step in an SEO campaign. Your competitors are those websites that offer the same services as you, and are ranking organically for the same keywords you want to rank for. It is important that you focus on competitors that consistently dominate the upper half of the first page of search results in the search engines for your most important keywords which are those that represent the products and services that you sell.
Quality Content: do you publish high quality content on your site?
Quality content should be at the heart of any SEO campaign. The best type of content is evergreen because it is never outdated and gets people liking, sharing and commenting on your content – powerful social signals the search engines need to see to take real notice of your business. Publishing topical content that is informative, useful and targeted to your niche will serve to increase your online visibility and brand authority. The better the content you publish on your site, the more people are going to link to you as a strong and credible source of quality information. On the flip side, if your content is meaningless dribble, this will do more harm than good to your brand. The fact of the matter is, if you want to rank high on Google, your content has to be truly awesome.
Schematic Mark-up. Have you implemented schematic mark-up?
Schematic mark-up is a way to mark up your HTML web pages in ways that make it easier for semantic search engines to parse and interpret this information more effectively when indexing your content. You can mark-up reviews, testimonials, local events, addresses, hours of business, etc. This will help search engines to serve more accurate, in-depth and relevant search results. It will also affect the say search engines display your data in the search results. For example, if you rank 6th in search results for a particular keyword, but have the schema mark-up that helps your reviews display in the search results, it is going to help your website stand out from higher ranked sites and improve your CTR and ultimately your search ranking.
Online Reviews. Do you have good reviews for your local business?
An online review is a brief summary or a rating provided by a customer based on their experience with a particular business. They are powerful social proof that can help reassure potential customers and impact local search. They also play a key part in the development of a business’s online reputation. Reviews are highly regarded as a major asset for online businesses, and this is especially true for local search. As many as 70% of global customers trust online reviews. The more positive reviews your business is able to get, the more prominent your business listing will be in local searches on search engines like Google, Google My Business, LinkedIn, Yelp, Trip Advisor, CitySearch, etc.
Keyword Cannibalization: are too many pages on your site targeting the same keyword?
Keyword cannibalization is a widespread information architecture problem that typically occurs when multiple pages on a website have been effectively optimized for the same keyword. In this scenario, a site’s content is inadvertently competing with content on different web pages of the same site. The problem is that the search engine spider will not know which webpage to show when people are searching for specific terms. It is important to make clear to Google which page you think is most relevant to a search query, and creating an organized keyword structure would be the ideal way to organize your content so that you avoid problems with keyword cannibalization.
External Links: are you linking to highly authoritative and contextually relevant websites?
External links (also known as outbound links) are links from your site to other websites. They are just as important to a good organic search ranking as inbound links. Without external links to authoritative sources that are relevant and useful to your website’s topics, your content will not be well regarded by the search engines. Google in particular wants to see that you are delivering a great user experience by citing relevant and helpful references in your content
Anchor Text Optimization: how natural is your anchor text?
It is important for your backlink profile to look as natural and as authoritative as possible. The most natural anchor texts to use for any link to a page on your site are the page title, naked URLs and brand anchors. Today, Google looks at the keywords in anchor text pointing to your website. If too many inbound links to a page (over 10 – 20%) contain an exact match keyword, it is often a sign that the links weren’t acquired naturally.
For example, imagine you have a webpage on your mobile phone site that sells Samsung Galaxy phones. You have over 30% of the 200 links that point to that page using the exact keyword phrase, “Cobalt blue Galaxy i900 S6 smartphone”. This will likely trigger the Penguin penalty because it is simply not natural for so many different people to refer to the same device using exactly the same words.
A more natural outcome will see some people spell “smartphone” with a space, some will spell it wrong, some will refer to the phone as an Android phone, some will omit i900, some will not include an adjective and some will use a different adjective. The Penguin update has just underscored how important natural anchor text optimization really is, and it is something you’ll need to take very seriously in your SEO campaigns.
404 Error Page: do you have a customized 404-error page?
Having 404 error pages is inevitable, and every website will probably have them at some point. Google is not going to penalize your site for 404 errors. What is important however, is the way you deal with 404 errors on your site. A generic 404 error page will lead to a poor user experience because the only option users have is to hit the Back button, never to return. This will count as a bounce rate, and this is what can seriously affect your organic search ranking, especially if lots of visitors to your site hit the back button as soon as they get there. Using a generic 404 error page will almost certainly cost you potential customers.
HTTPS: are you securing your website with SSL?
HTTPS is the backbone of secure internet transmission and secures your internet conversations to protect sensitive information. SSL is essential for any website that sells goods or services on the web, as it ensures that any communication between a browser and a server is private and secure. Having SSL on your ecommerce site will not only give you a small ranking boost, but visitors to your site will see and get reassurance from the HTTPS: in the address bar. If using Internet Explorer or Firefox, they will also see a padlock icon that indicates the site is secure.
Online Reputation Management: does your online reputation encourage your prospects to choose you over your competitors?
If you’re doing business on the web, it is important to ensure you build a solid reputation right from the start so that people have the right impression of you and your business. As a business owner, you need to make sure that you catch anything that may be negative and could adversely affect your online reputation and potentially hurt your business. This includes things like negative online reviews that may be casting doubt and fear and preventing people from purchasing your product or service.
Your goal should be to have content that reflects the business’ message dominating the first two pages or more of Google’s search results. That’s what you want people to see.
Note that some of these are only relevant to local businesses.
Linkable Assets. Do you have linkable assets to encourage websites in your niche to link to your website?
A linkable asset is any piece of content on your website that you can use as link bait to generate links from contextually relevant, established sites in your niche without having to pay for those links. For example, this page naturally attracts links simply because readers find the content useful. Without a linkable asset, you won’t have anything special you can use to attract or encourage organic backlinks to your site. Consequently, you won’t be able to craft powerful link prospecting queries to use as the basis of your link prospecting email.
Citations. Do you have many high quality citations linking to your website?
A citation is any mention or listing of your business name, address, phone number. Some citations can also include your business opening hours, a description and a link to your site. This combination of information about your business is often referred to as N.A.P. (name, address and phone number).
Citations on well-established and well-indexed sites help increase the search engines’ confidence in the accuracy of the information about your business. What format you choose for your citations isn’t important, but picking one format and sticking with it is absolutely essential. The more structured citations that exist for your business, the higher the degree of trust that search engines will have in your business.
Google Maps: are you optimized for Google Maps?
Since the Pigeon algorithm update in August 2014, Google has drastically changed the way local listings are displayed for specific search queries. Ever since, it has been increasingly difficult for local businesses to get a top organic search ranking because the algorithm update now tends to favour directory-style sites at the top. This has made getting into the Google Maps (also known as local 3-pack) an absolute necessity.
The Google 3-pack rolled out and replaced the 7-pack in August 2015. When it did, an estimated 57% of local businesses lost their first page visibility on Google maps, and with it, a lot of potential business leads in the process. Optimizing for the Google 3-pack is very important for your local business because this is where the visibility lies. This real estate is even more powerful than the organic listings because they are featured above the organic listings. Furthermore, if you’re featured at the top of the 3-pack, you’re likely to also be featured in the first organic search position.
Do you have contextually relevant backlinks?
Links are at the core of Google’s search algorithm, and link building is the most important off-page activity that can be used to increase the organic search ranking of your website. The act of linking to your site suggests your website is useful and relevant in the same way that editorial citations in an academic paper points you toward the original sources of data. These kinds of links are the best type of links to get, because they help across the board for terms you’re targeting, and benefit sites best if the sites are already well optimized and without major issues. Generally speaking, the more natural, inbound links that lead to your site, the more socially popular, authoritative and trustworthy your site will be to the search engines, which in turn equates to better search engine visibility and ultimately, more traffic to your site.
Google My Business. Do you have a well optimized Google My Business page?
Google+ and Google Search are directly linked, which makes Google+ the most important social network for SEO. Google+ is also an excellent platform that you can leverage to increase brand recognition, engage your target audience and showcase your expertise.
The true value of Google+ however lies in its ability to establish your digital identity and help you become more prominent in the Google search results. It’s really important to claim and optimize your Google My Business Page.
Are you in the right web directories?
High quality web directories are a popular means of generating high quality leads and obtaining one-way links, and links that come from top-notch web directories carry much weight in link popularity, and thus, page ranking. Web directories provide the search engines contextual information that they can use to discern what your site is about. Furthermore you can use web directories to enhance the visibility of your website and derive myriad benefits offered by them.
Is your site generating social signals?
Social signals serve as recommendations (or votes) cast by consumers. A social signal is generated every time a user likes or shares a particular piece of content, adds a comment, +1’s a post, or tweets a link. Social signals are an extremely important ranking signal because the search engines consider your authority and influence on social networks and the level of engagement your content receives. Search engines now incorporate social context into their search results in recognition of the shift that social media is bringing to the search algorithms. And even though Google has publicly stated that social signals from Twitter and Facebook are not factored in their ranking algorithms, there is strong evidence that suggests that a strong social media presence on Google+, Facebook and Twitter can have a strong influence on a webpage’s organic search ranking.
Are you listed in the right category for your local business?
The way in which you categorize your local business for local or mobile search is critically important when optimizing your site for Google Maps. This information sends a thematic signal to the search engines about the site’s theme, and is what will be used when your business citations are created on directory sites. Accurate categorization helps to provide additional contextual relevance to your keyword strategy. For your business to get the most value, it is critically important to choose the most relevant and specific category.
Choosing the right categories for your business has assumed enormous importance in the light of recent developments in local search, not least because of the release of the Pigeon update in 2014 which targeted organic local search and made specificity and accuracy of listings a top priority. A poll of local search experts by Moz also cited proper category associations as the most important signal of relevance.