Technical SEO

What is technical SEO?

Written by

Tyler Scionti

It won't be long into your SEO journey that you come across technical SEO.

I remember when I first started learning about SEO and I can vouch for the fact that technical SEO is one of the more intimidating aspects of SEO to marketers just getting started.

That said it is a crucial component of any effective SEO strategy and it's a great way for marketers to build great working relationships with their website management and development teams.

Technical SEO can be the difference between a site ranking on the first page and never being seen. Technical SEO can be, well, technical so if you're not tech savvy a lot of this will be new to you.

Hang in there though.

We're going to provide a complete overview of technical SEO to help you get started, or at the very least know what to bring up to your website's developer so they can help prioritize.

What is technical SEO?

Technical SEO is the practice of improving the technical aspects of your website, and putting your content in the best position possible to rank.

Things like site speed, security, and 'crawlability' are all aspects of technical SEO.

Another way to think about it is technical SEO covers everything you can do to make it easy for Google to analyze and understand your website. Technical SEO is a part of on-page SEO along with content optimization. While content optimization is more about the actual text and keyword usage on a page, technical SEO covers how the page functions, is loaded, and performs.

The easier your website is to understand the better your chances at ranking for your top keywords. As you can imagine technical SEO is pretty important, but just how much does it matter?

Why does technical SEO matter?

Technical SEO matters across search engines, but most often when we're talking about technical SEO we're talking about Google. And Google takes their search results seriously.

Like, super seriously.

As of writing this Google commands around 92% of the marketshare:

There's little (read zero) indication of that changing.

Why is Google so successful? Because they are adept at understanding and evaluating content in order to return the best search results possible.

Let's talk about that 'analyzing and evaluating' part.

Google has a pretty in depth set of criteria laid out in their webmaster guidelines. While these guidelines may be a bit intense to dive into at first, they're well worth a read as they provide the ultimate blueprint for what Google is looking for in high quality content.

Here's how Google summarizes them:

The Webmaster guidelines are general best practices to help your site appear in Google Search, as well as quality guidelines that, if not followed, can cause your page or site to be omitted from Search.

Google Webmaster Guidelines

Content that does not meet these guidelines, or worse actively disregards them, is at a serious disadvantage when it comes to ranking.

Technical SEO matters because it determines the position you put your website in and can be a difference maker in whether you rank.

What are the characteristics of an optimized website?

There's a lot to technical SEO and it's easy to get overwhelmed. I don't want that to be the case after reading this post so let's focus the essentials.

The following are the key characteristics of a technically optimized website that you need to be aware of.

It's fast

When was the last time you visited a website that took forever to load?

How'd you react?

Yeah, that sums it up for me too.

Slow websites create a bad experience, and as we've seen Google cares a lot about the experience they provide through their search results. If Google is returning slow websites on the first page that creates a negative experience for searchers and that reflects negatively on them.

Google invests a lot in educating developers and website managers about site performance, and if Google is investing a lot in something you should too.

You can easily measure the speed of your site with free tools like PageSpeed Insights which allows you to enter any URL from your website and review it's speed and personalized recommendations to improve it.

It's secure

Search engines are on a mission to return the highest quality content that they can, and security is playing an increasing role in that.

What do I mean by security?

SSL.

SSL stands for secure socket layer, and while that may sound like a load of technical jargon don't worry, you don't have to get too deep into it. All you need to do is enable SSL for your website.

The good news is this is actually quite easy to do!

So what does SSL do?

An SSL certificate is a bit of code on your web server that provides security for online communications. When a web browser (like Chrome) contacts your site to load, if it's using SSL then the connection between your browser and your website is encrypted.

Think of it as sealing a letter in an envelope. Now, imagine that letter has a check in it... yeah I'd want that sealed too. SSL is critical for any website, but especially ecommerce sites and online shops.

The most obvious change SSL provides is your website loads over 'https'. Google named https as a ranking factor back in 2014 and Chrome started showing a lock (or an unlock) symbol next to the website url in their browser:

There's a lot at stake for Google when it comes to how secure your website is. SSL makes transactions more secure and provides a safer browser experience for your site visitors. Anything you can do to secure your website helps your technical optimization efforts.

That's not to say that SSL is guaranteed to take your site to the first page of Google, but it helps.

It's crawlable and indexable

Google doesn't just magically show pages from your website in search results.

Just like someone may click through your website to find new pages, Google scans through your website in order to discover content on your website and rank it accordingly.

In order to help Google crawl your website there are two things you need to do.

Set up a sitemap

A sitemap is pretty much exactly what it sounds like - a map of your website. Search engines are able to analyze websites thanks to their sitemaps, as they provide a simple and predictable directory of pages for every site.

Most website platforms manage the sitemap for you, to make sure your sitemap is live simply add '/sitemap.xml' to the end of your homepage URL. This will direct you to the sitemap of your website.

When launching a site it's important to submit your sitemap to Google Search Console so that it can be read right away, otherwise it may be a while until Google indexes your site.

Set up a robots.txt file

A robots.txt file is simply a file on your website that tells Google what not to crawl.

In a way it's the opposite of a sitemap, but it's just as important.

Robots.txt files are critical when it comes to managing the content that search engines have access to, because let's face it not all of the content on your site is worth appearing in Google. It's also important to double check your robots.txt file to make sure valuable pages are not being blocked.

To find your robots.txt file simply add '/robots.txt' to the end of your homepage url. Most website platforms provide a robots.txt file for you, though not all of them allow you to edit it. We ran a deep dive into robots.txt files to show you how to manage them for all of the major website platforms.

It has no duplicate content

If you have a website that has been active for a while, chances are you could have duplicate content hidden somewhere.

Perhaps two, or three blog posts all cover the same topic. Maybe you've got a few landing pages that are pretty similar.

Duplicate content is more than wasted space on your website. It confuses search engines and can harm your chance at ranking. When Google analyzes your website and finds three pages that could all rank for the same keyword it can dilute the rank of each page (also called keyword cannibalization) and result in no pages ranking.

If you you have duplicate content across your site, whether exact content that is repeating or content that covers the same topic, it's best to pick a piece of content you want to set as primary and redirect the duplicate page(s) to it.

It does not have broken links

We talked about slow websites being frustrating, but there's something that can be even more annoying - dead ends throughout your site.

When visitors click through your website but keep hitting your 404 page (404 is the error code when a url does not exist, so either the URL is incorrect or the page was unpublished) frustrating is a nice word to describe the feeling.

Just as site visitors don't enjoy bumping into dead ends, search engines find it annoying as well. As Google scrapes your content and follows links throughout the site, if you keep leading them to dead ends they'll get pretty peeved as well.

If your site has some dead links don't feel bad, this happens! It's important to recognize it though, which is why I recommend reviewing your pages and making sure that the ones you have unpublished (so they were live but are no longer live) redirect to a page.

Ideally you're using a 301 redirect to preserve SEO credit, this way your rankings don't get impacted and the user experience remains seamless.

Technical SEO and Javascript

No post on technical SEO would be complete without mentioning Javascript.

Back in the early days of the web, pages were made of HTML and CSS.

HTML covers the basic construction of the web, it includes things like text, headings, lists, you get the drill. CSS covers how the HTML appears. Things like size, height, width, color and more are all controlled by CSS.

I like to use the analogy that if the basic frame of a house is HTML, the paint, cabinets, counters, and landscaping are CSS.

Not bad for some simple code right?

So what does this have to do with Javascript?

Javascript is a bit of a newer as a web technology, and it continues to become more important in website and app development as time goes on. Javascript is a powerful language in that it can manipulate HTML and CSS to do some really cool things when visitors interact with your website.

If HTML and CSS control how the site looks, Javascript controls how the house functions.

The problem is that traditionally Google has been really good at analyzing the HTML of a website, but understanding how Javascript changes the appearance of a website is trickier.

Client side vs Server side Javascript

This is where things get a bit technical (your developer will likely understand so don't sweat this too much) but hang in there.

One of the central issues with Javascript, as we discussed above, is that it is tricky for Google to see it the same way that you or I do. That's because Javascript can be rendered on the server side or the client side.

Let's dig in there a bit.

Client side is when everything happens in the browser window. The HTML, CSS, and Javascript are all loaded and execute (do their thing) right in the browser as you load the page. This can cause page load times to increase, but it also means everything happens in the browser and is easier to see for Google.

Server side is when everything happens off the website, in a server, and is then sent to your browser to load fully rendered. This is tricky for Google because as they scan a URL they don't immediately see the fully rendered page - in fact they might see nothing!

Now Google says this isn't an issue if they can access your Javascript files, as they'll be able to piece things together from there, but that's no guarantee they will. There are a few known issues that could prevent them:

  • You're blocking Googlebot from reading the Javascript files, so they can't see how the page will render.
  • Your server can't handle the requests from Googlebot and fails.
  • The Javascript is outdated or poorly formatted and Googlebot can't read it.

What this means is you're risking Google not understanding your content, and having a pretty poor impression of your website. You don't have to be a developer to know that's not great.

How to monitor your website's technical SEO

We covered a lot here, you might be wondering how you can actually put this to practice. Technical SEO in theory is all well and good, but if you aren't putting any of these principles to practice you won't get any benefit in your rankings.

It's impossible to check everything on this list around the clock, it's also pointless too. Chances are your site speed is going to be pretty stable, so checking it every day is a waste of valuable time.

I like to break down these principles into timeframes to check in and make sure we're moving in the right direction, here's what I typically recommend.

Do once a year

Once a year I like to take stock of our growth and improvement. Using tools like Google Analytics and Google Search Console it's nice to get a sense of the progress I made in a year, and what my targets should be for the next year.

This can also be a great rallying cry behind your SEO efforts and a way to showcase your hard work!

Do once a quarter

Once a quarter I like to check in on the large moving pieces:

  • When was the last time Google analyzed our sitemap?
  • Is the sitemap up to date?
  • Do we need to make any changes to our robots.txt?
  • Are we considering any large technical changes to the website that could impact performance? How is SEO part of the conversation there?

Do once a month

Once a month it's nice to get into the weeds a bit more and make sure our content strategy is moving in the right direction and we're creating a great experience for website visitors.

  • Is the side loading quickly?
  • Do we have any dead links that need redirecting?
  • Do we have any duplicate content that needs redirecting?

Continued learning

This post covered a lot at a pretty high level.

If you want to dig deeper we have a few resources that will help guide you further to mastering technical SEO (or at least having a better relationship with your developers).

iCodeSEO is an excellent collection of technical SEO resources and code snippets to help automate your work. These are great to share with your website and development team as they might have some ideas on how to implement them and turn your website into an SEO powerhouse.

Updated on:

November 22, 2020

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