Technical SEO is an important — but often misunderstood — part of search engine optimization. This article breaks down what technical SEO actually is and provides a helpful checklist for any small business to DIY tech SEO.
First, we’ll gain an understanding and explore key technical SEO definitions. We’ll talk about why technical SEO is important. And then, we’ll share a technical SEO checklist for small businesses.
Settle in for a long, technical post. Let’s do this.
The parts of technical SEO
Twelve categories that collectively make up technical SEO:
- On-page SEO
- Site speed performance
- Internal pages
- Duplicate content
- External pages
Without going too deep into the technicalities, let’s dive into some of the common issues within each category.
Indexability is the primary objective of technical SEO. As a site owner, you want search engines to discover and index your content.
However, a couple of common indexability issues can prevent that objective from being achieved: canonical and noindex pages.
A canonical tag tells a search engine to show the most authoritative (canonical) version of a page in search results.
The canonical tag is especially important for similar or duplicate pages.
Without the canonical tag, search engines may take their best guess or avoid indexing the appropriate page.
Sometimes a canonical tag can point to a page that doesn’t exist (404 error) or a page with a redirect. Canonical tags should only be used for pages that return valid 200 (OK) page versions to get indexed in search results.
Including a “noindex” meta tag on a page will prevent search engines from indexing the content in search results. This “noindex” tag can be great for pages you don’t want to appear in search results, such as an “Archives” or “Category” page. But if you want a page to appear in search results, make sure this tag is removed.
2. On-page SEO
On-page SEO helps both search engines and site visitors understand the content of a web page. Although an entire guide could be devoted to on-page SEO, three on-page elements can be addressed within technical SEO: title tags, meta descriptions and H1 tags.
Title tags briefly describe the content of a web page. They are displayed as the title of a result in a search engine results page, as well as the web browser tab.
Common errors with title tags can be that they are too long, too short, or missing altogether. A recommended title tag length should be between 50 and 60 characters.
Meta descriptions provide a short snippet that describes a web page. These descriptions are displayed as a description on a search engine results page and can heavily influence whether a searcher clicks on a result to learn more.
Meta descriptions have similar issues as title tags: they’re too long, short or empty.
Google recommends that every page has a meta description that is 110 to 160 characters.
H1 tags aren’t as critical as a page title tag, but they are an opportunity to improve your on-page SEO. They serve as a top-level heading of a web page and help both search engines and site visitors grasp the content’s overarching topic.
Since H1 tags are the strongest header tag, it is recommended to use only one tag per page, with a unique H1 tag on every page.
3. Site speed performance
Site speed impacts both user experience and a search engine’s ability to crawl content.
There are many site speed performance elements, including the HTML code of a website, server selection and images.
Your best bet is to run a site speed test on Google to create a custom report on issues impacting your performance.
Images matter so much in SEO that Google has even created a best practices guide for site owners to follow.
Five common image issues to watch out for in SEO:
- Broken images.
- Large file sizes.
- Image redirects.
- HTTPS page with an HTTP image.
- Missing ALT text.
The bottom line with images is to create a great user experience, both visually and technically, and you’ll be alright.
5. Internal pages
URLs of internal pages can often produce errors. Common internal page errors include 5XX pages, 4XX pages and HTTPS/HTTP mixed content.
- 4XX pages: The URL can’t be accessed. 4XX errors include 401 - Unauthorized, 403 - Forbidden, 408 - Request Timeout and 404 - Not Found.
- 5XX pages: A URL will return a 5XX status code when there is a server error. Common 5XX errors include 500 - Internal Server Error, 502 - Bad Gateway, 503 - Service Unavailable and 504 - Gateway Timeout.
Because Google was founded as a hypertextual search engine, links have always mattered in SEO.
But how do links matter in technical SEO?
Unlike traditional link building, technical SEO evaluates how links appear on internal pages. A solid internal link structure enables crawlers to easily navigate a site and discover important pieces of content.
Here are a few areas to evaluate when it comes to links and technical SEO:
- Internal and external links to broken pages
- Pages without any outgoing links
- HTTPS pages with internal links to HTTP pages
- Pages with no internal links
- Links to redirected pages
Redirects are a natural component of managing a website. But, there can be issues with redirects that result in a poor user experience or a “trap” for search engine crawlers.
Here are common issues with redirects:
- Redirect loop: An infinite loop of redirects caused by a URL redirecting itself to another redirect chain
- Broken redirect: URLs that redirect to a 4XX or 5XX page
- 3XX redirect: The fewer redirects and the more direct internal links, the better
8. Duplicate content
Duplicate content tends to have a negative connotation within SEO, but most of the time, duplicate content is not intended to be deceptive. Instead, some duplicate content issues are well-intentioned efforts that result in content that either matches or is closely similar to another piece of content.
The solution to duplicate content is canonical tags.
We will dive into canonicals more in our technical SEO checklist below.
Websites use CSS styling to help present content on web pages. Styling can include colors, fonts and layouts that display on different devices.
11. External pages
The websites that your site externally links to can directly reflect your site’s reputation and content.
That’s why technical SEO evaluates which links your site points to externally. Besides ensuring these externally linked sites are reputable, technical SEO evaluates whether these links result in any 3XX, 4XX or 5XX errors.
While those categories generally make up the core technical SEO, there are a few other common technical SEO issues that fall outside these categories.
These issues mainly pertain to sitemap and site structure issues like:
- 3XX, 4XX or 5XX page in the sitemap
- Organic traffic going to a 3XX or Noindex page
- Double slash in URL
Let’s go deeper into actions that you can take as a small business owner with technical SEO, as well as why tech SEO is important.
The importance of technical SEO
Why does technical SEO matter to a small business?
In a decade of doing SEO for small businesses, there’s a graph I see all too often.
This graph shows a steep, sudden downward drop in organic search traffic. The impact on business is usually significant, and the mistake that caused the drop is usually an innocent one.
For example, a web developer may disallow the website in a robots.txt file. Or, redirects weren’t implemented properly during a domain migration or CMS transfer.
Technical SEO prevents downward drops, and, fortunately, there are simple steps you can take to improve your presence online.
Small business technical SEO checklist
Now that we’ve answered the question of “what is technical SEO,” there are more than 100 technical SEO checkpoints to evaluate on a website. What are the most important technical SEO checklist items that entrepreneurs and small business owners should address?
Here are 10 essential items to include on a technical SEO checklist:
- Get Google Search Console
- Install an SSL certificate
- Test Robots.txt file
- Build and submit a sitemap
- Use WebP images
- Fix 404 errors
- Select a web hosting plan
- Optimize home page title tag
- Implement website security
- Leverage browser caching
1. Get Google Search Console
Google Search Console is a free web tool that allows small business owners to improve their Google Search performance. Key technical features include the ability to check indexing status, fix issues and measure the website’s performance.
In other words, Google Search Console is about as close as you can get to a direct line of communication with Google.
Site owners can share information with Google on what pages to index and which issues have been fixed. Google can share information with site owners to alert them to issues that need to be addressed.
Action item: Sign up for Google Search Console to get your content on Google and understand how Google Search sees your pages.
2. Install an SSL certificate
Search engines prioritize security and safety. In 2014, Google announced that HTTPS would be used as a ranking signal to encourage more websites to install SSL certificates and adopt HTTPS to help customers stay protected.
Implementing an SSL certificate puts the padlock icon next to your URL and creates a secure connection for your customers. Without an SSL certificate, website visitors looking to access your site may receive a warning in their web browser, saying, “This connection is not secure.”
Action item: Show search engines and website visitors that you’re trustworthy by installing an SSL certificate.
3. Test robots.txt file
A robots.txt file tells search engine crawlers which pages or files can or can't be requested from your site. A robots.txt file's primary purpose is to reduce load requests from crawlers. However, sometimes a misconfigured robots.txt can prevent an entire site from appearing in search engine result pages.
For example, checking the “Discourage search engines from indexing this site” in WordPress will add a “Disallow: /” directive in a robots.txt file. This will tell a search engine that no information can be requested for indexing and prevent a web page from appearing on a search engine.
Action item: Make sure URLs aren’t blocked from requests by testing your robots.txt file with Google’s robots.txt tester.
4. Build and submit a sitemap
A sitemap is a file that search engines use to discover the content on your site. Building and submitting a sitemap to a tool like Google Search Console enables search engines to crawl, discover and index the important content on your site.
Think of a sitemap as a roadmap. If you’re taking a road trip, a roadmap helps you reach a final destination efficiently while taking note of important landmarks along the way.
A website sitemap accomplishes a similar objective.
5. Use WebP images
Large images can take up space on a hard drive and slow down the speed of a website. To make the web faster, websites are encouraged to use WebP in place of traditional file formats like PNG or JPEG.
WebP helps reduce file sizes without reducing image quality. In fact, studies show that WebP lossless images are 26% smaller in size compared to PNGs and 25 to 34% smaller than comparable JPEG images.
6. Fix all 404 errors
Broken links, or 404 URL errors, happen when a requested URL does not exist. These 404 URLs damage the user experience on a website and lead to "dead ends" for search engine crawlers looking to access and index content.
Either way, managing and monitoring 404 errors through Google Search Console is a worthwhile activity to help your website shine.
7. Select a web hosting plan
The common thread behind both site speed and downtime? Your website hosting.
Selecting the right hosting plan for your site that accounts for website traffic and size can help ensure that your site enjoys uptime at fast speeds.
8. Optimize home page title tag
Small businesses can improve their SEO by inserting a descriptive page title tag on their website's homepage. Instead of leaving the page title tag as a default setting like “Home - Website Name,” small businesses can add a key phrase to their homepage that describes the business.
For example, look at the page title tag of this pipeline pigging company:
“Pipeline Pigging Company | Montauk Services”
This simple, descriptive title tag helps search engines and prospective customers understand the company's services.
Action item: Review your page title tag by doing an on-page SEO audit and update your page title tag if needed.
9. Implement website security
Search engines closely monitor whether websites contain malware or unwanted software that negatively affects the user experience.
To avoid security issues, be proactive, and seek to detect vulnerabilities that may exist on a website. Common vulnerabilities can include a SQL injection through an out-of-date website plugin or simply not using strong passwords.
10. Leverage browser caching
When a visitor goes to your website, all information (images, text, fonts, CSS styles, scripts, etc.) on that web page has to be retrieved from somewhere. Enabling caching gives a web browser the choice of retrieving that information from a previously stored version or the server.
Without getting too technical, leveraging browser caching can make a big difference in terms of how quickly a web page loads.
Go to your website theme developer to see which caching plugin they recommend for theme compatibility or do some research online about the best caching plugins to try out.
Action item: Enable browser caching using a plugin or a managed hosting service.
Technical SEO is something a determined entrepreneur or small business owner can do themselves with a solid education.
Use this post as a reference. Bookmark the URL and revisit some of the definitions as you explore issues and opportunities to improve your website.
The hardest part for most people is not knowing what technical SEO is. Hopefully, these definitions and tips will help you improve your SEO presence and become a better entrepreneur along the way.