Getting your site SEO-ready is about more than appeasing the search engine gods with technical trickery. That’s because actual human beings will be reading the content on your website, and most people have a low tolerance for keyword-stuffed garbage delivered in a tiny font on a page that jumps around. (And besides, Google has been hip to technical hacks for a while now.)
Modern SEO is about helping search engines understand your content so they can present it to actual people. Google prioritizes in-depth, authoritative content that loads fast and is easy to navigate. To rank well, you want to build a website that caters to your potential customers as well as search bots.
There is more overlap than ever between what search crawlers want and what readers want. The people have spoken (so to speak) and Google’s algorithm now considers things like content quality, UX, and page speed as ranking factors.
With that in mind, we’ve broken the work of getting a website to rank for SEO into two checklists. The first is a strategic checklist. Use it to assess whether you have a rock solid foundation for SEO success. The second is an on-page SEO checklist (the more technical stuff). The two work hand in hand.
If you feel confident about your content strategy and UX game, feel free to jump ahead to the more actionable on-page SEO checklist.
Here’s a list of everything we’ll cover in this article:
- Keyword Research
- Content Strategy
- Site Structure
- User Experience
- Mobile Usability
- Analytics Tools
- Metadata Optimization
- Yoast SEO Audit
- 301 Redirects
- Optimize for Local Search
Note: Our experience is with WordPress, which provides many built-in SEO advantages, so a few of these items mention WordPress-specific plugins. But most of these tasks apply to any CMS. And by way of introduction, we’re Gator SEM, a search engine marketing firm in Gainesville, Florida. SEO is baked into everything we do.
Strategic SEO Checklist
1. Keyword Research
Without doing keyword research, you won’t know what search terms to target in your content. There are many tools you can use to discover the search volume and ranking difficulty of keywords that are the most important to your niche. Ahrefs, SEMRush, and Google Keyword Planner (part of the Google Ads suite) are but a few.
Give prominent placement to your most important keywords on all conversion-oriented pages. That includes landing pages, checkout pages, lead form pages, etc. But don’t go overboard. Google views keyword-stuffed pages as spammy and can penalize you.
High search volume keywords tend to be very competitive. It takes time for a brand new site to rank for those. That’s why it’s important to include long-tail keywords as well.
Long-tail keywords are lower-volume keywords you can build supporting content around. These keywords are variants of your main keywords. They can also target specific geographic areas, or they may take the form of a question.
Let’s look at an example that combines head and long-tail keywords.
A real estate brokerage firm that trains real estate agents wants to target the phrase “real estate agent”, which has a US search volume of 54,000 a month. That phrase has a difficulty rating of 86 out of 100 (super hard), and a $6 cost-per-click, which is the average price advertisers pay for each ad click in paid search results
Ahrefs’ keyword explorer tool found 14,000+ questions that contain the phrase “real estate agent,” such as, “how to become a real estate agent in florida.” That question has a monthly volume of 1,300, a difficulty factor of 31 out of 100 (still difficult, but not impossible), and a CPC of $3, half that of “real estate agent.”
A strong content strategy builds content around both the head term and long-tail keywords or phrases like the one we just considered. Which brings us to our next item.
2. Content Strategy
An SEO-friendly content strategy provides answers to questions your potential customers are asking. These answers can take the form of core pages, a dedicated FAQ page, or individual blog posts that address particular topics.
In the real estate example, it would be very hard to crack the top 10 for “real estate agent,” so we also need to look at targeting content for long-tail keywords. Content built around long-tail keywords has the potential to convert at higher rates and at lower cost.
SEO content should be written in a conversational tone and go into depth on topics related to your business. If you’re thinking of skimping on writing costs, don’t. A well-crafted and targeted landing page or how-to guide that cost $500 to write can generate twice that much in leads and conversions a month.
3. Site Structure
Before you launch your site, think about the overall site structure. Are your service pages, lead forms, checkout pages, etc. easy to reach from anywhere on your site? Remember, most visitors to your site will not start out at the home page.
A “flat” site structure is better than a “deep” site structure. With a flat site structure, you’re never more than one or two clicks away from a page designed to convert. Sites with deep structures are difficult for search engines to crawl, and they require more effort of users. They also tend to result in duplicative content, which drains a page’s ranking potential by dividing it up.
Adjust your site’s structure so that natural organic landing pages are designed to convert, or point users to a lead generation page in two clicks or less.
If your site is built on WordPress, use the Yoast plugin to mark important pages as “cornerstone” content. Once marked, Yoast will suggest ways you can funnel internal traffic toward these pages.
4. User Experience
UX means something a little different for search bots (and the SEOs who love them), than it does for visual designers and front-end developers. For Google, it means how fast users can engage with your site, identify the purpose of your business, and find what they’re looking for. A bad UX takes more than three seconds before you can click around, or content shifts around while the page is loading, so the user has to wait.
These are all measurable attributes of a site that Google’s algorithm now considers when assigning rank to a piece of content. Does your web developer understand things like Largest Contentful Paint, First Input Delay, Cumulative Layout Shift? If not, your UX may not be up to snuff as far as Google is concerned.
5. Mobile Usability
Mobile usability is an important UX factor, as mobile devices are fast becoming the dominant way people use the Internet. Your site design should be mobile-first, but if that’s not possible, here are a few things you can do to make a site more mobile-friendly.
- Make sure text is big enough to be legible with adequate spacing between lines.
- Increase load time by reducing the size and quality of images and the number of videos
- Lazy load large images and videos
- Ensure that the navigation menu and a contact method is accessible from every page.
- Avoid m-dot domains for mobile-specific content. This strategy is not recommended by Google. Instead focus on creating a responsive design that works for multiple screen sizes.
5. Analytics Tools
It’s one thing to have a content strategy in place. It’s another thing to measure results and understand what’s working and what’s not working. This is where analytics tools come into play. Google provides two free tools for analyzing search data: Analytics and Google Search Console.
Analytics is a free to use tracking tool that can help you learn how people are using your site in minute detail. Analytics gives you data on bounce rate, page views, device type, and much more. Setting up Analytics is as simple adding a tag to your header, a task that can be accomplished in WordPress with very little coding know-how. Be sure to exclude your own IP address from tracking.
For a full guide to getting started with Google Analytics, check out Databox’s excellent guide.
Google Search Console
If you’ve already set up Google Analytics, Google Search Console (previously known as Google Webmaster Tools) is very easy to set up. It requires that you verify site ownership. Once set up, you’ll have to wait about a week before data shows up, so it’s best to start this process before you launch your site.
Once data starts rolling in, you can use the URL inspection tool to make sure Google is indexing pages properly. Search Console provides a good overview of what keywords are generating organic search traffic. (In Google Analytics, referring keywords often show up as “not provided”). You can drill down to see impressions, clicks, and click-through-rate (CTR) for every search phrase that brought visitors to your site.
Search Console can also uncover UX and Mobile Usability issues that could affect search rankings.
If you’re not using WordPress or another CMS that automatically generates an XML site map, you can create one yourself and submit it via Search Console.
On-Page SEO Checklist
Now that we have the basics under our belt, let’s look at page-level optimizations that can make individual pieces of content stand out in search.
1. Metadata Optimization
Optimizing metadata is all about controlling how your content will appear in SERPs. The CMS you choose will determine how you handle meta data.
Compared to other CMSs, WordPress makes on-page SEO a breeze. Here are some basic metadata items that must be in place for a page to command any rank in search.
Each page should contain a unique title tag that is less than 70 characters long and includes the targeted phrase, preferably at the beginning.
The URL should be short and descriptive, and include the targeted keywords or key phrase.
If you have several pages with overlapping content, such as regional variants of the same landing page, be sure to designate one page the Canonical URL. You can do this under the Advanced tab in Yoast.
Give your images descriptive titles and alt text, unless they are purely decorative. This helps folks with visual impairments and provides that extra bit of meta data to search engines. (Resist the temptation to keyword stuff here.)
Make sure you have internal links pointing at the page and that the targeted keywords are in the link copy. You want to avoid “click here” link text, which offers no semantic value to search crawlers.
2. Yoast SEO Audit
If you’re using WordPress, the Yoast plugin gives you the ability to conveniently edit quite a few more metadata items. At the bottom of each page, Yoast provides inputs for:
- focus keyphrase – the keywords you’re hoping to rank for
- SEO title – usually the page title, a separator, and the name of your website
- slug – the last part of the URL
- meta description – usually picked up by Google, unless the algorithm decides an excerpt of body content makes more sense
In the example below Yoast gives us a preview of how the blog post will likely appear in SERPs.
A good meta description should be straightforward and also entice readers to want to learn more.
3. 301 Redirects
Before launch, it’s important to have a redirection strategy in place for URLs that are being changed or removed. Serving a 301 indicates to both browsers and search engines that the page has moved permanently.
For popular pages, having a redirect in place is essential for carrying any page rank from the old page to the new URL. An abundance of 404 error pages is not only bad UX, it can hobble your SEO at launch.
To avoid this, make a list of all the pages on current site and then determine where you are going to redirect them. The best way to go about this tedious task it is to create a spreadsheet with the old URL in the first column and the new URL in the second column.
You can put redirects in place by editing your server’s .htaccess file directly, or using a CMS plugin. If you’re using WordPress, Yoast offers a redirect management feature with its paid version.
4. Optimize for Local Search
Local citations are any online mentions of the name, address, and phone number of a local business. Citations can occur on social platforms like Facebook, in local business directories (old school), on websites and apps, and in search results. The most important local citation is your Google My Business (GMB) profile, which we discuss below.
Google My Business
If a local presence is important to your business, make sure you claim and optimize your Google My Business listing prior to launch. Give yourself at least two weeks from launch to get the ball rolling on your GMB profile, as that’s how long it typically takes to verify ownership (by snail mail!).
While it’s not as critical as it once was, it’s still good to be consistent with your business name, address and phone number across local listings. Be sure to provide business hours, services hours, photos if you have a physical presence, and a link to your website.
For more pointers on raising your GMB profile’s profile, check out our article on how to optimize your Google My Business listing.
We’re Ready to Help!
That should be enough to get your site off the ground with confidence that you will be set up for SEO success. Let us know how it’s going. Our business is SEO, so don’t hesitate to reach out for help with content strategy, customizing a WordPress site, and more. Just fill out the free consultation form to get started, or give us a call at 888-487-7361.