You might have missed this.
But Google brought us an interesting surprise recently.
They decided to revamp their official SEO Starter Guide for the first time in over seven years.
The new Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Starter Guide is full of useful and interesting information we can all benefit from.
Unfortunately, some of the content in there isn’t clear or specific enough.
It’s not that Google is hiding something from you, it’s that they don’t want to tell you exactly what you need to know to rank higher in their search engines.
They prefer if you discover that on your own.
But fear not, in this article you will learn everything you need to know from the new SEO Starter Guide and how you can implement that information on your site.
What Will I Learn?
Making Your Site Show Up on Google
The first step to rank on Google is having your site in their index. To do so you need to make your site crawlable and indexable.
To help you achieve that, Google suggests you ask yourself a few questions which will help you find out whether your site is being crawled and indexed-
- Is my website showing up on Google?
- Do I serve high quality content to users?
- Is my local business showing up on Google?
- Is my content fast and easy to access on all devices?
- Is my website secure?
Is Your Website Showing Up On Google?
This question is easy to answer. Simply search for your company or website’s name on Google and see if it shows up.
If I ran a pizza place in London called “Pizza Union” (a company that exists), and I searched for it on Google, I’d see it’s ranking in there in the first position-
If you don’t find your site, make sure you check outside page 1.
Also, if your name is similar to a large company or if it represents a broad term (for example, if my pizza place was called “London Pizza,” it’d be hard to rank for that term for obvious reasons), don’t despair.
It’s not an SEO problem so much as a naming one.
Are You Serving High Quality Content?
You probably know that creating high-quality content is a prerequisite to rank these days.
Defining “high-quality content” on the other hand isn’t easy.
But way back in my zero link building experiment I noted that Matt Cutts had defined it as-
- Something that is unique/different/original
- Useful/helpful to the community
- Answers common questions in your niche
- Original research
- Create videos
- How to guides and tutorials
- Create lists of helpful resources
If your content attracts links and social shares then we can define it as high-quality.
At the end of the day, people don’t link or share to content they deem low-quality.
So, taking this idea into consideration, let’s check how many links and shares your content is getting. We are going to check your content’s link popularity with Ahrefs.
Just drop the URL in Ahrefs Site Explorer to check the number of backlinks you have received and the number of referring domains.
There’s no right or wrong number of backlinks and referring domains but if you see zero links, you should review the quality of the content.
Next we are going to check the social popularity with another great tool, Buzzsumo.
Just drop your URL into the search bar and then check how many shares your content has gotten-
As you can see with the link results above and the popularity on social media we can conclude this is high quality content.
Hint: You can also use this WordPress plugin to grab the social shares of all of your content in one click
Don’t worry if you dont have any links or social shares – it could just be your content promotion wasn’t very effective.
But you should certainly pay close attention to these pages and review them against competing search results for relevant keywords.
Is Your Local Business Showing Up On Google?
Note: If you don’t have a local business, you can skip this part.
Local SEO is extremely important if you run a local business, as it works differently than non-local SEO.
Both local and non-local SEO need on-site optimisation and links to rank high in the search engines. The main difference lies in that local sites also need citations.
A citation is an online reference to your business’s name, address and phone number (NAP).
Citations work like links, because Google uses them to evaluate the online authority of your business. What makes citations different from links is that the former don’t need a link pointing to your business’s website in order for you to be credited for them.
Getting a NAP is already enough.
To check your local business, repeat what I showed up before; that is, search your business on Google.
Continuing with the pizza place example, I see they show up in the local results.
You should then check to see if your business comes up in listings for popular keywords, like “Pizza London” for example.
If your local business doesn’t show up for your target keywords you can use the WhiteSpark Citation Service to get a boost in local rankings.
If you don’t find your place anywhere, you need to add your company with Google My Business.
The process is straightforward:
In the Google My Business website, click on the “Start Now” button.
Once you do so, you will have to add your company’s information, including your business name, your location, the kind of business you run, and your company’s phone number and website.
The process won’t take you more than 5 minutes and will help you get your company listed on Google Maps.
Is My Content Fast And Easy To Access On All Devices?
Your websites speed not only affects your rankings but it also has a huge impact on user experience.
A 1 second delay in load time can lead to a 7% drop off in conversion and 11% fewer pageviews.
To check your page speed, you can use a tool like GTmetrix.
Once you have added your site, GTmetrix will tell you:
- The performance score
- The load time
- The page size
- The number of requests (i.e., how many requests did GTmetrix have to make to load all your site’s elements; the fewer requests, the better)
In general, you want a load time under 2 seconds, and a page size under 1 megabyte.
If you find your site to be above those two thresholds, focus on solving the problems GTmetrix shares with you.
Some of the most common problems related to a site’s speed performance are the lack of browser caching, progressive rendering, HTTP compression, among other problems.
If you want to learn more about the most common speed problems you can face, you can read Google’s own PageSpeed Insights rules.
Fortunately, you don’t need to become an expert in speed optimisation to make your website faster.
With the help of W3 Total Cache, a WordPress plugin with over 1 million downloads and 2,700 5-star reviews, you can optimise your site’s page speed in a few minutes.
Once you install it, you will find there are a large number of sections within the plugin you can check.
Before you get overwhelmed, remember you want to optimise for the problems your site has, not for every single possible you may face in the future.
To that end, you want to go back to GTmetrix’ performance review and check the problems they found.
With Pizza Union, you can see they only have one problem: landing page redirects.
In other words, they have a problem with duplicate content, something that can be easily fixed with the help of Yoast SEO.
But if your website has other, more pressing problems, like lack of browser caching (which allows a user’s browser to “save” a page’s version in their “memory”), you want to use W3 Total Cache.
If that was the case, you’d need to go to Browser Cache, which is the seventh element in the menu as shown above.
Generally speaking, W3 Total Cache fixes the most common problems as default, so you may not need to do anything.
As you can see in the image below, W3 Total Cache has already specified the general cache policy:
Once you have installed W3 Total Cache, you should see an immediate improvement in your site’s speed.
If you don’t, and you don’t know what to do, you should talk to a developer who specializes in site speed optimisation to help you out solve the problems GTmetrix indicates.
Another common issue is the lack of a Content Delivery Network (or CDN), which would make the user download your site’s elements from the location of your server.
That means, if your servers are located in Liverpool, and your user is in Los Angeles, Bangkok, or Cape Town, it would take their browser more time to load your page.
But if you used a CDN like MaxCDN, they could download all the elements from the closest server, making the site’s download speed much faster and efficient.
If you click on W3 Total Cache’s General Settings section, you can select the CDN type you want to use, and the plugin will do most of the hard work for you.
Both the use of W3 Total Cache and a CDN will make your site speed much faster, improving your user experience as well as your rankings.]
You could also use a free plugin like WPSmush to optimize all of your images and reduce your overall page size in just a couple of clicks.
Is My Website Secure?
Back in 2014, Google added the use of SSL to their ranking factors.
SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) is the standard security technology for establishing an encrypted link between a web server and a browser. Basically, having a domain with SSL will certify your site’s security.
Because the use of SSL impacts in your rankings, you want to make sure you are using it in your site, especially if you accept payments on your site.
You can use the Let’s Encrpyt service which allows you to add a encrypted certification for free.
Once you have the SSL certificate installed on a server level you can use a plugin like Really Simple SSL to enable it on the WordPress level.
If your business is running on WordPress, check out How To Switch From HTTP To HTTPS (13 Simple Steps) from Cloudliving.
Finally, Google talks about making your content easier to find. On that end, they recommend the use of sitemaps:
A sitemap is a file on your site that tells search engines about new or changed pages on your site.
A sitemap tells Google which pages they should crawl, as well as determine the canonical version (i.e., the correct version) of each page.
Once you have the sitemap, you want to add it to the Google Search Console as they explain in this article.
Hiring An SEO Expert
SEO takes a lot of time.
If you are a busy business owner, or if you prefer to focus on other parts of your business (like sales and operations), you want to hire an SEO expert.
As Google says in the Starter Guide:
Many SEOs and other agencies and consultants provide useful services for website owners, including:
- Review of your site content or structure
- Content development
- Management of online business development campaigns
- Keyword research
- SEO training
- Expertise in specific markets and geographies
Finding a trustworthy SEO company can be hard.
To help you find the right one, you want to check for the following things:
- The results they have gotten to their past and current clients. Ask for case studies and references. Make sure they show specific results (e.g., “Our link building campaign attracted 15 high-authority links which helped driving the organic search traffic 20% in 3 months”).
- The person in charge of your site. You want to make sure the company doesn’t outsource the work or give it to a junior executive with little experience. Make sure you talk to the person in charge of your site before signing off.
- The link building tactics they use. Make sure they don’t use black hat tactics, unless that’s what you need (for example, if you are in the gambling industry). Ask them to show you specific links they’ve gotten and how they got them.
- The timeline and deliverables. SEO takes time, but you want them to make progress on a month-per-month basis. At first, they should focus on keyword research, on-site optimisation, and technical SEO. Later, they’ll focus on link building and content creation. Tell them to tell you exactly what steps will be involved and the time each one will take.
Another important thing to take into consideration, is to get started with SEO before you need it.
As Google mentions in the Starter Guide-
If you’re thinking about hiring an SEO, the earlier the better. A great time to hire is when you’re considering a site redesign, or planning to launch a new site. That way, you and your SEO can ensure that your site is designed to be search engine-friendly from the bottom up. However, a good SEO can also help improve an existing site.
Optimise Your Title Tags and Meta Description
You can have the best content in the world, but if neither Google knows what your page is about nor people understand the content of it, no one will visit your site.
That’s where title tags and meta descriptions come to the rescue.
As you may know, title tags are one of the most important on-site elements of your site.
Google weights the optimisation of your title tags heavily, so if you use the right keywords in it, Google will likely reward you with better results.
Meta descriptions on the other hand will help people (and Google) understand what your page is about.
If you do your job correctly, your click-through-rate (CTR) will skyrocket, increasing your organic traffic (even if you don’t rank number 1).
Here’s how you optimise your title tag and meta description.
Title Tag Optimisation
First and foremost, your title tags need to have the main keyword of your page.
You can use an exact match of the keyword (that is, the exact keyword for which you want to rank), or simply use it within a phrase.
For example, if you wanted to rank for the keyword “Pizza London,” like in the case of the company we’ve been using so far, you’d need to add that keyword within the title tag.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case:
Long are the days where you could stuff your main keywords in your title tags and expect good results.
That’s why you need to get creative and use some SEO copywriting in your title tag.
In the case of the pizza place shown above, you could create a title tag that said something like:
Voted The Best Pizza In London – Pizza Union
If you run a local place or a company with a strong brand, you want to add your brand’s name somewhere in the title tag, especially in the main pages (like the homepage and category pages).
Finally, remember that title tags have a maximum length of 60 characters.
If you exceed that length, it won’t hurt your site. Rather, Google will cut your title tag short in the search results.
Meta Description Optimisation
While title tags matter for improving your page’s rankings, meta descriptions gives them context.
It’s with the meta descriptions where you want to use copywriting to improve your page’s relevancy.
Here’s a good example of a well-written meta description:
You can see that the company mentions what they offer (Neapolitan pizzas), where they offer them (in central London and Oxford), and how they offer them (in their venues, takeaway, or delivery).
For a local business, that’s a great structure. It’s concise and even actionable.
While in the past the meta description maximum characters were around 155 characters, according to Moz, Google has extended their length to around 300 characters.
Blocking Unwanted Pages
Your website likely has many pages you don’t want to show up in Google, either because they generate duplicate content, show sensitive information (like user or personal information) or because your users won’t find it useful.
This may not be the case if your site is small and has less than 50 pages or so.
Either way, if you think there are parts of your website you want to block from Google, here’s what you need to do.
First, use a robots.txt, which is a text file webmasters create to instruct search engine robots how to crawl and index pages on their website.
As the name suggests, this is nothing but a simple .txt file you add in your server’s root folder.
Robots.txt have some limitations in its scope. As Google explains:
Robots.txt is not an appropriate or effective way of blocking sensitive or confidential material. It only instructs well-behaved crawlers that the pages are not for them, but it does not prevent your server from delivering those pages to a browser that requests them.
One reason is that search engines could still reference the URLs you block (showing just the URL, no title or snippet) if there happen to be links to those URLs somewhere on the Internet (like referrer logs).
Also, non-compliant or rogue search engines that don’t acknowledge the Robots Exclusion Standard could disobey the instructions of your robots.txt.
Finally, a curious user could examine the directories or subdirectories in your robots.txt file and guess the URL of the content that you don’t want seen.
What Google is trying to say is that using a robots.txt is only one part of the whole puzzle. If you link internally to a page you want to block, Google may crawl and index it anyway.
If you want to make sure Google doesn’t index a page (even if it crawls it), you want to use a “noindex” tag, which goes in the header of a page.
You can manually add them to every page you want to block, or using a plugin like Yoast SEO.
By using the “noindex” tag, Google will crawl it, but avoid indexing it (and therefore, rank it).
Using Structured Data Markup
The way Google shows up the results has changed dramatically in the past 7 years. One of the biggest changes is the use of structured data markup.
In the words of Google, structured data markup is:
[A] code that you can add to your sites’ pages to describe your content to search engines, so they can better understand what’s on your pages.
Search engines can use this understanding to display your content in useful (and eye-catching!) ways in search results.
That, in turn, can help you attract just the right kind of customers for your business.
In other words, structured data helps users find out more about a site or page without visiting it. This can impact deeply on your CTR and search engine traffic.
Here are some examples to help you see how they look and work:
If you look for a company like Amazon, Google will not only show their site and pages, but also the following:
Finally, if you have a local business, Google can show a lot of useful information about it, like in the example below:
If you aren’t sure whether to use structured data markup in your site, check what your direct and indirect competitors are doing.
If you need help getting started, follow Google’s guides, which explain in more detail how they work.
Once you get started implementing it on your site, use some of Google’s tools like Google Structured Data Markup Helper as well as some useful WordPress plugins like Yoast SEO and WP SEO Structured Data Schema.
Make sure you test your new markup using Google Structured Data Testing Tool.
Optimise your images
While people love images, Google can’t read them. That’s why the “alt” tag exists: you describe what the image is about, and Google bases their analysis on it.
In Google words:
If a user is viewing your site using assistive technologies, such as a screen reader, the contents of the alt attribute provide information about the picture.
Optimising your alt tags is simple: add the main keyword (and variations of it) with a descriptive sentence.
Using the pizza example, if you had 10 images of your different pizzas on your homepage, you wouldn’t want to stuff all your images with the same keyword, as Google would consider that unnecessary.
For example you might set an ALT tag of “The Best Margarita Pizza In London” for your main margarita pizza image.
If you had 3 different images of each of your pizzas, you could add other variations, like:
- “londons favourite margarita pizza”
- “pizza margarita”
- “italian margarita pizza london”
Be relevant with your alt tags and Google will appropriately rank your pages for your desired keywords.
Another important element to consider is the image size.
That’s why I recommend using a service like Smush Image Compression and Optimization.
Once you install it on your WordPress site, the plugin will automatically compress your images making them smaller and easier to load.
SEO for Mobile Websites
Mobile organic traffic has become as important as desktop traffic: in 2017, the latter accounted for 50.3% of all web traffic generated worldwide.
That means you need to optimise your site for mobile traffic.
To optimise your site for mobile traffic you should use responsive web design
By using responsive web design, you are designing your site to automatically adjust itself to any kind of browser and screen size without the need to changhe URLs or your site’s structure.
A lot of the best WordPress themes are responsive by default, but not everyone runs WordPress so double check if your site is responsive or not.
Google recommends using the Mobile-friendly test to check if pages on your site meet the required criteria.
You can also check out the Search Console Mobile Usability report to fix mobile usability issues affecting your site.
Another way to make your site more mobile friendly is to use the Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP for short) format.
AMP is a markup language focused on mobile phones which increases the speed your pages are served to users.
Finally, Google recommends you provide the same functionality on all devices (which includes desktop, table, and mobile):
Mobile users expect the same functionality – such as commenting and check-out – and content on mobile as well as on all other devices that your website supports.
In addition to textual content, make sure that all important images and videos are embedded and accessible on mobile devices.
For search engines, provide all structured data and other metadata – such as titles, descriptions, link-elements, and other meta-tags – on all versions of the pages.
Wrapping It Up
Google’s updated SEO starter guide doesn’t represent a new way of doing SEO.
Rather, it’s an update to the things we already knew, but never heard directly from Google.
Now you know what Google expects from you, it’s time to get started.
Google will thank you for it.