Website developers already have plenty to think about before going live, so it's natural to evaluate whether everything on the development checklist is necessary, and wonder at the value of search engine optimization (SEO) in particular. As custom websites can be big ticket items, businesses are looking at how to get the most out of their websites, and many are investing in SEO support. SEO audits, for example, are a common (and relatively affordable) way for those businesses to get an overview of how their sites are ranking and areas for improvement in a detailed, actionable report.
How does this apply to developers? Where SEO is top-of-mind for the business, it's ideal to get ahead of the gaps. Ultimately, it’s less painful (and time consuming) to create sites that are SEO-friendly at the outset instead of doing a complete overhaul of a site after the fact. Web developers are most likely going to affect the on-page SEO (optimization of web pages) versus the off-page SEO (which drives traffic to your site), which also means that when developers spend time on SEO, they build sites that perform better and are more usable.
Below is an overview of the top 10 SEO principles that web developers should keep in mind to help site ranking, navigation and usability.
1. Speed matters
2. Increased mobile use means mobile-friendly sites are essential
Mobile traffic has increased to the point that now close to half of Internet users are using mobile devices. A recent comScore survey stated that 51% of Canadians access sites from mobile or tablet devices, compared to 49% on desktop computers, so developing for mobile is a no brainer. Key points to consider for mobile optimization is formatting for mobile (i.e., using appropriate font sizes and links or buttons that are well-spaced) for ease of use. Developers who ensure this is happening will help search engines provide accurate content to users when they are on mobile devices.
3. User-friendly navigation also benefits search engines
Ensuring that the user experience is positive and intuitive is beneficial for search engine rankings. The quality of website pages and their domains has an effect on how algorithms weight them. For instance, pages with very little content will be ranked poorly compared to those with quality, in-depth content. The user behaviour and the interactions visitors have on the site will be an indicator of how user-friendly it is.
Visitors should be able to navigate to where they want to go on the site with minimal clicks. It's important to be able to solve people’s problems quickly to avoid them leaving the site to go to a competitor’s. Having easily identifiable call-to-actions will also alleviate the need for users to search around for a contact form or other means of contact. Implementing clear and functional menu bars, providing a search bar and avoiding the use of acronyms and industry jargon will decrease the likelihood of users finding a site frustrating to use.
4. Optimized site images are accessible and quicker to load
Using high resolution images that are easily visible across all devices is essential for SEO. Developers can assist in ensuring this happens on site by optimizing image file sizes. Large file sizes will reduce site speed and, in turn, negatively affect SEO. Entering an accurate and concise phrase for image file names and alt tags not only improves SEO, but also ensures the site is accessible.
Search engines take both speed and relevancy into account during crawls, and typing the content together with the applicable images will further enhance on-page SEO. Additionally, using expires headers for images will enable them to load faster for users who have already been to the site. Implementing this tactic will tell the browser how long to store the image file in the cache so subsequent visits won’t require the files to be downloaded again.
5. Creating an XML sitemap lends legitimacy
An XML sitemap assists in improving site rankings, especially for new websites. Developers can ensure that a sitemap is set up and submitted to the Google Search Console in order for it to be verified and correctly uploaded to the web server. The importance of having a sitemap is to ensure that there is a streamlined file hierarchy where pages are connected and functional. It also assists the search engines in crawling a site more efficiently as it lists all of the URLs from the website in one place.
6. A robots.txt file can be a big help (or hindrance)
The opposite of the sitemap is the robots.txt file which tells search engines which pages not to crawl. Telling bots which pages to avoid crawling helps to optimize websites by limiting pages in the search that wouldn’t necessarily need to be viewed (for example, a thank you page after a visitor fills out a newsletter sign-up). Improper use of this file can actually hurt site ranking if pages are blocked that shouldn’t be so using it properly is important, which is where a developer can help.
Creating external JS and CSS files can help declutter excessive code that can weigh a site down and cause speed load time issues. This technique will also help improve SEO rankings by making it faster and easier for bots to crawl and index a site more efficiently.
8. Search engine friendly URLs are good for search and humans alike
Similar to site content, making URLs easy to read for humans will also make them easy to read for search engines. If you don't optimize URLs that have extraneous characters and symbols (e.g., $&#?), the page in the search will not be clear to potential visitors, which means they may not take the next step. Seeing clean, descriptive URLs have shown to improve the click-through-rate (CTR). Also, using hyphens is preferable over joining words together or using underscores.
9. HTML elements matter
Developers are well aware of the various HTML elements that make up a website. Incorporating optimization into these elements is important for search engine rankings and helps with general SEO maintenance. Google weighs HTML elements heavily especially title tags, header tags (h1, h2) and meta descriptions. Knowing the character limits, where applicable, will allow you to create concise, relevant descriptions that include keyword phrasing. This will not only improve rankings for the website, but also user experience as the wording should closely relate to user search intent and the results that come up in searches.
10. Internal links should be meaningful
The anchor text used for internal links within a website are also an important aspect of SEO. Understanding the need to leverage these phrases will help establish the site architecture and the “link juice” (power) needed to grow a site’s authority. It’s also necessary to keep visitors engaged on the site by linking to relevant topics (e.g., a blog post or resource page) that will keep them on the site and less likely to leave and visit a competitor’s website.
Creating an SEO-friendly foundation for a website alleviates additional time and effort later on when several fixes may need to be made prior to regular maintenance. For developers, incorporating SEO initially means that less time is needed later to quote and make changes to SEO elements on client sites. Understanding the basics of SEO ranking can help developers code pages that will perform well during site crawls (and in user interactions). Keeping these 10 points in mind can help the SEO- and user-conscious developer build a search engine friendly website that works well for the client and the end user.
Ellipsis Digital’s Web Analyst, Ellen Husk shares some takeaway tips for rockstar developers that are ready to take their SEO game to the next level.