There are two main components of SEO: on-site and off-site. Off-site refers to activity that happens away from your domain, including inbound links, content syndication, and social media efforts.
On-site refers to everything that happens on your website directly - which you have far more control over. Some of these optimizations are one-time, and some of them are ongoing, but all of them are necessary if you want your site to appear properly and rank highly in search engines.
Why On-site Optimization Is Difficult
There are two reasons SEO experts struggle with on-site optimization. The first is the technical expertise required for some of these changes; in many cases, you'll have to either dig into the code of your site yourself or have a developer do it. But even the toughest adjustments can be handled with relative ease if you follow a step-by-step guide.
The second reason, and the one I'm addressing with this article, is the overwhelming nature of on-site SEO. There's a lot to keep track of, and it's easy to miss things, so I'm hoping to organize and present to you a succinct, catch-all checklist to make sure your on-site optimization is in good working order.
Types of Optimization
There are three main pieces of on-site optimization that you'll need to consider. First is the visibility of your site. Think of Google like a massive dictionary and your site as a particular word or string of words that you want users to be able to find easily. It wouldn't matter what you wrote for the definition if your word never made it to the final edit of the dictionary, right? Visibility changes make sure Google can see and index your site as a foundation for success.
Next, you'll need to make material changes.
With that being said, there are changes in all three of these realms that you'll need to apply throughout your entire site (sitewide) and locally, on individual pages (page level). Let's take a look at each of these in more detail in our checklist.
- Check for server errors. If there's a problem in how your server is communicating, your site could be invisible to search engines.
- Check your robots.txt file. This is what tells search engines what to index and what not to index on your site, so make sure it's accurate and uploaded to your directory.
- Maintain your URLs. Your URLs should all be static and follow the same breadcrumbs-style formatting. It's also a good idea to keep them named logically (using keywords that you want associated with your domain and those pages - more on that later).
- Ensure your sitemaps are accurate. You'll want to use both an HTML and an XML sitemap. If that sounds confusing, don't worry - there are plenty of tools to help you do this. Once created, keep them up-to-date as you make site changes.
- Ensure your website loads correctly. All your content should work flawlessly, loading straight from its HTML source, on all browsers and all devices. One broken image won't kill you, but it's an easy fix, so don't neglect it.
- Optimize your images. Name them according to their content, and use descriptions and alt tags to optimize them further.
- Link to outside sources. Again, your anchor text should be descriptive and accurate. Use external links to authorities show that you cite your sources, which increases the authoritative value of your site.
- Interlink your pages. Google loves sites that are easy to navigate, so keep your pages linked together with descriptive, accurate anchor text. Tools like Linkio.com help you plan anchor text startegy to make sure you get it right. No page should be further away than three clicks from any other page on your site.
- Use microformatting. It's a small, relatively easy change that could help you get more visibility in Google's rich answers. If you need more information on how to implement it, schema.org is a great resource.
- Decrease site loading time. There are several ways to do this, including downsizing images and using a good caching plugin.
- Upgrade to SSL encryption. It's a small step, but it keeps Google happy and your customers safe.
- Optimize title tags for each page. These should be 70 characters or less, concise, accurate to your page, and should contain a keyword you want the page to be visible for.
- Optimize meta descriptions for each page. These should be 160 characters or less, descriptive, accurate to your page, and should contain a keyword or two you want the page to be visible for.
- Optimize the URL for each page. Keep your total URL length under 90 characters, with few strange characters like random numerical sequences. Be as descriptive as possible.
- Have descriptive content on each page. Shoot for several hundred words for each page and be as concise and descriptive as possible.
- Use header tags. H1 tags (and subsequent iterations) will help Google understand your article organization (and give you a chance to plug more keyword phrases).
Even though many of these checklist items are one-time adjustments that won't require further intervention, it's still a good idea to consult this list regularly as an audit for your on-site SEO. You'll be adding pages, removing pages, changing content, and maybe even migrating your site, and all of these changes represent vulnerabilities in which your site structure or needs could change.
Stay on top of your on-site optimization, and half the SEO battle is practically over. To audit your website automatically, check out the AgencyAnalytics SEO Audit tool.