A Beginner’s Guide to Technical SEO (+Best Practices for 2023)
Technical SEO. What it is, why it matters, and a deep look at 8 SEO checkpoints that’ll boost your chances of ranking. Plus, best practices, tips and tools to get you going
If you’ve read some of our other blog posts, you may already know about On-Page and Off-Page SEO. But what is Technical SEO? Why is it important? And how is it done?
In this beginner’s guide to technical SEO, we’ll—
- Define technical SEO.
- Tell you why it’s so important for getting your pages and posts ranked in search results.
- Dig into 8 web vitals technical SEOs focus on, including site audits.
- Share tips, tools, benchmarks and best practices technical SEOs use in their work.
By the time you’re done, you’ll have a clear sense of everything that’s involved in technical SEO. So, if you’re ready to see how Technical SEO can on-ramp your rankability, let’s get started.
A Brief Tour of Search Engine Optimization
Let’s take a spin around the league and quickly cover three ways SEO will impact your content marketing efforts—
On-page SEO is the process of optimizing your article (or web page) so it satisfies search intent and other factors that lead to better rankings. On-page SEO has 2 main goals–
- Produce a quality User Experience for the visitor.
- Enable search engines to find and crawl your pages, understand it’s subject matter, and index your content accurately.
Off-page SEO are activities performed beyond the website to boost your search engine rankings. It involves link building, citations, brand mentions, social media sharing, and other methods of promotion.
Unlike On-page SEO, which addresses what visitors actually see on a page, and Off-Page SEO, which mainly concerns promotion and domain authority-building, Technical SEO is about optimizing a website’s technical elements to improve its search engine visibility and user experience.
Technical SEO analyzes a website’s architecture and server configurations to ensure they meet the technical requirements of search engines. It maintains optimal website speed, mobile-friendliness, crawlability, indexability, and website security.
Put simply, technical SEO lays the foundation for website pages to show up in search results and deliver consistently satisfying user experiencer.
Why Technical SEO Matters
Search Engine Visibility
Technical SEO helps search engines crawl and index your site’s pages efficiently and accurately. This means improved visibility in search engine results pages (SERPs) and higher rankings among relevant search queries.
Faster loading speeds, mobile responsiveness, and easy navigation, a technically well-optimized site creates a better experience for your visitors. That means better engagement, lower bounce rates, and increased conversions.
Technically well-optimized websites rank higher in SERPs and attract more organic traffic than poorly optimized sites. With millions of other domains competing for your visitor’s attention, smart technical SEO will give you the competitive edge you need.
Can Anyone Do Technical SEO?
Terminology like structured data, site speed and crawlability may have you moving towards the exit.
Fair enough, so we’ll come right out and say it– technical SEO does require more than casual familiarity with WordPress and the site audit tools we’ll be mentioning.
That said, all of it can be grasped, even if you’re not a coder. And the more you know, the less you need to pay someone else to do it. Which saves you money for other things, like backlink building.
With that out of the way, let’s see how technical SEOs do their work.
Elements of Technical SEO
Site Structure and Organization
Site structure and organization refer to how your pages are organized and linked together throughout your website. That involves the site’s navigation, page hierarchy and the categories and subcategories of your content.
For technical SEOs, site structure and organization is where a site’s success really begins. Here are three reasons why–
First, a clear site structure makes things so much easier for search engines. When crawlers can discern the hierarchy of your site, when they can see logical relationships between pages, not only will your content be understood and indexed accurately, your site will more likely be deemed authoritative and relevant, which results in better rankings.
Secondly, a well-organized site structure means your important pages (those you place high in the site hierarchy and link to from your other pages) get the right attention of search engines and are given their due weight in search rankings.
Finally, solid site structure creates great user experience. When your visitors effortlessly move about your website and find information they’re looking for, you’ll see lower bounce rates, longer visit times, and better conversion.
Navigation and Internal Linking
Most people think navigation is about efficiently moving the visitor through the website, following a pre-planned customer journey.
That’s just the half of it.
Smart site navigation (and internal linking) also helps search engines comprehend your site structure and hierarchy.
And, it distributes authority across your site, which makes more of your pages visible in search.
Speaking of authority, here’s your first quick tip—
When you get a juicy backlink to one of your articles, make sure you link that page to other relevant pages on your site. The authority that came with the backlink will pass its juice along to those pages you linked to.
Well-organized website architecture—
- Offers access to pages through a logical hierarchy.
- Uses Breadcrumbs to show how the current page resides in the hierarchy.
- Uses intuitively simple categorization to help reader see how information is structured.
- Features logical navigation through (visible) primary, secondary and footer menus.
- Uses descriptive, relevant anchor text for linking pages internally on your site.
- Uses Internal links that distribute authority and move visitors to logical next steps in their visit.
Get your website architecture right, and Google (and your visitors) will reward you.
The Importance of Fast Loading Time
In the world of mobile-dominated internet, speed matters.
Google notices page load speed and rewards it with higher ranking. Similarly, faster loading times equate to lower bounce rates and higher-quality visitor engagement.
Sites that load slow, on the other hand, will experience an opposite effect.
With that in mind, technical SEOs use the following as benchmarks–
- Page load time: The time it takes for a page to fully load in the user’s browser. Rule of thumb? SEO experts aim for a page load of less than three seconds.
- Time to first byte (TTFB): The time needed for a server to respond to a user’s page request. SEOs look for TTFBs of < 200 milliseconds.
- Largest Contentful Paint: A site speed standard used by the GT Metrix tool, this measures how long before the largest content element (a hero image or heading text) on your page becomes visible to the visitor. Target speed is an LCP of 1.2 seconds or less.
- Render time: How long it takes a browser to render the page’s content. Render time should be less than one second.
Factors like server response time, page size and image compression will impact page loading speed. Technical SEOs take the following steps to ensure optimal performance–
- Monitor site speed with tools like GT Metrix or Google Page Speed Insights. Adjust as needed to get load times within acceptable benchmarks.
- Optimize images, video and other media. Compressing media files and resizing (750 px width) has a huge impact on page load time.
- Use Caching to store frequently accessed content and reduce server load.
Fast page loads deliver seamless, responsive environments that keep visitors around. For that reason alone, site speed considerations are a huge part of technical SEO.
GTmetrix and Page Speed Testing
Getting a handle on site speed and other core web vitals is easy with tools like Google Page Speed Insights or, my preference, GTmetrix.
GT Metrix is a piece of cake. Go to the site and enter the URL of the specific page you want tested. Wait a few minutes, and you’ll get something like this—
An overall grade for your site, plus all the numbers that matter, including—
- Performance—A performance score using GTmetrix’ custom audits and other factors.
- Structure—Shows how well your page is built for optimal performance.
- Largest Contentful Paint— How long it takes for the page’s largest content element to become visible. Optimal LCP is 1.2 seconds or less.
- Total Blocking Time–How much time is blocked by scripts during your page loading process. A TBT of 150 milliseconds or less is considered optimal.
- Cumulative Layout Shift— How much layout shift is experienced by visitors as your page loads. A CLS score of 0.1 or less is considered good.
Use GTmetrix for the big picture, and its output to learn what needs fixing and why. For example, in the JBetley.com report above, GT suggests I avoid enormous network payloads—meaning, when I built that page, I forgot to compress the images.
Bottom line, free tools like GTmetrix can make page speed monitoring a breeze.
One more thing, feel free to run the test a second time. You may see better scores—
Responsive design allows a website to look and function properly (and naturally) on desktops, laptops, tablets, and mobile devices, all without requiring different versions of the site.
Is it necessary? Well, consider these 2023 mobile device internet usage stats–
- 60.04% of website traffic comes from mobile devices.
- 92.1% of internet users access the internet using a mobile phone.
- There are approximately 4.32 billion active mobile internet users.
- Africa has the highest proportion of internet traffic from mobile devices – 69.13%.
- There will be over 1 billion 5G connections worldwide by 2025.
Google’s noticed, which is why as far back as 2019, they switched to mobile-first indexing, which uses the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages in its search results.
With more than half of all searches now coming by smart phone or tablet, a mobile-friendly website is essential to good user experience and content suited to that traffic. And because Google’s made mobile-responsiveness a ranking factor in its algorithm, your mobile-friendly site is also more likely to rank well.
All of which makes mobile-responsiveness the critical part of technical SEO that it’s become.
To ensure a website is mobile-responsive, technical SEOs–
- Use responsive design so the site is adaptable to different screen sizes and device types.
- Optimize images and other media for mobile devices.
- Use appropriately sized, easy-to-read fonts and buttons.
- Make website navigation and content easy to access on mobile devices.
- Test the website on different devices and screen sizes to ensure it offers solid user experience.
Wondering how your site fares? Google’s Mobile-friendly test will tell you. But don’t sleep on this one. Mobile-Responsive is everything—to your users, and how you show in the SERPs.
Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP)
Wanting to create a faster, more streamlined mobile experience, Google launched its open-source Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) in 2015.
What are AMP? Basically, they’re ordinary HTML pages stripped down to load faster on mobile devices. In fact, AMP-formatted HTML lets you create pages that load nearly instantly, even with slow internet connections.
Google gives priority to AMP pages (look for the lightning bolt), so your search visibility goes up. AMP pages are designed to work well with ads, so PPC performance gets a boost. Put together, AMP means better site speed and greater search visibility.
As for implementation, here’s how technical SEOs get it done–
- Identify content most critical for mobile viewing, like blog posts and articles.
- Create AMP versions of these pages using the AMP HTML format.
- Add structured data markup to the AMP pages to help Google crawlers see the content and index it accurately.
- Use tools like Google Analytics to monitor traffic and engagement data.
AMP makes it easier for users to find your content, and say YES.
Indexing and Crawlability
Robots.txt File & XML Sitemap
A few quick definitions before we get started—
Crawlability is the ease with which search engine crawlers , like Googlebot (aka web robots, bots, or spiders) are allowed to read (crawl) your pages and resources.
Indexing is the end result of the crawler’s work—it’s where the information they found is classified by topical relevance, and then considered for ranking.
Crawlability and indexing are major concerns of the technical SEO. Robots.txt files and XML sitemaps are how they get the outcome they’re looking for.
Robots.txt is a plain text file (found in the website’s root directory) the SEO uses to tell web robots which pages should be crawled and indexed. As well, the SEO uses the same file to keep spiders out of login pages or any other private content they’ve got no business being in.
Keep in mind, Google only goes into pages they’re invited to. The Robots.txt file will send the invite, but technical SEOs need to be sure file errors aren’t keeping the bots from reading and indexing important content.
The XML sitemap is an XML file that lists the pages that should be indexed. XML sitemaps also give search engines information about the site’s structure and organization, which aids crawlability and accurate indexing.
The technical SEO will create and submit an XML sitemap to search engines, making sure it contains all relevant pages, including those that may not be easily discovered by crawlers.
Duplicate Content and Canonicalization
Duplicate content creates indexing problems for both Google and content creators. It confuses search engines and wastes resources when bots crawl multiple versions of the same content.
It will also lead to lower search rankings– Google doesn’t want you wasting their bots’ time.
Duplicate content occurs in several ways, like–
- Multiple versions of the same page: Where a website has multiple URLs that lead to the same content (www.example.com and example.com).
- Similar content–different pages: Where a website has pages that differ in ways not discernible to crawlers.
- Syndicated content: Where sites have content that’s syndicated or duplicated from other websites.
Solution? The technical SEO will avert duplicate content with canonical tags.
Canonicals are HTML tags telling search engines which version of a page is the original (canonical) version and should therefore be the only of its kind that’s crawled and indexed. It’s tag is placed in the head section of a page’s HTML code and includes the original page version’s URL.
Canonical tags are indispensable and simple ways of avoiding the problems (and penalties) associated with duplicate content.
HTTPS and Website Security
Why HTTPS Matters
HTTPS (HyperText Transfer Protocol Secure) is a secure communication protocol offering enhanced data integrity, confidentiality, and authentication over HTTP.
Google actively encourages the use of HTTPS, and since 2014, it’s been a ranking signal—meaning, sites that use HTTPS have rankability advantages over those who do not.
Google’s endorsement aside, technical SEOs make HTTPS part of their regimen for several reasons, including –
- Security: HTTPS provides an added security layer that better prevents unauthorized access to login credentials, credit card numbers, and other personal information.
- User Experience: Users are more likely to trust websites using HTTPS, which means more traffic and engagement.
Technical SEOs implement HTTPS on a site by having an SSL/TLS certificate installed and configured. This is most easily managed through the hosting service used by the site.
SSL Certificates and Implementation
SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificates use cryptographic key pairs to encrypt data and protect sensitive information. The result is a secure connection between web browsers and servers.
Login credentials, credit card numbers, personal information, these are but a few reasons SSL certificates are a mainstay of site security and technical SEO.
To implement SSL certificates on a website, the SEO will typically–
- Choose a Certificate Authority (CA), or entity that issues SSL certificates.
- Generate a Certificate Signing Request (CSR), a file which includes site information as well as the public key that’s part of the SSL certificate.
- Submit the CSR to the CA and request an SSL certificate.
- Validate (typically via Domain Name System, or DNS) that the domain is owned or controlled by the applicant.
- Install the SSL certificate: Once the SSL certificate is issued by the CA, the web server software will be configured to use the SSL certificate. Website code may need to be uptdated to use HTTPS URLs.
If all of this sounds geeky, much of the SSL stuff is done either by the host or by the webmaster.
The burden of site security is borne by both the HTTPS protocol and SSL certificates. It’s hard to imagine doing any internet business, much less attracting traffic, without them.
Schema Markup & Its Impact On Search and User Experience
Schema markup is a type of structured data that’s added to website code to give search engines additional info about a page’s content. It uses a standardized vocabulary of tags (schemas) to describe the relationships between different content entities.
So how does it affect SEO?
Well, because schema markup gives deeper detail about page content—like products, events, reviews, and recipes– search engines can deliver richer and more relevant search results.
And better search results equate to improved user experience.
For example, schema markup is used to provide rich snippets (enhanced search results that feature additional page information like images, reviews, ratings, prices) that help searchers and improve click-through rates.
For the technical SEO, implementing schema markup can be a complex process. It’s made easier, though, by the many resources and tools available for testing and validating your schema markup. Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool, is one, and RankMath (my preference) is another.
Done well, schema markup will really help your pages stand out in the SERPs.
Structured data is a standardized format for sharing metadata and other contextual details. It uses specific vocabulary, or schema markup, to identify different types of information on your pages.
Structured data makes it easier for crawlers to serve relevant and insightful search results to users. For example, structured data can identify the author, date of publishing, type of content, and other information which, if you rank well enough, will show up in SERPs as click-worthy rich snippets.
The technical SEO will use several types of structured data, including–
- Schema.org: A standardized vocabulary collaboratively developed between Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Yandex.
- Open Graph: A protocol used to display content in more visually appealing ways on social media platforms .
- Twitter Cards: Structured data that allows your content to show more effectively on Twitter.
Implementing structured data will be work, but it pays off in both search results and click-through rates.
URL Format & Best Practices
URL structure is the organization and formatting of URLs on your website. A well-structured URL improves user experience and make it easier for search engines to understand the content on a page.
Here are the more common best practices for URL structure–
- Short and descriptive: Include target keyword but avoid stuffing URLs.
- Hyphens-separate-words: Avoid underscores, spaces, or other characters.
- lowercase letters: Since URLs are case-sensitive, using lowercase helps avoid confusion and errors.
- No dynamic parameters: URLs with dynamic parameters cause issues for search engines and make sharing needlessly difficult.
- Consistent structure: Consistent URL structure (e.g. category/subcategory/product) makes it easier for users and search engines to navigate a website.
- Canonical Tags: Use canonical tags where needed to avoid duplicate content issues.
- Redirects: Redirect any outdated or broken URLs to appropriate new URLs.
Redirects and Managing Broken Links
Redirects—where users and search engines are redirected from an old URL to a new one—are used for a variety of reasons, including broken links, consolidating content, and moving traffic to a new version of a website.
Technical SEOs follow these best practices for managing broken links and redirects–
- Find and fix broken links: Broken links are bad for user experience and can negatively impact your search rankings.
- Use 301 redirects for permanent URL changes: A 301 redirect tells search engines the content has moved permanently, and accordingly transfers ranking signals from the old URL to the new one.
- Use 302 redirects for temporary URL changes: A 302 redirect tells search engines the redirect is temporary and the original URL will be back soon.
- Avoid redirect chains: When one URL redirects to another URL, which redirects to another, it frustrates users and creates issues for search engines. Always use single redirects.
- Update internal links: Make sure any internal links point to the new URL. Link Whisper is a great tool for managing these updates.
Fixing broken links and managing redirects is basic technical SEO, and important for keeping visitors and crawlers happy.
The Technical SEO Audit
Importance of Regular Audits
A technical SEO audit is an in-depth analysis of the SEO considerations discussed in this article, including, though not limited to, the following–
- Site architecture and navigation
- Website speed and page load times
- Mobile-friendliness and responsive design
- Crawlability and indexability
- URL structure, broken links and redirects
- Duplicate content and canonicalization
- XML sitemap and robots.txt files
- HTTPS and SSL certificates
- Schema markup and structured data
The goal of a Technical SEO audit is to ensure the website is technically sound, easy to crawl and index, and user-friendly. Where they are present, the audit will identify what technical issues are hindering optimal performance and give recommendations for improvement.
The result? Better SERP rankings, increased organic traffic, engaged visitor experience, and optimal conversion rates.
Tools for Technical SEO Audits
There are an abundance of free and low-cost tools you can use to conduct technical SEO audits, including–
- Google Search Console: (free) Get insights into search performance, monitor indexing status, identify crawling errors, optimize site visibility.
- Screaming Frog: (free) Analyze site URLs, titles, meta descriptions, header tags, and much, much more. A widely-recommended site audit tool.
- GTmetrix and Google PageSpeed Insights: (free) Analyze page load times, gather insights for optimizing loading performance.
- SEMrush: (not free) A suite of SEO tools for analyzing site traffic, conducting keyword research, tracking rankings, analyzing competitors.
- Ahrefs: (not free) Comprehensive SEO tool gives insight into backlinks, keyword research, content analysis, competitor analysis.
- Moz: (not free) Suite of SEO tools for analyzing site performance, tracking rankings, conducting keyword research, optimizing content.
- Lighthouse: An open-source tool (Google) used to audit web pages for accessibility, performance, and best practices.
- RankMath and Google Structured Data Testing Tool: (free) Structured data and schema configuration. RankMath also performs many on-page SEO functions.
- Link Whisper : A free WordPress plug, great for link management and maintenance, also great for pointing out internal link opportunities.
In addition to these tools, the technical SEO will also analyze website performance by reviewing source code, examining server logs, and studying other analytics data.
By using a combination of these tools and techniques, an SEO expert can conduct a thorough technical SEO audit and provide recommendations for optimally positioning the site to rank well in SERPs.
Technical SEO– The Foundation for Ranking
Technical SEO. Hopefully you now have a better sense of what it involves, and how essential it is to the success of a website’s pages.
So, now that you know a more about it, let’s get you going.
Begin with the easy stuff—pop your home page into GTmetrix and see how well you grade.
Do the same with Screaming Frog, and just look around.
Activate the RankMath plugin on your WordPress site and follow the steps for configuring your blog’s schema markup.
And see how mobile-friendly your website is.
Take on what’s easy now, keep learning, even as you hire out the tricky stuff. But don’t sleep on this one. Every tweak matters. Who knows, the difference between ranking and coming close may come down to how much better your URLs are.
See you on Page 1.
Questions? Clarifications? Feel free to drop me a line. Check out our blog page for examples to model your own work on. You can shoot over to our portfolio page for inspiration too. And if you prefer to have an agency do it for you, read about our content writing and SEO services here.
In the meantime, Best of Luck. And Be Well.