Mastering Technical SEO: optimizing your website’s foundation for search engines

A map, protractor, and other old style measuring tools on a desk.
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Technical SEO is an ever-evolving skill set and one that is far more mature than it was 20 years when I got started in the business.

To be clear, Technical SEO refers to how well search engine spiders can crawl your site and index your content.

Unlike On-Page and Off-Page SEO, Technical SEO has nothing at all to do with the content (the words) on your website.

As we’ve discussed previously, there are three main parts to SEO. On-Page deals with your content, Off-Page deals with who’s linking to you and Technical deals with the code behind it all that makes your site visible to search engines.

And, Technical SEO is way more than just having your title tags in the right spot.

At its core Technical SEO (and this article) deal with:

  1. Site Speed
  2. Website Security (HTTPS) 🔒
  3. Your site must be mobile friendly
  4. Semantic HTML
  5. Structured Data
  6. Duplicate content (including metadata and title tags)
  7. XML Sitemap
  8. 301 redirects and optimised 404 page
  9. Crawl errors
  10. Broken links

Join us as we untangle what Technical SEO actually is and demystify a lot of the jargon. There are topics within this article that we’ll definitely be exploring deeper in the weeks and months ahead.

How is Technical SEO different from On-Page SEO?

In a nutshell, On-Page SEO deals with your content, and how well it’s optimised for relevant keywords and subject matter. As we discussed in our three types of SEO article, On-Page SEO is often dealt with by copywriters and the like.

To be great at On-Page SEO, you need to be great with words.

Technical SEO, on the other hand, focuses on how well search engine spiders can crawl your site and index your content. It has nothing at all to do with the content itself.

As an example, the page title of this post is “What is Technical SEO? ⋆ Meeum“. That’s content. How it’s written, what words are used and what order they are in has absolutely nothing to do with the technical aspects of the site.

The fact that the code for it looks like this:

<title>What is Technical SEO? &#8902; Meeum</title> and is situated in the <head> of the document and immediately follows the <meta charset="UTF-8"> is technical. It is part of the page’s coded template, that (hopefully) any copywriters and content editors won’t need to deal with, and will never see.

The main goal of Technical SEO is to optimize the infrastructure of a website. You can’t “game” the system in Technical SEO. You either have it, or you don’t.

For the most-part, Technical SEO can be done once and then left.

It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Why is Technical SEO important?

In all of our workshops and training, we run a little segment that covers how building a website is a lot like building a house.

In that section, we relate how your base HTML and your Technical SEO are the foundation and structure of your website. Just like the cement slab and the initial frame are the foundation of your house.

Build a strong structure, and you’re off to a fabulous start.

So, imagine you’ve authored the most amazing article ever written about your particular subject matter. The kind of thing that would be referenced in encyclopedias for millennia.

But no-one can find it because your website has no solid code framework. Google (and other search engines) have no idea what you’re talking about. The code behind your amazing content is like sawdust on a building site.

Worse still, even when you tell everyone about your amazing content and give them the direct URL, your web page takes so long to load that they leave before they can even read anything.

What sorts of things are covered in Technical SEO?

It’s a fairly wide subject, but let’s take a look at some examples of what’s covered in Technical SEO…

Site speed

snail sliding across the ground.

If your site loads too slowly, a large portion of visitors will leave. That’s just a fact.

According to Google, more than half of your visitors will leave if your site takes longer than three seconds to load.

Site speed is a ranking factor for Google and has been since 2010, so it has a huge effect on your SEO. If Google see that people are leaving your website within the first 5 seconds of page load, they will drop your ranking.

Site speed also has an enormous effect on user experience, which search engines take very seriously (as should you). In the recent Page Speed Report For Marketers, Unbounce found that the bulk of consumers desired faster-loading sites even it meant sacrificing ‘bling’ like animations, video and even images.

Slow site = high bounce rate = poor rankings (and less sales).

There are a number of factors to take into account when looking at your site speed, including your server configuration and the code of your website.

Time To First Byte (TTFB)

Yep- this one sounds a bit techy, but have no fear, we’ll explain it for you.

TTFB is the time it takes for a web browser to load the first byte of your web page’s data.

Note that we’re talking the first byte, so this has nothing to do with your actual website and its code yet – this is all about your server and hosting.

One of the annoying things about TTFB is that it’s very hard, if not impossible, to truly measure how much traffic you’re losing. This is due to the fact that the user leaves before any part of your page has loaded, including any analytics scripts.

How to fix TTFB problems

If your site is with an external website builder, such as Wix, Squarespace, Shopify etc, then there isn’t a lot you can do about this metric. Being that these companies have massive infrastructure, it also shouldn’t be too much of an issue either.

If you have your own hosting setup (ie: flat/static website, self-hosted WordPress etc) then talk to your hosting provider about an upgrade.

Page load time

Page load time is the time it takes for your site to load after TTFB.

There are A LOT of things that can affect your page loading time.

Some include:

  • Unoptimized images (this could quite rightly be included as On-Page SEO as well).
  • Overly complex templates (if there’s too much going on in the code, always ask WHY?)
  • Content served without HTTP compression.
  • Too many resource requests (CSS, JavaScript, images etc).
  • No caching.

Some tools to help find and fix website speed issues

Website Security (HTTPS) 🔒

Padlock and chain locking a green door.

Your website needs to be secure.

In the ‘old days’, there was HTTP, which stands for HyperText Transfer Protocol.

HTTPS (which is Secure) has been around since 1994 but was mainly just used for banks and e-commerce websites.

HTTPS is now a ranking factor for Google and has been since 2014. Having an HTTPS website means you have a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) Certificate for your website.

Why does HTTPS matter?

No matter the content, every website shares data. Whether that data can be intercepted and read by a third-party depends on the security of the website you’re looking at.

If HTTPS is not present, then your visitor’s browsing activity and data aren’t encrypted or protected. The user’s Internet Service Provider (ISP) or a hacker can see every page that they visit, as well as any data they share, such as contact information.

If you visit an HTTPS site, your ISP (or a hacker) may be able to tell that you visited a particular site but NOT which pages you visited while there, or any information you gave to that site.

There is no reason not to have an SSL Certificate, which will make your site secure.

Apart from the SEO and security benefits, having an HTTPS website also gives your users a visible signal (a padlock 🔒 in the URL bar) that your website is secure, and that you hold their data in high regard.

How to implement HTTPS on your server?

Most hosting providers can provide this for free, or for a nominal fee. Give them a call and get it sorted straight away if you don’t have it currently enabled.

Drag and drop builders like Squarespace, Shopify, Wix etc all have HTTPS enabled by default.

Your site must be mobile friendly

Many mobile phones and tablets stacked on one another.

Mobile traffic surpassed desktop in 2016 and the majority of searches happen on mobile. More than half of retail website visits happen on mobile.

For that reason, Google only uses the mobile version of your site to add to its index.

You can test if your site is mobile friendly with Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test.

We’ve written a comprehensive article on Mobile First indexing if you’re looking for tips on maximising the mobile-friendliness of your site.

Semantic HTML

opened book on brown table.

Semantics is the study of language. More specifically, it is the branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning within language.

Therefore, semantic HTML means that the elements have meaning.

What does that mean? You should only put content in the tags they’re meant to be in.

An example of this is the <nav> tag. You wouldn’t put a copyright notice in a <nav> tag, because it would not be semantically correct. You put your navigation in the <nav> tag.

Some other examples of semantic elements include <date>, <article>,<header>, and <footer>.

We touched on this briefly in a recent article on HTML, and we’ll shortly be publishing an article completely dedicated to semantic markup, but if you’re hungry for more right now, check out the Mozilla Developer Network HTML element reference.

Semantic HTML plays a huge role in Technical SEO (as well as accessibility). The tags used within the markup of your page can make all the difference in helping Google work out what your page content is really all about.

Your heading structure (whether to use an h1, h2 or h3) also plays a huge role in your semantic structure, as well as being highly beneficial to accessibility and inclusive design.

All of our coding workshops cover Semantic HTML in great detail.

Structured Data

Cranes and scaffolding at a construction site.

Structured data is code that you can add to your web pages that helps search engines understand the context of your content. It describes your data to search engines in a language they can understand.

Setting up structured data in something like WordPress, or any templated CMS, is pretty great. Due to the fact that the structured data markup is in a template file, you only need to actually code it once, and then every time you publish content, that content will have structured data by default.

Structured data can be used for a range of content, including articles, events, podcasts, reviews, recipes, local businesses and more.

We use it for all of our events with great success, and as we use WordPress, it is coded into our events page template.

What does structured data look like in search results?

Because Google knows exactly what we’re talking about, it can show our data in a more informative way.

See in the next image that the next three SEO For Beginners workshops are listed in an easy to digest format. By seeing that in a search result you can click any of those dates to be taken to the landing page of that particular event.

Screenshot of a Google result showing upcoming dates for Meeum SEO workshops.

Pretty spiffy, eh?

Duplicate content (including metadata and title tags)

Two giraffes facing in opposite directions.

No-one’s a fan of reading things twice when they don’t need to, and Google is no exception.

Canonical URLs

If you have duplicate content on your site (ie: a large proportion of your content is listed on more than one page), then you need to tell the search engines which page is the source of truth.

An example of that is this very website. We list multiple workshops that all have their own URL.

SEO For Beginners could be being held in Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane.

Each event page has exactly the same content, save for the venue name and the date.

Generally speaking, Google does not like that because it could seem that we’re trying to game the system and rank multiple pages for the same search terms.

How do we make sure that Google knows we’re not trying to game the system? We set the canonical URL of every SEO For Beginners workshop to be the SEO For Beginners landing page, that lists all the different occurrences in chronological order.

Use canonical tags correctly and you’ll avoid duplicate content penalties.

XML Sitemap

hands holding a lit match to light up a map

An XML sitemap is different to the HTML sitemap that many websites have.

An XML sitemap exists specifically to be machine-readable and lists every page on your site that you want search engines to index.

Your website’s XML sitemap also helps search engines to understand the structure of your site.

301 redirects and optimised 404 page

"No U turn" street sign.

Sometimes we need to delete old content. Maybe it’s become stale, outdated or you just decide to get rid of it for whatever reason.

When you do delete content, you need to do one of two things in the event that someone stumbles on the deleted page (possibly from a link from another website, or an old SERP):

1. Set up a 301 redirect

A 301 redirect sets up a permanent redirect to a different page.

As an example, when an event of ours has completed, we delete the specific event page and set up a 301 redirect to the event landing page.

We have a whole article explaining how redirects work, as well as instructions on how to create 301 redirects in popular web platforms, such as WordPress, SquareSpace and Shopify.

2. Nothing

If someone hits your deleted content and there’s no redirect in place, then they need to hit your 404 (file not found) page.

That 404 page needs to be set up correctly to catch traffic like this and give enough information that the user will hopefully click through to more content on your site.

Crawl errors

macro photography of brown spider.

Search engines use ‘bots’ to crawl your website to find your pages as well as follow the links of who you’re linking to. If a bot tries to get to one of your pages and can’t, it’s called a crawl error.

Some of the crawl errors that a bot may come across include server misconfiguration, DNS errors or an inability to locate and read your robots.txt file.

Many issues are simple fixes, although crawl errors can sometimes point to malware or something else nefarious.

In any case, it’s important to be on top of these things and check for them regularly.

Broken links

brown wooden fence beside green trees and grass

A broken link (sometimes called a dead link) is a link on a webpage which points to a non-existent page.

Broken links can happen for a variety of reasons:

  • The destination URL has been deleted (resulting in a 404)
  • The destination URL is incorrect (ie: a typo)
  • The destination URL is not available publicly (ie: part of an internal intranet or restricted area of a website)

It’s important to make sure you don’t have any broken links on your site as it gives the impression that your site is not well maintained. Broken links also don’t give a good user experience for your visitors.

Note that broken links can be links to your own content, or to other external sites.

Making sure you keep up with your 301 redirects can help ensure that any broken links are not internal.

Is there more to Technical SEO?

Yep. Heaps. What we’ve listed here is a good start though. We’ll pull each of these pieces of Technical SEO apart into new articles over the coming months, as well as adding more.

What is a Technical SEO audit?

A good Technical SEO audit is a report that will cover all of the above and more. It will show where your website is doing well and where it can be improved. It should be presented to you in a way that easy to understand.

As part of our mission to demystify and democratise technology, we offer Technical SEO audits with a twist. What’s the twist? Rather than just fixing everything and charge you for it, we teach you how to fix and manage your own Technical SEO (if you want us to). That can save you thousands of dollars.

If that’s of interest, get it touch and we’ll make a plan.

Do I need a web developer to implement or fix my Technical SEO?

While Technical SEO is often handled by Web Developers, a lot can be done by you, with some basic code know-how.

We’ve worked with many non-technical founders in our Tech for Non-Tech Founders program, as well as our business mentoring.

Just like any business owner should know at least the basics of web coding, they should also have a rudimentary understanding of ALL facets of SEO, whether that be On-Page, Off-Page or Technical SEO.

Some free tools to help with Technical SEO

As you can see, Technical SEO can be quite daunting. Luckily though, there are a number of free tools out there to help.

Register your site with Google’s Webmaster Tools and Search Console. Bing also have some an excellent Webmaster Tools that are well worth checking out.

Test your site speed with Google’s TestMySite and Page Speed Insights.

And of course, if you even want a helping hand, just let us know.

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Avatar for Sam HemphillNow a digital veteran, Sam Hemphill initially trained as a drummer and high school teacher and spent 10 years as a touring musician and tour manager. During that time, he...

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