Before Distilled, I was a Digital Producer (think: front end developer meets project manager) and worked on dozens of web development projects. So when I started my role at Distilled, I didn’t expect to discover that I’d been inadvertently practicing SEO in following guidelines that make websites accessible to most people. This is because, believe it or not, web development best practices map onto SEO guidelines pretty well.
So why don’t more sites “accidentally” do well in SEO? A lot of the time, web development best practices aren’t prioritized until someone (or some search engine company) decides that a certain methodology is best (and then gives preference to it). Regardless of the reason, these preferences create websites that are better, and more discoverable for everyone, but can make a developer’s job seem overwhelming.
Fortunately, there are simple optimizations that can give anyone a good jumping off point into the world of building better, more discoverable websites. Of all the lessons I’ve learned from web development, there are three that stand out as having real SEO benefit. This post will explore these three lessons and how you can start implementing.
1: Make your site fully “web accessible”
By “web accessible,” I’m referring to technical practices that make a website usable and friendly for users with special needs (like people with hearing or visual impairments). This is often referred to within web dev circles as a 508 compliant digital product. Being asked to work within accessibility guidelines can be intimidating and can lead to frustration, as the guidelines can feel restrictive. However, once you start looking at what the requirements actually are, you’ll discover that these guidelines fall within best web design and development practices, and a lot of cool online experiences can work within them.
Why does web accessibility matter for SEO? Even at their most basic levels, web accessible sites promote good SEO (and user experience) practices. These can be broken up into two levels: HTML and script. For the purpose of this article, I’ll address these guidelines at a fairly high level, but if you’re looking for more, I strongly encourage you to check out WebAIM.
WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind) is an incredible resource that breaks down all of the elements that make a website accessible to everyone, especially special needs users (and it has handy checklists like this one for you to use). If you want to take your web accessibility dev talents to the next level, you can even get your site reviewed by them for accessibility, and certified if it meets their requirements.
If you’re a good SEO or web developer, then you know the value of things like setting alt attributes for your images, and ensuring your pages have h1 tags in place, but did you know that these practices are also beneficial for special needs’ users? This is true particularly if they use screen readers. While there is sophisticated screen reader software out there, as well as screen reading simulators, these readers benefit from the same basic functionality that search engines use to crawl and read your sites: you’re designing an online experience that allows for robots and accessibility tools alike to transcribe that experience to your visitors.
2. Build a site that’s reliable and safe
We’re told that HTTPS is the future of the web, and it’s hard to deny: many APIs have built-in functionalities that require additional security measures (think about web apps that track your location, for instance). It’s in developers’ and users’ best interests to implement HTTPS. Right?
As SEOs, we know that Google strongly encourages us to install SSL/TLS certificates—in return, they reward HTTPS-enabled sites with boosted search rankings. But what else is in it for us (or for our users)? It may seem like a no-brainer, but creating a secure environment by encrypting data exchanged over your server is not only great for your search engine rankings, but also gives your site visitors an important signal they can trust your site.
Correctly setting up HTTPS on websites isn’t always easy: if you’re planning a full site overhaul or building a website from scratch, then start off on the right foot with HTTPS implemented upfront. Otherwise, you will need to be extra vigilant as you migrate your site from HTTP to HTTPS. A few common pitfalls developers run into that can cause SEO problems include:
Duplicate content: When developers implement their SSL or TSL certificate (especially if it’s only on parts of their sites, but not all of them), they often run into issues if there are matching or similar HTTP and HTTPS versions of content. Regardless of whether you perform your HTTPS migration incrementally or universally, you’ll need to clearly document any sections of your site that are hosted on separate protocols, and implement 301 redirects and canonical tags accordingly.
ProTip: Add an annotation whenever you’re implementing big changes across your sites to track any changes (positive or negative) to user acquisition or behavior. Doing that may even save you heartache down the road if your implementation went awry.
Sitemap: Another common pitfall is not updating your sitemap (particularly an XML). Don’t waste your crawl budget on links you’ve implemented 301 redirects on (or worse, 302 or 404 status codes). You’ll confuse search crawlers with these bad links, and most likely take a hit in your organic search referrals.
Make sure your SSL/TSL certificate doesn’t expire! You need to renew these annually.
And just in case you don’t trust me (get it?), listen to Google on why you should use HTTPS.
Google discussing HTTPS at the Chrome Dev Summit.
3. Build with user experience (UX) in mind
Everyone loves to talk about UX being important, but it’s not actually a ranking factor… or is it?
Slow load times, mobile-unfriendly sites, thin content; There are numerous ways UX affects SEO. As our friends at Moz put it, SEO should only be one part of the reasoning for implementing good UX for your site. (For more in-depth information, I recommend you read Moz’s chapter on how usability, UX and content all affect SEO.) These aren’t just practices Google says it prefers because they’re “good” to do: making your site relevant and well-built makes others more inclined to give your site their votes of confidence through referring links on their sites or on social media. For instance, say you have two people who can run the 100-meter dash in 12 seconds. However, one of them constantly has to tie his shoe at the beginning of the race. Obviously, you’re inclined to bet on the one who has everything ready at the start, rather than the one who stumbles to get the ball rolling. The same applies to web development and page loading speeds. Make your content as readily accessible as possible, and Google is generally more likely to put stock in your site and rank it higher than your competitors.
Did you know that the ideal page load time is three seconds, but that most e-commerce sites load in seven? If your site falls into that category, you may be in need of a refresh or an optimization. (You can check for free with PageSpeed Insights) Think your site is exempt? Or that these rules are nothing more than speculation? Google has been writing more frequently about how implementing accelerated mobile pages will become a ranking factor in search engine results pages. Make sure to read up on these accelerated mobile pages in order to prepare for what will be in an inevitable update.
When it comes to content, no one really wants the pared-down version of a page that's more SEO driven rather than content driven. While there are many factors that contribute to a healthy site (and healthy SEO), if you have rubbish content, that’s all it is: rubbish. So why do so many sites with good content still struggle? Because, Google goes by the rule of thumb that if it looks like Greek, sounds like Greek, then it’s probably Greek. If your content raises all the red flags associated with rubbish or thin content, then despite your best efforts, it will be treated as such.
It turns out that by engaging in good SEO practices, I was also, in a sense, “accidentally” laying the foundation for what would become key factors in my web products’ successes. And in further exploring this foundation, I found that my web development best practices actually map onto SEO guidelines astonishingly well.
This may seem a little overwhelming, but with these three basic principles and the resources I’ve shared, you’ll be well on your way to a healthier site. And when in doubt, consult the internet. As an infinite wellspring of crowdsourced content and advice, there is surely a forum out there that will address whatever particular niche you’re looking for. Happy building!