This SME Guide to Technical SEO is aimed at SME business owners who want practical tips to develop their SEO performance. Technical SEO refers to the optimisation of web pages and servers to deliver the optimum crawling and indexing of a website.
There are around 6 million SME companies in the UK, many of which are owner-managed and on-average employ 0-49 people. They account for 99% of the total number of businesses in the UK and are absolutely vital to the economy.
SMEs account for approximately 60% of the employment and around 50% of turnover in the UK private sector. Retail and Wholesale account for 14% of all SME employment and just over one-third of SME turnover, making the Retail Industry an important part of this sector.
For anyone that has worked in a SME environment, you will know how hands-on and involved it is. The jack-of-all-trades phrase could well have been created to describe the leadership requirements of a SME business owner, however, the additional element of master-of-none, need not apply if business owners take stock and reach out for help & support.
This SME Guide to Technical SEO is aimed at SME business owners who want practical tips to what is often seen as the dark-art of SEO. As you will see, that’s rubbish and with the help of this guide, and some supporting articles & videos, you will be able to master your online presence and ensure your website performance is fully optimised.
What Is Technical SEO & Why Is It Important?
Technical SEO refers to the optimisation of web pages and servers to deliver the optimum crawling and indexing of a website. Enabling search engine spiders to crawl more effectively results in more pages being indexed, and ultimately helping to drive more website traffic.
Fully optimised websites should also include fast page load times. Google has made it clear that they are looking for the best user experience in their search results, and slow websites are definitely excluded from the top ranking positions.
Search engine optimisation (SEO) is important because:
- Most people using search engines click on the top 5 results (98%), with the number one position seeing almost one-third (31%) of all clicks (source: backlinko.com)
- Less than 1% of users clicked on anything from page 2 onwards
- Users trust Google and so performing well in the search engine is likely to increase sales
- Performing well in search engines help people to see your brand and retained brand awareness will also help in other channels, such as social media
- Optimised websites increase the number of pages indexed in search engines, resulting in more pages being viewed
- Search engines score web pages on quality, which is not only a ranking factor in natural search results but also helps in paid search campaigns
- Effectively optimised websites reduce bandwidth demands resulting in less load issues on web servers
- Websites that optimise crawling help to index pages faster
SME Companies & Google Search Results
For SME business owners in a typical UK town, the increase in popularity of the Internet initially brought optimism as the opportunity to expand the business beckoned. In the late 90s, it was pretty easy to rise to the top of the search engine results with little knowledge and only a handful of tactics. But as the years rolled forward, it became more difficult as the big boys poured money into the pursuit of this new channel and Google wised-up to the fact that too many sites had manipulated their way to the top of the rankings.
In early 2011, Google introduced the first of several algorithm changes that were to have an enormous effect on how websites appeared in their search results. The Google Panda update seemed [Google never confirms these things] to crack down on thin content, content farms, sites with high advert-to-content ratios and a number of other quality issues. The Google Panda update rolled out over at least a couple of months, hitting Europe in April 2011. In effect, it was a wake-up call to webmasters to improve the quality of the content on their websites with Google saying it no longer wished to see poor quality websites in its index.
Over the next year, there were thought to be around a dozen Panda updates [source: Moz.com] before Google rolled out their next big algorithm change. Whereas Panda targeted low quality on-site factors, the Penguin update targeted low quality off-site spam factors like links.
Webmasters that had been building links to their sites using poor tactics and adding large quantities of low quality links, were heavily penalized by the Google Penguin update. Conversely, webmasters who had done little or no link-building now found their sites appearing higher in the search results as the other websites were stripped away from the results.
SME Guide to Technical SEO Tools & Tactics
Online sales in the UK equate to 20% of the total retail market, with analysts predicting this could reach 25% by 2025. The current revenue value is approximately £75 billions, meaning it’ll surpass £100 billions within the next five years.
The SME share of this could be as much as £35 billions per annum and so it is imperative that SME business owners ensure they are ready, willing and able to grab their share of the online market.
Using this Guide is a great place to start to understand the technical aspects of SEO, building a strong website to realise their online potential, ranking high in the various search engines and ultimately increasing sales and attracting new customers.
Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat – Sun Tzu
Unsurprisingly, competing online starts with an effective website. However, if you think you can challenge the larger eCommerce retailers with a website costing less than a basic family car, think again.
Your website is another channel to market and you should be prepared to invest an appropriate amount of money to replicating other sales channels. For example, for retail companies with shops, this is the equivalent of having an additional store, one that happens to stretch from Lands End to John O’Groats. If you see it in these terms then it’ll be easier to understand the investment you’ll need to make. For your physical shop, you pay rent. This is more or less what you’ll have to pay to build the site. Annual site maintenance is the equivalent of paying rates and don’t forget you’ll need someone to staff the shop (website). However, there are no heating & lighting bills and very few other running costs so it can be more profitable.
If this sounds too much money, then you’ll always going to be behind others when it comes to selling online.
Fast Page Load Times
An essential aspect of achieving the number one search result is achieving fast page load times. Many large eCommerce sites fail to achieve this and so this gives SME companies an opportunity to compete online.
The following image is a screenshot taken from an online testing tool called GTmetrix and is used extensively by leading SEO experts. The image is from this website’s homepage and used to demonstrate that a high SEO score can be achieved.
The website loads in just 1 second, well below Google’s target of under 3 seconds. Whilst the speed is important, so is the overall score of A(99%).
In contrast, the second image is from a leading retail company, Footlocker, which shows a load time of almost 10 seconds and a quality score of just E(57%).
One of the elements that has caused this site to load slowly is the number of requests being made to render the page. There are 167 requests compared to just 32 for the Retail Solutions page. The overall size of the items being loaded is also a factor, Footlocker has almost six times more page weight (7.63MB) than this site (1.30MB).
Technical SEO Audit
And so we commence the list of technical SEO tips, tactics and tools. In the first instance, this isn’t a tutorial, it’s not a detailed explanation of each element. There are plenty of tutorials online to help with each point. Google it, if the webmaster understands SEO they’ll rank for it. This list is intended as a checklist for use as an audit on your website.
We believe this to be a definitive reference guide for SME companies but if you think we’ve missed anything, please add a comment below and we’ll update the guide in due course.
- Use Appropriate TLDs: Top level domains (TLDs) are commonly grouped into Countries & Categories and contrary to popular myths, no version has greater authority than another, although .com domains are more common. Select the domain extension that is most appropriate for your business, eg. co.uk for UK companies or .dentist for a dental company.
- Ensure Fast Server Response Times: Site speed is now a ranking factor in most search engines and so it is important that you select a good web hosting company. Shared hosting servers that provide cheap hosting are unlikely to deliver the fastest server response times so choosing a dedicated server is better. It’s not just search engines that want pages loading quickly, we all do and so good user experience (UX) is also important to success. You can test your server speed using free online tools like bitcatcha.com, pingdom.com and my personal favourite, GTmetrix.com.
- Select A Good Web Hosting Company: Fast servers are important but so is the overall quality of service. Server downtime costs you money and frustrates customers, so working with a hosting company that has little or no downtime is important. Their ability to respond to customer enquiries, both in regard to speed of response and quality, is also important. One of the best companies I have ever worked with is Siteground.com.
- Use the Best Web Platform: There are plenty of choices when it comes to web platforms and prices for build and licences vary enormously. Magento & Shopify are the current favourites among SME companies but you may also like to consider Big Commerce, with WooCommerce being used for eCommerce shops off the back of WordPress sites.
- Limit Number of Resources Being Loaded: The more resources loaded onto a web page, the slower it will become. Running a site test on GTmetrix (see above) will show you how many resources are being loaded on a page.
- Limit Size of Resources Being Loaded: The larger the resources being loaded onto a web page, the slower it will be. The Footlocker example above demonstrates this.
- Use SSL Secure HTTPS: Most web browsers are highlighting websites to users that are not secure, so adding a SSL certificate is essential to avoid visitors not clicking on your site links in search results.
- Set Preferred Version: Every micro-second counts when it comes to page load times and so setting the www or non-www version in Google Search Console is important.
- Implement Caching: This is one of the most important elements of technical SEO and setting up page, database & browser caching will deliver significant results (if done correctly). There are various techniques, tools & modules that can be used to help with this.
- Use a CDN: A content delivery network (CDN) refers to the distribution of web files across a broad geographic region which allow pages to load faster from anywhere in the World.
- Use Asynchronous Scripts: Using asynchronous scripts means that web pages render more quickly. Instead of forcing users to wait for a script to finish downloading before the page renders, a script can be downloaded in the background and thus improve page load times.
- Minimise Redirects: The fewer redirects on a page, the faster the load time.
- Avoid Landing Page Redirects: Some web designers like to redirect users from one page to another, it’s often the clash of depts or poor understanding of SEO & UX.
- Use 301 Redirects: 301 redirects indicate to search engines that a page (URL) has been moved permanently to another URL. There are alternatives but these should generally be avoided.
- Replace Broken Links: Search engines crawl websites using bots, which like to move from page to page following hyperlinks. Links that are broken confuse and frustrate the bots, leading to poor crawling and fewer pages being indexed.
- Avoid 404 Pages: Error 404 refers to pages that no longer exist, resulting in poor experience for visitors & bots.
- Use Canonical URLs: Canonical markup helps websites prevent duplication of content in search engines by specifying the preferred version of a page.
- Use Responsive Mobile Friendly Design: It may seem quite obvious but many SME businesses haven’t updated their website since they first launched. It’s essential that today’s websites are user-friendly, which means being mobile friendly and compatible with all device types.
- Use Clear Navigation: Site architecture should enable all visitors (human & bots) to easily navigate their way around the website, in the same way shop owners layout their store. This isn’t just about directing customers to categories and sub-categories, it’s also about helping them to find less obvious items, seasonal products and items on promotion.
- Add Internal Linking: Adding internal links helps the bots to crawl the site, thus indexing more pages within the allocated bandwidth.
- Add Breadcrumbs: Adding breadcrumbs to navigation also helps bots to crawl the site, along with a quick navigation route for customers.
- List Contact Details: Search engines like consistency, so ensure the name, address & phone number (NAP) used on the website match those on other sites. Structured Data markup should also be used to clearly identify this for search engines.
- Add a Robots.txt: Correctly formatted robots.txt files help search engines to better understand your website and can also protect your crawl budget. However, take care as getting this wrong and disallowing when you meant allowing could be costly.
- Use Hreflang for International Sites: Websites in languages other than English, should be correctly identified with hreflang markup.
- Use Unique Content: It’s important that you write your own content, for example, product descriptions, rather than use the manufacturers descriptions. Just think of how many websites are likely to be using exactly the same product descriptions. Google is looking for the best search results and so how are they going to judge which of these websites is the most accurate or of the best quality? Using unique content significantly helps improve your search engine rankings.
- Use Rich Content: Many SME companies use the briefest product descriptions but again, Google et al are looking for the best search results. This includes more extensive product descriptions, however, focus on quality over quantity and don’t saturate pages with repetition – Google isn’t that stupid anymore. Add other forms of content too, like images & videos.
- Use Search-Rich Product Names: Do a little research and find the most common search phrases being used. It’s pointless trying to rank for a keyword or phrase that no one is searching for.
- Use Clear URL Structure: Most content management systems (CMS) use the product name in the page title (meta tag) and URL. Where possible, include the full product name and key features (colours, fabrics etc) when naming products. Where possible, avoid using item numbers and SKUs.
- Use Structured Data Markup: Structured data is a SEO technique to add some type of code markup on a webpage, in order to provide additional detail around the page’s content. It helps search engines to understand the page content just that bit more.
- Use Unique Page Meta Titles: Search Engines use the page title (meta tag) in the search results and it is one of the most important factors on the site. It is important that every page title tag is unique and should be no more than 60 characters.
- Use Header Tags (H1, H2, H3): Header tags are html code that adds paragraph headers on a page. The H1 tag is the most important and should only include the product name, on a product page. These tags were once important but Google has recently indicated they’re much less important. However, every little helps so don’t ignore them.
- Optimise Images: Large images will prevent a web page loading fast, which is poor SEO. Images should be reduced in size by compression and choosing appropriate file types, for example, jpg files are much smaller than png.
- Utilise Lazy Loading: Lazy loading conserves bandwidth by delivering content to users only if it’s requested, thus improving page load times.
- Add Multiple Images: Additional images help from a user perspective but they also add more weight to a page, which could slow the page load times. As mentioned above, caching and use of a CDN can offset this. However, if images are named using target keywords, this may increase the volume of visitors to the page.
- Add Product Specifications: Products with technical features or fashion items with fabric compositions should have the specifications information on a page. This additional info may help with longtail searches (multiple keywords).
- Add Videos: Adding videos to a product page really brings a product to life. Whilst these can be the manufacturers own videos, it is much better if you can film your own. In addition to the standard product videos, it would be advantageous (and again, unique to you) if you were to include some ‘how to’ type videos for that particular product.
- Avoid Developer Scripts: Developer scripts to social media sites, for example, how many followers a business has, are notorious for significantly slowing page load times. Think very hard of the reason you need these before adding them.
- Add FAQs Page: Customers often search for non-product related information on a business, eg. opening times, contact details etc. Having a FAQ page helps to reach these customers and increase traffic to the site.
SEO Optimisation Tools
- Google Search Console: GSC is absolutely essential, it’s where Google effectively talks to webmasters and the only place you’ll be informed of any issues on your website. The new console has a wealth of free features that really help SME company website owners to deep-dive into what Google knows about your online business. Bing has an equivalent portal too.
- Add a Sitemap: Websites used to feature on-site sitemaps, which stem from primitive navigation aids. These are no longer necessary, however, sitemaps should be added to your Search Console (Google & Bing) to aid crawling and indexing.
- Google Analytics: Another free Google resource, this one helping webmasters further understand the traffic data. Whilst it can be quite daunting at first, like so many things, take one step at a time and explore each element to learn about your site visitors.
- GTmetrix: One of my favourite analytics tools, a great free resource to see each component of your website and the time taken to load.
- WebPageTest.org: Another free analytics tool, similar to GTmetrix but perhaps a little more focused on the developer.
- Google PageSpeed Insights: Google’s own page speed analytics tool.
- Think with Google Site Test: Another Google site testing tool, this one gives a score for mobile page speed and also generates a useful report to help fix any issues.
- Open Site Explorer: OSE is an in-depth tool that shows a site’s domain strength, including backlink profile.
- Majestic SEO: A competitor to Open Site Explorer and one that shows very similar data.
- SEMrush: SEMrush offers solutions for SEO, PPC, content, social media and competitive research.
- Screaming Frog: The Screaming Frog SEO Spider is a small desktop program which crawls websites’ links, images, CSS, script and apps from a SEO perspective.
- FATJOE: A blogger outreach and content creation service.
- Keyword.io: Free keyword research tool.
- Answer the Public: Another free keyword research tool.
- Schema Creators: There are a number of free schema creation tools online to help non-coders to correctly create markup.