Introduction To On-Page & Technical SEO
1. How Search Works
What Is A Search Engine?
A search engine is essentially a fancy and very powerful directory. It’s a directory of information that has been retrieved, sorted and finally indexed.
Note: Click below sections to expand
⚙ Information Retrieval
Search Engines send out Bots or Crawlers (once known as spiders) to go and collect information about web pages.
This information is then collected, and returned to what is known as the secondary index. You can think of this as the worlds largest database.
This information is then passed through various algorithms, which make various decisions about your content. These algorithms then talk to one another as part of larger algorithms and after much deliberation they will finally either index, or not index you for certain keywords and in varying positions.
That’s when you see your site in the Primary Index. Also known as the SERPs (Search Engine Ranking Pages).
⚙ Second Crawl & More
Your website and web pages will be crawled many times, and this is because search engines are monitoring your site for changes and in years gone by, they would often come back to collect different pieces of information on subsequent crawls.
2. The Truth About Our Obsession With Ranking Factors (Get Your Mindset Right)
⚙ View This LessonWhen we talk about ranking factors, there are hundreds. We don’t know them all, we don’t really know which are most important.
It’s a topic of much debate, and as a top-level SEO I can say that I don’t really care much about which goes where…
Most of it, comes back to one thing… Information Retrieval.
This means that any ranking factor is just a search engine trying to figure out how important and relevant your information really is.
I believe in a principle that was made known to me by the machine-learning field as the “ground truth” principle.
This is where you focus relentlessly on what you do know, and the core principles of how things work.
I believe in this approach, even though the majority of our industry don’t. You see, it’s easier to sell solutions to ranking factors than just talk about focusing on the “ground truth”.
What matters more to you?
Knowing the core principles and ground truths that make up 80% of the reason why content gets ranked? Or would you rather ignore that and spend your time trying to figure out the <1% factors?
As an individual, a business - whatever. You need to make up your mind what kind of SEO you’re going to be.
In this community I preach about focusing on what matters. Get the fundamentals right, make sure you do the things that matter even if it’s not easy… Don’t try to take shortcuts.
Success in SEO is clearly about mindset. Trust me I know it is, because for my first few years I was just like Frank. And then one day I decided to change.
I changed because I knew it wasn’t right, and I had the sense to see that what I was doing wasn’t rational.
I don’t blame people for being like Frank, but if you believe that being like Frank is fine, then I don’t believe you will like or understand my approach. That’s fine, there are more people out there teaching you the next ranking factor/trick to try and brute-force your way to the top of Google. You are free to listen to them.
Focusing on what matters.
I see a lot of similarities between this and the intellectual pursuit of essentialism. This is what I want to impart on anyone reading this. Adopting the mindset of essentialism is everything.
Back in 1961 one of American Football’s greatest ever coaches started a reign of success in the NFL that to this day has not been matched.
His name was Vince Lombardi. Vince was a hyper-intelligent man that had the ability to understand what truly mattered. He was a walking, talking genius that had embraced the 80⁄20 principle to heart without ever having been told about it.
This man understood essentialism, and he understood that in mostly everything, including American Football that the power of the basics is truly astonishing when harnessed correctly.
He had his players focus on the fundamentals relentlessly, treating every player, every season like they had no experience at all. This resulted in five NFL championships in just seven years.
Focusing on what really matters, instead of ranking factor number 671 or whatever, is what will give you the best results with SEO.
Why I do not recommend testing groups
Should you be testing? Absolutely.
What should you be testing? Solutions to your own biggest problems and hurdles.
What should you not be testing? The <1% factors that don’t matter if you’re doing the fundamentals right. The things that aren’t causing you issues!!!
I believe in testing, but I believe you should test to solve your problems. So you can overcome hurdles, and increase your ROI. Focusing on factors that will likely make less than 1% of a difference to your end result is not a good use of your time.
Most of these groups shit on correlation and covariance, either publicly labelling them as bad, or purposely never mentioning them.
Either way it’s basic data science to know these things aren’t bad. That they are extremely useful and utterly necessary to doing good analysis.
They should be a key part of the conversation if you’re talking about any kind of data analysis.
If you’re putting your trust in people who either hate on or ignore these two things. They aren’t an expert, they’re barely even a beginner when it comes to data science.
Mindset is key here. Remember our example from one of the earlier modules? Frank. He’s the exact kind of person that testing groups are selling to. I dislike that a lot because instead of teaching what would really help them, they’re just giving them what they want. I’ll leave you to contemplate the reasons for why that is.
3. The Difference Between On-Page SEO & Technical SEO
⚙ View This LessonThese two subjects are often used interchangeably, but the two words exist separately for a reason.
The distinction I like to use is:
- Everything you do with on-page is to make better content.
- Everything you do with technical is to make a better site.
It’s important for me to make this clear as we continue with this, and if you ever read anything else I put out. You’ll know what I mean. Plus, I think it’ll just help you make better decisions in SEO to understand the differences and limitations of each.
4. Site Architecture / Structure
⚙ View This LessonSite Architecture or Site Structure as some call it, is unique in the sense that it deals with both on-page and technical elements. So you can’t talk about this subject and exclude either of the aforementioned subjects.
This is because of how links work, being that they can be both sitewide e.g. navigation links, and also on a singular page i.e. a contextually placed internal link.
Site Architecture or Site Structure is in itself a science. To go back to core principles, it’s actually a part of the information architecture sciences.
For this reason it’s a very complicated subject that people go to University and College to study for YEARS!
In SEO our industry wants us to believe that there’s the Silo Structure and Non-Silo Structures. A massive oversimplification.
We have talked about What and How Search Engines Work. We also talked about taking up a different mentality in order to get better results.
Site Architecture comes next because if you don’t understand the What, How and Why… You’re going to screw it up.
Our job with our Site Architecture is to provide Optimal User Experience and Optimized Crawlability (Crawl Optimization).
When you start to look at in this way, you can start to create a Site Architecture that is designed for a purpose, rather than using structures like Silos which aren’t always optimal for those two goals on some sites, or even just certain areas of a site.
It is my personal belief that the future of site architecture is in situational architecture.
- Accepting that there is no one-size-fits-all solution
- Learning that you can utilize multiple architectures on a site
I wrote about category page archetypes a while back, and which you should use in which situation. I hope to work on providing situational archetypes for site structure and information architecture in the future.
This might sound controversial, but I don’t think URL Structure matters nearly as much as it once did.
I also believe that you shouldn’t spend even half as much time thinking about it as you should spend thinking about general Site Structure.
Of course, there are times when best-practices are hideously ignored, but there are plenty of sites with awful URLs that rank. What you shouldn’t do in my opinion is go around changing URLs. In my experience, this more often than not does a lot of harm today. So for me that’s my advice I’m giving until I see something change.
5. Progressive Optimization
⚙ View This LessonNot a lot of optimizing goes on in SEO.
Beyond following SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) and checking invisible boxes to try and get the best result, most peoples approach to their content is to simply set it and forget it. The focus goes on to the next piece of content to publish.
This approach doesn’t encompass a lot of optimizing… And because of this a lot of peoples results aren’t as good as they could be.
Progressive Optimization is about continuously making little improvements on focus pages. It’s also about continuously improving your results sitewide.
Doing this requires taking a data-driven approach…
- You need to utilize data to know where to concentrate your progressive optimization efforts.
- You need to collect data efficiently and interpret it effectively in order to analyze the results of your progressive optimization.
⚙ View This LessonWhile talking about data science in detail would require filling several books and getting an education far better than the one I currently posess, I can safely tell you that if you’re not using data as a core part of your SEO that you’re leaving a lot on the table.
Remember when we talked about Information Retrieval & Indexing? What else is this other than collecting certain pieces of pre-defined data and organizing it?
Data is everything. And I know that can be hard… But it doesn’t have to be to begin with. I just want to introduce you to 3 things that you can take away with you today.
MetricsIn an ideal world we would have access to direct metrics, but things in SEO are pretty complicated. As such we operate in a world that is dominated with Proxy Metrics and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). An example of a metric you have easy access to would be something such as word count or position in Google's Search Results for a certain search term. In some cases, we can use free tools to find out these metrics and in other cases we pay for tools. Either because there is no alternative option, or for efficiency etc.
Proxy MetricsProxy metrics are pretty huge in SEO. A good example would be DR (Domain Rating) by Ahrefs. This is a completely made up metric by the company, and yet many in SEO rely on it for a lot of the processes and analysis they do. You can create your own proxy metrics easily, like a quality rating for a page based on it passing (or not passing) pre-defined criteria. It can be very useful in terms of SEO work. But you have to understand their limitations. They are ultimately made up after all, in many cases taking metrics and combining them into a larger proxy metric.
Key Performance IndicatorsKPIs as this is also known as are very useful when you've been collecting data for a certain time. This may be ranking changes in the last 30 days, or the increase or decrease of total keywords a page on your site ranks for.
Knowing about these 3 things gives you power to go out there and start thinking about what you should be collecting data on to further your own goals and get better results with your SEO.
7. Getting Results With On-Page
⚙ View This LessonSo far I have hopefully convinced you that you need to focus on the fundamentals. We've also spoken about progressively optimizing your pages and site. And lastly we've covered the importance of data. It's time to start putting that into action.
Fundamental #1: Content quality matters.
Great content can sometimes fail to rank, and sometimes bad content ranks. But I’ll tell you one thing… That’s going to change over time.
I will also say that in the here and now if your content isn’t good enough it’s not going to convert.
- 81 Percent of Users only skim content they read online
- The average attention span for a piece of content is just 8 seconds
- People follow visual instructions 323% better than written instructions
- People will form an opinion in just 50 milliseconds.
- 80% of people spend their time browsing versus doing in-depth reading.
These are just a few stats from around the web. Content quality matters a lot if you want a good result. If your content reads beautifully but it’s not ranking, it’s not because the content reads well. It’s because you screwed up somewhere else, be it keyword research or other on-page factors. That doesn’t mean shitty content works better overall because good content didn’t once or however many times, it just doesn’t.
And I’m not going to try and convince you any more than that. If we’re not on the same page by now you should go ahead and leave the site.
Fundamental #2: Do the bulk of the optimization later.Remember what I said about focusing on progressive optimization? I said that you need to figure out what's worth the effort. If your content doesn't perform, is it worth spending more on it?
Look at it like this:Frank: Our SEO pal named Frank asks his writers to focus on doing X, Y and Z to make the article "SEO Optimized". This takes considerable time, and almost definitely lowers the quality of the article. Plus no serious writer is going to do that. Matt: Our SEO pal named Matt asks his writers to cover a few sections within the article by researching or talking about a few pre-researched points for each section. But otherwise just asks them to write the best article possible. This puts the focus on the articles quality. Clearly the second approach is the right approach to take, especially if you believe in Fundamental #1. So this then means you have to optimize the article later... When? Prior to publish? I personally would rather see how the article does first, and if it flops I want to determine why. Bad keyword research and the competition is too high? The article needs a rewrite? But if it does well, I'll almost certainly optimize it later at some point and this can push it up a number of pages or positions.
Fundamental #3: Focus on the high-value factors.I mentioned in the beginning that when it comes to testing there are too many people worrying about the <1% factors. For me when I'm optimizing a page, I usually have several others on the same site or other sites that I need to worry about. So I want to use my time efficiently. This means focusing on the high-value factors. - Page Title - Headings - URL (Get it right to begin with) - Term Frequency (Including Bigrams, Trigrams - but later) - Missing Terms If you're progressively optimizing correctly, that could take several months to do this alone, just for one page. Yes, this is why you'll never not be busy as an SEO that follows my approach... But of course, you can train people too =] You can also use tools such as SurferSEO which is a tool I personally recommend. They give you access to a lot of data by averaging out what is working in any given SERP (Search Engine Ranking Page). When I first started using them in 2018 this was a huge bonus to go alongside the factors I was looking at regularly above.
Fundamental #4: Keep a changelog and don't do too much at onceIf you want the best results you're going to have to keep track of what you've done by tracking the metrics, proxy metrics etc where possible. And where all else fails describe exactly what you did along with the date. Log the results after 10 days, 30 days etc. This will give you the best idea of whether the change was a success. If you change too much, you won't know what worked. If you don't know what worked, you can't get the best possible results as one change might have helped, while the other didn't. Even if the overall result was positive. It also makes it harder to take those validated learnings and use them elsewhere on your site. Equally you can change the timeframe by doing some GSC trickery to get results faster, but you can only do this so many times without getting limited, don't worry I'll cover this soon. This can be especially useful when trying to steal snippets off competitors!
Fundamental #5: Use multiple templates so you can split-testThis follows on a bit from the above, but over time you should come up with new ideas for how your new articles should look or maybe even specific rules they should follow for best results in your niche. This doesn't mean you get to stop progressively optimizing. It just means your baseline/starting position might change. Whether it's the formatting or the sections you include by default. I have found that I've significantly improved my results by split-testing templates over time.
Fundamental #6: AuditYou should be doing on-page audits, content performance audits and much more on the regular. If you're not doing this you won't have access to all of the data you need and will also miss issues and errors.
8. Getting Results With Technical
⚙ View This LessonTechnical SEO is a funny thing. Everybody claims to be an expert at it. Yet our industry has few who actually are. Today the actual experts at Technical SEOs in the world are the SEOs with front-end development skills, and increasingly those who are able to harness things like Python and Node.js. I know some people who are great at On-Page who are awful at Technical. While I personally know I am great at On-Page (and you can judge from my above approach), I am still overall better at Technical SEO. Getting results at Technical requires both wisdom and knowledge in both SEO and Development. A lot of this stuff isn't easy to most people, and that's fine. You just need to keep it in mind when choosing a theme, hosting etc.
Fundamental #1: Practice 'DRY' CodeThis means Don't Repeat Yourself. It means removing bloat, but equally there's more to it than this. Want to know a killer technical crawl trap you've probably never heard of anywhere before? Some mobile navigations are simply duplicates of their desktop counterparts. They're not truly responsive. There are two or more menus which are hidden from the user, but not the search engines crawlers. This can cause all kinds of issues.
Fundamental #2: Use HTML5Code matters a lot like I just pointed out. Bad development can cause issues, but equally so can well-coded but outdated development practices. HTML5 for example has been around a long time now. But most sites still aren't fully HTML5 based. Modern browsers apply ARIA attributes to HTML5 elements. This makes your site compliant with accessibility standards, something that Google will score you on in their Lighthouse Audits. It's safe to assume this matters at least somewhat. And you should care generally.
Fundamental #3: Use a VPSYou should be using a VPS for hosting. Shared hosting isn't good enough, even the best shared hosting isn't close to as fast as a basic VPS. Plus you'll be sharing an IP with sites doing god knows what. A basic VPS will only cost you around $5 per month. So the myth that it's more expensive doesn't even hold true in 2019.
Fundamental #4: Optimize Your TemplatesYour posts, your pages, your blogroll, your homepage, your search pages, your category pages... All of these have their own special templates that control how they work and what is displayed on those templates for every type of web page that uses it. This means if you remove an unnecessary link from a category page, it will then remove it from every category page on your site. This kind of technical optimization can then result in ranking improvements across dozens of pages. And this is why technical SEO is becoming increasingly important. If you want to have a perfect technical setup, you need to optimize your templates code. Removing things, adding things, tweaking things.
Fundamental #5: Structured DataWe know that Google loves Structured Data. Today Schema is the sweetheart of structured data. This helps them understand your page and it also offers SERP benefits in some cases. There are case-studies out there by those such as Distilled showing Schema has impacted rankings directly. So it's also involved in certain ranking factors even if it's not one in and of itself.
Fundamental #6: Be Crawl Friendly
Make sure that your sites crawl depth isn’t absolutely crazy, otherwise it can be really difficult to get crawled efficiently. This can in turn hold back your rankings.
This is a matter of site architecture as we talked about earlier, and requires planning at critical stages of your site. Sites with 100 pages have a very different architecture setup than a site with 1,000 pages. So when your site grows, you have to revisit this or have it planned in advance. This is how crawl depth issues arise when not enough preparation was put in or the strategy was slightly wrong.
Finding out if you have issues here usually requires a technical audit…
Fundamental #7: Tech AuditsAt my company Pathtorch, I discovered after doing hundreds of audits that the average website we performed a Technical SEO Audit for had what we classed as 23 issues, 9 errors and 3 criticals. That’s 36 items on average.
A technical audit is a lot different from an on-page or a content based audit in the sense that it’s looking specifically at how your site works overall, as well as looking for specific codependent or two-way errors on pages.
At Pathtorch, one of the things we do differently is that we only check for items that we know from real data actually influences rankings, so 36 items on average is actually a huge number. Especially considering many sites have 2-3x that number of issues present. Even sites of big brands and experts often had issues, even if they were fewer in number than the average.
This means that you don’t know what you don’t know. And most people simply don’t question their technical setup as much as they should. But due to the sitewide nature of technical issues, these issues often stifle rankings and harm them should an algorithm update deal with one or more of these issues harshly.
The bottom-line is that everyone should be doing technical audits to make sure that they’re going forward with a good setup. You can do all the right things everywhere else, just for technical issues to hold you back.
9. Avoid This Particular 80⁄20 Trap…
⚙ View This LessonIf you can’t tell by now, I’m an advocate of minimalism, essentialism, simplicity et al.
So obviously I’m a big fan of the 80⁄20 rule.
With an exception to a particular trap that people seem to fall into.
“I only focus on this because of 80⁄20.”
That’s great, except when you’re talking about ignoring all the specifics in favor of the general.
Let me explain.
When doing analysis of any kind, it’s really important to talk about reasons.
There is a general reason for something… And a specific one.
And you can 80⁄20 both of those, like pretty much anything.
When being strategic, and using 80⁄20 to define the tasks you’re working on, you should ideally base this on general AND specific analysis.
You need to be both general and specific. I don’t think this is as obvious as it seems if you’re already doing this.
You can’t talk about the general and ignore the specific if you want best results…
Break it down into some of the things you might want to 80⁄20 your processes for and figure out what actually matters.
Using 80⁄20 generally is good. But use it specifically too.
10. Your Next Steps
⚙ View This LessonYour next steps are much the same as mine, you’ve got to go out there and go through the Build > Measure > Learn route.
Live, breathe and sleep that for 12 months and your rankings will be better than ever, I promise you.
I’m not here to tell you exactly what to do next. Because that’s not what I’m about, and the Academy here isn’t about that. We’re about understanding the subject matter and acknowledging that no Site or SERP is the same. So instead we operate based on fundamentals and confidence that we can adapt to compete no matter what.
So your next steps are keep learning, keep optimizing and of course, work harder than your competitor. Nothing can replace hard work, but smart work is important too.