Do you want to get maximum results with minimal effort? Columnist Jeremy Knauff outlines five simple tactics that can lead to big SEO gains.
Most people new to SEO are looking for a silver bullet — that one magical tactic that solves all of their problems. The bad news is that it doesn’t exist. The good news is that there are many tactics that, while not magical, are relatively simple to execute and offer a high return on investment.
We all want to get the most out of the time, effort and money we invest into SEO, and today I’m going to help you do exactly that by identifying low-hanging fruit — the SEO tasks you’ve probably overlooked or simply haven’t updated in a long time. These are simple tasks that, once properly executed, can have a significant positive impact on your organic traffic.
1. Revise URL structure
Once upon a time, a flat URL structure was preferred from an SEO perspective, but just as most of us today don’t think the world is flat, a flat URL structure is outdated SEO thinking. A logical hierarchy helps search engines to better understand exactly what your website is about.
A simple way to understand the role of website hierarchy in SEO is to imagine the individual pages within your website as a series of nested buckets.
Your home page is about your core topic and is the largest bucket. It contains all of your second-level pages. Nested under each of those second-level pages would be any third-level pages and/or blog posts related to your second-level pages. This is a total of three levels, which should be plenty for most websites; however, four levels may be reasonable in some rare circumstances.
In the old days, this hierarchy meant creating a series of actual folders on your server, but with modern content management systems like WordPress, it’s simply a matter of using a categorical structure and configuring your permalinks properly. The URLs are then rewritten dynamically via your .htaccess file. Don’t worry if you’re not the ultra-technical type — WordPress handles all of this rewriting wizardry for you.
The first step is to change the default permalink settings. Then, if you haven’t already, publish your second-level pages, and create corresponding blog categories. The slugs for your categories must exactly match the slugs for your second-level pages. This seemingly minor detail is critical because it determines how search engines will value each page within your website relative to other pages within your website.
Once properly configured, each third-level page and blog post will appear as a sub-page of the applicable second-level page based on the blog category they are assigned to. In other words, each third-level page/post adds more authority to the page it appears nested under.
2. Prune low-quality/low-traffic pages
Search engines will only crawl a finite number of the pages in your website, so to ensure that they regularly crawl your most valuable content, it’s vital to prune low-quality pages and pages with little or no traffic.
This could include:
- pages that are no longer relevant to your business
- multiple pages that can be merged into one
- pages that don’t add any real value (For example, groups of very similar pages, such as pages for Tampa contractors, Clearwater contractors, and St. Petersburg contractors, which differ primarily by a change in city names.)
- outdated blog posts
- thin content (My rule of thumb is anything less than 500 words, but 750 or more is better).
pages targeting very low-volume keyword phrases
With the garbage out of the way, the overall quality of your website will improve; search engines will be more likely to crawl your higher-quality pages, which means they will find your updates sooner.
Don’t just delete these pages, though, because then you’ll lose any equity you’ve built with them. Instead, set up a 301 redirect to send both search engines and visitors who try to access them to a different but relevant page on your website. If your website runs on WordPress, there are several plugins that can help you accomplish this, but I prefer to create redirects in the .htacess file because any plugin you add can potentially reduce the speed of your website while opening it up to vulnerabilities from hackers. This method is cleaner, more efficient and more secure.
Before you get started, it’s important to make a backup of your .htaccess file, because a single error can crash your entire website. Once you’ve done that, open the file in your FTP program and add the following line, modified to reflect to the URL you’ve deleted and where you want visitors who try to access it sent to.
Redirect 301 /old-page-url/ https://your-domain.com/page-url-redirected-to/
Note: You might need to change the settings in your FTP program in order to see your .htaccess file because it’s treated differently than standard files.
You can generally create as many redirects as you need to, one per line, but it’s important that all redirects go directly from point A to point B. I recommend reviewing them at least once per year — more often if you have multiple people working on it — to look for any that include multiple redirects. (A to B to C should simply be A to C, for example.) Screaming Frog is a great tool to do this, and they even have a free version that will crawl up to 500 URLs, though I do recommend investing in the paid version, which removes this limitation.
3. Improve page speed
Page speed is an essential aspect of modern SEO, and it’s an area in which most websites perform poorly. Fortunately, it’s also an area that offers a tremendous return on investment because it’s relatively easy to make significant improvements with minimal effort, time or money.
The first thing you need to do is get away from the commoditized discount web hosting. Nearly every reputable web host today offers hosting packages specifically optimized for WordPress, and most of them offer SSL, caching and CDN at costs that aren’t much higher than the slower-than-mud shared hosting accounts most people use. Switching to one of these specialized web hosts will generally give you the biggest overall improvement in page speed compared to anything else you can do.
Finally, make sure your media is properly sized and optimized. Images and video can have a significant negative impact on page speed — especially the way most people upload them. The average person doesn’t think about the dimensions or file size of an image; they only think about the fact that they want to take that gorgeous photo from their iPhone and use it on their website. They don’t realize, however, that the image is significantly larger than it should be for their website, so they simply upload it, resulting in a dramatic reduction in page speed.
This isn’t surprising considering that a photo from the typical modern smartphone can be up to 40 times larger than it needs to be for use on the web. If you include just a few of these unoptimized images on a page, you can drastically slow down your site — especially for mobile devices.
Here are some tips to optimize your media:
- Choose the proper format. JPG is best for most photographic images, while GIF or PNG are usually for images with large areas of solid color.
- Properly size images. If an image is displayed at 800px wide on your website, there is no advantage in using a 1600px wide image.
- Compress the image file. In addition to being the top image editing program, Adobe Photoshop has amazing image compression capabilities and starts at $9.99/month. There are also free WordPress plugins like Imsanity, EWWW Image Optimizer, and TinyJPG that will automatically compress the images that you upload.
- Choose the proper format. MP4 is best in most cases because it produces the smallest file size.
- Serve the optimal size (dimensions) based on visitors’ screen size.
- Eliminate the audio track if it’s not necessary (for example, when a video is displayed as a background element).
- Compress the video file. I use Adobe Premiere most of the time, but Camtasia is a solid choice, too. There are also free tools online, like ClipChamp’s video compressor.
- Minimize the video length.
- Upload videos to YouTube and/or Vimeo and use their iframe embedding code.
4. Build (and prune) internal links
Internal links can play a valuable role in SEO, both for purely technical reasons, and because of the positive impact they have on user experience.
From a technical perspective, internal links help search engines find more of the pages within your website and understand which pages are most important. From a user experience perspective, they help people find the content that answers their questions while keeping them on your website longer.
This is a delicate balancing act, though. It’s important to have enough internal links to make an impact, but it’s equally important to not overdo it — add too many, and you can bog down search engine crawlers and annoy human visitors.
You can do this manually (and in some cases, you may want to), but there are a few handy WordPress plugins that enable you to dynamically control internal links from a single page in your admin area (I generally use SEO Smart Links). This makes adding, editing and deleting internal links fast and easy.
Your first step is to include internal links from any relevant pages to all of the pages in your top-level navigation that cover your products and/or services. You should also include internal links to any of your pages or posts targeting high-traffic keywords and, to a lesser degree, supporting keywords. There’s not a magic formula or ratio, but if you limit it to one internal link every few paragraphs, you generally should be fine.
Since you’ll be pruning low-quality and/or low-traffic pages, you’ll also need to prune any old internal links to those pages. Now would also be a good time to prune any broken links to external websites. Once you’ve pruned these pages, and both internal and external links, it’s a good idea to crawl your entire website with Screaming Frog to ensure you aren’t linking to any nonexistent pages.
5. Tap existing relationships for high-quality inbound links
Anyone reading Search Engine Land knows the value of high-quality links in SEO today, and you probably also know just how difficult it is to earn those links. Quality links take tremendous time and effort to earn, which means that building quality links is not a scalable task. While that may sound like a bad thing, it’s actually an advantage, because most of your competitors will either use tactics that produce ineffective, low-quality links or even give up on link building entirely.
Unlike cold emails to random website owners begging for them to link to your content, an email to someone you already know is far more likely to be opened, to be read and to produce the desired outcome. But that doesn’t make it any less important to produce amazing content — after all, what good is it to earn organic traffic if all of your visitors click the back button shortly after arriving?
It’s also still important to seek only relevant links, because while a friend would probably be willing to throw you a link even when it’s not relevant, those types of links are unlikely to have any positive impact on your ranking — and may even harm both your website and your friend’s website if the algorithm detects a pattern of this type of activity.