We compiled the most important elements in SEO on-page, off-page and technical optimization for you in a simple and understandable SEO checklist.
These factors have a concrete influence on the performance of your website in Google search results.
Use our list of measures, so that you can really get started with search engine optimization in 2021.
Even if you have an existing website, you can find tips on how to improve the ranking in the following SEO checklist.
1. Changes to Google’s search algorithm
Google is constantly making changes to the search algorithm, most of which are not actively communicated by Google. Sometimes changes are made to the ranking algorithms, or new features are published like the Knowledge Graph a few years ago. The latter, by the way, is the box in the search results with aggregated data and information about the search term, where no website can be accessed.
These updates are mostly “quality” updates, that is, updates that are supposed to improve the quality of search results, and for which there are also no real recommendations for optimization. The Twitter account Google Search Liaison publishes information on such updates. Examples of such updates recently include the Google Domain Diversity Update of June 2019, which is intended to prevent a website for the same search term from appearing in search results with multiple URLs.
The November 2019 BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) update received a lot of attention. It is designed to help Google better account for natural language in search queries. It often makes a big difference in meaning if, for example, prepositions appear in the search query. As yet, this only affects about 10 percent of all Google searches worldwide. But the direction of travel at Google is clear: the quality of search queries should continue to be improved. Also for this Google let it be known that one does not have to optimize explicitly for BERT. Of course, the quality of the content on the website must still be convincing (more on this later).
1.1 The Google Core Update in December 2020
In December, Google announced a major update for the search engine algorithm. Until just before Christmas, all pages were re-indexed and re-evaluated with this Core Update. This means that there are winning and losing pages, which can definitely have an impact on visitor numbers, depending on how much organic traffic typically came and comes to the website via Google.
What you need to understand about this is that it is not a matter of penalizing entire domains. Rather, the re-evaluation is about individual pages or even directories. So when you evaluate Google Search Console or Google Analytics, you should always look at individual pages as well.
From this point of view, this update is also a “quality update”. Good pages and content should be rewarded with more visibility, other pages may actually be outdated or just don’t deserve visibility in the top positions on Google.
2. Put the user in the center – the user experience
“We focus on the customer” is what many companies say on their home page. I’m going to be bad now: with the cannibals, too ;). But there is often very little evidence of a real focus on the user. The user experience leaves a lot to be desired, e.g. because you have to search for ages until you find a certain product or you are not presented with the solution you were actually looking for. Google can already assess the quality of a website quite well based on various criteria, and there are also quality raters, i.e. real people who look at and judge websites. For this purpose, there are the so-called Quality Rater Guidelines, and one point deals with the fact that websites that do not show that they are helpful for users are rated very low.
The boundaries between search engine optimization and user experience are therefore fluid. So what does Google mean by putting the user first? In principle, many criteria are not only ranking factors but are also essential for users. As a website operator, you also benefit from a positive user experience through the following points:
2.1 Optimization of the website for mobile devices
When creating new websites, mobile optimization is a must these days. After all, you don’t want to scare away your users who are viewing the website on their smartphones. However, there are still enough websites that lag in this regard. The reasons for this may be manifold. However, Google had already announced some time ago that it would no longer use the desktop version of websites for indexing, but would rank websites based on the mobile version, i.e. “mobile-first indexing”. Websites that are not mobile-optimized are then at a disadvantage in terms of ranking, even if the desktop version is used.
By the way, it is also important to check your website on various cell phones, so that you can be sure that all elements are displayed correctly. For example, where do sidebars appear, or are the buttons not too close together (the famous “sausage finger effect”)?
By the way, you can find out which weak points there might be in the mobile display of your website with this free Google tool: https://search.google.com/test/mobile-friendly.
I can only repeat myself: a website relaunch is definitely in order in 2021 if your company’s website is not optimized for mobile devices. And I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t come across enough websites where that’s not yet the case.
With a WordPress website and a responsive theme, there’s usually no problem. But please also check if e.g. the newsletter signup popup doesn’t also cover the whole screen on mobile and can’t be clicked away etc.
2.2 Improve loading time of the website
Improving the loading times of the website is an extensive topic and usually requires programming skills. First hints on what should be improved are provided by Google itself in the Page Speed Insights. Often, a lot can be achieved by compressing images or browser caching. Ultimately, you take these measures so that users do not have to wait so long for the page to load and they have a good user experience, especially on mobile devices. See also point 10.1 Core Web Vitals and how Google uses these metrics to evaluate user experience.
For what you can do regarding performance, check out these 10 tips to improve load times for WordPress websites.
2.3 Focus on content, as the content is still king
Even though the content is not only text but of course podcasts, images, infographics, videos, etc. are also content. are content, Google can still read text best. The search engine wants to understand if the website page is the best page for a certain keyword combination. If you can provide more content, for example in the form of a corporate blog, it is also potentially possible to appear in search results for more keyword combinations.
Text length is not necessarily the deciding factor. Statements are circulating that a text must have at least 300 words or a blog at least 1500 words. However, Google does not count words, but the content must be informative for the reader. I think that 300 words may be too short to explain a subject comprehensively, but in no case must you therefore artificially inflate the text.
The important thing is the relevance of the content!!! Do they provide useful information and added value for users?
You don’t necessarily have to have a blog or a “news” section, especially if your company doesn’t have the resources. But still, maybe a guide, the tutorial could be published, a FAQ page, or a checklist. A clear structure of the website content and good readability are of course also important.
Unfortunately, you can’t do without content: a small website with little (helpful) text has little chance of appearing in search results worth mentioning. Content strategy and the investment in the right content is also an investment in the future because Google is getting better and better at understanding connections. Content and SEO belong together indispensably. Read more about this in the article Content and SEO.
3. Technically flawless pages
If you have a WordPress site (or another content management system) you are already in a good position. The CMS is the basis for solid programming with pages that are also good for Google to crawl and thus technically have a real chance to appear in search results at all.
Technically sound and technical search engine optimization mean, for example, that the website can be crawled properly by Google, that there are no broken links, not too many redirected pages, that the internal linking is done properly, and that the presentation of the website in the search results fits. To see if and how Google finds and crawls your website, you should log in to Google Search Console.
Here you’ll get lots of hints on what you can do to get your site’s pages indexed. For example, upload an XML sitemap, a sort of table of contents for Google, or render the site to see if there are any problems. You can find more info about Google Search Console in the article: How you can benefit from Google Search Console.
While content is king, the technical requirements still need to be in place, of course. With a detailed SEO audit, you will find out what should be optimized on the website.
4. Take care of backlinks and mentions
Backlinks are links from thematically appropriate and very high-quality websites that point to your website or your content. Backlinks are still important for a website ranking. If your website or blog is frequently mentioned on the web, shared on social networks, and generally recommended to users (good old word of mouth), it’s a good sign. So it pays to network well.
Google is admittedly able to estimate never before entered search queries with the help of a self-learning algorithm, i.e. machine learning and artificial intelligence. Called RankBrain, this part of the Google algorithm is designed to help the search engine understand and rank search queries. So it’s more important than ever to understand what the user’s intent is when they enter a search term or phrase and tailor content accordingly. Nevertheless, to do this, you should create content that is so good that others will recommend it, i.e. link to your site.
In the article SEO Linkbuilding tactics, you will learn more about approaches to generate relevant backlinks for your website.
What some businesses don’t have on their radar yet is local search engine optimization with Google MyBusiness. Even if you don’t have a “brick-and-mortar” storefront or traffic, you can still submit your business to this free business directory from Google.
5. Do an extensive keyword research
How often have I heard that keyword research is completely out because Google could already understand everything. But that is only half the truth. Yes, Google can already deliver results for many complex, never-before-asked search queries and understands users better and better. And of course, Google also understands synonyms and variants of search terms. But keyword research is still about understanding what words and phrases users use to find a solution to their problem that you can solve.
Therefore, search for keywords that can serve as the main keyword (even consisting of several words) as well as other matching terms as secondary keywords so that Google knows exactly what the topic of the page is. Google always wants to show the best and especially the most relevant page for a searched term. Look at the search results to see which pages rank for your search terms and try to write an even better and more appropriate text.
6. Deal with snippets, rich snippets, structured data, and featured snippets
Still important is the presentation of the search results (snippets). Here you need to carefully fill out the URL, Title, Meta description with the keywords that users are actually searching for. How to do this with the popular SEO plugin for WordPress from Yoast, you will learn in the article WordPress SEO with YOAST.
Rich snippets are search results where additional information is displayed and thus attracts more attention, such as rating stars, event data, recipes with images, products, etc. To display this additional information in the search results, Google requires so-called structured data. The most commonly used data is schema.org.
A featured snippet is a highlighted search result that is displayed as the very first response box. To appear here with the own website, definitions are especially suitable, e.g. answers to questions “what is…” etc. Lists can also work well.
Also, the new FAQ boxes offer answers already on position 0 before all other search results. This is a dilemma for website owners because clicking on the website is now mostly not even necessary. Should one now appear thereby highlighting the content through structured data? It depends on whether you want the traffic to your website, which means optimizing for specific keywords. Or one provides Google with the information and hopes for an image gain.
7. Update metadata
The metadata such as title (<title>) and meta description (<meta-description>) ensure that the correct information for the respective URL appears in the search results. The wording of the title is particularly important, it should contain the keyword in any case. It represents the blue link in search results. The description below it is not a ranking factor, but in times of position zero and Google’s answer boxes, it is important to stand out.
You shouldn’t just leave it to your CMS and an SEO plugin to automatically formulate the metadata, but revise and adjust these points after doing keyword research.
8. Switch website to the secure internet protocol HTTPS
I wouldn’t list this point if I didn’t continue to see websites that aren’t yet running on HTTPS. This communication protocol ensures that data is transmitted in a tap-proof manner, not only for online stores but also on your website when users fill out your contact form, for example.
Ask your provider for an SSL certificate for your website, many providers offer them free of charge. There is no way around switching the website from HTTP to HTTPS because Google also prefers these websites and displays HTTP websites in the browser as “not secure”.
If you use Google Analytics and Google Search Console, you will need to change a few settings in both tools after the conversion is complete.
The website is already running on HTTPS?
Then check if the HTTP version of the website is really completely redirected to the HTTPS version. Otherwise, there will be “mixed content”, i.e. the URLs are reachable with HTTP and with HTTPS. This also often affects uploads like images, so you have to search in the database of WordPress if there are still HTTP entries. For this purpose, there are also plugins like Search and Replace.
9. Optimize images
In 2017, Google updated the image search, which was especially problematic for image-heavy websites like those of photographers or artists. Because now the images in original quality are already displayed in the image search and no longer just a thumbnail. This is likely to have caused a drop in traffic for many websites, as it is now no longer necessary to call up the website to see the image in its original size.
Therefore, it is still important to pay attention to high-quality images and to optimize the images properly, i.e. to use the correct file name, the alt tag as well as the title tag. You can read more about this in the article SEO for images.
10. SEO in 2021
10.1 The Core Web Vitals
From May 2021, the so-called Core Web Vitals will be the ranking signal (Page Experience Signal). Based on currently three metrics, which you can find e.g. in the Google Search Console or the Page Speed Insights, Google evaluates the user experience of a page. These are primarily
- Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) – the amount of time it takes to load the main content of the page.
- First Input Delay (FID) – the time from the user’s first interaction with a page to the time the browser can respond to that interaction
- Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) – the stability of a page’s layout and whether individual elements shift during use
Other signals such as the aforementioned mobile optimization and HTTPS security are then also evaluated.
You can find more information about this at https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/9205520?hl=en.
With a WordPress website or another CMS, you’re usually pretty well set up without a programmer having to do a lot of customization here. And it is also important to note that the content of the website is still the most important adjusting screw in website optimization.
10.2 Voice Search and AMP
Two points that seemed important to me at the beginning of last year actually seem a bit overrated, namely the topic of Voice Search and AMP.
Voice Search/Voice Search may be an issue for some companies and it may have more impact on SEO in the future.
Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), Google’s initiative to deliver even better and faster mobile pages, should actually become standard. This is about delivering a stripped-down HTML version of the pages. More info: https://amp.dev/documentation/guides-and-tutorials/start/create/. However, this applies more to publishers.
In general: if you make sure that your website is technically flawless and that the quality of the website itself and the content is excellent, you don’t need to worry too much about Google’s updates. Because the fact is that Google always wants to improve to present users with the best search results.
It certainly remains exciting in the SEO field. If you think about the points mentioned above, your website has the potential to be found by your desired target groups on the web.