How many times have you clicked on a link in a list of search results only to sit there and watch the little circle spin on your browser tab? Like everyone else, you probably hit the back button and proceed to click the next link in the long list of results. The speed of a website is a very important aspect of SEO that gets overlooked far too often. It is important that site owners start to make page load time a priority when optimizing their sites.
But why is site-speed such a big part of SEO, you ask? What if your site was the first link that was clicked in search results like the one mentioned above. But the page didn’t load fast enough and the visitor left your site to try another. You just lost a potential conversion.
Setting high usability standards is a big part of SEO and site speed is an integral part in building a user-friendly website. Unfortunately, users are not very patient and getting your visitors to your pages as quickly as possible is something you should always be working on. The average visitor expects a page to load in 4 seconds or less; if not, most are willing to leave your site for a competitors.
Although usability is the main reason why I try to keep a site fast, a slow website can also affect your rankings as well. Studies have shown that when slower sites rank in search results, people actually use Google less. Not to mention the negative effects a slow site and server can have on your crawl rate as well.
What Slows Down Your Site?
There can be many contributing factors to a slow, bogged-down website. Anything from the type of hosting service you choose to the amount of code in your sites files. Below is a list of the major reasons why your site may be bogged down:
Large Images – Images that are too large or take too long to download is probably one of the biggest problems with site speed. Before inserting images into a webpage, they must first be resized and compressed to ensure a faster download time.
Server/Hosting Issues – The type of hosting and server your site is on can cause many issues. Shared servers can be fast at times and really slow at other times and in some cases a hosting/server package may not be adequate enough to handle a specific CMS you may be using for your site.
Too Many Ads – Ads are a great way to earn some extra cash but is it worth losing visitors because you’re site isn’t loading fast enough? If you have several ads on your site, try removing a couple and you will probably see instant results.
Uncompressed Text Files – Compressing text files on your server reduces the amount of bytes sent over the network and can really save on bandwidth use.
How to Test the Speed of Your Site
There are many great and free tools available for anyone to use to get a good look how fast a site really is and what may be slowing it down as well. Below are a couple of my favorites. And because all of them give slightly different reports, it is a good idea to run your site on all of them to see what problems one picked up that the others may have missed.
Google PageSpeed Insights – This one is my personal favorite. To use this tool, all you have to do is enter your URL into the field and click Analyze and in a few seconds you have a list of items that are slowing down your site organized in High, Medium and Low priority. You can even go further by clicking each item to find out how to fix each issue.
YSlow – This is another great tool that can be used to analyze the speed of your site. This one works a lot like a browser extension or add-on. Once installed you can run an analysis on any site you are currently on. After a few seconds of analysis, you will receive a letter grade for all elements pertaining to site speed and suggestions on how to fix them as well. But one thing that YSlow offers that PageSpeed does not is the use of some tools such as Smushit to achieve your optimization tasks.
Communication between the client and developer is one of the single most important aspects of any SEO campaign. It is imperative that both sides understand where the other is coming from and what the roles and expectations of each side are. I will go over a few suggestions from both the client and the developers perspective to help break the communication barrier that gets in the way far too often. You will be surprised at how much smoother a campaign can go if both parties start the campaign with the right amount of information and a realistic expectation.
Communicating as a Web Developer is all about Gaining Trust
As a developer, it is important to understand where the client is coming from. In order to fully grasp what your clients’ wants and needs are, you have to first take yourself out of the developer mindset and understand what the clients’ site is all about. Always take some time to get familiar with the clients’ site and business. Think about what the culture of their business is and what type of customer-base they are trying to reach. Also, research the products and services offered on the site as well…I assure you that this step will not only help you make the best decisions for your clients’ site, it will also dramatically increase the amount of trust the client has for you. And that will go a long way when trying to persuade them to make certain changes.
Remember that in most cases, this site you are working on is their baby and they are very protective of it, but if you show them that you understand where they are coming from and know what they do, they will be much more inclined to listen to what you have to say.
Another thing I learned as a developer is to not rely on big fancy words and complicated technical jargon. You may think that you sound smart and are making a good impression, but the fact is that what you are saying is probably going right over their heads. If the client isn’t learning anything from you, then you are not doing your job correctly. I’m not saying that you have to use kiddie words in order for them to understand what it is you are accomplishing, just explain why you are doing it and what the benefits are of the changes you are making.
Include lengthy explanations with your suggestions and visual aides to help them understand what you are working on and how it will help their website. I promise you that they don’t really care how many lines of code you had to write or what type of font you chose to style their heading tags with – they just want to know how it is going to get them the results they need.
One great thing I learned to utilize are my past success stories. Don’t be afraid to show the client other sites that you have worked on that are similar to theirs. Show them exactly what you changed and how it has affected their SEO efforts. This type of proof is exactly what they want and it is exactly what you need as a developer to show the client that they can trust your judgment.
Communicating as a Client is about Properly Expressing your Wants and Needs
As the owner of a site, you are probably really excited to get your SEO campaign started as quickly as possible. It is important that you come into the campaign with an open mind and an understanding that your developer makes every change with your best interests in mind. But at first, there will be a sort of language barrier between you and your developer. To remedy this, take some time to do a little research about the inner workings of your site. Learn about what a developer does and the types of changes you may expect to be implemented on your site. I understand that you hired a developer so you wouldn’t have to deal with the technical aspect of it all, but learning a little about what he/she does will go a long way when you’re trying to express your ideas and needs.. Remember, this is your site and your campaign. You have the ultimate say in what happens. You have to be involved as much as possible. Your developer is there to help you bring those needs and wants to life, but it is up to you to properly express what those are from the very beginning.
It is also important to understand that in order to get the results you desire, you must express your ideas to your developer in as much detail as possible. Don’t be afraid to express your expectations from the very beginning, or ask questions regarding the best ways to reach your goals. Tell your developer what can and cannot be changed on your site. Take advantage of similar sites as examples of the type of resource you want your website to be for your audience.
Effective communication from both sides is the most important foundation of any SEO campaign. In order to obtain good results, both sides must understand what the expectations are of the other. When a developer and a client are working in unison, the road to success is a smooth ride.
One of the most common SEO mistakes I encounter every day is the mishandling of 404 errors. URLs that return a 404 HTTP response code are a normal part of the web; just about every site has them. 404 errors can be served for a couple of reasons. Maybe you are trying to access a page that has been moved or no longer exists on the sites server, or maybe you misspelled the URL for that particular page. Although 404 errors do not have a direct correlation to your sites rankings, it is believed that too many of these errors can act as a signal to search engines that maybe your sites content isn’t the best or most up to date for the query. The most important part is understanding how to approach them correctly in order to preserve user experience and link juice. This can be accomplished by creating a customized 404 page and installing 301 redirects when appropriate.
What Should I Do With Them?
The web is constantly changing and so are the sites that populate it. Many sites want to change content, and should often, in order to stay fresh. But what do you do in the case of retired pages or a change in URL structure? In many cases I see sites set up to redirect all 404 errors to the homepage. Unfortunately this is killing the site rather than helping it. Approaching 404s in this manner is essentially devaluing your homepage by sending the user and search engines to a page that is not relevant to the original URL.
Another problem I see often is when a site is set up to take the user or search engine to a custom error page but instead of returning 404 response it will return a 200 OK, this is known as a soft 404.
The goal here is to get the visitors to where they want to go, and to keep search engines from leaving the site and continue crawling once a 404 error is reached. So how do we accomplish this?
Well, there are a couple of ways to ensure that visitors and search engines stay on your site while also retaining some of that traffic and link juice from those retired pages.
- Implement 301 Redirects: Redirecting all 404 errors is not recommended. 301 permanent redirects should be used in cases where your URL has changed. Pages that have been retired should return a 404 response header instead of returning 404-like content.
- Custom 404 Page: If you retire product pages or pages with content that is no longer relevant to your site then it is perfectly fine to let those 404. Like I said before, 404 errors are perfectly normal. Your approach to them is what really matters. This is when a custom 404 page comes into play. A custom error page offers the user and search engines more options than just dead end.
It is also important to remember that if you do retire pages that will return a 404, you must remove any links to that page from within your site or they will still be indexed.
Importance of a Custom 404 Page
One of the most overlooked aspects of site design and SEO is the implementation of a custom 404 page. Too often I see sites using the default error page instead (shown below), which can result in lost visitors and keep search engines from crawling the entire site.
What is wrong with the page above? Do you think the average user knows what a 404 HTTP Response Code is? This is why customized 404 pages are so very important. A customize page will allow visitors and search engines to continue navigating your website in the event of a broken link or deleted page. Remember, search engines do not have a back button. If you do not include links for the crawling process to continue then the spider will see it as a dead end and jump off site.
Custom error pages also offer the user a more personalized experience and a better explanation of what a 404 is. There are some important elements that every sites 404 page should contain that will keep visitors browsing and search engines crawling:
- Maintain Consistent Design: The customized page should include the same basic design as the rest of the site. I usually look at this as a “gutted out” version of one of the sites pages. The header, navigation and footer should all be intact so the user has options when a 404 error is triggered.
- Explain In Normal Words: Like I said before, the average user does not know what a 404 HTTP response code is. Try adding a simple message in the body of the page saying something like “Sorry, the page you are looking for no longer exists.”
- Provide Links to Relevant Content: A common method I have seen quite often is the inclusion of links right below the error message that takes the user to the most popular product or content pages of the site. Including a search bar in this area is also a great addition that will enable the user to find exactly what they are looking for.
Everyday, many businesses spend large amounts of time and money on their SEO campaigns only to find that their site is not budging in rankings. Most site owners and SEO agencies put most of the emphasis on establishing a good link profile and conducting keyword research. While these are both very important to the success of an SEO campaign, many developers and site owners overlook some important aspects of the site’s structure and backend that will actually hurt your search rankings. With recent algorithm changes (Google Panda and Penguin updates), search engines are gaining more ability to crawl sites the same way people view them.
The speed of your pages is all about setting good usability standards. While Google may not factor your sites speed too much in your rankings, it is important to make your site as fast as possible because the faster your pages load, the less time it takes for the Googlebot to crawl them. From a conversion standpoint, page speed is very important. A user is much more inclined to continue browsing a page that is quick and working properly. Slow loading pages end in lost visitors every time.
Heavily coded pages create slow loading pages. There are some tips and tricks you can implement that will increase the speed of your site, making the experience for your users much friendlier:
- External CSS: Your site’s CSS should be located in a separate file on your server, and not inline on every page. Include all of your CSS into 1 external style sheet to reduce HTTP requests enabling each page to load faster.
- Caching and Compression: Browser caching allows your browser to load previously downloaded material from your machine rather than over the network, and text compression compacts resources sent over the network, reducing download time. Two of the most popular methods of compression are GZIP and Deflate. Implementing text file compression and leverage browser caching will depend on the hosting and CMS you are using. If possible, using these tools will dramatically increase your site’s speed.
- Optimized Images: Reducing the file size of your images will dramatically increase the speed of your sites pages. The trick is trying to reduce file size without losing too much image quality. There are many free and paid tools available for image compression and optimization.
Indexation and Crawling
Insufficient crawling and incomplete indexation is a major downfall for many sites. It is important to ask yourself, through every stage of the development process, if your site can be crawled properly by search engines. There are ways to ensure Google, or any search engine, will be able to see your site properly and crawl it thoroughly:
- XML Sitemap: An XML Sitemap is used to help search engines find all of the pages of your site that you want crawled. It should include every page that you want indexed and should be updated often. For larger sites, it is common practice to break up your pages into several smaller sitemaps. It should be stored on the top level of your server and a reference to your XML sitemap should be included in your Robots.txt file as well (see below):
- Canonicalization: Basically, Canonical URLs ensure that your link flow isn’t distributed among different variations of the same content. For instance, if your sites homepage can be accessed from www.yoursite.com, yoursite.com, www.yoursite.com/index.html you will not see any difference on each page from a user standpoint. But this is telling search engines that these are 3 completely different pages, thus causing you to lose page authority because the juice given by the crawler is being split up among the three different URLs instead of just being distributed to the one canonicalized version. So using correct canonicalization means using the URL structure in all outbound and inbound links site-wide.
- Robots.txt: This file is stored on the top-level of your sites server and prompts search engines whether or not certain files and/or directories should be crawled and indexed. Depending on your setup, there are particular server directories that should not allow crawling.
Page Structure and Hierarchy
One mistake that is made quite often is the misuse of HTML heading tags on a site’s page. Heading tags (<h1> <h2> <h3>) are used to indicate the headlines of your pages that tell search engines what the page is actually about. For instance, the H1 tag of every page should be as descriptive and relevant to the pages content as possible. Sub-headings within the content under the H1 tag should be tagged as H2′s, sub-headings within the content of the H2 tags should be tagged as H3′s and so forth.
The use of heading tags is what helps search engines determine whether or not your content is relevant to the search query. Also, the use of these tags breaks up your pages into sections that make it much easier for robots to crawl and digest your content.
The most common misapplications of heading tags are:
- Using heading tags for blocks of text (they are only for headings, and should be short and descriptive)
- Using the H1 tag multiple times per page (it should only be used once per page as the main heading for that page)
- Hiding the H1 tag or placing the logo inside of the H1 tag
The examples above are just a handful of tips that site owners should utilize when developing with SEO in mind. You can easily avoid complications with search ranking and penalties from Google’s Panda and Penguin algorithm updates if all aspects of your site’s structure is taken into account.