SEO is an interesting field for many reasons, one of which is that the people that practice it comes from a wide variety of backgrounds. It’s truly a marriage of soft and hard skills, with many people coming from a marketing background and many coming from a more technical background, and some people diving in with neither, just a passion to grow their business through digital media.
However, this also means that some aspects of SEO can seem daunting to those not well versed in the technical aspects of websites and search engines. In this article, we’ll propose a short introduction to “technical SEO”, with some key elements that will help better prepare the novice and non-technical SEO going forward.
VIDEO- How To Deliver Outstanding Results With Technical SEO
If you’ve been in the industry for any significant amount of time you’ll probably have heard of “301 redirects” or “404 error”. These are called “response codes”, but what exactly does that mean?
When a user or bot wants to view a web page, they send a request to a web server (this happens in your browser when you type in a web address or click on a link). The web server takes the request and looks for the resource in its file system. What it finds will be reflected in its “response code”. The most common codes are listed below:
200 OK – This means that the resource (i.e. web page) was found and is being returned to the user successfully.
301 Permanent Redirect – This means that the web page is actually located at a different address. The server responds by sending the updated address back to the browser, which will then request the new page.
404 Not Found – This means that the web page was not found on the server. This usually indicates that a web page is gone (either purposefully or by accident). You can manually redirect these in the HTAccess file or with a plugin like Redirection.
There are plenty of others, but these 3 are the most common. If you’re curious you can head over to Wikipedia for a list of response codes and their meanings (they don’t come up often, but it’s good to have an idea of what they are).
So what do these mean for SEOs? Let’s take a look at how these play a role in technical SEO below:
Server Codes and Technical SEO
- All your pages should (ideally) resolve 200 OK
When you run a crawl of your site using something like Screaming Frog (more on that below), you should see (ideally) all 200 OK responses. The reasoning for this is simple, why would you be linking to a page that isn’t there?
A quick crawl looking for 404 errors or unnecessary 301s is an easy win for any website, small or large. Chances are every website has some internal linking error that can be fixed. Sometimes it’s as big as a main landing page 404ing, or as small as leaving out a trailing slash (/) in a URL. Whatever the case, you should fix these to make sure they all are 200 OK.
- Site Re-Designs or Migrations and 301 Redirects
The most common use of 301 redirects is for site migrations (i.e. moving to a new domain name), or large site redesigns that change URLs.
A quick note: If all you are changing is the aesthetics of a site, you should not change URL's! It’s one of the most common SEO mistakes. Nonetheless, sometimes URLs need to be changed, and that’s why redirects exist.
While site migrations are a bit out of scope from beginner SEO, the basic principle is simple, i.e.:
Old URL -> New URL
As long as that redirect is happening with a 301 status code (which is not always the case, so be careful), and as long as the old URL and new URL have similar/same content and target keywords, you are generally good to go.
Diagnostic Tools for Technical SEO
So now that you know about the basic response codes, how do you go about finding them and correcting them? Thankfully there are plenty of resources and tools available.
- Google Search Console (formerly Google Webmaster Tools)
The data provided by Google Search Console is invaluable to any webmaster, business owner or SEO. It provides everything from accurate Google search traffic numbers to regular monitoring of your site by Google crawlers. It’s truly one of the most valuable assets and diagnostic tools you can use.
Google will send you alerts when it finds an increase in server errors. These will often be temporary issues but should be investigated immediately to determine the cause.
A website needs to be up and running in order to serve users, but you can’t sit around checking every hour. Thankfully Uptime Robot will do just that. It pings your website regularly to make sure it’s up and running, and if not, it will send you an alert.
- Screaming Frog
Screaming frog is definitely my most often used technical SEO tool. It crawls your site from the top down (i.e. starting at the homepage and following your internal links through to all your content). It will also take a list of URLs and check for their response codes and metadata/etc.
I recommend everyone take their site and drop it in screaming frog at least once a month to check for anything strange. You can easily sort by response code to see all the 404, 301 or other response codes (remember, you should be seeing all 200’s).
Now that you have an idea what the heck a 404 error actually is, you can use that knowledge to take a look at your site from a more technical perspective. I’ve found that almost any site has some errors that can be corrected for some easy wins.
Go ahead and try it out and you might be surprised!