In the age of RankBrain, these foundational SEO issues still matter

There are at least 200 ranking factors in Google’s algorithm (not to mention RankBrain), which means a thorough SEO audit could lead to dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of SEO tasks. Few companies have the budget or resources to complete every potential SEO to-do item — and doing so would be an incredible waste of time and resources anyway. Some SEO tasks are critical and cannot be ignored; others just aren’t worth your time.

Prioritizing an SEO task list is crucial. Focus your resources on SEO work that is actually going to improve rankings, increase clicks and drive revenue. Most companies should focus on engagement SEO work, but technical tasks can’t be ignored completely — especially if you have major problems.

Critical technical SEO problems

Audit any website for technical SEO issues — even the world’s top-performing sites — and I promise you will find dozens, if not hundreds of things that “should” be done. The list of technical SEO work can go on endlessly, if you let it.

But what technical work will move the needle on organic rankings?

Recently, my team conducted 15 audits of different web properties for a large tech company. The client was concerned that some unknown technical change or issue was severely limiting their organic search growth. Though we found dozens of technical SEO issues, most of our recommendations were for engagement SEO tasks. None of the technical issues we discovered were critical, and resolving them wouldn’t have provided noteworthy results. However, this thorough audit was still meaningful for the company — they were able to move past their unfounded concerns to focus on expanding content and improving user experience (UX) to drive higher rankings.

Critical technical SEO issues are rare, but not nonexistent. No amount of engagement SEO work will be effective if a site has major technical issues, so it’s crucial to prioritize red-flag technical SEO issues above any engagement SEO tasks. Critical technical SEO issues include:

  • Site speed. Google has said that site speed is a ranking factor, and study after study continues to show that faster sites rank better, get more engagement and close more business. Google’s own research shows that most mobile users abandon a site that takes longer than three seconds to load.
  • Mobile performance. In addition to site speed, every other aspect of a site’s mobile performance is an important technical consideration for Mobile SEO as well. With mobile-first indexing right around the corner, mobile deserves its own discussion (see below).
  • Blocked resources. If search engines can’t index or crawl your site, resolving this issue should be your first priority. Allowing site content to be indexed is one of the quickest ways to improve incoming organic traffic. Crawl issues may be caused by a few factors: an error in your robots.txt file, unintentional noindex tags in site meta data, or server issues that limit Googlebot’s crawl rate.
  • Google penalties. Hacked sites, spam content and unnatural backlink profiles can all lead to severe ranking penalties. Sites with manual actions can be demoted in search results or removed altogether. If Google Search Console lists a manual action on your site, take steps immediately to resolve the issue — disavow low-quality links and delete hacked or spam pages — and submit your site for reconsideration.
  • Significant URL and/or redirect problems. Did you launch a new site and forget to implement redirects? Perhaps that was two or three launches past, and those problems were never fully resolved? Is your site generating thousands of meaningless unique URLs? When URL and redirect problems reach a critical mass, they can pose a significant risk to your organic traffic.
  • Other issues. Additional technical SEO issues — like fixing every single broken link and setting up redirects for every possible 404 imaginable — can also be critical at times, but these tasks fall into more of a gray area. If the issue is severe, fixing it is critical. If you have a handful (or even hundreds) of minor errors on a large site, and fixing them isn’t straightforward, you might be able to hold off.

Always ask your SEO and technical teams to summarize the effort required for, and the anticipated impact of, SEO work. If the effort is quite large, and/or the anticipated impact is low — or it “may or may not actually help us” — then move on.

Critical mobile SEO issues

Mobile SEO is part technical and part engagement, and 100 percent critical. As Google prepares to roll out mobile-first indexing, optimizing your site for mobile is more important than ever (Look what happens when you are not mobile friendly). After resolving technical SEO issues, audit your site for major mobile red flags:

  • Your site isn’t optimized for mobile. Mobile-friendliness is already a ranking factor for mobile search, and mobile-first indexing is about to make it important all around. Your site has to fit on a mobile screen, load fast enough for a mobile audience, and be free of mobile errors.
  • Your content isn’t optimized for mobile. Transitioning your site to a mobile-friendly format is only the first step in improving mobile usability. The content itself needs to be designed for the mobile user. Make sure that buttons and links that are large enough for thumbs to tap, write content in shorter paragraphs, center-align images, and maybe even vertically align media.
  • You use intrusive, annoying pop-ups. In January, 2017, Google enacted a penalty on sites that display intrusive interstitials over content. If you are among the many sites that display pop-ups or lightboxes over content on page load, it’s time to either remove that code or adjust it to display when users leave a page — not when they arrive.

With critical technical and mobile tasks complete, your site’s framework will be set up for the tasks that will make the most meaningful impact over time: engagement SEO.

Critical engagement SEO issues

The most commonly recommended engagement SEO task is creating new, high-quality content. Adding quality content to your site is an important task, but when it comes to fixing a site’s SEO, optimizing existing content comes first.

Red flags to look for when auditing a site’s current engagement SEO include:

  • Lack of conversions. If content on your site doesn’t cater to your visitors’ intent, conversions will suffer. So the most critical engagement SEO task on your list should be reviewing existing content against keyword/user intent research. It’s possible that customers at the top of the purchasing funnel are finding content that caters to the bottom. They’re not converting because your content didn’t satisfy their needs.
  • Low click-through rate (CTR) in spite of high rankings. If your CTR is low on pages with high rankings, it’s possible your competitors are stealing traffic with featured snippets. Featured snippets offer an opportunity to drive organic traffic by ranking in position “zero.” Perform a depersonalized search of your keywords and see if competitors appear in position zero. If so, prioritize optimizing existing content for featured snippets.
  • Few organic social shares. If you’re struggling to earn shares of your content on social media, it’s likely that you have a content quality problem. Review your site’s existing content: is it unique and comprehensive? Are your headlines enticing? Take time to A/B test headlines, make sure that your content caters to users’ intents, rewrite fluff content, expand shallow content and experiment with different content formats.
  • Lack of earned links. If other sites aren’t linking to yours, it’s another sign that you have either a content quality problem (refer to the advice above) or a PR problem. Sites can’t link to yours if they don’t know you exist. Take time to expand your efforts on social channels, guest blog for publications in your industry and build relationships with industry influencers.

There are many important engagement SEO issues that should be high priority but are not necessarily critical. As an example, cleaning up duplicate content through redirects or the use of canonical tags should certainly be high priority, but it’s not necessarily critical, since there’s no ranking penalty associated with duplicate content.

Critical reporting issues

One commonly overlooked, yet critical, SEO task is ensuring analytics data is clean — and that it demonstrates impact on your company’s bottom line. Clean and meaningful analytics data allows you to gather crucial insights about your site’s performance in search, and to provide evidence of the ROI of your SEO efforts. In addition to rectifying critical engagement and technical SEO issues, take on the task of cleaning up your analytics reports:

  • Ensure all site pages are tagged for analytics reporting.
  • Filter known referral spammers from your reports.
  • Set up custom views and goals.
  • Align goals with bottom-line business metrics.

Clean analytics data allows you to effectively track search results pages (SERPs), monitor bounce rates and measure click-through rates on important calls to action. Additionally, as you begin expanding your marketing initiatives to different channels, analytics will play an important role in highlighting what’s working, and what should be abandoned.

The future of the buyer’s digital experience

Technology is advancing rapidly, and buyer expectations and demands are evolving alongside these innovations. Today’s critical SEO priorities will be tomorrow’s outdated practices, because search engines are designed to cater to people, and people change.

To that end, the most critical task for any SEO is to pay attention.

Pay attention to your audience and their needs. Provide the information they’re looking for. Simplify their lives, and chase the monthly active user — repeat, loyal visitors — not just increased organic traffic.

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.