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12 SEO Best Practices That Everyone Should Follow

Joshua Hardwick
Head of Content @ Ahrefs (or, in plain English, I'm the guy responsible for ensuring that every blog post we publish is EPIC). Founder @ The SEO Project.

Article stats

  • Referring domains 51
  • Organic traffic 258
Data from Content Explorer tool.
    Most lists of SEO best practices are packed to the brim with bad, out of date advice. Either that or they focus on things that only apply to a small percentage of readers.

    In other words, they’re lists of SEO tips—not best practices.

    Best practices should be followed by everyone, whether you’re running a blog, ecommerce store, or local brick and mortar store.

    In today’s post, we’re going to cover the most essential best practices to follow for every page on your site.

    HTTPS makes the pages on your site more secure by encrypting information sent between the visitor and server. It’s been a Google ranking factor since 2014.

    You can tell if your site is already using HTTPS by checking the loading bar in your browser.

    If there’s a lock icon before the URL, then you’re good.

    1 https2

    If not, you need to install an SSL certificate.

    Lots of web hosts offer these in their packages. If yours doesn’t, you can pick one up for free from LetsEncrypt.

    The good news is that switching to HTTPS is a one-time job. Once installed, every page on your site should be secure—including those you publish in the future.

    Nobody wants to visit a page that takes forever to load. That’s why page speed is a ranking factor for desktop since 2010, and for mobile since 2018.

    Lots of factors affect page speed, including your site’s code, server location, and images.

    You can get a rough sense of how your pages perform using Google’s Pagespeed Insights tool. Just plug in a URL, and you’ll see a score between 0–100, followed by improvement advice.

    2 pagespeed insights

    The issue with Pagespeed Insights is that you can only test one page at a time.

    Solve this by signing up for Google Search Console, and checking the Speed report. This shows you which pages are loading slowly on desktop and mobile, and why.

    3 speed report

    Some of these issues can be complicated, so your best bet is to ask a developer (or technical SEO expert) to fix them.

    Here are some general tips for keeping your pages fast:

    • Use a CDN. Most sites live on one server in one location. So, for some visitors, data has to travel long distances before it appears in their browser. This is slow. CDNs solve this by copying critical resources like images to a network of servers around the globe so that resources are always loaded locally.
    • Compress images. Image files are big, which makes them load slowly. Compressing images decreases the file size, which makes them faster to load. You just need to balance size with quality.
    • Use lazy-loading. Lazy-loading defers the loading of offscreen resources until you need them. This means that the browser doesn’t need to load all of the images on a page before it’s usable.
    • Use an optimized theme. Choose a well-optimized website theme with efficient code. Run the theme demo through Google’s Pagespeed Insights tool to check.

    Keyword research is a critical component of SEO. There’s no point putting time, effort, and money into trying to rank for things that nobody is searching for (unless you just want to attract links).

    For example, say you sell software tutorials. It wouldn’t make sense to target a keyword like “how do i make the font larger in coffee cup html editor” because it has no search volume.…

    4 low sv

    .… and the top-ranking page gets no organic traffic:

    4 no traffic

    But while search volume is a reasonable indicator of traffic potential for this keyword, it can be misleading.

    Just take a look at these two keywords:

    5 keywords explorer sv

    The former has a higher monthly search volume, but the top-ranking result only gets an estimated 65 monthly US organic visits…

    6 low traffic

    … compared to 191 visits to the page in pole position for the lower volume keyword:

    7 higher traffic

    This happens because the page ranking for the lower volume keyword is part of a broader topic, and gets traffic from other keywords.

    In other words, more people are looking for a coffeecup tutorial than a review.

    So, while search volume is a good way to filter for keyword ideas, always make sure to check estimated traffic to the pages that rank to get a better idea of true search traffic potential.

    Nobody wants to see product pages in the search results for “how to make a protein shake.”

    Those people are in learning mode, not buying mode.

    Google understands this, which is why all of the top results are blog posts—not pages selling protein powder.

    Screenshot 2020 02 15 at 03.52.26

    The opposite is true for a query like “buy protein powder.”

    People aren’t looking for a protein shake recipe; they’re looking to buy some powder. This is why most of the top 10 results are ecommerce category pages, not blog posts.

    Screenshot 2020 02 15 at 03.52.47

    Looking at Google’s top results like this can tell you a lot about the intent behind a query, which helps you understand what kind of content to create if you want to rank.

    Let’s take a look at a less obvious keyword like “best eye cream,” which gets an estimated 21k monthly searches in the US.

    8 best eye cream ke

    For an eye cream retailer, it might seem perfectly logical to try to rank a product page for this keyword. However, the search results tell a different story:

    9 list posts

    Almost all of them are list-style blog posts, not a product pages.

    To stand any chance of ranking for this keyword, you’d need to follow suit.

    Catering to search intent goes way beyond creating a certain type of content. You also need to consider the content format and angle.

    Learn more about these in our guide to optimizing for search intent.

    Competitive keywords are often dominated by large brands with insane backlink profiles and deep pockets.

    Just take a look at the number of referring domains to the pages ranking for “best credit card”:

    10 best credit card rds

    The results are dominated by big players like NerdWallet, Credit Karma, and CreditCards.com, and the average number of referring domains (backlinks from unique websites) to the top five results is over 300.

    Ranking for this keyword in the short-to-medium term would be impossible for 99% of people.

    That’s why it pays to go after keywords in your wheelhouse.

    In this case, that might be something like “best credit cards for lounge access”:

    11 best credit cards for lounge access

    While the search volume and organic traffic potential are much lower than for a competitive keyword like “best credit cards,” there are fewer big brands to compete with, and you won’t need as many backlinks to rank.

    How can you find easier topics to go after?

    Go to Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer, search for a broad topic, then check the “Phrase match” report. Next, filter for keywords with a low Keyword Difficulty score—under 20 is a good starting point.

    12 low kd

    If the suggestions aren’t that relevant, use the Include filter to narrow things down. For example, let’s filter our list to include only keywords with the word “best.”

    13 low kd best

    You can then check the SERP to assess difficulty and competitiveness further.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jSOq3ysvBk8

    Every topic has a “head” keyword, which is the most common way people search whatever your page is about.

    For a post about how to lose weight naturally, this is “natural weight loss”:

    14 low weight naturally

    There are three places you should include this keyword:

    a) Title tag

    Google says to write title tags that accurately describe the page’s content. If you’re targeting a specific keyword or phrase, then this should do precisely that.

    It also demonstrates to searchers that your page offers what they want, as it aligns with their query.

    Is this a hugely important ranking factor? Probably not, but it’s still worth including.

    That’s why we do it with almost all our blog posts:

    15 keyword title

    Just don’t shoehorn the keyword in if it doesn’t make sense. Readability always comes first.

    For example, if your target keyword is “kitchen cabinets cheap,” then that doesn’t make sense as a title tag. Don’t be afraid to rearrange things or add in stop words so it makes sense—Google is smart enough to understand what you mean.

    16 kitchen cabinets

    b) Heading (H1)

    Every page should have a visible H1 heading on the page, and it should include your target keyword where it makes sense.

    17 h1

    c) URL

    Google says to use words in URLs that are relevant to your page’s content.

    Using the query you’re targeting is usually the easiest way to do this:

    18 keyword dwell time2

    Google says to avoid using long URLs because they may intimidate searchers.

    For that reason, using the exact target query as the URL isn’t always best practice.

    Just imagine that your target keyword is “how to get rid of a tooth abscess without going to the dentist.” Not only is that a mouthful (no pun intended), but it’s also going to get truncated in the search results:

    18 truncated url

    Removing stop words and unnecessary details will give you something shorter and sweeter while keeping the important words.

    19 shorter url

    That said, don’t be afraid to describe your page more succinctly where needed.

    20 short url

    Note that if your CMS already has a predefined, ugly URL structure, it’s not a huge deal. And it’s certainly not worth jumping through countless hoops to fix. Google is showing the full URL for fewer and fewer results these days anyway.

    Recommended reading: How to Create SEO-Friendly URLs (Step-by-Step)

    Optimizing for search engines isn’t just about improving rankings, but also enticing clicks.

    This is why you need to write compelling title tags and meta descriptions because they both show up in search results:

    Screenshot 2020 02 15 at 04.47.12

    Sidenote.
    Google doesn’t always show the defined title and description in the search results. Sometimes they rewrite the title and choose a more appropriate description from the page for the snippet.

    Your title tag and description are effectively your sales pitch.

    If neither of them stands out from the crowd, searchers will click a different result. But beyond including your target keyword, how can you improve CTR?

    First, try to keep your title tag under 60 characters, and your descriptions under 150 characters. This helps to avoid truncation.

    Second, use title case for titles, and sentence case for descriptions.

    Third, align your title and description with search intent.

    For instance, almost all of the results for “best headphones” specify the year in their titles and descriptions.

    21 best headphones

    This is because people want lists of up-to-date recommendations, as new headphones are released all the time.

    Fourth, use power words to entice the click—without being clickbait‑y.

    22 power words

    Read more about crafting the perfect title here, or watch this video:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqEoZsIOrYw

    Compressing images is vital to ensure fast-loading pages, but this isn’t the only way to optimize images for SEO.

    You should also add alt tags and use descriptive filenames.

    Both of these things help Google understand your images, which can help your pages rank for long-tail keywords in web search—and in Google Images.

    Don’t overlook the importance of Google Images. It’s sent us over 5,500 clicks in the past three months:

    22 image clicks

    Optimizing file names is simple. Just describe your image in words, and separate those words with hyphens.

    Here’s an example:

    Filename: number-one-handsome-man.jpg

    For alt tags, do the same—but use spaces, not hyphens.

    <img src=".../number-one-handsome-man.jpg" alt="the world's most handsome man">

    Alt text isn’t only important for Google, but also for visitors.

    If an image fails to load, the browser shows the alt tag to explain what the image should have been:

    23 fail to load

    Plus, around 8.1 million Americans have vision impairments and may use a screen reader. These devices read alt tags out loud.

    Recommended reading: Image SEO: 12 Actionable Tips (for More Organic Traffic)

    Earlier, we mentioned that search volume isn’t always a good predictor of organic traffic potential because many pages also get traffic from long-tail queries.

    For instance, this page ranks #1 for “best laptop brands”…

    24 fs

    … but it also ranks in the top 10 for over 300 other keywords like “best computer brands” and “is lenovo a good brand”:

    25 top 10 keywords

    This isn’t abnormal.

    Our study of three million search queries found that the average top-ranking page ranks in the top 10 for almost 1,000 other keywords.

    00 average number also rank for keywords2 1

    How do you rank for more queries? Make your content more thorough.

    Note that this isn’t about content length, but covering relevant subtopics that people are also searching for. It applies mainly to informational SEO content like blog posts but can help other types of content too.

    Here are three ways to find subtopics:

    a) Look for relevant keywords on the top-ranking pages

    If we look at one of the top-ranking pages for “best laptop brands,” we see relevant keywords like “dell,” “hp,” “quality,” “reliability,” and “hardware.”

    26 relevant words

    b) Look at “People also ask” results

    For “best laptop brands,” we see a couple of reliability-related questions.

    27 paa

    c) Run a Content Gap analysis

    Paste the URLs of three top-ranking pages into Ahrefs’ Content Gap tool. Leave the bottom field blank and hit “Show keywords.”

    28 cg 1

    This shows queries that one or more of the top-ranking pages also rank for.

    29 cg 2

    Turn off intersections one and two to refine results further.

    30 cg 3

    Internal links are those from one page on your website to another.

    Generally speaking, the more links a page has—from both external and internal sources—the higher its PageRank. This is the foundation of Google’s ranking algorithm and remains important even today.

    Unfortunately, Google discontinued public PageRank scores in 2016, so there’s no way to check them anymore. However, Ahrefs’ URL Rating is a similar metric, and it correlates with rankings.

    Ur vs search traffic

    Internal links also help Google understand what a page is about.

    Luckily, most CMS’ add internal links to new web pages from at least one other page by default. This might be on the menu bar, on the blog homepage, or somewhere else.

    However, it’s good practice to add internal links from other relevant pages whenever you publish something new.

    To do that, run a search in Google for site:yourdomain.com [page topic]

    This will return the most relevant pages on your site about that topic:

    31 internal links

    Look for suitable places to add internal links on pages that fit the bill.

    You can also find internal link opportunities in Ahrefs’ Site Explorer. Paste in your domain, then go to the “Best by Links” report. This shows you all the pages on your site sorted by URL Rating:

    32 bbl url rating

    Look for relevant pages and add internal links where appropriate.

    Recommended reading: Internal Links for SEO: An Actionable Guide

    Backlinks are the foundation of Google’s algorithm and remain one of the most important ranking factors.

    Google confirms this on their “how search works” page, where they say:

    If other prominent websites on the subject link to the page, that’s a good sign that the information is of high quality.

    But don’t take Google’s word for it…

    Our study of over one billion web pages shows a clear correlation between organic traffic and the number of websites linking to a page:

    03 referring domains vs search traffic 1

    Just remember that this is about quality, not just quantity.

    You should aim to build backlinks from authoritative and relevant pages and websites.

    Read more about what makes a good backlink here, or watch this video:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3mDlVutW_o

    Final thoughts

    Best practices are a good starting point, but they’re not always enough to rank. There are other important ranking factors to keep in mind and other ways to improve SEO.

    Read this post if you’re still struggling to rank higher, or watch this video:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rm1MbJneLSI

    Shows how many different websites are linking to this piece of content. As a general rule, the more websites link to you, the higher you rank in Google.

    Shows estimated monthly search traffic to this article according to Ahrefs data. The actual search traffic (as reported in Google Analytics) is usually 3-5 times bigger.



    Article stats

    • Referring domains 51
    • Organic traffic 258
    Data from Content Explorer tool.