A Simple (But Effective) SEO Checklist for 2020

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).
Article stats
  • Linking websites 111
  • Tweets 140
Data from Content Explorer

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.

The number of times this article was shared on Twitter.

    Looking for a complete SEO checklist to help drive more traffic to your website?

    Everything below helped us grow our blog traffic from 50,000 to 380,000 monthly search visits in less than two years.

    1 ahrefs blog traffic growth

    But don’t worry if you don’t have a blog…

    Most of the checklist items below apply to ecommerce stores, local businesses, affiliate sites—whatever kind of site you’re running.

    Sound good? Let’s get started.

    1. Basic SEO checklist
    2. Keyword research checklist
    3. On-page SEO checklist
    4. Content checklist
    5. Technical SEO checklist
    6. Link building checklist

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=taU9P98zfjk

    Let’s begin with the SEO best practices that you should employ before doing anything else.

    Note that these things are unlikely to have a direct effect on rankings. They’re just the basics that every website owner should have in the bag.

    1. Install Yoast SEO

    Yoast SEO is a free SEO plugin for WordPress and a few other CMS. It’s useful for creating sitemaps, optimizing meta tags, and much more.

    2 yoast seo wordpress

    In short, it makes the technical stuff less daunting.

    If you’re not using WordPress or any other CMS’ supported by Yoast, then head over to Google and search for the best SEO plugin for your CMS.

    2. Create a sitemap

    Sitemaps tell search engines where to find the content on your site so they can easily crawl and index your pages.

    Here’s what the sitemap looks like for our blog:

    3 xml sitemap

    You can usually find yours at yourdomain.com/sitemap.xml.

    How do you create one?

    If you’re a WordPress user, use Yoast. If not, Google a generator for your CMS.

    3. Create a robots.txt file

    Robots.txt is a plain text file that tells search engines where they can and can’t go on your site.

    It’s always good practice to have a robots.txt file, but if you need to prevent search engines from crawling pages or sections of your site, it’s a must.  For example, if you run an ecommerce store, you might not want them to crawl and index your cart page.

    4 robots txt

    You can check if you already have a robots.txt file by going to yourdomain.com/robots.txt. If you see a plain text file, then you’re good to go. If you see anything else, search Google for “robots.txt generator” and create one.

    Recommended reading: Robots.txt and SEO: Everything You Need to Know

    4. Install Google Analytics

    Google Analytics is a free tool from Google. It lets you see how many people visit your site and how they interact with it.

    5 google analytics

    To install it, sign up and paste the supplied tracking code into your website.

    Read this guide (or watch this video for non-WordPress users) if you’re unsure how to do that.

    5. Set up Google Search Console

    Google Search Console lets you track search performance and see which keywords you rank for.

    6 google search console

    It will also keep you in the loop about on-site improvements you can make.

    Sidenote.
     It’s also worth signing up for Bing Webmaster Tools, which is essentially Bing’s equivalent of Google Search Console. 

    Recommended reading: How to Use Google Analytics to Improve SEO Performance

    PRO TIP

    Link Google Search Console with Google Analytics to see Search Console data in Analytics.

    You can learn how to do that here.

    Keyword research is perhaps the most crucial piece of the SEO puzzle.

    After all, if you don’t know what keywords people are searching for, how can you optimize your content for search engines?

    Follow these checklist items to get off on the right foot.

    1. Find a primary keyword to target

    Each page on your website should target one main primary keyword.

    That’s what we do with all posts on the Ahrefs blog.

    You can find keywords using Google Keyword Planner or Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer. Just type in a ‘seed’ keyword and check one of the keyword ideas reports.

    For example, if we check the phrase-match report for “link building” in Keywords Explorer, we get over 5,000 keywords containing that phrase complete with SEO metrics like Keyword Difficulty and monthly search volume.

    7 keywords explorer link building

    2. Assess ‘search intent’

    Search intent is the reason behind a searcher’s query. If your page doesn’t align with this, then your chances of ranking will be slim to none.

    To assess search intent, just check the top-ranking pages for the three C’s:

    1. Content type: Are they mainly blog posts, product pages, landing pages, or product category pages?
    2. Content format: Are they mainly lists, how-to guides, tutorials, opinion pieces, comparisons, reviews, or something else?
    3. Content angle: Is there a dominant unique selling proposition used by the top-ranking pages? (e.g., for beginners, in 2020, etc.)

    Let’s do this for “SEO checklist.”

    Right away, we see that there’s only one type of page ranking and that’s blog posts. There are no product pages, landing pages, or anything else.

    8 seo checklist serp content type

    As for the content format, they’re all lists. There are no how-to’s, opinion pieces, tutorials, or step-by-step guides.

    And the content angle seems to be freshness as almost all of the titles mention the year.

    10 seo checklist serp content format

    To stand the best chance of ranking for this keyword, we should create a list-style blog post and keep it updated year after year. And that’s what we did.

    Recommended reading: What is Search Intent? A Complete Guide for Beginners

    3. Research what people want to know

    Let’s say that someone searches for “SEO keywords.” You can see from analyzing search intent that people are looking for a definition of the term, but what other questions do they have? And what other information should you include in your content?

    Google’s “People Also Ask” box gives some insight into this:

    11 people also ask

    For more ideas, take three of the top-ranking pages and paste them into Ahrefs’ Content Gap tool. This will show you the keywords that one or more of the pages rank for.
    12 content gap

    It’s then just a case of eyeballing the results for keywords that might represent subtopics. In our case, that might be “keyword examples,” “how to search a page for keywords,” and “how to use keywords for SEO.”

    12 content gap results

    4. Assess your chances of ranking in Google

    While no keyword is impossible to rank for in the long-term, some are darn near impossible in the short-to-medium term.

    You can get a sense of keyword difficulty by looking at Ahrefs’ Keyword Difficulty score.

    13 keyword difficulty

    But don’t rely on that entirely. Check the results yourself for things that may indicate a hard keyword to crack like:

    • Lots of websites linking to the top-ranking pages
    • Lots of pages with high URL Ratings
    • Big brands in the top 10.

    You can use Ahrefs’ SEO Toolbar to add all of that data to the search results.

    14 ahrefs seo toolbar serp

    Found a challenging keyword? Consider pursuing something easier in the short-term. You should always target keywords within your wheelhouse.

    Keyword research = DONE.

    Your next job is to optimize the actual content on your page, AKA, on-page SEO.

    Let’s do it!

    1. Use short, descriptive URLs

    According to our study of over two million URLs, those with shorter URLs rank better.

    15 characters in URL

    Sidenote.
    Keep in mind that this is a correlation study. Correlation ≠ causation. 

    But don’t sacrifice descriptiveness for length. Your URLs should offer insight into what the user should expect when they click through to the page.

    The easiest way to do that is to set your target keyword as the URL.

    Example: https://ahrefs.com/blog/free-seo-tools/

    This URL makes it clear what to expect from this page: a list of free SEO tools.

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

    2. Write a compelling title tag and description

    Most people tell you to add your target keyword to your title tag and meta description.

    Is that bad advice? Not at all. 

    It’s good practice, but don’t sweat it if it doesn’t make sense.

    Most pages ranking on the front page of Google don’t have an exact-match keyword in their title tag. That’s according to our study of 2M keywords.

    16 keyword in title

    The same is true for meta descriptions.

    17 keyword in meta description

    Your primary goal shouldn’t be to shoehorn keywords into such places. Instead, work to craft an enticing title and description that will increase CTR and bring more traffic to your website.

    Recommended reading: How to Craft the Perfect SEO Title Tag (Our 4‑Step Process)

    3. Use one H1 on your page

    Google’s John Mueller stated that it’s okay to use as many H1 tags as you want on your pages.

    But we think it’s still good practice to use just one.

    That’s because H1’s are typically used as a wrapper for the title of the page, and a page can only have one title.

    But what about keywords? Should you include your target keyword in there?

    According to our study of 2M keywords, around 85% of top-ranking pages don’t have their keyword in the H1 tag.

    18 keywords in headline

    That said, there are two important reasons to include your keyword here:

    • Scannability. Having your keyword in the H1 helps to reinforce to the reader that they’re in the right place. It makes it clear that your content tackles the topic they most-likely Googled before arriving on your page.
    • Link framing. People will often link to your page using the title. Including your keyword in the H1 will increase your chances of receiving links with your target keyword in the anchor text.
    PRO TIP

    Find all the pages on your site with multiple H1’s using Ahrefs’ Site Audit.

    19 h1 tags site audit

    Watch this video to learn more.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_9-AkZch4k

    4. Link to relevant internal and external resources

    Web pages that link out to high-DR resources rank higher than those that don’t.

    19 external links

    IMPORTANT: That is the result of a correlation study. It doesn’t imply causation.

    You should, therefore, not be afraid to link out to other web pages. Just make sure you link to relevant, high-quality stuff.

    Internal links are also important. Whenever you publish something new, make an effort to add them from other relevant pages.

    You can find these by searching for site:yourdomain.com "topic"

    For example, if we wanted to find relevant places from which to link to this article, we could search for site:ahrefs.com/blog “SEO checklist”

    37 search operators internal linking

    Recommended reading: Internal Links for SEO: An Actionable Guide

    5. Optimize your images with descriptive alt text

    Most top-ranking pages don’t have their target keywords in any of their alt attributes.

    20 alt text

    So alt tags aren’t particularly important then, right?

    Not so fast. Remember that the point of alt text is to give the reader some context should the image fail to load (or if the visitor is using a screen reader).

    For that reason, you should make sure alt tags are descriptive. This will often result in the natural inclusion of your target keywords.

    Alt text is also helpful for ranking in Google Images.

    Recommended reading: Alt Text for SEO: How to Optimize Your Images

    6. Add schema markup for rich snippets

    Schema markup helps search engines to understand your content better. But it can also dramatically affect how your page shows up in the SERPs.

    Here’s a page with schema markup that currently ranks for “pizza dough recipe:”

    21 rich snippets

    Here’s what it would look without schema markup:

    22 no rich snippets

    Do you see the difference?

    Schema markup can increase click-through rates and bring more traffic to your website.

    It’s not that technical to implement either. Use Google’s markup helper or this Schema markup generator to do it with ease.

    Recommended reading: Rich Snippets: What Are They and How Do You Get Them?

    Picking a topic with high search traffic potential and doing some basic on-page SEO is important, but all your efforts will be in vain if your content isn’t up to scratch.

    Follow these quick tips to level-up your content.

    1. Write a winning intro

    Fail to convince readers that your page offers what they want within a few seconds, and they’ll hit that back button faster than you can say “dwell time.”

    This is known as “pogo-sticking.”

    Your best defense against this is a compelling intro.

    Good introductions should do three things:

    1. Resonate with the reader;
    2. Build trust;
    3. Promise a solution to the user’s problem.

    But is “pogo-sticking” even a Google ranking factor?

    Here’s what Google’s John Mueller had to say on the matter:

    We try not to use signals like that [pogo-sticking] when it comes to search.

    John Mueller
    John Mueller, Webmaster Trends Analyst Google

    Interesting. But even if it’s not a direct ranking factor, there’s one other reason that a compelling intro is still important for SEO:

    Nobody is going to link to your content without reading it in the first place.

    So, to attract links, the reader first has to be engaged enough to read your content.

    That’s why your introduction is arguably the most critical part of your page.

    2. Focus on readability

    Nobody wants to read a big wall of text.

    That’s why you should always break up your content with subheadings, images, quotes—anything that will keep the reader glued to the page.

    You’ll notice that we do that a lot on the Ahrefs blog.

    We even use images in our intros to create the illusion that we’re getting stuck straight in, rather than wasting our readers’ time with a lengthy intro.

    23 image in intro

    3. Use short sentences and paragraphs

    50% of the US population read below an 8th-grade reading level.

    US adult reading levels
    So unless you want to alienate half of the population, don’t overcomplicate things.

    That means using short sentences and paragraphs. Also:

    • Avoid unnecessary jargon;
    • Use simple words instead of complex ones;
    • Remove excruciatingly unnecessary adverbs.

    Hemingway is a free, browser-based tool that will help simplify your writing. It tells you the current grade level of your copy and suggests improvements.

    24 hemingway

    4. Create the best piece of content on the topic

    How do you create the best content on a given subject when it’s so subjective?

    Answer: E‑A-T.

    E‑A-T stands for Expertise/Authoritativeness/Trustworthiness. That is what Google claims to be looking at in their official search quality evaluator guidelines.

    Here’s a more in-depth look at the three critical attributes of E‑A-T, taken from those same guidelines:

    • The expertise of the creator of the MC*.
    • The authoritativeness of the creator of the MC, the MC itself, and the website.
    • The trustworthiness of the creator of the MC, the MC itself, and the website.

    * MC stands for main content. 

    Learn more about these guidelines in section 3.1 here.

    Recommended reading: What is E‑A‑T? Why It’s Important for SEO

    It’s not uncommon for technical SEO issues to hold a website back from ranking as high as it deserves.

    The problem: Most people think technical SEO is daunting and complicated.

    The good news: It doesn’t have to be.

    You can learn how to do a full SEO audit in this post (or in the video below).

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_9-AkZch4k

    However, as this post isn’t solely focussed on technical SEO, what follows are a few common and easily solvable technical SEO issues.

    1. Fix crawl errors

    Crawl errors mean that Google is having trouble viewing the content on your site.

    If they can’t view it, they won’t rank it. It’s as simple as that. That’s why you should fix these issues as soon as possible.

    You can find crawl errors in Google Search Console > Coverage.

    24 crawl errors google search console

    2. Make sure your site loads fast

    Page speed has been a ranking factor on desktop since 2010, and on mobile since 2018.

    It’s easy to see why. It’s frustrating to click on a search result and have to wait for it to load. That’s why the probability of a bounce increases with page speed.

    25 bounce rate stats

    You can use tools like PageSpeed Insights and GTMetrix to see how fast your web page loads.

    26 gtmetrix

    However, these tools can only check one page at a time. To check all your pages, crawl your site with Ahrefs’ Site Audit. You’ll see slow pages flagged in the Performance report.

    27 ahrefs site audit slow page

    As a general rule, try to keep the load time below one second.

    3. Fix outbound broken links

    Broken links are bad for user experience, which is something that Google cares deeply about. That’s why they adjusted their algorithm to go after sites with too many distracting ads a few years ago.

    To find broken links on your site, use Ahrefs’ free broken link checker.

    28 broken link checker

    Recommended reading: How to Find and Fix Broken Links (to Reclaim Valuable “Link Juice”)

    4. Make sure your site is mobile-friendly

    Most searches take place on mobile devices, so having a mobile-friendly website is more important than ever.

    Check whether your site needs work with Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test tool.

    29 mobile friendly

    5. Switch to HTTPs

    HTTPS is a confirmed lightweight ranking factor.

    If you’re not using HTTPS in 2020, then it’s probably time to make the switch.

    Potential ranking boosts aside, HTTPs will protect your visitors’ data. This is especially important if you have any contact forms on your site. If you’re asking for passwords or payment information, then it’s not just important, it’s an absolute must.

    Sidenote.
    You can get a free SSL certification from Lets Encrypt

    6. Fix duplicate content issues

    Duplicate content is exact or near-duplicate content that appears on the web in more than one place.

    It’s a common ecommerce SEO issue thanks to faceted navigation. That alone can cause hundreds of duplicate content issues because of URL parameters.

    You can find duplicate content issues with Ahrefs’ Site Audit.

    Run a crawl, go to Duplicate content report, then hit the “Issues” tab.

    30 duplicate content

    Fix these by canonicalizing the affected URLs where necessary.

    Recommended reading: Duplicate Content: The Complete Guide for Beginners

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_9-AkZch4k

    Link building is perhaps the most challenging SEO task.

    That’s because not everything is within your control. You’re often reliant on other people giving you links as a result of your outreach efforts.

    So here are a few tried and tested link building tactics you can use:

    1. Replicate your competitor’s links

    Your competitors’ likely have at least some backlinks.

    Believe it or not, that’s a good thing. If a website links to your competitor, chances are it’d make sense for them to link to you too.

    Conclusion: You can build links to your site by replicating your competitors’ links.

    How? There are many different ways. However, one quick win is to find sites that link to multiple competitors as the chance of them also linking to you is high.

    You can do that with Ahrefs’ Link Intersect tool. Just enter a few of your competitors in the top section, then your site at the bottom.

    31 link intersect

    Hit “Show link opportunities” and look for any that might be easy to replicate, such as those from guest posts, link roundups, forums, directories, etc.

    32 link intersect results

    2. Monitor and reclaim any lost links

    Diamonds are forever. Links aren’t.

    Want proof? Just check the Lost Links report in Ahrefs’ Site Explorer for any website. You’ll see the loss of many links in recent months.

    Here are the lost links to Ahrefs’ Blog over the past seven days:

    33 lost backlinks

    Links disappear like this for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes they’re gone for good. Other times it’s possible to reclaim them.

    What are the easiest ones to reclaim?

    Links marked as “noindex” in Ahrefs.

    34 noindex lost link

    Most of the time, these are lost because the site owner accidentally noindexed their website. So you can reclaim them easily by reaching out and letting them know about their possible mistake.

    Recommended reading: Link Reclamation: How to Easily Find (and Reclaim) Lost Backlinks

    3. Pursue unlinked mentions

    People will sometimes mention your brand without linking to you. These are known as unlinked mentions.

    Here’s an example of one:

    35 unlinked mention

    You can see that even though they mention Ahrefs, they don’t link back to us.

    Now, wouldn’t it be cool if you could convert unlinked mentions for your brand to linked mentions?

    It would, and you can. Just reach out to the authors and request that they “make the text clickable.” Because they’re already familiar with your brand, there’s a high chance that they’ll happily make that change for you.

    However, the question remains: How do you find unlinked brand mentions in the first place?

    Everything is explained in the guide below.

    Recommended reading: A Simple Guide to Turning (Unlinked) Brand Mentions into Links

    4. Let the right people know about your content

    People can’t link to content if they don’t know it exists.

    That’s why you should make a conscious effort to tell people—the right people—about your content. But who are the “right” people?

    They have two attributes:

    1. They are likely to be interested in your content;
    2. They have the power to link to you.

    These people are known as the “linkerati.”

    You can let them know about your content by performing blogger outreach.

    Does it work? Yes, it does. We do it all the time.

    Here’s a reply from one of our recent campaigns:

    36 vlad email

    We have a lot of resources related to link building on the Ahrefs Blog.

    Check out some of the articles below for more link building ideas.

    Final thoughts

    SEO is an ongoing process, and it would be impossible to include everything that’s important in one checklist.

    Having said that, if you tackle the checklist items above, you’ll be well on your way to higher rankings. You’ll also probably be well ahead of your competition. That’s all that matters.

    Want even more SEO ideas? Check out our list of SEO tips.

    • Linking websites 111
    • Tweets 140
    Data from Content Explorer