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Google’s SEO Starter Guide: Key Findings and Takeaways

December 21, 2017

This past December, Google announced its updated Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide. The previous update was from 2010 and while many best practices have stayed the same, the SEO landscape has changed quite a bit.

I wanted to dig into the new SEO Starter Guide and find out what’s in there, share what I find most interesting and encourage you (new business owner, longtime web developer or super SEO expert) to read it as well.

What do you need to ask yourself about your site?

One of the first nuggets from the Starter Guide is a list of five questions that Google suggests you ask yourself about your website:

“Is my website showing up on Google?

Do I serve high-quality content to users?

Is my local business showing up on Google?

Is my content fast and easy to access on all devices?

Is my website secure?”

Google offers these great fundamental questions to get you started in the right mindset about your site, and to get you thinking about the right things when it comes to SEO.

Although some people try to “play” SEO like a game, optimizing for search should focus on providing the best experience possible for individual users. Search engine spider can see that experience (and content) when they’re crawling your site and you’ll benefit with better ranking content.

These questions encourage you to ask: Am I creating the best experience and providing the best information for my users?

Let Google “see” your site the same way a user does

New to the SEO Starter Guide is a directive to always let Googlebot (the spider that Google uses to crawl the web) access JavaScript, CSS and image files used on your website. This ensures that Google can “see” the same thing a user sees when they’re navigating your website.

How do you find out if Google can “see” everything?

  1. Use the Fetch as Google tool within your Google Search Console. This allows you to see your content the same way Google does, and it helps you identify and fix those issues on your site.
  2. You should also check your robots.txt file to make sure it doesn’t disallow crawling of your JavaScript, CSS or image files. Google has another tool in your Search Console to help you check and test your robots.txt file.

Best practices for search snippets

You may have seen recent discussion about longer search snippets (the descriptive text below the page title in the search results). Not unexpectedly, Google did not mention a specific character or pixel length for search snippets in their SEO Starter Guide (I don’t know that they’ve ever formally declared what their snippet length has been).

However, in this edition they did make a tip of the hat to that discussion:

“While there’s no minimal or maximal length for the text in a description meta tag, we recommend making sure that it’s long enough to be fully shown in Search (note that users may see different sized snippets depending on how and where they search).”

As usual, Google shares just enough information for us to be curious — and maybe even a bit frustrated — with their cryptic “make sure that it’s long enough” direction.

Implement structured data markup

One of the new additions to Google’s guide is the use of structured data markup (aka Schema.org, or just Schema, markup). Structured data markup allows for “rich results” search snippets rather than text-only. For example, an e-commerce site can use structured markup to display product ratings and price in search.

There are a ton of ways you can use structured data markup on your site and we recently published a beginner’s guide to Schema.org markup, which is a great place to start. The SEO Start Guide and our Beginner’s Guide to Schema include links to free tools to help you implement and check your implementation of structured data markup.

Google also casually notes, “Correct structured data on your pages also makes your page eligible for many special features in Search results.” Basically, properly implementing structured data markup will allow you to take full advantage of normal SERP features and make your page eligible for advanced features like knowledge panels or carousels.

Are you using the HTTPS protocol yet?

In the section discussing site hierarchy, Google is very clear: “Google recommends that all websites use https:// when possible.” HTTPS stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure and provides encrypted communication between the user and the website’s server.

If you’ve been following various Googlers over the last year or so, it isn’t necessarily news that Google is promoting the use of the secure protocol. Nonetheless, it’s a subtle way to let you know that Google prioritizes secure sites first, and an important reminder to move your site to the secure protocol.

Is your 404 page useful?

Something carried over from the previous SEO Starter Guide, but something that I notice is often overlooked, is the recommendation to create a custom 404 page.

When a user clicks a broken link or tries to navigate to a page that doesn’t exist, the server returns a 404 (page not found) error. Most web servers will have a standard 404 error page that is usually ugly and certainly not useful to a user.

Google recommends (and so do I every time I see one) creating a custom 404 page that not only is branded to match the style of your website, but also provides useful information to a user. Things to put on a custom 404 page include:

  • A straightforward message to the user that the page they’ve requested doesn’t exist (Editorial: You don’t need to be too cute with your messaging.)
  • A link to the website home page
  • Additional links to frequently visited pages

The goal should be to provide valuable information to the user and, most importantly, keep the user on your website.

P.S. Keep an eye on your traffic to see if a lot of users are reaching a 404 page and track down the source of the broken links. Some common culprits are broken backlinks, incorrect URLs in emails or moved pages that are still ranking. You’ll want to correct those issues ASAP to ensure the best user experience and that you don’t lose your existing rankings.

Create quality website content

This isn’t new, and it’s what we’ve been preaching at Brandpoint for years. Creating high quality, relevant content for your target audience is one of the most important things you can do to increase your SEO. Google says it pretty clearly:

“Creating compelling and useful content will likely influence your website more than any of the other factors discussed here.”

Quality content creation can do a few things for you. First, Google is able to read and understand your website content. They do a thorough job of determining if the content you’ve published on your website answers particular questions well and will rank content accordingly.

Second, “word-of-mouth buzz” (as stated in the SEO Starter Guide), aka social and referral traffic, is an additional signal to Google that you’ve got something good. If you can, as recommended in the Starter Guide, promote your content through your various channels (email, social media, offline promotion, etc.) and signal to Google that you have valuable content, it will have a positive impact on your search optimization.

Third, developing high-quality content will lead to more engagement on your site. There have been plenty of discussions throughout the SEO world about how pogo-sticking/bounce rate/dwell time impacts search rankings and it’s worth noting in a discussion about quality content. If users click on your page in search, do a quick look at your page and almost immediately return to the search results, it’s a signal to Google that you aren’t providing the answer users are looking for.

Are you being thoughtful with your anchor text?

As a content marketing strategist, this is probably the issue that bothers me the most when reviewing website content. I think the previous version of the SEO Starter Guide said it better with the blunt heading, “Write better anchor text.”

Anchor text is the word or phrase of your website copy that acts as the hyperlink. That text signals to Google the context of the page that you’re linking to. Good anchor text also creates a great user experience as the user can get a sense of what that link will take them to.

It’s especially important for links to other pages on your website (internal links) to provide descriptive anchor text as it creates a logical network of linking. When you select appropriate anchor text for links, you can help show that the page you’re linking to is an authority on that subject. It is good practice for linking off-site (external linking) as well to make sure that the user and Google know why you think it’s important to share that link.

Mobile-friendly is Google-friendly

The last recommendation I wanted to share is a change from the 2010 Starter Guide. In 2010, websites were primarily made for viewing on desktop devices. Mobile websites were typically separate subdomains (m.example.com) or sometimes even completely different root domains where mobile users would be redirected.

Today, we’ve still got the old mobile subdomains, but we’ve also got responsive sites and even mobile-first web development. With Google’s push for mobile-friendliness and their discussions around mobile-first indexing, it’s important that your website is designed to be consumed on any and all devices.

The SEO Starter Guide goes into quite a bit of detail as far as recommendations for implementing a mobile-friendly web design, which speaks to the importance of mobile-friendliness for SEO. The majority of the recommendations may seem like common-sense tactics to improve the usability of your site. But if you started tackling your site design without considering them, they may not be so obvious.

Here is a quick list of a few of Google’s (and some of my own) recommendations for mobile-friendliness:

  1. Test your design on all device types and all browsers.
  2. Keep your resources crawlable.
  3. Avoid full-page interstitials (a web page that is displayed before a user reaches the expected page).
  4. Avoid common user frustrations (such as unplayable videos due to incompatible formats).
  5. Be aware of page load speed on mobile devices/networks.

A useful reference guide

The updated SEO Starter Guide from Google has a lot of the same information as the previous version but also incorporates the SEO advice they’ve shared over the past few years. It’s a great resource to help anyone from a person thinking about starting his/her own blogging website to an SEO expert who has gotten every client to page one.

The items I shared here are some of the major highlights, but there is a lot more there. I’m sure I’ll be constantly referencing or skimming the Starter Guide for answers to my questions and I encourage you to do the same.

December 21, 2017

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