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I’ve been surfing around the web tonight and I bumped into an article on LinkedIn written by Clayburn Griffin, who is coincidentally the owner of a Digital Marketing agency based in NYC.
The specific article for me is part of the vice circle of poorly written marketing material which aims to attract visitors that probably will convert into leads, and literally says nothing. Well done @Clayburn, I lost three minutes of my life on this. Although, this article gives me an opportunity to touch the topic of the real value of the technicalities in search engine optimization.
The value of the technical SEO is something which is always debatable within the marketing world, especially because over the last few years the real basics of SEO haven’t evolved at the same rate that the internet moves, and “SEOs” claiming that the future of SEO is PR and Social media have flooded the space, not understanding that today’s marketing is technical. But when it comes to Technical SEO, new technologies bring always new challenges in the space and you never meet these challenges until you reach a certain scale. Startup founders with a ten-page website, don’t expect any magicality by hiring a technical SEO person. It simply won’t.
Technical SEO !== On Site SEO
Yeap. Technical SEO is simply NOT On-site SEO. There’s nothing technical when it comes to fixing meta tags, adding / removing internal links or modifying the page structure for “being more SEO-friendly” purposes. An average front-end engineer and an average marketer on your team should at least understand Google’s quality guidelines and fill these gaps.
The web is full of articles talking about best practices by experts like @Clayburn who was mentioned above. Technical SEO although is needed in situations where there are no “best practices” out there. When problems that occur from the product development or the evolution of the product haven’t been faced by thousands out there and as we said earlier, that needs scale.
Capturing the momentum
There are great tools out there and tons of data to use for Technical SEO. Especially when you go beyond your website’s limits, tools and data should help you identify where your audience is. Reverse-engineering a backlink profile isn’t rocket science, but doing content outreach on 3rd party websites requires technicalities. This is where Airbnb nailed it when they launched.
Airbnb smartly took advantage of Craigslist, not only utilising the on-site traffic of the website but also the CL’s ability to rank on Google search results, in a before-Panda era that duplicate could easily rank. Would this work today? Definitely no, but Airbnb captured the momentum and succeeded.
Today’s equivalent approach is translated into metric-driven PR, making sure that your information reaches the right audience and what proportion of it, in comparison with “traditional” PR, which is like getting your finger in the air. Today’s tools allow you to locate the best places to put your content and links (yes they ‘re still the most important factor), in order to maximize your reach.
Technical SEO interferes with Product
When I refer to product, I’m not definitely talking about moving around a heading or simple visual UI changes. Product enhancements and features though can have many implications that need technical SEO support.
A great example here is the way companies do A/B or Multivariate tests. Most organisations nowadays deploy their tests via Optimizely, considering that Google is not executing JS files or cookies. Although, many of us have noticed that Google discovers URLs and uses Chrome as a crawler. It’s an SEO Technicality to find a way to do it without overloading Googlebot with duplicate content.
Another example is about optimizing your crawling budget (again, don’t worry if you ‘re small – you need scale here too). The smart SEO analyses the way Google bot navigates on the website, the frequency of visits, the time spend on specific page types etc. In combination with speed optimizations and clear architecture with navigational priorities, a brand can benefit from quicker indexing, faster content refresh and deeper crawling depth.
Product sometimes does great things about users that don’t facilitate crawling at all. For example, prerendering JS Frameworks are gaining huge traction lately and more and more websites are starting using them. React, Angular, Backbone, Ember etc – great technologies, big fan! But Google as of date doesn’t read them. So it falls into the technical side of SEO to make sure that the content is readable. Challenges that these technologies bring like Data Flows and URL Mappings need SEO solutions and JS knowhow. Airbnb again for example, has found solutions for implementing these technologies and is doing well on that side.
Additionally, functions like domain and website migrations require a technical side, on a health check level at least. Let’s say for example that a URL migration is needed for the transition to a new CMS. A non-technical SEO person would create a plan of redirections based on simple instructions for the people (aka developers) who will do that. A technically skilled SEO from the other side, would run the database queries to pull all the URLs and use excel formulas to formulate the new URLs. This all sounds simple, but it’s a massive time and money saving skill for the resources of a team.
In addition to the above the statement, a similar case would be in the implementation of Schema mark-up. A technical SEO would prepare the whole mark-up on top of the actual source code and test it before he would deliver it to the developers for the implementation.
Solving Big (Data) problems
Big websites with multi-country and multi-language presence, with a single website or a portfolio of domains and/or websites usually face problems and challenges that nobody else faces out there.
Adding an on-page hreflang tag on a website like Booking.com for example, it’s an easy thing.
<link rel="alternate" type="text/html" hreflang="en-gb" href="http://www.booking.com/hotel/be/bedford.en-gb.html" title="English (UK)"/> <link rel="alternate" type="text/html" hreflang="en-us" href="http://www.booking.com/hotel/be/bedford.html" title="English (US)"/> <link rel="alternate" type="text/html" hreflang="de" href="http://www.booking.com/hotel/be/bedford.de.html" title="Deutsch"/> <link rel="alternate" type="text/html" hreflang="nl" href="http://www.booking.com/hotel/be/bedford.nl.html" title="Nederlands"/> <link rel="alternate" type="text/html" hreflang="fr" href="http://www.booking.com/hotel/be/bedford.fr.html" title="Français"/> <link rel="alternate" type="text/html" hreflang="es" href="http://www.booking.com/hotel/be/bedford.es.html" title="Español"/> <link rel="alternate" type="text/html" hreflang="ca" href="http://www.booking.com/hotel/be/bedford.ca.html" title="Català"/> <link rel="alternate" type="text/html" hreflang="it" href="http://www.booking.com/hotel/be/bedford.it.html" title="Italiano"/>
Booking.com has a relatively easy URL structure and mapping those URLs isn’t a big issue. But how do you manage the sitemaps of such a big website? Booking.com currently has 129.000.000 urls indexed and definitely Google isn’t crawling that many pages each day.
As we can see, Booking.com has the following sitemaps:
Sitemap: http://www.booking.com/sitembk-index.xml Sitemap: http://www.booking.com/sitembk-index-incr.xml Sitemap: http://www.booking.com/sitembk-discover-index.xml Sitemap: http://www.booking.com/sitembk-reviews-index-city-review.0000.xml Sitemap: http://www.booking.com/sitembk-reviews-index-country-review.0000.xml Sitemap: http://www.booking.com/sitembk-reviews-index-hotel-review.0000.xml Sitemap: http://www.booking.com/sitembk-reviews-index-region-review.0000.xml Sitemap: http://www.booking.com/sitembk-reviews-index-single-review.0000.xml Sitemap: http://www.booking.com/sitembk-reviews-index-single-review.0001.xml Sitemap: http://www.booking.com/sitembk-reviews-index-single-review.0002.xml Sitemap: http://www.booking.com/sitembk-reviews-index-single-review.0003.xml
The technical SEO team of Booking.com identified a way to prioritize crawling by introducing an incremental sitemap index – which contains their most valuable pages. This is clearly a skill that only somebody who can scrape huge log files and analyze the behavior of crawlers can only do.
But technical SEO is also smart SEO thinking. For example, how do you target on organic results for the same product Spanish people who live in Spain and Spanish people who don’t live in Spain but are still interested in your offering? Airbnb has cleverly tackled this issue again. How? Simply by running two slightly modified versions of the same website – airbnb.es targeting people in Spain and es.airbnb.com targeting Spanish people living abroad.
Transforming traditional SEO to Technical SEO
So part of Technical SEO is using technicalities for traditional SEO approaches. Examples:
- Keyword research: using APIs to gather information around search volumes, social metrics and content ideas. One step forward is to develop and run custom crawlers to scrape competitor websites
- Link building: again, using APIs to pull link metrics data. Search operators help to get a different approach from competitors too, rather than using Ahrefs and MajesticSEO only.
- On-site: using BI and / or web analytic tools to understand the real ROI of the organic search performance.
But SEO is not only technical
To summarize, I would like to mention that I strongly believe in the creative-side of SEO, which may not require technical skills. The creative side can most of the times bring tremendous results within a short period. Let’s not forget how Facebook and Tripadvisor built their empires in organic results – with widgets and badges. But for God’s sake, @Clayburn that’s not Technical SEO.