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12 SEO Best Practices to Improve Rankings in 2023

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12 SEO Best Practices to Improve Rankings in 2023

If you want to increase the SEO performance of your website, the best place to start is by implementing SEO best practices.

Here are 12 essential SEO best practices to help you level up your website’s performance.

SEO Best Practices: Impact vs. Difficulty
Impact Difficulty
Match content with search intent ⭐⭐⭐⭐ ⭐⭐
Create click-worthy title tags and meta descriptions ⭐⭐⭐ ⭐⭐
Improve your site’s user experience ⭐⭐⭐ ⭐⭐
Target topics with search traffic potential ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Use your target keyword in three places ⭐⭐⭐ ⭐⭐
Use a short and descriptive URL ⭐⭐⭐
Optimize images for SEO to get additional traffic ⭐⭐⭐ ⭐⭐
Add internal links from other relevant pages ⭐⭐⭐⭐ ⭐⭐
Cover everything searchers want to know ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ ⭐⭐⭐
Get more backlinks to build authority ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Get good scores to pass Core Web Vitals ⭐⭐ ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Use HTTPS to secure your site ⭐⭐

1. Match your content with search intent

Search intent is the underlying reason for a user’s search in Google. It’s important because Google’s main job is to provide the best result for its user’s search queries. 

You’ll stand the best chance of ranking in Google if you align your page with searchers’ intent. Therefore, aligning your pages to the user’s search intent is crucial.

For example, look at the search results for “how to make a protein shake.” 

Google SERP for "how to make a protein shake"

There are no products to purchase in this search result. That’s because searchers are looking to learn, not to buy.

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

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

Google SERP for "buy protein powder"

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 look at a less obvious keyword like “best eye cream,” which gets an estimated 31K monthly searches in the U.S.

Search volume for "best eye cream," via Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer

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

Google SERP for "best eye cream"

Almost all of the search results are blog posts listing top recommendations, not product pages.

To stand any chance of ranking for this keyword, you should 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

2. Create click-worthy title tags and meta descriptions

Your title tags and meta descriptions act as your virtual shop front on Google’s search results. 

They usually look like this:

Components of a typical Google search result

Users will be less likely to click on your search result if they’re unenticing.

Sidenote.

Google doesn’t always show the defined title and description in the search results. Sometimes, it rewrites the title and chooses a more appropriate description from the page for the snippet.

How can you improve your click-through rate (CTR)?

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

Second, align your title and description with the search intent.

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

Google SERP for "best headphones"

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

Third, use power words to entice the click—without being “clickbaity.”

Power words in a Google SERP result

Read more about how to craft the perfect title tag, or watch this video:

3. Improve your site’s user experience

User experience (UX) focuses on your site’s usability and how visitors interact and experience it.

UX is important for SEO because if your website is not pleasant to use, visitors will leave your website. 

If users do this consistently from your homepage, it’ll develop a high bounce rate.

To improve your UX and stop users from leaving your website quickly, try testing the following:

  • Visual appeal – Can your website’s visual appeal be improved?
  • Easy to navigate – Is the website’s structure well designed and easy to navigate?
  • Intrusive pop-ups – Are there any intrusive pop-ups that may harm the user experience?
  • Too many ads – Are the ads distracting from the main content?
  • Mobile friendly – Is your website easy to use on a mobile device?

The key to improving your UX is to focus on your visitors’ expectations. Ask yourself what they expect from your website. 

4. Target topics with search traffic potential

Trying to rank for keywords nobody’s searching for is a fool’s errand. You won’t get traffic even if you rank number one. 

For example, say you sell software tutorials. It won’t make sense to target “how do I make font larger in coffee cup html editor” because it has no search volume: 

Easy Keyword Difficulty example, via Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer

And the top-ranking page gets zero organic traffic:

Top-ranking page getting zero traffic example, via Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer

To find topics people are searching for, you need a keyword research tool like Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer. Enter a broad topic as your “seed” keyword and go to the Matching terms report. 

For example, if you have a coffee affiliate site, you may enter “coffee” as your seed. 

Matching terms report for "coffee," via Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer

You’ll notice that the keyword ideas are sorted by their estimated monthly search volumes, so it’s easy to find the ones people are searching for.

That said, there are a lot of ideas here (over 3.7M), and not all will make sense for your site.

For example, there’s no point in trying to rank for “coffee cake recipe” with a coffee affiliate site, as there’s no way to monetize the content. It doesn’t matter that it gets an estimated 60K monthly searches:

KD and volume of "coffee cake recipe," via Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer

This is where the filters come in handy.

For example, if you wanted to find classic “best [whatever]” affiliate keywords, you could just add the word “best” to the “Include” filter:

Matching terms report results with filters applied, via Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer

You could then filter for keywords with low Keyword Difficulty (KD) scores to hone in on easy-to-rank-for keywords:

Matching terms report results with filters applied, via Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer

Basically, relevant keywords with Traffic Potential that you can actually rank for are what you’re looking for.

If you want to identify low-KD keywords in bulk, you can also use Keywords Explorer

Here’s how you do it:

  • Enter a broad topic into Keywords Explorer’s search bar
  • Head to the Matching terms report 
  • Select Phrase match on the toggle
  • Filter for keywords with a Keyword Difficulty score under 20
Matching terms report results with filters applied, via Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer

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

Matching terms report results with filters applied, via Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer

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

5. Use your target keyword in three places 

A target keyword is the main keyword that describes the focus or topic of your page. 

You should use this keyword in three places:

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, 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:

Target keyword in title of an Ahrefs post, via Google

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,” 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. 

Example of a title tag, via google.com

B. Heading (H1)

Every page should be wrapped in an H1 tag and include your target keyword where it makes sense. 

Example of an H1 heading, via Ahrefs Blog

C. URL

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

Unless the keyword you’re targeting is unusually long, using that as the slug is the best way to do this.

Target keyword in slug, via Google

6. Use a short and descriptive URL

URLs in SEO play a crucial role in informing users and search engines about the content and structure of a webpage.

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

Therefore, using the exact target query as the URL isn’t always best practice.

Just imagine 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:

Truncated keywords example, via google.com

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

Removing unnecessary stop words, via google.com

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

Descriptive URL example, via google.com

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.

7. Optimize images for SEO to get additional traffic

Image optimization for SEO is the process of ensuring your images are optimized for search. 

It’s important to optimize images because they can show in Google Images and drive additional search traffic to your site.

Don’t overlook the importance of Google Images. It’s sent us over 5.5K clicks in the past three months:

Total clicks for Ahrefs' images, via GSC

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

Here’s an example:

Joshua Hardwick's photograph, via ahrefs.com

Filename: number-one-handsome-man.jpg

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

<img src="https://ahrefs.com/blog/seo-best-practices/.../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:

Alt tag replacing image that failed to load

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

8. Add internal links from other relevant pages

Internal links are links from one page to another within your website. They’re used for internal navigation, allowing visitors to move from A to B.

They’re important because they have a special role in SEO. Generally speaking, the more links a page has—from external and internal sources—the higher its PageRank. This is the foundation of Google’s ranking algorithm and remains important today.

Line graph showing URL Rating vs. search traffic

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

Luckily, most CMSes add internal links to new webpages from at least one other page by default. This may 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 this, search Site Audit’s Page Explorer for the topic you are searching for.

In this example, I’ve entered the keyword “lsi” into the search box and set the dropdown to “Page text.”

Page Explorer results with filters applied, via Ahrefs' Site Audit

This will find mentions of a keyword or topic on your site in the same way that a Google site: search would do. These are relevant places to add internal links.

9. Cover everything searchers want to know

Google wants to rank the best content for searchers, and that’s the content that covers everything they want to know. 

Here are a couple of ways to find out what those things might be: 

A. Look for common subtopics on the top-ranking pages

You can identify common subtopics by opening two or three top-ranking pages, opening up Ahrefs’ SEO Toolbar, and clicking on the “Content” tab.

I’ve run a search for “things to do in london,” and I can see that both the Tripadvisor page and Lonely Planet page mention the Tower of London as the top attraction to visit. 

Here’s the content structure of the Tripadvisor page:

Tower of London in Tripadvisor's content, via Ahrefs' SEO Toolbar

And here’s the same for the Lonely Planet page:

Tower of London in Lonely Planet's content, via Ahrefs' SEO Toolbar

We can see that the common subtopic between the two is the “Tower of London.”

This is likely something searchers expect and want to see on a list of things to do in London because multiple top-ranking pages talk about it.

B. Run a content gap analysis

You can run a content gap analysis if you want to take things further.

To do this:

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

Ahrefs' Content Gap tool

Then, if you set the “Intersect” to “2,” this shows queries that at least two of the targets rank for. These are probably important subtopics if more than one page is already ranking for them.

Content Gap report results, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

There are 222 interesting variations here of “things to do in london,” such as “things to see in london,” “what to see in london,” and “must see in london.”

This shows that sightseeing is one of the things searchers are interested in doing in London, and they want recommendations.

These are just a few subtopics you can cover to make your content more thorough.

10. Get more backlinks to build authority

Backlinks are votes of confidence in your website. They are the foundation of Google’s algorithm and remain one of the most important Google ranking factors

Google confirms this on its “How Search Works” page, where it says this:

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

But don’t take Google’s word for it…

Our study of over 1 billion webpages shows a clear correlation between organic traffic and the number of websites linking to a page:

Line graph showing referring domains vs. search traffic

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

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

Watch this video to see what makes a high-quality backlink:

11. Get good scores to pass Core Web Vitals

Core Web Vitals are website performance metrics introduced by Google to measure and evaluate user experience.

These are the core metrics that you should benchmark against:

When monitoring these metrics, start by using Google Search Console’s Core Web Vitals report.

Core Web Vitals report, via GSC

 If you need more data, check out the Performance report in Ahrefs’ Site Audit.

Performance report, via Ahrefs' Site Audit

Fixing these issues can be complicated, so your best bet is usually to ask a developer (or an SEO expert) to fix them.

Here are some general tips to help keep your pages optimized for speed and usability:

  • 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 browsers. 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.

12. Use HTTPS to secure your site

HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) indicates that the site is using an SSL certificate. It means your data is encrypted as it passes from your browser to the website’s server.

It’s been a Google ranking factor since 2014, so it’s still important. 

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.

"Lock" icon, via Google Chrome Browser

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 Let’s Encrypt.

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.

Next steps

Implementing these 12 SEO best practices is a great starting point to ranking higher on Google, but you’ll need to monitor your progress, be consistent in your delivery and, most importantly, be patient.

Results don’t always come immediately—but if you trust the process and consistently try to improve your SEO, you should see incremental results in time.



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Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint: A Step-By-Step Guide

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Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint: A Step-By-Step Guide

This post was sponsored by DebugBear. The opinions expressed in this article are the sponsor’s own.

Keeping your website fast is important for user experience and SEO.

The Core Web Vitals initiative by Google provides a set of metrics to help you understand the performance of your website.

The three Core Web Vitals metrics are:

This post focuses on the recently introduced INP metric and what you can do to improve it.

How Is Interaction To Next Paint Measured?

INP measures how quickly your website responds to user interactions – for example, a click on a button. More specifically, INP measures the time in milliseconds between the user input and when the browser has finished processing the interaction and is ready to display any visual updates on the page.

Your website needs to complete this process in under 200 milliseconds to get a “Good” score. Values over half a second are considered “Poor”. A poor score in a Core Web Vitals metric can negatively impact your search engine rankings.

Google collects INP data from real visitors on your website as part of the Chrome User Experience Report (CrUX). This CrUX data is what ultimately impacts rankings.

Image created by DebugBear, May 2024

How To Identify & Fix Slow INP Times

The factors causing poor Interaction to Next Paint can often be complex and hard to figure out. Follow this step-by-step guide to understand slow interactions on your website and find potential optimizations.

1. How To Identify A Page With Slow INP Times

Different pages on your website will have different Core Web Vitals scores. So you need to identify a slow page and then investigate what’s causing it to be slow.

Using Google Search Console

One easy way to check your INP scores is using the Core Web Vitals section in Google Search Console, which reports data based on the Google CrUX data we’ve discussed before.

By default, page URLs are grouped into URL groups that cover many different pages. Be careful here – not all pages might have the problem that Google is reporting. Instead, click on each URL group to see if URL-specific data is available for some pages and then focus on those.

1716368164 358 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of Google Search Console, May 2024

Using A Real-User Monitoring (RUM) Service

Google won’t report Core Web Vitals data for every page on your website, and it only provides the raw measurements without any details to help you understand and fix the issues. To get that you can use a real-user monitoring tool like DebugBear.

Real-user monitoring works by installing an analytics snippet on your website that measures how fast your website is for your visitors. Once that’s set up you’ll have access to an Interaction to Next Paint dashboard like this:

1716368164 404 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of the DebugBear Interaction to Next Paint dashboard, May 2024

You can identify pages you want to optimize in the list, hover over the URL, and click the funnel icon to look at data for that specific page only.

1716368164 975 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideImage created by DebugBear, May 2024

2. Figure Out What Element Interactions Are Slow

Different visitors on the same page will have different experiences. A lot of that depends on how they interact with the page: if they click on a background image there’s no risk of the page suddenly freezing, but if they click on a button that starts some heavy processing then that’s more likely. And users in that second scenario will experience much higher INP.

To help with that, RUM data provides a breakdown of what page elements users interacted with and how big the interaction delays were.

1716368164 348 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of the DebugBear INP Elements view, May 2024

The screenshot above shows different INP interactions sorted by how frequent these user interactions are. To make optimizations as easy as possible you’ll want to focus on a slow interaction that affects many users.

In DebugBear, you can click on the page element to add it to your filters and continue your investigation.

3. Identify What INP Component Contributes The Most To Slow Interactions

INP delays can be broken down into three different components:

  • Input Delay: Background code that blocks the interaction from being processed.
  • Processing Time: The time spent directly handling the interaction.
  • Presentation Delay: Displaying the visual updates to the screen.

You should focus on which INP component is the biggest contributor to the slow INP time, and ensure you keep that in mind during your investigation.

1716368164 193 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of the DebugBear INP Components, May 2024

In this scenario, Processing Time is the biggest contributor to the slow INP time for the set of pages you’re looking at, but you need to dig deeper to understand why.

High processing time indicates that there is code intercepting the user interaction and running slow performing code. If instead you saw a high input delay, that suggests that there are background tasks blocking the interaction from being processed, for example due to third-party scripts.

4. Check Which Scripts Are Contributing To Slow INP

Sometimes browsers report specific scripts that are contributing to a slow interaction. Your website likely contains both first-party and third-party scripts, both of which can contribute to slow INP times.

A RUM tool like DebugBear can collect and surface this data. The main thing you want to look at is whether you mostly see your own website code or code from third parties.

1716368164 369 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of the INP Primary Script Domain Grouping in DebugBear, May 2024

Tip: When you see a script, or source code function marked as “N/A”, this can indicate that the script comes from a different origin and has additional security restrictions that prevent RUM tools from capturing more detailed information.

This now begins to tell a story: it appears that analytics/third-party scripts are the biggest contributors to the slow INP times.

5. Identify Why Those Scripts Are Running

At this point, you now have a strong suspicion that most of the INP delay, at least on the pages and elements you’re looking at, is due to third-party scripts. But how can you tell whether those are general tracking scripts or if they actually have a role in handling the interaction?

DebugBear offers a breakdown that helps see why the code is running, called the INP Primary Script Invoker breakdown. That’s a bit of a mouthful – multiple different scripts can be involved in slowing down an interaction, and here you just see the biggest contributor. The “Invoker” is just a value that the browser reports about what caused this code to run.

1716368165 263 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of the INP Primary Script Invoker Grouping in DebugBear, May 2024

The following invoker names are examples of page-wide event handlers:

  • onclick
  • onmousedown
  • onpointerup

You can see those a lot in the screenshot above, which tells you that the analytics script is tracking clicks anywhere on the page.

In contrast, if you saw invoker names like these that would indicate event handlers for a specific element on the page:

  • .load_more.onclick
  • #logo.onclick

6. Review Specific Page Views

A lot of the data you’ve seen so far is aggregated. It’s now time to look at the individual INP events, to form a definitive conclusion about what’s causing slow INP in this example.

Real user monitoring tools like DebugBear generally offer a way to review specific user experiences. For example, you can see what browser they used, how big their screen is, and what element led to the slowest interaction.

1716368165 545 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of a Page View in DebugBear Real User Monitoring, May 2024

As mentioned before, multiple scripts can contribute to overall slow INP. The INP Scripts section shows you the scripts that were run during the INP interaction:

1716368165 981 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of the DebugBear INP script breakdown, May 2024

You can review each of these scripts in more detail to understand why they run and what’s causing them to take longer to finish.

7. Use The DevTools Profiler For More Information

Real user monitoring tools have access to a lot of data, but for performance and security reasons they can access nowhere near all the available data. That’s why it’s a good idea to also use Chrome DevTools to measure your page performance.

To debug INP in DevTools you can measure how the browser processes one of the slow interactions you’ve identified before. DevTools then shows you exactly how the browser is spending its time handling the interaction.

1716368165 526 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of a performance profile in Chrome DevTools, May 2024

How You Might Resolve This Issue

In this example, you or your development team could resolve this issue by:

  • Working with the third-party script provider to optimize their script.
  • Removing the script if it is not essential to the website, or finding an alternative provider.
  • Adjusting how your own code interacts with the script

How To Investigate High Input Delay

In the previous example most of the INP time was spent running code in response to the interaction. But often the browser is already busy running other code when a user interaction happens. When investigating the INP components you’ll then see a high input delay value.

This can happen for various reasons, for example:

  • The user interacted with the website while it was still loading.
  • A scheduled task is running on the page, for example an ongoing animation.
  • The page is loading and rendering new content.

To understand what’s happening, you can review the invoker name and the INP scripts section of individual user experiences.

1716368165 86 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of the INP Component breakdown within DebugBear, May 2024

In this screenshot, you can see that a timer is running code that coincides with the start of a user interaction.

The script can be opened to reveal the exact code that is run:

1716368165 114 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of INP script details in DebugBear, May 2024

The source code shown in the previous screenshot comes from a third-party user tracking script that is running on the page.

At this stage, you and your development team can continue with the INP workflow presented earlier in this article. For example, debugging with browser DevTools or contacting the third-party provider for support.

How To Investigate High Presentation Delay

Presentation delay tends to be more difficult to debug than input delay or processing time. Often it’s caused by browser behavior rather than a specific script. But as before, you still start by identifying a specific page and a specific interaction.

You can see an example interaction with high presentation delay here:

1716368165 665 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of the an interaction with high presentation delay, May 2024

You see that this happens when the user enters text into a form field. In this example, many visitors pasted large amounts of text that the browser had to process.

Here the fix was to delay the processing, show a “Waiting…” message to the user, and then complete the processing later on. You can see how the INP score improves from May 3:

1716368165 845 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of an Interaction to Next Paint timeline in DebugBear, May 2024

Get The Data You Need To Improve Interaction To Next Paint

Setting up real user monitoring helps you understand how users experience your website and what you can do to improve it. Try DebugBear now by signing up for a free 14-day trial.

1716368165 494 Optimizing Interaction To Next Paint A Step By Step GuideScreenshot of the DebugBear Core Web Vitals dashboard, May 2024

Google’s CrUX data is aggregated over a 28-day period, which means that it’ll take a while before you notice a regression. With real-user monitoring you can see the impact of website changes right away and get alerted automatically when there’s a big change.

DebugBear monitors lab data, CrUX data, and real user data. That way you have all the data you need to optimize your Core Web Vitals in one place.

This article has been sponsored by DebugBear, and the views presented herein represent the sponsor’s perspective.

Ready to start optimizing your website? Sign up for DebugBear and get the data you need to deliver great user experiences.


Image Credits

Featured Image: Image by Redesign.co. Used with permission.

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International SEO For 2024: 9-Point Checklist For Success

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International SEO For 2024: 9-Point Checklist For Success

Getting your international SEO strategy right can be an elusive feat.

There are a lot more factors at play than people give credit for, and it’s often a thankless job.

A successful international SEO strategy requires a deep knowledge of your company’s commercial strategy as well as technical SEO knowledge, cultural sensitivity, and excellent data skills.

Yet the industry often regards international SEO as just your hreflang setup.

In this article, I will distill the complexities of international SEO success into an actionable step-by-step list that will take you from beginner to advanced practitioner. Let’s begin!

Part I: Be Commercially Aware

1. Understand Why Your Company Is Going International

Companies can grow by expanding their products and services, focusing on gaining market penetration or expanding into new markets.

While your team’s goal might be traffic, leads, or revenue, the leadership team is likely working under a different set of parameters. Most of the time, leadership’s ultimate goal is to maximize shareholder value.

  • In founder-owned companies, growth goals might be slower and more sustainable, usually aimed at maintaining and growing profitability.
  • VC-owned companies have high growth goals because they must provide their investors with a return that’s higher than the stock market. This is what is known as the alpha, or your company’s ability to beat the market in growth.
  • Publicly traded companies are likely aiming to grow their share value.
  • Startups, depending on their maturity stage, are likely looking to prove product-market fit or expand their reach fast to show that their operations are scalable and have the potential to be profitable in the future. The goal of this is to aid in raising further capital from investors.

Understanding why businesses go international is essential for informing your SEO decisions. What’s best practice for SEO isn’t always what’s best for business.

You must adapt your strategy to your company’s growth model.

  • Companies choosing to grow sustainably and maintain profitability will likely expand more slowly to a market that resembles their core market.
  • VC-owned companies will be able to invest in a wider range of countries, with a smaller concern for providing their users with an experience on par with that of their core markets.
  • Startups can try to beat their competitors to market by expanding quickly and throwing a lot of money at the project, or they might be concerned with cash flow and try to expand fast but cut corners by using automatic translation.

2. Stack Rank Your Target Markets To Prioritize Your Investment

I promise I’ll get to hreflang implementation soon, but so much about international SEO has to do with commercial awareness – so bear with me; this will make you a better professional.

Many companies have different market tiers to reflect how much of a priority each market is. Market prioritization can happen using many different metrics, such as:

  • Average order value or lifetime customer value.
  • Amount of investment required.
  • Market size.
  • And market similarity.

American companies often prioritize developed English-speaking countries such as the UK, Canada, or Australia. These are most similar to their core market, and most of their market knowledge will be transferable.

After that, companies are likely to target large European economies, such as Germany and France. They might also target the LatAm market and Spain in the same effort.

The last prioritization tier can vary widely among companies, with a focus on the Nordic, Brazilian, or Asian markets.

Part II: Know Your Tech

3. Define Your International URL Structure

When doing international SEO, there are 4 different possible URL structures, each with its pros and cons.

ccTLD Structure

A ccTLD structure is set up to target different countries based on the domain type.

This structure is not ideal for companies that target different languages rather than different countries. For example, a .es website is targeting Spain, not the Spanish language.

An advantage to this kind of structure is that the ccTLD sends a very strong localization signal to search engines as to what market they are targeting, and they can lead to improved trust and CTR in your core country.

On the other hand, ccTLDs can dilute your site’s authority, as links will be spread across domains rather than concentrated on the .com.

gTLD With Subdirectories

This is my personal favorite when it comes to international SEO.

These URL structures can look like website.com/en if they’re targeting languages or website.com/en-gb if they’re targeting countries.

This configuration aggregates the authority you gain across your different territories into a single domain, it’s cheaper to maintain, and the .com TLD is widely recognizable by users worldwide.

On the other hand, this setup can look less personalized to people outside the US, who might wonder if you can service their markets.

gTLD With Subdomains

This setup involves placing international content on a subdomain like us.website.com. While once popular, it’s slipping in favor because it doesn’t bring anything unique to the table anymore.

This setup offers a clear signal to users and search engines about the intended audience of a specific subdomain.

However, subdomains often face issues with SEO, as Google tends to view them as separate entities. This separation can dilute link, similar to the ccTLD approach but without the geo-targeting advantages.

gTLD With Parameters

This is the setup where you add parameters at the end of the URL to indicate the language of the page, such as website.com/?lang=en.

I strongly advise against this setup, as it can present multiple technical SEO challenges and trust issues.

4. Understand Your Hreflang Setup

In the words of John Mueller: hreflang can be one of the most complex aspects of SEO.

Screenshot from Twitter, May 2024

Hreflang reminds me of a multilingual form of a canonical tag, where we tell search engines that one document is a version of the other and explain the relationship between them.

I find hreflang implementation very interesting from a technical point of view. Because development teams mostly manage it, and it can be very much hit or miss.

Often, hreflang is constructed from existing fields in your content management system (CMS) or content database.

You might find that your development team is pulling the HTML lang tag, which follows a different ISO standard than hreflang, leading to a broken implementation.

Other times, there is a field in your CMS that your development team pulls from to build your hreflang setup.

Finding out how your hreflang tags are generated can be extremely helpful in identifying the sources of different issues or mitigating potential risks.

So speak to your engineering team and ask them how you’re currently generating hreflang.

5. Implement Hreflang Without Errors

There are three ways to implement hreflang on your site:

  • On your sitemap.
  • Through your HTTP header.
  • On your HTML head.

The method most of us are most familiar with is the HTML head. And while you can use more than one method, they should match each other perfectly. Otherwise, you risk confusing search engines.

Here are some basic rules for getting it done correctly:

  • In your hreflang implementation, the URL must include domain and protocol.
  • You must follow the ISO 639-1 language codes – don’t go around making up your own.
  • Hreflang tags must be reciprocal. If the page you’re listing as a language alternative does not list you back, your implementation won’t work.
  • Audit your hreflang regularly. My favorite tool for this, since it added the hreflang cluster analysis and link graphs, is Ahrefs. For the record, Ahrefs is not paying me to say this; it’s a genuine recommendation and has helped me a lot in my work.
  • You should only have one page per language.
  • Your hreflang URLs should be self-canonicalizing and respond with a 200 code.

Follow the above rules, and you’ll avoid the most common hreflang mistakes that SEO pros make.

And if you’re interested in the technical SEO aspect beyond hreflang, I recommend reading Mind your language by Rob Owen.

Part III: Invest In Content Incrementally

6. Translate Your Top-performing Content Topics

Now that you have the basic commercial and technical knowledge covered, you’re ready to start creating a content strategy.

You likely have a wealth of content in your core market that can be recycled. But you want to focus on translating high-converting topics, not just any topic; otherwise, you might be wasting your budget!

Let’s go step by step.

Cluster Your Website’s Content By Topic

  • Crawl your site using your favorite SEO tool and extract the URL and H1.
  • Use ChatGPT to classify that list of URLs into topics. You might already know what you usually write about, so include those topics in your prompt. You don’t want to have a classification that’s too granular, so you can prompt chatGPT to only create groups with a minimum of 10 URLs (adjust this to reflect the size of your website) and class everything else as other. This is an example of what your prompt might look like: “I will provide you with a list of article titles and their corresponding URL. Classify this list into the following topics: survey best practices, research and analysis, employee surveys, market research and others. Return this in a table format with the URL, title and group name.”
  • Start a spreadsheet with all your URLs in the first column, titles in the second column, and the group they belong to in the third column.

Measure Your Performance By Topic

  • Export your GSC data and use a =VLOOKUP formula to match your clicks to your URLs.
  • Export your conversion data and use a =VLOOKUP formula to match your conversions (leads, sales, sign-ups, or revenue) to the right URL.
  • You can then copy your topics column onto a new sheet. Remove duplicates and use the =SUMIF formula to aggregate your click data and conversion data by topic.

Choose What Topics You’ll Be Translating First

Using this data, you can now choose what topics are most likely to drive conversions based on your core market data. Choose how many topics or pieces of content you’ll be translating based on your budget.

Personally, I like translating one topic at a time because I’ve found that generating topical authority on one specific topic makes it easier for me to rank on an adjacent topic that I write about next.

7. Localize Your English Content

Once you’re set up with all your key pages and a few content topics, it’s time to evaluate your investment and see where you could be getting a bigger return.

At this stage, many companies have translated their content into a few different languages and likely copied the US content into their UK and Australian sites. Now that you’ve done some translation, it’s time to work on localization.

If you’ve just copied your US content into your UK and Australian sites, your Google Search Console indexing report might be screaming at you, “Duplicate, Google selected a different canonical than the user.”

A very easy fix that could yield great returns is to localize your English content to the nuances of those English-speaking markets.

You will want to instruct your translation and localization providers to adapt the spellings of certain words, change the choice of words, introduce local expressions, and update any cited statistic for the US with their local equivalent.

For example, if I’m targeting a British audience, “analyze” becomes “analyse,” a “stroller” becomes a “pram,” and “soccer” becomes “football.”

8. Invest In In-market Content

Once you’ve got the basics in place, you can start tackling the specific needs of other markets. This strategy is expensive, and you should only use it in your priority markets, but it can really set you apart from your competitors.

For this, you will need to work with a local linguist to identify pain points, use cases, or needs exclusive to your target market.

For example, if France suddenly made it mandatory to run a diversity and inclusion study for companies with over 250 employees, I’d want to know this and create some content on DEI surveys at SurveyMonkey.

9. Integrate With Other Content Workflows

In step six, we evaluated our top-performing content, chose the best articles to translate, and got it all down. But wait. Some of these source articles have been updated. And there is even more content now!

To run a successful international SEO campaign you must integrate with all the other teams publishing content within your organization.

Usually, the teams creating content in an organization are SEO, content, PR, product marketing, demand generation, customer marketing, customer service, customer education, or solutions engineering.

That’s a lot, and you won’t be able to integrate with everyone all at once. Prioritize the teams that create the most revenue-generating content, such as SEO, content, or product marketing.

Working with these teams, you will have to establish a process for what happens when they create a new piece, update some content, or remove an existing piece.

These processes can differ for everyone, but I can tell you what I do with my team and hope it inspires you.

  • When a piece of content that’s already been localized into international markets is updated, we get the content in a queue to be re-localized the next quarter.
  • When they create a new piece of content, we evaluate its performance, and if it’s performing above average, we add it to a localization queue for the next quarter.
  • When they change the URL of a piece of content or delete it, all international sites must follow suit at the same time, since due to some technical limitations, not making the change globally would create some hreflang issues.

Wrapping Up

International SEO is vast and complex, and no article can cover it all, but many interesting resources have been created by SEO pros across the community for those who want to learn more.

Navigating the complexities of international SEO is no small feat. It’s an intricate dance of aligning commercial strategies with technical precision, cultural insights, and data-driven decisions.

From understanding your company’s core motives for global expansion to meticulously implementing hreflang tags and localizing content, every step plays a crucial role in building a successful international presence.

More resources: 


Featured Image: BritCats Studio/Shutterstock



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Google’s AI Vision Driven By Panic, Not Users: Former Product Manager

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Hand pressing the red button. vector illustration

A 16-year Google veteran is raising concerns about the company’s current focus on AI, labeling it a “panic reaction” driven by fear of falling behind competitors.

Scott Jenson, who left Google last month, took to LinkedIn to critique the tech giant’s AI projects as “poorly motivated and driven by this mindless panic that as long as it had ‘AI’ in it, it would be great.”

Veteran’s Criticism Of Google’s AI Focus

Jenson stated that Google’s vision of creating an AI assistant for its ecosystem is “pure catnip” fueled by the fear of letting someone else get there first.

He parallels the ill-fated Google+ product, which he calls a “similar hysterical reaction” to Facebook’s rise.

Jenson wrote:

“This exact thing happened 13 years ago with Google+ (I was there for that fiasco as well). That was a similar hysterical reaction but to Facebook.”

Lack Of User-Driven Motivation

Jenson argues that Google’s strategy lacks motivation driven by genuine user needs, a sentiment echoed by a recent Gizmodo article that described this year’s Google I/O developer conference as “the most boring ever.”

The article, which Jenson linked to in his post, criticized Google for failing to clarify how Gemini’s new AI technology would integrate into its existing products and enhance the user experience.

See Jenson’s full post below:

Can You Turn Off Google’s AI Overviews?

One prime example of Google’s AI overreach is the AI overviews feature, which generates summaries to directly answer search queries by ingesting information from across the web.

This controversial move has sparked legal battles, with publishers accusing Google of violating intellectual property rights and unfairly profiting from their content without permission.

Related: Google’s AI Overviews Documentation: Key SEO Insights

Turning Off AI Overviews

While Google doesn’t provide an official setting to turn off AI overviews, a viral article from Tom’s Hardware suggests using browser extensions.

Alternatively, you can configure Chrome to go directly to web search results, bypassing the AI-generated overviews.

Here are the steps:

  • Open Chrome settings by clicking the three dots in the top-right corner and selecting “Settings” from the menu.
  • In the Settings window, click on the “Search Engine” tab on the left side.
  • Under the “Search Engine” section, click “Manage search engines and site search.”
  • Scroll down to the “Site search” area and click “Add” to create a new entry.

In the new entry, enter the following details:

  • Name: Google (Web)
  • Shortcut: www.google.com
  • URL: {google:baseURL}/search?udm=14&q=%s
  • Click “Add
Screenshot from: chrome://settings/searchEngines, May 2024.

Lastly, click the three dots next to the new “Google (Web)” entry and select “Make default.”

1716224163 590 Googles AI Vision Driven By Panic Not Users Former ProductScreenshot from: chrome://settings/searchEngines, May 2024.

After following these steps, Chrome will now default to showing regular web search results instead of the AI overview summaries when you perform searches from the address bar.

Tensions Over Data Usage

The controversy surrounding AI overviews creates tension between tech companies and content creators over using online data for AI training.

Publishers argue that Google’s AI summaries could siphon website traffic, threatening independent creators’ revenue streams, which rely on search referrals.

The debate reflects the need for updated frameworks to balance innovation and fair compensation for content creators, maintaining a sustainable open internet ecosystem.


FAQ

What concerns has Scott Jenson raised about Google’s AI focus?

Scott Jenson, a former Google product manager, has expressed concerns that Google’s current AI focus is more of a “panic reaction” to stay ahead of competitors rather than addressing user needs. He critiques Google’s AI initiatives as poorly motivated and driven by a fear of letting others get ahead.

How does Scott Jenson compare Google’s AI strategy to past projects?

Jenson parallels Google’s current AI focus and the company’s response to Facebook years ago with Google+. He describes both as “hysterical reactions” driven by competition, which, in the case of Google+, resulted in a product that failed to meet its objectives.

Why are content creators concerned about Google’s AI overviews?

Content creators worry that Google’s AI overviews, which generate summaries by ingesting web content, could reduce site traffic. They argue that this practice is unfair as it uses their content without permission and impacts their revenue streams that rely on search referrals.

How can users turn off Google’s AI overviews in Chrome?

Although no official setting exists to disable AI overviews, users can use a workaround by enabling a specific Chrome setting or using a browser extension.

Here are the steps:

  • Open Chrome settings by clicking the three dots in the top-right corner and selecting “Settings” from the menu.
  • In the Settings window, click on the “Search Engine” tab on the left side.
  • Under the “Search Engine” section, click “Manage search engines and site search.”
  • Scroll down to the “Site search” area and click “Add” to create a new entry.

In the new entry, enter the following details:

    • Name: Google (Web)
    • Shortcut: www.google.com
    • URL: {google:baseURL}/search?udm=14&q=%s
    • Click “Add

This will force Chrome to skip AI-generated overviews and show the classic list of web links.


Featured Image: Sira Anamwong/Shutterstock

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