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The Only SEO Checklist You Need in 2023 [Incl. Template]

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The Only SEO Checklist You Need in 2023 [Incl. Template]

Remembering every SEO task you need to do for your website is a nightmare. This is why you need an SEO checklist.

But the usual one-size-fits-all checklists aren’t much use. They don’t take into account what your site is like or your SEO priorities.

This is why we built a fully customizable one in Google Sheets:

Preview of our free SEO checklist template

Let’s take a closer look at how to set up and use it.

How to set up and use our SEO checklist

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To start, make a copy of the checklist template in your Google Drive and configure the “Setup” sheet. This takes about 30 seconds and involves answering two questions.

  1. What platform or CMS does it run on?
  2. Which facets of SEO do you want to see tasks for? (Just uncheck any you’re not interested in.) 
How to set up the SEO checklist template

And… that’s it. Your custom checklist is ready in the “Checklist” tab.

Here, you’ll see checklist items divided into three buckets:

  • Do it once
  • Do it periodically
  • Do it each time you publish a new page

This structure means you don’t need to complete everything on this checklist today. You can start with the one-time tasks, then the periodic ones, and so on. 

Let’s get started.

Here are the SEO tasks you need to complete one time only.

Install an SEO-friendly theme

Your website theme changes how it looks. These days, pretty much all themes in Shopify, Wix, and WordPress are reasonably SEO-friendly. But if you want to use a third-party theme, it’s best to run a few quick checks:

  • Is it mobile-friendly? Load up the theme demo on your phone and see how it looks.
  • Is it fast? Plug the demo homepage into Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool. The higher the score, the better. 
  • Does it work cross-browser? Try the demo in Chrome, Firefox, and Safari.
  • Does it have good reviews? Most theme marketplaces show these. 
  • Is it regularly updated? There could be security issues if not. Again, most theme marketplaces will show when it was last updated.

Plan your website structure

Having a logical website structure helps visitors to navigate your site. It also ensures Google can find all the pages on your website. This is important, as Google can’t rank pages it doesn’t know about.

Doing this is easy enough. Just sketch out a mind map: 

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How to plan your website structure

Each branch on the map should be an internal link to allow search engines and visitors to navigate between pages. 

People often skip this when setting up a website, so it’s worth doing this even if you’re already up and running. 

Use a descriptive URL structure

For new sites, it makes sense to use a clear and descriptive URL structure from the start. This is because URLs help searchers understand what a page is about when it appears in search results. 

Most website platforms do this out of the box, except for WordPress. Don’t ask me why, but it defaults to using unique IDs like this: website.com/?p=123.

Luckily, this is easy enough to change. Just go to Settings > Permalinks > Post name.

Changing the URL structure in WordPress

Don’t change this for existing sites. It can do way more harm than good. It’s best to stick with it even if you’re using a less-than-ideal structure. 

Install an all-in-one SEO plugin

If you’re using WordPress, you’ll need an SEO plugin to help you optimize things like sitemaps and meta tags (more on those later).

Here are a few good options (you only need one):

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Changing meta tags with the Yoast WordPress plugin

You probably don’t need to do this if you’re using a different website platform like Shopify. Most of them give you ways to handle SEO basics out of the box.

Set up Google Search Console

Google Search Console is a free tool for tracking your site’s organic search performance. 

Here are a few things you can do with it:

  • See the keywords you rank for
  • Check ranking positions
  • Find website errors
  • Submit sitemaps
Google Search Console

Follow these instructions from Google to get set up. 

Set up Bing Webmaster Tools

Bing Webmaster Tools is Bing’s equivalent of Google Search Console. 

Bing Webmaster Tools

Is it something you’re going to use all the time? Probably not, as Bing search is not something most SEOs are focused on. But it still doesn’t hurt to set it up, as you may need the data at some point. 

Learn how to set it up here.

Create and submit a sitemap

Sitemaps tell search engines where to find important pages on your site. This is important, as they can only crawl or index pages if they know those exist.

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

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Sitemap example

You can usually find your sitemap at one of these URLs:

/sitemap.xml
/sitemap_index.xml
/sitemap

If you can’t find it, check your robots.txt file (domain.com/robots.txt), as its location is often listed there:

Robots.txt file location

If you still can’t find it, you probably don’t have one and need to create one. Otherwise, you need to submit it to Google. My guide below teaches you how to do both of these things.

Make sure your site is indexable

People aren’t searching the entire web when they search Google. They’re searching Google’s index of pages on the web. If your page isn’t indexable, Google can’t index it, and it won’t appear in the search results. 

Fortunately, Google can index all webpages unless you tell it that it isn’t allowed. Unfortunately, it’s quite a common mistake to disallow Google from indexing everything—especially with new sites or following site migrations.

Here’s how to find pages Google can’t index for free with Ahrefs Webmaster Tools (AWT):

  1. Crawl your site with Site Audit
  2. Go to the All issues report
  3. Check for the “Noindex page in sitemap” error
Finding noindex pages in sitemap using Ahrefs' Site Audit

Sitemaps list the pages you want search engines to index. If these pages have a “noindex” robots meta tag or x-robots-tag, there’s a problem. You should either remove these pages from the sitemap or delete the noindex tag from the page.

Add schema markup to your homepage

Schema markup is structured code that helps search engines to better understand and represent your website in search results. We recommend that all sites add Organization or Person markup to their homepage. 

Luckily, most website platforms and all-in-one SEO plugins make this easy. You don’t have to actually write any code.

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For example, if you use Yoast in WordPress, you can do this under the “Site representation” settings:

Schema in Yoast

All you have to do is choose whether you’re an organization or person, then fill in details like your organization name and links to social profiles. The plugin will write and add the schema markup for you.

To check that it’s all working correctly, plug your homepage into the schema markup validator. You should see the code:

Schema example

Make sure your site is mobile-friendly

Mobile-friendliness has been a ranking factor for years because most searches happen on mobile devices. You can check how mobile-friendly your site is with the Mobile Usability report in Google Search Console. 

Mobile Usability report in Google Search Console

Make sure you’re using HTTPS

HTTPS is a confirmed lightweight ranking factor.

If your website uses HTTPS, it’ll show the “lock” icon in your browser:

"Lock" icon representing a secure site

If you don’t see this, you’ll need to install a TLS certificate. 

Many web platforms and hosts give you one of these for free these days. If they don’t, you can get a free one from Let’s Encrypt. (You just need to make sure your host supports this.)

Make sure your website is accessible at one domain

Visitors shouldn’t be able to access your website at multiple locations. It can lead to crawling, indexing, and security issues.

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To check that everything’s in order, plug these four versions of your site into httpstatus.io

  • http://yourdomain.com
  • http://www.yourdomain.com
  • https://yourdomain.com
  • https://www.yourdomain.com

If everything’s good, three of them should redirect to one of the HTTPS versions:

How homepage redirects should look for a website

If that doesn’t happen, you need to set up permanent 301 redirects.

Make sure your site loads fast

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

Google has used various signals to measure page speed in the past, but these days it only uses Core Web Vitals. John Mueller confirmed this in 2022:

You can check your site’s Core Web Vitals performance for free in Ahrefs Webmaster Tools (AWT)

  1. Crawl your website with Site Audit
  2. Go to the Performance report
  3. Check the “Core Web Vitals” section
Core Web Vitals report in Ahrefs' Site Audit

If you see a lot of red here, your site probably needs work. 

Sidenote.

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To see Core Web Vitals in AWT, you’ll need to connect to Google’s PageSpeed Insights API. This only takes a minute or two. We have step-by-step instructions in Site Audit.

Install an image compression plugin

Compressing images makes image files smaller and improves page speed. 

If you’re using a website platform like Wix or Shopify, there’s not much need to worry about this, as they compress images automatically. But if you’re using WordPress, you’ll need to install an image compression plugin like ShortPixel. 

Sidenote.

ShortPixel lets you compress up to 100 images per month for free.

Get a free Google Business Profile

Google Business Profiles show up for local Google searches and in Google Maps.

Example of Google Business Profiles in the local pack

If your business has a storefront or serves a local area, setting up a Google Business Profile is about the best thing you can do for your SEO. You can sign up for one here. It’s completely free. Just fill out as much information as possible to boost your chances of showing up.

Backlinks are links to your site from other websites and are one of Google’s top ranking factors. There are many ways to get more of them, but the best starting point is to replicate your competitors’ links.

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There are many ways to do this, but looking for competitors’ directory links is a good starting point. 

Here’s how to do that:

  1. Go to Ahrefs’ Site Explorer
  2. Enter your homepage URL
  3. Switch the mode to “Exact URL”
  4. Go to the Link Intersect report
  5. Enter a few competitors’ homepages in blank fields
  6. Set the search mode for all pages to “URL”
  7. Hit “Show link opportunities”
Finding links that multiple competitors have with the Link Intersect report in Ahrefs' Site Explorer

It’s usually pretty easy to spot local and industry directories on the list:

Examples of directories

If you feel like it’d be useful to have your business listed in any of these directories, sign up for an account and make a profile. You’ll get a link too.

Here are the SEO tasks you should complete when setting up your website and every few months after that.

Fix broken pages

Broken links can negatively impact user experience and break the flow of ‘authority’ into and around your website.

To find broken links on your site for free, use Ahrefs Webmaster Tools.

  1. Crawl your website with Site Audit
  2. Go to the Internal pages report
  3. Click the “Issues” tab
  4. Look for “404 page” errors
Finding broken pages in Ahrefs' Site Audit

Here’s how to deal with any broken links you find:

How to deal with broken links

Refresh declining content

Rankings tend to drop over time if you don’t keep pages up to date. This is especially true for topics where searchers are looking for fresh information. 

Here’s how to find pages that could use a refresh in Google Search Console:

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  1. Go to the Search results report
  2. Click the “Date” filter and select “Compare” mode
  3. Choose “Compare last 6 months to previous period”
  4. Hit Apply
  5. Click the “Pages” tab in the table
  6. Sort the results by “Clicks Difference” from low to high
Finding pages that could use a refresh in Google Search Console

For example, our list of top Google searches received 75K+ fewer organic visits in the last six months than in the previous six months. This is probably because searchers want an up-to-date list of queries, but we last refreshed the page a few months ago. 

Do a content gap analysis

A content gap analysis finds the keywords your competitors rank for but you don’t. These often point to topics that it would also make sense for you to create content about.

Here’s how to do one in Ahrefs:

  1. Go to the Competitive Analysis tool
  2. Enter your domain as the target
  3. Enter a few competitors 
  4. Click “Compare”
Doing a competitive analysis in Ahrefs' Competitive Analysis tool

You will then see keywords that at least one competitor ranks for in the top 10, but you don’t rank at all. 

For example, three of our competitors rank in the top 10 for “rankbrain”:

Examples of content gaps

This is probably a topic we should consider covering. 

Update your Google Business Profile

If you’ve ever arrived at a restaurant to find it closed despite Google saying it’s open, you already understand the importance of keeping your Google Business Profile up to date. Given that it only takes a few minutes every couple of months, it’s not worth risking bad reviews over.

Here are a few things to double-check each time:

  • Opening hours
  • Holiday opening hours (e.g., Christmas)
  • Phone number
  • Products and services

I’d also recommend using the “posts” feature to keep followers of your business up to date. 

For example, this bar has a post about its upcoming Christmas Market: 

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Example of posts on Google Business Profiles

(Pretty impressive planning, given that I’m writing this in July.)

Check for other technical issues

Hundreds of technical issues can hurt your site, and they can pop up at any moment. That’s why it’s super important to check for them periodically and fix any major issues that come up.

You can do this for free with Site Audit in Ahrefs Webmaster Tools. Just choose the option to run scheduled crawls when setting up your project (weekly or monthly is fine for most sites).

How to schedule crawls in Ahrefs' Site Audit

Site Audit will then crawl your site for 140+ potential SEO issues. It’ll do this periodically according to the schedule you set and send you email alerts about new issues:

Email alert from Ahrefs' Site Audit

If you click “View” on any issue, it’ll take you to Site Audit and show the URLs affected:

Showing 404 pages in Ahrefs' Site Audit

You can then click the “Why and how to fix” button to learn how to deal with each issue.

Instructions on how to fix issues in Ahrefs' Site Audit

Do it for every new page

Here are the SEO tasks you should complete when adding new pages to your website that you want to perform well in organic search.

Find a primary keyword to target

Each page on your website should target one main keyword. You should do keyword research periodically to find topics to target, but it’s also important to make sure you’re targeting the best keyword each time you publish a new page.

For example, let’s say you were writing a post about the best protein powders. There are lots of ways people could search for this, such as:

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  • what is the best protein powder
  • best protein supplements
  • best protein shakes

Which one of these keywords should be your primary target, if any?

Luckily, there’s an easy way to figure this out. Just search for your topic in Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer and look at the Parent Topic. This is usually a more popular way of searching for the same thing.

Parent Topic in Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer

Sidenote.

Parent Topic isn’t 100% foolproof. It simply shows the keyword sending the most traffic to the top-ranking page for your keyword. This is usually the best keyword to target but not always, so don’t let this trump common sense.

Assess search intent

People tend to want to see one of these types of content when they search Google:

  • Blog post
  • Interactive tool
  • Video
  • Category page
  • Product page

Figuring out which one that people searching for your keyword want to see is known as assessing search intent. This is a crucial step if you want to stand the best chance at ranking, as Google wants to rank content that searchers are looking for.

How do you do it? 

Look for the most common type of content among the top-ranking results. 

For example, interactive tools dominate the first page for “days between dates.” But videos dominate the first page for “excel for beginners”:

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Example of how search intent varies

From here, we recommend digging deeper into intent to understand the best content format and angle for the job. Learn more about that in the linked guide below.

Assess your chances of ranking in Google

Understanding the ease or difficulty of ranking for a keyword helps you to prioritize the opportunity and set realistic expectations.

For a very rough estimate, you can use the Keyword Difficulty score in Keywords Explorer.

Keyword Difficulty (KD) score in Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer

Just don’t rely on this entirely, as it only takes backlinks into account. Other factors may indicate a hard keyword to rank for, like: 

  • High-quality backlinks to the top-ranking pages.
  • High topical relevance of the top-ranking sites.
  • Mainly big brands in the top 10.
  • A dominant content type that you don’t have the resources to create.

Research what people want to know

Let’s say that you want to rank for “affiliate marketing.” It’s clear from analyzing intent that searchers are looking for a blog post. But what specifically do they want to know? This is the question you need to answer if you want to produce the best content in Google’s eyes.

One way to answer this question is to look for commonalities between the top-ranking pages.

For example, all top-ranking pages for “affiliate marketing” have a definition:

Example of a common subtopic among top-ranking pages

This works, but it can be quite time-consuming. 

It’s often quicker to run a page-level content gap analysis on the top-ranking pages to find keywords they rank for. Some of these often point to subtopics the pages cover.

Here’s how to do it in Ahrefs: 

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  1. Go to the Competitive Analysis tool
  2. Enter the URL of your page as the target (add the URL you plan to use if you haven’t created your page yet)
  3. Enter the URLs of a few top-ranking pages as targets
  4. Click “Compare”
Running a competitive analysis at the page level to find important subtopics

From there, go to the Content Gap report and look for keywords that represent subtopics:

Examples of subtopics in the Content Gap report

Optimize your headings and subheadings

Google looks at headings and subheadings to better understand a page’s content. This makes them logical places to include keywords related to your content. 

For example, this would be a logical way to structure a page about fruits and vegetables:

  • H1: Fruits & Vegetables 

Not only does this naturally lead you to include keywords in headings and subheadings, but it also makes your content easier to read and skim. 

How headings and subheadings improve readability

Hook readers with your intro (blog posts only)

If you can’t convince readers that your page offers what they want within a few seconds, they’ll hit the “back” button. This is bad because if they never read your content, they won’t convert, share, or link to it. 

The PAS formula is a good place to start for a compelling intro.

The PAS formula

For example, let’s say we were writing a post about how to cook the perfect steak. 

We’d start by describing the problem

The PAS formula — problem

Then we’d agitate the problem:

The PAS formula — agitate

Before finally revealing the solution

The PAS formula — solution

Edit your copy for simplicity

In all, 50% of the U.S. population read below an eighth-grade reading level.

How well U.S. adults read

For that reason, you should keep things simple unless you want to alienate 1 in 2 visitors. That means:

  • Using short sentences and paragraphs.
  • Using simple words and phrases.
  • Avoiding jargon.

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

Hemingway's readability grade

People often think that linking to other websites is somehow bad for SEO. This isn’t true. It probably won’t massively help your SEO, but it won’t hurt it either (unless you’re linking to shady stuff).

Here’s what Google’s John Mueller had to say about linking out to other sites:

Linking to other websites is a great way to provide value to your users. Oftentimes, links help users to find out more, to check out your sources and to better understand how your content is relevant to the questions that they have.

Does this mean you should force links to other sites into your content? Definitely not. It just means you should add them if and when it makes sense, like if you need to reference a source.

Make content easier to consume with images

Nobody wants to read a big wall of text. It’s overwhelming and can lead people to bounce. Images help solve this by breaking up your copy and aiding visual comprehension. 

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Even better, images can rank in Google Images and send even more traffic your way. 

For example, according to Search Console, Google Images has sent our blog almost 20K organic visits in the last three months:

Google Images traffic in Search Console

This would undoubtedly be even higher if you were in a visual niche like food or design.

That said, don’t just shoehorn random images into your content for the sake of it. Make an effort to use images that actually serve a purpose and help readers visualize things. 

Optimize your images

If you’ve already done the “do it once” items on this checklist, you should have already installed an image compression plugin. But there are a couple of other image optimizations you should do on a page-by-page basis:

  1. Name images descriptively – Don’t use generic image filenames like IMG_875939.png or Screenshot-2021-06-01. Use descriptive filenames like black-puppy.png or eiffel-tower.jpg. 
  2. Add descriptive alt text – Alt text replaces an image on the page when it fails to load. It’s also helpful for those using screen readers. Learn more here.

Set a compelling title tag and meta description

Title tags and meta descriptions show up in Google’s search results to help searchers understand what the page is about. 

Example of title tag and meta description in Google's search results

Sidenote.

Google only uses meta descriptions for the descriptive snippet in search results 62.78% of the time. The rest of the time, it uses something else from the page. This makes the title tag more important than the meta description by far.

It’s best practice to include your target keyword (or a close variation) in the title tag where it makes sense. Beyond that, it’s about making both the title and meta description as compelling as possible.

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Here are a few tips:

  • Keep them short Under 70 characters for the title tag and under 160 for the meta description. This helps prevent truncation.
  • Match search intent – Make it clear to searchers that you have what they’re looking for.
  • Don’t clickbait – Be honest about what’s on your page. Don’t over-promise. 
  • Include the year – In the title tag for topics that demand freshness.

TIP

If you’re struggling to come up with a compelling title or meta description, try asking ChatGPT to do the work for you:

Using ChatGPT to come up with titles

Set a short descriptive URL slug

The URL slug is the last part of the URL:

Example of a URL slug

Google says to use words that are relevant to your content here. This also helps searchers to understand what your page is about before clicking. 

The easiest way to do this is to set the slug to your target keyword:

https://ahrefs.com/blog/seo-checklist/

However, this doesn’t always make sense. It depends on your URL structure. 

For example, our SEO glossary targets the keyword “SEO glossary.” But as we published this under ahrefs.com/seo, we only used glossary for the slug and not seo-glossary to avoid unnecessary repetition of “SEO.”

URL slug for our SEO glossary

Plus, shorter is always better because long URLs tend to truncate on the SERPs:

URL slug that's cut off

Add schema markup for rich snippets

Schema markup can impact how your pages appear in the search results.

For example, here’s a page that currently ranks for “pizza dough recipe”:

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Rich snippets example

The star ratings, review count, and preparation time all appear, thanks to schema markup.

If you want to be eligible for these kinds of “rich results,” here’s a full list of features from Google, along with the structured data you need to use. 

Implementation-wise, you can either write the markup yourself and add it to your page or use a plugin to create it for you. Yoast works with a fair few of these.

How to add schema markup in Yoast

Add a table of contents (blog posts only)

A table of contents provides jump links to different sections on the page. 

Example of a table of contents

Adding these to long blog posts makes sense to help searchers navigate them. They can also help you win sitelinks in the search results: 

Example of sitelinks

Internal links help Google find pages on your website and understand what they’re all about. 

Most website platforms automatically add internal links to new pages from their “parent” pages, but you can boost new pages further by adding more contextual internal links. 

For example, when we publish new blog posts, WordPress automatically internally links to them from our blog homepage:

Example of an internal link to a new post on Ahrefs' blog homepage

This is good, but there are probably plenty of other places where it would make sense to link to this post on our blog. By adding internal links there, we can send more people to this guide and tell Google how important we think it is.

Here’s how to find internal link opportunities for free with Ahrefs Webmaster Tools (AWT): 

  1. Crawl your website with Site Audit
  2. Go to the Page Explorer
  3. Search for your target keyword in the “Page text” of other pages
Finding internal link opportunities in Ahrefs' Site Audit

It’s then simply a case of visiting the pages in the returns, searching for your keyword on the page, and adding a contextual link if and where it makes sense.

Here’s one we added from our list of free keyword research tools:

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Example of a contextual internal link

Promote your content with outreach (optional)

People can’t link to content if they don’t know it exists. That’s why it pays to do link building outreach—especially if you’re trying to rank for a competitive keyword.

There are many ways to do this, but the Reverse Skyscraper Technique is a good starting point.

Here’s the process:

  1. Find competing, lower-quality pages with backlinks
  2. Ask people linking to them to link to you instead

To find competing pages with backlinks, just plug your keyword into Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer and scroll to the SERP overview: 

Referring domains (linking websites) to the top-ranking pages, via Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer

Next, visit the pages and look for reasons why your content is better, like:

  • Their content is inaccurate and outdated.
  • They don’t explain things in detail.
  • Their design is bad.

It’s then simply a case of pitching your link as the replacement to anyone linking to that page. To find these, plug the page into Ahrefs’ Site Explorer and check the Backlinks report. 

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.

If you’re looking to learn more about executing on this checklist, check out our free SEO training course.

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

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SEO

Google Confirms Links Are Not That Important

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Google confirms that links are not that important anymore

Google’s Gary Illyes confirmed at a recent search marketing conference that Google needs very few links, adding to the growing body of evidence that publishers need to focus on other factors. Gary tweeted confirmation that he indeed say those words.

Background Of Links For Ranking

Links were discovered in the late 1990’s to be a good signal for search engines to use for validating how authoritative a website is and then Google discovered soon after that anchor text could be used to provide semantic signals about what a webpage was about.

One of the most important research papers was Authoritative Sources in a Hyperlinked Environment by Jon M. Kleinberg, published around 1998 (link to research paper at the end of the article). The main discovery of this research paper is that there is too many web pages and there was no objective way to filter search results for quality in order to rank web pages for a subjective idea of relevance.

The author of the research paper discovered that links could be used as an objective filter for authoritativeness.

Kleinberg wrote:

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“To provide effective search methods under these conditions, one needs a way to filter, from among a huge collection of relevant pages, a small set of the most “authoritative” or ‘definitive’ ones.”

This is the most influential research paper on links because it kick-started more research on ways to use links beyond as an authority metric but as a subjective metric for relevance.

Objective is something factual. Subjective is something that’s closer to an opinion. The founders of Google discovered how to use the subjective opinions of the Internet as a relevance metric for what to rank in the search results.

What Larry Page and Sergey Brin discovered and shared in their research paper (The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine – link at end of this article) was that it was possible to harness the power of anchor text to determine the subjective opinion of relevance from actual humans. It was essentially crowdsourcing the opinions of millions of website expressed through the link structure between each webpage.

What Did Gary Illyes Say About Links In 2024?

At a recent search conference in Bulgaria, Google’s Gary Illyes made a comment about how Google doesn’t really need that many links and how Google has made links less important.

Patrick Stox tweeted about what he heard at the search conference:

” ‘We need very few links to rank pages… Over the years we’ve made links less important.’ @methode #serpconf2024″

Google’s Gary Illyes tweeted a confirmation of that statement:

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“I shouldn’t have said that… I definitely shouldn’t have said that”

Why Links Matter Less

The initial state of anchor text when Google first used links for ranking purposes was absolutely non-spammy, which is why it was so useful. Hyperlinks were primarily used as a way to send traffic from one website to another website.

But by 2004 or 2005 Google was using statistical analysis to detect manipulated links, then around 2004 “powered-by” links in website footers stopped passing anchor text value, and by 2006 links close to the words “advertising” stopped passing link value, links from directories stopped passing ranking value and by 2012 Google deployed a massive link algorithm called Penguin that destroyed the rankings of likely millions of websites, many of which were using guest posting.

The link signal eventually became so bad that Google decided in 2019 to selectively use nofollow links for ranking purposes. Google’s Gary Illyes confirmed that the change to nofollow was made because of the link signal.

Google Explicitly Confirms That Links Matter Less

In 2023 Google’s Gary Illyes shared at a PubCon Austin that links were not even in the top 3 of ranking factors. Then in March 2024, coinciding with the March 2024 Core Algorithm Update, Google updated their spam policies documentation to downplay the importance of links for ranking purposes.

Google March 2024 Core Update: 4 Changes To Link Signal

The documentation previously said:

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“Google uses links as an important factor in determining the relevancy of web pages.”

The update to the documentation that mentioned links was updated to remove the word important.

Links are not just listed as just another factor:

“Google uses links as a factor in determining the relevancy of web pages.”

At the beginning of April Google’s John Mueller advised that there are more useful SEO activities to engage on than links.

Mueller explained:

“There are more important things for websites nowadays, and over-focusing on links will often result in you wasting your time doing things that don’t make your website better overall”

Finally, Gary Illyes explicitly said that Google needs very few links to rank webpages and confirmed it.

Why Google Doesn’t Need Links

The reason why Google doesn’t need many links is likely because of the extent of AI and natural language undertanding that Google uses in their algorithms. Google must be highly confident in its algorithm to be able to explicitly say that they don’t need it.

Way back when Google implemented the nofollow into the algorithm there were many link builders who sold comment spam links who continued to lie that comment spam still worked. As someone who started link building at the very beginning of modern SEO (I was the moderator of the link building forum at the #1 SEO forum of that time), I can say with confidence that links have stopped playing much of a role in rankings beginning several years ago, which is why I stopped about five or six years ago.

Read the research papers

Authoritative Sources in a Hyperlinked Environment – Jon M. Kleinberg (PDF)

The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine

Featured Image by Shutterstock/RYO Alexandre

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How to Become an SEO Lead (10 Tips That Advanced My Career)

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How to Become an SEO Lead (10 Tips That Advanced My Career)

A few years ago, I was an SEO Lead managing enterprise clients’ SEO campaigns. It’s a senior role and takes a lot of work to get there. So how can you do it, too?

In this article, I’ll share ten tips to help you climb the next rung in the SEO career ladder.

Helping new hires in the SEO team is important if you want to become an SEO Lead. It gives you the experience to develop your leadership skills, and you can also share your knowledge and help others learn and grow.

It demonstrates you can explain things well, provide helpful feedback, and improve the team’s standard of work. It shows you care about the team’s success, which is essential for leaders. Bosses look for someone who can do their work well and help everyone improve.

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Here are some practical examples of things I did early in my career to help mentor junior members of the team that you can try as well:

  • Hold “lunch and learn” sessions on topics related to SEO and share case studies of work you have done
  • Create process documents for the junior members of the team to show them how to complete specific tasks related to your work
  • Compile lists of your favorite tools and resources for junior members of the team
  • Create onboarding documents for interns joining the company

Wouldn’t it be great if you could look at every single SEO Lead’s resume? Well, you already can. You can infer ~70% of any SEO’s resume by spying on their LinkedIn and social media channels.

Type “SEO Lead” into LinkedIn and see what you get.

Searching for SEO Leads using Linkedin

Tip

Look for common career patterns of the SEOs you admire in the industry.

I used this method to understand how my favorite SEOs and people at my company navigated their way from a junior role to a senior role.

For example, when the Head of SEO at the time Kirsty Hulse, joined my team, I added her on LinkedIn and realized that if I wanted to follow in her footsteps, I’d need to start by getting the role of SEO Manager to stand any possible chance of leading SEO campaigns like she was.

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The progression in my company was from SEO Executive to Senior SEO Executive (Junior roles in London, UK), but as an outsider coming into the company, Kirsty showed me that it was possible to jump straight to SEO Manager given the right circumstances.

Career exampleCareer example

Using Kirsty’s and other SEOs’ profiles, I decided that the next step in my career needed to be SEO Manager, and at some point, I needed to get some experience with a bigger media agency so I could work my way up to leading an SEO campaign with bigger brands.

Sadly, you can’t just rock up to a monthly meeting and start leading a big brand SEO campaign. You’ll need to prove yourself to your line manager first. So how can you do this?

Here’s what I’d suggest you do:

  • Create a strong track record with smaller companies.
  • Obsessively share your wins with your company, so that senior management will already know you can deliver.
  • At your performance review, tell your line manager that you want to work on bigger campaigns and take on more responsibility.

If there’s no hope of working with a big brand at your current job, you might need to consider looking for a new job where there is a recognizable brand. This was what I realized I needed to do if I wanted to get more experience.

Tip

Get recruiters on LinkedIn to give you the inside scoop on which brands or agencies are hiring. Ask them if you have any skill gaps on your resume that could prevent you from getting a job with these companies.

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Being critical of your skill gaps can be hard to do. I found the best way to identify them early in my career was to ask other people—specifically recruiters. They had knowledge of the industry and were usually fairly honest as to what I needed to improve.

From this, I realized I lacked experience working with other teams—like PR, social, and development teams. As a junior SEO, your mind is focused 99% on doing SEO, but when you become more senior, your integration with other teams is important to your success.

For this reason, I’d suggest that aspiring SEO Leads should have a good working knowledge of how other teams outside of SEO operate. If you take the time to do this, it will pay dividends later in your career:

  • If there are other teams in your company, ask if you can do some onboarding training with them.
  • Get to know other team leads within your company and learn how they work.
  • Take training courses to learn the fundamentals of other disciplines that complement SEO, such as Python, SQL, or content creation.

Sometimes, employers use skill gaps to pay you less, so it’s crucial to get the skills you need early on…

Skills gap illustrationSkills gap illustration
Source

Examples of other skill gaps I’ve noticed include:

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If you think you have a lot of skill gaps, then you can brush up your skills with our SEO academy. Once you’ve completed that, you can fast-track your knowledge by taking a course like Tom Critchlow’s SEO MBA, or you can try to develop these skills through your job.

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How to Become an SEO Lead 10 Tips That AdvancedHow to Become an SEO Lead 10 Tips That Advanced

As a junior in any company, it can be hard to get your voice heard amongst the senior crowd. Ten years ago, I shared my wins with the team in a weekly group email in the office.

Here’s what you should be sharing:

  • Praise from 3rd parties, e.g. “the client said they are impressed with the work this month.”
  • Successful performance insights, e.g “following our SEO change, the client has seen X% more conversions this month.”
  • Examples of the work you led, e.g. if your leadership and decision-making led to good results, then you need to share it.

At Ahrefs I keep a “wins” document. It’s just a simple spreadsheet that lists feedback on the blog posts I’ve written, the links I’ve earned and what newsletters my post was included in. It’s useful to have a document like this so you have a record of your achievements.

Example of wins spreadsheetExample of wins spreadsheet

Sidenote.

Junior SEOs sometimes talk about the things “we” achieved as a team rather than what they achieved at the interview stage. If you want the SEO Lead role, remember to talk about what you achieved. While there’s no “I” in team, you also need to advocate for yourself.

One of my first big wins as an SEO was getting a link from an outreach campaign on Buzzfeed. When I went to Brighton SEO later that year and saw Matthew Howells-Barby sharing how he got a Buzzfeed link, I realized that this was not something everyone had done.

So when I did manage to become an SEO Lead, and my team won a prize in Publicis Groupe for our SEO performance, I made sure everyone knew about the work we did. I even wrote a case study on the work for Publicis Groupe’s intranet.

Silver prize winning at publicis groupeSilver prize winning at publicis groupe

I’ve worked with some incredibly talented people, many of whom have helped me in my career.

I owe my big break to Tim Cripps, Laura Scott, and Kevin Mclaren. Without their support and encouragement, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Even before that, David Schulhof, Jodie Wheeler, and Carl Brooks let me mastermind some bonkers content campaigns that were lucky enough to succeed:

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Digital Spy Coverage for emoji campaignDigital Spy Coverage for emoji campaign
Some of the coverage I got for a stag and hen do client, back in the day.

I wasn’t even an SEO Lead at that point, but they gave me the reins and trusted me.

So, how can you find your tribe?

  • Speak to recruiters – they might hold the ticket to your next dream job. I spoke to many recruiters early in my career, but only two recruiters delivered for me—they were Natasha Woodford, and Amalia Gouta. Natasha helped me get a job that filled my skill gap, and Amalia helped me get my first SEO Lead role.
  • Go to events and SEO conferences, and talk to speakers to build connections outside of your company.
  • Use LinkedIn and other social media to interact with other companies or individuals that resonate with you.

Many senior SEO professionals spend most of their online lives on X and LinkedIn. If you’re not using them, you’re missing out on juicy opportunities.

Example of Linkedin recruiter messageExample of Linkedin recruiter message
Example of a recruiter message I got just after I joined Ahrefs.

Sharing your expertise on these platforms is one of the easiest ways to increase your chances of getting a senior SEO role. Because, believe it or not, sometimes a job offer can be just a DM away.

Here’s some specific ideas of what you can share:

I’ve recently started posting on LinkedIn and am impressed by the reach you can get by posting infrequently on these topics.

Here’s an example of one of my posts where I asked the community for help researching an article I was writing:

Linkedin post exampleLinkedin post example

And here is the content performance across the last year from posting these updates.

Linkedin-Content-PerformanceLinkedin-Content-Performance

I’m clearly not a LinkedIn expert—far from it! But as you can see, with just a few months of posting, you can start to make these platforms work for you.

Godard Abel, co-founder of G2, talked on a podcast about conscious leadership. This struck a chord with me recently as I realized that I had practiced some of the principles of conscious leadership—unconsciously.

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You can start practicing conscious leadership by asking yourself if your actions are above or below the line. Here are a few examples of above and below-the-line thinking:

Above and below the line thinkingAbove and below the line thinking

If you want a senior SEO role, I’d suggest shifting your mindset to above-the-line thinking.

In the world of SEO, it’s easy to blame all your search engine woes on Google. We’ve all been there. But a lot of the time, simple changes to your website can make a huge difference—it just takes a bit of effort to find them and make the changes.

SEO is not an exact science. Some stakeholders naturally get nervous if they sense you aren’t sure about what you’re saying. If you don’t get their support early on then you fall at the first hurdle.

Business plan with no detailBusiness plan with no detail
Source

To become more persuasive, try incorporating Aristotle’s three persuasive techniques into your conversations.

  • Pathos: use logical reasoning, facts, and data to present water-tight arguments.
  • Ethos: establish your credibility and ethics through results.
  • Logos: make your reports tell a story.
Persuasive techniquesPersuasive techniques

Then sprinkle in language that has a high level of modality:

Modality of languageModality of language

Some people will be able to do this naturally without even realizing it, but for others, it can be an uphill struggle. It wasn’t easy for me, and I had to learn to adapt the way I talked to stakeholders early on.

The strongest way I found was to appeal to emotions and back up with data from a platform like Ahrefs. Highlight what competitors have done in terms of SEO and the results they’ve earned from doing it.

Sidenote.

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You don’t have to follow this tip to the letter, but being aware of these concepts means you’ll start to present more confident and persuasive arguments for justifying your SEO strategies.

When I started in SEO, I had zero connections. Getting a job felt like an impossible challenge.

Once I’d got my first SEO Lead job, it felt stupidly easy to get another one—just through connections I’d made along the way in my SEO journey.

I once got stuck on a delayed train with a senior member of staff, and he told me he was really into Google Local Guides, and he was on a certain high level. He said it took him a few years to get there.

Local Guides is part of Google Maps that allows you submit reviews and other user generated content

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When he showed me the app, I realized that you could easily game the levels by uploading lots of photos.

In a “hold my beer” moment, I mass downloaded a bunch of photos, uploaded them to Local Guides and equaled his Local Guide level on the train in about half an hour. He was seething.

Google Local Guides Screenshot Level 7Google Local Guides Screenshot Level 7

One of the photos I uploaded was a half-eaten Subway. It still amazes me that 50,974 people have seen this photo:

1713812167 453 How to Become an SEO Lead 10 Tips That Advanced1713812167 453 How to Become an SEO Lead 10 Tips That Advanced

This wasn’t exactly SEO, but the ability to find this ‘hack’ so quickly impressed him, and we struck up a friendship.

The next month that person moved to another company, and then another few months later, he offered me an SEO Lead job.

Tip

Build connections with everyone you can—you never know who you might need to call on next.

Final thoughts

The road to becoming an SEO Lead seems straightforward enough when you start out, but it can quickly become long and winding.

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But now armed with my tips, and a bucket load of determination, you should be able to navigate your way to an SEO Lead role much quicker than you think.

Lastly, if you want any more guidance, you can always ping me on LinkedIn. 🙂



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7 Content Marketing Conferences to Attend in 2024

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7 Content Marketing Conferences to Attend in 2024

I spend most of my days sitting in front of a screen, buried in a Google Doc. (You probably do too.)

And while I enjoy deep work, a few times a year I get the urge to leave my desk and go socialize with other human beings—ideally on my employer’s dime 😉

Conferences are a great excuse to hang out with other content marketers, talk shop, learn some new tricks, and pretend that we’re all really excited about generative AI.

Without further ado, here are the biggest and best content marketing conferences happening throughout the rest of 2024.

Dates: May 5–7
Prices: from $795
Website: https://cex.events/
Location: Cleveland, OH
Speakers: B.J. Novak, Ann Handley, Alexis Grant, Justin Welsh, Mike King

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CEX is designed with content entrepreneurs in mind (“contenpreneurs”? Did I just coin an awesome new word?)—people that care as much about the business of content as they do the craft.

In addition to veteran content marketers like Ann Handley and Joe Pulizi waxing lyrical about modern content strategy, you’ll find people like Justin Welsh and Alexis Grant exploring the practicalities of quitting your job and becoming a full-time content creator.

Here’s a trailer for last year’s event:

Sessions include titles like:

  • Unlocking the Power of Book Publishing: From Content to Revenue
  • Quitting A $200k Corporate Job to Become A Solo Content Entrepreneur
  • Why You Should Prioritize Long-Form Content

(And yes—Ryan from The Office is giving the keynote.)

Dates: Jun 3–4
Location: Seattle, WA
Speakers: Wil Reyolds, Bernard Huang, Britney Muller, Lily Ray
Prices: from $1,699
Website: https://moz.com/mozcon

Software company Moz is best known in the SEO industry, but its conference is popular with marketers of all stripes. Amidst a lineup of 25 speakers there are plenty of content marketers speaking, like Andy Crestodina, Ross Simmonds, and Chima Mmeje.

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Check out this teaser from last year’s event:

This year’s talks include topics like:

  • Trust and Quality in the New Era of Content Discovery
  • The Power of Emotion: How To Create Content That (Actually) Converts
  • “E” for Engaging: Why The Future of SEO Content Needs To Be Engaging

Dates: Sep 18–20
Location: Boston, MA
Speakers: TBC
Prices: from $1,199
Website: https://www.inbound.com/

Hosted by content marketing OG HubSpot, INBOUND offers hundreds of talks, deep dives, fireside chats, and meetups on topics ranging from brand strategy to AI.

Here’s the recap video:

I’ve attended my fair share of INBOUNDs over the years (and even had a beer with co-founder Dharmesh Shah), and always enjoy the sheer choice of events on offer.

Keynotes are a highlight, and this year’s headline speaker has a tough act to follow: Barack Obama closed out the conference last year.

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Dates: Oct 22–23
Location: San Diego, CA
Speakers: TBC
Prices: from $1,199
Website:
https://www.contentmarketingworld.com/

Arguably the content marketing conference, Content Marketing World has been pumping out content talks and inspiration for fourteen years solid.

Here’s last year’s recap:

The 2024 agenda is in the works, but last year’s conference explored every conceivable aspect of content marketing, from B2C brand building through to the quirks of content for government organizations, with session titles like:

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  • Government Masterclass: A Content Marketing Strategy to Build Public Trust 
  • A Beloved Brand: Evolving Zillow’s Creative Content Strategy 
  • Evidence-Based SEO Strategies: Busting “SEO Best Practices” and Other Marketing Myths

Dates: Oct 24–25
Location: Singapore
Speakers: Andy Chadwick, Nik Ranger, Charlotte Ang, Marcus Ho, Victor Karpenko, Amanda King, James Norquay, Sam Oh, Patrick Stox, Tim Soulo (and me!)
Prices: TBC
Website: https://ahrefs.com/events/evolve2024-singapore

That’s right—Ahrefs is hosting a conference! Join 500 digital marketers for a 2-day gathering in Singapore.

We have 20 top speakers from around the world, expert-led workshops on everything from technical SEO to content strategy, and tons of opportunities to rub shoulders with content pros, big brands, and the entire Ahrefs crew.

I visited Singapore for the first time last year and it is really worth the trip—I recommend visiting the Supertree Grove, eating at the hawker markets in Chinatown, and hitting the beach at Sentosa.

If you need persuading, here’s SEO pro JH Scherck on the Ahrefs podcast making the case for conference travel:

And to top things off, here’s a quick walkthrough of the conference venue:

Dates: Oct 27–30
Location: Portland, OR
Speakers: Relly Annett-Baker, Fawn Damitio, Scott Abel, Jennifer Lee
Prices: from $1,850
Website: https://lavacon.org/

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LavaCon is a content conference with a very technical focus, with over 70 sessions dedicated to helping companies solve “content-related business problems, increase revenue, and decrease production costs”.

In practice, that means speakers from NIKE, Google, Meta, Cisco, and Verizon, and topics like:

  • Operationalizing Generative AI,
  • Taxonomies in the Age of AI: Are they still Relevant?, and
  • Out of Many, One: Building a Semantic Layer to Tear Down Silos

Here’s the recap video for last year’s conference:

Dates: Nov 8
Location: London
Speakers: Nick Parker, Tasmin Lofthouse, Dan Nelken, Taja Myer
Prices: from £454.80
Website: https://www.copywritingconference.com/

CopyCon is a single-day conference in London, hosted by ProCopywriters (a membership community for copywriters—I was a member once, many years ago).

Intended for copywriters, creatives, and content strategists, the agenda focuses heavily on the qualitative aspects of content that often go overlooked—creative processes, tone of voice, and creating emotional connections through copy.

It’s a few years old, but this teaser video shares a sense of the topics on offer:

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This year’s talks include sessions like:

  • The Mind-Blowing Magic of Tone of Voice,
  • The Power of AI Tools as a Content Designer, and the beautifully titled
  • Your Inner Critic is a Ding-Dong.

(Because yes, your inner critic really is a ding-dong.)

Final thoughts

These are all content-specific conferences, but there are a ton of content-adjacent events happening throughout the year. Honourable mentions go to DigiMarCon UK 2024 (Aug 29–30, London, UK), Web Summit (Nov 11–14, Lisbon, Portugal), and B2B Forum (Nov 12–14, Boston, MA).

I’ve focused this list solely on in-person events, but there are also online-only conferences available, like ContentTECH Summit (May 15–16).

Heading to a content conference that I haven’t covered? Share your recommendation with me on LinkedIn or X.



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