Do you remember a few years ago when everyone’s CV said ‘Digital Rockstar’ ‘Growth Hacker!’ and ‘SEO Guru’? I fully believe that not only was that incredibly cringe-inducing, but it was also a sign of the end days.
Ok, that may be a little dramatic, but that’s why I’ve decided on a very, very cool title that isn’t cringy at all. SEO detective. Am I wearing a deerstalker hat and smoking a pipe as I write this? No. That would be weird. I’ve simply turned my world monochrome, thrown on a trench coat, and am preparing to call women ‘broad’ and ‘doll’ while I blame them for crimes I’m about to commit in the name of justice. Much better.
One of the biggest misconceptions I think people have about marketing, is that it’s a creative profession where we write nice words and make billboards. It’s actually got a right technical side driven by data, hreflang tags, and so much keyword research.
You’ve heard the saying about a polished… rock. Well, working on top notch copywriting and content without dealing with what’s underneath can only get you so far. You’ll end up with a polished… rock.
That’s why one of the first tasks most SEO agencies will do when taking on a new client is a technical SEO audit.
Technical SEO auditing looks at your website as a whole because that’s also how search engines look at your website.
It doesn’t matter if you have the most relevant, engaging content in the world if it’s on an orphan page that takes 2 minutes to load. Search engines prioritise the complete user experience when deciding how to rank traffic. If you go underneath-the-hood of your website and it isn’t cutting the mustard, you’re always going to be fighting an uphill battle.
One thing I like to do when conducting an technical SEO audit is to take notes of all the weird things that make me go ‘huh’. Today, I share a few of my huh’s with you.
The Importance of Hreflang Tags (or, “We Don’t Speak American Here”)
We’re in an increasingly global world, or an increasingly American world, depending on who you ask. That means we’re often consuming content and shopping for products from websites around the globe.
For example, did you know that they recently let France use the internet and now they won’t stop using Shopify to make ‘Wetherspoons is an abomination’ t-shirts? Unfortunately, the message isn’t making its way out of France even with the launch of the new English language site.
It’s because they don’t know about hreflang tags.
That’s why you need to make sure you’re using hreflang tags correctly – even if they can be a bit of a pain to put in place.
What is Hreflang?
One use of hreflang is to indicate the language of the page… But, that’s not really its main purpose. Google is pretty good at telling what language your website is in. It’s more about telling Google who should see what.
Hreflang tells Google the location your content is intended for, and how it relates to other pages on your site. Href tags are small snippets of HTML that give language and geographic information to search engines:
For example: <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-gb” href=”https://www.bigfootisreal.com/gb/” />
‘Alternate’ gives search engines a heads up that this is a variation of another page, so content might be similar.
In this case, we’re letting Google know this is an English language page intended for Great Britain. We might also have subdirectories for Canada, where the overall information is very similar but has some tweaks for the local audience.
Hreflang lets your preferred search engine know that different language versions, or country versions, are related to each other. This means they can show the right users the right content, and you won’t be penalised for duplicate content.
Here’s a quick check-list for when you might need to start thinking about Hreflang:
- You want to use the same content, but in different countries. E.g. you have a .co.uk and a .ie site. They share the same content and products but are for different geographical audiences.
- You have different language or country versions in subfolders or subdomains. E.g. you have a .com website and then some subfolders for different markets.
- You run multiple websites, in the same language, with different content on gTLDs*. E.g. you have a US, UK and Australian site, but they have different content to serve different audiences.
Ideally, you want all of your info on one website if possible. You can make use of sub-directories to create a multi-national or bilingual site.
In general, sub-directories tend to have an SEO edge over sub-domains. It also means if you run any digital PR campaigns, you won’t end up splitting backlinks amongst various domains and weakening the overall impact (but honestly, that’s a WHOLE other blog that I need to write new jokes for).
Hreflang is actually really complicated to get right, as Google’s John Mueller admits himself:
Good to know we’re all struggling together.
What’s the difference between a gTLD and ccTLD?
*gTLD stands for Generic top-level domain like .com and .net. They’re from the old, wild-west days of the internet and describe the purpose of the site, rather than the location.
.com stands for commercial so implies you’re going to be buying something and .info lets you know that the website is going to give you, you guessed it, tacos. No, information.
The other option is ccTLDs, which is a country code top-level domain. They refer to where the website operates from, such as .co.uk or .au.
You’ll often see global companies use .com regardless of if they are selling you products directly, such as large newspapers. When buying a domain, you can also choose some funky options like .xyz but bear in mind, just because it looks cool doesn’t mean it’s the right choice.
Don’t Confuse COUNTRY Codes and LANGUAGE Codes
No, seriously. This can get weird real quick.
Language targeting is when you’re targeting the same language in different countries. For example, the UK, Australia and America all speak some form of English.
Country targeting is targeting people in a specific location, like Mongolia, which is .mn
The Country Code and Language code won’t always be the same, and they might not be what you expect. For example, if you’re based in the UK you might assume ‘UK’ code is for you. It’s actually Ukraine.
You can find the full list of country codes and language codes on Wikipedia to save guessing.
Does a trailing slash in your URL matter? (Yes)
Now that we’ve worked out what language we’re speaking in and where we’re serving it, let’s talk about URLs. I’ve noticed some URLs end in trailing slashes and others don’t… But until I started looking at it from a technical point of view, I never gave it a second thought.
When I did, it got another big ‘huh.’
How do you choose?
When you’re planning a website, your friendly neighbourhood webmaster might ask if you want trailing slashes or not… And you might not know which is best. Or why it matters.
Here’s what Mr John Mueller of the Googles, says:
Basically – on your root domain it doesn’t matter if you have a trailing slash or not. Google will see it as the same URL. On every other URL, it absolutely does matter.
Google sees www.windagosrus.com/advice-hub/ and www.windagosrus.com/advice-hub as completely separate URLs.
That means Google will index those pages separately, and treat them as duplicate content.
Luckily, some smart internet dudes have tried to make this easier for us poor marketers. WordPress, for example, will automatically redirect and deliver the same content whether someone enters a trailing slash or not.
But, mistakes are bound to happen. Sometimes pages won’t redirect properly and will sit as separate pages. So… Hello accidental duplicate content! This is why Google recommends you make sure to set up redirects and choose a consistent URL structure.
When we’re carrying out a technical SEO audit, one word that will keep on coming up is ‘consistency’. Consistency is important for a few reasons.
The biggest one is it makes for a better user experience. If you have a logical URL structure, it’s easy for customers to easily understand where they are on the website and how to navigate.
From an SEO perspective, it makes planning much easier. You can use the structure to easily see where new content makes the most sense, how pieces fit together.
Search engines will also find it easier to navigate. This means they will reward you with better rankings than an incredibly confusing website.
So once you’ve chosen whether to slash or not to slash, ALWAYS use that single version. Keep it in your XML sitemap, your rel canonical tags, your internal links, notes you write to your favourite teacher from year 6. Everywhere.
But why is there even an option between trailing slashes and non-trailing slashes?
Again, a call back to the wild-west of the internet when it was for information and academia rather than your aunt dabbing on Facebook.
A URL ending with a trailing slash was for a folder or directory, whereas a URL without was a file. You’ll notice a similar structure when going through folders on your computer.
Status Codes: 301 Vs 302 And How Google Interprets Them
Website change. Content that used to be relevant no longer is. Advice would be better in a different section on the website. You stop selling certain products. Even with the best-laid plans, you are, at some point, probably going to need to do some redirects.
So… How do you choose which one to use? Easy. You roll a dice. No, it depends on WHY your content has moved and if it’s permanent.
301: A permanent redirect. If you have an amazingly performing blog from 2018 that you want to turn into a piece of hub content that sits directly on a category page, you might use a 301 from the old blog link to set up a new static page.
302: A temporary redirect. For example, if you’re redesigning your website or making some changes and eventually want the original URL live again.
Here’s the thing though… Lots of people use 302 with the best of intentions and two years later, it’s still redirecting. Here’s my ‘huh’ and Google’s conundrum: How does it know a 302 is really a 302?
In some cases, after a certain period of time, Google will treat a long-term 302 as a 301. But, it doesn’t have to. And this can hurt your site.
A 302 tells Google that the original webpage is going to come back – so it continues to index it. This means it might treat your redirected page as duplicate content, or split the value of any backlinks. This just leaves you with one page users can’t access, and another that’s been significantly weakened.
Basically, make sure you keep on top of your redirects.
Also, while we’re here – have you considered choosing a cat-themed status code page? I think you’ll be very happy with the options available.
Ready for the biggest ‘huh’ of all?
We’ve barely scratched the surface! There’s a reason a technical SEO audit is such an involved process that is normally carried out by agencies (like maybe Boom Online *wink wink*) and technical SEO professionals.
It’s a huge undertaking and requires a lot of detective work and interpretation to decide what the next step is for your website and how to prioritise problems flagged.
These are just a handful of the countless things that need to be looked at to truly understand your website. Even a small website can take much longer than you’d think to get to the bottom of.