The Ultimate SEO Checklist for 2020

Jonas Sickler SEO Manager
Key Points
  • Step 1: Get the right SEO software.
  • Step 2: Improve your site’s technical SEO.
  • Step 3: Do keyword research.
  • Step 4: Optimize your content.
  • Step 5: Build links to your site.
  • Step 6: Establish a reporting process.

Organization is key if you manage an enterprise SEO program for a large brand. You’ll juggle numerous projects at once, including technical SEO, on-page SEO, content strategy, keyword research, link building and so much more. If you don’t want to get buried in tasks and miss important deliverables, you’ll need to get your ducks in a row with at least a basic SEO checklist.

Checklists give you clear, consistent guidelines that are immediately transferable to all stakeholders and collaborators. They also enable better cross-departmental collaboration, ensuring that all teams are aligned.

Use this step-by-step advanced SEO checklist to manage the most complex search engine optimization projects and maximize your organic traffic.

Want a simpler version? Download our free, basic on-page SEO checklist pdf.

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SEO SOFTWARE CHECKLIST

Software should be a key component of your SEO strategy because it amplifies efficiencies.

Google Analytics

No matter what reporting tools and dashboards you use, everything starts with Google Analytics. Install this as early as possible on your site so you have plenty of historical data. Tun some quick real-time traffic tests to double-check for errors. Configure multiple profiles to enable your team to run faster analysis of various views of the data. For example, you may configure profiles to monitor traffic by source, geography or URL.

Be sure to install GA for any microsites and subdomains you launch as well.

Google Search Console

Search Console is like the peanut butter to Google Analytics’ jelly. It tracks the keywords that bring people to your site and checks for errors like 404s or duplicate/missing metadata. Whereas Google Analytics measures what users do on your site, such as bounce rate, Google Search Console measures what happens before they enter, like impressions and clicks. Connect the tool to Google Analytics and submit your sitemap within Search Console. If you want another perspective, you can also check out Bing Webmaster Tools.

Google Tag Manager

Google Tag Manager is a quick and easy way to manage all Google and third-party tags in one place. And Google Tag Manager enables you to work more efficiently and seamlessly with your IT team. Use it for campaign and event tracking, testing, QA, troubleshooting and integration between your paid and organic campaigns.

SEO tools

Search engine optimization tools are an important component of any effective SEO checklist. You’ll use them for keyword research, competitive analysis, site crawls and more. Look for a full-suite option like Moz, Ahrefs, Majestic or SEMrush. We listed several more here to help with video SEO and to find long tail keywords.

SEO Plugins

Whether you’re using WordPress, Drupal or Magento, seek out trustworthy SEO plugins that can bring a lot of efficiency to your on-page SEO strategy. I personally love the Yoast SEO plugin, which comes as a free tool with a premium upgrade. Yoast lets you customize metadata, it scores your SEO and readability and offers internal linking suggestions. What’s more, it even makes it super easy to manage redirects. If you’re on Magento, check out the plugins described in this Magento SEO guide.

What if you have a custom CMS, like many of our clients? Just make sure to build in customization so your team can address those critical items on their website SEO checklist with minimal friction.

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TECHNICAL SEO CHECKLIST

XML sitemap

An XML sitemap is a list of URLs directing the search engines to what they should crawl on your website. If your content is indexable, Google will eventually find it and build a sitemap of its own. But this takes time and gives you no control over what content gets crawled and when. Don’t wait for Google to build the sitemap. Instead, submit your own via Search Console as part of your SEO checklist.

Keep it thoughtfully organized and free from outdated URLs and broken pages.

Domains

It’s common for websites to have one domain, www.example.com, and several subdomains, like blog.example.com or support.example.com. As an SEO best practice, I generally think subfolders are better than subdomains. However, there are situations that call for subdomains.

For example, you may have a robust careers section that functions like a microsite. A subdomain can help Google distinguish the topical relevance between your core business content and career-related content.

Website architecture

Next up on our SEO checklist: website architecture. Good site architecture provides a logical structure that Google can efficiently crawl and prioritize. Poor site architecture creates a mess for Google to work through, pulling crawl bandwidth and diluting authority across low-priority pages. Keep your site architecture as flat and user-friendly as possible. Aim to keep most content three clicks deep.

URL canonicalization

Common user-friendly website options like faceted navigation, pagination, product variants, in-site search and more can unintentionally create duplicate versions of a parent page.

And the duplication doesn’t stop there. If you manage an older domain, there may be multiple versions of your site in Google’s index, including:

  • www.example.com
  • www.example.com/
  • https://example.com
  • https://example.com/
  • http://example.com
  • http://example.com/
  • and so on…

Have a separate mobile subdomain, such as m.example.com? What about multiple language versions for your site, like en.example.com and sp.example.com?

It’s critical that your web pages have only one distinct URL to consolidate SEO equity. Canonical tags tell search engines exactly which version of your site they should index, so they’re critical to get right. Improper implementation can devour your crawl budget and destroy your ability to rank effectively.

Redirects

In addition to pointing visitors to the preferred version of your website, 301 redirects are also necessary when you move content. For instance, an SEO company like Terakeet may recommend a new URL structure that better articulates your website architecture. A 301 redirect tells search engines that a URL has been relocated to a new address. It also ensures that any link equity a page has inherited will be passed on to the new URL

However, it’s important to implement redirects on a 1:1 basis in line with Google’s recommendations.

Robots.txt

Any time you don’t want a search engine to crawl a page or section of your site, blocking it in a Robots.txt file is one of your options. The Robots.txt file is especially helpful for blocking certain URL parameters like session ids or referral tags. That will keep the duplicate information created by dynamic URLs from being crawled.

It’s worth mentioning that the robots.txt directive is not intended to keep URLs out of the index. For that, you should use a robots meta tag.

Site speed

All else being equal, Google prefers websites that load very quickly. Since page speed is a Google ranking factor, you better make sure your site is fast. Use a tool like Google’s PageSpeed Insights to check your page load time. Follow all recommendations to accelerate your page load times, like compressing files or images and removing unnecessary scripts.

You should also use Google’s mobile-friendly test tool to make sure your website runs efficiently on mobile devices.

example 404 page

404 pages

When you delete a page, redirects aren’t necessary 100% of the time. In fact, it’s better to use a 410 code (page gone) than a 404 code (not found). The reason? When Google encounters a 404 error, it will continue to crawl the URL in hopes the content might one day return. On the other hand, a 410 code tells the search engine the URL no longer exists, so don’t come back.

It’s also a best practice to update any links on your site that point to deleted or redirected URLs.

Finally, mistyped URLs and other things that are out of your control also create 404 errors, so make sure your 404 page puts your brand’s best face forward in delivering the right user experience. Just take a look at this web hosting site’s 404 page – it’s actually an interactive Space Invaders game!

Crawl errors

An SEO audit is a great way to uncover hidden errors that can derail your search performance. Run a full site crawl using a tool like DeepCrawl or Screaming Frog. Know your error codes and address critical crawl errors immediately. This is also a great time to make sure key pages aren’t excluded from Google using a noindex meta tag.

Broken links

Use a crawling tool to check for broken links on the site. Your internal links are a way to keep both people and search engines moving smoothly from page to page, so correct any links that don’t facilitate that process.

Any links pointing to third-party websites that break over time should be addressed, as well. After all, you want to provide an exceptional user experience to your site visitors. In addition, Google may lose trust in your site if the number of broken links starts to increase.

Broken images

Broken images are created when the image link within your code was mistyped, coded incorrectly or the image itself was moved or renamed. This creates a poor experience on the front end and reduces user trust. It also looks completely amateurish. Broken image links are easy to check for and fix. But make sure you also have a thorough QA process to ensure your images load properly on different devices and browsers.

HTTPS

Secure websites are important for both users and search engines. Make sure your site is SSL secure and hosted using the HTTPS protocol. Resolve duplicates to the HTTPS version of the URL.

Duplicate content

Because duplicate content gets created in so many different ways, it’s never safe to assume you’ve caught every instance of it manually. Use a crawling tool to check for duplicate content site-wide and a tool like Copyscape to make sure none of your content is too similar to the content found on another indexed website. The latter can happen due to manufacturer descriptions being auto-populated on ecommerce product pages.

Link attributes

Roughly 15 years ago Google introduced the “nofollow” link attribute in an effort to fight spam. This attribute is still useful and in common use even today.

In September 2019, though, Google added two additional related link attributes: rel=”sponsored” and rel=”ugc” to better address the handling of different types of links. The following is Google’s explanation as to how and when to use each attribute:

rel=”sponsored”: Use the sponsored attribute to identify links on your site that were created as part of advertisements, sponsorships or other compensation agreements.

rel=”ugc”: UGC stands for User Generated Content, and the ugc attribute value is recommended for links within user generated content, such as comments and forum posts.

rel=”nofollow”: Use this attribute for cases where you want to link to a page but don’t want to imply any type of endorsement, including passing along ranking credit to another page.

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Structured data

Rich snippets help your website stand out by giving Google additional information to display in the SERPs. There are many different types of markup, so choose the rich snippets that are a) most helpful for your audience and b) in step with (or beating) what your competitors use. Structured data is an important part of keyword research too: if the top results for your keyword targets use a certain type of markup, you should use it too.

Mobile-friendliness

The final technical component to include in your SEO checklist is a mobile-friendly test. Google thinks mobile-first and so should you. Mobile-first indexing means all the content you want indexed in search should be included on the mobile version of your site. (That means if you have content on the desktop version of your site that doesn’t appear on mobile, it won’t get indexed for desktop or mobile search results). And of course, site-wide mobile friendliness is essential too. Double-check that your site is responsive and easy to use on a mobile device.

KEYWORD RESEARCH CHECKLIST

Topics

Next on our SEO checklist: topics. The first step of keyword research is to create a list of seed keywords for the website, comprised of your relevant topic and query ideas. Your final list will only be as good as your seed list, so source your ideas as comprehensively as you can. Tools like Google’s Keyword Planner, SEMrush and Ahrefs are a great place to begin.

Primary keywords

Primary keywords are the main keywords that you want your content to rank for, or your highest-opportunity keywords. These are often keywords with high Google search volumes, as well as those that most closely align with your products/services and your audience’s pain points. Your primary keywords should also include those keywords that would be most profitable for you.

Long-tail keywords

Highly specific keywords that have low search volume and competition are called long-tail keywords. In other words, each query is only searched a few times per month because they are either very specific keywords, or because people phrase their searches many different ways. High-quality content that targets long-tail keywords gives your site a sustainable SEO boost that builds incrementally with every piece of content you produce.

According to a study by Ahrefs, high volume keywords such as “shoes” and “laptop” comprise merely 0.16% of all keywords being searched. An eye-popping 99.84% of all keyword variations that people are actually searching on are long-tail keywords. To focus your SEO initiatives on only the highest search volume keywords would mean you’d be leaving a tremendous amount of opportunity on the table.

Determine search intent

Don’t rely on query volume alone to perform your keyword research! You may think you’ve found the perfect high-opportunity keyword based on the numbers. But if your site doesn’t match the keyword’s search intent, you most likely won’t rank for it.

Even if you somehow did wind up ranking, your page wouldn’t match the intent of the searchers, leading to a poor experience and increasing your bounce rate.

If you’re doing ecommerce SEO and the top-ranking sites for a given target keyword are all informational blog posts, then a category page won’t match the search intent. Check the search engine results page (SERP) for all your target keywords and make sure the page one results meet a similar need as your target page.

Map keywords to buyer’s journey

Make sure your SEO program is covering the entire purchase funnel, including ToFu, MoFu and BoFu. You can divide your audience into the Awareness, Consideration and Decision phases of the funnel. Needs change as your audience moves down the funnel, which means what they’re searching for will change too. Map your keywords to each phase. Search queries related to broad interests, pain points and questions belong with the Awareness phase. And the keywords will get more brand and product specific as you move down the funnel.

woman doing keyword gap analysis for her seo checklist

Competitor keyword gap analysis

What keywords are your competitors ranking for that your site isn’t? Perform a competitive keyword gap analysis to find these keywords and build them into your strategy. Your gap analysis can also help you spot opportunities where you can rank for valuable keywords that your competitors aren’t targeting.

Search trends

In addition to using monthly search volume metrics, look into how searches for your target keywords change over time using a tool like Google Trends.

You should also understand how your keyword research tool displays its data. Does the tool take a year’s worth of data and average it out month to month? Or are they showing you data for the past 30 days? The latter can have a major impact on the keywords you select. Seasonality plays a major role in search trends. So it’s important that you view the trends data with this in mind. For example, the search volume for “pool floats,” for example, won’t be as high in the winter as it is in the summer.

measuring search trends

ON-SITE SEO CHECKLIST

Keyword-to-page mapping

Make sure that each page in your website is mapped to a single target keyword. The more focused a page can be, the greater the likelihood of it ranking in the search engine results. Google’s algorithm is attempting to identify the most relevant and most authoritative destinations for any search. If your page is unfocused or tries to cover ground too broadly, it makes it more difficult for Google to figure out what the page is about as well as why it would be the best result for a given search.

URLs

Use SEO-friendly URLs that are clean, simple and easy to follow. Keep them as short and page-descriptive as possible, making sure the structure follows a logical path. Try to set the target keyword as far to the left in the URL as possible.

  • Good: www.example.com/category/product
  • Bad: www.example.com/product.aspx?ID=58493&IT=5f7d3d
  • Bad: www.example.com/category/sub-category/sub-category/sub-category/prod1303980

Title

Optimize your title tags, putting your priority keywords first. Title tags are a major ranking factor. And keyword optimization is essential. But write for clicks too. When your site appears in the SERPs, the title tag is the first information the user sees about the ranking page.

Meta description

A page’s meta description also introduces the page in the SERPs. Even more than the title tag, the meta description should be written for clicks. Describe what the page offers and provide a call to action paired with an incentive like free shipping. Treat your meta description like an advertisement, making it as compelling as possible. Although meta tags are not a direct ranking factor, compelling descriptions that increase click-through rate in the SERPs can influence your rankings.

Headings

Use your heading tags to organize your content on the page around priority keywords. Try to include your target keyword in your H1 tag, as well as in several H2 and H3 tags, where appropriate. Don’t force it, though. Use language that sounds natural and is easy to understand.

Body copy

Optimize your body copy by naturally sprinkling in keywords throughout the text. As a best practice, you should include your head term and long-tail variations as well as synonyms. But don’t go overboard with keyword stuffing. Instead, match the ideal keyword density of what’s already ranking on the first page of Google.

Additionally, don’t get so hung up on keywords that you forget to tell a story. Think about how you can value for site visitors and write copy that’s worth reading. The ultimate goal is not only keyword-infused body copy, but more importantly a great user experience.

Competitor content gap analysis

A content gap analysis is the process of looking into a topic to learn about the content that currently surrounds the topic and determine what’s missing. Are there questions that don’t get answered or is the top-ranking content unclear, outdated or lacking in substance? During a competitor content gap analysis, you’ll be following the same process but performing it on your competitors’ websites. What subjects are your competitors not covering in depth? Where are your audience’s needs not being met? Fill in these gaps with your own content strategy.

Optimized content

Your on-page body copy is just the tip of the iceberg. Robust SEO strategies include a plan for producing consistent, useful and shareable content in many different formats. This helps to increase the number of opportunities for your content to rank (e.g., blog post, YouTube video, SlideShare, podcast, infographic, news, etc.). It also accommodates the different learning styles of your audience.

Your content strategy should cover the entire purchase funnel, helping you have ongoing conversations with your audience and and widen your net of visitors with every piece you produce.

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Topic clusters

Choose a few priority topics and set up topic clusters and pillar pages. Provide an in-depth overview of the topic on your pillar page. And use additional content to cover the topic from a variety of angles. The additional content associated with the main topic will build up your site’s authority for the topic as a whole.

Optimized blog

Do you have an SEO blog strategy? A blog is a versatile tool that can house content ranging from posts, videos, guides and infographics to brief company updates. Keep yours well-optimized by knowing the target keyword for every post and producing the content that outshines the top-ranking content for that keyword. Make judicious use of categories and tags for organizational purposes while concurrently enhancing your optimization aligned with such tags.

It’s easy to miss key steps when you publish in-depth content each week. So utilize a blog post seo checklist to stay organized.

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Thin content check

Use a tool like Moz or Screaming Frog to crawl your site and flag pages with less than 150 words of content. Then manually check that content to determine whether it meets user needs. Thin content that lacks depth or substance should be improved, removed or consolidated.

Internal linking

Internal links enhance the SEO-friendliness of your site architecture by giving crawlers and users related pages to explore. Instead of stuffing links into your body copy, simply add them where they’ll be naturally helpful for the user. Use descriptive anchor text and make sure the links are followed unless they link to a low-priority page. (Ex: a footer link to the privacy policy can be nofollowed to preserve crawl bandwidth).

External links

Your site can have both inbound and outbound external links (links from and to other sites, respectively). Inbound links are a huge priority for SEO and a valuable way for you to plan and measure your off-site SEO strategy. Google has publicly stated that inbound links are one of the most important ranking factors.

Outbound links from your web pages help to signal to Google the quality of sites your brand is associated with. In addition, from a user experience perspective, links pointing to third-party websites are a great way to connect the user to additional information, like a news article, resource or citation.

Image optimization

Use keywords within your image file names and alt tags. Alt text lets search engines and vision-impaired users understand what visual content is about, and it can help them rank in Google Image search. But don’t go overboard with keyword stuffing. Try to be descriptive while also including some keywords and synonyms.

It’s also critical to optimize large image files that can impact page speed.

OFF PAGE SEO CHECKLIST

Link building

Google’s goal is to put the best, most authoritative, relevant and trustworthy content on page one. One way it determines what content is authoritative and trustworthy is backlinks. Backlinks from quality websites show Google that people like your content and find it valuable and that it’s worthy of being on Google page one.

So how are you going to get other websites to talk about you, link to you and establish critical signs of trust to boost your SEO? Focus on quality and quantity in your link building campaign. But remember that if you had to pick one, it would always be quality. Scalable link building campaigns are a blend of traditional PR/outreach efforts and low-hanging fruit strategies like link reclamation.

link building

Link reclamation

Using a tool like Ahrefs or Majestic, check your website’s backlink profile for broken inbound links. These happen when the linking website shares the wrong URL or it can occur over time as you move or delete pages on your site. A direct link has more value than a redirect, so with each broken link you find, reach out and ask the linking website if they can fix it. They often will happily do so. If you can’t connect with anyone at the linking website, redirect the link.

PR

Work closely with your PR team to maximize the SEO benefits of their work. Coach them on link-building best practices and share the SEO tools that will make their life easier. The SEO team can also perform the link-prospecting work and pass the results off to the PR team for strategy and outreach.

Bylines

Post byline articles and guest posts on relevant blogs and industry resources to build thought leadership. The links to your website from the byline associated with the articles will help you strengthen your backlink profile and boost your website’s authoritativeness. And if the publication allows, you can even include a backlink to your site in the body copy of the article itself if contextually relevant.

Designate a few people at your company to be the face of work like this. And keep the strategy scalable by having the content and PR teams tackle the actual writing and outreach for busy company players. For example, if your CEO is the face of your byline articles, simply have her approve and sign off on the work.

Social media

Links from social media don’t have the same individual weight as other inbound links. But they create vital trust signals nonetheless. Include social sharing options in your content.

In addition, meet your audience on the platforms they use and give them a reason to engage with and share your posts. Interact as much as possible by responding to all comments and participating in the conversations your audience is having.

Influencer partnerships

Team up with the micro-influencers who reach your target audience. Before signing on board with an influencer, pay attention to the level of engagement on their posts to confirm that their other metrics aren’t being bolstered by paid bots. Determine your KPIs beforehand. And understand whether you’re looking for awareness, conversions or both.

Business partnerships

Leverage your existing strategic partnerships for link building. Guest post or host a Q&A on your partner business’s blog, run a cross-promotion or co-produce shareable content with your partner. Educate your biz dev team (or whoever works with partners at your company) on SEO best practices so they can help spot these opportunities.

Digital marketing partnerships

If you want to co-produce content, your business partners aren’t your only option. Team up with any company you’d be happy to share the spotlight with and run a webinar together or produce a major piece of content. You’ll be able to share resources for production and provide access to one another’s audiences during outreach. Consider your brand’s goals and values. And focus only on the brands that align with yours.

Industry directories

Get listed in relevant industry directories, resources and vertical search engines. If you have brick and mortar locations, list them on local review sites. Take advantage of the websites people actually read and use and aim for high-quality and engaged traffic, not just a link. Avoid spammy, low-quality or irrelevant directories.

Reviews

When people review your company on third-party platforms, respond to each review. Express appreciation for positive reviews and respond thoughtfully to any negative reviews. Validate the customer’s grievances. And gently clear up any misconceptions or share what you’ll be doing in the future to address the problem.

Reputation management – assess brand search results

Speaking of reviews, how do the search results look when you Google your brand? If priority search queries for your brand return bad press and negative reviews, plan your online reputation management strategy. Provide a better balance of voices and opinions in the SERPs and get those negative results off page one.

A+ on a paper to represent high-quality links

External links to disavow

You should know by now that shady link-building strategies won’t cut it: paid links, link farms, low-quality blogs and directories can all hurt your SEO. If your backlink profile includes links from some spammy (or horrifying) sites, start working on cleanup and removal. Reach out to the linking website and have them manually remove the link whenever possible.hen, add the remaining bad links to a disavow list that you’ll submit to Google.

SEO REPORTING CHECKLIST

Rank tracking

The final components of a reliable SEO checklist should be focused on tracking and reporting. This ensures your team is on top of your progress and can quickly address any problem areas that arise. It also helps to provide a common language among your different departments and with your senior executives.

Track your search engine rankings for priority keywords to get a broad understanding of your site’s movement in the SERPs. Rankings can also help you identify opportunities for further page optimization, like when you’re ranking just on the edge of page one for a high-volume keyword.

Link monitoring

Track new, lost and recovered links on a monthly basis. Note the links that are sending your site the most traffic so you can add similar websites into your outreach strategy.

SEO dashboards

Reporting dashboards are a great way to see the exact information you want to track within a few minutes without clicking from page to page in Google Analytics or viewing metrics across multiple tools. Set up a marketing dashboard such as Google Data Studio, Domo, DashThis, Klipfolio or TapClicks. Set up unique dashboards for different stakeholders, depending on the type of data they need to rely on. Establish your KPIs early, and make sure each dashboard includes all the metrics you’ll use to measure your success.

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