The Modern SEO’s Technical Toolkit
Anyone who knows me knows that I have two passions in my life: family and SEO. If I’m not posting cute baby pics on Instagram, then I’m reading and learning more about SEO, testing new ideas and pushing the limits of how we define it. I love that SEO requires a mix of technical expertise and creative thinking so I never get bored with my work. I love the tight-knit community of SEOs that results in many of us being on a first-name basis, even if we’ve never met in person. And because I have the “forever a student” mindset, I love that SEO requires a skill set that is always evolving and pushing me to keep learning.
Because I am not shy when it comes to talking about my passions (have I mentioned how cute this girl is???), I often get asked a lot of questions about SEO. What do I need to know to get started? Do I need to know how to code? Where is the pipe bar on my keyboard? (Hint: There’s no need for that pipe bar...)
Whether you’re brand new to the SEO world or you have years of experience, there is a set of technical skills you need to be successful in today’s search landscape. There's so much content out there that Google has to rely on more than just copy to differentiate websites. There is a technical gateway to ranking well, because content can’t be king if no one can find your content.
Below is everything you need to know to get started on your path to SEO rockstardom, from basic skills to must-have tools and emerging technology.
Baseline Technical Skills
These are the foundational tools and technologies that all marketers — not just SEOs — need to understand.
1. Google Analytics
We need to know how to track and measure website data and site interaction in a meaningful way. This data should be the baseline for marketing decisions.
2. HTML and CSS
Every web page you see is a combination of these two languages. HTML is the foundation of the web, and CSS is how you make that HTML look great.
This is what brings websites to life with interactive elements and effects. As SEOs, we need to understand how it works in order to understand what it means for optimization.
4. SQL (Structured Query Language)
A programming language designed to manage data stored in relational databases. This is important because the insights you need from analytics platforms go beyond simple 2x4 tables. With SQL, you can easily parse complex data exports to pull out insights that inform your marketing decisions.
Structured data markup that helps search engines better understand your content. There is a full resource guide available at Schema.org, and there are also easy to use resources like Google’s Structured Data Markup Helper that will generate limited markup for you.
Beyond the Basics
Beyond the foundational tools and technologies, these are some of the advanced and emerging things we should be learning more about.
1. Google Tag Manager
With Google Tag Manager, we can make site changes without developers. We can easily track everything from form abandonment to scroll depth and dwell time. GTM makes it easier than ever before to implement structured data markup and merge Google Analytics data with CRM data.
2. Developer Tools
Developer Tools allows you to evaluate the code on any webpage and has an incredible amount of functionality. Most major browsers, including Chrome, Mozilla and Safari, have their own version of Developer Tools.
This tool is great for checking header responses as well, because Google allows directives such as rel-canonical, x-robots and hreflang to be specified in the header response of a page. However, most popular crawling tools like Screaming Frog are not looking for that. One of my favorite uses for this tool is to mock up recommendations so that it’s easy to see exactly what we’re recommending. Dev Tools provide an easy-to-use, temporary staging environment. All you have to do is right-click, select inspect element and start editing any page on the web.
This is my go-to tool to measure and analyze page speed. GTmetrix provides actionable and detailed information, not only on what’s slowing down your site, but also on how to improve it. GTmetrix provides a list of opportunities that will improve page speed, then goes a step further by prioritizing resources that will benefit from each recommendation.
Site speed and page speed are your first impressions with consumers. According to DoubleClick by Google, 47 percent of users expect a site to load in less than two seconds. That is insanely fast, considering the average load time for a mobile site is 19 seconds! What’s more, 50 percent of users will abandon your site entirely if takes longer than three seconds. That’s a pretty big discrepancy from the 19-second average. And last, but certainly not least, site speed is one of the few confirmed ranking factors.
You may be thinking, “Why wouldn’t you just use Google PageSpeed?”… Because Google PageSpeed does not actually measure the speed of your site. It scans your site, looking for a pre-defined set of best practices that are known to improve pagespeed. That does not, however, mean that the lack of any particular best practice is what is actually slowing down your site.
4. Log File Analyzer
Log File Analyzer by Screaming Frog lets you identify crawled URLs and analyze the bot data. Server logs are files created by your server that detail the history of page requests; and these log files are the only data you have that are 100 percent accurate in terms of how search engines are crawling your site.
With Log File Analyzer we can see exactly how search engines are crawling and parsing any site. We can verify different search engine bots, identify crawled URLs and analyze bot behavior. We can even use this to identify spam bots, header response errors and redirects that need to be resolved. Log File Analysis is the only way to really identify crawl waste. Too many response code errors create crawl budget waste, which can negatively impact your rankings.
APIs (Application Programming Interface) are a set of tools that allow you to integrate software and applications. At the most basic level, APIs allow you to make applications talk to each other. Using APIs, we can integrate the data that is scattered across a variety of platforms into one place.
Just about every major platform or software you can think of has an API. For example, Google has APIs for AdWords, Analytics, AdSense and even Blogger. Most SEO tools have APIs you can use to integrate the data they offer into your own workflow, platform or reports. Everything from AHREFs to Majestic SEO has an API available. These APIs allow you to scale productivity by automating processes. Because you shouldn’t spend your time pulling data — you should spend your time analyzing that data and pulling out insights.
6. Accelerated Mobile Pages
Accelerated Mobile Pages — or AMP — is a new language created by Google to reduce the load time of certain types of content on mobile devices. It was designed to provide a “simpler” HTML version of your pages using optimized resources and Google’s own cache to serve content faster in mobile search results.
AMP is being widely adopted because it can provide increased traffic through higher visibility and improved user experience. Studies show higher click-through-rates and engagement metrics on AMP pages and up to 80 percent higher ad viewability rates. Most importantly, the AMP Symbol — that little white and grey lightning bolt — has become the new “mobile friendly” in Google search results. And people put trust in that. The disadvantages to AMP are that it can be difficult to implement and offers limited functionality compared to the main site.
But these cons aside, it’s important to remember this is the way content gatekeepers like Google are shifting. They don’t trust your website, so they want you to code it to their specifications and allow them to host your content. Google has said this is going to be big. Gary Isles said, “Pay attention to AMP. It’s going to be really big. Figure out … how to implement it.” Because with the direction Google is heading in terms of prioritizing speed and mobile usability, this will likely become a ranking signal.
7. Progressive Web Apps (PWAs)
A PWA is an app-like experience on a mobile device that’s faster and more personalized. For example, if I search for weather often enough, Google suggests I may want to access it from my home screen. Then it installs an app-like icon on my home screen. When I open it, the non-app loads the weather for today via the browser — again, not through an app, though it is meant to look and feel like an app.
PWAs are reliable and extremely fast; they can instantly cache entire sites so they’re always fresh, and there’s no need for updates like an app. They are also universal and connectivity independent. Meaning it can load even when you don’t have internet, because it’s loading the last cached version.
Most websites don't need to be able to behave like an app. This isn't to say that there's no benefit to having the things that PWA functionality can bring, but for many sites, the benefits don't outweigh the time it takes to implement the functionality — at least not yet. If your site offers real-time data or if you have an audience likely to pull content to browse offline, like breaking news, then a PWA could be a great asset to invest in.
These are just some of the latest and greatest tools and technologies, but new things are rolling out all the time. Take 30 minutes now to learn the tools that will save you hours down the line. And push your tools; the goal is to work smarter, not harder, so you can spend time on the things that matter.