Whether you have a blog, business card or e-commerce website, getting the basics right can make the difference… search engines will like your site, and you’ll get a natural flow of traffic with minimal effort and cost.
Here are eight simple cost-free tips that will help you make sure your website is getting the basics right.
1. Setup an SSL/TLS certificate
Security is finally not just something for us techies to talk about. Website certificates are becoming a must-have. Without one, your site will be labelled “Not secure” in Chrome and other web browsers, and search engines will reduce your ranking, making it less likely you’ll get noticed.
It doesn’t have to cost you anything either! Sites such as LetsEncrypt.org, Sectigo (formly known as Comodo) and CloudFlare (if you’re using their core (free) service) offer website certificates for free.
I recommend LetsEncrypt as they offer certificates that last 12 months, with no other services bundled. Use sslforfree.com for a guided walk through the LetsEncrypt signup process.
2. Check your code with validator.w3.org
Let’s face facts, when creating your site, you probably used a template, code snippets from online, or even reused code you’ve used over the years on other sites.
In reality, many sites are a mix of different HTML/XML standards, or are missing elements, resulting in them being inconsistent or inaccessible in other browsers, screen readers, and search engine bots.
Validator.w3.org is an online tool that will crawl a page you point it at, and compare it to the standards. It will recommend changes as a result. I choose w3.org, as the site is run by the community behind the web standards, so they know what they’re talking about!
This validator ALWAYS finds things I’ve forgotten to include in my coding. These tiny changes can make all the difference with search engines in particular (e.g. content type, language etc.), as they need extra detail to understand your site content. As search engines look to rate the quality of the site for search rankings, they see poor coding as a poor quality site, so it’s well worth looking at such validators. I highly recommend it.
3. Use search engine webmaster tools
There’s no point in creating your website if nobody is visiting it!
Several search engines have “webmaster tool” portals, which enable the owner of a site to see information about how the search engine sees their site, and to influence it.
At the time of writing, the biggest search engines in the world, in order of size are as below. These four search engines account for over 98.5% of web searches.
Google Search Console provides insight and tools to measure your sites performance in Google (impressions and clicks), view issues, and what pages are indexed.
- Baidu (Huge in China)
Never heard of Baidu? Baidu is often referred to as “the Google of China”, handling around 70% of searches from China, Google handles around 2%.
Given the size of China, if your site maybe of interest to people in China, you should make sure your site is listed with Baidu.
Unfortunately it appears you can currently only signup for their Webmaster Tools if you have a Chinese mobile phone number.
Bing Webmaster Tools provides more functionality than Google’s Search Console, though isn’t quite as nice to use in my opinion.
They provide the basics, but also tools for search engine optimisation around your code quality and mobile optimisation. You can even tell Bing the times of day to focus any crawling of your website to avoid busy times on your server. Personally, I just use it for the core metrics and error information.
Yahoo! uses Bing data, and therefore does not have a separate portal for webmasters.
With each of the search engines above, I recommend you search to make sure your site appears in their results. Also use the webmaster tools (exclude Baidu if you’re unable to sign-up) to check for any “issues” they are having with your site. I have found issues before with duplicate content due to Google seeing multiple URL’s on WordPress for the same content. You can also, in the case of Google, see pages that have been discovered by Google, but that it has decided not to index. Sadly it won’t tell you the reason, though if they’re important pages, it gives you something to investigate before it impacts your traffic too much.
4. Create and submit a sitemap
A sitemap is simply a list of all pages on your site that you’d like a search engine to be aware of. It also includes the frequency recommended for search engines to revisit the page, and a relative priority of each page within your site (relative to each other).
If you have a templated website (e.g. WordPress, Joomla etc..) there are plugins out there that will automatically maintain an sitemap for you (I recommend Google XML Sitemaps for WordPress).
If your site is custom coded, or plugins don’t give what you need, I would strongly recommend writing a script to create the sitemap for you, so you don’t have to maintain it manually with every page addition.
Once created, log into search engine webmaster tools as above and submit the sitemap URL’s. This will make sure the search engine is aware of the pages. Note it does not guarantee that they will be indexed.
5. Try your site in different browsers and devices
How do you check changes to your website? You probably use your own device(s) to check on a “common setup”. Whilst this is logical, each setup (browser in particular) can interpret sites slightly differently, and may have a significant impact on your visitors.
For example, when I recently installed a new SSL certificate on one of my sites, it looked fine in my normal browser, but when I opened it in Firefox as a test… it threw an “insecure” error. Firefox was not happy with the new certificate.
You can’t check the everything, but I recommend you:
- Install at least one extra top-3 browser on your PC for testing
The latest desktop browser split at the time of writing is below. I remember having a couple of the top three browsers on your development machine, for quick testing in two common browsers.
Internet Explorer 10.49%
Source: NetMarketShare.com January 2019 Browser Market Share Report (Desktop/Laptop)
- Check your site on your phone
Over 52% of website traffic is from mobile phones now. So if you’re only testing on the PC you developed your site on, you’re not actually testing the most likely configuration used to access your site. Pick up your phone and check your site looks good, and works well on a phone.
- Use Browser Compatibility test sites
There are some sites out there that can help. http://browsershots.org for example, will open a URL in a ton of different operating system and browser combinations. The thumbnails it creates makes it easy to see any major differences, and allow you to click through for a more detailed view. Personally I just use this on significant pages, and ignore any issues from obscure or outdated browsers as this site tests some stupidly old browsers, along with modern ones!
- Ask friends, family, and community members to help out
Asking others to quickly take a look will probably get you a whole host of feedback beyond the basics. This way you’ll naturally get a mix of browsers and operating systems tested (even better if you ask them to try their phone, tablet and PC/laptop), and should get some useful feedback about any site content and usability too.
Don’t just use friends and family though, if you’re active on any forums you may be able to ask for some willing volunteers there. Check the forum rules though as you don’t want to be seen to be spamming the forum.
6. Get a Nibbler website report
There are simply loads of “good bots” out there, that you can point at your website to review the content etc… I’d to recommend http://nibbler.silktide.com though for a general website review, that leans towards Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). This is different to step 2, where we looked purely at code standards. Nibbler looks at social media setup, activity, inbound links, “freshness” of content, as well as good practices like compression, and more.
It’s free, so give it a go and see how your site scores, and more importantly, where you could do better.
7. Get a domain healthcheck
There are a range of skills needed in running a website, and there are few people who can honestly say they’ve mastered them all.
When it comes to the core connectivity of DNS, I trust mxtoolbox. They provided a lot of free tools to checking things out. A great place to for site owners is their Domain Health Check and their DNS Check. These check everything from core nameserver setup (DNS Check), to the setup of relevant SPF and DMARC records on your domain for email spam protection purposes (Domain Health Check).
It’s the job we love putting off, but it really is essential. If you haven’t backed up since the last few edits to your site, you’re running a risk you probably don’t want to be.
Don’t forget to backup databases as well as files.
This is just a short list of priorities items. Are there any items you feel I should have added though? If so, let me know in the comments.
All the best with your websites.