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Technical SEO, in Black & White

The tagline for the classic board game Othello has always been a perfect fit for SEO: A minute to learn, a lifetime to master. Othello is a simple game at first glance, but there are a lot of intricacies that ultimately push the game into one direction or another. That description doubly applies to search engine optimization. 

What Is SEO?

Let's start off with that nice trick question, okay? The definition of SEO is common knowledge at this point, but SEO evolves with each passing year. That's why it's important to ask this question fairly often, regardless of experience level. Have the changes in the industry in past months transformed the actual definition of SEO itself? 

SEO has a diverse history. What it meant in 2002 or 2009 is certainly different than today. In fact, the acronym is now both a noun and a verb—even in the same sentence. How else are you going to increase SEO value unless you SEO the page? Yes, one must SEO to increase SEO.

Get to the point

The gap between user experience and search engine optimization is now virtually zero. In many ways, UX and SEO now feed off of each other, and in a few ways, the two are interchangeable. Search engines now have a way of understanding how users interact with web pages (time spent on site, level of interaction, conversion rate, etc.) that wasn't possible in the past. This means that optimizing websites for humans and not for bots is by far the preferred overall approach. 

Not long ago, SEO was largely about optimizing a specific webpage for a specific keyword. A lot of optimization was done for the benefit of the bots that analyze the content of pages. But those days are long gone. There's no doubt that optimizing websites for bots used to produce results, but now, optimization strategies that focus on the overall user experience win in the long run.

Technical SEO Tips & Trends for 2019

SEO is best divided into multiple subcategories. At the bare minimum, the topic can be divided into two equal parts: content-based SEO and technical SEO. The focus here will be on the technical side. Other interesting 2019 content-based SEO topics won't even be approached, like optimizing for voice search, neural matching, and the knowledge graph.

Here are some things that can help now on the technical side of the equation:

1. Develop sites with a mobile-first approach.

Developing a site with mobile in mind is an old concept. But Google officially rolled out mobile-first indexing about a year ago. In Google's own words: "Historically, the desktop version was indexed, but increasingly, we will be using the mobile versions of content." Mobile should be top priority, if it isn't already.

2. Make page speed a core focus...

The new & improved version of Google's PageSpeed Insights is extremely detailed, and GTMetrix is a helpful tool as well. Make use of these, and other tools like them, and scrutinize test results to lower page load times as much as possible. A faster loading site invariably results in a happier user, which should result in more interaction and give the site a boost in the eyes of the search engines.

3. ...but also factor in user experience.

This is where the relationship of UX and SEO rises to the forefront. Focusing on page speed to the point of over-optimization can result in a lower-quality user experience. For example, will keeping a large video on page and also sticking with the high-quality images and graphics (both of which increase page size and slow down page load) ultimately help the page reach goals (higher conversion, more sales)? Page speed is tricky with complex sites, so apply the Goldilocks principle. Work hard to find that "just right" mix of optimizing pages for speed but designing for  conversion.

4. Utilize technological advancement to impact both UX and page speed.

Even if a site's design hasn't been updated in a couple of years, recent code advancements can be layered in to make small improvements. For example, lazy load those large images and videos that stayed on page in the example above.

5. Get rid of unneeded scripts and code.

I've seen developers carelessly bloat websites with unneeded JavaScript. Don't increase page size by 50% just to introduce a simple animation or a single dynamic component. CSS can be the new JS. For example, use CSS animations to replace old, bulky scripts.

6. Use structured data.

Implementing structured data into the architecture of a website is an easy way to make web pages smarter and gives another method of telling the search engines the story of a site. Structured data isn't only about meta descriptions and other content, either. For example, JSON-LD breadcrumbs can help with an internal linking strategy without muddying up front-end design.

7. Use tools to automate some manual tasks…

It is 2019 after all, so replacing manual tasks with automation should almost always be in consideration. If there is a manual optimization task that takes up a lot of time, search out an automated or semi-automated solution. 

8. …but remember to keep the human touch.

If I'm touting the benefits of optimizing websites for humans and not for bots, it seems wrong to push automation too much. If developing for humans and not bots, keep the human touch on optimization tasks as well. Don't expect a push-button approach to produce the same high-quality work that an experienced SEO would. 

Because when bots meet bots, anything goes...