What are the minimum standards of SEO that a new website should have?

Web Design Wireframe Sketches

Many of my posts tend to be in response to a common theme raised over the last few months of my SEO journey.

Lately, during the beginning of some projects, I’ve been asked what SEO the web developer should have done as part of the initial website build.

While quoting for projects over the years, some responses have ranged from “I can’t believe my web developer didn’t do this” to “My web developer is competent, so there shouldn’t be much SEO needed”.

Know What You’re Getting

The first step towards putting a line in the sand is to understand why a website can cost £3,000 from one agency, and £10,000 for seemingly the same website from another agency.

The lower cost website is likely to be built using a pre-made template, while relying on whatever SEO and usability came out of the box. This can be fine if the template fulfils your design needs, and if the site only going to be a few pages in size. Meaning it is unlikely to be worth spending hours upon hours doing optimisation.

The benefits of website optimisation scale with the size of a website, so a few percent increase on a site that only has a few pages may not be worth the investment, compared to putting your budget towards content marketing or paid advertising.

With the above in mind, understanding what you’re getting with a new website is important. A specification document should be explicit. Not only should it communicate what your website WILL have, but also what your website WILL NOT have. The extent of what’s outlined will largely depend on the experience of the consultant, and what they think constitutes a full website/SEO service.

Similar to having a car MOT, different garages will highlight different improvements, based on their expertise and the car they’re dealing with. For example, if you have a Ferrari, they may recommend a higher grade tyre, something they wouldn’t consider on a runaround vehicle.

Agree on the level of website optimisation needed, and if the rest should form part of a longer term strategy

Now this is where it becomes more subjective. It’s where we decide what constitutes a level of optimisation that’s suitable for a website to be crawled and indexed well by Google.

We can all agree, that the purpose of any website is to gain awareness, and in turn, increase the amount of potential enquiries. With this in mind, SEO certainly needs to be a part of the equation. Otherwise, your site is a digital boat stuck in the middle of a digital ocean, with no one able to find you and bring you to shore.

As a general rule, I strongly believe that the following SEO factors should at least be part of an initial website build:

  • Search friendly URLs
  • Meta titles that reflect the main title/purpose of each page.
  • A menu system that allows users and search engines to navigate all pages.
  • Reasonable page load times, using appropriately sized images and modern code practices.
  • HTTPS, mobile friendly, and follows basic accessibility guidelines.
  • The setup of Google Analytics, Search Console and an XML sitemap.

Even with just the above points, there is a degree of SEO knowledge required.

For example, Meta titles can include extra keywords that aim to capture as many search terms as possible, while staying within the character limits. The key difference is understanding whether you want the Meta titles to just be SEO-friendly, or whether the extra time is worth it to ensure they’re search engine optimal.

The data required to do this comes from keyword research, a task that a web developer shouldn’t be indulging in, unless explicitly outlined as an additional SEO service.

You could argue that each page of a website should also have a Meta description. But this requires research as well, and an understanding of how to write copy in a way that encourages visitors to click your site when they see it in the search results.

In a nutshell, having Meta titles and descriptions that aren’t fully optimal isn’t a reflection of your developers competency, but more of a reflection of how thorough their specification document should have been.

In regards to page speed, making sure images are not overly large takes little effort, yet ignoring this rule can cripple a website. Such an oversight shows a clear lack of knowledge or effort, and is something that should be questioned.

When someone lacks effort, it is usually because they underquoted and are trying to cut corners. Something that can be recognised, without needing a particular understanding of the project.

In regards to having fully optimised images, should we be expecting a developer to ensure every filename is relevant, with keywords and ALT text? I don’t think so, because knowing what is in each photo, and writing about each one can be labour intensive.

Even a small website can have up to 100 images, so manually ensuring each one is optimal may not be a good use of time. Again, this should be clearly communicated with the client, and decided if it’s worth the time, and ultimately, the clients budget.

Beyond the points in the list above, I’m a firm believer that everything else, when it comes to building a website, should be presented as a separate SEO service. This includes:

  • Optimal Meta data, due to keyword research needing to be done.
  • Optimal image file-names and ALT text, due to how time intensive it can be, and the research required.
  • And other improvements, such as structured markup, that require a deeper knowledge of SEO and time .

Unfortunately, some of the fundamental points in our first list are still often ignored, especially accessibility. I’ve seen websites built lately that use font-sizes that are too small, or colours that do not contrast enough to be readable by those with average eyesight.

If your new website doesn’t tick all the boxes in that small, yet important first list, you can be certain that it wasn’t built to serve as an effective, online marketing tool.