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 should have been done as part of the initial site build.

While answering this question over the years, responses have ranged from “I can’t believe my web developer didn’t do this” to “My web developer is competent, so I don’t think you’ll need to do anything on the site”.

Know What You’re Getting

The first step towards answering the question 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 have been built using a pre-made template, relying on whatever SEO came out of the box. This can be fine if the template fulfils your design needs, and the site is only going to be a few pages in size. Having a small brochure site or SPA (Single Page Application) built means it is unlikely to be worth spending many hours doing optimisation.

The benefits of website optimisation scale with the size of a site. So a few percent increase in search traffic when there is only a few pages, may not be worth it. In this regard, the focus is likely to be better aimed at doing content marketing and 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 it should also state 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.

Like having a car MOT, different garages will highlight different areas of improvement, 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 that wouldn’t typically be done for a runaround vehicle.

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

Now this is where it gets 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.

However, 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. With this in mind…

I strongly believe that the following SEO factors should form 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 pages.
  • Reasonable page load times, using appropriately sized images and modern code practices.
  • HTTPS, mobile friendly, and adheres to basic accessibility guidelines.
  • The setup of Google Analytics, Search Console and an XML sitemap.

Even with just the above points considered, there is a basic degree of SEO expertise required. So if this is not possible for the web developer to do, someone should be brought on board to support them in this area.

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

For Meta data to be optimal, data is required by doing 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 an initial website build needs to have a Meta description. But this requires research, and an understanding of how to write copy in a way that encourages people to visit the site when they see it in the search results.

In a nutshell, having Meta data that isn’t as optimal as expected isn’t a reflection of your developers competency, but more of a reflection of how thorough their specification document was.

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 on the developer’s part, so this is something that should be questioned.

When someone lacks effort, it is usually because they underquoted and are trying to cut corners. This is something that can usually be recognised, without needing an indepth 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.
  • Along with other improvements, such as structured markup, which require a deeper knowledge of SEO.

Unfortunately, some of the fundamental points in the first list of this article are still ignored in most website builds, especially accessibility. I still regularly audit websites that use font-sizes that are too small, or colours that do not contrast well enough to be readable by those with average eyesight.

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