User research: the ultimate guide

When you want to make some considerable improvements to your website, what’s the best place to start? At Yoast, we feel that research is always one of the most important things to do. It’ll help you find out what needs work, why it needs work, and of course, what you have to do to make things better.

Looking at our website data in Google Analytics, Google Search Console, and other SEO tools, is already part of our weekly activities. But, in order to dive deeper than just having a look at the plain data, we love to do user research. This is the part where you truly get to know your customers and where you’ll discover your blind spots when it comes to your own website. Within this ultimate guide, we’ll show you what types of user research could be valuable for your own website or company.

Table of contents

The top task survey

What kind of user research fits and complements the existing data always depends on the type of project you run. However, we believe that running a so-called ‘top task survey’ should always be the first step when you start doing user research. As you’ll able to use the outcomes of a top task survey within all future projects.

So, what is a top task survey exactly? To get to know why your customers visit your website, you’ll need to talk to your customers. And, how do you get to talk to your customers without actually having conversations with lots of customers? You could set up an online top task survey, which pops up on your visitor’s screen as soon as you like, either immediately after entering the website or after a couple of minutes. 

Questions in a top task survey

The popup is set up for one simple reason: to find out the purpose of their visit to your website. 

To make sure you’ll get valuable data out of your top task survey, it’s important to ask the right question. We recommend asking one open question: ‘What is the purpose of your visit to this website? Please be as specific as possible.’

With this open question, you give your customers the chance to truly say what they think. Closed questions make this harder, as you’ve already drawn up certain answers and then you risk missing other important thoughts or opinions your may customers have. And we know, analyzing the answers will take a lot more time, but when you do this right you’ll get the most valuable results.

Next to this one open question, it is possible to add one or two closed questions to take a closer look at your respondents. You might want to know the age or you want to know the type of customer it is. This data can be valuable to combine with the outcomes of the open question answers. In the top task surveys of Yoast, the second question is: ‘Do you have the Yoast SEO plugin?’. This is valuable information for us because we can see the difference between what free users are looking for on our website and what Premium users are looking for on our website. 

How often should you do a top task survey?

We recommend running your top task survey once a year. If you have a small website, you can choose to run the survey once every two years. The market you work in is always changing and customers always change, so every time you’ll run the survey, you’ll receive new, valuable information to work with and to improve on. 

The exit survey

The following two types of research we’ll discuss are more specific. And, which one you should perform at what time depends on the type of project you’re about to run. 

For example, you’ve noticed in your Google Analytics data that your most visited page has a very high bounce rate. This means that you need to know why visitors are leaving this fast. Couldn’t they find what they were looking for? Or did they find what they were looking for and are they already satisfied? You can get answers to these questions by running an exit survey on a specific page.

What is an exit survey?

An exit survey pops up when a visitor is about to leave the page. When a visitor moves their mouse cursor towards their browser bar, they are usually about to leave your website. So, this is the right moment to ask your visitor one or more questions. 

Questions in an exit survey

So, your visitor is about to leave, what do you want to know before they’re gone? We recommend keeping the survey short and simple: people are already leaving, so if you want them to fill out your survey, it needs to be short.

The question you ask depends on the page and the problem you want to solve. When you have a specific blog post with a high bounce rate, you might want to know if visitors have found the information they were looking for. The simple open question you could ask: ‘What information were you looking for today on our website?’. You could add a second closed question to see if the page fulfills your visitor’s needs: ‘Have you found what you’ve been looking for?’. A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is enough to get this overview. 

Within our post ‘What is an exit survey and why should you use it?’ we’ve added some more examples of questions you could ask depending on the page that needs attention.

User testing

The third type of research is ‘user testing’. User testing is the type of research in which you get ‘live’ feedback from your clients because you actually see people using your website or product. At the beginning of this guide, we already mentioned ‘blind spots’ and user testing is the best way to find these blind spots. For example, you know exactly where to find what information or what product on your website, but visitors might not. Seeing testers struggle with finding the right page on your website can be embarrassing, but the good news is, when you know, you can improve!

Why should you do user testing?

User testing can give you very valuable insights during every stage of your process. When you’re creating a new product, it’s valuable to see what potential customers think of it, but it’s just as valuable to see what your customers think of your product that has already existed for over three years. Every test will give you new insights to work with!

User testing also guarantees that the test results are ‘real’. You can see for yourself how your customers use your website or product. The customer can’t ‘lie’ about things. And, that’s a big difference with survey respondents: they can say different things compared to what they really experience.

How to get started

There are three main types of user testing which you could use for your own website or product:

  • Live, moderated user testing: your testers will test with a moderator in the same room.
  • Remote, moderated user testing: your testers will test with a moderator while they’re in contact through a video call.
  • Remote user testing without a moderator: your testers will test without a moderator in their own time and space. They will record the test so you can watch it later.

Within our specific post ‘What is user testing and why should you do it?’, we explain more thoroughly what type should be used in what situation. 

After picking the method you want to use, it’s important to set up a clear plan with goals and a test scenario. Hereby you make sure the testers will follow the right path and will give you the insights you need. After that, it’s time to recruit your testers. Decide on what types of testers you’ll need to get the best test results. We recommend recruiting different types: young people, older people, experienced people, inexperienced people, etc. Think of all the types of people that might use your website or product now and in the future. 

Then it’s time to get started! Create a plan and start testing with your recruited people. Make sure you record all tests, making it easier to analyze the results. As it’s nearly impossible to remember everything that happened during the tests. 

Analyzing user research results

There is some difference in analyzing the results of surveys, such as the top task survey and the exit survey compared to the user testing results. 

When analyzing an online survey, we recommend to export all data to a sheet and to create categories for all answers. Place every answer into a specific category to get a clear overview of what the biggest problems are. After that, you can easily see what problems need to be prioritized and you can start thinking of improvements. Set up an action plan and start improving!

For the user tests, it can more difficult to create a couple of categories that fit the test results. Here, it’s easier to write a summary for every user test and to combine those at the end. Can you discover similarities? Can you combine some issues to improve more at once? It’s important to look at the bigger picture so you can make improvements that will have a big impact on the future user experience of your website or product!

User research tools

There are several tools in which you can create a top task survey or an exit survey (or other surveys!). We’re currently using Hotjar, but we’re planning to create our own design and implementing it with Google Tag Manager. Tools we know for setting up online surveys are:

  • Hotjar
  • SurveyMonkey
  • Mopinion

On their sites, they have a clear explanation of how to use these tools to perform an exit survey.

For user testing, your needs are different. Testing a website or a product, you’ll need a testing environment for your testers or a test product they are allowed to use. Besides, you’ll need recording material: for testing a website, you can easily record a screen session, but for testing a product, you’ll need to think of a recording set up. Do you have a good camera and a tripod, for example? Then you can get started! When you’re doing user tests more often, you can use an eye tracker as well to get more insights on how people are looking at your website or product, but it’s not necessary!

Are you already doing user research as well? Or have we convinced you to start doing user research? Let us know in the comments below!

Read more: Panel research for your business: Benefits and tips »

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What is user testing and why should you use it?

Watching your (potential) clients use your website or use your products can give you plenty of new insights. Seeing how they navigate, search or click your site can give you information you wouldn’t get out of just analyzing your data. And, as you know your product inside out, you might have developed some blind spots. Are you ready to discover your blind spots? Start user testing!

Getting to know your audience is essential if you want to be successful in marketing and SEO. That’s why we regularly write about methods to learn more about your customers, users or readers. This is the fourth post in our user research series, you might want to check out our posts about top task surveys, exit surveys, and panel research too!

What is user testing?

User testing is a type of user research in which respondents don’t just give you answers to your questions. Your respondents will actually work with your website or products. This way, you can see what works well and what doesn’t.

When you get people to actually use your website, you’ll probably get some new insights you would’ve never thought of without the user testing because of your own blind spots. Imagine you have an online shop and you sell clothing. You saw in the analytics that the percentage of visitors adding a product to the cart is quite low, but you have no idea why. When you choose test persons who don’t know your website, you can see how your site is used. Maybe a test user can’t find the ‘add-to-cart’-button or there might be a lack of product information, which prevents users from adding the products to the cart, you’ll see them searching for more information which simply isn’t there. Then you’ll already know, there is some work to do!

Besides website testing, you can, of course, make people test your actual products as well. Whether you have physical products or you’re selling software, it doesn’t really matter: there is always a way to make people test your products!

Why and when?

It’s incredibly valuable to get user testing insights next to the data you already get from your analytics. Some outcomes might be very obvious and easy to change, others are more complicated and need some thinking, designing and/or developing. 

This is why it’s valuable to add user testing to your process at an early stage. For example, when you’re designing a new website or a product, you could create a staging website to test with. If you have a new product coming out, you could create a prototype to test with. You might understand that it’s much easier to change something to your design when it’s not completely developed and live on the market yet. 

However, user testing can be performed in all stages of your process. When you did some user testing a couple of years ago, it might be valuable to do this again. Technologies change a lot and so do users. A new generation might use your website/product differently compared to your users a couple of years ago. 

The last reason why you should do user testing next to sending surveys is that you’ll know for sure the results are ‘real’. With surveys, there is always a chance users fill out wrong answers because they overestimate themselves or because they want to fit in a specific answer although they probably don’t. With user testing, there is no chance to cheat!

Types of user testing

There are a couple of user testing tactics you can choose from. We’ll sum them up below:

Live user testing with a moderator 

When you perform a live user test, your testers, and a moderator actually come together at a place you choose at forehand. The place can differ, depending on the type of user test you will do. When you’re testing a website or a software-related product, you might choose a quiet office. However, when your tester should test an actual product other places might be more suitable. You might agree that testing a bike, the office isn’t the best spot to choose.

Remote user testing with a moderator

The tester will not be at the same place as the moderator. They are in contact with a video call. The tester will follow your instructions and test your website or product and the moderator can watch along. This way, it’s easy to find testers because they don’t have to travel a long distance to actually meet you. But, with a moderator, you still have the chance to ask additional questions or to correct the tester when it seems necessary.

Remote user testing without a moderator

The testers will receive your instructions and will test in their own time, without someone watching along and helping/correcting them. The advantage is that you can make a lot of people test your website or product in a short period of time, which is good for the representativeness of your research. However, it will take a lot of time to view the recordings of all tests and to set up your report. We recommend using this tactic for small things or small changes to your product to keep it clear and to keep an overview. 

Getting started

So, when you’ve decided what you want to test, when you want to start user testing and what tactic you want to make use of it’s time to start. 

  1. Create a plan of action

    Create a document in which you enumerate the goals of your user tests. Thinking of what you want to achieve at forehand will help you pick the right testers and to set up your test scenario.

  2. Create a user testing script

    Create testing scenarios which your testers will have to follow during testing. What questions need to be answered? What path do you want them to follow? What parts shouldn’t be missed? Make sure you get all the insights you’ll need for improvement.

  3. Decide what testers you’ll need

    Decide how many testers you want, what tactic you want to use and what type of testers you want. Think of gender, age, level of expertise etc. It can be valuable to recruit a diverse set of testers. Keep in mind that it’s also possible to use different user testing tactics at the same time.

  4. Create the first planning

    Decide when the tests need to take place and create a first planning.

  5. Recruit testers

    Start recruiting testers. Make use of email, social media, direct contact, use your creativity in here! An incentive can help when not enough people are responding to your call for testers.

  6. Create the final planning

    Set up the final planning. When you have recruited enough testers, you can create your final planning for the testing phase and for the reporting phase afterwards.

  7. User testing phase!

    Actual user testing. Make sure you record all user tests so you can watch everything back when reporting all findings and outcomes. It’s easy to forget things during all the user tests.

  8. Create the final report

    Create the final report with all the results. Report all important findings and report the level of representativeness for your group. A bigger group will be more representative compared to a small group of testers. 

  9. Need for additional research?

    Decide whether you’ll need to do additional research to increase the representativeness of your research. With the outcomes of the user tests, it might be easy to set up a survey for a bigger group of respondents. 

  10. Share results & implement improvements

    Share the results within your company or team. Others might have a valuable opinion on how to fix/improve things as well. After that, implement all the improvements you need to make! Some might be obvious and easy to implement, others need to roll in your design/developing process before they can be implemented.

Have you ever done some user testing? Or will you, after reading this post? Let us know in the comments below!

Read more: Panel research for your business: Benefits and tips »

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Panel research for your business: Benefits and tips

What are the benefits of having a research panel for your business? And what are the differences compared to other types of research? In a nutshell, panel research can give you deeper insights into your audience. But it’s most valuable if you combine it with other types of user research. Here, we’ll tell you what kind of insights you can get from panel research and how to recruit and set up a panel.

Getting to know your audience well is essential if you want to be successful in the search results. So user research should be part of your SEO efforts. This is the third post in our user research series, you might want to check out our posts about top task surveys and exit surveys too!

What is panel research?

Panel research refers to collecting data from a (self-)recruited set of people. In this type of research, you regularly send questions to the same group of people. In doing so, you’ll get to know how these people value your business, products or information. What’s more, you can even get input for new ideas, whether that ‘d be a product, service or platform, for instance.

Because you’re asking questions to the same group of people, you really get to know how they think. And if you do it right, you can get valuable input out of the combination of answers they give.

For example, when the younger participants of your group – let’s say, the people between 15 and 25 years old – all tell you that they appreciate the environmental friendliness of your products, but older people don’t mention this, you’ve already received valuable information. Knowing this, you could focus on being environmentally-friendly in advertisements for younger people. For people above 25, you might want to focus on other aspects of your products.

Then, in the next survey, you could ask how they prefer to receive advertisements. If the younger group tells you they prefer newsletters and the older group tells you they like brochures, you can personalize your advertising even more.

Are the answers representative?

As you can see, you can get valuable information from a panel. However, you need to keep in mind that the answers given by your panel group aren’t always a representation of all your clients or customers. Therefore, it’s good to combine panel surveys with other types of research, such as an exit survey.

For instance, it’s easy to ask open questions to the members of your panel to get detailed data. After that, with an exit survey, it’s easier to ask closed questions based on the panel survey outcomes. Combining all of the data, you can be even more sure about the representativeness of the answers.

Also, when you send monthly or 2-monthly surveys, we’d recommend renewing your panel group about once a year. In doing so, you prevent people from becoming less interested and motivated and you’ll get fresh input from a new group. 

Of course, you can also start a new panel for a different topic. You can have several panel groups at the same time. However, panel research is quite intensive, so to start off, it’s better to have one person within your company to focus on one panel and do that right.

Recruiting for a representative panel 

So how to start recruiting people for such a panel? Well, you can use several tactics to recruit people. We’ll explain them here:

Participants from other research

When you’re already carrying out other types of research, you could ask if the respondents would like to participate in a panel. For example, at the end of a survey, you could add a question such as ‘Would you like to participate in other research for [your company name]?’ or even more specific: ‘Would you like to sign up for our panel and get the opportunity to give regularly input on new products/services?’ Most people who sign up from here, are already motivated and don’t need an incentive.

Your newsletter subscribers

Of course, you can do the same for your newsletter. More people will read your call for participants, but you’ll probably have a lower response rate. The difference with asking people in other research is that they’re already willing to help you with your research. Newsletter readers might not be internally motivated to help you. So, here, it can be helpful to add an incentive such as a discount code for products on your website.

On your website

On your website, you’ll probably have the same issue as in your newsletter, but since it’s quite easy to add a small pop-up asking people to participate we’d recommend doing so. Make sure they only see the pop-up once to prevent people from getting annoyed by your call for respondents. Here, it’ll also help to provide people with an incentive. 

On social media

To reach a lot of people, you could also add a call for respondents on your social media channels. The advantage of social media is that you can reach people who don’t know your company yet. For some surveys or questions, this can be valuable: they can give you very unbiased answers. We’d also recommend offering an incentive here. 

Buying a panel group 

Another option is buying a group of people for your research. Why would you do this? Sometimes you’re looking for such a specific group of people, it’s hard to find them yourselves. In this case, you can get help from an agency specialized in panel research. They have big databases with people who signed up for participating in a panel.

However, you shouldn’t forget that these people participate in exchange for money or other rewards. Therefore, we think you should always try recruiting members of your panel yourself, but if that doesn’t work, this definitely can be a final option.

How many people do you need?

We recommend setting up a research panel of at least 30 people. Nevertheless, it’s smart to start with a somewhat larger group, because chances are not everybody will fill out all of the surveys you’ll be sending out. 

What to do with the results

As we mentioned before, it’s good to combine surveys. Because you have the same group of people answering your questions, you can get deeper insights compared to other research types. For example, you could create client profiles out of the answers. These profiles can be used to improve your advertisements or enhance your services.

Don’t forget to share your results with other departments of your company as well. Sometimes, panels can be an eye-opener when it comes to certain topics. If you involve other departments, research will become an indispensable part of your company in the future. It also works the other way around: other departments can provide great ideas for new survey input. Do they have questions they would like to be answered? Or can they come up with more specific questions about a certain topic for the next survey?

Lastly, we recommend sharing some of your findings or improvements you’ve based on your panel’s input with your panel. If they see the results of their effort and input, they’ll remain more motivated to fill out future surveys.

After reading this, do you think you would start a research panel in the future? Or have you ever done panel research before? Let us know in the comments!

Read more: Why and how to investigate the top tasks of your visitors »

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What is an exit survey and why should you use it?

When you’ve welcomed your visitors to your website, you want them to stay and to hang around and, eventually, you want them to convert. Converting could mean subscribing to your newsletter, making an appointment or buying one of your products. Or maybe you have a totally different goal for your website. 

But what do you do when visitors leave your website without completing your main goal? How do you find out why they are leaving? Is it a lack of information or is your product too expensive? To find out, you could set up an exit survey and add it to your website. In this blog post, we’ll tell you how.

What is an exit survey?

An exit survey is the type of survey you show visitors when they are about to leave your website. For example, you can make the survey pop up when a visitor moves their mouse cursor upwards and towards their browser toolbar. This is usually the moment that people leave your site. 

At that time, you can ask your visitors why they are leaving. It’s very valuable to get information about why people leave your website and why they didn’t complete your website’s goal or a page specific goal. 

Are visitors leaving my website quickly?

To find out if your website’s content meets the needs of your visitors, the first step is looking into your data. In Google Analytics, you can easily see what pages or posts have the highest bounce rate and what pages or posts have the highest exit rate:

In this example, you could set up an exit survey for the 2 pages with both high bounce rates and high exit rates. However, if you take a closer look at such pages, sometimes the high bounce rates or exit rates can easily be explained. Looking at our own Yoast.com website, quite a few blog posts have high bounce rates and exit rates. This often means that visitors were looking for specific information and found the information in the first blog post and then left. In this case, a high bounce rate or exit rate isn’t always bad. Of course, we work on different aspects of those posts to make visitors click to other pages and posts too, but the priority isn’t that high.

What pages should you start with?

Looking at the data, you could categorize some of your website’s pages or posts. At Yoast.com, we’ve sometimes grouped several blog posts to get more responses in a short time. If you have similar content, you could do this too. For example, when you’re running a shop, you could run an exit survey on all your category pages to find out what visitors think of those pages.

Think of what pages bring the most benefit for your company and start with those. For example, when over 50% of your visitors leaves the cart before finishing the order, you’re missing out on revenue. So, you’ll understand why you should choose the pages that have the highest priority for your website.

Exit survey questions

What questions you ask depends on the type of page. Think of the main goal of your page and what information you want from visitors leaving this page. Here are some examples per type of page:

Cart

  • What’s preventing you from completing your purchase today?
  • Do you have any questions before completing your purchase?

Product page

  • What information is missing or would make your decision to buy easier?
  • What is your biggest concern about purchasing this product?

After a purchase

  • Was there anything about our checkout process we could improve?
  • Which other options did you consider before choosing (product name)?

Informational page/blog post

  • Were you able to find the information you were looking for today?
  • How likely are you to recommend us to a friend or colleague and why?

Hopefully, you’ll now have some inspiration to get started!

What to do with all the answers

Maybe you’ve read our blog post about top task surveys as well. In that article, we’ve explained what steps you need to take to analyze all the answers you get from an online survey.

The approach for an exit survey doesn’t differ much from the top task survey analysis. In short:

  1. Categorize the answers
  2. Discover the biggest problems
  3. Set up an action plan
  4. Make improvements to the specific pages -A/B test the improvements when your website is big enough-
  5. Keep an eye on the results!

Tools to start your own exit surveys

There are several tools that allow you to create a survey like this. We’re currently using Hotjar, but we’re planning to create our own design and implement it with Google Tag Manager. Other tools we know for setting up online surveys are:

On their sites, they offer a clear explanation of how to use these tools to perform an exit survey.

Have you ever set up an exit survey on your own website? If so, were you surprised by the answers? Let us know!

The post What is an exit survey and why should you use it? appeared first on Yoast.

Why and how to investigate the top tasks of your visitors

At Yoast, we continuously want to improve our website and our products. But how do you find out what makes them better? Sure, we need to fulfill the needs of our clients. But how do you know what your client’s top tasks are? Doing research is the answer! We love doing research because we get valuable insights out of it. Here, we’ll dive into one research type we use regularly: customer surveys and in this case, the top task survey.

How do you know what your customers need?

When we started working together with AGConsult on the conversion optimization of Yoast.com, they advised doing a top task survey. Research is always the first step in the conversion optimization process and you simply can’t get all relevant information out of plain data from, for instance, Google Analytics.

To know why your customers are visiting your website, you need your customers to talk to you. If you think, you now have to start a conversation with all your visitors, don’t worry. Luckily, there are several other ways to make your visitors talk to you. An example is setting up an online top task survey, which will pop up on your visitor’s screen as soon as you want it to pop up. For example, immediately after opening your website or after a couple of minutes.

The best question for your top task survey

To make sure you don’t influence your visitor’s answers, it’s important to ask an open question. By asking closed questions, you make your visitors choose between the answers you set up yourself. Although you can add an ‘other’ field, visitors are more likely to quickly choose a listed answer. That’s easier than putting their own opinion in an open field. So closed questions prevent you from getting to know all your visitor’s thoughts.

So, what question should you ask? Within the top task survey we perform on our own website, we always ask this question:

‘What is the purpose of your visit to this website? Please be as specific as possible.’

Popup top task survey which asks " What is the purpose of your visit to this website? Please be as specific as possible."

This pop-up will appear at the bottom right of the website, no matter what the landing page is. The above use of wording encourages visitors to really think about their specific purpose. Also the addition of ‘be as specific as possible’ often results in more valuable answers.

You could choose to only add this one question or you could choose to ask one more question to get more knowledge about your customers. For Yoast, within our top task survey, we always ask visitors a second question to tell us if they already use our most important product:

Example of an online top task survey which pops up on Yoast.com. It's a second question to know more about the customers

For other companies, it could be valuable to use this second question to get to know the age of visitors, the market they work in, etc. It all depends on what you want to do with the outcomes. If you’re not going to do anything with the answers on the second question, please use only one question in the survey. The fewer questions, the more visitors will participate.

What to do with all the answers

When you end the survey, you probably have lots of answers to go through. How do you start analyzing all these answers? We recommend to just start reading through the answers and try to set up categories while reading. Set up categories that cover lots of answers, don’t be too specific. You’ll need to find a pattern in your visitor’s answers. Only when you do this, you can create actional steps to optimize your website or your products.

To give an example, we’ve listed some of our own categories below:

  • Info/buying Yoast SEO plugin
  • Info specific feature
  • Info other plugins
  • Info about courses
  • Need help
  • Learn SEO

This might give you an idea when setting up your own categories.

The second step, after you categorize all answers, is setting up a plan. Now that you know which categories are the most important to your visitors, it’s important to optimize your website using that information.

For example, our own top task survey showed us that almost 25% of our visitors are looking for plugin related help. We already had a menu item ‘support’ which linked to our knowledge base, but after the survey, we had the idea of changing the name of the menu item into ‘help’ because lots of visitors named it help.

We set up an A/B test, comparing the menu item ‘support’ with the variant ‘help’ in the test. What do you think happened there? ‘Help’ was a winner! This shows again: knowing what your customers are looking for is the most valuable information you can get.

How often should you repeat this survey?

We believe it’s good to do a top task survey once a year. However, if you don’t change much on your website or in your products, every other year can be enough as well.

Every time you analyze the answers of a new top task survey, you get to know if you’re on the right track or if you need to shift your focus towards another product or another part of your website.

You can never do too much research!

Tools to start an online survey

There are several free and paid tools out there in which you can create a survey like this. We use Hotjar, but we’re planning to create our own design and implementing it with Google Tag Manager. Other tools we know for setting up online surveys are:

On their sites, they have a clear explanation of how to use these tools to perform a top task survey.

Have you ever performed a top task survey for your website? Did you find out anything that you didn’t know or what surprised you? Let us know!

Read more: Content SEO: How to analyze your audience »

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The beginner’s guide to Google Search Console

Do you have your own website or maintain the website of the company you work for? Of course, to do this right, you need to keep a keen eye on the performance of your website. Google offers several tools to collect and analyze data of your website. You probably have heard of Google Analytics and Google Search Console before. These tools are free to use for everyone maintaining a website and can give you very valuable insights about your website.

Why everyone with a website should use Google Search Console

Google Search Console has been created to easily track the performance of your website. You can get valuable insights out of your Google Search Console account which means that you can see what part of your website needs work. This can be a technical part of your website, such as an increasing number of crawl errors that need to be fixed. This can also be giving a specific keyword more attention because the rankings or impressions are decreasing.

Besides seeing this kind of data, you’ll get mail notifications when new errors are noticed by Google Search Console. Because of these notifications, you’re quickly aware of issues you need to fix.

Setting up an account

To start using Google Search Console, you’ll need to create an account. Within the new Google Search Console, you can click on ‘add a new property’ in the top bar:

Google search console - add property

Clicking on the ‘Add a property’ button, you can insert the website you want to add. Make sure you add the right URL, so with ‘https’ if you have an https website and with or without ‘www’. For collecting the right data, it’s important to add the right version:

When you’ve added a website, you need to verify that you’re the owner. There are several options to verify your ownership.

For WordPress users who use Yoast SEO we recommend using the ‘HTML tag’ method:

You can easily copy this code and paste it into the ‘Webmaster tools’ tab within the Yoast SEO plugin:

After saving this, you can return to Google Search Console and click on the ‘Verify’ button to confirm. If everything is ok, you’ll get a success message and GSC will start collecting data for your website.

Features in Google Search Console

Now you’ve set up your account what would be the next step? Well, it’s time to look at some of your data! We’ll explore some of the reports and information available in the rest of this article.

Performance

Within the performance tab, you can see what pages and what keywords your website ranks for in Google. In the old version of GSC you could see the data of a maximum of the last 90 days but in the new version, it’s possible to see the data up to 16 months. Keep in mind that the data is available from the moment you set up your account.

If you check the performance tab regularly, you can quickly see what keywords or what pages need some more attention and optimization. So where to begin? Within the performance tab, you see a list of ‘queries’, ‘pages’, ‘countries’ or ‘devices’. Each of those sections can be sorted by the number of ‘clicks’, ‘impressions’, ‘average CTR’ or ‘average position’. We’ll explain each of them below:

Google search console - performance

1. Clicks

The amount of clicks tells you how often people clicked on your website in the search results of Google. This number can tell something about the performance of your page titles and meta descriptions: if just a few people click on your result, your result might not stand out in the search results. It could be helpful to check what other results are displayed around you to see what can be optimized for your snippet.

The position of the search result also has an impact on the number of clicks of course. If your page is in the top 3 of Google’s first result page it will automatically get more clicks than a page that ranks on the second page of the search results.

2. Impressions

The impressions tell you how often your website in general or how often a specific page is shown in the search results. For example, in the GSC account of our own website, Yoast SEO is one of the keywords our website ranks for. The number of impressions shown after this keyword shows how often our website is shown for that keyword in the search results of Google. You don’t know yet what page ranks for that keyword.

To see what pages might rank for the specific keyword, you can click on the line of the keyword. Doing this for the keyword [Yoast SEO], the keyword is added as a filter:

Keyword filter

After that, you could navigate to the ‘Pages’ tab to see what pages exactly rank for this keyword. Are those pages the ones you’d want to rank for that keyword? If not, you might need to optimize the page you’d like to rank. Think of writing better content containing the keyword on that page, adding internal links from relevant pages or posts to the page, making the page load faster, etc.

3. Average CTR

The CTR – Click-through rate – tells you what percentage of the people that have seen your website in the search results also clicked through to your website. You probably understand that higher rankings mostly also lead to higher click-through rates.

However, there are also things you can do yourself to increase the CTR. For example, you could rewrite your meta description and make it more appealing. When the description of your site stands out from the other results, more people will probably click on your result and your CTR will increase. Keep in mind that this will not have a big impact if you’re not ranking on the first page yet. You might need to try other things first to improve your ranking.

4. Average position

The last one in this list is the ‘Average position’. This tells you what the average ranking of a specific keyword or page was in the time period you’ve selected. Of course, this position isn’t always reliable since more and more people seem to get different search results. Google seems to understand better and better which results fit best for which visitor. However, this indicator still gives you an idea if the clicks, impressions and the average CTR are explainable.

Index coverage

A more technical but very valuable tab within Google Search Console is the ‘Index coverage’ tab. This section shows how many pages are in the index of Google since the last update, how many pages aren’t and what errors and warnings caused difficulties for Google indexing your pages properly.

Index coverageWe recommend checking this tab regularly to see what errors and warnings appear on your website. However, you also get notifications when Google has found new errors. When you get such a notification you can check the error in more detail here.

You may find that errors are caused when, e.g., a redirect doesn’t seem to work correctly, or Google is finding broken code or error pages in your theme.

Clicking on the link, you can analyze the error more in depth to see what specific URLs are affected. When you’ve fixed the error you can mark it as fixed to make sure Google will test the URL again:

Submitted URL not found (404)

There are a few things you should always look for when checking out your coverage reports:

  • If you’re writing new content, your indexed pages should be a steadily increasing number. This tells you two things: Google can index your site and you keep your site ‘alive’ by adding content.
  • Watch out for sudden drops! This might mean that Google is having trouble accessing (all of) your website. Something may be blocking Google; whether it’s robots.txt changes or a server that’s down: you need to look into it!
  • Sudden (and unexpected) spikes in the graph might mean an issue with duplicate content (such as both www and non-www, wrong canonicals, etc.), automatically generated pages, or even hacks.

We recommend that you monitor these types of situations closely and resolve errors quickly, as too many errors could send a signal of low quality (bad maintenance) to Google.

AMP

Below the ‘Index coverage,’ you can find the ‘AMP’ tab. AMP stands for Accelerated Mobile Pages: lightning fast mobile pages. If you’ve set up AMP for your website you can check for errors in Google Search Console. Within this section you can see the valid AMP pages, the valid ones with warnings and errors:

AMP errorBelow the chart, the issues are listed. If you click on one of the issues, you can see the affected URLs. Just as in the index section of GSC you can validate your fix if you’ve fixed an issue.

Job Postings

Within this tab, you’ll be able to list your job openings and to track their performance. If there are any errors, you’ll see them in here. It’s not the most important feature of GSC, but it can be valuable for specific companies or websites.

Events

This section provides useful feedback on your structured markup for events. Events can be complex to tag up correctly, so this can be an extremely helpful report for finding out where you need to tweak details like dates and location!

Sitemaps

An XML sitemap is like a roadmap to all important pages and posts on your website. We think every website would benefit from having one. Is our Yoast SEO plugin running on your website? Then you automatically have an XML sitemap. If not, we recommend creating one to make sure Google can find your most important pages and posts easily.

Within the XML sitemap tab of Google Search Console you can tell Google where your XML sitemap is located on your site:

Add a new sitemap

We recommend everyone entering the URL of their XML sitemap into GSC to make Google find it easily. In addition to that, you can quickly see if your sitemap gives errors or if some pages aren’t indexed, for instance. Checking this regularly, you’re sure Google can find and read your XML sitemap correctly.

We recommend regularly checking the XML sitemap section in our plugin to manage which post types or taxonomies you’re including in your sitemaps!

Links

Within the links to your site section, you can see how many links from other sites are pointing to your website. Besides, you can see what websites link, how many links those websites contain to your site and lastly, what anchor texts are used most linking to your website. This can be valuable information because links still are very important for SEO.

Within the internal links section, you can check what pages of your website are most linked from other spots on your site. This list can be valuable to analyze regularly because you want your most important pages and posts to get most internal links. Doing this, you make sure Google understands as well what your cornerstones are.

Mobile usability

The mobile usability tab within this section shows you usability issues with your mobile website or with specific mobile pages. Since mobile traffic is rising all over the world, we recommend checking this regularly. If your mobile site isn’t user-friendly, lots of visitors will leave it quickly.

Manual Actions

The manual actions tab is the one you don’t want to see anything in. If your site is penalized by Google, you’ll get more information in here. If your site is affected by a manual action, you’ll also get messaged via email.

There are a number of scenarios which can lead to these kinds of penalties, including:

  • You have unnatural/bought links
    Make sure from and to your site are valuable, not just for SEO. Preferably your links come from and link to related content that is valuable for your readers.
  • Your site has been hacked
    A message stating your site’s probably hacked by a third party. Google might label your site as compromised or lower your rankings.
  • You’re hiding something from Google
    If you’re ‘cloaking’ (that is, intentionally showing different to content than to users, for the purposes of decieving either of them), or using ‘sneaky’ redirects (e.g., hiding affiliate URLs), then you’re violating of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
  • Plain Spam
    Automatically generated content, scraped content and aggressive cloaking could cause Google to blacklist your site.
  • Spammy structured markup
    If you use rich snippets for too many irrelevant elements on a page, or mark up content that is hidden to the visitor, that might be considered spammy. Mark up what’s necessary, and not everything is necessary.

Missing features in the new version of Google Search Console

As you might have noticed not all features are integrated yet into the new version of Google Search Console. Google explains that this could have two reasons: they may have found a better way of presenting the data or they’re still in the process of migrating the feature to the new version. As said before, we’ll update this post when there’s progress made in the migration.

The old version of GSC is still available for everyone. So, why should you switch back to the old version once in a while? We’ll list the features that are missing in the new version, but that seems valuable to keep an eye on, below.

Search appearance

From the ‘Search appearance’ section of the old Google Search Console, we miss the following features in the new version: ‘Structured data‘, ‘Rich cards‘, ‘Data highlighter‘ and the ‘HTML improvements‘.

If you’ve added structured data to your website we recommend checking the structured data tab of the old version regularly. Here you’ll see if all structured data is recognized by Google and errors will be listed. If you’ve added structured data meant for rich cards, you can check for errors in the rich cards tab. The data highlighter can be used to markup your pages without having to code yourself. You can read more in-depth about Google Search Console and structured data here.

In the last missing feature of the search appearance tab, the HTML improvements, you can easily check, for instance, for duplicate titles or quite short titles which can be improved. These listings can be an easy pick: optimizing your titles and meta descriptions might increase your rankings and CTR.

International targeting

The international targeting tab is important for websites who have pages in different languages and who target people in different countries or regions. When you’ve implemented hreflang to your website, you can check for errors within this section of GSC.

Crawl stats

In the crawl tab, you can find the sections ‘Crawl errors’, ‘Crawl stats’, ‘Fetch as Google’, ‘Robots.txt tester’, ‘Sitemaps’ and ‘URL parameters’.

It seems that you can find some crawl errors in the new index coverage tag but if we look at our account, we don’t see all crawl errors in the new version. This means that it’s important to check your crawl errors still in the old version of GSC. When you’ve fixed a crawl error you can mark it as fixed. The crawl stats aren’t included yet so you can find those stats in the old version.

The crawl stats tell you something about how many pages are crawled per day, how many kilobytes are downloaded per day and how many time was spent downloading a page. If one of the graphs seem to decrease, you know it’s time to do something about it.

The fetch as Google feature gives you the opportunity to see if Google can access a specific page correctly, how it exactly renders the page and if there are blocked resources on the page. You can test your pages both for desktop as for mobile to see the differences between those.

The robots.txt tester is made to add your robots.txt and to test if any errors or warnings seem to appear. You can also add specific URLs to check whether they’re blocked or not.

The sitemaps are already moved to the new version of GSC so it’s time for the last feature of the crawl tab: URL parameters. In the URL Parameters section, you can add parameters for your website and ‘tell’ Google how they should be handled. If you want to use this, we recommend reading the guidelines carefully. Don’t just add some parameters to see what happens. This can cause serious problems with your site’s SEO.

Security issues

Last but not least: within the security issues tab you’ll get a notification when your website seems to have a security issue.

Do you already use Google Search Console for your website? If not, we definitely recommend creating an account so you can start collecting data about your website. Do you think something is missing? Feel free to leave a comment!

Read on: How to make your site stand out in the search results »

 

The post The beginner’s guide to Google Search Console appeared first on Yoast.

Ask Yoast Case study: SEO for architects

In our Ask Yoast case studies we give SEO advice for websites in a specific market or industry. This time: the website of Slemish Design Studio Architects, the business site of an architect duo. The architects told us that they get great responses from their clients, but is their website optimized for search engines as well? We’ll dive into this architectural website to see what improvements can be made to enhance their site’s SEO.

First impression

The first page we land on is the homepage. We see lots of full screen images of the great work these architects deliver on top of the homepage. Though impressive, the images are shown in a slider. Loyal readers of our blog know that we’re not a big fan of sliders. Many experiments show why you shouldn’t use a slider on your website. Only 1% of your visitors will actually click on a slider, they slow down your website and lots of visitors ignore sliders because of banner blindness. Just to name a few.

Looking at this specific website, the slider images are very big as well. The textual content of the homepage is pushed down. We recommend showing some smaller images on top of the site, instead of the slider, and adding some clear introductory content just below these images. Try adding your USPs to the introductory content: Why should visitors choose you as their architect?

Lastly, by adding a clear call-to-action just below the introductory content you’ll make sure visitors can easily navigate to your most important pages. For example, you could think of a button which says ‘Get inspired by our projects’ or ‘Our services’: decide what the main goal of your homepage is. Just to show you the difference, we’ve created a mock-up of how the homepage could look like after following our advice:

Homepage example of Slemish Design Studio Architects

Beautiful images, too little text

On the ‘The Studio’ page, we notice a tab ‘What we do’. This tabbed content tells visitors what kind of work you do and what type of services you offer. Because of the relevancy of this content, we think these services deserve their own menu item. Visitors who want to know more about your team and your company may click on ‘The Studio’. However, they might not expect to find the services you offer there.

In addition to that, your services are great subjects to write about. Writing nice informational copy about your services will increase your chance of ranking for keywords related to these services. When you add sufficient relevant content, Google will understand that your website has content for people looking for services like yours. This means those people will easily find you. The more your content seems to fit to the needs of people who search for these keywords, the higher you’ll rank in the future.

Make sure you optimize one specific page or post for one subject/keyword. When you optimize one page for more keywords that are too different, it’s unclear for Google what the main subject of the page is. Pages that contain a lot of information about the keywords you really want to rank for, should become your cornerstone content pages. This blog post about cornerstone content explains in detail what cornerstone content means and this blogpost shows you how to incorporate cornerstone content into your website.

Lastly, we think you can improve your content as well by adding more copy to your project pages. Consider writing a nice text about the planning stage of the project, the building stage and the delivery stage of the project, for instance. In this copy you can add relevant keywords for your business. In addition to that, this allows you to internally link to your cornerstone content pages from your project pages. 

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Structure your text

When you decide to write more copy for your website in the future, make sure the pages and posts have a great heading structure. On your current pages and posts, we noticed that your logo is an H1 heading. However, the H1 heading should describe the main subject of a particular page on your site to help Google understand what the subject of that specific page or post is.

For example, checking ‘The studio’ page, we see the following headings on top of the page:

Headings Slemish Design Studio Architects

Your company name/logo has an H1 tag now, which means that your company name would be the main subject of this page. While in fact, ‘The studio’ is the main subject of the page. So you should change the H2 heading of ‘The studio’ into an H1 heading. Just remove the H1 heading from the logo on every page of the website. We’d advise to check all of your pages and posts and only add one H1 heading, that describes what can be found on there, on each page.

Read more: ‘SEO basics: how to use headings on your site’ »

The right metadata

You’ll need to add relevant keywords to your page titles to help Google understand what your pages are about. Since page titles are still one of the most important ranking factors it’s important to optimize those to the fullest.

Looking at the page title of your homepage, we think you’ve added too many different keywords to show what your website is about:

Adding all different locations to your page title makes it unclear what your website is about. Moreover, the snippet doesn’t look very enticing to click on in the search results. This might cause a low CTR, or click-through rate. If you want to rank for all the different locations, adding separate pages with unique page titles and content for every location would be a better idea.

We’d advise to create appealing page titles and make sure they describe what can be found on that specific URL. For the homepage, use your USP and add a call-to-action such as ‘See our projects here’ to make people click on your page in the search results. Don’t you think a snippet like this will be more appealing to potential visitors?

On top of that, it’s important to be consistent in your branding. Add your company name to every page title. If you do that, people will recognize your page in the search results more easily, because of the brand name in every page title.

Add more relevant content to your blog

Having a blog can be very beneficial for SEO. Adding posts regularly makes it easy to add content about relevant keywords to your website. It helps you to start ranking for new keywords and to keep ranking for the keywords you already rank for.

Slemish Design Studio Architects have a blog and they add new posts regularly, which is great. However, it seems that lots of posts have little textual content. For example, this post only has two sentences:

Blog post of Slemish Design Studio Architects

Google could consider this post as a thin content page, which could hurt your website’s rankings. Since pages like these don’t add much value to your website, you’d better add more content or remove them from your website.

Keep reading: ‘Blogging: the ultimate guide’ »

Create strong cornerstone content

Besides the benefits of adding more content about relevant keywords to a blog, a blog also gives you an opportunity to add more internal links to your most important pages and posts. For example, when you’ve created a separate page for the service ‘Sun Rooms’ you could write a blog post about new innovations for sun rooms. From that post you can add an internal link to the page about the ‘Sun Rooms’ service. Doing this consistently, that service page – which could be a great cornerstone content page if you add sufficient content – will become a better search result, according to Google.

In addition to internal links within a text, you can add a popular, recent or related posts section to the blog. The sidebar is often used to add sections like these. These links in the sidebar will give the posts they link to some extra link value.

Lastly, adding your blog’s categories to the sidebar will give your category pages some more link value too. Consider doing this if you want to rank with your category pages.

A fast loading website

The longer visitors have to wait for your website to load completely, the more likely it gets that some of them will ‘bounce’ back to the search results. A long loading time frustrates visitors, so they might leave your website before seeing any relevant content. Google uses bounce rate, among other things, to determine if a website provides visitors with a good result. When lots of visitors bounce back to Google’s search results quickly, that isn’t a good sign. You might understand that this can harm your rankings.

On top of that, page speed is an actual ranking factor. Google understands that a website with bad loading times probably isn’t the best result. Similar websites that load faster are likely to end up higher in the search results.

We’ve tested the website of Slemish Design Studio Architects and we found a score of 24/100. The score is in red and this means that there’s work to do! Just follow the advice Google gives in the page speed tool as this leads to both a better user experience, as well as better rankings. 

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To sum it up

It was a pleasure analyzing the website of this architect duo. You show some amazing work in the images on the website! Adding a cleaner homepage with a clear call-to-action could result in more conversions, so more actual clients. Also, specific pages for all your services could be valuable for both Google and visitors.

Basically, our most important SEO advice is: make sure Google understands what your website is about. This means you’ll need to write relevant content about keywords you’d like to rank for. Furthermore, optimizing your site’s metadata – like titles and meta descriptions – and headings would be beneficial. With internal links you can connect your content and give your most important pages extra value.

And last, but definitely not least, making your website load faster will really improve your site’s SEO and user experience!

Read on: ‘How to optimize your real estate site’ »

What is an XML sitemap and why should you have one?

A good XML sitemap is a roadmap to all important pages of a website. This roadmap guides Google to all main content on a website. Having an XML sitemap can be beneficial for SEO, as Google can retrieve essential pages of a website very fast, even if the internal linking of a site isn’t flawless. Here, we’ll explain what XML sitemaps are and how they help you with your rankings.

What are XML sitemaps?

You want Google to crawl every important page of your website. But it can happen pages don’t have any – internal – links to them, which will make them hard to find. You can use an XML sitemap to make sure Google can find and crawl all pages you deem essential on your website. An XML sitemap contains all important pages of a site to help Google determine the structure of it:

XML Sitemap Yoast

The XML sitemap of Yoast.com

 

The XML sitemap above shows the XML sitemap of the Yoast website, which the Yoast SEO plugin created. If you read further down the article, we’ll explain exactly how our plugin helps you create the best XML sitemaps. If you’re not using our plugin, it could be that your own XML sitemap looks a bit different but it will work the same.

As you can see the XML sitemap of Yoast shows several ‘index’ XML sitemaps: …/post-sitemap.xml, …/page-sitemap.xml, …/video-sitemap.xml etc. This categorization makes a site structure as clear as possible. If you click on one of the index XML sitemaps, you’ll see all URLs in that specific sitemap. For example, if you click on ‘…/post-sitemap.xml’ you’ll see all the post URLs of Yoast.com (click on image to enlarge):

XML Post Sitemap Yoast

The post XML sitemap of Yoast.com

The date at the end of each line tells Google when we’ve last updated the post. This is beneficial for SEO because you want Google to crawl your updated content fast. When a date in the XML sitemap changes, Google knows that there is new content to crawl and index.

Sometimes it’s necessary to split an index XML sitemap because of the number of URLs in it. The limit to the number of URLs in one separate XML sitemap is set to 50.000 URLs. This means, for example, that if your website has over 50.000 posts, you should add two separate XML sitemaps for the post URLs. So, you’re actually adding another index XML sitemap. We’ve set the limit to 1.000 URLs in the Yoast SEO plugin to keep your XML sitemap loading fast.

What websites need an XML sitemap?

If we look at Google’s documentation, they say that XML sitemaps are beneficial for “really large websites”, for “websites with large archives”, for “new websites with just a few external links to it” and for “websites which use rich media content”.

We agree that these types of websites will definitely benefit from having an XML sitemap. However, at Yoast, we think an XML sitemap is beneficial for every website. On each website, you want Google to easily find the most important pages and to know when you’ve last updated those pages. That’s why we’ve added this function to the Yoast SEO plugin. 

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Which pages should be in your XML sitemap?

How do you decide which pages you need to include in your XML sitemap? Always start by thinking of the relevancy of a URL: when a visitor lands on a specific URL, is it a good result? Do you want visitors to land on that URL? If not, that URL probably shouldn’t be in your XML sitemap. However, if you really don’t want that URL to show up in the search results you’ll need to add a ‘noindex, follow’ tag. Leaving it out of your XML sitemap doesn’t mean Google won’t index the URL. If Google can find it by following links, Google can index the URL.

Example 1: a starting blog

Let’s take the example of a new blog. The owner wants Google to find new URLs of the blog fast to make sure his target group can find his blog in Google. So it’s a good idea to create an XML sitemap right away. The owner has created some describing categories for the first posts and he has written the first posts. He has also set up some tags to start with. However, he doesn’t have enough content yet to fill the tag overview pages with. Since these tag overview pages contain “thin content”, it’s not valuable to show them to the visitors yet. It’s, therefore, better to leave the tag’s URLs out of the XML sitemap for now. In this case, the tag pages could also be set to ‘noindex, follow’ because you don’t want people to land on those URLs from the search results.

Example 2: media & images

Another example of an unnecessary XML sitemap – in most cases – is the ‘media’ or ‘image’ XML sitemap. Since your images are probably used within your pages and posts, the images are already included in your ‘post’ sitemap or your ‘page’ sitemap. Adding a separate ‘media’ or ‘image’ XML sitemap would be redundant. We recommend always leaving this one out of your XML sitemap. Only when images are your main business you can make an exception. When you’re a photographer, for example, you probably do want to show a separate ‘media’ or ‘image’ XML sitemap to Google.

How to make Google find your XML sitemap

If you want Google to find your XML sitemap fast, you have to add it to your Google Search Console account. You can find the sitemaps in Search Console by navigating to ‘Crawl’ and then clicking on ‘Sitemaps’. You’ll immediately see if your XML sitemap is already added to Search Console. If not, click on the ‘Add/Test sitemap’ button which you see on the right of the arrow in the image below.

Google Search Console XML Sitemap Yoast

The XML sitemap of Yoast is added to Google Search Console

 

As you can see in the image, adding your XML sitemap can be helpful to check whether all pages in your sitemap are really indexed by Google. If there is a big difference in the ‘submitted’ and ‘indexed’ number of a certain sitemap, we recommend analyzing this further. Maybe an error prevents some pages from being indexed or perhaps you should just add more content or links to the content that’s not indexed yet.

Yoast SEO and XML sitemaps

Because of the importance of XML sitemaps, we’ve added this functionality to our Yoast SEO plugin. XML sitemaps are available for both the free and the premium version of the plugin.

Yoast SEO creates an XML sitemap for your website automatically. You can find it by clicking on ‘XML Sitemaps’ in the sidebar of your WordPress install:

Yoast SEO tabs in WordPress backend

The XML Sitemaps tab in Yoast SEO

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the screen that follows you can enable or disable the XML sitemaps of your website. In addition to that, you can click on the ‘XML sitemap’ button to check your XML sitemap in your browser:

XML Sitemap settings in Yoast SEO

XML sitemap settings in Yoast SEO

In the tabs below the ‘enabled’ or ‘disabled’ toggle, you can find the different sitemaps you can in- or exclude from your XML sitemap: Users/Authors, Post Types and Taxonomies. On top of that, you can also exclude specific posts from the XML sitemap if you think the content of that post isn’t valuable enough.

Check your own XML sitemap!

Now you’ve read this complete post, you know it’s important to have an XML sitemap, because having one can help your site’s SEO. Google can easily access your most important pages and posts if you add the right URLs to your XML sitemap. In addition to that, Google can also find updated content easily, so they know if a certain URL needs to be crawled again. Lastly, adding your XML sitemap to Google Search Console helps Google find your sitemap fast and, besides that, it allows you to check for sitemap errors.

Now go check your own XML sitemap and see if you’re doing all of this correctly!

Read more: ‘WordPress SEO tutorial: definite guide to higher ranking’ »

Ask Yoast case study: SEO of a photographer’s site

Writing about SEO is easier than implementing best practices on a website yourself. Every site is different and every type of site presents its own challenge. We know that, and that’s why we started our Yoast Case studies, in which we scrutinize an existing site and give the owner practical advice on how to optimize it. In this third case study: SEO of a photographer’s site.

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Photography and SEO

In this case study, we dive into the site of a photographer: geoffwilkings.com. Geoff is curious what he could do to improve his website’s SEO. He’s told us he’s 100% about photography and photos but knows he needs textual content to rank. He does have a blog and he wonders if he is writing clear enough for prospects and search engines. Let’s have a look at different aspects of his photography website to see what’s good and what needs improvement.

Of course, a website is a work in progress, so while we reviewed his site, Geoff already made some changes to it. This means that what you see on his site might differ a bit from the screenshots below. But we’ll keep them here because we think they serve as nice examples!

Every website needs content to rank

Photos vs. textual content

It makes sense that photographers want to present their work on their website. The photos show their style and by adding lots of photos, they try to convince visitors of the quality of their work. Displaying great photos will, of course, increase the chances of people wanting to hire you, as a photographer. But what does it mean for SEO?

Adding content is one of the main things you need to do to make your website rank, as you might know. The content shows the search engines what the website is about and for what queries it should rank.

Content can consist of textual content but also photos, images and videos. For search engines, textual content is the most valuable content; it helps them determine what the website is about. So, for a photographer’s website, it’s essential to make sure there is enough textual content for the search engines to understand what every page is about.

Geoff’s site

If we look at Geoff’s website, we are in awe of his skills as a photographer: such beautiful pictures! You might just want to get married to get some fairytale-like photographs like that ;-)

There are things he could do though, to make his photos better findable. If we look at this gallery page, for example, we only see one photo on the URL:example of a gallery page with just one photo

Although Geoff added a great filename to the photo, a clear alt text and all the other meta data, it’s still hard for search engines to determine why this page should rank above other pages. Besides that, this gallery page contains only one photo, and therefore Google probably considers it a thin content page, leading to lower rankings. Lastly, since every photo is on a new URL, it’s harder to make all these different URLs rank.

To make these URLs rank there is a need for textual content, so we recommend adding relevant information about things like location, the couple, the theme and other nice things about the specific wedding. By adding textual content, it’s also possible to add an H1 heading to every page which is beneficial for SEO. Lots of pages don’t have an H1 heading at the moment.

After providing this feedback to Geoff we understood that there was some content, but it’s hidden. You can find it if you click on the comment icon on the right side of the photo. Unfortunately, we can’t view this content in the source code, which means Google can’t see it either. So we’d recommend to add it below the photo. Using keywords like wedding photography and the location might help him rank locally.

Improving User Experience for more conversions

Usability and SEO

Improving user experience is increasingly important and should go hand in hand with working on SEO because Google uses ‘user signals’ to determine the relevancy of a website:

If visitors leave your website very fast, search engines consider this a negative signal, because the website probably doesn’t show the information the visitor is looking for. On the other hand, spending lots of time on a page is a positive signal and search engines might rank you higher. This kind of data helps Google to determine the relevancy of a website for a specific search term. Google wants to show the best result on top of the search result pages and if your website is user-friendly, Google will notice this in the user data.

Geoff’s homepage

Looking at the homepage of Geoff’s site – again, such a beautiful picture! – we think a clear call-to-action is missing. It could be that the ‘Enter here’ is meant as a call-to-action, but the ghost button makes it very hard to read:

no clear call to action on the homepage

On top of that, ‘Enter here’ is not the best text for a call-to-action and if you click on it, you’ll end up on a gallery page. We recommend adding a call-to-action button with a text such as ‘Hire us’ or ‘Check if we’re a good match’ or ‘Contact us’, which leads the visitor to the respective page with more information.

Another improvement for the homepage is the formatting of the text. At the bottom of the homepage, we noticed a lot of text and the font of this text seems to be quite small. We recommend using a minimum of 16px to make sure it’s easy to read for visitors. Also, Geoff might want to use copy like this on other pages than his homepage, because ranking with other – more specific – pages than a homepage might be a more feasible strategy.

Geoff’s menu

Looking at the menu of the website, we believe there are too many options. To provide a good user experience, visitors need to find in a few seconds what they’re looking for. Offering too many choices makes this harder. Geoff could, for instance, consider cutting down the number of sub items in the drop down menu of ‘Info’.

to many sub items in the menu
Value of a blog

Blogging and SEO

Having a blog can be beneficial for your site’s SEO because it’s a possibility to add new content regularly, which Google likes. On top of that, it enables you to add more relevant content with internal links to your other pages which makes it easier to rank. Lastly, when other websites think that your blog posts are valuable and relevant to their websites, they’ll probably add a link to your blog. Increasing the amount of backlinks to your site helps a lot when you want your site to rank.

Geoff’s blog

Since we’re blogging a lot at Yoast, we’re always curious to see blogs of other websites. We were so excited to find out that Geoff’s website has one! Clicking through to the blog, however, tempered our excitement: the blog opened on another domain. This, unfortunately, means that the value of the blog doesn’t add much value to Geoff’s main website. We advise Geoff to move his blog to his main domain, a better URL to use would be, for instance, geoffwilkings.com/blog.

Read more: ‘Separate domains or not?’ »

In addition to moving the blog to the same domain, we’d advise choosing a different layout for the blog’s main page. Now it just shows just a large video above the fold. But when visitors navigate to your blog, they want to see what kind of posts you write and probably get inspiration. We recommend showing some excerpts of Geoff’s blog posts above the fold to make sure visitors know immediately that they landed on his blog.

When clicking through the blog posts, we did like what we see! For instance, some nice atmospheric posts about shootings for an engagement and a wedding, and a good explanation about retouching photos (we love the slider effect).

Technical SEO improvements

Let’s dive into the technical SEO aspects. We’ve crawled the website to check whether there are huge problems. We need to say that the website is doing a pretty good job! The only thing we’d like to mention is the use of canonicals. We noticed that most pages don’t have a canonical. At Yoast, we prefer to have a canonical on every page, so we’d advise having self-referencing canonical URLs. Joost explained this very well here: rel=canonical: the ultimate guide.

Is it possible to have a fast loading website if you have lots of high-quality photos?

Speed is often an issue on photographer’s websites. Because of the file size of the images, those websites tend to load quite slow. Since page speed is an actual ranking factor, it’s important to make the website as fast as possible. Analyze your website with the Google PageSpeed Tool and if the tool tells you that you need to optimize images, do so. This can be beneficial for your site’s SEO.

We did this check for Geoff’s site and we were pleasantly surprised! The website has a score of 73/100. Of course, Geoff can improve this score, but we can tell you, we’ve often seen photographer’s websites with scores below 50. The tool recommends to ‘Optimize images’, but it only mentions one image mentioned, so good job!

Are you a photographer as well and are there more images mentioned in the tool? In this post about image optimization, we’ll explain how to reduce the file size of your images, but maintain the same quality.

Lastly, there are some improvements to make regarding the use of JavaScript and CSS, in optimizing browser caching and enabling compression. We recommend Geoff to work on these issues (perhaps together with a developer) to make his website lightning fast!

Finding a photographer on a mobile phone

Imagine you’re getting married. Right after you decided to get married, you probably grab your phone for some inspiration and ideas! This means that as a photographer, you need to make sure your website works just as well on a mobile phone as it does on a desktop.

Checking the website of Geoff on a mobile phone, we noticed that no content is visible above the fold – the part of the website that is visible without scrolling. This means that the website looks like this:

on mobile

You probably understand that this view isn’t very attractive to visitors who visit the website for the first time. Grab the attention of the visitor immediately by adding some introductory content and a call-to-action. Or a stunning photo with a call-to-action. We recommend checking your website on mobile regularly to see whether you can use the same content as on the desktop.

We provided this feedback to Geoff and we’re really happy to hear that he already changed this! You’ll now see a much better version of his homepage on mobile!

Our summary for Geoff

We enjoyed checking your website, Geoff. You have some stunning photos on your site, and that’s, of course, the best basis for a photographer. On top of this, you run a blog! Our most important recommendation is to move your blog to your main domain, so the value of it contributes more to your site.

Furthermore, you could improve the call-to-action on your homepage, simplify your menu a bit and add more (textual) content to your gallery. And last but not least, try to give your mobile users an awesome experience too. For the rest, keep up the great work!

Keep reading: ‘Blogging: the ultimate guide’ »

Internal linking for SEO: Why and how?

Before your content can rank, it needs links. Google finds your posts and pages best when they’re linked to from somewhere on the web. Internal links also connect your content and give Google an idea of the structure of your website. They can establish a hierarchy on your site, allowing you to give the most important pages and posts more link value than other, less valuable, pages. So using the right internal linking strategy can boost your SEO!

Did you know our Site structure training can help you figure out how to build the best possible structure for your site? You’ll learn all about cornerstone content, taxonomies, internal linking and much more. Try it out, you’ll love it!

Why are links important to Google?

Google uses links to find out what content on your site is related and the value of that content.

Relationships between content

Google crawls websites by following links, internal and external, using a bot called Google bot. This bot arrives at the homepage of a website, starts to render the page and follows the first link. By following links Google can work out the relationship between the various pages, posts and other content. This way Google finds out which pages on your site cover similar subject matter.

On top of this post, for example, you’ll see links to the ‘Content SEO’, ‘Internal linking’ and ‘Site structure’ tags. We make sure Google understands that the content on those pages is related to the content of this post by adding these links.

Link value

In addition to understanding the relationship between content, Google divides link value between all links on a web page. Often, the homepage of a website has the greatest link value because it has the most backlinks. That link value will be shared between all the links found on that homepage. The link value passed to the following page will be divided between the links on that page, and so on.

Therefore, your newest blog posts will get more link value if you link to them from the homepage, instead of only on the category page. And Google will find new posts quicker if they’re linked to from the homepage.

When you get the concept that links pass their link value on, you’ll understand that more links to a post mean more value. Because Google deems a page that gets lots of valuable links as more important, you’ll increase the chance of that page ranking. 

Setting up an internal linking strategy

Internal links vs external links

Every website consists of internal and external links. Internal links connect pages and posts on your own website and external links connect your pages to other websites. In this post, we’ve focus on internal links and what they mean for SEO. If you want to get more external links pointing to your site, see our posts on link building.

It’s crucial for your site’s SEO to evaluate and improve internal linking strategy on a regular basis. By adding the right internal links you make sure Google understands:

  • the relevance of pages;
  • the relationship between pages;
  • and the value of pages.

First: the ideal structure for your site

We always advise website owners to imagine their website to be a pyramid. On top of it is your homepage, below that there are some sections or categories, and further down there are individual posts and pages (possibly with subcategories in between).

ideal site structure pyramid

If you do it well, your website’s menu should reflect this structure. In our Ultimate guide to site structure you can read how to create the best site structure for your site.

What is your most important content?

Then, you should determine what your most important content is. If you’re not sure, please read our article on cornerstone content. In short, it’s your best and most complete content; it’s about the core of your business. It’s the content you want people to find when they’re searching for a topics or products that you specialize in.

Because you want to let Google know that this is your most essential content, you need to add many links to it. There are various spots from where you can link to your cornerstone content. Here, we’ll give the most common options, from your post’s copy to your navigation.

Add contextual links

When you’ve written various articles about a certain topic you should link them with each other. This will show Google – and users! – that those articles are topically related. You can link directly from sentences in your copy or add links at the end of your post.

Moreover, you want to show Google which of those articles is your cornerstone: your most complete article on this topic. To do so, you have to add a link to the cornerstone in all of the articles on this topic. And don’t forget to link back from the cornerstone to the individual posts.

Contextual linking: an example

On our blog, there’s a cornerstone content article called ‘The ultimate guide to keyword research’. We want this post to rank for all related search queries about [keyword research] in Google search results.

So we’ve added links from other relevant articles, such as ‘7 keyword research mistakes to avoid‘, ‘ What is keyword research‘ or ‘Focus on long tail keywords‘ to the main article. And we link back from the main article to these posts. In doing so, Google will understand that the ultimate guide contains most information about [keyword research]. So in the end, Google will rank the ultimate guide above the other, shorter posts about keyword research.

Add a related post section?

There are many plugins and modules that add complete related posts sections to your posts. If you use one, we recommend testing whether the related posts actually are related posts. If you’re not sure, linking to posts manually is probably best. That’s what we do on Yoast.com – we select a related post manually (or with a little help from our internal linking tool – more on that later) and place a link to that post at the bottom of the article.

Michiel explains this in detail in this post about linking to related posts.

Add navigational links

Besides linking from topically-related posts and pages, it’s possible to make your cornerstone content more authoritative by adding links to it from the homepage or the top navigation. You should do this with the posts and pages that are most important to your business. This will give these posts or pages a lot of link value and makes them stronger in Google’s eyes.

Add links to your taxonomies

Taxonomies, like categories and tags, help you organize your site and help users and Google to understand what your content is about. If you have a blog it could be beneficial to add internal links to the taxonomies the post belongs to. Adding links to the category and tags helps Google to understand the structure of your blog and helps visitors to more easily navigate to related posts.

Add links to popular or recent posts

The last option to mention is creating internal links to the most popular or newest posts on your website. Preferably create these sections in the sidebar or the footer of your website to have them appear on all pages and posts.

As link value passes to these most popular/recent posts from many different pages and posts they really get a boost. Besides that, the posts will be easier for visitors to access, which will increase traffic – and more traffic is a positive sign to Google.

More on internal links

No-follow links

You also probably have links that aren’t important for SEO on your website. If you have a login link for your clients on the homepage, for example, you don’t want to leak link value to your login page – that page doesn’t need to rank high in the search results.

You used to be able to prevent losing link value to unimportant links by giving them a ‘no-follow’ tag. A ‘no-follow’ tag asks Google not to follow the link: so no link value is lost. Now you might think: “I’m going to ‘no-follow’ less important links to give the most important links more link value.” While this worked in the past, Google has become smarter. Now it seems that the link value for the whole page completely disappears when you add a ‘no-follow’ tag to a link on it. Therefore it makes more sense to have fewer links on a page instead of ‘no-following’ some of the links.

Note that adding a ‘no-follow’ tag doesn’t mean that those target pages can’t be found in Google’s search results. If you don’t want pages or posts to show up in the search results you should give them a ‘no-index’ tag as well. The ‘no-index’ tag means that Google shouldn’t render the page and shouldn’t give the content a place in the Google index to show up in the search results.

Anchor texts

Once you have decided which links should be on a page and which pages should get link value, it’s important to use the right anchor text. The anchor text is the clickable text that visitors see. For example, the anchor text of the two internal links in the example below are ‘link schemes’ and ‘paid links’:

Anchor texts
You can see the anchor text containing the link in this image.

If you over-optimize anchor text you might hurt your website. And by over-optimizing, we mean keyword stuffing. Previously, you could give all anchor texts the same keyword and Google made your website rank higher for that keyword. Nowadays, Google is smart enough to understand that the content around the anchor text says more about the relevancy of a keyword than the anchor text itself. So make sure the anchor text looks natural in your copy: it’s fine to use keywords but don’t add the exact same keywords to every link’s anchor text. 

Read more: The context of internal links »

Easy internal linking with Yoast SEO Premium

Our Yoast SEO Premium plugin helps improve your internal link structure with its internal linking suggestion tool, which helps you to find related posts to link to. When you’re writing a post, you can immediately link to a related post by dragging the link into the editor.

The plugin also includes an option to mark your most important articles as cornerstone content, which tells the suggestion tool to show those cornerstone content articles at the top of the list, so you’ll never forget to link to them! Read more about using the Yoast SEO internal linking tool.

In the free version of Yoast SEO, you’ll also find a handy tool called the text link counter. This tool counts the internal links in a post and the internal links pointing to a post. This visualizes which posts could use a few more links or which ones should receive more links. This will all help you work purposely on your site structure.

To make it even easier to find posts that aren’t linked to, Yoast SEO Premium has the orphaned content filter. This feature allows you to see which posts and pages aren’t linked to at all, by other posts and pages on your website. Using the filter, finding important posts that need more inbound internal links is a piece of cake!

Did you know you can get a monthly or yearly subscription to all Yoast SEO plugins and courses? This way you can get the internal linking tool and access to the site structure training, for as long as you need. Learn more about the best deal for Yoast fans.

Go link your content

Without links, your content can’t rank! With a solid internal linking strategy, you can show which content is related and which of your articles are most informative and valuable. If you follow the guidelines in this post both Google and your users will understand your site better, which will, in turn, increase your chance of ranking.

Keep reading: Site structure: the ultimate guide »

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