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Changes in Technical SEO – Kathy Brown // Searchmetrics

Episode Overview: Google’s making big moves in 2020, with its debut of web vitals indicating they’re retooling technical ranking factors for 2021. Join host Ben as he speaks with Searchmetrics’ SEO Consultant Kathy Brown about what’s behind the technical changes, what new technical ranking factors to expect and how you can best prepare now to enter 2021 on the right foot.

Summary

  • Technical SEO is about all the functionality aspects of your site composed of different signals and technical factors that Google uses to determine quality and ranking score. 
  • Google utilizes JavaScript to figure out what’s going on technically with a site. View source is no longer as useful in this process as it doesn’t provide a complete picture.
  • Google recently announced a new aggregate ranking factor named page experience – A collection of important past ranking factors combined with new core web vitals to revise page experience quality.

GUESTS & RESOURCES

Ben:                   Welcome to the Voices of Search podcast. I’m your host, Benjamin Shapiro. And today we’re going to talk about some technical SEO. Joining us today is Kathy Brown, who is a senior SEO consultant at Searchmetrics, which is an enterprise grade SEO and content marketing platform that helps marketers make better, more data driven decisions. And today, Kathy and I are going to talk about some of the changes in technical SEO. Okay, on with the show. Here is my conversation with Kathy Brown, Senior SEO Consultant at Searchmetrics.

Ben:                   Kathy, welcome to the Voices of Search podcast.

Kathy:               Hi Ben, well, it’s great to be here.

Ben:                   It’s great to have you back on the show. You were a guest, Jordan last minute once dragged you onto a podcast to talk about link building strategies. Today the floor is all yours. We’re going to talk a little technical SEO and talk about some of the changes that have been happening. Let’s just start off by doing some definitions. How do you think of defining technical SEO? What is it?

Kathy:              Well, some people do define it differently. It sort of depends on who you ask, but I think most people would agree that technical SEO is all about improving technical aspects of the site so that Google can crawl the site fast, it can crawl the site at all, because there are ways to prevent Google from crawling your site and we don’t want that to happen. And that Google understands the site. So there are a lot of different signals and technical factors that go into that, but that is essentially the focus of technical SEO.

Ben:                  I think about what you’re saying, kind of a high level way of just saying it’s about accessibility. It’s about speed. And it’s about understanding how much can Google get access to your website? How quickly can they consume the data? And do they understand what you’re trying to say.

Ben:                 When you’re thinking about those buckets, talk to me about how you prioritize technical SEO. Is there an area that you’re always focused on? Is it always accessibility? Always speed. Just what’s the general lay of the land in terms of priorities?

Kathy:            Well, overall, when you consider SEO, technical SEO is what you focus on to ensure the site has a great foundation to it. I mean, if you have all the most wonderful content in the world, if Google is having trouble crawling it, or that wonderful content is buried behind a bunch of thin content and duplicate content, and so Google is having trouble getting to your wonderful content. It’s like you’re running a race and you have this huge rock tied to your leg. You’re just not going to win the race if your foundation is just not strong.

Kathy:            So I think when it comes to priorities, I mean, of course we all say that all of it matters. It really depends on the scope of problems you have, and I think technical SEO is just one of those disciplines where you can always be fixing things. You can always find something wrong with the site, but there are certain things that are huge problems and definitely need to prioritize very highly.

Ben:               I think of technical SEO being like fixing a house or fixing a car. It’s subjective to say when it’s done, if it’s ever done. You can always change a muffler, redo your floors, there’s always something you can do to change the look, the aesthetics, the performance of a car, or your house, or your website.

Kathy:           Yeah. I think that’s an interesting way to put it. I think that actually helps a lot to make it understandable. Because with a house, if your plumbing or your electrical doesn’t work, that’s a serious issue. But if you have a dent in the wall, that’s annoying, right. And it’s on your to do list, but it doesn’t necessarily mean, especially if it’s hidden, that your house isn’t going to sell or you can’t have guests over. So yeah, there’s definitely a range of issues and some of them are just way more important than others.

Ben:              So when you think about how technical SEO is evolving, talk to me about the general understanding of what it is, and what are some of the things that are changing about technical SEO?

Kathy:           Well, what’s happened over the last couple of years is just the frequency that sites are now using JavaScript. So with technical SEO, it didn’t used to be that Google could understand JavaScript. Now Google can understand JavaScript. It can execute it when it figures out what’s going on with the site. And as technical SEO practitioners, we now need to be very aware of JavaScript and how it plays a part in how Google is understanding the site. And one of the things I like to say is view source is dead. So if you go to a browser and you just do that view source, what you’re looking at is just the raw HTML that was sent over from a server. And that’s really no longer the big picture. And so view source is really dead, because now you need to look at what the source code looks like after the JavaScript has been executed and the page is actually rendered.

Kathy:             So this has added a lot of complexity to understanding how Google is crawling to a site. I mean, there’s situations when you have JavaScript on the page that it won’t get executed. A classic case is when you scroll down. If you scroll down as a user and you scroll out of the view port, then whatever that’s executed when you do that scroll, Google doesn’t see. So these are nuances you really need to understand when you’re evaluating a page and how well Google can see what’s on it.

Kathy:             Yeah. I mean, it just adds a whole lot of complexity because when you think about it, when the server sent back a bunch of HTML, there was that. But then now, oh, down page flow, there’s a bunch of JavaScript that now gets executed and that can slow down the page, which gets into the whole speed conversation. But it can significantly change what’s on the page, and it might even change tags that were there in the raw HTML source. So all of these are nuances that when you get into technical SEO, you need to understand and need to account for, to make sure there isn’t a problem and how Google is not only crawling the raw HTML, but also when it sends the page through the rendering engine, how it understands the final form of the page.

Ben:                  So my understanding is that Google can crawl JavaScript, some of the dynamic aspects of your website, but it doesn’t always necessarily rank them in real time. It doesn’t always rank JavaScript. There are some questions about how Google takes into consideration some of the more dynamic parts of your website. As you’re thinking about building the website, optimizing your website, JavaScript may or may not be a part of it. How do you factor in how Google considers JavaScript? Not necessarily just their ability to execute it, but when they digest it, how they digest it, and how that impacts our rankings?

Kathy:            Well, yeah, that’s definitely true. So the process that Google uses to understand your webpage is first, it gets that raw HTML and crawls it. So as much as possible, you want your navigation and your links in that raw HTML, because there can be a delay that happens. So think about it, it’s pretty easy for Google to crawl that raw HTML, but to actually execute the JavaScript it has to be sent to a different part of the Google system, to actually send it through the parser, execute the JavaScript, and then see the code as it’s actually rendered. And that can take some time.

Kathy:           And although Google’s gotten a lot better and a lot quicker at doing that, it’s still going to be minutes or maybe a day before it’s going to get that full picture of your page by executing that JavaScript. So as SEOs, we’d like to see the most important parts of the page, everything from your title tag, to the links to the other pages, to the navigation, we like to see that in the raw HTML, because that’s instantly available to Google bot when it crawls the site and it doesn’t have to wait for the rendering engine to render the JavaScript and parse through it, to discover the additional aspects of the page that wasn’t there before the JavaScript was executed.

Ben:               So websites are becoming more intricate, more dynamic. Google has the ability to comb through and make some sense of your JavaScript. What else has been changing with technical SEO?

Kathy:          Well, one big thing that’s happening right now, Google recently announced is it’s going to be changing how it measures speed, how actually it’s more than just speed. It’s actually wrapped into the user’s experience of the page. So probably most of the listeners are familiar with first content, full paint or meaningful paint. These are measurements that Google Lighthouse, which is a tool that Google provides that you can use to assess the speed of your page. These are metrics that we’ve gotten pretty comfortable and familiar with and how to make our pages better, make them faster.

Kathy:          What Google recently announced was there’s going to be this new aggregate ranking factor called page experience. And it’s going to be a collection of older ranking factors that we all know and love such as mobile friendliness, HTTPS, not too many intrusive ads above the fold. So these are the older ranking factors. These are going to be wrapped in with the new core web vitals. So this is just going to be new metrics that are going to form the way Google perceives the quality or the experience of your page. And there’s three.

Ben:              So what are they?

Kathy:          So there’s large content full paint, there’s first input delay, which is a measure of how long it takes the page to respond to you when you interact with it, like tapping on something. The third one is cumulative layout shift, and that’s a fancy way of saying the page doesn’t jump around as it paints for you. I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, it’s actually happened to me, where you go to tap on something or click on something on a link-

Ben:              And it moves.

Kathy:         And then the page finishes rendering and the link jumps out of the way and you click on something else. Well, that’s a bad experience. And so this CLS, a layout shift is a way of measuring how much that happens on the page. And the idea is that you should have less of that, and that’s going to be a good page experience. So large concept full paint is about how quickly the most important part of the page appears either on your screen or on your phone. First input today is interactivity, and then I just explained CLS.

Kathy:          So they announced these, but will not go into force until sometime in 2021. They pre-announced this so we have plenty of time to prepare, to get our sites in better order so these metrics are addressed if our site’s not doing well for them.

Ben:              You mentioned web vitals and that Google is talking more about what they consider to be ranking factors. What direction do you think Google is going with technical SEO? Obviously site speed is important. Websites are dynamic, so they’re starting to focus on understanding JavaScript in a more comprehensive fashion. What else do you see coming down the pike from Google in terms of their understanding and optimization of technical SEO?

Kathy:          Yeah. That’s kind of an interesting question because you know, I’m going to pull out my crystal ball here and see if I can come up with a decent answer. Definitely speed is … I think when you take a step back and look at it, I mean, Google in the end, wants the best experience for site visitors. And so that’s the step forward they’re doing with this page experience/core web vitals thing is to give us metrics that they’re going to use to judge whether the page is a decent experience for the user. But I don’t know. I mean, the JavaScript thing is all about sites beginning to use it to make a richer experience for those users. And they’re modern websites, and Google has just made it possible for those sites to do well for SEO, because it now understands JavaScript. I think the evolution we’ll see is just continued focus on the best experience for the user.

Kathy:          And I think that kind of gets more into the content side of the house really. Google’s gotten better and better to kind of being, every time we have a Google update, I see some examples where a page that previously ranked for a keyword doesn’t rank as well anymore. And when you look at the page and you look at the keyword, you’re like, well, that was a mismatch. It’s not quite the right page for that intent. And so what I’m seeing is that Google is getting better and better at that. And that’s not really technical SEO. That’s just more Google understanding searcher intent better. It continues to amaze me, but really keeping a focus on things like crawl boat, and things like not wasting Google bots time, whether that’s because you have a slow site, or you have a ton of not very valuable pages. If you fix those things, generally you’ll see an improvement and that hasn’t changed. And I don’t see it changing in the future.

Ben:            Okay, Kathy, thanks for walking us through some of the changes in tactical SEO. We’re going to bring you back tomorrow to talk a little bit about how you can understand whether your site needs to focus on technical SEO. So that wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Kathy Brown, senior SEO consultant at search metrics. We’d love to continue the conversation with you. So if you’re interested in contacting Kathy, you can find a link to her LinkedIn profile in our show notes, you can contact her on Twitter. Her handle is @KathyAlice. Or you could visit her personal website, which is webenso.com. Just one more link in our show notes I’d like to tell you about. If you didn’t have a chance to take notes while you were listening to this podcast, head over to voicesofsearch.com, where we have summaries of all of our episodes and contact information for our guests.

Ben:            You can also send us your topic suggestions or your SEO questions. You can even apply to be a guest speaker on the Voices of Search podcast. Of course you can always reach out on social media. Our handle is @VoicesOfSearch on Twitter. And my personal handle is @BenJShap. And if you haven’t subscribed yet, and you want a daily stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, we’re going to publish episodes every day during the work week. So hit the subscribe button in your podcast app, and we’ll be back in your feed tomorrow morning. All right, that’s it for today. But until next time, remember the answers are always in the data.