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Paying Your Technical Debt: Achieving Google’s Ranking Factors Trifecta – Part 2

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Episode Overview

In part 1 of our series, savvy SEO strategists Jordan Koene and Sebastian Edgar reviewed the critical need for website speed, crawlability, and mobile responsiveness. In this episode, they discuss strategies and tactics for working with the challenges of existing platforms and legacy sites. 

In this podcast, we cover:

  • The most problematic aspects of technical debt and what to prioritize
  • How JavaScript can prevent Google from accessing and indexing content fast enough
  • The importance of evangelizing your site within your organization
  • Working with your engineering teams to ensure the hygiene of your site
  • How to maintain a rigor around monitoring your technical debt

GUESTS & RESOURCES:

Episode Transcript

Ben:                             Welcome back to ranking factors month on the Voices of Search Podcast. I’m your host Benjamin Shapiro, and this month we’re going to take a deep dive into the weeds to examine the technical, content and external ranking factors that impact your visibility.

Ben:                             Joining us today are two of Searchmetrics’ best and brightest SEOs. Jordan Koene is a world-renowned SEO strategist and the CEO of Searchmetrics Inc., and Sebastian Edgar is Searchmetrics’ enterprise SEO consulting team lead and of our most savvy technical SEOs. And today Jordan and Sebastian are going to walk us through some of the optimization tactics related to technical ranking factors.

Ben:                             But before we get started, I want to remind you that this podcast is brought to you by the marketing team at Searchmetrics. We’re an SEO and content marketing platform that helps enterprise scale businesses monitor their online presence and make data-driven decisions. And as part of our ranking factors month, we’d like to welcome you, our loyal podcast listeners to our upcoming webinar where we’ll discuss the evolution of custom ranking factors with machine learning.

Ben:                             Our webinar’s happening on April 25th, and we’d love for you to join our discussion about how a new generation of machine learning technology is evolving to provide on demand and the main specific ranking factors that are shaping the future of SEO. To register for our custom ranking factors webinar, go to searchmetrics.com/webinar.

Ben:                             Okay. Here’s the rest of my conversation with Searchmetrics’ own Jordan Koene and Sebastian Edgar. Jordan and Sebastian, welcome back to the Voices of Search Podcast.

Jordan:               Great. Happy to be back, ready to dive into the second half of this technical ranking factors topic.

Sebastian:           yeah. Great to be back. Let’s, get this started on, number two.

Ben:                             All right so yesterday we talked about some of the priority technical ranking factors. For anybody that missed it, it goes speed, crawlability, and mobile, which was something that I didn’t actually expect. I thought crawlability would be the most important ranking factor, but it turns out getting your site to be performant is the thing that matters most to Google.

Ben:                             When we also dove into talking about some of the data that you can look at to understand and evaluate how you’re performing on those ranking factors, which are looking at your server data, understanding when crawl errors are happening, and being on top of whether your site is performant and monitoring your site’s speed.

Ben:                             And today I want to turn the conversation to focus more on how do you fix some of the problems when they happen? So, let’s start off by talking a little bit about, you know, we aren’t all working with brand new websites. Most SEOs are coming and working on a site that’s been around for a while, if it’s an enterprise site. How do you start to think about optimizing your site when you already have an existing platform and some technical debt?

Ben:                      Jordan, talk to me about how you think of managing technical debt.

Jordan:              Well, um, it’s never fun. This isn’t the sexiest part of being an SEO or really managing and engineering your product team. Technical debt is a challenging part for any business, and ultimately when you’re looking at it from a very ranking factors’ lens, there are very specific aspects of technical debt that you want to prioritize. The first one being, and most often being relevant to Google’s ability to consume the content that you have on your site.

Jordan:              So, are there certain,  say JavaScript frameworks that are being utilized on the site that are preventing Google from accessing or indexing content fast enough? Are there, the technical bloat that exists on the site that’s just preventing the performance of your website? And ultimately, it’s kind of like doing a code review and having a structure. Especially for a lot of these Legacy sites, and sites that have been around for a long time, it’s about doing these code reviews with your product, your engineering team to ensure that the hygiene of your site is at the best possible level, and enforcing that hygiene, right? It’s kind of like cleaning the garage in the spring.

Ben:                  So the thing that occurs to me is there’s two different problems here. One, when you’re taking over a site, and you have to review the code and understand what is causing the performance issue. And second, when you’re working with lots of people touching the code base, how do you stop them from creating sort of additional clutter?

Jordan:              Yeah, so that is the tricky pendulum swing that occurs here, right? And the reality is that for any existing, especially enterprise site that’s been around for a long time and has its own code stack, it is not going to be that simple of an answer. It requires you to maintain a rigor around, or a discipline around monitoring your technical debt.

Jordan:             And so, setting a cadence for say a monthly code review, um, having some sort of a scrum session or brainstorming session with your tech teams to identify this debt in cleaning it up is … it’s a process as much as it is a practice that you need to implement. And I think, you know, one of the great things is Sebastian’s worked on many projects around this and he can share a little bit about how we’ve gone about that process.

Ben:                  So Sebastian, what pops into my head here is, getting your car washed, right? Sometimes you have to do a full detail, and you’re really, you know, getting down and dirty and scrubbing the rims and tires, and in between the seats, and every once in a while you’re running it through the carwash. How do you think about, you know, first starting off and cleaning the whole car? And then what do you do to make sure that it stays clean?

Sebastian:          You know me too well with that metaphor.

Ben:                    Are you a car guy? I had no idea.

Sebastian:          Occasionally, you know, maybe if we’re talking about BMW’s maybe.

Ben:                      He’s a car geek.

Sebastian:          Oh jeez. (laughs).  But yeah so on that metaphor, actually very closely …  is very close to what we have to do in technical. And- and really honestly the first piece is something that not a lot of people talk about, but it’s making sure that everyone is aligned and everyone is understanding why we’re doing this. Because when you’re bringing in external folks such as developers, they’re always going to ask, “Okay, well, why do we have to do that? Why do I have to do that?”

Sebastian:         You know, it’s … I have a few clients, and actually a lot of my clients they’re exact way you’re describing it Ben, these older websites that are you know? That that has been online, you know, for more than 10, 20 years and what not, and they’ve gained a sort of kind of technical debt over time. And right now, for example, someone like myself, and people in my team come in and we tell them, it’s like, “Okay guys, well, we got to slash this, we got to slash that, we got to get rid of this and that.”

Ben:                                    You got to put the rubber gloves on, you hear the snap, and you get dirty. (laughs).

Sebastian:         Yeah, change the oil and whatnot, that’s exactly right. And they’re … You know, and really the first thing that always comes up, no joke, is, you know, “Sebastian and team, why do we need to do this?” So, there’s always this first aspect of kind of almost evangelizing on SEO, making sure we develop then translating SEO to develop for speed, and then potential output estimates on, you know, do … You know, why- why you want to do this?

Sebastian:         So something for example like technical, one thing I like to use, and I have like one, not metaphor, maybe like analogy or just piece of understanding similar to what I mentioned on the last episode. But, as we’re fixing their website to make it newer, you know, Google is moving to this mobile first indexing. Okay, well, it’s like what will make it fast? Because now more and more people are using a mobile device, therefore the internet is going to be slower in general. You have to make your due diligence to ensure that your website is as fast as possible, to make sure that you make the users happy as they are searching on the go.

Ben:                                    Okay, so evangelism is step one.

Sebastian:         Absolutely, absolutely. Evangelism and translation into outputs, specifically.

Ben:                                   Okay. Then what comes next?

Sebastian:         So, essentially what comes next, going back to Jordan’s point with the prioritization and the ranking factors, is then okay, well it’s like, now that they know what they need to tackle,  just holistically in general. Okay, well you want to tackle speed first, for example, or depending on feasibility, maybe crawl bandwidth depending on where their biggest issues are at, or something like, like a JavaScript framework.

Sebastian:         So, for example, a lot of my clients, we started tackling mobile as a first initiative at the same time as crawl bandwidth, because they’re very, very, similar at the end of the day, they move around. If you have a website, Google needs to crawl your responsive website. Essential for what website it needs, double the crawl bandwidth. With initiative, we realized like, “Okay, let’s actually make sure that our website goes away from the dock, and goes to a responsive website, because then that might save us on some crawl bandwidths.”

Sebastian:         While doing that, you know, and crawl bandwidth, we’re … and fixing for mobile, you may at the same time also fix some speed issues as well, which definitely happens quite a bit.

Jordan:              I think one of the interesting pieces here is that, you know, with technical debt there’s this crossover effect, right? There’s this crossover effect, that by cleaning or fixing this, you now impact speed, by cleaning or fixing this, you now impact crawlability, by cleaning or fixing this, you now impact mobile. The top three priorities we talked about in yesterday’s episode.

Jordan:              But the other piece to here is technical debt is a very clear, strategy that requires, as Sebastian and you Ben mentioned, education or evangelism first, and then a monitoring and reporting cadence that allows you to do that all over again. Because if you don’t do those three things, you don’t have a disciplined enough approach to technical debt to maintain it, and ensure that you’re resolving this over a long period of time, especially with big websites.

Ben:                                   Yeah, I guess the big question I have is, we’re talking about that we use the word, well you’re maintaining this, and you’re solving this problem. What is this? You … Sebastian mentioned that there’s JavaScript crawl challenges, right? Like what are some of the common things that are causing this technical debt? Is it as simple as old websites use too much Java, and it’s cumbersome for Google to crawl? Or are there other things that are common problems that you run into that cause this technical debt?

Jordan:              Let’s break this up into two things. Let’s talk about the big examples, like what big enterprises usually deal with, and then let’s talk about maybe even some of the examples that smaller websites deal with. Because I think it’s really interesting to see how you can fix your own technical debt with a smaller, you know, type website.

Jordan:             Sebastian, I think one of the interesting things is on the big enterprises, is the fact that there’s often a lot of tags or other advertising, vehicles that are being used on the sites. That’s just Legacy, they’ve been there for years, and don’t have any impact on the business anymore, so you can just clean that up.

Sebastian:          Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. And another piece, you know, even outside from- from the tagging, and a lot of these Legacy third party plugins, for example, is even going back to what’s going on from a JavaScript and framework perspective. A lot of these older websites use this sort of like antiquated framework that Google and frankly other search engines … Since you’re talking about Google, then we forget that there is maybe Bing and some other search engines that do not have JavaScript.

Sebastian:         Though in 2019, I do believe that most of them are out there, but one big to know, is if you have a JavaScript website versus a standard HTML PHP website, Google is always going to take longer to index a JavaScript website. So, with that in mind, if you have something like JavaScript, either you’re using Angular, which is by far the most complex (laughs) version of JavaScript, versus React and some others.

Sebastian:         If you’re using Angular, you really have to put in a lot of work with … So going back to Jordan’s comments with the tags, so making sure that all of your third party plugins that you’re not using anymore are out of there, and really focusing on … so the … You know, when JavaScript, for example, with the API, making sure that when Google requests, the browser to grab the information from your website, that it grabs it in a timely fashion, to make sure that it’s not massive latency there.

Ben:                                   So what I’m hearing is there’s a framework, a foundational piece, that if you’re working on an old framework, that’s going to affect your crawl speed, right? And that’s where, if you’re working on a JavaScript-based website, you’re going to have slower crawls. And then no matter what your platform is, over time you accumulate all of these tags, through advertising, through third party plugin, and going through and cleaning out the stuff that you don’t need, is another way, even if you’re on an older platform, to make it more efficient.

Jordan:              Yeah, and that’s what happens on a lot of these big enterprise sites. These are two common examples of challenges that we encounter on these big enterprise sites. The interesting thing is that when you deal with say a smaller website, let’s talk about a WordPress website. You know, on these situations, it’s kind of similar, but it’s a little bit different approach, in the sense that, you might have a whole bunch of plugins that you’ve installed, that are no longer being used, and those plugins are our detriment to the performance of your WordPress website.

Jordan:              That’s in a similar vain to the ad example, another scenario where you can go in and analyze the use of these plugins and remove them as debt from your site and improve your performance.

Ben:                                   Yeah, I think the underlying takeaway here is that there’s the foundational piece, enterprise level, you know, proprietary built website, or something like,  a WordPress, a website builder. You know, if you’re not keeping it up to date, and you’re not using the latest technologies, likely you’re going to run into some code debt, so you want to try to stay as up to date as you can, and then you want to strip out everything that doesn’t need to be on the website, just because you don’t want Google to have to crawl and fight through all those things if they’re not necessary.

Ben:                                   Talk to me about some of your tools and talk to me about some of the other niche tricks that you have to make sure that you’re, you know, optimizing for your technical ranking factors.

Sebastian:          Yeah. And Iet me start with one that shouldn’t be a niche trick, but it should be Lighthouse. Google Lighthouse, I think every single SEO, and everything I see on every single developer should be using Google Lighthouse that is embedded in your own browser. So I’m going to give you all a quick tutorial, if you haven’t heard of it.

Sebastian:         Go on any webpage, you should do a right click on Inspect Element, and then a little box is going to appear, either on the right or on the left, and you’re going to see this audit tab. You’re going to click on audit, and then you’re going to click run audit, and then once you’re there, this is Google Lighthouse, and it will give you fantastic and phenomenal information on your site’s performance. The reason why I stress this so much, is because this is information essentially given by Google to us to help SEOs and help developers with optimizing their own website from a performance perspective. So, from there, you know, you’ll be getting a lot of information from these are the main KPIs, and then which specific items you want to fix.

Sebastian:         So, let me take a few steps back here. So, the first thing you want to do is utilize Google Lighthouse from a speed perspective. The second item, and that one’s kind of a neat little trick. Well, I don’t know if you want to say neat little trick, but it’s something that a lot of folks don’t always consider, or don’t always think about, but it’s caching, right? So, CBN caching, using your own CBN to be able to give Google almost a- a static version of your own page.

Sebastian:        The reason why I wanted to mention that is because it’s something that’s quite interesting and doesn’t always work for every single website. So you have a website such as an eCommerce, right? And we actually tried to do that, and we- we tried to implement CBN caching for them, which,  essentially is, like I said, giving Google this static version of the page to make sure that it doesn’t need to download a new version every time it re-crawls the website. So you can tell Google, it’s like, “Hey, this is a … you know, just only download once a day, this version, instead of every single time you come in the website, every single hour.”

Sebastian:         Interesting, is that with that eCommerce website, they couldn’t do that, because they had personalization, user personalization, you know, embedded and then set up. However, if you’re a media website, and a specific article is not going to change all that much day-by-day, this is when using a trick such as CBN caching and giving the static version of the page to Google very, very, interesting.

Jordan:              So in addition to some actions, recommendations, I think another one that for any technical SEO ranking factor efforts and optimizations, is Google’s Fetch and Render tool.  this essentially allows you to put in one of the URL’s of your website, and see how Google is actually reading and processing, also known as crawlability, your pages. And that’s really a good indication as to where you may have technical challenges and Google’s ab- ability to access your content.

Ben:                                   So what I’m hearing, Sebastian is saying that Google Lighthouse is basically going to help you understand what you can do to optimize for site speed on a given page, and Fetch and Render is really going to help you with understanding where you can optimize crawlability. Anything that helps you understand mobile performance? That was the other big ranking factor that we talked about.

Sebastian:         Absolutely. So, Lighthouse is also going to help you with getting an idea, in terms of your mobile performance, now from a side speed perspective, as well as some minimal factors regarding your mobile friendliness in general. However, there is the Google Mobile-Friendly tool, which you can really just Google Mobile-Friendly, and you actually will get a snippet on Google search results. You can actually put in your own website directly in the Google search result, and it will open up directly the Mobile-Friendly tool.

Sebastian:         The cool thing about this, if you don’t know yet for those listening, is the Google Mobile-Friendly tool, believe it or not, is also a JavaScript rendering tool, meaning that, you know, if for a reason or another you don’t have, you know, Fetch and Render, or you’re looking at a competitor’s website, and obviously then you’re not going to have access to their Fetch and Render, you can use the Mobile-Friendly tool to get an idea as to whether Google is able to actually render the JavaScript properly. So, it’s a nifty little trick, using the tool made for mobile, but then you’re able to get a lot more information.

Ben:                                   So what I’m hearing is that there’s really three tools, one is Lighthouse, which is going to help you understand your site speed, Fetch and Render is going to understand crawlability, and there’s a Google Mobile-Friendly tool that’s going to help you understand how mobile performant your site is.

Ben:                                   Jordan, any last words?

Jordan:             Yeah, absolutely. So, there’s- there’s this concept around, technical SEO that is around various tactics to optimize your site, right? So how do I technically optimize my scheme or markup? How do I optimize the use of say certain elements on my page? Like, you know, taking say breaks and making them into ordered lists, or unordered lists, to help improve the visibility of my rankings.

Jordan:              And these are all great and useful tactics, they’re in many cases technical in nature. But one of things I want listeners to remember is that often they’re niche, they’re very specific to say a category, like say media sites, or eCommerce sites.  Just because you’re a realtor and you put the price of the homes in your scheme up, doesn’t mean that that’s going to suddenly show up in the search. That does work very well when you’re an eCommerce site, and you put the price of the product and scheme up, it will usually show up in Google’s search.

Jordan:             So, the reality here is that although there is a lot of conversation around SEO tactics and technical tactics, often they’re very much relevant to your category in your industry. You should ask a lot of questions, and you should test and learn before you believe that that practice or that tactic is validated.

Ben:                                   So, I think that’s a great lead into one of the episodes, or the week of episodes we’re going to have later this month, where we’re going to get into industry specific ranking factors. And Jordan, you and I are going to sit down and talk about a couple of the biggest industries, you mentioned eCommerce, media publishing, that’s going to be coming down later this month.

Ben:                                   But that wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search Podcast. Thank you for listening to my conversation with both Jordan Koene, Searchmetrics’ CEO, and Sebastian Edgar, our services team lead. We’d love to continue the conversation with you, so if you’re interested in contacting Jordan or Sebastian, you can find a link to their Linkedin profile on our show notes. You can contact Jordan on Twitter where his Linkedin handle is JTKoene. And Sebastian doesn’t use Twitter, but you could probably find him at a steakhouse somewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Ben:                                   If you have any general marketing questions, or if you’d like to talk about this podcast, you can find my contact information in our show notes, or you can send me a tweet @benjshap.

Ben:                                   If you’re interested in attending our custom ranking factors webinar, which is happening on April 25th, head over to searchmetrics.com/webinar. And if you like this podcast, and you want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app, and we’ll be back in your feed next week when we discuss one of the other ranking factors.

Ben:                                   Lastly, if you’ve enjoyed this podcast, and you’re feeling generous, we’d be honored for you to leave us a review in the Apple iTunes Store, or whenever you listen to your podcasts. Okay, that’s it for today, but until next time, remember the answers are always in the data.