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Written by Caroline Cox on Dec 8 , 2020

Make sure your search engine optimization (SEO) strategy is primed for success in 2021 and beyond.

Here, you’ll find:

  • Quick wins for optimizing your website
  • The must-have elements of quality content
  • The latest Google developments to leverage
  • SEO best practices & trends to keep an eye on

It’s like the age-old saying goes: An SEO pro’s work is never done. 

…OK, so maybe I made that up, but the sentiment holds true. With the ever-changing algorithm and constant advances in technology, optimizing your website for search engine results is (and should be) an ongoing process.

The good news? Putting these SEO best practices into place now can set you up for success months and years down the road. 

These tactics will ensure you’ve got top-notch SEO and add value to your overall brand while showing prospects and users that your company is one they can trust.

SEO includes both on-page (elements on your own website) and off-page (things like backlinks and social media) optimization. While you have more control over your on-page SEO, there are things you can do for both categories to get your site as much exposure as possible.

Let’s dive in.

HawkSEM: Best Practices to Boost Your SEO

Think of an SEO audit like a wellness check for your website. (Image via Unsplash)

1. Plan regular SEO audits

Multiple factors go into making sure your site is optimized for the search engine results page (SERP). That’s why it’s a good idea to conduct an SEO audit at least once a year. This process will give you a holistic view of where your SEO currently stands. 

The steps to conducting a thorough SEO audit are:

  • Perform a technical audit using a site-crawler tool
  • See what pages are indexed in search engines
  • Review mobile friendliness
  • Test page speed
  • Analyze on-site user behavior
  • Revisit your personas and audience
  • Conduct keyword research
  • Audit your content strategy
  • Analyze your link profile
  • Review backlink and internal linking strategies

There are other elements of your site that can affect SEO. Things like your domain’s security (especially if people log in or are asked to submit their info on places like landing pages), long-tail keywords, and compressed media files all go into creating top-notch SEO.

A content audit can also help identify topic gaps to fill via new content. Which themes related to your business have you not covered? Which related topics are your competitors outranking you for? 

Often, these chosen topics relate to the products or services your business offers. Narrow them down, then use a tool like Google Keyword Planner to determine the popularity and competition for these keywords.

Pro tip: Want an idea of where you stand before conducting a full SEO audit? You can leverage a website grader tool that’ll instantly tell you how your site’s SEO stacks up.

2. Create (or update) your content strategy

Speaking of content: The best content strategy is one that’s not set in stone. That’s because the more you create content, the more data you can gather, the more topics you can cover, and the more opportunity you have to optimize your site for search engines.

Your content strategy serves as a high-level look at your content goals and how you plan to achieve them. Plus, it’s one of the most effective SEO best practices you can adopt.

Whether you create a doc, a slideshow, or go old-school with pen and paper, your content strategy should include:

  • Goals
  • Key performance indicators (KPIs)
  • Target personas
  • Tactics
  • Creation process
  • Projects

Your strategy should also include how often you plan to publish content. It’s also wise to have a content creation checklist to ensure each published piece is optimized and consistent before it goes live. 

Optimized content generally features elements like:

  • Subheadings
  • Title tags
  • Internal and external links
  • Meta descriptions
  • Sentences and paragraphs that are easy to digest
  • Images with alt text

3. Embrace video marketing

There are multiple reasons why video marketing belongs in your 2021 strategy. It’s fast becoming a highly effective content too, while serving as a great way to increase page time and boost engagement. HubSpot reports that 88% of video marketers reported that video gives them a positive ROI.

Once you’ve mapped out a strategy and created your first video, don’t forget to optimize it. You can optimize your videos by following SEO best practices such as:

  • Choosing an engaging thumbnail image
  • Creating a thoughtful title and meta description
  • Optimizing the page itself that the video is hosted on
  • Investing in paid ads for promotion
  • Including captions or subtitles within your video

4. Prioritize mobile-first indexing

The masterminds at Google rolled out mobile-first indexing in the spring of 2018. Before this, Google was crawling and ranking the desktop version of a website.

Then, in the summer of 2020, Google announced it would enable mobile-first indexing for all sites in search by April 2021. 

So, what does this mean for you? Your site has to look sharp on mobile to rank well. That means no wonky formatting, no slow page loads, and no weird margins that make reading or scrolling nearly impossible.

Use Google’s mobile-friendly test tool or do a spot check on your pages by pulling them up on your mobile device to see how they’re responding and rendering. If you don’t have a mobile-friendly site, it will continue to pull your desktop version, but this leaves you more prone to a sub-par user experience and search engine results page (SERP) ranking.

HawkSEM: Best Practices to Boost Your SEO

Data also shows that images with descriptive captions perform even better — like, ahem, this one. (Image via Unsplash)

5. Get your site up to speed

Speed remains a vital part of following SEO best practices. Not only is it a factor in Google’s slated 2021 Core Web Vitals ranking rollout, but “a slow-to-load page can be a huge problem for bounce rate,” according to Search Engine Journal.

Images and video are two features that can affect page speed since these tend to be larger files. More — and larger — files mean more HTTP requests, which means more load time. 

Make sure the files you’re uploading aren’t bigger than necessary (they don’t need to be magazine-quality high-res photos to look good on your site). And consider enabling compression, so your files are compressed (aka smaller) and take less time to load.

Enabling browser caching can also help, as this means the page isn’t loading completely from scratch each time it’s visited.

6. Don’t underestimate good visuals

Visuals don’t just catch the reader’s eye — they help bring your content to life. Our in-house experts recommend using at least two images per blog post, whether that means photographs, well-designed graphics, or something else.

But don’t just slap a couple of photos into your copy and call it a day. The images you choose should make sense for the topic you’re covering, and the look should feel in line with your brand, even if you’re using stock imagery.

By now, you probably know what’s coming next: optimizing!

Once you’ve found some high-quality photos and compressed them to the proper size to keep your page speed and formatting on point, make sure to include proper alt text that corresponds to the image. This is what will show up if someone has images disabled on their device, or potentially if they hover their mouse over the image. Data also shows that images with descriptive captions perform even better.

7. Monitor your reviews

Brand sentiment is part of what the algorithm takes into consideration. Because of this, it’s important to keep a close eye on your reviews across your Google My Business profile, Facebook page, and other various sites. 

Negative reviews should be publicly addressed, if possible, as long as the comment seems authentic and not like spam (you should be able to tell the difference). Do what you can to turn this disgruntled customer’s opinion around — it could be as easy as:

  • Offering a refund
  • Getting them on the phone with a customer service rep to sort out an issue
  • Appealing to their emotions and making them feel heard
  • Apologizing for a miscommunication, misunderstanding or mixup (which could result in the person deleting their negative review entirely)

But don’t just respond to the negative reviews — SEO best practices suggest acknowledging and thanking someone for a positive review makes your happy client feel seen and valued. And, as we know, word of mouth is one of the most effective marketing tools around.

8. Keep featured snippets in mind

Featured snippets are a SERP feature that often show up when someone asks a question in the search box. The snippet result usually includes what the algorithm deems the most relevant answer.

Featured snippets are usually found in the space between paid search ads and ranked results, sometimes accompanied by an image or video. In 2020, Google made a few tweaks to featured snippets. These included testing multiple contextual links (which they later said was unintentional) and, in some cases, taking users straight to the blurb being referenced in the snippet when they click the link (sometimes with the featured text highlighted).  

While there’s no “one weird trick” to snagging a featured snippet, there are a few ways to prime your content for this spot on the SERP, such as:

  • Dating your content
  • Avoiding first-person language
  • Thoroughly answering a “why”-based query
  • Following the format of existing featured snippets
voice search - seo 2021

More than 4 billion voice search devices were used in 2020, and the figure is slated to double by 2024. (Image via Unsplash)

9. Examine your structured data

Structured data, also called Schema markup, is one way search engine bots crawling your site can understand your website content. This is an important part of healthy technical SEO: the better bots understand your content, the better your chances are of ranking in search results.

Schema is a type of vocabulary with tags you can add to the HTML markup of your web pages and emails. One of the biggest benefits to Schema is that it can enhance the snippets that appear below your page title on the SERP. It allows you to add enriching content like a publish date or rating, rather than simply the meta description.

In August 2020, Google announced that its rich results test tool would now support article structured data. According to Search Engine Land, this can help you better pinpoint structured data issues and potentially drive more traffic to your pages.

Pro tip: There are hundreds of Schema types. Those unfamiliar can use Google’s Structured Data Markup Helper to add structured data to their sites.

10. Own and manage your backlinks

Oh, backlinks — one of those SEO best practices that’s as valuable as it is elusive. While there’s no real shortcut to getting quality backlinks, by putting in the work, it’s still possible to begin seeing SEO-boosting results. The first step is to measure up your site’s current backlinks, then compare the results with those of your competitors. 

Sites that will link to your competitors are likely to link to you as well — if your content is optimized, high-quality, and relevant (it’s also a good idea to link to relevant, high-authority sites). When reaching out about backlink opportunities, it’s key to prioritize personalization, show the value you’re offering, and focus on building a relationship with this business vs. asking for a favor out of the blue.

Some ways you can encourage backlinks to your site include:

  • Publishing unique stats, research, or findings
  • Guest blogging on other sites
  • Leveraging industry influencers
  • Reaching out to sites with directories (like a site’s resources page)

While backlinks are important, it’s worth noting that — as SEO experts point out — it’s not necessarily a numbers game. Quality will win over quantity, and backlinks are just one of many ranking factors that search engines take into account.

Pro tip: A study from fall 2020 found that shorter content earns the most backlinks, so keep that in mind when crafting your link-building strategy. 

11. Keep an eye on voice search

The appeal of being able to search without using a screen is understandable — you can get answers and find information while doing other activities like cooking or driving.

The concept isn’t new, but smart-home technology devices have taken the trend to a new level. More than 4 billion voice search devices were used in 2020, and the figure is slated to double by 2024.

Optimizing your site for voice search is a whole ‘nother ball game — but it can be done. Along with ensuring it loads quickly, you can optimize for voice search by:

  • Making sure your site is mobile responsive
  • Including long-tail, natural-sounding keywords
  • Prioritizing featured snippets
  • Keeping copy concise and digestible
  • Having strong local SEO (like a thorough and accurate Google My Business Page)

The takeaway

The algorithm’s goal is to help people find answers and resources they need. By implementing the above SEO best practices, not only will your site become easier to find, but you’ll be able to better connect with users and customers who can benefit from what you have to offer. 

Whether you’re fine-tuning your current strategy or starting from scratch, now is a great time to assess your goals, evaluate your current practices, and implement a stellar SEO plan.

Want even more expert tips to up your SEO game? Let’s chat.

This article has been updated and was originally published in September 2019.

Caroline Cox

Caroline Cox

Caroline is HawkSEM's content marketing manager. She uses her more than 10 years of professional writing and editing experience to create SEO-friendly articles, educational thought leadership pieces, and savvy social media content to help market leaders create successful digital marketing strategies. She's a fan of seltzer water, print magazines, and huskies.

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