Search engine optimization (SEO) is often regarded as an art of its own or a part of a wider marketing strategy. So you might wonder—what do web developers have to do with keywords, backlinks, and all the elements of SEO?
As search engines and their ranking algorithms get smarter and more complex, they require technical excellence, and this is where web developers come in …and save the day.
That’s why we’ve put together a brief guide to SEO for web developers, covering all the aspects of SEO you need to perfect to help the marketing and SEO team power up site performance and get the top positions in search engine results (SERPs).
Before starting reading this guide, we invite you to activate a special Semrush free trial to start putting knowledge into practice!
SEO for Developers: The Basics You Should Know
As a web developer, you don’t have to learn about the ins and outs of search engine optimization. You can freely skip some parts and only focus on the thing you need the most—technical SEO.
But it’s useful to at least understand the very basics of SEO and its key elements.
The idea behind SEO is simple—the search engines have a certain ranking algorithm that takes into account certain criteria when defining which SERP position your page should take.
This is important as users tend to never go past the first page (or, usually the first 10 search results that include ads), meaning that you will only get the traffic you need if your pages have top rankings.
So the purpose of site optimization is to tailor to these algorithms that consider:
Technical SEO—or, the way bots crawl and index your site, as well as its core features. These include page load speed, mobile-friendliness, site structure, and so on.
On-page SEO—or, how your page content aligns with target keywords. Plus, user experience (UX) is also a big part of the equation here.
Off-page SEO—or, essentially, how many sites link back to yours, showing that your site has the authority and reliability to rank highly across the search engine results.
Your web development skills are needed for nailing the technical SEO side of the equation, as well as UX. This means that your magic web dev powers can influence two of the three elements of SEO success. Read on to find out what exactly you can do to enhance site performance.
7 Things Web Devs Can Do to Boost Site Performance
Create a Clear Site Architecture
Every great website begins with well-thought-out site architecture.
This helps web crawlers index your site and see the pages that need to be ranked. Moreover, it helps users easily browse through the site and get to the pages you want them to visit. So both from a ranking and UX perspective, a clean website structure is the way to go.
This is what your site architecture shouldn’t look like:
Image source: Backlinko
And this is how it should:
Image source: Backlinko
This means that you have to make sure your web pages are well linked and no page lingers alone with no internal links leading to it.
Pro tip #1: Add a sitemap that will guide bots through the site and make sure each page you want to be indexed is crawled through and seen. If you want to hide some pages, make sure to specify this in your robotst.txt.
Pro tip #2: Double-check whether some pages are missing internal links. There are quite a few website auditors that help to detect technical (and not just technical) SEO issues and internal linking problems per se. You can use Semrush’s Site Audit tool as it’s one of the most comprehensive and powerful site health checkers on the market (you can give it a shot with this extended 14-day free trial).
Image source: Semrush’s Site Audit tool (internal linking report)
Build (and Maintain) a Clean Code
Whenever you’re choosing a way to build a site, webpage, or simply add something to them—go for the simpler approach that won’t put an extra burden on the code.
Keep things simple and think UX over everything else—because search engine algorithms are wired to give their preferences to sites that are more user-friendly and lighter.
Ensure a Lightning Fast Page Load Speed
No heavy image or video is worthy of an extra second of page load speed. Load times are a crucial ranking factor. One second of delay can cost you your SERP position and, hence, visitors.
This is increasingly important in the era of mobile-first experiences where speed, convenience, and UX play a major role in site performance.
According to the research:
A page that loads within 2 seconds has an average bounce rate of 6%.
If you have double the load time, the bounce rate jumps up to 24%, meaning that a quarter of your hard-won visitors leave the page before it loads.
If your pages take more than 6 seconds to load—you lose almost half of your traffic.
So it’s not just about ranking algorithms, it’s about losing visitors that your marketing and SEO teams have worked hard to get. Plus, it sends negative user experience signals to the search engines, pointing to a potentially irrelevant match for users.
Image source: Semrush’s Site Audit tool (site performance report)
Make Sure Your Site Is As Mobile-Friendly As It Gets
In 2021, 66% of all traffic was mobile, and that number is likely to increase in the upcoming years.
Top this off with Google’s move to mobile-first indexing—meaning that the search engine’s bots now crawl the mobile version of your site—and you’ll see that your job is to provide an impeccable mobile experience before you even think of desktop.
Pro tip: If previously some sites could still ignore the arrival of mobile-first, today, this is no longer an option. Make sure to run your site through Google’s mobile-friendly test and use Site Audit’s one-of-a-kind check that helps to optimize your site for Core Web Vitals, a handy feature you should consider if you want to be ready for Google’s latest Page Experience Update.
Image source: Google’s Mobile-Friendly test
Improve Your Redirects
The bigger the site gets, the more problems you might face. After all, as a web developer, you have constant requests to update content, move web pages, and add new features and elements.
Your job is to make these transitions smooth and minimize SEO impact. But things can get lost in the way—e.g. you might forget about your temporary redirect or have a broken page you didn’t notice.
And these issues affect how both users and search engines view and rank your site.
Correct use of redirects can negate any potential issues that arise from all the site development, so make sure to use the right ones when you do. The most common and preferable redirects are:
301 redirect: This is how you tell the search engines that you have moved your page somewhere else, permanently. This is a good SEO strategy to use as you’ll also move most of the link juice (aka page authority) to the new web page.
302 redirect: this implies a temporary redirect that means that your move isn’t permanent. You should typically use this one when you are updating or re-structuring something on the website while keeping the link equity intact.
Pro tip #1: Make sure to update your internal links and add the new URL if you’ve made a permanent page move.
Pro tip #2: Avoid two of the most common redirect issues—redirect loops and chains. These are bad for UX and SEO as your visitors might end up never reaching the page they intended to visit. It’s often hard to spot these so you can use your site auditor and easily detect any issues on this frontier.
Image source: Semrush’s Site Audit tool
6. Help the Search Engines Read and Understand Page Content
Unlike users, the search engines use HTML and metadata to analyze what the page is about and to determine whether it’s a great match for someone’s search query.
As a web developer, you can ensure that Google understands your page is the best fit.
How? Through title tags, heading tags, and metadata.
Make sure your title comes with a title tag, and use subheads.
Each page should have a proper meta title and meta description—this helps to indicate to the search engines that your page is relevant to the query, also helping to improve your CTR, as Google often displays your metadata within the search results.
Add image alt text to all the visuals within your pages (this can also help your visuals appear in image search).
Image source: Semrush’s Site Audit tool
7. Trigger Rich Results by Adding Relevant Structured Data
SERPs are filled with rich results, or special formats for additional info display—reviews, recipes, etc. Their main benefit is that they increase your clicks so they can give your site an additional competitive edge.
Rich snippets appear thanks to structured data (schema markup)—and as a developer, you hold the key to adding relevant structured data, and, thus, triggering rich snippets for your pages.
Pro tip: Use Schema.org or Google’s Structured Data Markup Helper to write the codes and add them to your page’s HTML. Later, you can use the Site Audit tool to monitor your structured data and fix it if necessary.
Image source: Semrush’s Site Audit tool (Markup report)
SEO for Developers: Catch A Special Bonus
A big part of the SEO job for web developers has to do with detecting all the things that potentially hinder site performance in terms of technical SEO and UX, and fixing them. (Read also: 10 Things Every Modern Web Developer Should Know.)
Now, if you have a small site, you can get away with a manual check. But when your website grows beyond a few dozen pages, you’ll need a helping hand from a site auditor that will take care of the hard inspection part for you. So make sure to take advantage of our free Semrush trial that opens up access to its Site Audit tool that, as you can tell, can help at every step of the way.