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Technical SEO is absolutely necessary

Note: This post was originally published on in 2015. I've republished it here, with some minor cleaning up, as I believe its core lessons are still applicable today.

Once in a while you hear these murmurs about how SEO is not about the technology anymore, how great content and authority signals will be sufficient to drive stellar growth in organic search. And the people who say this can often show formidable success from content and links, so it would be easy to conclude that they’re right.

But they’re not. For them to claim that their efforts in content and social have made technical SEO unnecessary, is a bit like a Formula 1 driver claiming he won the race purely due to his own driving, ignoring the effort that has gone into the car he’s been whizzing around the track.

This is insulting to the Formula 1 engineers that have enabled the racing driver to win, just as claiming that technical SEO is unnecessary is insulting – and dangerously short-sighted – to the folks who build and optimise the platforms that enable all your content and social efforts.

The thing is, technical SEO is not ‘sexy’. In the early days of SEO, pretty much all practitioners were coders and IT geeks, and the industry was primarily about using clever technologies to game the algorithm.

Nowadays SEO has evolved to such an extent that it aligns a lot with classic marketing, and this is reflected in the backgrounds where the SEO industry’s professionals come from – marketers, copywriters, journalists, and designers are now more common in SEO than computer science graduates.

And for these people it’s very comforting to hear that technical SEO is unnecessary, because it’s an aspect they’re not comfortable with and can’t easily navigate. It’s a nice message for them, putting them at ease and allowing them to remain confident that their content strategies will continue to drive results.

Until they start working on a website that is technically deficient. Then the trouble starts.

For most small to medium-sized websites, technical SEO is indeed not a huge priority. Especially if a website is built on a popular CMS like Wix or WordPress, there’s usually not a lot of technical SEO work that needs to be done to get the website performing optimally.

But for larger websites, it’s an entirely different story. The more complex a website is, the higher the chances that some aspect of its functionality will interfere with SEO, with potentially catastrophic results.

There are countless ways that a website’s technical foundation can go wrong and prevent search engines from crawling and indexing the right content. It takes someone skilled in technical SEO to identify, prevent, or fix these problems.

Simple things like slightly inaccurate blocking rules in robots.txt and faulty international targeting tags, to major issues like spider traps, automatic URL rewrites with the wrong status codes, or incorrect canonical implementations, can wreak havoc with a website’s performance in organic search results. And if you as an SEO practitioner are not familiar with the ins and outs of technical SEO, you couldn’t even begin to diagnose the problem, let alone fix it.

So let’s be clear once and for all: technical SEO is absolutely necessary.

Now if you’re an SEO with a non-technical background, there’s no need to panic. You can have a very successful career in SEO with limited technical know-how. But you do need to know and accept your limitations, and be able to call on expert help when you need it.

However, I do recommend that every SEO practitioner develop at least a rudimentary understanding of technical SEO. I don’t think this is optional. You need to know the basics, if only to enable you to recognise when something technical might cause SEO problems and you need to call in further support.

If you have zero technical SEO knowledge, you’re not going to be able to recognise technical issues when they arise, and that’s a dangerous position to be in.

Learning Technical SEO

So now that we’ve established that a baseline of technical SEO know-how is valuable, how do you go about achieving that? I wish I could tell you that all you need to do is read a Moz starter’s guide and some blog posts and you’re done. But if I did that, I’d be lying.

The truth is, learning technical SEO is not easy, especially if you have no technical background at all. This stuff can be challenging to wrap your head around.

But, if you use the right approach and try to learn it one step at a time, you will be amazed at how quickly you’ll become sufficiently proficient in the technical side of things. And, more than that, you’ll find yourself applying that technical know-how across many other digital marketing channels as well.

This is because, at its core, understanding technical SEO is about understanding how the web works, and understanding how search engines work. And by knowing these things – especially the first one – you will become a more informed, more effective, and more successful digital marketer.

How The Web Works

The internet has become such an integral part of our daily lives that few of us ever stop to think about how it all works. It’s something we just take for granted. But when you make a living from the internet, it pays to know how it functions under the hood.

Every year I give a guest lecture for a MSc program at a local university. The MSc is in digital communications, and the lecture is an introduction to coding on the web: explaining the differences between static markup like HTML and XML, dynamic code like JavaScript, and server-side code like PHP and ASP.NET.

The first time I gave that lecture, it quickly became apparent that we should have started at an even more basic level. The students, most of whom had no technical background, couldn’t really grasp the differences between the different types of code, because they didn’t understand the basic client-server architecture of the internet.

Basic client-server architecture of the web

It was really eye-opening for me and the academics organising the course. We had to go back to the drawing board and revise the module to ensure that we started with the basic structure of the internet before we delved into explaining code. We also had to emphasise the difference between the web and the internet, something that gets muddled too easily in many people’s vocabulary.

Learning Internet Networking

Unfortunately, there’s no ‘Internet Architecture For Dummies’ book I can recommend to get you up to speed. The client-server structure of the internet is usually taught as part of A-level computing, and is assumed to be basic knowledge when someone starts a degree in computer science or related technical field.

Most marketers, of course, don’t necessarily have this foundational knowledge. So if this is unknown territory for you, I would advise you to read up on client-server models and basic internet networking, as you will need at least a rudimentary understanding of these concepts later down the line.

Learning Code

The next step is then to learn the basics of the various types of code that enable the internet – and the web specifically – to function. Now I’m not one of those SEO guys that believes we all need to learn how to code. I don’t think being able to code is a crucial skill. In fact, I consider myself an expert technical SEO guy and I couldn’t string together a coherent {if, then, else} statement if my life depended on it.

Rather, I see coding skills as a gateway to a much more important skillset: problem solving. A lot of technical SEO is about troubleshooting and problem solving. Learning to code is a means to acquire those skills, but by no means the only way. It’s about logic and reason, and knowing where to look.

While you don’t need to be able to code, I do think it’s important that you understand markup and are able to troubleshoot it. HTML and XML are two markup languages (the ‘ML’ in their acronyms mean exactly that) which are very important for SEO. It’s incredibly useful to be able to look at the source code of a webpage or sitemap, and have a pretty good understanding of what each line of markup actually does.

The good news here is that there are plenty of online courses and books to help you get started with HTML and XML. A simple Google search will yield literally thousands of results - plus, there's a section on Google's own site dedicated to teaching HTML.

So just get started with it – build your own webpage from scratch and learn the various different HTML tags, what they do, and how they combine to format a webpage.

Once you’ve grasped the basics of HTML, the intricacies of XML will come easy to you. It doesn’t hurt to have a basic understanding of CSS as well, though I don’t consider that as crucial to technical SEO.

Google Developers

Because Google’s platforms rely on third party developers to code for them, Google has an entire website devoted to educating developers on best practices for many of its platforms. The Google Developers site has a wealth of resources for a huge range of different development environments.

For SEOs, the most useful section there is the Search area, which contains loads of useful tips on how to build websites in such a way that Google’s search engine can work with them.

Additionally, the site devotes entire sections to optimising the load speed of your site, the basics of web security, and much more. If you’re comfortable with HTML, it’s definitely worth looking through the site and learn how Google wants us to build and optimise websites.

Learning Webservers

Lastly, to round off your understanding of the web, you need to understand how webservers work. More importantly, you’ll want to come to grips with the basic configuration options of some of the most common webserver platforms.

Personally, I’m reasonably proficient with Apache webserver, as it’s such a widely-used platform; many websites that use open source software like WordPress and Magento will run on an Apache webserver.

Get yourself a cheap hosting environment, upload your hand-coded HTML pages to it, and start experimenting with server settings and configuration files.

How Search Engines Work

Learning the intricacies of how the web works will give you a great basic skillset for technical SEO. However, it’s only part of the picture. Next, you’ll want to learn how search engines work – specifically, how search engines interact with websites to extract, interpret, and rank their content.

Whenever I teach SEO, I always start with a brief high-level overview of how search engines work. While search engines are vastly complex pieces of software, at their core they’re made up of three distinct processes. Each process handles a different aspect of web search, and together they combine to provide relevant search results:

  1. Crawling: this process is the spider – Googlebot – that crawls the web, follows links, and downloads content from your website.

  2. Indexing: the indexer – Google’s is called Caffeine - then takes the content from the spider and analyses it. It also looks at the links retrieved by the spider and maps out the resulting link graph.

  3. Ranking: this is the front-end of the search engine, where search queries are processed and interpreted, and results shown according to hundreds of ranking factors.

I give a more in-depth explanation of each of the three distinct processes in this post for State of Digital: The Three Pillars of SEO.

The basic search engine processes: crawling, indexing, and ranking

When it comes to technical SEO, crawling and indexing are the two most important processes you want to understand (though the third one, ranking, also touches on some aspects of technical SEO).

At its core, I believe that technical SEO is primarily about optimising your website so that it can be crawled and indexed efficiently by search engines. This means ensuring the right content can easily be found by Google’s spiders, removing obstacles that prevent efficient crawling, and limiting the amount of effort for search engines to index your content.

It’s important to know that search engines are, in effect, an applied science – namely, the science of Information Retrieval, which is part of the Computer Science field.

If you’re serious about developing your technical SEO skills, you’ll want to invest some time in studying the basics of information retrieval. Stanford University (where Google’s founders studied) has put their entire Introduction to Information Retrieval course online, and I highly recommend it. It won’t teach you the ins and outs of how Google works, but it gives you a clearer understanding of the field and its associated lingo. This will make interpreting the various search engine patents, as often analysed by the incomparable Bill Slawski, much more fun and illuminating.

Go Forth and Learn!

I hope all that hasn’t discouraged you from embarking on your own journey of learning technical SEO. As I said, it won’t be easy, but I guarantee that it’ll make you a more effective overall digital marketer – not to mention help you become a truly great SEO.

You’ll also find that experienced technical SEOs are very willing to help out and provide answers, guidance, and mentorship. Over the years I’ve learned so much from experts like David Harry, Alan Bleiweiss, Aaron Bradley, Rishi Lakhani, Bill Slawski, and so many others I always forget to mention. I make a point of trying to pass this on to the next batch of technical SEO experts-to-be. So if you come across a technical SEO conundrum and you need a bit of help, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

If you get demotivated and downbeat, just remember that learning technical SEO is no different than most things worth doing in life: perseverance and ambition will get you there in the end. Good luck!

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