If you want your content to stand the best chance of ranking in the search engine results pages in 2021, you’ve got to nail your SEO. But as any marketer worth their salt will tell you, there’s a lot that goes into effective search engine optimization—so how do you keep on top of it all? With an SEO checklist, of course!
Below, we’ve compiled an ultimate list of every single SEO task, technique, and strategy you can use to optimize your website for search and make sure it adheres to SEO best practices this year.
We’ll be covering everything from the basic SEO steps you need to take when you first set up your website to advanced on-page and off-page SEO methods you can use to soar ahead of the competition.
This is the only SEO checklist you’ll ever need, so bookmark this page, grab your notepad and a cup of coffee, and let’s dive right into it!
A quick note before we get started: You don’t need to do everything on this list to rank for your target keywords—just do what you can. The more steps you take, the better chance your website pages will have of reaching page one.
SEO checklist for new websites
First, let’s start with the basics.
If you’re just starting a brand new website, there are certain preliminary steps you’ll need to take for SEO purposes.
Here’s an SEO checklist for new websites that outline what you need to do before you even start thinking about on-page and off-page SEO.
1. Choose a fast, responsive, SEO-friendly theme
Google recently announced that starting from June 2021, they’ll be gradually rolling out changes to their ranking algorithm to pay more attention to page experience metrics.
The upshot: site speed, mobile-friendliness, and security will become increasingly important SEO metrics in the near future.
If you want to rank in 2021, your website needs to load fast, offer excellent mobile usability, and be very secure—and that’s where your theme comes in.
These themes are fully responsive and get top marks when it comes to loading times, according to a test by Kinsta.
2. Sign up to Google Search Console and submit your site map
Search Console is Google’s free SEO tool.
It’s designed to help webmasters monitor their SEO efforts, see which keywords are driving traffic to their website, and identify any glaring issues that might be holding them back. All this makes it an essential tool in your SEO marketing arsenal.
Search Console is also where you submit your sitemap to Google.
Your sitemap is a file that lists all the important pages on your website and how they relate to each other. You can think of it kind of like a blueprint of your website.
Its purpose is to provide search engines with the information they need to accurately crawl and index your website pages and posts.
To make sure your site gets indexed quickly and correctly, you’ll want to generate and submit an XML sitemap through Search Console as soon as possible. Depending on what CMS you used to build your website, you may already have one. If so, you’ll usually be able to find it at “https://www.yourdomain.com/sitemap.xml” (replace ‘yourdomain.com’ with your website domain).
You can submit it to Search Console by clicking on ‘sitemaps’ on the navigation bar, typing in the URL, and clicking ‘submit’.
You only have to do this once, as Google will automatically check your sitemap periodically to check for changes.
If you don’t already have a sitemap, there are a ton of plugins and XML sitemap generator tools available that can create one for you, one of which is Yoast SEO, which we’ll talk about next.If you can find the time, I’d also recommend signing up for Bing Webmaster Tools and submitting your sitemap there too. Bing Webmaster Tools is Bing’s equivalent of Search Console.
3. Install Yoast SEO (if using WordPress)
If you’re using WordPress, I’d recommend installing the Yoast SEO plugin. Yoast is a free SEO plugin that helps you to optimize all of the posts and pages on your website for search with minimal effort.
It works like this: below the WordPress editor, you enter the keyword you’re hoping to rank for.
The Yoast plugin will then check your SEO content to see how well optimized it is for that keyword and give you a checklist of things you need to do to improve it.
Once it’s optimized, you’ll see a green smile emoji, indicating it’s ready to publish.
If you’re not using WordPress, there are plenty of similar alternatives out there. For example, if your website is built on Shopify, you can use Plug in SEO instead.
4. Install speed optimization plugins
It’s worth doing everything you can to make your pages load faster.
Even as little as a fraction of a second can mean the difference between ranking in position one or position two, and an easy way to speed things up is to install speed optimization plugins.
There are many plugins out there that can help you speed up your website, but one of my favorites (if you’re using WordPress) is Smush. Smush condenses all of the images on your site for you to minimize the file size so that your pages load faster.
It also sets up ‘lazy loading’ so that your images only load once as the user scrolls down the page and they become visible, which minimizes initial page loading times.
5. Create and link your social accounts
Linking your social accounts is one of the easiest ways to give your website a quick off-page SEO boost right off the bat (we’ll talk more about off-page SEO later).
Make sure you set up business accounts on all the major social platforms you’d like to have a presence on (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) and link out to your website from them.
Not only does this bag you some easy backlinks for a quick SEO boost, but it also sends a positive message to search engines that you’re a real business with a real web presence, which can help you to get indexed faster and rank higher.
6. Create an SEO-friendly site structure
Site hierarchy has a significant impact on SEO.
Search engines determine your site’s all about—and what keywords it should rank for—by looking at how your site hierarchy is laid out and how your posts and pages are interlinked.
Your website should have a logical hierarchy, user-friendly URL navigation, 2-7 main categories, and excellent internal linking to maximize your ranking potential.
A great, SEO-friendly way to structure your site is to follow a topic-cluster model.
The topic-cluster model involves creating ‘pillar pages’ that act as broad overviews of your main topics and link out to related sub-topics. This can help boost your topical authority and distribute link equity neatly across your website.
I’d also recommend creating categories based on broad keywords related to your main niche and setting up SEO-friendly permalinks in the format https://yourdomain.com/post-name.
On-page SEO checklist
On-page SEO refers to any SEO efforts carried out on individual web pages on your site.
It involves optimizing your content writing for SEO but doesn’t include any external SEO efforts, like building backlinks and earning social shares.
In the on-page SEO checklist below, we’ll be talking about how to write SEO content effectively, sharing the main on-page SEO factors you need to know about, and revealing some tried-and-tested on-page SEO techniques.
7. Include your primary target keyword in the URL slug
The presence of the keyword in the website page URL is one of the top 200 Google ranking factors. That’s why it’s essential to include your target keyword in your URL.
Pages with short URLs also tend to rank better. Therefore, if you’re targeting a particularly long keyword, it’s a good idea to simplify them in your URL.
For example, let’s imagine your targeting a long-string keyword phrase like “best bike rack for SUV without hitch”
We don’t want to use a URL like this:
That would be too many words. Instead, we should shorten it to include just the most important words, like this:
Best practices also suggest using a permalink structure with a short URL path that puts the keyword directly next to the domain (like the above example) works better than using a longer path.
Avoid using long URL paths like this:
8. Use your target keyword and modifiers in the title tag
You should also use your target keyword in your title tag, as close to the front as possible.
Ideally, you should front-load the title tag with the keyword and then follow it with modifiers that target related keywords.
Here’s an example from a blog post on the website ‘Remotely Working’:
The target keyword here is “Teach English Online”.
That phrase is at the front of the title, but it’s followed by a bunch of modifiers to help it rank for related long-tail keywords, like “Teach English Online to Japanese students” and “Top English Teaching Companies”.
These long-tail keywords actually ended up driving more traffic to that post than the primary keyword, which shows why they’re so important.
9. Mention your target keyword in the first paragraph
This one’s pretty straightforward.
You should always make sure you include your target keyword right at the top of the page content. It should appear at least once in the first 150 words, ideally in the first sentence.
Why? Because first impressions are essential when it comes to SEO.
The search engine spiders that crawl your website base their assessment of what the page is all about on the introduction. Therefore, it needs to be immediately apparent what the topic of your article is.
If you start off talking about an unrelated topic, it sends the wrong message and can seriously hurt your ranking potential.
10. Use your target keyword and related keywords in subheadings
Search engines like Google pay close attention to the subheadings on your webpage, so it’s important to make sure they reflect the topic you’re writing about.
Include the keyword you’re trying to rank for and related keywords within your subheadings. All subheadings should also be marked correctly in HTML using H1, H2, H3, and H4 tags.
You should use plenty of subheadings to split up the body of the content into easily digestible chunks. This will both help with SEO and make the content more engaging for your readers.
As a rule of thumb, no individual section should be longer than 300 words. If a section is longer than that, it should be split up with a subheading.
11. Write great content that covers the topic in-depth and satisfies search intent
Ultimately, search engines like Google just want to provide the best possible results to their users.
That’s why the most powerful on-page SEO tactic is as simple as writing great content.
Every time you write a piece of SEO content, you should be aiming to create the best possible piece of content on that topic. It should cover the topic in-depth, be clear and concise (without the fluff), and satisfy the user’s search intent.
Don’t get too hung up on things like keyword density and NEVER keyword stuff.
Just write great content on the topic, and you should find that you end up including your target keyword and related LSI keywords naturally, without trying to.
While we’re on the topic of great content, we’d be doing you a disservice if we didn’t mention ContentPlanner.io.
ContentPlanner.io is a tool designed to help you create great content on schedule. You can sign up for a forever free account today and start using ContentPlanner.io to create, schedule, and plan your content campaigns, manage your workflow, and take care of all your content marketing activities from one centralized location.
12. Make sure the word count is appropriate for the topic
Studies show that long-form content (2,000+ words) tends to rank on page one of the search engine results pages more often than ‘content thin’ pages.
On the surface, the upshot of this seems clear: write longer content.
However, it’s not that simple.
The truth is, 2,000+ word pages don’t consistently rank better—it all depends on the topic.
Longer form content tends to outrank shorter content in most cases, but that’s not because there are more words on the page—it’s because longer articles tend to satisfy search intent better and cover the topic in more detail than shorter articles.
Writing 1,000+ words of irrelevant fluff isn’t going to help you rank. On the contrary, it’ll hurt your SEO.
The key is to write as much as needed to fully cover the topic you’re writing about in as much detail as possible. No more; no less.
If you’re writing a pillar post on a very broad topic, that might mean aiming for 4,000+ words (like this post).
On the other hand, if you’re writing a response post on a very specific question (e.g., something like “what is the best time to post on Instagram”), you might be able to cover everything in 1,000 words or less.
13. Optimize your images
SEO isn’t just about optimizing the text on your website pages—it’s about optimizing images too.
There are three things we need to do to optimize images for search: compress them, change the filename, and add image alt tags.
First off, you’ll want to make sure your images are saved in the smallest possible file size without negatively impacting the quality. This helps keep page load times fast (remember: website speed is an important part of SEO).
Just upload your images, compress them, and download the compressed files. You can also use image compression plugins like Smush.
Next, we need to change the filename.
Search engines like Google can’t see images as your readers can. The only way they know what your pictures are about is if you tell them.
And the way you do that is through your image filename and alt text.
When you save the image to your computer, use a filename that reflects that topic of your article and image. It doesn’t need to be the exact keyword your targeting, but it’s a good idea to use a closely related keyword if possible.
For example, let’s say you’re writing an article on the topic of the best pet food products for dogs, and you’re using an image of a dry dog food product. You’ll want to name that something like:
Then, once you’ve added it to your post, add an alt tag that describes the image in a short sentence, like this:
“Dry dog food in a large dog bowl”
14. Include internal and external links
Don’t forget to include a handful of both internal and external links in any new piece of SEO content you publish.
Internal links help to pass link equity around your site to give all your different posts and pages a boost in ranking power.
Bonus tip: Place your internal links on keyword-rich anchor text.
External links to trustworthy, authoritative sites in your niche help make your website seem more credible and well-researched in the eyes of the search engines. It also helps boost your topical authority.
Bonus tip: Try to only link out to reputable, high-authority, relevant websites and avoid linking out to your direct competitors.
Off-page SEO checklist
If you want your SEO efforts to pay off, you can’t forget to optimize for off-page ranking factors too.
Off-page SEO refers to the actions you take outside of your website to improve the search engine’s perception of your relevance, trustworthiness, and authority in your niche.
And for the most part, that means building and earning backlinks from other relevant, authoritative websites.
But it’s not just about backlink building—there’s a lot more that goes into off-page SEO besides just that.
Here’s an SEO checklist of all the strategies you can use to improve your off-page SEO.
15. Secure ‘easy-win’ links
Before you start using advanced link-building strategies, you’re going to want to grab all of the ‘easy-win links’ available to you.
Easy-win links are backlinks you can get in minutes, with minimal to no effort. I’m talking about things like:
Social profile and forum backlinks
Sign up to all the social platforms and forums you can (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn, Reddit, Quora, etc) and insert a link to your website in the relevant section of your profile.
Many of these links will be NoFollow and won’t pass link juice, but they can help your off-page SEO indirectly by helping you maintain a more natural backlink profile.
Niche directories and resource pages
There are a ton of websites out there that function as resource pages. These kinds of pages exist solely to link out to other websites, so they’re an easy way to get a quick backlink.
To find relevant resource pages in your niche, you can use a search operator like:
“Keyword” + “useful resources”.
Once you’ve found one that looks valuable, submit your website to be listed.
Whenever your brand/website is mentioned in a post or page on another website, the publisher should, in theory, link to you—but this doesn’t always happen.
Sometimes, people mention your brand without linking out to you.
You can use tools like BuzzSumo to uncover these unlinked brand mentions and then email the site owner with a gentle nudge asking them to add a link.
In most cases, they’ll be more than happy to correct their oversight, earning you a bunch of easy backlinks in the process.
16. Send out HARO pitches
HARO stands for Help a Reporter Out. It’s a free service that connects reporters, journalists, and bloggers with expert sources.
It works like this:
- Sign up to the HARO mailing list here
- Check your emails daily and browse the list of reporter queries/requests for sources.
- If you think you can contribute something valuable to one of the requests, send an email to the reporter to the address in the email query with your response.
- Make sure to include your name, title, and the website you want them to link to in the email.
If a reporter chooses to use your email as a source or quotes you in the published article, they’ll link out to your website.
As many of these articles are published on super-high-authority websites and national newspapers, you can get some really powerful backlinks using this method.
Try to send at least one email a day using the above method to maximize your chances of earning backlinks.
17. Create linkable assets
The best way to get backlinks is to earn them. This means creating great content that people want to link to because it’s just that good. We call this kind of content a ‘link magnet’.
Certain posts make better link magnets than others and are more likely to be shared and referenced in other articles online. Here are a few ideas:
- Skyscraper content—The skyscraper technique involves creating the biggest, most in-depth piece of content on a given topic. This kind of content naturally attracts links.
- Statistics articles—Articles that feature a roundup of important statistics on a certain topic often attract a ton of links. This is because many bloggers and publishers use statistics to back up points in their articles and reference the source of their statistics by linking out to them.
- Listicles—Articles with numbers in the title (listicles) tend to earn more social shares and backlinks than other types of articles.
18. Implement a guest posting strategy
Guest posting is still one of the most powerful and effective backlink-building strategies in 2021. Here’s how to go about it.
First, create a spreadsheet list of all the most authoritative, relevant, and reputable sites that are closely related to your niche.
Check each of those websites to see if they accept guest posts (if they do, there will usually be a page on their site titled ‘write for us’, ‘guest post’, ‘contribute’, or something similar). Remove any websites that don’t accept guest posts from your list.
Finally, you’ll want to reach out to each of the sites asking to contribute a guest post. If they have guidelines on how to go about this, follow those. If not, just send a warm inquiry email.
Try to make your inquiry email personalized to each website and, ideally, pitch some relevant guest post topics that you think would be a good fit for their website right off the bat. This will maximize your chances of getting a response.
19. Check your competitors’ backlinks
Another great off-page SEO tactic is to spy on your competitors.
The chances are, if they’ve accepted a guest post from your competitor, they’ll accept one from you too.
20. Launch a broken link building campaign
I’m a big fan of broken link building as an off-page SEO strategy.
A lot of people think this doesn’t work well in 2021 – those people are doing it wrong.
The truth is, broken link building still works great if you do it right. It works like this:
- First, you identify pages with a ton of outbound links (like niche resource pages) and use a tool like Check My Links to see if any of them are broken.
- Next, you open up the broken page that the broken link points to in a tool like Ahrefs to check what other backlinks point to it.
- Once you find a broken page with a ton of backlinks, you recreate the content on it.
- Finally, you email all the site owners that are linking out to the broken page, notifying them that you found a broken link and offering your website as a replacement.
This process works great at scale. You can send a bulk email out to hundreds of site owners at once. Even if only 10% of them replace the link with your website, that still bags you dozens of new backlinks.
21. Evaluate the strength of your backlink profile
Check your backlink profile regularly with your favorite SEO analytics tool to see how it looks.
Google likes it when websites earn their links organically, so the goal is to have a backlink profile that looks as natural as possible.
This means aiming for a nice balance of do-follow/no-follow links and a good mix of anchor text. For example, if you have 95% do-follow links on exact match anchor text, that doesn’t look good and will hurt your SEO.
22. Improve your internal linking structure
Try to set up your internal linking structure to distribute link equity around your website.
You should link internally to other pages on your site in every piece of content you publish, especially to your money pages.
Your money pages are pages that you’re most interested in ranking and driving organic search traffic towards. The kind of pages that generate your business the most money.
23. Implement a social media campaign
As I said, off-page SEO isn’t just about backlinks—social signals are essential too.
That’s why it’s worth promoting your website content on social media to give it an initial push. The aim of your social campaigns should be to drive as much engagement (i.e., likes, shares, and comments) and reach as large an audience as possible.
You can use Facebook Ads Manager to set up and launch highly targeted paid ad campaigns on Facebook and Instagram. We won’t go into detail about how to run a successful Facebook Ads campaign here as there’s just too much to cover, but the basic steps are:
- Choose your objective
- Determine your budget and bidding strategy
- Choose your ad placements
- Set up your targeting options
- Launch your ad, track and measure your ad performance, and adapt your strategy
You can also promote your website on social media organically, without using paid ads, by regularly posting to your business social pages (at the right times), promoting your posts with hashtags, and engaging in relevant groups.
That concludes our SEO checklist
There you have it—a complete SEO checklist for 2021. We hope you found it helpful!
Remember: you don’t have to tick all the boxes to outrank the competition. Effective search engine optimization is an ongoing process—it isn’t something you can complete overnight.
Just do as much as you can, and don’t forget to bookmark this SEO checklist so you can keep coming back to it whenever you have time to work on your SEO.