by Mac 

April 9, 2021

One of the key differences between an average SEO and a good SEO is how you approach prioritization of fixes. You can have all the knowledge in the world when it comes to SEO but if you don’t know how to prioritize the issues you find, you’re hamstringing yourself. Unfortunately that’s pretty common. We’ll go through how you should prioritize issues as well as a few issues I constantly see prioritized over other major issues.

Issues

Before we jump in, let’s make sure we go over what we consider issues. An issue can range from missing meta descriptions to broken javascript rendering. It can also cover “issues” that really aren’t issues, like meta keyword tags. With that in mind, let’s continue.

Prioritization

All issues are not created equal and not every issue is actually an issue at all. In general, priorities should fall under a classification based on the impact and the effort. For example

  • High Priority – This should be fixed immediately because it has a detrimental impact, or it should be done immediately because it provides a strong boost.
  • Medium Priority – These issues should be fixed when possible. They may have a detrimental impact but it’s not incredibly bad, or it provides a boost.
  • Low Priority – These issues are minor and likely shouldn’t take priority over other issues. They are barely detrimental and have no major noticeable impact.

Priorities should factor in effort if possible. This usually requires some knowledge of the issue and the site that’s being worked on. Fixing rendering issues is a high priority and potentially high effort task because it involves the developers handling a complex issue. Removing duplicate H1s is a low priority but it could take a medium to high amount of effort depending on the site, whether templates are involved etc.

In general when I provide priorities, I don’t explicitly list the effort a task would take. I’ve worked on enough sites to know that something I consider low effort may actually take quite a lot of work to fix because the client uses a custom CMS. If you know a site well enough to provide the effort something may take, do it. Some general tasks that focus on robots.txt issues, sitemaps etc. you can likely provide an effort for regardless of site.

What Causes Poor Prioritization

The primary reason poor prioritization occurs is ultimately due to a lack of hands-on knowledge of around issues. When you first start out, you’re likely relying on guides, reading what other SEOs say and perhaps relying on what tools tell you.

As an example, let’s consider disavowing backlinks. Many SEOs (well-known and regular joes) will tell you that you must proactively disavow backlinks that are “bad”. If you use the tool SEMRush, it’s also going to tell you that you have toxic backlinks that must be disavowed because you’re at risk of a penalty. Well no one wants a penalty and everyone says that you need to disavow these URLs, so as a new SEO (or an older SEO as well) you act quickly and start disavowing “suspect” links. The problem is that you might end up disavowing good URLs and losing out on that link equity and could potentially tank some of your rankings. The other issue is that it wasn’t a good use of your time, and you could have done something that would have had a greater impact. 

The above scenario happens when you rely on guides, read what other SEOs say, and believe what a tool is telling you. Now as you gain knowledge and questions what you read, eventually you’ll probably learn that you shouldn’t bother disavowing until something happens. For one you don’t risk getting rid of a good link (I’ve seen it happen), and two you can spend that time on important tasks.

That’s only one example, but this happens all the time with issues. At the end of this article I’ve listed a few areas that I primarily notice poor prioritization. Go through it and keep it in mind.

How do I learn to prioritize well?

Ultimately this comes with time. When I started I didn’t prioritize issues well at all. As time goes on you learn what has an impact and what doesn’t. However, I have consistently seen SEOs in the 5 year range still prioritize issues incorrectly. They prioritize incorrectly due to what I consider are the three primary reasons:

  • They rely on a tools prioritization
  • They rely on what popular SEOs and popular SEO sites say
  • They don’t review the work they did and measure the impact of fixed issues

If you can avoid those three issues and talk to others who’ve been in the industry awhile, you’ll begin to gain a better understanding of what matters and what doesn’t. 

Proper Prioritization

Now that we’ve gone through an example of poor prioritization and why it happens let’s walk through an example of proper prioritization. Say you’re working on a site and find a wide array of issues. For example, let’s say you find the following issues:

  • Missing Meta Description
  • Missing Titles
  • Missing H1s
  • Javascript Links
  • Missing Sitemap

Now each of these issues should be fixed, so how do you prioritize them? I’d prioritize like this:

  • Javascript Links – High Priority
  • Missing Sitemap – High Priority
  • Missing Title – High Priority
  • Missing H1 – Medium Priority
  • Missing Meta Description – Low Priority

Now at the bottom of this article I include missing sitemaps, H1s, and meta descriptions as issues that are typically incorrectly prioritized above other tasks, and yet I’ve placed one of them as a high priority issue and one as a medium priority issue. Let’s get into why.

URLs that are linked by a Javascript method over the standard <a href> method will not be crawled by Google, so depending on the setup, they may never be found. However, if the URL is placed in a sitemap, we can get around that hiccup. It’s still important to fix the root issue of Javascript links, but by making a sitemap we can at least make sure Google finds these URLs until the main problem is fixed.

The missing Title is a high priority because the title tag is the first thing a user sees in the search results. If there’s no title, why bother clicking? 

The missing H1 is a medium priority for a couple reasons. The first is because there are few issues, and the missing H1 is more important than the missing meta description. If it weren’t for the Javascript links, the sitemap would also be a low priority and the missing H1 would outrank it. The second reason is that H1s still have some weight when it comes to ranking, however little it may be. You want every advantage you can get, so take it.

Finally, the missing meta description is a low priority for a few reasons. The first is that it isn’t a ranking factor. The second is that even though it also shows up in the search results like the title does, users look at the title first so that takes priority. Finally, Google often makes up it’s own meta description anyways, so if you don’t have something Google will do it for you. That doesn’t mean you should always rely on Google, but when you have multiple issues that are a higher priority, a missing meta description can wait.

Notice that I didn’t list an impact? While I think it’s great to list an impact if you have enough knowledge to be accurate in that guess, I find it’s too fickle. Sometimes something I think will have a big impact won’t. Sometimes a small lower priority item will have a larger impact. It all comes down to personal preference. In general, I roll it all up in the priority. In the list above, I’ve factored in impacts as part of the priority, even though I don’t explicitly mention it. Do what feels best to you, but do keep it in mind whether you mention it or not.

Common Poorly Prioritized Issues

I’ve included a list of issues that I’ve often seen come up marked as high priority that really shouldn’t be. Remember, it doesn’t necessarily mean these shouldn’t be fixed at all, it just means that they shouldn’t be prioritized over other more important issues. 

  • Meta Descriptions
    • SEOs often like to focus on overly long meta descriptions or short meta descriptions. While an optimized meta description is valuable, don’t spend an abundance of time on it.
    • Remember, Google will often make their own meta description regardless of what you’ve created.
  • Meta Keywords
    • Back in the day meta keywords factored into rankings and were abused. Today, they have no meaning. Many SEOs will tell you to remove it, but it doesn’t matter.
  • H1 Tags
    • If a page doesn’t have H1 tags, you should get them created, however there are usually other more important issues. If this can be quickly tackled, do it, but I wouldn’t call it a high priority that requires everything else to be dropped.
    • Multiple H1s, despite Google telling SEO’s it’s fine, continue to come up as a priority item. SEOs constantly tell clients to remove them. Not only is this incorrect, it’s not a priority item at all.
  • Image Alt Tags
    • Most sites aren’t focused on image traffic, so adding alt tags doesn’t really create a lift. Additionally it can be very time consuming depending on the amount of images.
    • Image Alt Text IS important when factoring in ADA Compliance. Many sites don’t have to worry about this but keep it in mind from that standpoint.
    • If a site is image heavy and relies on image traffic, this item would have a higher priority, so always consider the site.
  • Sitemaps
    • A site with few pages does not need a sitemap. In fact sites don’t need sitemaps at all to do well. I’ve heard SEOs say sites without sitemaps are seen as bad sites by Google and rank lower. This is a lie.
    • Sitemaps are helpful, but always consider the site. There’s no harm in making one (I recommend it), but if there are higher priority items, tackle those first.
  • Schema
    • Not all schema has value for a site. Don’t focus on schema that won’t help a site or doesn’t have a corresponding Google feature.
  • Thin Pages
    • Sometimes thin pages should be fixed, but other times they are perfectly fine as thin pages. Always consider the site and page.
  • Redirect Chains
    • A redirect chain that has 2 or 3 URLs is not a high priority fix. Google will follow past 5 redirects as well, despite the insistence of SEOs claiming they won’t. This is not a high priority issue.
    • A caveat is that if you see intermingled 301s and 302s, I would bump the priority up, but it still wouldn’t be a high priority and most other issues would take priority.

Conclusion

We can’t stress this enough, you need to learn how to prioritize issues well. You’ll get better results for yourself and clients, and you’ll have a leg up on others. It’ll take some trial and error but if you stick with it you’ll be set. Don’t forget to get other SEOs and even Dev opinions on these issues. You’ll want to verify them, but it can help speed up your learning when it comes to prioritizing issues.

About the author 

Mac

Mac is one of the Search Mentors. His first experience with SEO was badmouthing a CS 1.6 clan on a public forum and getting caught when they googled their name. Oops. Mac's been involved in SEO in various capacities for 10 years, but is primarily involved in technical SEO. He doesn't show his face because his company probably wouldn't like that he does other SEO related things.

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