If you are reading this article, you (1) either build websites yourself and want to optimize them or (2) own a website yourself and are looking for ways to boost your conversion.
As an IT professional, there is an arsenal of tools and scanners which you can use to evaluate the quality of the website without even having access to the code. In this article, I will share the free/cheap tools that we are using internally at Your Next Agency. I will use the homepage of our agency website as an example to run the scans.
Before kicking off, check Your Next Agency in Amsterdam out, so that you know which site we will be evaluating.
Disclaimer: automatic scans are great to point out potential areas of improvement, however, make sure to always understand what you are doing as many improvements also have drawbacks. Yep, exactly like in real life. For example, when you add caching, you get extra complexity to clear cache when the content changes.
This article might be a bit technical, but if you are not a developer, when you know which scanners to use, you will be able to open up a discussion with your developer and discuss the optimization opportunities.
Quick overview of the tools:
- Screaming Frog
- Security Headers
- SSL Test
- Mail Tester
- Structured Data Testing Tool
This scanner is probably the most popular and the most important one. It is often confused with Google PageSpeed Insights, which only tests for 1 of the 5 categories. Lighthouse tests for: Performance, Accessibility, Best Practices, SEO and PWA (Progressive Web App).
The first indicator, in my opinion, is the most important one and the most difficult one to get. It requires many optimizations, such as fast server response, page caching, using modern image formats etc. The Opportunities section should be prioritized because even though Google says that it does not directly affect the score, it does.
Having a high score in Lighthouse improves the user’s perception of the website. Faster website -> happier users -> surprise! Google also awards the high-quality website a higher position in the search results. Basically, implementing these recommendations is a no-brainer.
Some points to consider:
- Tracking scripts such as Google Analytics and Facebook Pixel drastically decrease the score and performance. Think twice whether you really need that data in 5 different Analytics platforms.
- The score changes through time. The Lighthouse tool is updated at least a couple of times a month with more checks or different score distribution. Your website and trackers code is changing as well. The website load might be different every time you run the scan and so on.
- If you are a developer, install the latest version of the CLI to scan the website. The Lighthouse version is around 1 month ahead of the Chrome dev tools version.
Screaming Frog helps you to fix all technical SEO errors. Here in Your Next Agency, we conduct such audits for our clients on a regular basis. If you deal with a content-rich website or the site redesign, Screaming Frog is more of a must-have.
It is not free, although the free version with limited functionality might be sufficient for small websites. Its price (£149/year), however, is much lower than the SEO all-in tools such as SEMRush, MOZ, or Ahrefs.
With about 25 tabs, which you can see in the screenshot, you are presented with the most varied set of tools to make sure that your website becomes SEO friendly. Some examples of the issues that can be easily detected:
- Broken or redirected links (both internal and external)
- Links without proper canonical tag
- Links which are not in the sitemap
- Links which are not indexed properly
- Hreflang tag for multi-language websites
- Missing or too short titles, descriptions or h1’s
- Missing image alt tags
- Etc, etc.
As you see, it becomes technical quickly, but as soon as you understand where to look, this tool becomes extremely powerful and will save your life one day.
This is maybe one of my favorite tools which analyzes the HTTP security headers. Some help preventing XSS attacks, some prevent that your website is loaded in an iframe by other malicious websites. Lots of scanners are very much focused on SEO or performance, while security is often forgotten. I personally believe that while evaluating the quality of the website, it shows the great skill of the agency or the developer when these headers have been taken care of.
However, remember, especially when tightening up your security while your website is still in active development, some headers like Content-Security-Policy can become a source of frustration. For example, when your marketing team is using Google Tag Manager and cannot figure out why the script is not loading.
The fact that all websites have to use a secure connection does not need any explanation anymore in 2020. The modern browsers are marking the websites without a certificate as insecure. However, in a time where all websites are secure, there is still a way to distinguish a good website from a great one.
This tool scans your certificates on both ipv4 and ipv6 connections. There are a couple of things that you would want to check to get a perfect A+ score:
- Is the web server up to date and only serving strong ciphers? This is not a luxury that you can allow yourself if you want to serve ancient devices which don’t support the strong ciphers yet. A trade-off, remember?
- Is the website applying the so-called CAA record? This basically means that you will need to define which authorities are allowed to request an SSL certificate.
- Are you using the HSTS header? This tells browsers that your website should only be accessible through https and makes a man-in-the-middle attack near to impossible.
5. Mail Tester
Forgetting to check whether the website sends emails properly can have serious consequences. It results in emails tagged by Google as malicious, ending up in spam or not delivered at all.
In my own experience handling user complaints about not receiving email is one of the most annoying tasks for a developer as it is tough to debug it when you don’t have access to somebody’s inbox. So, you better set it up correctly. This service helps you with that, you send an email to a special email address and they tell you whether there is something wrong with it. Think about SPF, dmarc, DKIM records. You can also check whether you are blacklisted by some providers. Some extra tips:
- Don’t use SMTP as it is a slow and inefficient protocol. Use services like Mailgun, Postmark or SendGrid.
- Make sure to always have some days of the retention period to track down issues.
- Never send the website email from the same domain as your actual provider. Use a subdomain.
This service is often used by the marketers who are sending a bunch of newsletters, but the transactional emails of a website must comply with the same rules, so give it a try!
As the final tool of this list, I have chosen to mention an SEO tool from Google. Even though the search machines have become much better in understanding the content, you still have to help them. You might find two problems with this scanner: (1) absence of structured data or (2) its invalidity.
Fixing the latter is straightforward, this tool tells you exactly what you need to do. It is a much harder task to know when to use it. Here are some tips:
- On every page, add a web page object with all the information about your company.
- On every page, add a breadcrumbs object, so that Google understands the structure of your website.
- If you have a listing on your website (e.g. news articles, products, events etc.), make sure to use the appropriate object for that. If you have digital services, as we do on our website, there is at this point no recommended solution from Google.
- Use a CMS plugin for easier Structured data management. It is a hassle to manage structured data in the code. The easier it is to manage it, the more likely you will actually do it. Craft CMS which we are using internally has everything set up for you so that you don’t even have to write code.
Concluding, I would like to emphasize that while the mentioned scanners simplify your life a lot, they only offer a part of the solution. You will still need humans to evaluate the website for both technical and non-technical part:
- Does the content make sense?
- Does the tone of voice fit the target audience?
- Is the UX intuitive?
- Does the functionality work which cannot be tested from outside (e.g. are the forms, integrations working?)
- Etc., etc.
If you need some advice on which steps to undertake to optimize your website, just shoot Your Next Agency a message. I will be happy to take a look at your case and make sure that all scanners turn green and the technical foundation of the website is top class.