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Death to SEO checklists

If you want to shorten my life by a year, ask me to explain SEO, and then ask:

“Can’t you just give us a checklist?”

Every time I hear that, my heart clenches, and I have to expend massive amounts of energy resisting the urge stab myself in the ear. I’m pretty sure it weakens my aorta by 25%.

I hate checklists.

I hate them more than I hate yogurt. More than I detest pennies. More than I despise fruit in my chocolate (seriously, wtf people?!).

That’s a simmering, Dark-Side-Of-The-Force-sized serving of hate.

Stupid SEO checklists


SEO checklists: A refuge for the weak-minded? Or a terrorist plot?

SEO checklists are a refuge for the weak-minded. Harsh? Maybe. But SEO isn’t an assembly line activity””it’s a very complex process that requires:

  • Server setup expertise;
  • Development smarts;
  • Design and creative intelligence;
  • Great writing;
  • A shred of common sense to bring it all together.

Maybe you can create a checklist for the server, development and design stuff. Maybe. But you sure as hell can’t write a checklist for common sense.

Instead, when you write a checklist, it becomes a replacement for common sense. Then, the next time someone does something mind-numbingly stupid, they shrug and say “Oh, sorry, it wasn’t on the checklist.”

OK. Next time, I’ll add “Don’t launch the site when the entire navigation is broken“ to the checklist.



I’ve tried it.

Understand, I’ve tried to use checklists. I’ve written lots of them.

Here’s an sample from a site launch SEO checklist that I did:

  1. Don’t launch the site with “disallow *” in robots.txt.
  2. Don’t build pages with more than 10,000 lines of HTML code in them.
  3. Make sure all pages render in under 10 seconds.
  4. Fix broken links on the site.
  5. Compress all 125 × 125 thumbnails under 20kb.
  6. Don’t use 600 × 600 originals for 125 × 125 thumbnails. Resize the images first.

By the time I was done, I wanted to cry. Why the hell do I have to tell anyone any of this? These are basic, forehead-slapping best practices for any web site. They’re not “special SEO stuff.”

Make sure pages”¦ render”¦ in under”¦ 10 seconds”¦

Sob. We’re all doomed.

Should I add “Don’t slam your tongue in your desk drawer, it hurts“ as the final tip?


Wipe out the scourge of SEO checklists everywhere

I know we’ll always have checklists in SEO. It’s a common-sense discipline, and we live in a world lacking that trait.

But you can do your part to at least minimize the spread of checklists by:

  1. Explaining the why, not just the what, so that folks make the connection. It’s easier to remember how to do something when you understand why.
  2. Working on the culture. I know how hard it can be to get a big team to start thinking SEO. But they will. You have to keep chipping away at it until the light dawns.
  3. Be honest with clients. Your client is usually a head of marketing, or a CEO, or a business owner. If a developer, designer or writer is completely screwing your client’s SEO hopes, you need to tell the client. It’s your responsibility, not an option. Talk to the individual first. But if they don’t wake the hell up, make noise. If necessary, get them fired. It’s not being mean. It’s protecting your client’s interests.
  4. Write. Talk. Teach! Get out there, will you?! Tell folks how this stuff works. Explain it’s not just about “˜buying some links‘ or “˜editing the meta tags‘. Explain the connection between SEO and good user experience design. Make sure clients understand that the two should be complimentary, not contradictory.

And yeah, now and then, write a checklist. I know you have to.



  1. Doc January 4, 2012

    Nice rant, Ian… one to which I’ll gladly add my voice!

    How about, “if you survive via checklists, at least have the good sense not to advertise it to the whole world”?

  2. Barry January 4, 2012

    I’ll be honest here and admit that I, too, have used checklists in the past. But like you say they’re invariably inadequate and never manage to capture the essence of what it is that actually needs to get done. As a result I haven’t touched a SEO checklist in years.

  3. Charlie Southwell January 4, 2012

    Can you make a checklist of all the other things you hate?

    I was given some strawberry chocolate the other day. It was annoyingly good.

  4. Doug Caywood January 4, 2012

    I equate SEO, in some respects, to flying an airplane. Once in the air there are many things that effect the course lift, drag, thrust, gravity. No big adjustments just minor corrections to keep going in the direction you choose. Over-correct and you’re all over the sky!
    But before, during and after a flight there are “checklists” because there’s always that little chance that something important may be forgotten. Every days doing the same thing – it’s good to have a reminder no matter how basic it is (fuel level, controls free, etc). The passengers? They just want to get to Maui for vacation and they trust that you will get them there safely. They (most) couldn’t care less how the plane works.

  5. IanL January 4, 2012

    [quote name=”Doc Sheldon”]Nice rant, Ian… one to which I’ll gladly add my voice!

    How about, “if you survive via checklists, at least have the good sense not to advertise it to the whole world”?[/quote]

    I like it. Or, “if you survive via checklists, charge a LOT of money for them.”

  6. Maciej Fita January 5, 2012

    ha! I love this post. Most of the items discussed is why I have to now shave my head once per/week. I also love when a client claims that they will just have an intern handle the SEO (really??). I know there are some mandatory steps to getting started with SEO every site should follow but you need an SEO mindset to know what to do or even comprehend that check list.

  7. Dr. Pete January 5, 2012

    You know I love you, Ian, but I’m going to disagree for once. I use a checklist for all of my usability audits and various SEO checklists for a couple of reasons:

    (1) They make sure I don’t miss the basics. As an expert, we all develop blind spots, and if we start hunting for Panda signals and miss Robots.txt, we can waste days of our time and our clients. We’re all human, and we miss things.

    (2) There’s a growing body of research on how effective checklists are – in medicine, for example. Doctors balk, too, because they’re professionals, but they get tired and they make mistakes. Checklists make sure the basics are done.

    (3) They get things on paper. With clients, it’s not just about the quality of your work, but about communicating the quality of that work. I’ve learned that the hard way. Checklists can be a great starting point for communication.

    Of course, if all you’ve got is a checklist, then, yes, you’re a poor excuse for an SEO. Still, I think they have their place, even for the experts.

  8. Gerry White January 6, 2012

    I think there is a place for checklists in the SEO world, at least on the fringe of it – working with developers I frequently can’t help feeling that if they had one then a lot of the simple issues would be avoided and SEO would be more advanced than it is. I wonder how many good SEO people who are still explaining the basics of the title tag on a fairly regular basis.

  9. Kittie January 8, 2012

    I love your rants… they make my day and more often than not I agree with you but in this case I tend to side more with Dr. Pete’s comments.

    If someone uses the excuse “Oh, sorry, it wasn’t on the checklist.” then either they haven’t been trained properly (my fault) and do not know what they are doing or they know damned well that they have ****** up and see it as their get out clause.

    When launching a site I always have a final check-list just to make sure that none of the basic minutia have been missed during the chaos of development/testing/fixing.

    I wouldn’t hand out a checklist but I certainly encourage the people that work with me to build their own as they go along. In order for a checklist to mean anything it needs to be personal and organic or you do run the danger of it becoming the replacement to common sense.

  10. Glenn Ferrell January 8, 2012

    Dr. Pete & Doug Caywood – Agree with you two completely !

    I ALWAYS audit before I launch. I owe that to the client. If I’m juggling several clients and handling the occasional crisis, I need to be auditing each client’s site against a checklist or (I can almost guarantee) I’ll miss something — and that’s just unprofessional.

    But just to fit in here — I don’t like chocolate with fruit in it either ! (Unless it’s those things with oranges in them… strawberries aren’t bad either…).

  11. Jonny Ross January 8, 2012


    Couldn’t agree more! Especially with point 4, write, talk and teach!

    It’s amazing how much better a campaign can be by educating your client and getting them on board and actually helping you!

    The more you teach, the more you get to demonstrate your skills and the more chance of up selling/being recommended and as I have said getting even better results.

    Good rant! Except to say I couldn’t live without my internal checklists to ensure I don’t miss anything!!!

  12. John Carcutt January 9, 2012

    Checklists can be a useful tool and a crutch for the ignorant.

    Read “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande and my guess is you will soften your stance a bit.

  13. Alan Bleiweiss January 11, 2012

    wait. You call for the death of checklists, and end with a checklist of things to do to minimize their spread?

    Dude. You’re awesome.

  14. Jono Alderson January 16, 2012

    Epic. As an SEO who’s perpetually tasked with making lists, easy wins and checkbox-approaches, I continually struggle to resist the urge to rebel and add “check the text isn’t upside-down, and is in the correct language”, or “check that the website loads when you type the URL in”. Common sense, a bit of consideration for the user and some basic marketing thinking would go a long way…

  15. Glenn Ferrell January 17, 2012

    [quote name=”Jono Alderson”]Epic. As an SEO who’s perpetually tasked with making lists, easy wins and checkbox-approaches, I continually struggle to resist the urge to rebel and add “check the text isn’t upside-down, and is in the correct language”, or “check that the website loads when you type the URL in”. Common sense, a bit of consideration for the user and some basic marketing thinking would go a long way…[/quote]

    lol ! Yes ! Checklists aren’t for the general public. We write them for ourselves. Generally my checklists cover things I have missed in the past and NEVER EVER want to miss again. The other stuff is, as you say, Common Sense.

  16. Ian January 18, 2012

    I hear ya. I’m taking an extreme viewpoint here. I use checklists – my company would die without them.

    My REAL dislike – the thing that drives me nuts – are folks who rely on checklists and nothing else.

  17. Seo Checklists February 27, 2012

    Its stupid to rely on checklists but then its stupid to say they are useless. Everyone has to learn one way or another and there are some very good checklists out there like the one I am linking to with my comment name.

  18. Seo Checklists February 27, 2012

    Actually I think this blog post is a joke to be honest, think I’ll give it a mention with my thoughts on it

Comments are closed.

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