In a perfect world there would be no lines at the post office, car windshields wouldn’t crack, ice cream would be good for you – and websites with the best content would place highest in search engine rankings.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing any of us can do about the first three items on the wish list. Ranking near or at the top of Google’s results, though, is a possibility; that’s the whole purpose of search engine optimization, aka SEO.
What is on-page SEO?
One of the most important steps you can take to maximize results and website traffic from search engines is to make sure that their spiders are able to see and understand all the great content you’ve created. That is done by optimizing each website page through a process known as on-page SEO.
Search engines, including Google, have their spiders gathering information 24 hours a day, seven days a week. One of the spiders’ main tasks is assessing the content of every site on the web to determine the subject of each page, how informative it is, and its overall importance in relation to similar pages on the Internet.
Most spiders will discard all the unneeded info and focus on understanding the actual content. Here’s how they see a section of Randombyte’s home page, for example.
No fancy formatting or shiny widgets – just plain, pure text. That’s how search engines see your nicely crafted website pages.
As part of the big picture, spiders also take inventory of all of the websites that are linking to yours. That is also an important factor in SEO, but it’s a subject for another article. Here we’ll focus only on what the robots see on your site, and we will learn how to serve up a tasty meal for them to chomp on when they come to visit.
Critical on-page SEO factors
Your primary goal should always be to clearly show the search engines what each page of your site is about. That’s done through correct use and placement of your most important keywords, and through proper page and site organization.
Keywords tell spiders what are the most important subjects covered by your content – and not coincidentally, the keywords you want to rank for – while organization makes it as easy as possible for spiders to find those keywords and assign them importance.
Another important on-page SEO goal is to demonstrate that the content is designed not only to please search engines, but to benefit your visitors as well. That is done by using a variety of elements, including lengthy and engaging text, multimedia elements which boost user interaction with your site, and outbound links to third party, authoritative sources of information that complement your articles.
Ensuring that the page loads quickly and does its best to keep visitors on the site for as long as possible are also important factors in the on-page SEO equation. The good news is that free online services like WebPageTest can help you pinpoint the issues that affect the website loading speed, for example.
Don’t worry. It’s not as difficult as it sounds if you take things step by step. Here’s our detailed on-page SEO checklist.
1. Use descriptive URLs
Both visitors and spiders find your content via the URLs assigned to your website pages, and those online locations provide vital information to search engines. URLs such as:
certainly aren’t easy for visitors to remember, and won’t entice them to click either. More than that, they don’t give search engines the same clear topic signal that the “yoursite.com/on-page-seo-guide” URL would provide.
Keep all your website URLs as simple and informative as possible (short and sweet is the key) and make sure to include the targeted keyword. Avoid using spaces in your page URLs, because they end up showing as gibberish.
If you use WordPress, you can easily make the URLs (which WP calls permalinks) friendlier in the “settings” section.
Finally, if you have lots of confusing subdirectories containing the content on your site, make sure to clean them up. A URL like “yoursite.com/posts/on-page-seo-guide” is a lot more desirable in comparison with “yoursite.com/posts/2016/11/seo/information/tips/on-page-seo-guide.html”.
2. Write optimized title and description meta tags
Meta tags are small pieces of information included in your pages’ code. Their primary purpose is to tell search engines more about your site and to give them text to display in their listings. Obviously, these tags should be created according to what spiders want to see – and more importantly, what you want them to see.
The “title” tag is the key on-page SEO element of your entire page. It should be short (no more than 60 characters) and to the point. And it should begin with your most important keyword(s), since Google and other engines give the most weight to the first three to five words.
“On-Page SEO: How to Rank High in Google” hits all the right notes. On the other hand, “The Ten Commandments of Structuring Page Elements in Order to Capture the Attention of Spiders Visiting Your Site” hits none of them.
The title tag will be displayed as your page title in the search engine results, so be sure to write it in a way that entices surfers to click. If you run an online store, adding words like “inexpensive” or “discount” to the title tag will significantly increase the number of website visits.
In addition to this, the extra words will also help you rank for several long-tail keywords that are related to your primary keyword.
The “description” tag will often times (but not always!) become the description of your page that’s shown in search engine listings, so you want to turn it into an informative “mini-ad” for your site, while still including crucial keywords. It should have about 150 characters or less, because additional characters will be truncated on Google’s search results pages.
Thankfully, the annoying “keywords” meta tag which was once used to manipulate the search engine results doesn’t matter anymore.
3. Use keyword-rich H1, H2, H3 and image tags
Classic HTML formatting uses tags named H1, H2, H3 and the like to specify the size of headers on a page. But search engines also look at the H1 tag (and to a lesser degree, H2 and H3) for clues regarding the most important topics on the page.
You would probably assume that you want to put your main keyword in the H1 tag and the long-tail, secondary keywords in the H2 and H3 tags, and you would be right. In fact, most content management systems and themes, particularly WordPress themes, will automatically do that for you. Some, however, use these tags solely for formatting purposes, so you could end up with extraneous phrases getting the “H1 attention” that your main keywords deserve. Be sure to check your page’s source code, to ensure that this isn’t happening.
Many people make this mistake, but you shouldn’t ignore another powerful opportunity to wave your keywords in the face of spiders: the use of image tags and names. If you want those search engine robots to understand that your site is about cameras, why name your photos “image1.jpg”, when you can call them “best-cameras-for-youtube.jpg”, and so on?
Images can also be tagged with titles and alt texts. Take full advantage of this feature, without overdoing it; otherwise, search engines will figure out that you are trying to game the system.
4. Create high quality content which includes LSI keywords
The text that makes up the bulk of a page’s content is the most important element on almost every web page. Even if you have only read one or two articles about modern SEO, you have no doubt been hammered with the idea that “content is king”. That’s one important dictate, but there are others.
Let’s deal with quality first. It’s certainly cheaper and less time-consuming to buy or produce low quality articles, or even use article spinners that automatically generate content that’s “borrowed” from other people’s websites.
However, those savings are illusory. Search algorithms are getting smarter at recognizing bad or spun content, and popular pages are often reviewed by Google’s own employees. This explains why poorly-written pages will never get great rankings.
Just as important, Google is now including metrics in their algorithms that take into account the amount of time visitors remain on a page, with metrics known as Bounce Rate and Time on Site/Average Session Duration.
If your inexpensive content doesn’t provide value to the visitors, they will leave immediately and your rankings will reflect that fact. These days, quality really is king.
And the length of your content is “queen”. Study after study shows that articles which have at least 1,000 words will receive more love from the search engines. It may not be possible to have that much text for some subjects or pages, of course. There’s only so much you can say on a store page that is trying to sell a 3/8” bolt 😉
Make sure to include the targeted keywords in your text; otherwise, Google may have a hard time trying to understand what you are trying to rank for. Don’t try to game the system by repeating your keywords over and over; otherwise, Google may penalize your website. Using your keywords too many times is considered “keyword stuffing”, which used to be quite effective in the past, but now will quickly get you into trouble.
So how many times should you include your keywords? Unfortunately, the answer is “it depends”. Some SEO experts will swear that 1-3% is the optimal value, while others (including myself) will tell you that keyword density doesn’t matter, as long as the content flows naturally.
Here’s a video where Google’s most popular SEO expert – Matt Cutts – tries to dispel the keyword density myth. Take three minutes to watch this movie, and then stop being obsessed about keyword density – old school SEO doesn’t work anymore!
Still not convinced? Then take a good look at the pages that already rank in the top ten for competitive keywords and try to estimate their keyword densities. You will discover that real SEOs have forgotten about these outdated search engine optimization techniques. By the way, by examining the pages in Google’s top ten you can also figure out the optimal content length.
One final factor is the use of long-tail variations of your keywords and related phrases, which are often referred to as LSI (latent semantic indexing) keywords. Google’s algorithms have become incredibly sophisticated during the last few years, being able to accurately analyze synonyms and closely-related phrases. Their main goal is to evaluate the content of a page and determine its relevance, after all.
There are many tools which will help you find commonly-searched long-tails and LSI keywords, and they are very useful when it comes to content optimization. In fact, as you can see in the image above, Google’s own search results can serve as a good source of LSI keywords.
On-page SEO tips
The “big four” on-page factors that we’ve looked at so far will make your content please the search engines. But there are other, less important ranking factors to consider as well, if you want to maximize your chances of getting first page Google rankings.
Use multimedia content. Add images and/or video to your content; this can improve time on site and lower your page’s bounce rate. If a particular page includes just a video, add its transcript below it, as this will increase the amount of high quality text on the page, boosting its rankings.
Keep the content above the Fold. Newspapers have always put their most important content on the top half of the front page, where readers will see it immediately. Google uses a similar technique to evaluate content, and will devalue a site that places ads, instead of quality content on the first screen a visitor sees.
Don’t forget to add outbound links to authoritative sources of information that complement your articles. Google will reward you for creating a valuable user experience. Wikipedia itself has an “External links” section on most of its pages, and it’s one of the few websites that capture a lot of SEO traffic.
Boost your website loading speed. I have mentioned WebPageTest at the beginning of the article, so be sure to try it out. Google places a premium on how quickly your page loads in a web browser, since pages that take forever to load are useless to searchers. Ideally, spiders will want to see a full page load in two seconds or less.
A slow page can sometimes be blamed on the web host; if this is the case, you may want to investigate changing hosts or upgrading to a better hosting package. Often times, pages load slowly because of poor website coding or complicated scripts which take forever to run. Removing those problem scripts can often times improve rankings.
Keep your site mobile friendly. More than 50% of web searches are now done from mobile devices, and Google provides a different set of search results for mobile users. Make sure that your page shows up properly on phones, tablets and other mobile devices. Google has created a tool that can check your site’s mobile-friendliness.
User-friendly website navigation. Easy-to-use site navigation techniques will not only help your visitors, but will simplify the search engines’ jobs as well. “Breadcrumbs”, the links that show your location like this: “home > products > widgets” at the top of a page, can make your website very easy to navigate.
Add social sharing buttons to your site. It’s not quite clear how important a factor this is yet, but Google has stated that it will use the velocity with which pages are shared on social media as a ranking metric in the future. In addition to this, content that is shared on the top social media websites has the potential of bringing more visitors.
Make use of “rich snippets”. Coding known as structured data markup is used to generate the rich snippets you can sometime see in Google’s search results.
Structured data markup may be a strong ranking factor in the future. It’s best to be prepared in advance, of course, but there are several solid reasons that should make you add structured data markup to your pages today. It is a known fact that rich snippets will increase your website’s visibility and click-through rates on search engine results pages, for example.
Yes, proper on-page SEO does seem like a lot of work. And it actually is! But it becomes second nature over time, and there are many tools that can help with most of these tasks. Fortunately, the anticipation of high rankings and increased revenue should provide all the motivation you need to complete the process.