On-page SEO is the foundation of any SEO strategy. Without strong on-site optimizations, all other efforts to rank well will be in vain. At the same time, only performing on-site optimizations and not employing other SEO strategies won’t help you reach those top spots for your target keyword either. While on-page SEO is the foundation of your strategy, all elements of SEO work together and feed off of each other to bolster your rankings. If you’re also actively working on a backlink strategy or social media marketing plan, your on-page SEO work will help boost these efforts.
On-page SEO is a great place to start, but don’t just end there. The key to a strong SEO strategy is continual research on opportunities for site optimization. SEO is constantly changing and evolving. The basics remain more or less the same, but the sites that keep up with the small changes here and there are the ones that always perform the best in search results.
“The best place to hide a dead body is page two of Google.”
Because the nuances of SEO rarely remain the same for too long, it’s important to stay up-to-date on Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, as well as employ the services of an SEO professional who can offer insight and experience into what pieces your business should focus on most. SEO professionals will also have the skill set necessary to complete any on-site and off-site work, so you can keep your attention on running your business.
Whether you work with an SEO professional or not, the first step in completing on-page SEO is to perform a full audit of your site. You may discover that you have already completed many of the steps below, or you may find that you were missing more than you thought. The audit will show you the priority levels of various tasks, what your site needs to implement now, and what it can upgrade later. Remember, all pieces of SEO work together to produce strong rankings. Some pieces you will only need to complete once, while others require constant updating. Optimizing your site, paired with continual content management, will not only help you achieve a top rank, but it will help you sustain that rank above your competitors.
With this on-page SEO tutorial, we will be covering:
Behind the Curtain of On-Page SEO: Coding Your Site for Googlebots
When it comes to on-page SEO techniques, there are two different audiences you must keep in mind: the humans and the Googlebots. While humans many never actually see many of the code optimizations listed below, they are still imperative for ranking well. Google determines where your site will rank by “reading” the code on your site. Essentially, you tell the bots what is important about your page and what category it should rank in. Below are a few simple codes that help these bots navigate your page and categorize it as how you want.
Let’s start with the main tags you can optimize for on each page—the title tag. You will only have one title per page, and it needs to speak to both humans and Googlebots. A title tag should simply explain what the page is about and include your main keyword if possible. If you do include your keyword in your title tag, keep it natural sounding. Repeating the keyword more than once in a title tag will look like stuffing and can actually do more harm than good.
If you’re using a content management system like WordPress, you can usually automatically add in the title tags for each page you create to keep it simple. Otherwise, if your site is in HTML, you will add the code <title>Your Title Here</title> to the “head” section of your site code. To view your site’s code, right-click on the page and select “inspect” from the drop-down menu. A window will pull up with a display of what your site looks like in code. This is what Googlebots read when they crawl your site. Try not to overthink title tags. At the end of the day, it’s just a title. As long as readers can deduce what your content is about by reading the title, you have done your job.
Unlike title tags, you can include multiple header tags on your page. Typically, the longer your content is, the more header tags are necessary. Header tags are applied to your content subheadings. For example, the subheadings in this article are “Title tags”, “Header tags”, “Image tags”, etc. Not only do header tags help users visualize the content in easy to understand and smaller sections, but they also alert Google to the specifics of your page and rank it for secondary keywords listed in your subheadings.
For instance, this page is categorized under “on-page SEO”, as well as “header tags”, etc., in Google since our “Header tags” and other subheadings are optimized. Basically, header tags tell Google, “Hey, this is important!” by setting the subheadings apart from the rest of the text. Google then categorizes your page based off of what you tell it is important about your page.
Don’t get caught in the trap of adding header tags that have nothing to do with your content, though, just to increase your page views. While some users may accidentally stumble across your page in their searches, they will quickly see the irrelevancy and your click-through rate will take the hit. In the long run, this can lower your rank and isn’t worth it. As long as your header tags are useful and relevant for users, Google will also see them as useful and relevant for their ranking system.
Most CMS programs will allow you to input header tags as you are building a page. Or, you can insert the header tag code into the “Body” section of your code. It will look like this:
<h1>Header tag one</h1>, <h2>Header tag two</h2>, etc., increasing the number for each header tag as you go.
While readers may not see image tags, they are extremely helpful to the Googlebots that crawl your page. The bots can’t “read” a picture, so they rely on code to tell them what an image is. If you keep the name of the image as it’s upload name (usually random letters and numbers), Google won’t be able to interpret that. However, if you add a description to an image with something useful like “code for header tags” (for the example image above), then Google will know to categorize your image accordingly.
If you think your business will benefit from your images being properly categorized in Google image searches, then adding image tags or alt text, is one of the easiest ways to accomplish this. Not only will you bring in extra traffic from the image searches, but you have the added opportunity to include your keyword into vital information on your page.
Most CMS programs will include the option to add alt text to your images. You can also add it into your HTML code as <img alt=”TEXT”/>.
Another place to add your keyword is your URL. This helps both users and Googlebots understand what your page is about. Instead of keeping your URL www.yourbusiness.com/posts/1234567, always change it to something descriptive. Your viewers will identify your site as relevant just by the URL. The descriptive name also makes your page seem more authoritative. Including your keyword in your URL takes it one step further. Plus, users are more likely to click on a link including the keyword they’re searching for than one that doesn’t.
Usually, CMS programs will automatically generate a URL for you. If it’s not set as your exact keyword, it’s fairly easy to change it. For instance, if the program set one of your pages as “…/pages/best-restaurants-in-NYC”, but your keyword was “best restaurants NYC”, you can remove “in”, or other stop words, by navigating to the settings bar. In WordPress, click on “settings”, then “permalinks”, and then choose the “edit” feature. From there you can delete the word “in” to be an exact match to your keyword. Again, this is an easy update to make but provides tremendous benefits.
If you decide to update previously formatted pages with new URLs, make sure that you include proper redirects, so users aren’t met with an error when trying to load the old page. For instance, if web articles or other site pages link to that old page, use either a redirect option or physically change the hyperlinks to the new page. You don’t want to accidentally undo all of your link building work by changing one URL on your site.
When a user searches for a keyword or term in a search engine, only three pieces of information will entice them to click on your page above all the other results—title, URL, and meta description. The meta description is the short blurb that shows up under the link for your page. It typically contains a short preview into the content on your page. Sometimes Google will pull a random snippet from your text to use for the meta description. However, you can often build a meta description using your CMS program to make it more personal and direct.
It’s usually the meta description that helps users determine whether your page is relevant to their search needs. While including keywords in your meta description won’t necessarily increase your rank with Google by itself, you can think of it almost as free advertising for your page. The more relevant it is to users, the more likely they are to find what they’re searching for. Google does bold any and all words from the search found in the meta description. So, you’ll likely want to include your keywords in your meta description to make your page stand out. Just to be clear, Google doesn’t use meta descriptions or keywords in meta descriptions in their ranking algorithm, at least not as of now. However, they are still useful tools and worth putting in the time to create a good one.
To build a meta description, you can pull sentences from your content as a preview, or you can write a summary sentence or two to let readers know what your page is about. This process shouldn’t take too long. Think from the user’s point of view and what would entice them to click on your page. As long as your description is relevant and beneficial to users, you may find an increase to your conversion rate – all from a few more minutes of thought put into your page.
To read more about general meta tags and specific meta tags for social media, you can read our article: The Guide on Google Meta Tags for SEO.
Front and Center On-Page SEO: Content for Humans
We have looked at some of the behind the scenes coding that you can implement for strong SEO. Now let’s look at a few points to consider that your viewers will see. Although these are all meant to enhance the user experience, it doesn’t mean the Googlebots disregard them. Actually, Google takes many of these points into consideration in their ranking decisions. Furthermore, every update Google rolls out (including the Google Fred Update) is focused on improving the user experience. If your main goal is user-friendliness, then you will be in Google’s good graces every time.
Feel free to skip to the section you need the most help with. Find the reviews at the end of each section for quicker information.
The first point to consider for improving user experience is your site speed. The upload speed can impact your overall visitor numbers if many of them are clicking away after waiting too long. It’s a shame when businesses spend lots of time and money optimizing only to lose visitors from slow site speed. Countless studies have proven that slow site speeds correlate to lower conversions and lost profit for sites that take longer than 3 seconds to load. Customers are also more likely to click away and find what they’re looking for on another page rather than wait for a slow site to load. For optimal performance, websites should aim for a 1 second load time.
Luckily, there are a few ways to test and fix slow site speed. Here are our top suggestions.
First, to test your site speed, you can use an online source such as Pingdom Website Speed Test or Web Page Test, which allows you to input your country/state/region for the test location, or Test My Site with Google for mobile speed. Once you have the initial reading, you can implement a few of the suggestions below to see how they affect your site speed.
You will also need a respectable web hosting provider or all of the changes you make could be for nothing. If you currently use shared hosting and it’s working for your site’s needs, great. If not, you may look into an upgrade. Also keep in mind, if your primary audience is in a certain country or region, then hosting in the same country or region is going to be much more efficient than hosting from far away.
To speed up the load time of your site/specific page you will want to fix broken links, eliminate or reduce redirects, and minify your code. Fixing broken links is simple. Avoid using links to a redirect because the multiple redirects will slow down the load time. Limit it to one redirect in any given function. Also, having multiple domains that redirect to your main page (accounting for user error such as spelling mistakes) can be helpful in some instances, but it will slow down the page speed as well. To cut down on code space and empty elements, try the Will Peavy minifier or use the Autoptimize feature in WordPress. Lastly, avoid overly complicated designs, videos, ads or active background media on your page unless absolutely necessary. Obviously, having media beats having no media. However, there are ways to intelligently include it.
- Aim for a 1 second load time
- Test your page using Pingdom or Web Page Test, or Google’s Test My Site for mobile
- Use a respectable web host provider, or one that fits the needs of your page
- Use a host in the same country as your target audience
- Limit amount of redirects
- Minimize your code
Next, you will want to make sure that your site not only runs quickly for desktop users but that it runs quickly for mobile users as well—like 1 second or faster quick. That means optimizing your pages to fit mobile dimensions. Nothing helps a user click away faster than small content and difficult-to-press links on an un-optimized page. Since mobile is now surpassing desktop searches, it’s not an extra to have your site mobile-optimized, it’s a necessity—especially for businesses whose customers are largely going to be accessing the site through mobile. Even Google takes into consideration mobile-friendliness when determining ranks in its SERPs.
Next, make sure your page is easy for mobile users to navigate. This means, large buttons, text, and hyperlinks. Users hate having to zoom in to read a page or click on a link, and this may cost you views. Allow lots of room for tapping and scrolling, because accidental clicks are highly frustrating for mobile users navigating a page.
There are a few options for page designers to optimize a website for mobile. One is to use a fluid layout. This means you create a site that is easy to navigate no matter what device it loads to. The page layout is the same, but it’s functional for any device. This may not be an option for your business. So, there are a couple of other codes you can implement into your site that will change your site depending on the device accessing it.
One of these is to use responsive web design. This is code on your site that changes the dimensions based on the device accessing the page. Lastly, you can create a whole separate site for mobile users, using the same URL but with an “m” in the sub-domain. Because this system isn’t always perfect, it’s wise to have a way on the page for users to click over to the version that suits them best. To reduce lag, make sure all site redirects are as simple as possible. Also, to avoid duplicate content flags within Google, always use a canonical tag in your code for the parallel site.
Lastly, remember to check your site’s mobile-friendliness with Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test. We’ll talk more about optimizing mobile for local searches in the keyword section of this article.
- Compress images for mobile
- Make onsite navigation easy for mobile users
- Use a responsive web design that changes dimensions based on the device accessing it
- Avoid duplicate content for separate mobile sites using canonical tags
Now that we have formatted for speed and mobile-friendliness, we will tackle the actual content on your site. Content always begins with keywords, so we’ll start there. Content without keyword optimization is like rolling dice and hoping they land on a customer view. It’s not a smart way to spend your time, and proper keyword research is worth investing in.
We know keywords are important because they are basically the backbone of Google SERPSs. Google uses the keywords it finds on your pages to determine which sites pop up under certain search results. That’s why when users search for “what does the fox say?” it doesn’t show results for what lions say or what the best restaurant in town is. Of course, sites with ONLY keyword optimization won’t be ranked above sites with keyword optimization, mobile optimization, fast site speed, and proper meta-tags. Everything works together to bring your site up to #1. Just know, that exact match keywords are an integral part of the puzzle.
As you can imagine, there are literally millions, if not billions, of keywords out there that are searched every day. How do you know which ones to optimize your site for? To determine which keywords you should focus on, you can perform keyword research through a few different methods. The first is to research what your competitors are using. If they see value in it, so should you. However, it may be difficult to compete with competitor giants who will likely never move from the #1 position. In fact, some of your competitors may take up the entire first page of a SERP. In this event, it’s best to focus on lesser-used keywords and work your way up to the most popular ones once you’ve built a foundation of a solid site and enough backlinks.
Longer tail keywords are generally easier to rank for than the short tail keywords. This is because mobile users are more likely to search for shorter keywords, and they do make up the majority of searchers now. Short tail keywords are extremely difficult to rank for, especially when you’re just getting started. If you have a very specific niche, longer tail keywords may be more advantageous to you anyway. You can also focus on locally based keywords to start ranking quickly. For instance, if you were a shoe store in San Francisco, you could optimize for “shoe store San Francisco”, “shoe store Oakland”, “shoe store San Mateo”, “shoe store Berkeley”, and any other cities or towns within a comfortable radius. This is especially helpful for mobile users who are looking for places nearby.
Another keyword researching method is to use Google’s Keyword Planner if you have an AdWords account, or another program that generates keywords for you based on your business and niche. Here is our List of Best Keyword Research Tools to give you a few ideas. These tools include various packages depending on what your budget is and what you need from the tool. Many will provide the search volume of each keyword (popularity) and the trend of use (future popularity). Some also provide data on which keywords are helping various sites rank and which keywords are bringing in the most profit for a given site. Once you have your list you want to rank for, it’s time to build content with those keywords in mind.
The first point to keep in mind when building content is to always write for your audience first, Google second. When using keywords in your content, keep it as natural sounding as possible. We do want to optimize using keywords, but not at the expense of the content itself. Google looks down upon keyword stuffing—using the keyword too much—and keyword abuse. There is a debate as to what percentage of your content should include your keyword. Some say it’s 2%, or 3%, or even 5%. We would encourage you to ignore the numbers and go with what sounds more natural. Good and relevant content always beats a precise percentage of keyword use. The sooner in your content you can drop your keyword, however, the better. See video on further information about keyword density, diminishing returns, and pure keyword annoyance from Google Webmasters below:
Next, never optimize for keywords irrelevant to your business and/or niche. It may attract page views, but none of these will turn into conversions once they realize the page is useless. Instead, your bounce rate will increase and your rank in Google will decrease. Avoid irrelevant keywords like the plague.
When optimizing your site for keywords, you will want to focus on placing your primary keywords—the ones you want to rank for the most—on your fixed site pages and secondary keywords in your blogs. Just don’t over saturate your pages with too many keywords. It’s acceptable to optimize for two or three keywords on a given page. The standard amount is one keyword per page. Remember those titles, subtitles, image tags, and URLs we talked about earlier? These are great places to insert your keyword for maximum impact.
Google looks highly upon sites with a continuous stream of content updates. The easiest way to accomplish this is through a blog. Your list of keywords should spark some inspiration for what you can write about in your blog without sounding unnatural. You can even search the keyword in Google and see what pops up in the results for inspiration. When using this strategy, you will want to find a way to make your post better than the ones currently ranking for the keyword. You can do this by making the content longer or expanding upon an idea, updating the info if the page is dated, and/or writing an overall more quality piece of content. Take care to avoid copying other content too closely because Google will catch this and dock your rank for it.
- Research your competitor’s keyword usage
- Longer tail keywords are easier to rank for
- Mobile users gravitate toward shorter tail keywords
- Use a keyword planning tool to generate keyword ideas for your niche
- Write for your audience, not Google
- Don’t overstuff your content with your keyword
- Place your keyword in your URL, subtitles, and image tags
- When creating a blog, don’t copy others’ content, but try to make yours better
The length of your content can vary depending on your niche and the source you are publishing to. Some publishing sites, if publishing offsite, include certain length requirements that their sources must stick to. If you are publishing on your own site, you have a bit more leeway when it comes to word count.
Typically, blog posts are anywhere from 500 to 5000 words. Depending on the topic and your audience, you may find a certain length works better for you than another. Some niches can only hold the attention of their audiences for 500 words. Others can produce content up to 2000 words and still provide value. Before we go any further, remember the age-old truth of SEO: keep your customer in mind first, always.
A 2017 study by OkDork and Buzzsumo found that content above 3,000 words gets shared on social media more than any other content. HubSpot also found that content between 2,250 and 2,500 words produces the most site traffic than any other content on the web. Keep in mind, these likely aren’t fluff articles. They are pieces of content that provide value to the readers—otherwise, they would have just clicked away. Before you aim to produce 2000-3000-word blogs, circle back to what you think your audience wants and needs. If you’re in a technical field that requires lots of explanation, you may end up naturally producing 2000-word blog posts. This post is over 5,500 words, but we’re covering a lot of ground so it’s still providing value the further we go on. However, we also have 500-word blog posts to satisfy the quick readers as well.
You can always experiment with different lengths if you don’t know where to begin. Some posts may naturally end up longer than others, and that’s fine. Hopefully, your keywords will help you think of ideas on the content you want to write. You will also get more familiar with the potential length of an idea once you gain more experience with writing. You can also start small and add to your ideas later if it’s time to refresh a post. Lastly, when you’re doing keyword research and looking into what your competitors are doing, remember to take note of the length of their content as well as the topic. If several top-ranked sites have 1,000-word articles on the topic, you may aim for that, if not slightly above that, word count.
While word count isn’t the only ranking factor Google takes into consideration, your competitor sites may give you insight into what is working with Google already and what could be improved upon by you. At the end of the day, it’s audience experience that counts above all else. Remember to write for them first and Google second. Everything will fall into place after that.
Besides length, remember to stay consistent with the frequency of publishing. When Googlebots sense you are updating your page with a new blog every week, they will start crawling your site every week for new indexing signals. Google loves new content and will prioritize fresher pieces above older ones, all other factors being equal. If you suddenly stop publishing for a month, or if your publishing is inconsistent from the beginning, the Googlebots will likely ignore you unless you specifically call them to crawl your page. With the Google Webmaster tools, you can ask Google to fetch your new content up to 10 times per day. Keep in mind, Google does prioritize sites with more traffic over ones with little traffic, so it may take time to get to your site in its queue.
Read our post Ranking on Bing vs Google for a comparison between Bing and Google ranking factors.
- Keep your audience in mind with regards to length
- Try experimenting or looking at your competitor’s content length
- Keep your publishing consistent
Now that you have created content on your site and have started a blog, it’s time to maximize their usefulness with internal links. Not only does internal linking keep a reader’s interest, but it also sends signals to Google that your content matters.
Your main page navigation links should direct users to sub-category pages. From there you can sprinkle in relevant links to other pages on your site. For instance, your business could be selling auto parts. Your main page will have navigation links such as “Tires”, “Bumpers”, “Engine Parts”, “Headlights”, and so forth. When a user clicks on those links, they are taken to those sub-category pages. Perhaps you have a blurb about tires on the tires page and mention parts you wrote a blog post about. Linking to that blog post offers readers more information, but it also allows the Googlebots to crawl to that page.
Googlebots use internal links to navigate your site. If nothing links to a page, whether it be through main page navigation or some other means, the bots won’t know that page exists or is even connected to your site. If the only way to access a site page is through a search bar, the Googlebots won’t get there. You should be able to click your way to any page on your site through paths from the main page. If you can do it, so can the Googlebots.
Besides the ability for Googlebots to crawl to various pages, links also provide value from page to page. The topical relevance and linking page’s authority both play a big role in determining the value that the link gives. When linking to other pages on your site, always make sure it’s relevant to the original content in some way. You don’t want to link to your tire page if your content was all about windows, for instance. Just like keywords, links need to have relevancy to be effective.
Speaking of relevancy, the words you choose for your links should also be relevant. Don’t link on the word “the”, or the reader will have no idea what that link will go to. Choose words or phrases that alert the reader to where the link will take them. Linking on keywords is the best, as long as it’s natural within the text. Avoid vagueness and irrelevancy as much as possible.
Refrain, also, from linking to the same page multiple times in the same content. Generally, you should only link to a particular page once in each original piece of content. Instead of linking to your Tire page every time the word “tire” is mentioned, link to it the first time it is mentioned and then link to other relevant pages throughout the rest of the content.
The page authority of the linking page will also contribute to the effectiveness of the link placement. The higher the authority of the linking page, the higher Google will view the new page as well. Typically, Home pages have high authority. They are the most frequently visited and have had the most optimization performed on them. But, don’t just link to your home page to beef up the authority of another page. Remember, it has to be relevant. In fact, linking to other pages deep within your site can improve the authority on both of those pages rather than barely changing the already strong homepage.
One point to keep in mind is that Google will only crawl about 150 links from a particular page. While we would not advocate for including even near this many on any page for most sites, it is something to be aware of so that pages you want to be crawled aren’t lost in the masses. Having this many links also isn’t helpful for readers trying to find the relevant one they are looking for. If it’s not easily found, it’s likely to be devalued as a page. For shorter posts, stick to around 4 or 5. Longer posts will naturally include more. Remember, links include navigation links at the top of the page, sidebar links, and bottom of the page links, not just the ones found in the main body of content. Download this free chrome link checker to quickly calculate the number of links on a given page and see if any are broken that need fixing.
For more information about interlinking, when it can hurt, and how much you should do, watch this video by Google Webmasters below:
Outbound links and backlinks are also critical for boosting your on-page SEO. Include at least 2-4 outbound links (to other relevant sites) per 1000 words. For more information about external link strategies, read our post Skyscraper Link Building—What is It?.
- Googlebots should be able to follow a link trail from your homepage to any page on your site
- Topical relevance and page authority matter
- Don’t let your link get lost among hundreds on a page
- Stay under 150 links total on a given page
- Don’t forget about outbound links and gathering backlinks to your pages as well
Give yourself a pat on the back, you made it to the end of our on-page SEO tutorial! While this is by no means an extensive piece on every bit of on-page SEO you can accomplish on a page, it does provide a basic overview for where every business should start when it comes to SEO on their site.
With the right metatags, keyword research, and content strategy, any business will be well on their way to the first page of Google. As Google updates its policies and first-page rank positions become even more competitive, it will be imperative for businesses to keep up-to-date on their SEO or hire an SEO professional to do it for them. At the end of the day, your site should be built for your audience with Googlebots in mind. If you keep these two points at the forefront of any strategy, you will stay in Google’s good graces always.