The “on-page rules” have changed a lot over the years but there are still a few core components that every webmaster needs to have in mind when optimizing the pages on their site. Google is always working to make sure that the best answer is being delivered to the searcher in the fewest clicks possible. So on-page optimization comes down to both meeting the requirements of Google's crawlers and matching the expectations of the end user.
This is huge and it’s also the most abstract component. That’s why I wanted to tackle it first. Every page of your site needs to have a purpose. In 2015 Google released the full version of its Search Quality Rater's Guidelines and Handbook. This was huge for the world of search. For the first time, we got to see exactly how Google was instructing Search Quality Raters to rate website pages. While their rating of pages doesn’t necessarily have a direct impact on rankings, this guide, in my opinion, does give us insight into what Google considers to be “good quality.”
Why is this important to on-page SEO? As you’ve probably read a million times, “content is king.” This statement is often followed up by an explanation that you must create “quality content.” Ok, but who defines quality? In short, Google and the users who land on your page. The Search Quality Guidelines outline what Google considers quality.
Here are the characteristics of a high quality page.
Google states that a high quality page should have a beneficial purpose that it achieves. Additionally, high quality pages have the following characteristics:
In order to receive a high rating, a page must also have most of the following:
Since first introducing these guidelines in 2015 Google has clarified them a few times, most recently in 2019 they have added categories Highest Quality Pages, Very High Quality MC, Very Positive Reputation and Very High Level of E-A-T categories.
To read the Google Search Quality Guidelines, download the PDF here.
Tags are an essential part of on-page SEO. While some don’t carry as much weight as they once did, when utilized correctly they can have a positive impact on your rankings. Search engines understand your site by crawling the page with bots. The more information you give them, information that clearly defines and explains what your page is about, the better. Meta tags are a great way to help the search engines understand the purpose of your page. Tags also help the user. Both optimizing the “Title” and the “Description” of your page can improve the click-through-rate in the search results. You can use a SERP preview tool to help you achieve the best results.
This tool will allow you to see what your title and meta description will look like when your link queries in search. Pay attention to if your words are cut off and where the keywords land. These are factors you can adjust as you sharpen your descriptions.
The page title is the first piece of information the search engines look at to determine the context of the page content. Your page title should clearly explain what your page is about. Google and the other search engines will compare your title tag to the rest of content on that page to see if it matches. While most people now use a CMS like Wordpress to enter their content and meta information, below is an example of what a Title Tag looks like in HTML.
<title> This is where you put your epic title </title>
No matter what platform you use to run your site, you should adhere to best practices.
Here are a few Title Tag best practices:
For more on Title Tag best practices, check out this post.
The next piece of meta data you need to use and optimize is your description. While this is no longer used by search engines in the ranking algorithm, it is still a critical piece to effective SEO. Your meta description tells your readers what the page is about. A well-written page description can set your listing apart from the competition and increase the overall click-through-rate.
It's important to note Google sometimes changes your description. However, this doesn't mean you shouldn’t add them. You should still create a custom meta description for every page on your site. Below is an example of an HTML meta description tag.
<meta name="description" content=“This is where you put your super awesome and optimized description “>
The meta description should be around 135 to 155 characters. Here are some meta description best practices:
For more on Meta Description best practices, check out this post.
Most of the sites we work on use WordPress as their CMS. WordPress has a number of great SEO plugins to help you get the most out of your on-page SEO. Here are a few SEO plugins we like:
Yoast SEO for WordPress plugin: Yoast SEO (formerly known as WordPress SEO by Yoast) is the most complete WordPress SEO plugin that exists today for WordPress.org users. It incorporates everything from a snippet editor and real-time page analysis functionality that helps you optimize your page's content, image titles, meta descriptions and more to XML sitemaps, and loads of optimization options in between.
WP Meta SEO: WP Meta SEO gives you control over all your meta content and images including bulk SEO content and image optimization, SEO on page, 404 & redirects.
For years we used Yoast, but more and more I find myself using WP Meta SEO. It has a lot of features that can really help your SEO efforts without having to add any more plugins to your WordPress install. Features such as image optimization, 404 error redirects, internal broken link checker and more are included. If you haven’t used this plugin yet, I highly recommend you check it out.
The last form of meta tags we are going to discuss are Open Graph Meta Tags. While content is king, if you don’t get your content in front of people it’s useless. Open Graph Meta Tags are used to optimize your posts on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. When used a correctly, Open Graph Tags can improve your reach and engagement on social media.
Facebook created and launched Open Graph in 2010. The goal was to help create a more seamless integration between Facebook and other websites. Other social media sites also are taking advantage of social meta tags. All of the other major platforms, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook recognize Open Graph tags.
Because social media is such a powerful driver of traffic, using social tags can help make your content stand out from the competition. Have you ever shared a piece of content on Facebook and either the image was missing or a completely irrelevant image was attached? By using Open Graph tags you can ensure that your content looks awesome no matter where it’s shared.
Here is a list of Open Graph tags you should consider using on your site. You may be wondering why social tags are important to SEO. In short, if your content gets a ton of visits and engagement, it can have a very positive effect on the search results of that piece of content. As you will see, many of the Open Graph tags work in the same fashion as their meta counterparts.
og:title - this is how you define your content’s title. Here is what it will look like: <meta property=”og:title” content=”Your eye-catching title here” />
og:url - With this tag, you can set the canonical URL for the page you are sharing. Here is what it will look like: <meta property=”og:url” content=”http://www.yourdomain.com” />
og:type - This is very similar to schema markup. Using og:type you can describe the type of content you are sharing.
Here are some examples of og:type
Here is what it will look like: <meta property=”og:type” content=”website” />
You can see the full list of types here.
og:description - As you can probably guess, this is where you would add the description you would like the social media sites to use. You can add a lot more information in this tag as compared with the meta description. Facebook can handle up to 300 characters, but most other platforms restrict it to 200. So to be safe, keep yours around 200 characters.
Here is what it will look like: <meta property=”og:description” content=”Your entertaining and descriptive copy here, if your meta description is good, use it.” />
og:image - This is a very important tag when it comes to social. Your image can be the difference between someone clicking or passing. Make sure you set the og:image you choose, otherwise Facebook will choose for you. This could result in having an irrelevant image connected to your post.
Here is what it will look like: <meta property=”og:image” content=”http://www.yourdomain.com/image-name.jpg” />
That covers the basics for Open Graph Meta. To learn more about each tag and some advanced options, check out this great post from QuickSprout.
Headers are important for a number of reasons, but the most prominent reason to use them is that they help drive home the main point. Most CMSs, like WordPress, will automatically make the title of the page an H1. But just to be safe, it’s always a good idea to check the source to make sure you have an H1 Tag. All of you pages should use a number of Header Tags. Headers are a great way to divide up your content and make it more digestible to your audience. Don’t use more than one h1 tag and be sure to incorporate a few h2 and h3 tags in every page or post.
Similar to the page title, headers help the search engines better understand your content. Search engines will use the header tags to help them validate whether or not the content below is relevant. Using headers to support the structure of your page and the content within, will help the search engines get a better idea of what your page is really about.
Using a keyword in the H1 tag and making sure that it matches the expectation of the viewer is critical. The H1 tag is often the first thing users see when landing on your page from the search results. It doesn’t have to be the same as the title, but it should be similar enough to engage the user. Also be sure to not have any duplicate H1 tags across your site. They can have an adverse effect on the credibility of your site.
The internet and everything connected to it is driven by content. This is why inbound marketers and SEOs have stressed the importance of content over the years. As Google has continued to focus on semantic search, content has become even more important. Creating good content takes time, practice, and a lot of persistence. This is why so few actually do it. Simply posting more than the other guy isn’t going to give you better results. As we've already covered, quality is a much more powerful metric than quantity. So let’s get into a few ways to optimize your content to deliver better on-page SEO.
What you write about and how you write about it has a huge impact on your website's rankings. Google is looking to deliver the best answer in the shortest amount of clicks for the searcher. This means your content needs to be user driven and deliver the answers to the questions they are looking for.
So how can you determine what people are looking for? This is where keyword research and topical research come into play. For a detailed explanation of how we do keyword research, click here. Using the Google Adwords Keyword Research tool you can uncover some pretty good insight into what people are looking for.
When writing a blog or content for a page, rule number one is to focus on one keyword topic per page. Don’t try to cram as many keywords into a post as possible, you’ll only end up confusing your reader. By focusing on one keyword topic, you can create a piece of content that specifically addresses a pain point or solution. This results in better content for both your end-user as well as the search engines.
Use your core keyword in the page or post title and then again within the first 100 words of the content. After that, it's a smart idea to use LSI (Latent Semantic Indexing) keyword throughout your content. LSI Keywords are semantically related to your main keyword and help the search engines determine a page's relevancy. If you need help finding some LSI Keywords, check out this nifty little tool.
The next step in content optimization is adding in media elements that engage your viewers. Powerful images, videos, slide decks and other forms of media will dramatically decrease your page's bounce rate and increase the time spent on your site. Both bounce rate and time on site are crucial ranking factors.
While using multi-media is great, if it’s not optimized, it’s hard for the search engines to understand what it is. Google and the other search engines are getting much better at identifying words in images and recognizing content, but you have an opportunity to connect an image with your website when you include alt-text. Optimizing your images not only helps the crawlers understand your page, it can also result in having your images rank. Using your targeted keyword as the alt-text and title is a great place to start. If you are using a featured image, use the title and the alt-text to tell what the post is about.
In HTML, you would add the title and alt-text like this: <img src=“http://yourimage.jpg” title=“keyword optimized title” alt=“keyword optimized alt”>
For WordPress users, you can update this information in the media section of your dashboard. But a quicker way to do this is by using the aforementioned WP-Meta SEO. This plugin has a section for image optimization. Add the title and the alt-text into the appropriate fields and the plugin will not only update the media, it will update the image where it’s posted on your site. This saves a ton of time.
Another important piece related to image optimization is image size. So often, people load images to their site that are huge, but then scale them down inside a post. Larger images will slow the load time of your page and can result in bounced traffic. Again, WP-Meta SEO will help you optimize any images that are the wrong size.
When analyzing the length of URLs, Ahrefs found that shorter URLs tend to rank better. The more concise and to the point your URL’s are, the better chance you have of them ranking. It also makes it much easier for the user to find and share your content. When creating URLs, use your keyword in the URL string, but make it as natural as possible. Use around 5 or so words and be sure that your URL clearly showcases what your page is about.
If you change a URL or have a page with similar content that you want to redirect, use 301 redirects or the canonicalization tag (rel=canonical) to the better, more optimized page. This avoids duplicate content and shows Google which page to rank.
If you are trying to optimize your page locally incorporate the county, city, or state into the URL. This will help the bots pull websites and articles for searchers looking for information in specific locations.
Links are and will remain the most important factor when it comes to your site ranking in search. Having high-quality links pointing to your site strengthens your domain and searchability. Internal links help users find related or relevant content within your site. Since this post is about on-page SEO we won’t cover link building best practices. But, if you’re interested here are a few pieces of content to check out when getting started with a link building strategy.
When adding links to your content it's important that you have both internal and external links. A lot of people don’t want to link to external sources for fear that it will drive people away from their site. But, having external or outbound links actually helps your site's visibility. When adding outbound links, just make the link open in a new page. That way your user never leaves your site. Check out the list of best on-page linking practices below.
Speed can either boost or kill your SEO efforts. According to Google Web Masters while they consider 2 seconds the ecommerce threshold for website acceptability, the goal at Google is under half a second. That’s fast. So if your site loads slowly, users will bounce and Google will devalue the authority of your site.
Here is a list of common actions that can speed up your website:
To test your site's speed, just use Google’s PageSpeed Insights. This tool will crawl your site, give you a score on mobile and desktop and then give you recommendations to increase your speed. For a list of PageSpeed Rules and Recommendations click here.
Mobile has taken over as the primary form of searching. As Google shifts to a mobile-first divided index, having a site that looks and works great on mobile is more important than ever especially since studies report close to 60% of all internet access is through smartphones.
Responsive Design is a smarter way to mobilize your site. Responsive sites adapt to the device the user is using. This means no need for a separate mobile site with minimal features. With responsive design, you can give your mobile users a powerful experience.
In order to create a smarter, faster and more user-friendly mobile web experience, Google, along with a number of publishers and technology companies, have come together to make mobile work better for the world. Together they have been creating and pushing accelerated mobile pages.
The 3 key areas accelerated mobile pages will focus on are content, distribution, and ads.
Content: The AMP Project is all about helping “publishers to focus on producing great content, while relying on the shared components for high performance and great user experience.” Google AMP Project
Distribution: Fast distribution is key for publishers across the web. With the AMP Project Google has “designed a new approach to caching that allows the publisher to continue to host their content while allowing for efficient distribution through Google's high performance global cache.”
Advertising: When it comes to funding free content and services online, ad revenue is extremely important. Having too many ads can be distracting to the end user, so finding a way make advertising more inviting and user focused, the AMP Project will “support a comprehensive range of ad formats, ad networks and technologies.”
Learn more about the AMP Project here.
In order to generate more traffic and better engage your visitors, having pages that are optimized is essential. Many people think of On-Page SEO as a “set it and forget it” part of the SEO process, but I beg to differ. While there are some elements that won’t change a lot, tweaking your content and meta tags to make sure your content is at its best is important. I hope you found this simplified guide to On-Page SEO helpful and insightful.
Take the time needed to go through your site, fix any errors, and optimize it to its full potential. This will create a memorable experience for your users and strengthen your overall brand equity. It will also increase traffic, improve your search engine rankings for the most relevant keywords to your business, and drive better, more qualified leads. Now, go get to work optimizing your site!
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in December, 2016, and has updated for accuracy.
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.