A lot of attention in SEO, or search engine optimization, is focused on off-page optimization, i.e. improving a website’s authority by getting high quality links pointing to it from other authoritative resources. To be fair, this is for good reason: external backlinks are how search engines get third-party verification of the quality and relevance of a website, which is still one of the most important ranking signals for search results pages.

This, however, often implies that good on-page SEO is self-evident and ubiquitous, which is (not surprisingly) far from true – just try analyzing any web page using one of the SEO tools such as this one. Funnily enough, even their own homepage does not get a solid 100/100 score, while some small-medium websites can get as low as 50/100. The thing is – if you want your website to rank high in search engines, two components are crucial: the authority and the quality; and while Google uses third-party links to verify the first one, it can easily gauge the quality of your web page all by itself.

What is On-Page SEO?

Simply put, on-page SEO is any practice that uses the elements of a webpage to increase the chances of better search engine rankings. On-site SEO, in this context, is slightly different, as it leverages all the pages on a given website through tactics such as internal linking. Both of these differ from off-page SEO which attempts to use exogenous signals such as hyperlinks and social shares in order to improve rankings.

What exactly can we do with a webpage in order to improve its SEO quality? In order to answer that, we will need to examine what a webpage is, why it exists, and what Google and other search engines expect from it.

What Makes a (Good) Web Page?

Any web page, in essence, is just a document composed in a language called HTML (for HyperText Markup Language). Your browser gets this document from a specialized computer (server) which stores the website’s files for any online user to access, parses the document and displays the page on your screen. This page can contain a lot of various elements, but on a more fundamental level we can distinguish between:

  • Text, which is also often called content in the SEO context. This is the “meat” of the page and often accounts for the largest share of the page’s value to the visitors.
  • Media – mainly images, but can also be video, audio, and other more exotic stuff like 3D embeds and interactive elements such as browser games, charts, etc.
  • Layout and design – all the various elements that define the structure, format, and visual representation of the page; those are usually set with CSS, or Cascading Style Sheets.
  • Navigation – the menu and everything else that helps you get around; this also includes the site logo, which often serves as the home button, as well as lists of categories, breadcrumbs, and the search bar.
  • Meta elements such as the data that describes the content of the webpage; those are usually needed for other programs and systems (including search engines and social networks) to interact properly with the page.

For successful on-page SEO, each of these elements needs to follow the guidelines and best practices set forth by Google and other search engines. The goal of such rules is to ensure that the pages served by Google in its search results are us useful and convenient as possible – in other words, making your visitors happy will also make search engines happy. In the next parts of this guide we will look at each class of web page components mentioned above and see how they can be improved to best server the visitors (and give you some well-deserved Google love).

Textual Content

In the very early days of the Web, SEO was much more simplistic; the frequency with which certain keywords appeared on a page was more of a direct ranking factor. For example, if your target keyword was “dog trainer”, and you mentioned “dog trainer” 30 times in a 300-word article, that would be a keyword density of 10%. And it was very likely to perform better than another page with only a 5% density for the same keyphrase.

As search evolved, Search Engines began to move away from this simplistic scoring method and towards rewarding content created for people instead of search engines. With time, high keyword density came to be seen as an unnatural manipulation by webmasters, and is now classified as “keyword stuffing” – a dodgy SEO practice that can actually hurt your rankings rather than improve them.

Today, keyword density is still sometimes referenced as a metric for analyzing page content, although it has evolved to mean something different, namely how well a page’s content matches the search intent. Instead of looking at density percentages, it is more useful to follow these basic guidelines:

  • The title of the page should go into an H1 tag – a HTML element which denotes the most important heading on the page. Include the primary keyword into the H1 tag, but do so in a human-friendly way, avoiding artificial “stuffing” – Google can understand synonyms and close variants of phrases these days. Instead of “Dog Trainer New York”, it makes much more sense to go for “The Best Dog Trainer in New York City – Bark up the Right Tree”
  • Whenever possible, try to structure your content using subtitles – this will not only help your users to better navigate the page, but also send the right signals to the search bots. Subtitles should be included as H2, H3, etc tags following a consistent hierarchy; using keyword-rich phrases will also help here, yet it’s, again, not an exercise in maxing out on percentage stats but rather a helpful way to consider which other related search queries might be targeted with the same piece of content. Using the example from above, the “dog trainer New York” primary topic might include subtopics about with keywords like “dog behavior” and “dog trainer New Jersey”.
  • There’s generally no need to specifically try to include the keywords you’re optimizing for into the main body of text (i.e. the content of the page) – if your text is to the point, the keywords will pop up naturally anyway. To repeat – Google has gotten very good at “sensing” unnaturally stuffed keywords, so such practices will only bring additional risks with no potential upside.

In is worth reiterating that the above tips are more of a checklist than a task – if you have a competent and knowledgeable person writing about a topic, chances are your content will be nicely optimized for search engines without even thinking about it too much; due to the sophistication of Google’s algorithm nowadays, there’s no need to include very precise phrases in a specific order for the search bots to understand what the text is about.

Google has long since moved past the days of keyword density and simple keyword lookups. In fact, you often don’t even need a keyword to be included on a page in order to rank for it. How does the algorithm accomplish this? Through semantic analysis – i.e. figuring out the topic of a page from its content.

Think of it like this: Google isn’t trying to understand what “words” a webpage is about anymore, it’s trying to understand what “concepts” or “topics” a webpage is about (yes, it’s gotten that smart). Words, of course, are helpful for Google to determine this, but due to the powerful nature of its semantic analysis algorithms, they don’t have to be exact matches of your keyword.

This means that a semantic hierarchy not only reads well for the user, but is also easy for the algorithm to digest. It allows the page to be seen as truly relevant for an entire semantic graph of a topic, and not just one specific keyword. The end result will be a broadly relevant page that ranks for a wide variety of topical keywords, some of which might not have even been identified in your keyword research.

Images and Other Media

The web is an increasingly visual place. Sites like Pinterest, Instagram and Snapchat have found massive success with a purely image/media based value proposition, for a simple reason – visual media is much easier to digest and has a much higher information bandwidth; they say “a picture is worth a thousand words” for a reason.

Images have consistently been the largest contributor to web page size all across the Web, and given the constant growth in average web page size this implies that images have also been proliferating, encouraged by the rising Internet connection throughputs.

This means that images and other media content like videos are increasingly important for user experience on your website. And yes, they can also help with SEO – here’s how:

The most common media online is images, so we’ll focus on those at the moment; in order to help search engines understand your page, as well as to pop up in image search more often, it is useful to keep the following in mind:

  • Despite incredible advances on image recognition, Google still heavily relies on basic text markup to determine what a new image is. This means that the so-called alt text is still an important part of any image you include on your page.
  • The name of the image file also serves as a relevance factor, so it’s best to avoid filenames like images001.png – instead go for dog-trainer.png if you’re using a photo of a person training a canine).
  • Text around the image also helps establish relevance. Insert the image within relevant content, and include captions where appropriate.

With that being said, it’s important to point out that including more images does not help your pages’s rankings in any way. As with everything, sensible use and moderation are key.

Layout and Design

While specific design decisions do not seem to have any direct influence on search engine results (i.e. do not act as Google’s ranking factors), design can have a significant effect on how your visitors interact with your page – and user engagement metrics are very likely to be a part of the core ranking algorithm.

Thus, a clever motivational scheme emerges: Google doesn’t care about your page’s design, but it cares whether your users like it – which in turn means you should care as well. Since design is a very relative term, there are no specific rule-of-thumb bullet points to follow, except for the generic principles of clarity, legibility, and sensibility. In addition to that, however, there are some specific edge cases that deserve separate attention, and they are both connected with visibility of content.

Often used for hackers to inject links and other content into a website without the site owner’s knowledge, the use of hidden content has been prosecuted by Google, as it’s obviously quite deceptive towards users. As long as you aren’t actively trying to game the algorithm, chances are you won’t ever run into these issues, but best practice dictates that you don’t include any text, links, images or other elements that can’t be readily accessed by users in some way, such as by clicking a tab. Speaking of tabs..

Some variants of hidden content, such as sliders, tabs, accordions and other moving/interactive elements either temporarily hide their content, or require a user action (such as clicking a button) in order to view the content. There has been some speculation as to exactly how Google treats this type of content: it’s not against Google’s guidelines per se, but it also may be treated as less worthy of use in ranking factors since a user can’t readily see it.

This is even further complicated by the introduction of the Mobile-first index, which seeks to use a site’s mobile version as its primary source for search engine rankings. Since hiding at least some elements is one of the most practical ways to make pages consumable on smaller devices, the question of how Google would treat such content rose up again. With mobile first in place, content hidden for UX will have full weight, at least according to Google. However, some studies have shown that it’s still harder to rank for terms showing in hidden content, so even if mobile rules are rolling out, they will require time to come to full effect.

Conclusion? Don’t hide crucial content on full-width versions of your web page and use elements such as tabs and sliders in moderation. To prepare for mobile-first, do your best to present a mobile page that is as usable as possible, while still making all the content (and links!) clearly visible.

Navigation

The most important concept when it comes to navigation is “clarity”: your visitors should understand the structure of your website, where they currently are within that structure, and how to get to any other part of the website from here. Just as with design, well-executed navigation will not directly affect your rankings, but it will help people stay longer on your website, which is yet another tangible metric that can influence Google’s perception.

There are several tactics you can use to ensure that your website’s navigation is working for the users, not against them:

  • Always have a primary menu linking to all major pages/sections of your website, as well as the homepage (alternatively, you can use the logo as the home link, since it’s a stable usability pattern that is recognized by most internet users).
  • Avoid using links to external websites in any of your navigation elements, as it is widely considered as a spam factor.
  • Even if you have a single-page website with all information located solely on the home page, it is often useful to introduce internal links to the most important sections.
  • Consider using breadcrumbs on internal pages of your website, they are very effective at improving navigability and might even help Google index your pages better.

Meta Elements

Meta data can generally be defined as “information about information” – in our case, it’s the bits of data that help describe a webpage. There are numerous types of HTML meta elements with relation to SEO, including <title>, <meta>, and <link> tags; in this guide we will take a look at the most important ones.

Let’s start with meta title – this is the phrase that is used by the search engines as the blue title of the search result, as well as by browsers as the text displayed in the open tabs. While the impact of title tags has shifted over the years, they are still a crucially important aspect of any on-page SEO initiative. Not only do title tags help search engines to understand the topical relevance of a webpage, they are also the first thing a user sees of your site in the search engine results pages (SERPs).

As with on-page headings, good title tags no longer have any direct positive effect on a page’s ranking strength, but getting them wrong might still hurt: firstly, having auto-generated or artificially keyword-rich meta titles are a spam signal for Google. Secondly, this is typically the only part of a search engine result that is being actively read, so users will tend to click less on the titles they don’t like.

The most common way of treating title tags is just using a page’s main heading text; while this is good enough in most cases, you can do better if you really want to make the most out of your on-page SEO. Firstly, try making them as “click-inducing” as possible (without going into clickbait territory, of course); secondly, use at most 60 symbols (including spaces), since Google will cut off everything after that on its results pages. Be sure to include the most important keywords, but in the form of a natural sentence – don’t try overstuffing in the form of a comma-separated list of bare keywords, Google is way smarter than that.

Custom-writing meta titles, at least for all major pages of your website, will ensure maximum relevancy and help click-throughs from the search results pages, which is a direct multiplier of your incoming organic traffic.

Like meta titles, meta descriptions are used in the search results, appearing as the two lines of black text under the page’s title and address. While much fewer users actually read those, writing a good meta description does not take much time (use a maximum of 160 symbols) and will surely not hurt your click-through rates. Another good news is, because meta descriptions are not a direct ranking factor, you may feel free to test to your heart’s content without worrying about disrupting your organic rankings.

You can track the click-through rates of your pages by using the Google Search Console – the Search Traffic → Search Analytics section provides detailed data for each search query that sends organic traffic to your website. Be sure to tick the “CTR” checkbox in the top part of the view to trigger the respective readouts.

Over to You

Looking at your site from the perspective of search engines will inevitably lead you to a conclusion about a motivational alignment: the more you make your pages useful, relevant, and easy to use, the better off are the visitors, and the happier Google is with your efforts. Coupled with solid authority-building strategies, on-page SEO can help you to compete in the upper echelons of your niche.

We’d love to hear about your personal experience with on-page optimization: what works for you and what doesn’t, and what else you think should be added to this guide. Also, in case you’ve got questions regarding on-page search engine optimization, hit us in the comment section below – let’s discuss!

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by Michael Hayes
The founder of Darby Hayes Consulting, a full-service SEO agency based in NYC. He is an experienced technical SEO, and has been in the marketing sector since 2008.

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