SEARCH ENGINE OPTIMIZATION
On-page SEO Guide
On page optimization is critical for Google to rank your pages at the top of search engine results. Quality of your content matters greatly but if your pages are not optimized they will not get much deserved rankings and organic traffic.
In this guide I’m going to cover on-page SEO factors, provide you with an optimization checklist, discuss a few webpage optimization tools and show you how to optimize your WordPress articles. So click the links above to browse this page and skip to a particular section.
To get us all on the same page, let’s begin with a quick on page SEO definition. MOZ, the global SEO authority, has put it most elegantly:
On-page SEO is the practice of optimizing individual web pages in order to rank higher and earn more relevant traffic in search engines. Source
There are two things to note.
First, in contrast to off-page SEO, on page optimization deals with optimizing internal factors affecting your page ranks. Most often, these are the factors that you have the most control over.
The second thing to keep in mind is that it’s page-specific optimization. Domain authority affects your individual page rankings to an extent. But to keep things focused and simple, on-page optimization is only about the page that is in front of you right now.
Defining Page Types
Optimizing for user intent (rather than for Google bot) starts with understanding your customer’s decision making process and how he or she uses search. Understanding user intent will make it much easier to choose your target keywords. Here’s the main three types of keywords categorized by searcher’s intent:
Now that we’re on the same page with user intents we can get into the landing page types.
Searchers using navigational intent will likely land on your homepage. Those that used informational search terms are more likely to land on one of the articles or blog posts. And those that used transactional terms will end up landing on your product pages.
Matching the right keywords with page types is important. It’s very difficult to rank your homepage for a transactional key phrase. And you wouldn’t optimize your blog posts for your navigational terms. Because it just doesn’t make sense.
So choose your words-pages connections keeping that in mind. Now that we defined the type of page we want to optimize, let’s move into choosing the right key phrase for this page.
Choosing Page Keywords
Choosing a target keywords is a dated way to go about optimizing your pages. However, in order to optimize a page for something we need to have a starting point. So we do need to pick a key phrase. But let’s keep in mind the following…
Since the move to Hummingbird algorithm in 2013 (and most likely earlier) the search engine was learning to understand topics from queries. Here’s a great Whilteboard Friday about this.
Here’s the board from the video (click to enlarge):
Read the transcript and more detailed article at MOZ.
On-page SEO Factors
Now that we got on the same page of what on page optimization is, let’s first talk about key on page SEO factors that contribute to page relevance and subsequent rankings in search engines.
Each page on your site has a unique name or web page address called URL (short for Uniform Resource Locator). I wrote a post about creating strong URLs to benefit your on-page SEO here. In a nut shell:
- Keep URLs short
- Keep them descriptive
- Include keywords
Page title is considered the most important element of on-page search engine optimization. Great titles should:
- Be unique
- Describe the page
- Include your keyphrase at the top
- Preferably stay within allocated title length
Page description does not directly affect your page ranking. Indirectly though it may have a significant effect on your positions in search engines. Make a strong meta-description for your page by:
- Make it enticing for people to click
- Create a call to action at the end
- Include your target key phrase for the page (not mandatory) or a variation of that
Primary Heading (H1)
Following the page title, primary heading is likely the second most important element on a perfectly optimized page. Its purpose is to re-phrase your page Title and provide a lead into the following content on the page. To create strong primary headings consider:
- Make it a variation on your Title, don’t make an exact copy
- Entice readers to want to read the entire article
- Mention your target key phrase in your H1 heading once
- There’s no ideal length, but keep it realistic (3-7 should provide you with enough space to convey the point and mention your target key phrase)
Headings like H2, H3, etc. is a great way to split your content into sections. Studies show that users scan the articles instead of reading every single word.
How Users Read on the Web They don’t. People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences.
Especially now with increase in mobile usage, people tend to scroll through headings rather than read the entire post.
So make sure you use headings to split your content into section. To make it SEO-friendly, make it people-friendly first.
- Don’t include key phrases into each heading if it’s not natural
- Don’t start headings with your target key phrase if it doesn’t make sense
- Make these headings short (3-4 is more than enough, or even less than that)
- Most importantly, make them descriptive of the section each heading starts
Latest MOZ study shows that there is a correlation between longer pages and higher rankings. Which is NOT the same as “longer pages rank higher”.
The SEO recommended content length has evolved over time from 300 minimum per page, to 500 to 2000+ these days. However, I wouldn’t get too hung up on these numbers. Seth Godin writes very short blog posts, yet his posts rank very well.
First, focus on the depth of knowledge the page delivers on the subject. It usually takes some words to dive into a subject in any significant details. That is why, in most cases (but not always), the longer the better.
Take for example the Skyscraper technique by Brian Dean where he explains how to develop long-form content that drives traffic.
Another great benefit of long-form content is that your article can rank for hundreds of different terms. Read some of the posts by Neil Patel and you’ll notice that these are extremely in-depth and very long-form articles. Checking his posts on SEMrush you will see that some of his more popular posts rank for 2000+ keywords.
So, when talking about ideal content length:
- Make it well-researched. Remember that in-depth articles get huge ranking rewards.
- Make it well-written, check grammar, and make it easy to digest. Some people will end up reading the whole thing, keep that in mind.
- If you do the above two well, you’ll end up with articles that are 1000-2000+ words long.
Is it important to decorate (apply italics, bold or underline) key phrases? Although it might have worked in the past I don’t think it’s necessary these days (early 2017). Some good SEO-tools like Squirrly SEO still check for “keywords bolded” but I personally don’t think that it makes sense.
Feel free to decorate inside your text to emphasize your point, but don’t feel obligated to highlight exact key phrases. I actually think that it might be considered a bad practice because it’s aimed at manipulating Google results.
List and bullet points
Just like with text decorations, lists help users scan the content of your page. It’s recommended that you utilize lists and bullet points in your articles. I haven’t noticed a direct effect of using lists on rankings.
However, if content is easy to scan, read and consume by the user, then the reader is happy. If the reader is happy, he or she will engage with it. Google will notice the engagement and will reward your page with better rankings.
Pictures are a crucial part of any on-page optimization efforts. Here’s a few best practices that I try to maintain to optimize my (and my clients’ pages):
- Use original images
- Use images roughly every 350 words
- Use high quality images
- Use relevant images
- Graphs work well
- Use images to illustrate the point
- Add appropriate ALT text to each image you use
The bottom line is that you should use images to improve user experience. You can read more about the best ways to optimize your images for SEO in my earlier article.
Making people stay on your pages is one of the most important things you should aim for. Engaged users = higher rankings. Sure, people land on your blog posts to learn more about the subject they want to understand better.
Examples of such engagement features might include table of contents, calculators, videos, slide show embeds, etc. Pretty much anythings that will keep them clicking.
The main idea though: create a page that helps user understand the subject better. If a calculator doesn’t help user understand the topics better, don’t use it.
Make sure people stay on the site longer. Provide users with other relevant content on your site. They landed here to read your post, but they might want to explore further and you should give them this opportunity. After all, the longer they spend on your site, the higher ranking potential you will get.
Should you link to other pages with keyword rich anchors? I would not recommend that. In the past SEOs recommended: 1) write a post that attracts relevant traffic, 2) link to your service page with keyword-rich anchors, 3) get higher ranking for your services page.
Only link to internal pages if it makes sense for the user, if it enriches his or her experience. If you feel that it’s appropriate to mention your service page, do it. But don’t do it for the reason I described above.
Linking out to other sites is NOT bad for SEO. In fact, if you link out to authoritative pages on the topic of your article, it only indicates that you’ve done your research and that you’re willing to provide your readers with the most credible resources.
Should you use rel=”nofollow” attribute on your external links? It depends. If you want to associate with the target page and if the link helps your readers, then DON’T nofollow the link.
For example, if I talk about link building and mention Brian Dean, then I don’t use nofollow. I sincerely think he is great at what he does and my reader definitely needs to know about Brian.
As a rule of thumb, keep all your external editorial links followed.
Another critical factor of your on page optimization is the speed it loads at. People like fast pages, especially while browsing on mobile device. So, when you build and optimize your page make sure you test your page speed using Google’s Page Speed Insights Tool.
Feel free to check my post on the concept of SEO hosting, which has everything to do with improving your site response time and page loading time.
With growing number of mobile / tablet users accessing sites these days, Google wants to make sure that user experience is of high quality for desktop and mobile users alike. If your pages are not optimized for mobile they will get lower rankings for users on mobile. So, once your page is built, make sure it’s mobile-friendly using Google’s Mobile-Friendly Tool.
Although mobile unfriendliness of a page is more of a site-wide issue (the site is either built with mobile-specific design template or responsive designs OR it is not, period.) I add it here to further emphasize the importance of mobile-friendly pages as an on-page ranking factor.
Now that we’ve gone through all key elements of on-page SEO, let’s dive into how you might use this list in optimizing your website pages.
On Page SEO Checklist
Now that we covered key on page SEO factors for 2017 let’s summarize things into a nice checklist that you can have handy any time you optimize your pages (see the PDF download link below the list).Download the PDF: On-page SEO Checklist
On Page SEO Tools
Tools play a role in a successful on page optimization. But remember, tools don’t make you rank. Tools aid you in optimizing your pages. No tool will do everything for you. So, with this in mind, let’s take a look at a few good on-page optimization tools.
Also known as all-in-one WordPress SEO tools. These tools have wider use than just on-page optimization.
Yoast SEO Plugin
I’ve been using this all-in-one SEO plugin for several years on over 50 websites. This is definitely a must-have plugin in my collection. There are rival plugins and a few people that don’t like this plugin, but this plugin works for most of my needs. Please note that this is an all-in-one plugin which includes features and settings beyond those that related to on-page optimization.
Get this plugin and more details here. Here’s a few intro videos about this SEO plugin.
SEO by SQUIRRLY™
I haven’t used this plugin for that long but it based on what I’ve seen, the plugin offers some great on-page SEO features. It follows a very similar process I outline here. It starts by asking you for the target keywords and even offers a few real-time keyword options. Then it check your page content for to make sure your target keyword is mentioned in all key places.
Check reviews, installation instructions and more detailed description here.
Keep in mind that these tools will check single pages to see if all on page SEO factors have been covered.
There are more tools related to on page optimization here. But for the sake of keeping things simple and focused to single webpage optimization I’d like to keep this one tool on the list for now.
As you already know making your content easy to read is important for user experience and therefore SEO. Readability tools are usually part of SEO plugins such as Yoast or Squirrly. However, if you don’t run WordPress, you have a few options to check your content for readability score.