What is On-Page SEO?
On-page SEO is the optimization of the elements that exist on your own website, including content, the code behind every page, visual elements and user experience.
This includes keywords, meta data, HTML code optimization, quality and freshness of content, a good website structure aided by internal linking and a user-friendly interface.
On-Page SEO is usually complemented with Off-Page SEO, which is based on building trustworthy inbound links to your site – this is most frequently called linkbuilding.
In terms of ranking potential of these two activities, On-Page is not necessarily more important than Off-Page, but it should come first, since having a good quality website in terms of both content and technical aspects will be the thing that makes others want to link to you in the first place.
It’s also a good idea to start your approach to SEO with On-Page because you have much more control of your own website’s issues, so you’ll be able to eventually start a successful linkbuilding campaign on a website that is well-structured and provides valuable information to its users.
Main Aspects of On-Page SEO
Let’s now look at the essential aspects of on-page optimization – we’ll provide some quick info on all of these elements, but for a more in-depth study you should the dedicated posts for each on-page factor.
Whenever you produce a new piece of content for your website, you should already have your main keywords in mind and try to make them stand out on the page.
I’ve written an entire in-depth article on keyword research on this blog, but in short it means that you should become aware of what people search for in your niche, how they search and how much competition there is for the keywords you may be thinking of targeting.
When you choose your keywords you should also consider the search intent of various queries – is it commercial, informative or transactional? Read more about search intent here.
Depending on the subjects you approach, you may notice that there’s tough competition on the most obvious keywords, so you’ll have to at least begin by targeting long-tail keywords that will have a lower volume of searches but for which you’ll have a better chance of ranking in the SERPs.
After you’ve built a good presence on long-tail keywords you may increase the probability of ranking for those highly desirable keywords as well.
The most popular way of doing keyword research is by using Google’s Keyword Planner tool, which will offer a lot of insight. However, you should know that since it is a tool that’s included in Google’s AdWords portfolio, it won’t provide you with the exact search volume unless you have an active AdWords campaign in which you’re spending at least a small amount of money.
The free version of Keyword Planner gives you search volume estimations that are quite broad – 1-100, 100-1k, 1k-10k, 10k-100k and so on; it also shows whether there’s low, medium or high competition on the keyword.
Using Your Keywords
You’ll certainly want to use your keywords a few times in your text, especially at the beginning of the post and wherever it stands out the most – but keep in mind that keyword stuffing will do you no good, and it may even be penalized by the bots if it makes your post sound unnatural.
In order to avoid repeating the same keywords over and over again, you can also use synonyms and context to indicate what your post is about to Google. These are also called LSI keywords (Latent Semantic Indexing).
Meta data is written so that the search engine’s bots are able to understand what your page is about – it includes the meta description and the meta title for Google, but Bing and other search engines may use meta keywords as well, so it may be worth it to add them.
The meta title has to include the keyword you’re targeting, preferably towards the beginning. It should also invite the user to click on it through a call-to-action or a sense of urgency and enthusiasm.
Many first-page results have numbers in them (e.g. 12 great summer destinations; where to go for Christmas in 2017), because people tend to like reading lists and they appreciate up-to-date content.
Modifiers like how/what/why in the meta title are also useful, since the way people search for things has become increasingly conversational, so it’s best to prepare for question-style queries.
Of course, these won’t be applicable to websites in all industries and niches, but a lot of them can use this advice.
Experts usually advise that the Meta Title of your page should be no more than 60 characters long, because otherwise it will be cut off in the SERP and it may lower your click-through rate.
However, there have been some who claim that this doesn’t have too much of an effect on users, so you won’t necessarily lose a lot of clicks because your meta title is a few characters longer, as long as you structure it in a way that makes it pretty clear what the page is about from the first few words.
The point where the search engine cuts off your title may even depend on the specific letters you use and how much space they take up – for example, a lot of narrow letters like ‘l’ will take up less than capital Ms.
Most content management systems (e.g. WordPress) have an automatic option to add your website’s name at the end of each meta title along with a separator (such as – or |), so you could also keep that in mind when counting the characters of your meta title if you don’t want it to be cut off.
The Meta Description is the small snippet of text that appears under the meta title and the URL in the SERP. Google will extract one from the page automatically if nothing is provided, but you should definitely work on it for each post.
Google claims that the meta description is not a ranking factor and that it’s only for the users, but that’s not a certainty, and either way, it should be as descriptive and include the main keywords in a natural way.
Meta Descriptions should be around 150-160 characters including spaces, but Google may surprise you by cutting them off a little earlier or showing some that are longer – and there may be differences between web and mobile searches.
In any case, you should make sure that the essential information about your post or page is clear from the first hundred characters or so – users might not necessarily mind the fact that the description is not shown completely as long as what they can see is useful.
These range from H1 to H6 and they are part of the HTML code, providing a hierarchy for the stuff you’re writing about.
The H1 tag should only be used once on a page, as it is considered as the most important by Google – therefore it should contain the important keywords and reveal the focus of the page.
WordPress and other CMS automatically make the title of each post or page the H1 tag, but there are variations depending on the theme you choose – for example, a category page that lists the most recent posts may use multiple H1 tags, but you could change that in the code if you thought it impacts your website’s performance in SERPs.
The rest of the H tags, from 2-6, should be used in the body text to signal its structure – i.e. the smallest H tags should be used for the least important subheading in your text – but you don’t have to use all the tags for all post – you may just use a couple of them depending on what you’re writing. H2-6 tags don’t have to be unique like the H1, so you can use more than one.
Images & Other Media
The two most important things you should know about photos is that they impact your website’s loading time and that search bots can’t ‘read’ them or other media files – but there are ways to handle both of these issues.
In terms of speed, website owners are advised to use images with a file size that is below 100kb as often as possible, because large images will take a long time to load and site speed seems to be a big ranking factor, and it will definitely be even more important when Google switches completely to the mobile-first index.
In order to ‘explain’ to Google what your image or video is about, you should use the ALT text attribute for each media file – this can be done in the HTML code, but most CMS have easier ways to add ALT text when you upload a file.
The ALT text should describe the photo or video as well as include the main keyword you’re targeting, but you don’t need to stuff keywords in there excessively either.
Another way to optimize images is to save them in your computer with a descriptive file name – instead of IMG1231.jpg, an image of a dog playing in the park should be called ‘dog chasing frisbee.jpg’, for example.
For videos or audio files, you must also provide a transcript that Googlebot will be able to read in order to understand what your content is about and be able to include it in search results.
Do try to use images in all of your posts, since posts with zero images don’t perform as well as those that use at least one image – but using more than one image hasn’t shown much of a difference in rankings, either (this also depends on your niche).
The topic of how long content should be has been subject to vast debate, but unfortunately there isn’t a straightforward answer. Longer content seems to be preferred by Google according to Backlinko’s study, but it can’t be a rule for each and every website.
It all depends on the context, the subject matter, and the way other websites are doing it. If you’re really in doubt, look at your most successful competitors’ blogs and see how long their posts usually are.
However, it’s not enough if you simply create a longer post than your competitor. You also need to make sure that you provide quality, and that could even be done in fewer words – just make it as natural, useful and informative as possible, as both users and Google will appreciate that.
What is certain is that a very short post will most likely not perform very well as Google will probably see it as thin content that isn’t helpful to visitors.
Website Structure & Internal Linking
Think about what it feels like to be on a website that has a messy, vague and incoherent structure – you immediately want to leave it and you’ll make sure to avoid it in the future.
When we talk about a website’s structure, the main thing that comes to mind is how pages are connected to each other and how logical the navigation is between these pages. A user should be able to find what they’re looking for in a matter of seconds and not be surprised by what they can (or can’t) find on a particular section of the website.
The way you link to your own pages matters as well – you’ll usually use hyperlinks in your text and those hyperlinks will make use of a particular anchor text.
You need to make sure that the links come up naturally and that it makes sense to link to a particular page in your content, and that the anchor text is relevant, and don’t always use the same kind of anchor text, be it exact match, post title, ‘click here’, etc. – you should try some variation and that might even help you find which anchor text type is the most useful.
First of all, you are advised to use static URLs on your pages because they are more descriptive and they may help with ranking if they contain a main keyword and are well-structured.
For example, you don’t want to have a URL that looks like this: example.com/120365/; it’s much more user-friendly and google-friendly if it looks more like this: example.com/halloween-costume-ideas.
The URL shouldn’t be too long, so try to take out the stop words like in/of/the etc. and summarize the title of the page in a few words.
There are many elements included under the ‘technical SEO’ umbrella. These are usually the things you need to do that require a bit more work done ‘under the hood’ of a website, but you shouldn’t feel intimidated because anyone can learn how to optimize them.
We’ll cover technical SEO in much more depth in future posts, but in short, it includes things like site speed, crawl errors, redirects, duplicate content, canonicalization, mobile optimization, sitemaps, markups, structured data, and various HTML tags, such as rel=nofollow, that might be needed sometimes.
Google Search Console will be very helpful for identifying the potential errors your website might have, such as 404 errors for pages that have been deleted or lost. It will also let you upload your robots.txt file which tells crawlers what they are allowed to access – you might find out that there are some areas of your site that Google can’t crawl and you’ll be able to fix them accordingly.
Search Console will also show you whether you have pages with duplicate, too long or too short meta titles or meta descriptions. There are also other web tools that you can use to check your website’s issues, such as Siteliner for duplicate content or broken links or SemRush for an even more detailed analysis.