When people ask me how on-page SEO (search engine optimization) works, I usually start by explaining to them how search engines rank web pages.
Once you understand how Google (and Yahoo and Bing et al.) see your website’s pages, it’s easy to understand how you can optimize your digital content for search.
An Intro to On-Page SEO: A Tale of Two Sites
Imagine two companies that sell widgets. They’re competing for the same customers and each company has a website. On each site, visitors can find product descriptions and company information.
Now imagine that the content on each company’s website is more or less the same. Each site has the same number of pages, the content on each site is largely the same (even if the exact wording is different), and so on.
Customers who are new to each site would have a hard time saying that one firm’s widgets are significantly better or worse than the other’s.
So how does Google decide to rank one website higher in search engine results pages (SERPs) than the other?
Simple: it compares a bunch of different elements on one site to the same elements on the other site.
The site that does better in this comparison—say, the site of Company A—does better in search for a given keyword.
On-page SEO, then, is the set of tweaks that owners can make to their websites in order to be seen more favorably by search engines.
So what types of things does Google look for when it crawls your website?
In short, it’s checking to see whether certain technical, user experience (UX), and SEO elements are in place.
And while no one knows exactly how search engines score individual pages and sites, we do know that there are dozens of boxes to tick if you want your content to “bubble up” to the top of SERPs.
Ranking Factors for On-Page SEO
Let’s get into a few of the items—called ranking factors—that affect your site’s on-page SEO.
Remember those two sites we were talking about before? Well, Company A’s site is responsive. In other words, it works equally well on any device—whether it’s a desktop, tablet, or smartphone.
The site automatically adjusts the text to the right size based on the user’s device. Images resize automatically, and “tap targets” (what your finger touches to toggle, open/close, and navigate) aren’t too close to each other.
Company B’s site, on the other hand, is not responsive. It only looks good and works well on desktops.
Which site fares better—all things being equal—in search?
Company A’s website.
The reason is that visitors are bouncing (exiting without visiting a second page) from Company B’s site. They’re frustrated. Over half of them are using their smartphones, so they can’t read the text, see full images, or click on links easily.
Search engine firms know that people greatly prefer responsive sites, so sites that aren’t responsive are at a huge disadvantage.
So the takeaway is simple: mobile-friendliness is a ranking factor. That GeoCities website from 1995 that your company is still using? Time to ditch it.
On-Page SEO: A Trio of Musts
Below is a list of on-page SEO items that are essential for ranking well in SERPs. I say this as someone who’s read extensively on the subject and who’s done a ton of testing with our company site.
If you asked me about “must-have” on-page SEO elements, then I’d tell you to make sure that your site is:
Let’s take them one at a time.
Is Your Site Secure? (http vs. https)
Our website was hacked in January 2016. At the time, the site used a non-secure protocol, or what you might know as http.
Now, I’m not suggesting that http was the reason we got hacked. It wasn’t.
But it was a huge wake-up call regarding site security. And site security is one piece of on-page SEO.
In addition to updating our content management system and all plugins, we moved to the secure version of http, which is https.
In the http vs. https debate, the winner is clear, and not just because Google has begun to flag non-secure pages.
When your site uses a secure protocol (which requires an SSL certificate), any data sent over that website from or to a user’s browser is encrypted.
Encrypted data is a must-have if you run an e-commerce shop, for example.
But it still makes sense to move to https even if you’re not taking payments via your website.
Think about site visitors who fill out your web form—either to get a quote or to sign up for your newsletter.
They get peace of mind when they know that their personal data (name, email address, etc.) can’t be read in transit.
The takeaway, then, for anyone interested in a) building visitors’ trust and b) improving site rankings is obvious—move to a secure protocol.
Of course, if you do, you need to take a few key steps. Among them is changing all internal links on your site from http to https. You also need to update your CDN settings (if you use one).
Is Your Site Mobile-Friendly?
In the early days of smartphones, companies could get away with having websites that worked well only on desktop computers.
Those days are gone, and they’re gone for good.
In the spring of 2015, Google announced that mobile-friendliness would be a ranking factor. And while this change hasn’t affected your desktop traffic, your very unresponsive site is killing your on-page SEO. Your pages won’t show up as highly as they could—or at all—in mobile search results.
Ready to have your mind blown? In 2016, we hit the “mobile tipping point”—the moment when web searches via mobile devices outnumbered web searches on desktops.
So if your site doesn’t look good or work well on a smartphone or tablet—in other words, it’s not responsive—you could be turning away 60 of every 100 visitors to your site who might otherwise want to buy your product or service.
Does Your Site Load Quickly?
Now consider this: Amazon has found that a mere one-second increase in page load time could cost them $1.6 billion.
But just how fast is fast enough? As a general rule, the faster the better. According to website developer Webby Monks, over 80% of users expect websites to load in under 3 seconds.
Many people, though, can’t even wait that long, which is why I think 2 seconds is an even better target.
What makes site speed so elusive is that many cool design elements slow down load times.
Yep, the nicer your site looks, the slower it may load. Here’s a thorough (but somewhat technical) explanation of the intersection of page design and page speed.
In fact, if you want to make the fastest site in the world, don’t add any styling, plugins, or widgets whatsoever. It may not be much to look at, but it’s the only site that I’ve ever seen to load in 111 milliseconds. (This is faster than a human blink of an eye, which takes around a third of a second.)
So while I would never recommend that you strip away all the bells and whistles from your design, you should know that people prefer fast websites.
To check your site speed, visit Pingdom and GTmetrix, both of which have great site speed tools. Note that you may get different numbers, but that’s because the tools handle their timings a bit differently.
Other Considerations for On-Page SEO
Now you know about three very important on-page SEO items: security, mobile-friendliness, and speed.
But there are many other ranking factors that search engines use to determine whether a page on your site ranks in position 5—or position 50—for a given keyword.
The title tag for your page or post is crucial information for search engines. It tells Google et al. what your site is about. So make it meaningful, descriptive, and otherwise “rich”—and include your keyword(s) in it.
For example, if you have a page on your site about one of your services—say, online tutoring—then that same phrase should appear prominently (within the first few words) of your title.
So a title such as “Online Tutoring at Affordable Rates” would be better from an on-page SEO perspective than “Short on Cash? Try Our Online Tutoring.”
A URL (uniform resource locator) is the bit that appears in your browser’s address bar. Follow the tips below to keep your URLs clean and readable—for both machines and humans.
- Use hyphens to separate words, not underscores.
- Set every word in lowercase.
- Remove so-called “stop words,” such as the, a, of, in, on, etc.
- Use a permalink structure without dates.
Each page on your site should have one and only one H1 tag. Again, your keyword(s) should appear in the H1 tag because search engines read this tag to determine what your page is about.
As the tag level below an H1, the H2 tag has less hierarchical importance but can still help your on-page SEO. H2 tags can include your keyword, but even if they don’t, they break up your text into manageable sections, which improves user experience (UX).
A meta description is the bit of text that you see in SERPs below each page title. It’s a chance to convince the searcher to click on your page. Include your keyword(s) in your meta description and write it so that it’s better than the competition’s meta descriptions!
All things being equal, site visitors prefer web pages that have images to web pages that don’t. So include images that bolster your claims, illustrate a point, or entertain the reader. They have the added benefit of breaking up long sections of text, which improves UX.
Some readers—either due to a disability or a technical problem while loading your page—may not see your images. Adding alt text is a courtesy that you can extend to these visitors. And you can also add your keyword(s) to alt tags.
Internal linking is a great way to tell search engines which of your site’s pages you value the most. So if you want to give a certain page on your site a boost in SERPs, start linking to it from other pages on your site.
Link out to other sites to point your readers to useful information. But link only to reputable sites and use the “_blank” directive in your code so that the page opens in a new browser tab. Remember: you want to keep people on your site, not push them off!
Don’t confuse on-page SEO with keyword stuffing. One is good practice, while the other can earn you a big ol’ penalty from Google. So instead of jamming as many instances of your keyword(s) as possible into your text, use it (or them) naturally.
If your page is about fundraising tips, then it stands to reason that the keyphrase fundraising tips will appear naturally in your content. According to Yoast, maker of an excellent SEO plugin, the sweet spot for keyword density is between 0.5% and 2.5%.
Content and On-Page SEO
We haven’t even touched on content, which is the cornerstone of on-page SEO. After all, if your pages don’t say much of anything (so-called “thin content”), why should Google serve up your pages on the first page, let alone in the No. 1 spot?
Content on its own used to be enough to get you a coveted spot in SERPs. Now, though, with so many websites competing for the same keywords, your content alone may not get you the traffic that you expect.
This is why on-page SEO is about more than just content, keyword density, and title tags. In other words, on-page SEO needs to be holistic.
If you improve all elements of your site—from its technical aspects to the user experience to SEO-related items—you’ll see your monthly visitors increase.
Basic on-page SEO may not be rocket science, but it isn’t a small time commitment, either.
If you’re wondering how healthy your site is, consider a website audit. You’ll get a report that indicates what you need to fix in order for search engines to see your site favorably.
One question that I always ask clients is this: What would it mean to you to double (or triple or quadruple) your site’s traffic without having to pay for each additional click?
That’s on-page SEO.
Once you’ve drafted the copy for your page, download our complete website copy editing checklist. (Just don’t translate your site content with the Google Translate widget.)
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