There are a lot of factors to consider when thinking about search engine optimisation (SEO).
There is no definitive list of SEO ranking factors, as the search engines do not publish their algorithms, but many reports list over 200 factors that are used to determine SEO success. Whilst some of these are pure speculation, there is no doubt that there is a massive range of issues that need to be addressed if you want to enjoy decent rankings across the major search engines.
In this post, I do not propose to cover all aspects of SEO. I want to look at what I consider to be the most important elements of on-page SEO. This guide will help you look at any web page and ensure that it has been optimised for search engines.
If you wish to optimise an individual page, you must have a clear keyword strategy. Keyword selection is another blog post in itself, but it is impossible to optimise a page if you do not know which keywords you wish to target. On-page SEO is primarily about ‘labelling’ a page so that the search engine spiders will understand the content/focus of that page. I am therefore assuming that you have undertaken keyword research and know which terms you wish to optimise the page for. I am hoping that you have considered keyword targeting across your website – keyword cannibalisation is a potential problem and it is important that you are not optimising multiple pages for the same keywords.
I am also assuming that there are no technical gremlins that will prevent search engines from seeing the page that you wish to optimise. It is possible to have a perfectly optimised page but technical issues (e.g. incorrect use of robots.txt, canonical url issues, duplicate content problems, server speed, .htaccess issues, noindex tags, script errors) can prevent the spiders actually seeing the page, so your efforts will be wasted. Again, this is another blog post (watch this space for a technical SEO guide), but this guide will only work if your site is accessible to the search engine spiders and there are no server/site issues affecting your SEO.
Key On-Page SEO Factors
For the purposes of this guide, I am going to use a page on this website about ethical SEO to demonstrate the key concepts. The page has traditionally ranked very well for ‘ethical SEO agency’, despite the fact that we have not put any effort into building external links to that page. Whilst it is not a very competitive search term, the fact that the page has always ranked well, without any external links, must be attributable primarily to the on-page optimisation.
The following factors are those that I believe to be the most important elements to look at on any web page when analysing it from an SEO perspective:
Without any experience of html code, it is very easy to confuse titles with headings.
In html-speak (which we need for SEO) the <title> tag is a required element that is included in the <head> of an html page. If you view the page source of the https://browsermedia.agency/about-us/100-ethical-search-engine-marketing/ page, you will see the following line (apologies for making a bit difficult – we minimise our code to help with page speed):
That content is not actually displayed anywhere on the page, but it is used as the title in a browser’s toolbar, as shown below, and it is the title for a page when added to your favourites:
Things become more interesting, from an SEO perspective, when we look at the use of the page title in search engine results pages (SERPs). As shown below, the primary link for this page in the SERPs is the page title:
Not only is it shown on the SERPs, and can, therefore, have a huge impact on the click-through rate (CTR) of your listing, but any keywords used in page titles are given extra weighting by the search engines, so the title is very much a ranking factor.
It should be noted that the search engines do not always use your page title as the link on the SERPs. This is especially true if a page is ranking for a particular search query that is not used in the page title. Google, in particular, is likely to rewrite the page title to appeal to the search engine user. Whilst this can lead to some ‘interesting’ page titles, this is not always a bad thing as the rewritten page title should appeal more to the search engine user as it will most likely include the search query. It is also common to see additional words, especially brand terms, added to page titles. In the example above, ‘Browser Media’ has been added by Google rather than being included in the actual page title. The same is true for the Search Engine Journal listing – the actual page title on that page is ‘What is Ethical SEO?’.
Over the years, I have seen marked improvements in search engine rankings from just optimising page titles. I am not suggesting that this is always going to work, especially in highly competitive sectors, but it is always one of the first things that you should be looking at when considering how to optimise an individual page. Without including your core keyword targets in the page title, you are severely limiting the likelihood of ranking well for those terms.
There is no absolute rule about what the ideal page title should look like, but a good rule of thumb is:
- to use a model such as ‘<primary keyword> | <secondary keyword> | Brand’
- to aim for no more than 60 characters
- avoid duplication with other pages across your website – have a clear strategy about the focus for each page
The length of a page title can be difficult as Google currently displays a maximum for 600 pixels (please note that this is subject to change) rather than a specific character count. Where your page title is too long, it will be cut off by an ellipsis (“…”) but you don’t have any real control over how it is truncated.
Here are a couple of examples where the page titles are too long and are therefore cut off:
Whilst this is not the end of the world, as both sites have included the most important keywords at the start of the page title, it doesn’t look great and it would be preferable to exert more control over what is shown.
Lastly, it is very important to think primarily about your users rather than obsessing about search engines and over optimising page titles. Titles that are just a string of your target keywords look unnatural and may well be penalised for over optimisation. Whilst it is important to use your primary keywords in the page title, always write for your users rather than for search engine spiders.
Metadata is data (information) about data. In html, there are a number of meta tags that are used to include information about a page, but the content of these tags is not shown on the actual page. Most metadata, especially meta <keywords>, was subject to abuse by webmasters trying to improve their search engine rankings and a lot of it is now entirely redundant, but the meta <description> remains important for on-page optimisation.
The meta description is not actually a direct ranking factor. No additional weighting is given to keywords that you use in a meta description and optimising your descriptions will have no immediate impact on your search engine rankings.
Why am I including the meta description as the second consideration when thinking about on-page optimisation? They are important as the meta description is typically used as the text snippet shown under the page title on the SERPs:
As shown in the screenshot above, keywords used in the meta description that match the search query are normally shown in bold and therefore stand out in SERPs. This, along with a well-crafted description that entices the user to click to find out more, can have a huge impact on click-through rates.
Not only will this help to drive more traffic in the short term, as search engines users will not be able to ignore your website on the busy SERPs, but sites with a higher click-through rate, relative to its close neighbours on the SERPs, tend to see improvements in their average ranking. Whilst the meta description does not impact rankings with the same immediacy of page titles, crafting effective meta descriptions is likely to help your SEO efforts in the longer term.
As with page titles, the search engines will truncate meta descriptions if they are too long. This typically happens at around 150-160 characters, so it is best to ensure that you include target keywords and key messaging in the first 150 characters or so. Whilst you will not be penalised for having longer meta descriptions, the extra content will not be seen, and is, therefore, wasted.
Whilst you should definitely aim to include your target keywords in your meta descriptions, you must primarily write for the humans that you wish to attract to your site rather than obsessing about search engines. Try to summarise the contents of the page and dangle a carrot that will prove irresistible for users.
A meta description review is advisable for pages that already rank reasonably well but need some extra help. By improving the meta description, it is often possible to increase the CTR of your search listing which will drive more traffic to your site in the short term and hopefully improve the average ranking in the mid to long term.
A tool such as the Screaming Frog SEO spider makes it very easy to see all your meta descriptions. You should identify any pages with missing descriptions and ensure that you are not duplicating the same meta description across multiple pages.
An html heading is specified with the use of <h> tags. There are six levels of heading available and allow you to indicate the relative importance of a heading, with the following hierarchy:
<h1>The most important level of heading</h1>
<h2>The second most important level</h2>
<h3>The third level…</h3>
<h4>The fourth level…</h4>
<h5>The fifth level…</h5>
<h6>The sixth, and least important level</h6>
Headings are important for two primary reasons:
- Search engines analyse headings to index the structure and content of your web pages
- Most website users tend to skim read a page. Headings are incredibly good at improving the readability of a page and sign-posting content
Extra weighting is given to keywords included in html headings, so they are a direct ranking factor and you will increase the likelihood of pages ranking for keywords that are used as headings. The relative weighting follows the hierarchy shown above, so content in your H1 heading will be deemed to be more important than content in H2 headings, etc.
Using the same illustration page, the following markup has been used:
You need to look at the html source code to see which text on a page is actually a heading, as CSS can be used to style text and it may not be immediately obvious which headings are which. If you use the Chrome browser, there is a handy headings map chrome extension which gives you an immediate summary of headings on the page being viewed:
I would generally suggest using only one H1 heading per page and then use sub-headings to break up the content on the page into digestible chunks. Whilst it is perfectly acceptable to use more than one H1, especially since the arrival of html 5, my personal experience indicates that the clarity of having one primary H1 heading works the best for SEO. It also forces you to consider the main focus of any single web page and having a singular focus helps the search engines understand the primary focus of the page.
Unlike page titles and meta descriptions, headings will not be displayed on the SERPs so you do not need to limit the content of headings to a certain character count. That said, an effective heading will always be short and punchy and I would not recommend excessively long headings.
A well written/SEO optimised heading will use target keywords and help label the content that follows. As with most on-page optimisation techniques, I would encourage you to think about your users as the main priority. Over optimised headings, which contain an unnatural sequence of keywords will alienate your readers and you will increase the risk of being penalised for over optimisation.
I suspect that you will have heard the adage, “content is king”. There is no doubt that, without high-quality content, it is extremely difficult to achieve SEO success.
But what does ‘content’ actually mean? A simple definition is that a website’s content is the information that is published on its pages. This can actually take many different forms and video and image-based content can be extremely powerful content marketing assets, but I am focusing primarily on words as text-based content is the most important when considering SEO.
By using your target keywords on a page, you greatly increase the potential for that page to rank for those keywords. Whilst it is actually possible for a page to rank for terms that do not appear on the page, this is very much the exception to the norm and you should always ensure that you include your target terms in written content. As you can see in the screenshot below, the word ‘ethical’ appears several times on the page, which reinforces what the page is focused on and thereby increases the likelihood of ranking for phrases including the word ‘ethical’:
It is extremely important, however, to write primarily for your users and resist the temptation to ‘keyword stuff’, which is the practice of injecting your target keywords into your copy at every single opportunity. I would encourage you to ignore any recommendations about keyword density. This is dangerous advice as you introduce the risk of being penalised for over optimisation if you create content to satisfy a keyword density target rather than writing engaging content for your users.
Equally, you should aim to use synonyms and related terms rather than just repeat your top keywords ad infinitum.
Search engines have become very good at using latent semantic analysis to determine the overall theme of a page and natural content will include a wide range of related terms. In SEO-speak, these terms are known as latent semantic indexing (LSI) keywords. Google will expect to see certain terms on a page about a particular theme and using varied language will be far more effective than keyword stuffing your written content. The use of LSI terms can be seen in the screenshot above, where phrases such as ‘acceptable/white hat/guidelines/rules/honesty/transparency’ all help to build a consistent story to support the main theme of an ‘ethical’ approach to SEO.
Another area that I would encourage you to exercise caution when reading SEO advice is that of content length. Many people will tell you that a web page needs to have at least <insert a random number here> words for SEO reasons. Whilst there are studies that suggest a causal relationship between content length and SEO performance, it is not as simple as this and the ‘ideal’ length of any content will vary from topic to topic. If you chase a particular word count rather than considering the search intent of any query, you risk creating verbose content that does not actually provide a positive user experience.
Not only will this impact conversion rates, that particular piece of content is unlikely to attract many external links, which will have a significant long term impact on its SEO performance. The best form of link building is to earn links by publishing brilliant content. It can only be brilliant if it meets the needs of your users and provides a rich/engaging experience, so your users must always be your primary concern.
This does not have to come at the expense of a total disregard for on-page optimisation. Use keyword research to explore the language being used for your chosen topic and introduce as many as you can (naturally) into your content. If it feels as though your content has been written for search engines rather than your human readers, you have probably over-optimised it. Go back and remove endless repetitions of your target keywords by introducing synonyms. Thesaurus.com is your friend.
Secondary On-Page SEO Factors
The four areas above are those that I believe to be the most important for on-page SEO. If you follow those recommendations, you are well on your way to being able to optimise individual pages and will be able to review a page and recognise opportunities to improve it from an SEO perspective.
There are, of course, many more factors that influence a page’s SEO performance. The truth is that the individual impact of some of these factors is minuscule and you can waste time trying to follow endless rules that won’t actually help. You would be far wiser to spend more time on developing a content strategy and ensuring that you have got the basics of on-page optimisation right.
The following three factors are worthy of consideration if you want to gold-plate your on-page optimisation efforts:
Many SEO consultants will tell you that it is vital to ensure that keywords are included in the url of a page. i.e. use https://browsermedia.agency/about-us/100-ethical-search-engine-marketing/ rather than https://browsermedia.agency/p=458.
This is beneficial for two key reasons:
- the keywords will stand out on the SERPs and therefore help improve CTR
- any links that use the url will be keyword rich (which helps describe the destination page)
If you are creating a page from scratch and have total control over all aspects of the page, I would concur that using target keywords in the url is a good idea. As usual, you should not overdo it but a keyword-rich url can help with SEO and is a worthwhile exercise.
If you are reviewing an existing page, this issue becomes less black and white. Over the years, I have seen far too many examples of mass url changes on the back of SEO advice which subsequently destroy performance. Without handling the url change very carefully, you can quickly kill off a page that has historically performed very well as the search engines will see 404 (page not found) errors when trying to access the page and it will be removed from the SERPs. Crucially, all your link building efforts will also be thrown in the bin. This is an SEO issue but also a usability disaster.
Fortunately, this doomsday scenario can be avoided by using 301 redirects. A permanent redirect informs the search engine spiders that a url change is permanent. This should ensure that the old url is replaced in the SERPs by the new one and the value of external links pointing at the old url is effectively moved over to the new url. In the ideal world, I would encourage you to try to get as many of the old links to be updated as possible, but this can be a fairly painful process.
To summarise, you should use keywords in your urls if creating a new page but you need to think through changing existing pages carefully. Whilst implementing 301 redirects will work in the vast majority of cases, you need to recognise that there is a risk in migrating urls and the actual gains, from an SEO perspective, is debatable.
Without wishing to introduce endless clichés to this guide, you will no doubt be familiar with the concept that “a picture is worth a thousand words”. I am not sure that I would go that far if looking at things with the SEO hat on, but there is no doubt that imagery can enhance the written content on a web page and images offer some hidden benefits from an SEO perspective.
Not only can you add keyword-rich text to describe an image, which helps inject more instances of your target keywords in the html source, but image search is surprisingly big, with over 22% of all searches on Google being image searches. It is therefore worthwhile considering SEO when uploading any images to your landing pages.
The following image is a gratuitous example of how you can use images to help your on-page optimisation:
This image has been optimised in the following ways:
- the filename (on-page-seo-guide.jpg)
- alt text (on-page SEO guide)
- image title (on-page SEO guide)
- image caption (On-Page SEO Guide)
- file size (compressed as much as possible whilst retaining sufficient quality)
All these attributes are perfectly justifiable areas to use keywords and will help to reinforce the topic that this guide is focused on. You should not rely on search engines ‘reading’ the content of any text-based images, such as the example above. Whilst text recognition has come on leaps and bounds, you should use filenames and alt text at the very least to describe the image. Image titles and captions are not strictly required, but won’t do any harm.
The downside of using images is that they will add to your page load time. Speed is important for SEO and for usability and bloated images can have a huge impact on page speed. Whilst it is always good to ensure that images are compressed from the outset, most web publishing platforms offer the ability to load different sized images according to the screen size (thereby avoiding loading huge images when on a mobile device) using the ‘srcset’ attribute. The perceived speed of a page can also be improved by using technologies such as lazy load, so there should be no reason not to use imagery in your content.
Schema is a type of microdata that helps search engines interpret the information on your web pages more effectively. It is an evolution of metadata and has actually been around since 2011 but remains under-used.
How to use schema for SEO is actually a guide in itself, but I wanted to include it as the last of my ‘gold-plating’ factors as you should be using it if you publish certain types of content, e.g. information about businesses/organisations, events, people, FAQs, products, recipes, reviews, videos.
Whilst it is not currently a direct ranking factor, helping search engines to understand your content is always a good thing and the enhanced information in the SERPs can help increase CTR.
Watch this space for a schema guide (for SEO) but it is worth heading over to https://schema.org/ to read more about structured data and how to use it on your website. Google also has a helpful tool at https://www.google.com/webmasters/markup-helper/u/0/ which is explained very well here.
Well done for making it this far. Most aspects of SEO can appear a little overwhelming at times but it should not be rocket science and I hope that this guide has given you more confidence in evaluating a page from an SEO perspective. If you need any help with any aspect of your digital marketing, you know where to come – get in touch today.