While there are thousands of off and on-page SEO factors to consider, we have outlined the most statistically significant 200 Google ranking factors in a previous post.
Our SEO audit service will provide you with a detailed on page SEO checklist, including the top 200 factors for ranking your page for a given keyword as well as critical feedback as to why your site is not currently ranking compared to your competitors.
What follows is a DIY guide on how to boost your rankings with on-page SEO, including a focus on the primary factors that might be holding your web page back from ranking where it should in the search engine results pages (SERPs).
On page SEO refers to all the structures, techniques, and strategies necessary to include on your website, including all your individual landing pages.
Off page SEO refers to everything that happens outside that world, including external links pointing to your site, social media activity of your brand and your users, guest posts, and so on.
This guide is exclusively about on page SEO and improving SEO in areas where you have more direct control. We cover more about off page SEO in a separate guide, but first, I want to explain the essence of what makes on page SEO important, and what you need to do to be successful and how SEO.co’s SEO service can be of strategic value to you.
As I mentioned above, on page SEO is about what you do on your own site.
On page SEO can be broken down into individual tactics, all of which cumulatively impact your site’s visibility in search engines. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as flipping a switch, or adopting one new habit—there are many different tactics you’ll need to adopt, in many different areas.
For starters, there are on page SEO tactics that can be done only once—when you commit the change, you won’t have to worry about it again (at least until something changes or breaks). Others require ongoing attention. Some are structural, impacting the design and layout of your site, while others are qualitative, subjectively evaluating certain elements of your site.
I’ll be posting a quick-reference checklist of all the on page SEO factors you’ll need to consider at the end of this article, but because these tactics are so diverse in nature, I want to make sure you understand the theory behind them as much as their raw implementation.
This guide is broken down into three main categories of tactics and techniques:
Indexation is your biggest priority, because it’s what makes your site visible to Google in the first place. If Google can’t index your site, or if it isn’t indexing your site properly, your web pages won’t appear in any search results (or might appear incorrectly).
Being seen is important, but you also want to make sure your site is understood the right way. Including the right content, including page titles, descriptions, and body copy of your web pages, can ensure Google properly categorizes your site and presents it for relevant searches.
How your site functions, displays, and how your users interact with your site are also important considerations. It’s in Google’s (and other search engines) best interest to rank sites with high performance levels, so make sure your website is functioning properly.
Let’s work on exploring each of these on site SEO categories individually.
Think of Google as a massive library that offers books for people searching for various topics.
The first step to getting your book found is making sure your book is on the shelf—so let’s get it there.
Luckily, we’ve put together a complete guide on Google indexation.
But there is a big difference between being indexed on Google and ranking on Google.
Those that do a better job matching search intent, typically perform better for their desired target keyword.
Your first job for tuning your on page SEO is to make sure that Google’s web crawlers can access your site.
Think of these bots as scouts that work on Google’s behalf to scour the web and index information.
If these crawlers can’t see your site or can’t access it, Google won’t be able to index it.
There are a handful of reasons why this might be the case:
It’s also worth mentioning that there are multiple web crawlers out there—several specific to Google, and several belonging to other major search engines and tech companies like Bing and Apple. Here are some of Google’s most relevant ones:
Unless there’s something inherently wrong with your site or server, your site should be crawlable. It’s actually harder to stop Googlebot (and other search engine bots) from finding your site. If your site is new, it might take a few days to a few weeks to make it to Google’s index, so don’t be alarmed if you aren’t popping up in search results.
Your robots.txt file is like an instruction manual you can post to search engine bots in your top-level directory. It tells them which pages they should crawl and index, and which ones to avoid. By default, web crawlers index the entirety of your site, but there may be certain pages you don’t want indexed (e.g., pages with duplicate content).
Before doing anything on your site, a bot will check the reference:
This will specify a User-agent and specific pages with a Disallow tag.
With the User-agent specification, you can exclude specific bots (see table in previous section) or reference all bots.
The Disallow feature will then allow you to exclude any pages you don’t want to be indexed.
As a general rule, you only need to worry about this if you have canonical issues to resolve, or if there’s a web page that might interfere with your primary on page SEO goals. Otherwise, you can leave your robots.txt file blank. Either way, double check your work to make sure you haven’t accidentally precluded all search bots from seeing your entire site—it happens more often than you might think.
One word of advice: don’t try to be sneaky by hiding bad or damaging material. Robots.txt instructions are publicly available information. You can see ours at SEO.co here:
If you’re concerned about the formatting or function of your robots.txt file, you can use Google’s free tester to check it out for possible errors.
Your URL structure can influence your on page SEO, including how your site is seen and how your pages are evaluated.
Google favors sites that have clear, straightforward URLs that make it easier for users to navigate, along with descriptive text that tells Google what the web page is about.
For example, our site structured used to include URLs like this: https://seo.co/7-features-you-will-need-succeed-using-images-seo/
Instead of something like https://seo.co/images/
HTML sitemaps exist for users and search engine crawlers, and can usually be found in the footer of a website. It’s a good idea to make sure every page of your site links to this, so having it in the footer is the fastest and most reliable way to establish this.
XML sitemaps are a bit more technical, and you can upload them directly to Google via Google Search Console.Just head to the “Sitemaps” section and click “add/test sitemap” in the upper-right hand corner.
If there are any specific issues with your sitemap, Google will let you know.
Here’s a great example of one given by Sitemaps.org (an ideal resource for understanding more about XML sitemaps):
Keep in mind that your site is always changing—you’re almost constantly adding pages, removing pages, or changing pages, so work to keep your site maps up-to-date. If you need some additional help, there are many popular site crawlers available online—one of the most popular is Screaming Frog, which is free for up to 500 URLs.
Do you see anything like this on your website?
That’s bad. All your content should be able to load properly on any device, with any browser, on practically any speed Internet connection. Your content should load directly from HTML (you don’t have to avoid AJAX or iFrames altogether, but the bulk of your content should come from HTML directly), and return no errors when user access is attempted.
The reason for this should be obvious. Google wants to give people actual content—not blank spaces where content should be. Even if on page SEO site speed wasn’t a search engine ranking factor, it would be an important user experience factor for matching search intent, so don’t neglect it.
If you’ve done any significant searching in the past few years, you’ve probably come across something like this:
Note the phrasing of the question and the purported answer, sectioned off from the rest of the search results.
This is known as a “rich answer,” and it’s a part of Google’s Knowledge Graph.
The Knowledge Graph isn’t a bank of information so much as it’s a network that taps into information on other websites.
In this case, my query “how many US citizens are there” prompted Google to find the answer on the Wikipedia page “Demography of the United States.”
Unfortunately, Google can’t do this all on its own—it needs help from webmasters to properly categorize and submit information through implementing proper structured data.
For webmasters, this presents a valuable search engine ranking opportunity—it won’t increase your domain authority, but it will give you the chance to have your information posted prominently above traditional results.
The way to categorize your information is through microformatting, sometimes referred to as structured data or structured markup. Basically, it’s a coding format you can use on your site to tell Google how to read information like events, people, organizations, actions, reviews, and many other archetypes.
Since it gets technically complex (and warrants an article of its own), I won’t get into the details of structured data here, but Schema.org is a leading authority in microformatting, and offers detailed information how to apply it to your site, giving you higher probability of showing up in featured snippets or position zero.
This technically isn’t going to help your search engine ranking—at least not directly—but signing up for Google Analytics and Google Search Console is essential if you want to gain more knowledge about your site, proactively respond to pressing issues, and learn how your strategies are working. If you have a Google account, you’re already halfway there.
Google Analytics will prompt you to create a new site and place a tracking script in your code, and Google Search Console will require you to verify your ownership by putting a short verification script in your code or verifying your webmaster’s email address.
I’ve already mentioned some of the on page SEO insights these tools can offer you, such as crawling your site and submitting a sitemap, and I’ll mention more, such as scouting for duplicate content and evaluating your meta data and meta descriptions, but know that there are many more features for on page SEO analysis to explore to improve your site.
Now that you know your site is properly indexed, let’s work on optimizing the individual pages of your site.
You’ll have to apply these changes to each page of your site, so be sure to implement them for every new page as you add them.
Let’s talk about page titles and descriptions. Check this out:
The above example is a search for “SEO.co” and naturally, we’re the first to appear. Take a look at the sections of the entry highlighted above. The headline, with the embedded link, is the title tag of this page, while the short description below it is the description or “meta description.”
Titles and descriptions play two main roles in the search engine optimization world:
Accordingly, your titles and descriptions should both exhibit the following qualities for all pages:
With all that in mind, what makes web page titles and meta descriptions different?
Just a few things:
While we’re talking about page titles and meta descriptions, don’t forget your header tags. Numbered in sequence (H1, H2, H3, etc.), header tags indicate the main points of your body content—almost like a table of contents.
Proper keywords and meta data, including a quality meta description, can help search engines properly understand and index your content, as headers are weighted more heavily than standard body copy.
When it comes to on page SEO ranking, keywords matter.
When we talk about keywords, we want to focus on:
Your keyword density is a huge search engine ranking factor and not just when it comes to paragraphs.
Your bolded, italicized and H1-H6 tags should also include a good density of the exact match, partial match, entity and LSI keyword density that matter for your page.
And while keyword stuffing feels like it should be an issue, your on page SEO still should rank strongly even if it feels like you content is on the verge of breaking the rules of grammar.
Exact match should hit in the 7 to 12% range, depending on what your competitors are doing in the top 10.
Track your range, if you get above 12% keyword density, search engines may see that as an attempt to keyword stuff.
Exact match, entity and LSI keywords should hit in the 3 to 7% density range.
Get in touch with us so we can perform an on page SEO audit that will provide you the complete look at where your page might be deficient compared to your competition.
I’ve already gone over what makes a good URL (in the Indexation section above), so I won’t repeat myself.
However, it’s important to remind you that each page should have a properly formatted URL for on page SEO, preferably under 90 characters. Keep this in mind whenever adding a new page.
Your on page content tells Google much about your page.
Though it usually serves as supplementary information to the more-important titles, descriptions, and headers (see two sections above), you shouldn’t neglect the on page SEO content for any page of your site. At a minimum, you should have 100 words of highly descriptive content. If you can’t offer that, you probably should have a page here.
Content gives you three opportunities:
There are many factors for what’s considered “quality” content—far too many to list here, but these basics should get you started in the right direction.
One quick note—all content on your site should be unique (meaning it doesn’t appear anywhere else on your site an is not marked by Copyscape as duplicate content).
Sometimes, alternative URL forms (like https:// vs. https://) can cause Google to index one page twice over and register that as duplicate content.
This is bad news.
Fortunately, it’s easy to detect and correct—take a look in Google Search Console under Search Appearance > HTML Improvements and you can generate a list of duplicate content instances.
From here, you can either use your robots.txt file (see above) to block one instance of each occurring offender, or set up 301 redirects to properly canonicalize your links.
It’s a good idea to include images wherever you can on your site. In combination with high-quality written content, these help convey to Google that you’re a high-authority site dedicated to bringing great content to your users. However, you can’t just stuff images all over your site and expect to rank higher.
There are two main ways images can increase your search visibility:
There are two ways to optimize your images:
For example, take this picture of the Washington Monument:
A good title might be: “This Washington Monument photo illustrates how to optimize an image for SEO”
While good alt text might be: “Washington Monument against sky”
Notice how I’m not stuffing either of these with keywords, nor am I describing something that isn’t there. Something like “Monument SEO best practices and on page optimization” wouldn’t serve me well (and probably doesn’t serve me well in the body of this paragraph, either).
In addition, your titles and alt tags should follow most of the general best practices I outlined for page titles and descriptions (namely unique, concise, descriptive, and compelling).
You can also optimize your images by making them a proper format (.jpg and .gif are popular standbys) and by making them smaller and easier to download (maximizing site speed—more on that later).
Most of your on page SEO content should include links to other pages, both internal and external.
Internal links are important because they establish connections between different areas of your site and make it easier for your users to navigate. The more tightly linked your site is, the happier Google will be. As a general rule, no single page of your site should be more than four clicks away from any other page at any other time.
External links are important because they show you aren’t just making things up—they’re your callouts to outside authorities.
For both types of links, it’s important that your anchor text is accurate and descriptive; don’t just name the page you’re linking to, and don’t try stuffing your anchor text with keywords.
How your site performs is an on page SEO factor, which in turn influences how your pages rank in search engines. These are generally secondary to factors like your SEO site structure and on page content, but can influence your final ranks.
Mobile optimization isn’t optional. Last year, mobile traffic overtook desktop traffic for the first time, and it still hasn’t stopped growing. If that wasn’t enough incentive, Google then released its “Mobilegeddon” update to reward every site with a fully functioning mobile site and punish those without one.
Mobile SEO means your site:
There are a few ways to achieve this, but by far the easiest and most popular is through responsive design. Responsive design automatically flexes a site to accommodate any device that accesses it.
A good example is CNN’s mobile SEO on page:
Look how the content is basically the same, but “stacked” on the mobile version to make it easier for mobile users to access. If you’re in doubt about whether your site is considered “mobile-friendly,” Google offers a free test you can use to find out.
Your site should be up most of the time. If it ever goes down, due to a server issue or maintenance, you should be aware of it and work quickly to restore it to normal. This should go without saying.
404 errors offer a bit more flexibility; these come into existence when one of your pages no longer exists (usually because it was deleted, renamed, or moved). 404 errors don’t hurt your ranks directly, but they can cause you some user experience woes—for example, if a user follows an old link or sees an old indexed page but only finds a 404 error, they may leave and never return.
There are two easy ways to “fix” a 404 error, and both are welcomed by Google:
That being said, there are some instances where leaving a 404 error alone is the best option, such as when the page is simply no longer relevant to your brand.
On page SEO Site speed wasn’t as big of a ranking factor in the past, but that is quickly changing. Site speed is critical. The faster your site loads, the happier your users will be—giving you a ranking bonus as well as a brand reputation bonus.
There are several ways to speed up the performance of your site, including:
Site speed is especially important for mobile users, as most mobile devices offer slower loading times than comparable desktop connections. Mobile users also tend to be more demanding, so every second here counts.
Keeping your site secure won’t give you much of an extra ranking boost, but it will be valuable to your users.
Opt for SSL encryption (you can tell you have this by the “s” in https://), and your users’ data will be more secure. Still, https is a ranking signal, and it may grow in power as the years go on.
You can purchase an SSL certificate through your hosting provider.
Before concluding this article, I want to mention something about CMSs. Most modern CMSs, including the ever-more-popular WordPress, offer built-in SEO features, some of which claim to optimize your site on your behalf or “automatically,” and others of which present these options in easier interfaces, such as allowing you to type in your titles and descriptions rather than embedding them in code.
Most of these tools are valuable time-savers, helping you reduce your margin of error and get your work done faster and more efficiently. However, don’t make any assumptions. It’s not enough to assume that your CMS “took care” of something for you. Run the tests yourself and don’t be afraid to dig into the code of your site.
I’ve given you a lot of information, so to make things easier, here’s an “ultimate” checklist to improve your on page SEO process so you can use to make sure you’re optimizing your site effectively (split into sitewide and page-level sections).
Print it out and keep it handy as you work to improve your on page SEO efforts and high-level SEO strategy:
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