SEO isn’t simple, easy, or quick.But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. While there are a host of factors that go into Search Engine Optimisation, you can make the process much more straightforward by approaching each step strategically.
And that’s exactly what we’re going to do in this complete guide to on-page SEO. We’re going to take an in-depth, practical look at the first half of the SEO equation. This is going to be a long guide, but if you apply the steps outlined here methodically to every page you publish, you are going to have laid a very strong understanding of how SEO works. For anyone new to SEO, we reccommended reading our Complete Guide to SEO that will make all of your other off-page efforts much more impactful.
We’ll start with a brief overview of what on-page SEO is, why it matters, and why Google actually cares. Then we’ll break the process of implementing on-page SEO into three-layered stages. We’ll close with some final tips and tricks that are handy in some situations but might not always apply to every single page you build.
So, without further adieu, here’s our complete guide to on-page SEO.
What is On-Page SEO?Any good SEO agency will tell you it is a race that webmasters engage in to beat each other to the front page of Google. Higher rankings mean more traffic, which means more leads and more sales. It doesn’t matter if you are a global e-commerce store, a solo entrepreneur affiliate marketing blogger, or a [small business starting SEO](seo tips for small businesses) for the first time. Higher search engine rankings lead to higher profits.
So if SEO is a race, there are two factors that the winners have to take into consideration: on-page SEO and off-page SEO.
On-page SEO can be thought of as the training and conditioning that a racer does prior to hitting the track. Eating a balanced diet, strength training, running sprints, finding tempo—these are all things that a runner does to prepare themselves as much as possible for when the gun fires and the race starts. Once the race ensues, that’s where off-page SEO comes into play.
In other words, on-page SEO is everything that you do on your web page in order to make it compete better in the Google race. On-page SEO factors are the things that you generally have 100% control over because you are the webmaster.
The elements of on-page SEO contribute to both the user experience and Google’s ability to understand how your website is structured. The better your on-page SEO, the more Google will recognise that any given post or page is relevant to the user’s search query.
Elements of On-Page SEO at a Glance
- Quality content
- Title, headings, and meta description
- Keyword density
- Internal linking
- Schema markup
- Page load speed
- User experience
Off-page SEO, on the other hand, is everything that happens outside of your website to indicate to Google that your content is worth ranking. Elements of off-page SEO include things like social signals, business citations, and backlinks—things that are often beyond your control.
Google uses factors like these to interpret how authoritative and trustworthy your site is. Generally speaking, the harder an off-page SEO factor is to acquire, the more powerful it is in the eyes of big G. For example, a backlink from australia.gov.au is going to do a heck of a lot more for your rankings than a link from a random blogger.
Why Does On-Page SEO Matter?
Off-page and on-page SEO are two sides of the same coin. While Google won’t trust your website as authoritative without strong, credible backlinks, it also won’t know how relevant you are without the proper on-page factors being accounted for.
The SEO world is full of frustrated webmasters who acquire hundreds of links and social shares without seeing a single upward blip on their ranking radar. More often than not, the root cause is a lack of on-page SEO to set the stage for the off-page link building campaign. Neglecting on-page factors is like trying to build a house with no foundation: it’s just going to be an unsustainable mess that collapses in on itself.
Let’s take a quick look at an example. Two of the easiest on-page ranking factors are SEO factors your title and meta description. These provide both Googlebot and the human searcher with a quick idea of what your web page is about.
Here is a screenshot of the first five results of Google page one for the search query how to teach a toddler to read, a term that gets about 400 searches per month. Notice how 4 out of 5 of the results contain the word “toddler” somewhere with the title or meta description.
Now, look at the top results on page two of Google for the same search. The word “toddler” appears in only one of the results.
And, while you might think that off-page factors like backlinks can explain the difference in ranking, it’s worth noting that the number one result is ranking with just 27 backlinks, and the number three spot has just 4 (compared to the average 52 links from page 2). Furthermore, both websites have a domain authority in the 20s, while the top results on page two are in the 60s and higher.
Clearly, on-page SEO matters. It’s a straightforward method for indicating to Google exactly what your website is about. All other factors being equal, a site with better on-page SEO is going to rank higher.
On-Page SEO and User ExperienceBefore we get into the complete on-page SEO guide, it’s worth considering the role that on-page SEO has on your website’s user experience (UX), and why this matters to Google (and thus, your ranking).
Google’s job is to deliver search results that users want to see. If their query is the average salary for a lawyer and the search results are displaying the tuition for law schools, Googlebot has failed and frustrated the user (surprisingly enough, that’s an actual example from Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines).
In other words, Google cares about user experience.
Once upon a time, the Google algorithm relied on manual, hand-coded updates. The brains at Google would implement a change, their evaluators would assess how it impacted results, and if all looked good it would become a permanent change to the algorithm.
This meant that the algorithm was always a little bit behind real-time results. As such, shady SEO tactics prevailed because web designers could get away with them for a time even if they provided a poor user experience.
Then Came Google RankBrainIn 2015, Google officially confirmed a new member of their team: RankBrain.
RankBrain is an artificial intelligence system that relies on machine learning to automatically update the Google algorithm based on user experience. In essence, RankBrain measures how well the search results match the user intent based on factors like click-through rate, bounce rate, and time on page.
If RankBrain deems that a particular search term is not displaying the correct search results, it will adjust the algorithm and monitor the user reaction to the new results. As this cycle of self-correction continues over time, Google’s results for any given term become more and more predictive of what the user really wants to see.
What Does This Mean For You?If RankBrain means one thing, it’s that the most important on-page SEO factor is offering your readers exactly what they are looking for. It means thinking more like a human as you produce content and less like a computer—because Google is basing its search results on how real humans interact with your content.
There are certainly technical on-page SEO factors that do really matter, but you don’t want to lose the forest for the trees. So now that we’ve established that user experience is the most important piece of the equation, it’s the perfect time to jump into the first stage of our on-page SEO guide.
Stage One: Publish Quality ContentYour content has one primary goal: give the reader what they want. On-page SEO starts, first and foremost, with your content marketing strategy. Your aim at this stage is to think like the searcher and to give them something better than anyone else ranking for your target keyword.
Target the Right KeywordsChoosing the right keywords can make or break your SEO campaign. While there is some truth to the often-repeated argument that producing good content will bring good rankings, it is still worth taking time to evaluate the landscape so that you can create content that people are actually looking for.
Google’s RankBrain AI possesses the ability to understand user intent, so your keyword research is going to have to take this into account. While once upon a time it may have been a good SEO strategy to target each of these keywords separately (even with a different page for each) your best bet now is to target medium length keywords and expect Google to rank your content for a host of similar keywords.
Avoid Keyword CannibalisationWhile we’re on the topic of keyword research, it’s worth taking a minute to warn you of the dangers of keyword cannibalisation. You don’t want your rankings eating themselves, after all. In simple terms, keyword cannibalisation is when your pages are competing with each other for the same terms.
It’s okay for two pages to discuss similar topics with different intents, though. For example, just because this post provides a complete guide to on-page SEO, that doesn’t mean we can’t have a separate sales page in which we pitch our on-page SEO services to potential clients.
Beat The Competition in Quality (and Length)Once you’ve figured out what your target keywords are, the next step is to make the best possible content you can so that users choose you instead of the other guys. One of the factors that RankBrain searches for is something called pogo-sticking.
Imagine someone enters the search term easy pot roast recipe. They instinctively click on the first search result, but after only browsing the site for thirty seconds, they don’t like what they see, so they head back to Google. Now they click around on a few other results, bouncing back and forth until they finally find one that really provides the easy pot roast recipe they need.
That bouncing back and forth is pogo-sticking. And RankBrain doesn’t want users to have to do it. If enough users go through that same scenario, the winning recipe will eventually get boosted to the top of the search results. So, the better you can provide users with what they are looking for, the better you’ll avoid making them hop up and down on a pogo-stick.
Perform a Competitor Gap AnalysisOne way to ensure that your content is better than the competition’s is to take note of everything they have and everything they’re lacking. You want to build content that offers the same value to users—and then some.
For starters, this generally means writing more content. If their do-it-yourself guide to investing in real estate is 3,000 words, make yours 4,000. Just remember that longer isn’t always better. An extra thousand words of fluff isn’t going to provide a better user experience.
But you should also consider investing in the types of content that your competitors aren’t. If they don’t have a video, you could produce one. If their images are all stock photos, you can get unique ones. Here is a shortlist of different content you can provide to stand out from the competition:
- Research from authoritative studies
- Explainer videos
- Downloadable checklists or guides
- Customer testimonials
Structure Your Content Around User IntentPretty much every search that someone enters into Google can be classified into one of three types of user intent: informational, transactional, or navigational.
An informational query is one in which the user has a specific thing they want to learn more about. How to clean a dryer duct and main actor in Breaking Bad are examples of informational searches.
Transactional queries indicate that the user is looking to spend their money or their time. For example, the affordable baby car seat is probably going to be entered by someone that is planning to buy a new car seat soon, while online personality test might be typed by someone looking to spend their time learning more about themselves.
Navigational queries are used when the searcher is trying to find a specific website or brand. Googling Facebook or iTunes app store are examples of navigational searches.
Understanding what type of query you are targeting is important to shaping your content around user intent so that you can better provide them with the experience they want.
Navigational queries don’t present much of a challenge. Generally, if people are already searching for your brand, you won’t have to build the content in a specific way to meet their needs for that search.
Transactional and informational searches are a bit different, so let’s look at some best practices in organising quality content for both of these types of searches. For these examples, we’ll imagine that we’re working with a local plumber’s website.
Writing Content for Informational KeywordsOne search term we might target is how to fix a sink that won’t drain, clearly an informational keyword. When building informational content, you want to start by making it loud and clear to readers that you are giving them the information they need so that they won’t bounce back to Google. For this search term, we might open with something as simple as “Clogged sink overflowing? Read our do-it-yourself guide on how to fix a sink that won’t drain.”
From there, informational content should give readers the knowledge they need in an engaging but straightforward manner. For this keyword, we would likely want to list out the steps in summary first, along with any materials needed, and then proceed with detailed instructions on how to unclog the sink. Since we’re also in the mindset of providing the best possible user experience, content for a term like this should also include a video tutorial.
As far as calls-to-action are concerned, your goal with an informational post should first and foremost be to establish your authority in the industry by providing the best possible information. For the clogged sink example, you would probably end the post with an invitation to call your business if the reader doesn’t think they can do the job themselves.
Writing Content for Transactional KeywordsContent for a transactional keyword like emergency plumber Perth is going to be a lot different than informational content. The user clearly has an intent to buy, so your job is to make a clear, convincing sales pitch.
Starting with a headline that highlights your value proposition is a surefire way to let the visitor know that you offer what they need. “24/7 Emergency Plumbing in Perth - No After Hours Fee” is one example of how to grab the reader’s attention. In addition to the headline, you want to put your call-to-action clearly above the fold, and then repeat it regularly throughout the content. A phone number large and in charge as well as a contact form when relevant are the most typical ways to prompt users to convert into leads.
As far as developing the content is concerned, your primary goal is to convince the user that you can be trusted to provide them with what they are looking for. Our plumber example would likely want to include customer testimonials highlighting saving the day with emergency services. Trust badges, before and after photos, and similar techniques can further be used to ease the mind of a wary customer.
You also want to detail exactly what you have to offer. For the emergency plumbing page, there would likely be content about frozen pipes, leaky toilets, busted water heaters, and so on. The better you can convince the visitor that you do in fact have what they are searching for, the less likely they are to bounce away and hurt your on-page SEO.
Stage Two: Optimise Your Tags, Metadata, and Other Nuts and BoltsAlright, so you’ve got your competitors beat in quality of content, you’ve matched it perfectly to the user intent, and you’re ready to move on to the next stage—right? Good.
Because this is where things start to get a bit technical. Up until this point, our on-page SEO efforts have mostly centred around providing the best possible user experience to real live people. In this section, we’ll start looking at what your SEO agency needs to do to increase your visibility in organic search results.
Now that you’ve got quality content created, the next step is to add in all of the HTML that makes it easy for search engines to crawl.
Optimise Your Title TagYour title tag is the big bold clickable link that appears on the search engine results page. Our example of how to teach your toddler to read from earlier hinted at the importance of the title tag, so let’s look at exactly what you need to do to optimise it for the best on-page SEO.
For starters, put your target keyword in the title tag. As controversial as the SEO industry can get, just about everyone agrees on this point. The title is the primary way to indicate what your page is about, so it’s just good common sense to include the exact thing that the user entered into the search bar.
Next, find a way to make your title catchy. You need to stand out from the other ten organic search results on page one so that users click to your site instead of the other guys. Imagine you were searching Google for how to learn Spanish. Which of the following would you click first?
- Guide on How to Learn Spanish
- How to Learn Spanish in Three Easy Steps
If you’re like most people, the second example stands out because it doesn’t just provide the information you need, it does it in a simple, compartmentalised structure.
Another title tag trick that has been proven to increase click-through rates by 33% is including brackets or parentheses in the post title. They just set you apart from the competition and let you pack powerful info into a few short words. Here are some examples:
- How To Clean Your Gutters (Step-by-step With Pictures)
- Complete On-Page SEO Guide (2018 Update)
- Drive More Traffic To Your Website (Checklist Inside)
As you experiment with your title tag, make sure it falls within 50 - 60 characters. Any longer, and it’s likely to get cut off in the search engine results page.
Optimise Your Meta DescriptionYour meta description is the little blurb that appears under your title in the Google results. While some users never look further than the title to decide where to click, plenty of them will read the description to get a better idea of the site is providing exactly what they are looking for.
Like the title tag, make sure that your target keyword appears somewhere in the meta description, ideally early on. Another handy tactic is to use phrases that are being used in the descriptions of paid ads for your target keyword. These ads are likely highly optimised for conversions based on multiple split tests, so imitating some of their word choices is likely to draw more user eyes on your result.
Otherwise, your meta description is like a 160 character sales pitch (don’t go any longer). Convince the reader that you have what they are looking for and that your content adds value. Find ways to highlight how your post stands out. Maybe it is based on primary research, maybe it was written by an expert, or maybe it’s just pretty darn funny.
Optimise Your HeadingsYour heading tags (H1, H2, H3, etc.) divide your content into hierarchical sections. They are handy for the reader (who doesn’t want to be bogged down by information overload), but they also help Googlebot understand the concepts that your page discusses.
Use only a single H1 tag, and put your keyword in it. Generally, the H1 tag should be the first text in your body copy. After that, use H2 tags to divide the page into logical sections. It’s best practice to include your keyword or LSI keywords (see the next section) in at least some of your H2s, but don’t stuff them at the cost of readability.
H3s, H4s, and so on aren’t used as often, but they can add deeper levels of hierarchy when one section needs to be further broken down. Don’t use them just as font styles or you are likely to confuse Googlebot regarding the structure of your page.
Optimise Keyword DensityYour keyword density is simply a measure of how often your target keyword appears within the text. Google cracked down on keyword stuffing way back in the Panda Update, so you never want to create an unnatural abundance of your keyword, especially if it’s rather long and unlikely to appear repeatedly.
That being said, a relatively safe keyword density is 1 - 2% (e.g., your keyword appears 10 to 20 times in a 1000 word article). This is generally enough to convince Googlebot of your topical relevance without sounding unnatural.
Discuss Related TopicsOne way that Google determines what a piece of content is about is by searching for LSI keywords (or latent semantic index). While some people think these are synonyms of the target keyword, that’s not entirely true.
LSI keywords are more like terms that usually accompany each other, and Google will search for them in your content to help separate it from similar content. For example, the keyword strawberry shortcake could refer to the delectable dessert, or it could refer to the charming 1980s cartoon show.
In order to determine how to classify your content, Googlebot would search your page for LSI keywords. If it found words like “recipe”, “whipped cream”, and “bake”, it would know that you are referring to the dessert. On the other hand, it would know that you are writing about the TV show if you use terms like “characters” or “episodes”.
What this means for you is that you should edit your content to include LSI keywords that help Google better understand what you’re talking about. You don’t have to go crazy with this, but try to scatter LSIs here and there. A tool like LSI Graph is a great way to help brainstorm a list of phrases to use.
Optimise Your ImagesImages help break up the text for your reader and keep them engaged, but they also provide you with an extra opportunity to explain your topical relevance to Googlebot. There isn’t too much to say here other than you should give every image an ALT tag and title that is relevant to your content. Typically, this is your target keyword or a secondary keyword.
Another key step is to change the filename of your image before uploading it to your website. Many images downloaded from sites like Pixabay will have nonsensical titles full of numbers and letters. You can improve your on-page SEO by renaming them to something that makes sense for your content.
Stage Three: Build an SEO-Friendly StructureOnce you’ve optimised all of the metadata for your awesome piece of content, the final piece of the on-page SEO puzzle is your website’s architecture. This stage is about taking care of both sitewide issues (like page speed) and matters specific to the page you are trying to rank, such as internal linking. The goal here is to let Google know that your page is going to provide a safe, relevant, and easy-to-navigate experience.
Build Internal LinksWhile external links help prove your authority to Google, don’t neglect the importance of strategically linking to your own content elsewhere on the same website. Wikipedia is a shining example. They create an awesome user experience by linking shamelessly to other Wikipedia articles that are relevant to the one you’re reading.
For example, if you check out the Wikipedia article on landscaping, you’ll find that they also link to their pages on gardening, topography, soil quality, fertilizers, and more. They encourage visitors to browse around by offering them a path to information that they will probably find valuable.
You can do the same thing by linking to a few other posts and pages on your own site that are relevant to the page you are trying to rank. Likewise, have those posts link back to this one. Not only does this improve the user experience, but it helps provide Googlebot with a clear picture of your website’s hierarchy.
When building your internal links, use the keyword of the target page as your anchor text. This is one of the best ways to tell Google what a page is all about, and you don’t need to worry about over-Optimising anchor text ratios when it comes to your internal linking.
To better illustrate how internal linking works, imagine we are building a page for a dental implant client called All-on-4 Implant Clinic. Here are several other posts on the same website that we might link to:
- What to do when you chip a tooth
- The difference between crowns and bridges
- When and why you might need dental veneers
- How a root canal can help you
Boost Your Page SpeedNothing encourages users to pogo-stick away like a page that loads too slowly. And as we mentioned in our discussion of RankBrain earlier, bouncing visitors will hurt your ranking. Not to mention that Google has come out and admitted that PageSpeed is a ranking factor.
So how long should your website take to load? SEMRush recommends aiming for 2 seconds or less, noting that if you can get below 1.7, you’ll be loading faster than three-quarters of the internet.
You can use Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool to get a good measurement of what your load times look like, as well as a handy score out of 100 to help you set benchmarks. They’ll even offer suggestions on the most important opportunities you have for improving your PageSpeed.
One of the most common culprits of slow load times is really big images. You can use a tool like the Smush plugin for WordPress to quickly compress every image on your website, which could lead to vast improvements.
Another factor is your hosting. If you’re relying on cheap shared hosting, odds are that your site isn’t loading as fast as it could be. Upgrading to a better hosting plan is a must if you really want to grow your traffic.
Make Your Site Mobile FriendlyGoogle recently announced the official release of their mobile-first index, indicating that they would primarily rely on their mobile index for determining rankings, rather than their desktop index. This means that a responsive website is more important than ever.
Test your site manually, but also run it through Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test. Since almost 50% of all internet, page views come from a mobile device, and those numbers are only growing, it makes sense that Google is going to include mobile-friendliness as a ranking factor.
If your website does have trouble on mobile devices, consider upgrading to a responsive theme or hiring an experienced mobile web developer to do the heavy lifting for you.
Go HTTPS or Go HomeIf you aren’t familiar with it, HTTPS stands for “hypertext transfer protocol secure”, and it basically means that any information passed to and from the website by the user is encrypted. HTTPS has been an official ranking signal since 2014, which is obvious because the good user experience is a secure user experience.
However, since 2018, it’s become more important than ever. From this year on, Chrome will label all non-HTTPS sites as “not secure”, which will obviously turn users away. So unless you want to see a spike in your bounce rate, we recommend acquiring an SSL certificate for your site as soon as possible. You should be able to do this through your web host without much trouble.
Other On Page SEO Tips and TricksIf you’ve made it this far, you are well on your way to becoming an on-page SEO master. We’ve just covered all of the basics—the things that pretty much everyone needs to do for every page that they have serious plans on ranking.
In this last section, we’ll show some of the secret sauce that can really help you take your on-page SEO game to the next level.
Add Schema MarkupThis could have gone in stage two (since the schema is a form of metadata), but we really didn’t want to intimidate you. Schema markup, also known as structured data, is HTML code that you can add to your website to provide Google with an even better idea of what type of information is on your page.
When the schema is used effectively, it may change the way your page shows up in the SERPs. If you’ve ever noticed star reviews on the search results, or a list of steps, or a video thumbnail—that’s because of schema. And it can do wonders for your click-through rates.
If your website was developed using WordPress, you can use a free Schema plugin to add the JSON-LD structured data markup to your web pages fairly easily. Otherwise, you can hunt down the relevant information at schema.org and add code in the HTML the old-fashioned way.
Set Up Google Analytics TrackingWhile this isn’t strictly an on-page SEO factor, tracking your website's analytics performance is a necessary part of any long term ranking campaign, and the data you gather will help you improve your on-page SEO.
In Google Analytics, you can set up goals to measure if users are having the experience you want them to (remember RankBrain). For example, you could set a goal to track how long visitors stay on the page. If you notice that users are bouncing away after two minutes (before they reach your call-to-action), then you can try to modify your content to better keep the reader engaged.
Likewise, you can set goals for users to reach specific URLs, such as your opt-in page. This allows you to experiment with where you place your calls-to-action within your content to better capture the reader’s attention.
On-page SEO isn’t easy, but it doesn’t have to be a nightmare.
We covered a lot in this post, and our best recommendation is for you to take it one bite at a time. The three stages of on-page SEO that we have detailed can be taken care of over time, post by post.
And you don’t have to do it all yourself. If you aren’t a passionate writer, find a quality freelancer to outsource the work to. Likewise with videos, infographics, or other content that you need to include to improve the user experience.
If you don’t want to get bogged down in all the technical aspects of metadata and keyword density, hire a trusted SEO agency to get it done for you.
The most important thing is that your digital agency keeps making progress with your on-page SEO efforts. Every little tweak helps, so don’t get so intimidated by the sheer number of factors that you never make progress. Keep at it, one step at a time, and rankings will improve.