This post is going to cover the basics of how to do on-page search engine optimization.
What I write about applies to every single page on the web that is supposed to be found and rank in the top positions of Google. Sure, there is Bing and Yahoo, and whatever else is out there, but Google is by far the most important search engine of all, as it directs the biggest chunk of traffic.
Although I’ve added lots of screenshots taken from the WordPress back-end of thebloggersolution.com website, e.g. to further illustrate how to correctly set image alt tags, this guide can also be used to optimize sites running on other content management systems and those that don’t use any CMS at all.
No, you won’t find a lot of advanced stuff here, however, I can almost guarantee you that a considerable portion of webmasters are currently not even getting the basics right.
So without further ado…
I would like to take a minute and explain really quickly what on-page SEO actually means.
Like I said, we as SEOs try to optimize websites so they can rank in the front line of search engines, because that means that we will get lots of free organic traffic. And as we all know, if we have a website that is able to convert, some of the traffic will turn into paying customers, which obviously is what we all want!
We can divide SEO into two compartments. The first compartment is called ‘on-page SEO‘, which is what I’m going to outline in this guide. The second compartment is called ‘off-page SEO‘, which I won’t address here.
Simply put, on-page SEO refers to all the steps you take ON your website to improve its rankings, such as making sure that your content is well structured. Off-page SEO refers to everything that you do OF your site, most importantly building links.
Now that we’ve got this out of the way, what are the basics rules for on-page SEO that you should follow?
Meta tags are HTML elements that provide information about a web page for both search engines and website visitors.
The meta title tag and the meta description are the two tags that really matter to us and they must be placed in the head section of a web page, which means between the <head> and the </head> tag.
This is what a title tag looks like in HTML:
According to Backlinko, the title tag is the most important factor of on-page SEO. Moz says that the title tag is the second most important factor. For us, it doesn’t really matter who’s right at this point. What’s important to know is that the title tag definitely plays a key role.
In case you’ve ever used Google before in your life, you’ve seen how the content of a title tag gets displayed in the search results. What, you haven’t?
In the screenshot above, each blue headline circled in red shows the exact content of the title tag of the respective page. Now, you can already see that tag #2 and tag #4 are cut off at the end, because they contain too many characters/words to get fully displayed.
Title tags that get cut off at the end is the first thing you want to avoid. ‘Google typically displays the first 50–60 characters of a title tag. (…) There’s no exact character limit, because characters can vary in width and Google’s display titles max out (currently) at 600 pixels.‘ – Source: Moz.
The most convenient way to change the content of a title tag in WordPress is by using a free plugin called ‘Yoast SEO‘.
Once installed and activated, you can edit a page or post in your WP back-end and scroll down until you see the Yoast SEO meta box.
Here you can click on ‘Edit snippet‘ and add in the content that you wish to display under ‘SEO title‘.
Now before you make any changes, remember that meta tags are supposed to provide information for search engines AND website visitors?
So on the one hand, you have to use the title tag to tell search engines what a specific page is all about. This means that it’s mandatory that you include your main keyword or keyword phrase in the tag once.
You can also add a second and third keyword etc., but only if it doesn’t make the title tag look spammy, because that’s a huge no-no!
On the other hand, you also have to make sure that a title tag is easily readable for human beings. Because in the end, you want to draw real people onto your website, and real people don’t like to click on a page with a title tag saying something like this:
Oh boy, this has low-quality content written all over it!
Why would anybody want to visit this website? In fact, nobody does. So definitely don’t fill your title tags with that kind of stuff.
The meta description is the second meta tag that’s important to us. Why? Because although Google already announced years ago that meta descriptions are not a factor in their ranking algorithms, you can use them to provide an appealing summary of the content that a potential visitor can expect when he or she clicks through to your page.
This is what a meta description looks like in HTML:
Just in case that you are not from this planet, here is how Google displays meta descriptions:
Meta descriptions can have any length, however, since December 2017 Google displays about 300 characters.
It’s best practice to make meta descriptions long enough (at least 55 characters), so they are descriptive but not spammy and at the same time grab the user’s attention, which has a positive impact on click through rates (CTRs).
Whether CTRs influence a site’s ability to rank high in Google is still up to debate. This case study says that it does. Others say that it doesn’t.
Again, to change the content of the meta description of any page or post in WordPress, use the Yoast SEO plugin just like I did below:
First click on ‘Edit snippet‘ and then add in your favorite description under ‘Meta description‘.
In search engine results pages, or SERPs, URLs are displayed between the page title and the meta description. (And no, I’m not going to add another screenshot of a Google search example to this post, just because you’ve never googled anything in your life. Go ahead, do it. It’s fun!)
So for obvious reasons, you should double check that all your URLs look clean and are easily readable.
Being asked about keywords in URLs as a ranking factor, Google webmaster trends analyst John Mueller said that he believes that ‘it’s a very small ranking factor‘. That’s also something you should keep in mind.
All in all, try to include your most important keyword(s) in the URL and at the same time be as descriptive as possible. But don’t make it too long, because that doesn’t look good and could be considered spammy. Try to stay below six words if you can.
By the way, changing a page or post URL in WordPress is super easy:
It’s time to talk about content, high-quality content, which includes written words like headings and regular text, but also tables, images and video.
Fortunately, Google has evolved throughout the years, and let me tell you this: HQ content is not a bonus anymore – it’s a basic requirement and matters from two different standpoints.
1. User Signals
Maybe search engines are not capable of understanding the content of a page in its entirety, however, they are very well capable of reading user signals.
Let’s assume you want to learn more about bitcoin. So you type into Google ‘how does bitcoin work‘, and you click on the top organic result. After ten seconds on the page you realize that you don’t like what you read, because the content is extremely superficial and poorly written, so you bounce off.
Next thing, you are back at Google and click on the second result, where you stay for a couple of minutes, as the content is informative and engaging at the same time.
Google will notice and remember this. ‘User didn’t like result #1. User came back to click on result #2 and stayed on the page for 5:24 minutes. Maybe result #2 is of higher quality?‘
If 100 or 1,000 other visitors do exactly the same, what do you think is likely going to happen with the page ranking in position 1?
Let’s not forget that there is a world outside of big G. The primary reason why you create a website for your business is not to rank it in Google. You do it to attract visitors and turn them into customers that want to pay for your product or service.
A website that ranks high in every search engine but doesn’t convert, doesn’t bring you any money and is therefore almost useless.
In HTML headings are defined by <h1> to <h6> tags. Google uses these tags to better understand the structure of the text on a page.
For SEO purposes it’s important to have exactly one <h1> heading tag on each page. This is your main headline or title of your page/post (not to confuse with the meta title tag), so it’s only logical that there shouldn’t be more than one.
Out of convenience, many webmasters simply copy the meta title tag and also make it the page title, which is fine. However, if you decide to alter the page title, make sure that it’s not too far off and that it contains your main keyword once.
In WordPress the section at the very top of a page or post lets you define the title of the document.
Apart from one <h1> heading, you can set as many <h2>, <h3>, <h4>, … headings as you like. But you have to make sure that they are structured in the correct hierarchical order.
An <h1> heading comes at the top, followed by an <h2> heading and only then can you use an <h3> tag. But you can never use an <h3> tag right after an <h1> tag, and the same applies for all the others.
Here is an example for the correct way of doing it:
Usually, the only subheadings you will use on a regular basis are <h2> tags and <h3> tags. Feel free to use <h4> to <h6> if need be, but they aren’t super important.
This is what the above code looks like when copied into the WordPress editor:
To set a heading tag you can either manually type ‘<h2>Your H2 Subheading</h2>‘ into the WordPress text editor (screenshot 1), or you can highlight unformatted text and use the dropdown menu on the top left of the visual editor to choose the type of heading you want to set (screenshot 2).
Long gone are the days where you could repeat the exact same keyword or phrase on your page over and over again and thereby claim top positions in Google. That’s not how it works anymore, and you should not spend too much of your time trying to find the perfect density.
By the way, there is no one-size-fits-all approach here, as densities should be lower for words that have lots of synonyms – think adjectives – and can be higher for words such as ‘water‘, where there really is no other expression you can use.
But like I said, don’t spend too much time or effort on this topic. It only keeps you from doing what really matters.
As long as you focus on writing naturally or hire a writer that creates great and engaging content, all your density problems will get solved automagically.
To provide proof of this claim, I’m later going to add a screenshot here showing the exact densities of the most frequently used words in this post (once I’m done with it).
There you go:
For those of you who don’t know, those densities are reeeeeeally good.
Tables and bullet points or lists are great to break up your content and present information in a way that makes it more interesting and easier to grasp.
Both are important elements that improve user experience and are therefore highly valued by search engines.
Also, have you ever noticed a list or table as part of the Google SERPs? This is called a featured snippet, and you can improve the chances of your site’s content being shown and linked in a featured snippet at the top of the SERPs by adding more tables and lists to your content.
Implementing tables into your WordPress content is simple. You can either check out this resource here to learn how to create a table in HTML, or you can use one of the popular free plugins like TablePress.
Here is how to add a list:
Search engines value images and video on web pages for the same reason they like tables and lists.
First, they make content more appealing and it’s likely that a user stays on a page for a longer period of time, if it contains lots of fun or in any way interesting images and a video or two.
Second, we all know that a picture says more than a thousand words – and the same applies for video. There are things that you simply cannot express through writing (even though I really try, I swear).
Image Title & Alt Tag
When uploading an image in WordPress, take the time to set an image title attribute and especially an alt tag, because it’s what Google wants you to do. The alt tag helps Google to determine what exactly the image shows and also to understand the topic of the surrounding text.
But the alt tag is also read by screen readers which are used by the blind and visually impaired. Without alt text they would have no chance of knowing what an image is all about, so from that perspective it makes a lot of sense to not skip this step.
Also, WordPress makes it super easy for you to add a title attribute and alt tag to each of your images:
What is internal linking?
An internal link points from e.g. Page A of your website to a different Page B, which is still part of your site. So:
https://www.yoursite.com/page-A → https://www.yoursite.com/page-B
Common examples for internal links are those in the main navigation or the footer. But of course internal links can also be placed in the body of a page.
The main benefit of internal linking is that it allows visitors to easily navigate through your website. So it’s part of the user experience. Without inserting links, the user has no chance of knowing where to find what piece of information.
But this is not the only important reason, why you should internally link your content. From an SEO point of view, links also establish a site hierarchy and they allow link juice to spread around.
Last but not least, the Google bot that crawls your website to index it in the Google search engine follows the internal links to find out what pages are related to each other in terms of content and what pages are most important, as they are likely to receive more links than others.
If we imagine that the bot starts to crawl your website at the homepage level, it follows each link and reaches different subpages. Those subpages link to even more subpages and they all have the chance to get indexed.
However, if one or more of the subpages have no link pointing at them at all, how is Google supposed to know that these pages even exist (assuming that you are not using a sitemap)? It can’t and it won’t, so this is one big mistake you definitely should avoid.
On a side note: Using descriptive anchor text also helps Google to determine the topic of the page a link points to. But don’t overdo it by using spammy anchor text. This will only hurt your site.
External links are those that point from your website to a different domain. For example:
https://www.yoursite.com/page-A → https://www.anothersite.com/page-B
This case study conducted by Reboot Online has proven beyond doubts that Google considers external links to reputable sources within the context of an article as a positive ranking signal.
Or in other words: By adding one or more external links into your content pointing to websites that Google trusts, you gain an SEO benefit.
On top of that, you can also provide more value to your visitors by referring them to other helpful and relevant resources.
If you want to make sure that not too many people that click on an external link will leave your website for good, you can edit a link so that it opens the page of the new website in a different browser tab. There are two ways of achieving this:
You can either add the following code to the <a> tag of a link:
So instead of looking like this:
Your link looks like this:
Or you can let WordPress do all the work for you by:
Mobile friendliness is important for the user experience, but it is also a major ranking factor for search engines.
A study published by Stone Temple Consulting in 2017 has provided numbers for what most of us already knew and have experienced: More and more users are switching from desktop to mobile when searching, reading, watching, and listening online.
To be precise, 55 percent of all traffic is currently coming from smartphones or tablets and the number is still increasing. This makes it vitally important that your website is responsive and can be viewed on all the different devices without errors.
On top of that, Google has already started to index the mobile version of a couple of websites before their desktop version. The company further explained that sooner or later Google’s algorithms will primarily use the mobile version of the content of a website to rank its pages.
The good news? If your website runs on WordPress or any other content management system, there are lots of free or paid responsive themes to choose from, so you have nothing to worry about.
For the sake of completeness I wanted to mention page load time and the positive or negative impact it can have on your rankings.
The problem with improving page load times is that it’s a rather complicated process and the optimum solution varies from one case to another.
Giving this topic the attention it deserves would go far beyond the scope of this post, which is why I would like to leave you with the following two free tools you can use to learn more about the loading times of your website:
Whew, this post turned out a lot longer than I had expected. And I only covered the very basics of on-page SEO. I guess there is a lot more to the topic than one would think.
Anyway, I would love to hear your thoughts on this guide. Do you have any questions? Did I miss out on something super important?
Please post your comments below.