Let’s face it—there’s nothing sexy about on page SEO.
It’s probably the most clinical part of the whole SEO process. Compared to scoring a great link from a top site like USAToday.com or CNN.com or having your content go viral and hit the front page of Reddit, on-page SEO is downright boring.
But if you don’t give make it a priority, your site will never reach its full potential.
Now, you might be thinking on page SEO is all about keyword density [Editor’s note: hopefully, no one out there is still worried about keyword density] and meta tags and that you know everything there is to know about all that. But here’s the thing—Google’s algorithms are continuously evolving and what worked just a year or two ago might not work now as we head into 2017.
Long gone are the days where shoving a keyword in your title and throughout the article was enough to land you on page one of the search results. Today, you have to consider things like Google’s Hummingbird algorithm that takes into account synonyms and context, the evolution of semantic search, Google’s shift towards mobile-first indexing, user experience, and a whole lot more.
In short, on-page SEO is more intricate than ever before. That’s why I’ve put together this checklist you can use when creating content to audit your page and make sure it’s primed to bring in as much organic search engine traffic as possible.
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- An On-Page SEO Checklist to ensure every piece of content you publish is thoroughly optimized.
- A Keyword Research Template for storing keyword ideas and data.
- An SEO Rank Tracking Template for measuring your search engine ranking success.
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Start By Targeting the Right Keywords
Keywords are still the foundation of on-page SEO.
While stuffing a bunch of keywords into your content is no longer a tactic that yields optimal results, keywords do still matter.
There are several great tools out now that make it easy to discover relevant keyword ideas and that offer a ton of useful metrics about those terms. Personally, I’ve used the keyword explorer tools from both Ahrefs and Moz, and have found them each to be excellent at helping me generate blog ideas.
You can learn more about other keyword research tools here in a previous post on this blog, so I won’t waste your time discussing all of the different tools out there.
Quick Tips for Choosing the Right Keywords
While I’m going to spend most of my time discussing the specifics of how to use keywords properly for better on page SEO, it’s important to make sure you’re actually choosing the right keywords that will attract the type of searchers you want.
With that in mind, here are a few simple keyword research tips to guide you.
1 ) Get Better Results By Using Multiple Tools
I mentioned above that I’m a fan of both Ahrefs and Moz’s keyword research tools. Additionally, I’ll typically poke around on the Google AdWords keyword planner tool, Ubersuggest, and other tools when doing my research.
Why do I use multiple keyword research tools?
Because they each have their own strengths and weaknesses and they each pull from different sources to come up with their keyword suggestions. By pulling from multiple sources, you can get a more rounded list of keywords to target, allowing you to better reach your target audience.
2 ) Identify the Potential of a Keyword
Not all keywords are created equal. You need to prioritize your keywords based on which ones have the most potential.
To do this, you’ll have to consider a few different factors:
- What’s the search volume of the keyword?
- How competitive is the keyword?
- What’s the searcher’s intent (i.e. will this attract the type of person I want?)?
- How important is this keyword to my business’s and website’s success?
3 ) Group Keywords Together Based On Relevance and Intent
Typically whenever I create a new page, I have three or four keywords I’m trying to target. It’s hard to effectively target any more than that in a single blog post or landing page.
The best way to group keywords is by relevance and searcher intent.
What does that mean? It means the keywords need to be closely related to one another. For example, someone searching for “basketball highlights” might also search for things like “nba highlights” or “nba scores.” They’re all related. The keywords focus on the same topic, and they match a common intent of the searcher.
4 ) Understand That Keyword Research is an Ongoing Process
Keyword research for a page shouldn’t be treated as a one-time task. It’s something you should be regularly revisiting and tweaking to maximize results.
Using Google Search Console can help you see which queries people are searching that bring up your website in the search results.
This is an excellent source of data for finding new keyword opportunities for existing pages on your site, so you can bolster your search engine presence.
Know How To Use Keywords Appropriately
Now, let’s talk about the different places you can use your keywords and some best practices for doing so.
1 ) Include Your Primary Keyword in the URL
In September 2012, Google rolled out its “EMD Update” that was designed to reduce the weight of exact match domain names that were ranking well simply because they had a keyword in the root domain name.
While having an exact match domain isn’t necessarily a strong signal to Google anymore and you’re probably better off choosing a domain name that’s easy to brand, having keywords in the URL extension of content you publish on your site (e.g. www.yoursitename.com/target-keyword) is still a wise best practice.
In an interview at the beginning of 2016, Google’s John Mueller said that keywords in the URL are still a “very small ranking factor.”
My advice? If you’re able to include the target keyword of the page in the URL without it being too long or looking spammy, go for it, but don’t force it. A good URL is one that’s descriptive, and in most cases, using your target keyword will fit the bill, quickly describing what the page is about.
2 ) Include Keywords in Title Tags
Title tags used to play a big role in determining search engine placement. In the old days, you could stuff your title tags with a few keywords and increase your page’s chance of ranking.
While Google has obviously caught onto that trick and decreased the importance of exact match keywords in titles (they’ve even stopped bolding phrases in titles that match the search query), it’s still a best practice to include them in your title tags. They send another signal to Google as to what your page is about and can improve click through rates by letting searchers know your page is relevant.
Generally, it’s a good idea to put the keyword at the beginning of your title. Tests have shown that placing the keyword at the front of the title could be beneficial for ranking better and getting more clicks.
3 ) Headline and Subheads (H1, H2, H3, etc.)
Using your keyword in headlines and subheadings throughout the page is a smart SEO practice for a couple of reasons.
First, when you use your keywords in headlines and subheadings, it helps Google better understand what your content is about so that it can classify it properly for relevant search queries.
While it’s debatable exactly how much just adding your keyword to an H1 or H2 tag influences rankings on its own, there’s another important facet to consider. By building a great headline around a target keyword you’ll naturally influence the anchor text (and surrounding text) other sites use when linking to that content, which absolutely can have a significant effect on your rankings.
4 ) Incorporate Keyword Phrases Directly Into Your Content
Optimizing the body of your page for your targeted keywords is a balancing act. Using a keyword too much leads to over-optimization, making your page look spammy and negatively affecting your rankings. On the other hand, it is a good idea to make sure your content has some mentions of your targeted keywords and synonyms since Google now recognizes synonyms. Many experts suggest having the first keyword occurrence within the first 100 words of the content as a signal of relevancy.
While I’m not an advocate of obsessing over keyword density (there’s no such thing as a major keyword density), it’s not a bad idea to use a plugin like Yoast or a tool like Moz’s On-Page Grader to get some useful analysis of your keyword usage. Both tools do a good job at digging through your text and offering feedback on whether you’ve used your keyword too little, too much, or an acceptable amount.
One more point to consider when it comes to your on-page content is page length. Numerous tests have found that Google tends to prefer long-form content. In fact, a study by Backlinko found that the average word count of a Google first page result is a whopping 1,890 words.
There are a few theories about why Google prefers longer content.
One theory is that long, in-depth content shows Google that a lot of thought was put into your page and that it’s a detailed resource searchers will likely find useful.
There’s also the idea that simply having that much text will naturally give Google the ability to better understand your content’s topic, allowing you to rank more effectively.
And finally, long-form content tends to get more social shares, which can signal Google that your page is well-received and worth ranking highly.
5 ) Include Keywords Within Image Alt Tags
An “alt” tag is used to describe what an image depicts. A descriptive, keyword-rich alt tag can help that image rank better in Google Image Search, and some would argue that it could help the whole page rank better for the search term by better allowing the search engine to understand the topic of text surrounding the image.
Google offers a great guide to using images on your website, and suggests “creating useful, information-rich content that uses keywords appropriately and in context.” In other words, don’t just stuff keywords in your alt tags. Make them truly descriptive and helpful, while naturally integrating the target keyword.
6 ) Write Compelling Meta Descriptions
The meta description is the short snippet that search engines sometimes use in the search results to let users know what your page is about before they click it.
I say “sometimes” because Google is increasingly ignoring meta descriptions and instead just displaying a short snippet of text from the actual content on the page.
While meta description tags haven’t been a ranking factor for a long time, I still recommend filling them out when creating your pages and incorporating your keyword into them.
While this won’t improve the ranking of your page, it could help improve click through rates. In cases where Google actually displays your description tag, a visitor who sees a snippet that includes the exact term they were searching for, which will be bolded, may be likelier to click on your website as it will appear relevant to their needs.
Other Important On-Page SEO Factors
Keywords aren’t the only thing you need to look at as on page SEO is concerned. Here are a few other important factors that may influence your rankings.
1 ) Test Your Page Load Speed
As Google continues its mission to make the internet more user-friendly, it has begun factoring load time into its algorithm. In fact, page load time may end up being one of the biggest ranking factors (which is a main reason why Google is instituting Accelerated Mobile Pages, or AMP… more on that later).
So what can you do to increase load time on page? Here are a few things to get you started.
- Use a CDN. Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) cache your site in data centers across the world. It then serves the site to visitors from the location closest to them. The result? Ultra fast load times and less bandwidth usage. This is a bit technical and requires third party help. Check out a company like Cloudflare to get started.
- Reduce the size of images. A while back, one of our posts hit the front page of Reddit. The influx of traffic really started to affect site performance around the time about 1000 people were on site. So I called my hosting provider and they pointed out that the featured image on the post was massive and was taking up quite a bit of resources to load for each visitor. So I deleted the image and things sped up considerably. For a more permanent solution, I recommend optimizing images throughout your site using something like EWWW Image Optimizer.
To check your page speed, I recommend you use Google’s PageSpeed Insights Tool.
Not only does it show you how fast your pages load on both mobile and desktop, but it also gives you detailed recommendations on how to increase performance.
2 ) Make Your Site Mobile-Friendly
Now that more people are searching with mobile devices, Google is moving to a mobile-first index, meaning it will primarily look at the mobile version of your page to rank it.
The good news is that if you’ve built a mobile version of your site, or use a responsive theme, then you’re already on the right path. And if you’re following best practices for on-page SEO, you’re well on your way to properly optimizing your mobile pages, especially if your site loads quickly.
However, there are a few additional steps you need to take to make sure your pages are friendly to mobile users.
- Consider implementing AMP. When it comes to speed, Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages are as fast as it gets. And while implementing AMP won’t guarantee you higher rankings, it can give you the edge against other sites. And if nothing else, it could get you in the AMP carousel at the top of mobile results, which can get you more clicks. Of course, the full AMP discussion would take more than a little bullet point here, so I recommend you spend some time reading up before trying to implement them.
- Lose the pop-ups. While pop-up opt-in forms are a great way to increase signups for your email lists, they’re brutal for mobile users on tiny screens (have you tried clicking one of those tiny X’s?). That’s why Google says it will begin penalizing sites using these pop-ups after the New Year. I recommend disabling them on mobile devices
- Think “easy to click.” Those X buttons on pop-up forms aren’t the only thing that’s difficult to press on a mobile screen. So make sure your page is put together in a way where everything is easy to click. For example, make sure your buttons render large enough to click.
- Don’t use Flash. And finally, for the love of all things holy, if you’re still using Flash, stop. Not only does it load terribly slow, but it won’t work on all mobile devices. If special effects are necessary, opt for HTML5.
3 ) Understand Internal Linking Best Practices
If you’re not linking properly in your posts, then you’re missing out.
The perfectly optimized page will have a good mix of both inbound and outbound links. Inbound links are important to make your site both easy to navigate, and easy for Google to crawl. And according to Moz, it’s great for “spreading link juice” across your site. I recommend linking internally whenever relevant, within reason of course.
For a good example of internal linking, check out one of my sites, CutCableToday.com, a resource for finding legal ways to watch television without cable. Notice how, while we link out to deals on the home page, we also internally link to relevant pages when the opportunity presents itself.
For example, when the page mentions watching a specific channel like ESPN, which we happen to have a landing page for, then we link to that page internally.
This helps Google find our “Watch ESPN” page, and gets users to click deeper into the site—all great for SEO and usability.
However, internal links are only part of the equation. You also want to periodically link out to other sites, as they help search engines determine the theme of your page and help you build relationships with other sites. More importantly, outgoing links can have positive effects on SEO, as it increases your authority when done properly.
A few things to keep in mind as you do this:
- Link out to reputable pages. That means high domain authority and page authority.
- Consider contacting sites to let them know you linked. This is a great way to network and get backlinks and social shares.
- Don’t go overboard. Doing so can send traffic away and frustrate your readers.
- Nofollow outbound affiliate links. Affiliate links, especially in excess, can make your site seem spammy to search engines. By nofollowing these links (add rel=”nofollow” to the code) you’ll prevent Google from crawling the links, in effect making them seem invisible and negating their effects on SEO.
And a final word on linking: make sure you routinely check for broken links. Broken links send your users to 404 error pages. This results in poor user experience, which can make users bounce and ultimately hurt your search rankings. Screaming Frog's SEO Spider is a popular freemium SEO tool that can help with this task.
4 ) Understand Page Age and Authority
How long your page has been around can affect how high it ranks. There are a lot of factors here, such as higher page authority over time, more backlinks, etc. With that in mind, it’s important to note that sometimes you might want to revamp an older page rather than create a new one. Doing so can potentially push older pages up the search results faster than newer versions.
So how can you revamp old content?
- Change the date. I’ve personally seen old pages rise in search rankings simply by changing the “last updated” or “publish” date. This is the quickest change you can make, hands down.
- Refresh the content. This can be adding new info, rewriting the introduction, adding new sections ... whatever makes the most sense to bring that old page up to date.
- Think about why people are searching. Look at the current top ranked pages and ensure that your page matches the intent of the searcher even better than those.
5 ) Optimize Images for Search Engines
If you’ve read up to this point, you already know that any images you include on your page need to have descriptive, keyword-rich anchor text. But did you know that simply including images on your pages can generate more shares and more page views?
The result? Increased social shares and traffic could make your page more valuable and trustworthy in the eyes of Google, leading to improved rankings.
Just make sure that every image you include serves a purpose, enhances the user experience, and loads quickly.
6 ) Keep Your Bounce Rate Low
For years, SEO experts have been debating whether or not bounce rate affects a website’s ranking. In other words, if someone comes to a page on your website through Google and clicks away from your website without going deeper into it, does that send a signal to Google that your page is providing a poor user experience?
How can we make sense of it all?
It’s important to remember that correlation does not imply causation. Just because pages that rank well tend to have lower bounce rates, doesn’t necessarily mean that bounce rate is a ranking factor. However, we do know that Google wants to provide searchers with the most relevant, useful, and engaging content available.
So, at the very least, you should do what you can to lower your bounce rate, keep visitors on site longer, and provide the best possible user experience.
Make On-Page SEO a Priority Every Time
With so many factors that go into on page SEO, it can be tempting to neglect certain key tasks or to cut corners. But never forget that moving up even a single spot in the search results can drastically increase your clicks. My hope is you'll use this on page SEO checklist as a guide to optimize every piece of content you put on your site so you can put yourself in the best position for success.