Getting your on-page SEO right is a fundamental part of organic search engine optimisation (SEO) and essential to secure high Google rankings.
To help you get to grips with the on-page factors that matter, we’ve put together a complete guide to the on-page SEO basics below.
But before we get stuck into the nitty-gritty, you may have one burning question:
What is on-page SEO?
On-page SEO is the process of optimising different elements on a web page to give it the best possible chance of being indexed by Google and ranked highly in searches made by your target audience.
How does on-page SEO differ from off-page or technical SEO?
Off-page SEO is concerned with actions that can be taken outside of your website to improve the rankings of your web pages.
Many people would say that off-page SEO is entirely about attracting backlinks from third party websites.
Yes, backlinks are at the heart of a successful off-page SEO strategy but you can also build reputation and trust in your content through off-page activities such as social media marketing, guest blogging, influencer marketing and brand mentions (even if they don’t link back to your site).
There is some crossover between on-page SEO and technical SEO but the latter specifically focuses on making web pages as easy for search engines to crawl and index as possible. Good technical SEO also enhances the user experience by making sure pages load quickly and everything works as it should.
Do you want page one ranking on Google?
If you do, on-page SEO matters.
We know that Google’s search algorithm uses over 200 signals/factors to decide where to rank a web page on a search engine results page (SERP). Some of these factors count on a page level, some on a domain level and some are completely outside of your control, e.g. Google giving some preference to big brands for certain keywords.
On-page SEO is something that is within your own hands to implement, monitor and improve.
Our complete on-page SEO guide
Follow the steps below on each of your web pages to properly optimise the on-page elements.
If you have a large website, you might want to pick your most important 10 to 20 pages to start off with. You can then measure how the changes you make affect your web traffic and decide if elements of the page need tweaking further down the line.
1. Have a SINGLE topic in mind for each page
When someone does a search on Google, they want to be taken to a web page that meets the needs of that particular search. For example, you’ve come here because you want to understand more about on-page SEO so that’s what this page is about.
This means that the strongest web pages, both for readers and in terms of SEO, are those that have a single focus.
If you know EXACTLY what a web page should be about, it helps you to keep the content super relevant. It also means that you can explore a topic in greater depth than if you were trying to cover lots of different subjects at once.
Plus, if you have lots of different pages covering the same topic and competing for traffic for the same keywords, you risk diluting your SEO efforts and not having any page rank well for your target keywords. This is what people mean when they talk about splitting the link juice from a keyword across two or more pages.
A note about keywords:
It’s been a number of years since Google dropped keyword tags as a ranking factor. It’s also becoming harder to track the performance of keywords because search engines are increasingly able to personalise searches. They do this by considering factors such as the searcher’s location and their previous search history.
Although keyword research is still important, our advice is to focus on the topics that matter to your customers. What would someone search for to find a topic? That’s your springboard.
2. Always start with the creation of quality content
Your website will ALWAYS rank higher if it’s full of useful, relevant, UNIQUE content that’s been written to create a great user experience first, and satisfy Google second.
Two key ranking signals are:
- Your website’s bounce rate, i.e. the percentage of people who land on the site, stay on just one page and ‘bounce’ away without visiting any other pages
- The average ‘dwell’ time of visitors to your site, i.e. how long they spend on your site during a visit and how many pages they look at before they leave
This is because Google wants to know that, if it sends people to your site, they’re going to find information that’s useful and valuable to them, and that they’re sticking around to read it and even go deeper into your site to find out more.
Well-written, well-researched and unique content that’s genuinely useful to your audience kills two birds with one stone because it gives visitors what they are looking for and lowers bounce rates while increasing dwell time.
Our tips for creating great quality content:
- Write in a natural way– Yes, keywords are still important (see above) but search engines are rapidly evolving to be able to understand natural language. Being able to write like you would speak to your customers is a fantastic way to develop a tone of voice for your brand; it’s engaging, readable and builds trust, which is so important to current SEO.
- Check your spelling and grammar – Subconsciously, potential customers often judge businesses that have a poorly written website. Grammatical errors and spelling mistakes suggest that you may not pay attention to detail or care about presenting a professional operation. Also, Google will find it harder to crawl pages where the content is unclear because of errors.
- Blog on a regular basis – Google will reward you for keeping your site updated with fresh, relevant content – your business needs a blog. In addition, you get more and more chances to rank for a variety of keywords. Blogging is also a fantastic way to show your audience that you know your stuff – this builds your reputation as an expert, which attracts mentions, backlinks and trust.
- Tackle your topic in-depth – Although you may have been told to keep your content bite-sized in the past, Google actually seems to prefer longer, in-depth copy. Various studies have shown that the highest-ranked pages contain approximately 2,500 words on average. Many are longer. Long-form content gives you the opportunity to provide truly useful information and is more likely to attract backlinks from third-party sites.
3. Think about the user experience (UX)
Google is a business and its goal is to provide its customers with the most relevant, useful search results as well as a great user experience.
It’s the user experience that should always be front of mind when working on your on-page SEO and creating or updating your web pages.
- Is the content useful?
- Is the content (and the page it’s on) usable?
- Is the answer to the searcher’s query easily findable on the page?
- Is the content well-researched and credible?
- Is the content and the experience of viewing it desirable?
- Is the content accessible?
- Is the content valuable to the reader?
These seven characteristics are at the heart of a great user experience. They can be influenced by everything from the design of your website, the calls to actions you use, the font, images, writing style, punctuation and grammar, right through to your social media presence, professional reputation, guest blogs and more.
4. Use a focused and descriptive Title Tag
The title tag is the title of a web page as it appears in SERPs.
It’s also visible on the tab above the address bar when a web page is open.
As you can see from the picture above, if you can’t see a title tag in full, you can hover your mouse pointer over it and the entire title will appear.
The Title tag is there to give web visitors and search engines an insight into what a page is about. As well as influencing how your page is ranked, it will also affect click-through rates (CTR) – i.e. the percentage of people who see the page in SERPs and click through to it on your site – depending on whether or not it meets a searcher’s needs and captures their interest.
Here are some pointers:
- Include the main keyword for which you want your page to rank as near to the beginning of the title tag as possible
- Target just one keyword or phrase per page
- Write your title in a natural way – cut the spam and the keyword stuffing; instead, think about how you can create interest
- Keep your title tags to under 50 characters so at least 90% of them will be displayed properly in SERPs
5. Write Meta Descriptions that stand out in the SERPS
The meta description is a short piece of text that describes the content of a page in SERPs. This helps people to decide whether the page is likely to answer their search query.
Here’s an example from one of our pages:
Whilst search engines no longer use Meta Descriptions as a ranking signal, the words you write remain crucial because they influence your CTR from the SERPs.
Follow these tips:
- Describe what the page is about and give readers a reason to WANT to click through to keep reading – it helps to think of it as a call to action
- Weave in keywords, but write in a natural way – if you accurately reflect the topic of the page, the keyword should crop up naturally
- There’s no definitive maximum length for meta descriptions. But as a rule of thumb, aim for around 156 characters as anything longer is often truncated with ellipses (like this…)
- If you’re getting a high volume of impressions in searches (i.e. your pages are ranking highly and being seen by lots of people) but your CTR is low, it may be that your meta descriptions need revising to make them more engaging
6. Give your main heading an <H1> tag
The main heading or title on a web page is potentially the most important piece of copy on the entire page. Eye tracking studies and heat maps repeatedly show that people look to the top left of a web page first.
A clear heading that identifies what the page is about – that central topic we discussed above – is a sure-fire way of letting visitors know that they’ve landed on the right page for their query.
The role of the H1 tag is to tell search engines what the main heading on the page says and, therefore, what the page as a whole is about. This helps the algorithms determine whether or not to feature a page in SERPs about the same topic.
Follow these tips:
- Stick to just ONE H1 tag per page
- Include your focus keyword/phrase in the main heading
- Most content management systems (CMS) like WordPress automatically add an H1 tag to page headings but some themes can override this setting
- To check whether a web page has an <H1> tag, right click on the page and choose the Inspect page source Type ‘Ctrl’ and ‘F’ to bring up the ‘Find’ option and enter <h1>. Look for the title of the page between the <h1 and </h1> tags
7. Break up your content with sub-headings (each with headline tags)
Sub-headings are a great way to break up long-form copy so that people can read a web page in detail or scan through the headings to get a gist of the content.
As with the main heading, all sub-headings on a web page should be given appropriate heading tags, i.e. <h2>, <h3> and so on, to help search engines distinguish headings from body copy.
- You can weave your keywords in – or words and phrases related to your focus keyword – but, again, do it naturally
- Incorporating your keywords and related phrases tells Google that you’re staying on topic, meaning the content is still relevant to the original search term
- H2, H3, H4 tags (etc.) can be used more frequently than H1 tags, but use them in a hierarchy – for example, use H2 tags to head up new sections, and H3 tags to indicate sub heads in each sections and so on.
8. Ensure your URLs are short, simple and descriptive
URLs should be meaningful and reflect the hierarchy of your website.
- This is a meaningful URL – domain.co.uk/page-name or www.domain.co.uk/keyword (in other words, a searcher could potentially guess the URL just from your company name and the topic in which they’re interested)
- URLs that look like this – domain.co.uk/index.php?id=2 are to be avoided – they don’t give search engines (or users) any useful information about what the page contains
- Hyphens (-) in URLs are ALWAYS preferable to underscores (_)
- Use your URLs to reveal your website’s hierarchy (i.e. how the site is structured and where pages sit in the navigation). For example:
In the above examples, search engines (and users) can instantly conclude the SEO page relates to a service offering, and the SEO Tips is a blog post.
9. Include your focus keyword in the first 100 words of your copy
By having a single focus/topic for each page of your website, it’s inevitable that your target keywords, phrases and related words will crop up. The key is to know what terms your audience will be using when talking about your products, services or things that are happening in your industry.
One tip is to include your main focus keyword within the first 100 words of the body copy of a web page. This is another sign to users and search engines that the entire page is relevant to the search query.
When you’re writing your introduction, it’s worth thinking about how you could make it more likely to be listed as a featured snippet on page one of a Google search – we’ve written a blog packed with hints and tips to help you with this.
10. Break up the copy
Although we mentioned above that long-form copy tends to rank better with Google, the very act of reading from a screen does make big chunks of body copy harder to process.
You can help make your content more accessible for users and search engines by employing the following tactics:
- Keep paragraphs short with plenty of line breaks
- Use sub-headings to signpost the different sections
- Use bullet points (like the ones in this article) to draw out key points so that they’re easy to skim read
- Use italics or bold text to highlight important points
- Reinforce the message of the copy with good quality images
11. Use a variety of (optimised) multimedia
While we’re on the subject of images, well-optimised web pages will often include a variety of media such as images, infographics, videos and diagrams.
It’s important that these elements are properly optimised because search engines aren’t as clever at identifying and understanding images as they are text.
Follow these pointers:
- Include your focus keyword in the file name of an image
- Give each image a strong alt tag
- Consider adding captions to visual elements on the page
You can find loads more helpful advice on this topic over on our blog about optimising the non-text elements of a web page for accessibility and SEO.
12. Apply structured data (Schema markup) to your web pages
Web page elements such as reviews, product descriptions, recipes, events, etc. can be hard for Google to spot.
Structured data using Schema markup is a way of flagging up content so that it can be indexed properly. Search engines are also able to use this information in the rich snippets that sometimes supports page listings in SERPs:
Check out our Schema made easy beginner’s guide for a comprehensive breakdown about applying Schema to your site.
13. Use outbound links
There are a number of reasons to include outbound links to external sources within your web pages.
If you’re able to show where the information you’re sharing came from, it demonstrates to readers that you’ve done your research and have referenced credible sources to support your expert opinion.
It’s also an excellent way to reach out to third party sites that you respect and may help you to attract backlinks to your content from them.
Adding external links enables your audience to read deeper into a topic, making your content more valuable and in-depth because it’s supported by wider sources.
Follow these tips:
- Link to the source of any data, stats or quotes you include in your content
- Ensure the link destination opens in a new window so that users can read the external content without leaving your site
14. Use internal links to tie related content together
If you have a blog on your website, the chances are that many of the articles complement one another or touch on related topics.
Your blog readers will find it incredibly helpful if you let them know where you have related content about a topic because it will enable them to explore different aspects of their search query and develop their knowledge over time.
As an example, you’ve come to this page to learn more about on-page SEO but as you get to grips with it, you may specifically want to understand more about how internal links work. By adding a hyperlink to the copy, you can go straight to our Ultimate Internal Linking Cheat Sheet without having to search the site for possible information.
These days, more and more websites are using a Pillar and Cluster model (sometimes referred to as ‘Hub and spoke’) to organise content and make it easier to browse.
With this approach the pillar/hub is a long-form article that gives a strong overview of a topic. The article you’re reading right now is an example of a pillar article about on-page SEO!
But, much like a table of contents, the pillar/hub article links to all the other content on the site that’s relevant to the main topic. These off-shoot articles – the spokes – cover sub-topics of the main pillar.
The strength of this model is that, by linking to every spoke from the hub and then back to the hub from every spoke (and targeting a different keyword in each spoke article), link juice comes into the hub and spokes from every interconnected element.
Each time a new spoke article is added, the hub should be updated to reflect this, which helps the content to stay evergreen and crawled regularly.
15. Avoid duplicate content
Google rewards unique content. That said, there may be occasions where you need to have duplicate content on your website – this especially happens with product descriptions, for example. If that is the case, make sure you don’t get penalised and label your pages appropriately.
- Use a canonical tag to tell Google which version of your duplicate content is the standard, most important version that you want it to index – this ensures Google knows which page you want to earn page rank
Yoast does a great guide to using the canonical tab. We’ve also put together comprehensive advice about identifying and dealing with duplicate content.
16. Use social sharing buttons
Although social sharing buttons on a web page aren’t a direct ranking factor, research by SEO platform BrightEdge Technologies found that their presence on articles can increase shares and mentions by a whopping 700%!
In turn, this can put your content in front of new audiences and bring traffic back to your site from a wider range of sources. Google looks at factors such as your reputation and influence as signals around page and domain authority, with higher authority sites and pages ranking higher in searches.
17. Check your website is mobile-friendly
These days, it’s essential that any website is multi-device friendly. Google now prioritises mobile-first indexing to return the most mobile-friendly versions of websites in SERPs. Having a site that offers a poor mobile experience can damage your rankings.
Follow these tips:
- Check out whether your site is mobile-friendly
- Responsive website design automatically resizes the content of a web page to fit the device being used – is your site responsive?
- Mobile URLs allow your content to be tailored specifically for viewing on a tablet or smartphone
- Make sure that call-to-action buttons on your site are easy to use on a mobile device and that pages load quickly and display properly – a good UX is essential
18. Check your page load speed
Users get a better experience when a website loads quickly. As a result, one of the ranking factors Google uses is your page load speed.
- Use Google’s Page Speed Insights Tool to access your website’s performance. This tool looks at the content of individual web pages and suggests fixes to make the page load faster
- Check out our recent blog about low load speed fixes
19. Resolve any crawl errors
A “crawl error” relates to individual URLs that search engines can’t crawl (and therefore can’t index), or that return an HTTP error code.
- Use Google Search Console to identify any crawl errors so you can fix them
- Many errors can be fixed with 301 redirects (this is a permanent redirection from one URL to another. Use it if you’ve removed a URL to avoid a user landing on a 404 ‘Page not found’ error)
20. Check the Robots.txt file
The Robots.txt file is a nifty tool that enables you to see which pages are blocked from being viewed by search engines. Remember, any pages that are blocked CANNOT be indexed (and so are unlikely to appear in the SERPS). There is a good reason for blocking certain pages – for example, admin pages or poor quality content – but core pages should NEVER be blocked and will harm your ranking if they are.
- View your robots.txt file by typing the following into your web browser (swap www.domain.co.uk for your website address) – domain.co.uk/robots.txt
- This will give you a plain text list of any URLs on your website that can’t be crawled
- “Disallowed” pages are blocked – so ask yourself, “should they be?”
- If any core pages are disallowed, remove them
Quick SEO Overview
SEO practices keep changing as Google gets smarter at eliminating loopholes and ensuring quality websites rise to the top. Success all starts with your content. Writing for users first and then Google will ensure your website is filled with the relevant information that will appeal to your target customer.
And whilst outreach and link building remain important, if these external SEO strategies aren’t supported on-page, you won’t achieve the ranking you deserve.
What do you think?
Which of these on-page SEO fundamentals have you neglected? Have you seen a boost in your ranking after checking off an on-page SEO basic that you’ve overlooked? Do you have any questions?
I’d love to know what you think so please leave your thoughts in the comments below.
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Hazel Jarrett, director of SEO at SEO+, is well-known in the SEO space, has won many awards during her 20-year career and has been published on various well-known sites. Through her services and training programs, her SEO strategies have generated 10s of millions of sales for her clients, earning her a big reputation for delivering the results that matter.
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