If you don’t get the basics of on-page SEO right, you have very little chance of securing top spots for competitive key phrases, even if you’ve got a fantastic outreach and PR campaign and an awesome link profile! It’s a common mistake to ignore the basics of SEO and focus on getting links instead of what’s in your control…the optimization of your own site. On-page SEO is the foundation to your campaign. Get it right and you’ll succeed on the search engines, get it wrong and you’ll never hit the top, whatever else you do.
With this in mind, here’s a brief guide to getting on-page SEO right, looking at the basics as well as the other essentials you need to ensure are in place if you want to outrank your competitors. SEO is constantly evolving, however this should set you right over the next few months unless anything unexpected comes along.
The below isn’t in any order of priority, it’s all important and should be used as a bit of a check list:
1. Title Tags
Ensure you place your main keyword and variations in the title tag of a page. Always ensure you target one main keyword and variations per page and don’t try and trick the search engines by optimizing multiple pages for the same keyword. Write your title tag in a natural way which uses your main keyword at the start with variations added too. Think about what looks natural and will entice searchers to click on your site.
Historically, Google would display around 70 characters of a title tag but since recent redesigns, they’re now displaying based on pixel width. There unfortunately no longer is a magic number for how long a title tag should be, but Moz has a great tool (which you can find here) which lets you preview what title tags will appear like in Google’s latest redesign.
Spend time putting together title tags which include your main keywords for a page and also look natural, aren’t stuffed with keywords and read well! There’s nothing worse than spammy, over optimized titles!
2. Meta Descriptions
Meta descriptions don’t contribute as a ranking signal anymore, but they’re still an incredibly important aspect of on-page optimization. They’re the first introduction potential customers get with your brand, so it pays to get them right.
Meta descriptions should be well written, approximately 156 characters and essentially a sales pitch for what the landing page is about. As with title tags, don’t spam or over optimize and always think about what works for users before the search engines.
3. Heading Tags
If you’re not using H tags in a strategic way, you should be! Starting with your pages’ H1 tag, ensure you utilize headings correctly without over-optimizing them. Place your main keyword in a H1 tag, again making sure it works for users ahead of search engines, and split the rest of your content up with ascending H tags…H2 comes next then H3. You get the picture. One thing to remember is to only use one H1 tag. Others can be used multiple times if needed.
Don’t keep repeating your main target keyword in each tag, rather use variations which enhance the value of the content and help break it up into readable and easy to digest sections. These tags essentially signal the descending importance of page headings so think carefully as to which H tag should be used in each instance.
You’ve probably heard that content in king and that couldn’t be more accurate! With Google’s Panda algorithm, you can no longer get away with thin content and creating unique and informative content should be where you spend the most time. Content needs to be written primarily for users and secondly for search engines, however that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t mention core key-phrases. Just make sure you do so in a natural and organic way.
Keyword stuffing is a technique which has been long dead, so don’t even consider mentioning your main terms in every other sentence. Google’s algorithm works on latent semantic indexing, so simply writing naturally about the topic of the page should mean you are writing relevant content. So long as it’s unique and not copied from somewhere else, you shouldn’t run into any problems.
Think about the message you want to communicate and keep that at the forefront of all content you write. Are your primary goals to directly sell and drive leads, to inform, or to build brand awareness? Your goals should always dictate your style of writing and the way you structure your content. As above, don’t forget to use H tags to break up your content into easy to digest sections and always ask someone else to proof read for you before going live.
5. Canonicalisation Of Duplicate Content
It’s a common fact that many CMS’ (Magento as an example) allow pages to be accessible via a number of different URL’s, however from a search marketing perspective, it’s bad news! In such instances, you’re not trying to manipulate search results via having a page live on duplicate URL’s so you shouldn’t have a problem in adding a canonical tag to reference one main page for Google to index and assign PageRank to.
Google themselves offer a great example on implementing canonicalisation here and it makes sense to spend ten minutes getting your head around it there rather than re-publishing. Getting canonicalisation right, however, is something which should be considered primary importance.
6. URL Structure
If your site uses query strings for page URLs, this is something you need to look at as a priority. It’s far bestter to use a search engine friendly URL structure such as www.domain.com/page-name/ as opposed to www.domain.com/index.php?id=1. It makes more sense to both users and search engines and should be regarded as a priority.
Always use hyphens rather than underscores and try not to have main pages sitting too many directories deep in your site. Don’t forget, however, to implement 301 redirects from the old URL to the new if you do make changes, otherwise you’ll see crawl errors pop up in Webmaster Tools and users being faced with 404 pages.
7. Crawl Error Resolution
Following on from the above, you should always check Webmaster Tools for crawl errors and find a way to resolve any showing. It’s not good from either a user or search engine point of view to have crawl errors and it’s usually a fairly easy job to fix with 301 redirects (assuming the pages are permanently removed. If it’s only a temporary removal, use a 302).
When it comes to deciding which page to redirect to, use common sense. Don’t redirect to a page just for the sake of it — try to redirect to the closest alternative. If there isn’t one, consider permanently redirecting to a 404 page.
8. Check Your Robots.txt File
When it comes to first optimizing your site, check your robots.txt file which will usually be located at www.domain.com/robots.txt to make sure no key pages are being blocked from being crawled by the search engines. If you see Disallow: / followed by any directory or page name, ask yourself whether it should be accessible to search engines. The best practice is to block admin panels and low quality pages which need to be in place but you don’t want search engines indexing, however if there’s anything you regard as a core page in there, take it out!
9. Multi-Device Friendly
Some may argue this technically isn’t an on-page SEO factor, given a site being multi-device friendly isn’t always a prerequisite of attaining top search positions, but it should always be looked at…if only from a conversion optimization perspective.
If at all possible, opt for a responsive version of your site which will resize to each device. There was a fantastic post by the team at Koozai who recently touched upon the importance of having a responsive site and how they’ve got a whopping 7 versions of their site for different devices.
We certainly live and work in a multi-device world and with rumours that mobile usage set to surpass desktop usage at some point this year, perhaps now is the time to start designing sites for mobile devices first and desktops second?
10. Page Speed
Take a moment to analyse your site’s page speed using the Page Speed Insights tool from Google to outline how fast they can load your site as well as receive a whole host of suggestions as to how you can improve things. As a general rule, try and get it as far above 90 as possible to ensure you’re not a search position lower than you should be because your site is sluggish.
There you go…a relatively in-depth guide on how to get the SEO basics right in 2014. What are your thoughts on on-page SEO? Do you have anything to add? Is there anything you’d place preference on over that listed above?