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On-Site SEO Brief Overview
Part 2 of our 4-part series covers on-site SEO and how the content, navigation, and data on your site affect search rankings. On-site SEO is easily the number one thing people think of when referring to SEO, namely keywords and “optimizing content”. Even if that’s all on-site SEO was, what does it even mean? Are you getting your money’s worth? And how do you know the content is being “optimized”?
Jump to Section:
- What is On-Site SEO?
- Quality Content and Keywords
- Alt Tags
- Header Tags (H1, H2, H3, etc)
- Internal Linking Structure
- Page Speed and Load Time
- Mobile Optimization
- SSL / TSL Certificate
- On-Site Visitor Metrics
- Link and Grammar Errors
- External Linking
- Blog and Content Creation
- Consistent and Meaningful Content Updates
- Schema and Structured Data
- Avoiding Bad On-Site SEO Practices
Well, first we need to know what on-site SEO really is to understand the credibility (or perhaps lack thereof) of your marketing agency or freelancer as well as what steps you could take to improve your on-site SEO performance.
On-site SEO is anything that takes place on your actual site, whether on the face of it or in the backend that affects the ranking of your website listing on search engine results pages (SERPs) in a positive manner.
Essentially, rankings for websites on search engines are graded on two key factors, off-site SEO and on-site SEO. Off-site SEO is a search engine’s ranking factor in determining your site’s credibility on the internet, given sites and directories that link to your site as well as business and brand mentions.
On-site SEO is metrics and ranking factors that search engines use on your site to determine not only how relevant your site is to a searcher’s inquiry but also how well people interact with your site. Without a website, you really can’t optimize for search engines. Your Facebook page is not going to outrank your competitors’ websites.
Off-site SEO is used to determine:
- – Authority
- – Credibility
On-site SEO is used to determine:
There’s even a third type of SEO called Local SEO, which uses techniques and strategies from each of the two main types to optimize your search rankings for specific local areas.
Now that you know what on-site SEO is, it’s time to dive into how it’s made up and what goes into optimizing a website. Keep in mind, there are over 200 ranking signals from search engines like Google that determine your rank. This is not a comprehensive list of those ranking factors, just a few basic, yet powerful factors to take into account when optimizing your website.
We’ll kick things off with Quality Content and Keywords, which is the main thing people think about with SEO. Content and keywords play a huge role in SEO, arguably the largest role. But it isn’t necessarily the type of content you put out there that is going to help your SEO, rather the quality of the content.
If you aren’t familiar with Google’s history or didn’t read my “SEO Part 1: What is SEO?” post, then know that prior to 2003, the common practice was to stuff keywords into content, or place the same keyword over and over again in white font against a white background to exploit the keyword ranking search engines used.
After Google started cracking down, those level of shady practices died down, but keyword stuffing still stuck around, only it was used in readable content over and over again. So in 2011 Google decided to unleash a monster of an algorithm update called Panda.
This update turned traditional search rankings on their heads and really focused on the quality of content versus the percentage of keywords found. But it also focused on the quality of sentence structure and length of the content.
At the end of the day, search engines want people to use them, and if the results someone gets after a search is spammy, low-quality content that isn’t enjoyable, people will stop using that search engine.
Keyword and content optimization is the practice of finding high volume searched keywords and creating quality and impactful content around those keywords to rank better in search engines.
For example, a good SEO strategy to optimize for keywords related to your services wouldn’t be one service page that listed all your services out in line items, it would be a full page for each service detailing what it is, what your process is, and why this service is good for your customers’ property.
This is another reason why blogging is so huge nowadays. Your website needs a blog. They’re not only excellent ways to share content and knowledge and get other sites to link to yours, but they’re also ways to capitalize on search traffic.
Tags are simple ways for search engines to digest information about your pages. Since search engines can’t read images (yet), alt tags (alt text) exist to describe the image to search engines. But there’s a caveat to these.
You don’t want to just describe the image, you want to place the tag in the image and tell the search engine what it is about. Here’s an example (never mind that it’s a cheap, homeowner’s, Scott’s spreader and not a Lesco…):
If you had the above image on your site, you wouldn’t want to have the alt-tag read, “Fertilizing Lawn” or even worse yet, “IMG – 12345” as I’ve seen numerous times. You want this to relate to you, yet still be relevant and use keywords.
A good alt-text for this image would be, “Lawn Fertilization Services in (your city + state)”. So now Google and other search engines have not only content to populate for this set of keywords, but also images which will help your ranking factor.
By the way, if you were to right click on that image above and hit “Inspect”, you’ll see that my alt-tag reads, “alt=SEO Alt Tag Example”, suiting the image well for my purpose.
Google understands that people don’t read every single word on a page, instead, they know people skim headers and paragraphs. Similar to how people do this, Google indexes and categorize pages based on the content and how it’s structured.
Header tags allow Google to summarize the content on pages in a more meaningful way. For instance, if you had a page with an H1 header tag “Good Mowing Practices”, you would want H2 subheaders and paragraph titles like:
- How High Should I Leave My Grass
- How Often Should I Mow
- Which Direction Should I Mow
In the examples above, you’re dividing your content based on different questions but also incorporating keywords into the header tags that people are most likely searching. Google can see that these are all related and follow a good header hierarchy, which would help you rank better.
A bad header hierarchy would be an H1 tag of “Good Mowing Practices” and then H2 headers that don’t have anything directly related, such as “How Much Fertilizer Should I Put Down” or “How Often Should I Water.”
Yes, they’re good things to consider, but when it comes to “mowing”, leave them out of headers for this page. A good strategy would be to create separate posts about each of those and link them to each other for a good internal linking structure.
Header tags are the number one things to keep in mind when structuring your pages. Check out our post on how to optimize a page on your website for more detail.
Internal linking is the SEO practice and ranking factor that involves creating links from one page to another within relevant context and keywords. What it does is help bolster the topic of each page and on-site authority in the eyes of search engines.
An example of internal linking structures would be having your previously mentioned page about Good Mowing Practices and linking to relevant pages on your site that correspond to related content.
For example, under the H2 tag “How Often Should I Mow?”, you may reference that,
“…the amount of times you need to mow depends on both rainfall and how much you water your grass, but a good watering schedule would have you mowing your lawn once a week.”
In this example, the keyword phrase “good watering schedule” would be linked to a post about Good Watering Practices or something similar. A linking structure like this does two things:
1) It lets Google know there is more information on your site about this topic and there are relevant links on the same site in other pages linking to it.
2) It gives users more opportunity to explore your site and learn more from the industry professionals. Keep in mind, on-site metrics on users’ behaviors are ranking factors. But we’ll cover this later.
Another popular linking structure is how your services are built out. I mentioned before, you don’t want to just have one page that lists out all of your services, you want a page for each service, yet you still want a main page with those services.
That one page would list them out but then link to a page for each individual service as well. All of this conforms to the best link structure principle out there, “Pillar Pages“
Believe it or not, the page speed and load time of your site is actually a ranking factor for search engines. I guess it’s not much of a shock when you consider that search engines want the best experience for their users possible so they don’t want their users to have to wait for pages from their results to load.
Back in 2010, Google made it a priority to derank websites that were not performing as well when it came to the speed and performance of their site on desktop devices. In fact, their studies showed that the probability of a bounce (someone immediately leaving your site) increases by 90% when pages take 5 or more seconds to load.
Early 2018, Google announced that the speed your site loads on mobile devices would now become a ranking factor as well, prompting webmasters to go on a mad dash to optimize the delivery of their mobile pages.
But what causes slow page loading speeds?
Well, lots of things. Some of the biggest factors, however are:
- Image files that are too large
- Unnecessary URL redirects
- Uncached browser settings
- Slow server response times
So yes, part of on-site SEO optimization is working to consistently speed up your site and page load speed. For more info on Google’s insights for site speed, check out their resource here.
Lucky for you, I wrote a handy guide on how to optimize images on your website to decrease load times and boost your rank.
On the note of mobile speed, mobile optimization plays a huge role in organic ranking, since over 50% of website traffic at any given time is done on mobile devices.
Mobile optimization isn’t to be confused with mobile responsiveness. A mobile responsive site is a site that shrinks and stretches its elements to conform to the display it’s being viewed on. If you minimize your window, you’ll see that the text and elements on this site shrink to fit inside the window. That is what a mobile responsive site is.
A mobile optimized site includes mobile responsiveness, but it also includes things like mobile load times (listed above), graphics and animations suited for mobile devices, and even the layout of responsive elements. Just because your site is responsive doesn’t mean everything is going to work the way it’s supposed to. For instance, if you have an element that requires to be hovered over with a mouse, but links to another page when you click on it, you won’t be able to see the hover feature in most mobile devices.
Another ranking factor is the security of your site, whether you have an SSL or TSL certificate. You can tell if you have one of these in the protocol portion of your URL.
Over the years, security has become a huge issue with websites and online presence. Back in 2014, Google led an initiative in the online world to make activity using their platform safer for users. This prompted Google to start deranking sites that were ‘unsecured’, that is, sites that do not have an SSL (Secure Socket Layer) or TSL (Transport Layer Security).
Then, in late 2017, Google told the world that they weren’t just going to derank unsecured sites, they were going to warn users sites were unsecured when they visited.
On-site SEO isn’t all backend data and meta information on your site. It also has to do with how people engage with your site. Things like bounce rate, the average time someone spends on your site, the average number of pages people visit, and direct visits are all factored into your ranking on search engines.
Again, it all comes back to Google’s constant business model to keep searchers happy with the best possible search experience. If users are coming to your site and it’s taking too long to load, or they can’t find what they’re looking for and leaving right away without taking any meaningful interactions, Google is going to assume your site is not engaging and people don’t want to spend much time on it.
All too often SEO pros find themselves focusing on how much more traffic a website gets month to month, but it won’t be good if your traffic doubled month over month and your bounce rate increased by 30% with it, that means you’re either getting a lot of useless traffic, or generating a lot of useless content.
On-site visitor metrics is definitely a detail a lot of SEOs forget to analyze. Don’t get me wrong, almost none of them forget to report on it, but consistently monitoring it and finding room for improvements for other metrics other than the number of users and goals completed is what gets neglected.
If you have a high bounce rate, find out where the page with the highest drop-offs are and what landing pages people are coming to. If your average number of pages is too low, look into the data and figure out where people are dropping off and why. What can you do to get people to stay? Easier navigation? Better internal link structure?
Your links and grammar matter. To add to the internal linking structure, it’s very important your links consistently work. Typically you don’t have to worry about this with internal links, just make sure they’re set up correctly initially. However, you may run into issues if your site isn’t redirected to a secured ‘https’ URL after you enable your new SSL/TSL certificate.
You might also run into issues if you switched your site over to a new platform. For instance, if I switched my site over from Wix to WordPress, all of my blog posts would contain ‘/single-post/’ in the blog post URL title. Since I have a good internal linking structure, I would have links in posts that linked to other posts. My WordPress URL naming scheme does not contain ‘/single-post/’, which means all of my links in my content would be broken and route to the dreaded 404 Error page.
If you have a bunch of broken links on your site, Google prefers not to send traffic to your site from their search engine over a competitor who does not have broken links (all other factors remaining the same).
Fortunately, you don’t have to click on every single link to see if it works. You can do a quick scan using the Chrome extension, Check My Links.
Along with broken links, Google also cares about good grammar.
Bad grammar is an indication that the source material isn’t credible as it most likely has not been proofread or isn’t constantly monitored and kept up-to-date as Google prefers. If you’re notorious for making grammar errors despite knowing better, I highly recommend getting Grammarly.
I’m trying really hard to not start off with a similar phrase to, “A really big part of on-site SEO is…” but everything plays a large part in this list. External linking, of course, is one of those. External links are when you link your content using anchor text to another relevant page on another relevant website. Anchor text is simply text that is hyperlinked, like how “Grammarly” is above. In that instance, the anchor text is a brand keyword. It will definitely benefit you and the link receiver to have industry keyword related anchor text with their backlink.
In the example above, I could have linked “grammar errors” to Grammarly and it would have been just as good. External linking was put into place as a ranking factor by Google’s Penguin algorithm update to help better the quality of content on the web.
External links carry link equity (often referred to as ‘link juice’) to the source they’re being linked to provided they’re being indexed accordingly.
Links can typically have two different types of attributes, nofollow or dofollow. By default links without rel= attributes are dofollows and search engine crawlers follow and pass on link equity through all links that do not have these attributes associated with them. If you would not like link equity to be passed on and want to tell the crawler not to follow that link on your site to the source, then you would add the rel=”nofollow” attribute to the link.
You would want to do this if you were linking to an unreputable source or if you had already linked to that same URL in the copy on a page. However, having external links on your site with rel=”nofollow” attributes is arguably the same as just not having external links for ranking. It’s always beneficial to link to reputable, external sources with dofollow or default link setups.
Blogging has been around forever and serves multiple purposes and can be done to achieve multiple goals at once. From a qualitative standpoint, blogging and vlogging are the industry leaders in providing value to your future customers and your market. Often times the most reputable companies invest a good amount into published articles, researched pieces, and sharing knowledge with their community.
Blogging can really show your market that you are the industry leaders and professionals with the answers. Of course, I always get the comment, “Who reads blogs?” (well you do, for one). The problem with the term ‘blog’ is that it’s a four letter word to a lot of people, they think of it as something on BuzzFeed or something a hipster wrote while sipping a venti macchiato in a Starbucks. But more people read blogs than they realize. Any ‘article’ you read or piece of ‘news’ or ‘DIY Instructions’ you read is technically considered a blog post. Just like this one.
However, from a digital marketing standpoint, blogging is also quantifiable; meaning, we can actually measure the success writing blog posts has on inbound traffic and search engine rankings! The more quality blog posts you write, the more traffic you’re exposed to. But it’s important to not blog just to blog. Each post needs to serve a purpose, and that purpose in terms of SEO is usually to capitalize on high volume keywords that are being searched on Google and Bing.
Additionally, blog posts can be created to supplement cornerstone articles rather than capitalize on specific keywords, giving the rank boost to that centralized piece despite writing a separate piece.
Google treats content on websites like potato chips. When new content is published, a bag of potato chips is opened and dumped into the party bowl that is the internet. But the longer the chips sit there, the staler they get. Google has the same philosophy with content. The longer your content sits after being published and unedited, the more stale and avoidable your content becomes. So Google makes efforts to put more fresh chips towards the top of the bowl.
Although it may not be a direct algorithm ranking signal, there are studies that prove updating old content to be more fresh have positive ranking signals, like this one from Moz.
A good way to update old content is to place a link to a newer post in an older post that is contextually relevant. You may even have to form some content around it to get a good anchor keyword in there. This not only keeps your content updated and fresh, but it also provides a stronger case in your internal linking scheme we went over earlier.
For example, if you had a review on your website you could mark it up using JSON-LD and tell Google or Bing that this is a review. Here’s the star rating, here’s the comment, here’s the person’s name, etc.
But marking up your different data isn’t actually ranking signal in itself like some SEOs will lead you to believe. What this ‘microdata’ does is allow information on your site to be displayed on search engine results pages (SERPs).
Although it’s not a direct ranking factor, it can definitely help increase click-through-rates, which IS ranking factor.
Schema markup is a whole beast in itself and I’ll save most of that for another blog post later on down the road, but in case you’re really wondering right this minute, this is what schema markup looks like on a SERP if your site has specific attributes marked up:
This example has had a blog post marked up using schema to tell search engines that this is a list on the proper steps to fertilize a lawn. So the search engine displays this list without a user having to click on a link.
And one more. If you have reviews properly marked up on your website, Google may show a star rating next to your result. Although it does not impact your rank directly, it can entice searchers to click on it if it does show up. But remember, just because you have something marked up, doesn’t mean Google will show it.
Simply put, it’s just a best practice. But don’t go duplicating reviews from other sites onto your website or creating fake reviews. Duplicate reviews appear as duplicate content in Google’s database and you want to avoid that.
You can learn more on Google’s best practices with schema markup and structured data here.
Remember, when new algorithms are brought to market, there’s always a group of people that try to exploit the new ranking algorithms. With that comes updates to the algorithm to prevent that from happening. Here are a few bad on-site SEO practices to avoid.
Pop-ups are annoying enough to want to leave a site without Google laying down the hammer. Except Google does lay down the hammer (mostly with ads) when it comes to search rankings if your site has pop-ups. If you’re going to use pop-ups, you need to use them correctly. They should only pop up after a trigger, such as a certain percentage of a page scroll or after clicking a button. Having a pop-up hit someone in the face is a good way to lose rank and that user.
There are a lot of ways to describe doorway pages, so I’ll just use one. Imagine you were in the Kansas City area and you serviced: Shawnee, Mission, Overland Park, and Kansas City. Let’s say you provided aeration services to all of those cities. An example of doorway pages would be single pages for:
Shawnee Aeration – Mission Aeration – Overland Park Aeration – Kansas City Aeration… etc.
Then doing that for every service you offered. What you’re trying to do is mislead the search engines to capitalize on traffic for each specific service keyword in each specific location keyword and that’s no bueno in the eyes of Google.
This is the oldest ‘trick’ in the book. Keyword stuffing is when you repeatedly use the same keyword over and over again to try and mislead search engines that you are the authoritative figure for that keyword. You don’t want to have a density of a word you’re targeting of more than 3%, but you do want to have a 1% or greater. Anything more than three and you’re stuffing.
Chances are though if you’re stuffing keywords, you’re probably still using a pager.
Link spamming is almost as bad as the above. With on-site SEO, this is when you link to another site over and over again in the same content. Yes, links are good, but too many of the same links and Google knows what you’re trying to do.
If you feel obligated to link to the same URL twice, then use a rel=’nofollow’ attribute on the link, just like I did on my linked “warn users” text under SSL / TSL Certificate section.
As far as linking multiple times to another page on your site, that’s fine.
I don’t think I really need to cover this since I already did in my last main point. Just make sure to update old content or get rid of it. Studies have shown deleting old content can actually be good for your SEO, especially if it’s no longer relevant.
Meta Keywords and Meta Descriptions
Okay, meta keywords and meta descriptions don’t actually carry any ranking signals with them, but it’s important to know a couple of things first.
First, meta keywords are absolutely useless. They haven’t been a ranking signal for Google and Yahoo! since 2009 and Bing (who now owns Yahoo!) stopped using them in 2014. So don’t waste time on updating these. If this is something your SEO agency is telling you they’re updating, you’re wasting your money on their time updating useless pieces of information.
As for meta descriptions, no they don’t carry ranking signals, but they are still very important. Meta descriptions are often what dictates how your pages show up in search results, it’s the text under the URL. Imagine not having your meta descriptions updated and just having a bunch of code or filler language in there (I’ve seen it multiple times).
However, just because your meta descriptions are updated, doesn’t mean Google is going to use them, I know, a pain in the ass, right? Back in December of 2017, Google increased the meta description length from 160 characters to over 300. Not even 5 months later, they shortened it back down to 160 again. But what makes things even weirder is that they even stated they may not use the meta descriptions you carefully craft. They may decide to use other content on that same page. Whatever they deem to be ‘better’, I guess.
I bet you can only imagine the headache I was having after updating all of my clients’ 160 character meta descriptions to 300+ characters, then having it be all for nothing not even 5 months later. Thanks for nothing, Google.
And there you have it, a fairly good list and description of what on-site SEO is in this second part of the 4-part SEO series I’ve taken the daunting task of writing. SEO isn’t something that can be easily summed up in a few short sentences which is why this series exists. I hope this informs every small business owner out there looking to better their SEO situation whether they choose to take on the task themselves or really be able to effectively communicate with their current or prospective digital marketing agency.
Hungry for more? Read on with “SEO Part 3: Off-Site SEO“.