In part 1, I mentioned that SEO has four main parts including keyword research, on-page optimization, off-page optimization, and website management and optimization. Part 1 described about how to choose a good keyword research. In this part, I explain about on-page SEO checklist. In fact, search engines use hundreds of signals to determine the best search results for any given query. These signals can be categorized into two broad categories: relevancy and popularity. This post will discuss on-page signals or signals related to relevancy. These signals tell users and search engines what a given web page is about.
This post will cover the following:
- Describe the two broad categories of ranking signals.
- Recite best practices for on-page signals such as title tags, header tags, URLs, alt text, and others.
- List and describe on-page SEO tactics that you should avoid.
- Describe how Natural Language Processing aims to understand the meaning behind text.
Search engine optimization is very very complex. So, when you try to understand it for the first time, the best is to break it into general concepts you already have some understanding of. When I look at hundreds of signals that go into SEO, I break all of them up into either relevancy and/or popularity. Out of all these signals, they fit into one of these two things. On-page factors, which are the subject of this post, belong to the relevancy and off-page factors belong to the popularity.
In order to make sure, you are in the right way, follow the below on-page SEO checklist:
- Title Tags and Meta Description
- Header Tags
- URLs and URL structure
- Image Alt Text
- Internal Links
- Keyword Usage
- On-Page Don’ts
- Perfectly Optimized Page
1. Title Tags and Meta Description
The first and foremost metric in on-page SEO checklist is Title tag. Title tags are the single most important on-page metric that we have access to. This is text that we get to express and get to write; this text shows the intent and the purpose of that page on the Internet. This is really important because search engines use this text that we get to provide in their search results directly. So, we get to write what becomes the headline of the search result itself. This, in addition to the Meta Description, as I will cover next, are the two factors that we have a whole control over; these two influence both click-through rates and people’s first impressions of our brand.
Next up, we have meta descriptions. Meta descriptions are a little bit confusing because it is text that we get to provide to search engines; however, usually, search engines override what we provide and try to choose something that is better in their opinion. I go both ways, this, sometimes, is really better; most the time though, in my opinion, it’s not.
But, the important thing here is that we need to write meta descriptions in a way that entice clicks. Although I have brought meta description in on-page SEO checklist, it does not influence ranking of the page in the SERP. Nevertheless, a good meta description can significantly increase click-through rates.
2. Header Tags
All right, now we are getting to the good nerdy stuff, the header tags. This is something that was built into HTML when the web was first created. The idea here is you are establishing a hierarchy. You start with one H1 saying what the main purpose of the page is and then break it into sub-categories. So, you’ll have multiple H2s below that, multiple H3s below all of that. Each one is primarily important in SEO and we need to use.
But, because it got abused, it now has less of importance than it used to. Header tag shows what information is less or more important than other information on the page; however, it is no longer the strongest indicator of what is the most important page on that and right now that’s still title tags.
3. URLs and URL Structure
Next up, we have URLs: Uniform Resource Locators. These are the addresses of web documents online. Just like you have a street address for your house, on the Internet we have URLs for any given document anywhere; it can be PDFs, it could be images, it could be text, it could be your home page. All of these have URLs.
These are extremely important for SEO for a variety of reasons. The most important though is your keyword usage. You want to make sure that the words that you are trying to rank for are available in your URLs. The second part of this ties in directly the first, is you want to keep these short. So, it’s not okay to put a whole lot of words you want to rank for in your URL. You need to remember that humans are the people, are the things that use the Internet; they share URLs and try to say them over the phone. Therefore, it is important to keep URLs short so that people can easily share and type them in their browser without any issues.
3.2. URL Structure
3.2.1. Domain Name
Now that we’ve talked about the importance of URLs, let’s talk about URL structure. Let’s dive in a little bit here. We’ll start with domain names. You’ve probably heard of this concept before. In the above figure, “consumerreports.org” would be the domain name. This is the first thing that people see with your online business; it’s what’s going to mean all your advertisements and can mean all your marketing effort.
I like to think of domain name in terms of an offline world. If you are walking around, buildings typically look like something. For instance, a barber shop almost always looks like a barber shop and a fast-food restaurant almost always looks like a fast-food restaurant. The same ideas can apply to domain names. If you have a spammy looking domain name, or one that’s hard to spell or confusing, people are going to make an initial impression off of that.
So, make sure that you have something there that it’s going to make a great first impression; it would be something that’s easy to spell , easy to pronounce, and easy to share. Now, the question is that how is URL important to SEO?
Well, keywords are or why they are important to SEO; this comes up all the time. It’s important to have keywords in your domain name as long as you are not taking it too far. Now, the question is that how do you know if you have gone too far? mmm… I don’t know. I mean if it looks like you bought the domain name simply because it has the keywords in that you needed, then you have probably gone too far.
But is that the best measuring of it, can I take out my calculator and actually calculate that? No, you are just have to use your gut; you need to look at it from a human perspective. So, do not go overboard, keep it as short as possible, make sure it is something that you can easily share, something you are able to put on your business cards and be proud of, not something that you bought because you are doing this purely for SEO reasons. Okay, that’s the domain name. What about everything after that?
Whatever comes after domain name is called a sub-directory, and you can actually have, in theory, unlimited sub directories. But for an SEO perspective, you do not want to do that. And it is for all the reasons we have talked about before. If you have lots of sub directories, it is going to be confusing, hard to share, and cause lots of problems in older browsers. So, your best practice here is to keep as few sub directories as possible; this will be good for both robots and for human beings.
With the sub directories as well as the files that come after them, make sure you include your keywords. So again, this is one of those weird things where there is not a quantified metric for it. Nevertheless, don’t put the keywords in there too many times and put them in there just as many times as you think is absolutely necessary.
4. Image Alt Text
As you likely realize, computers cannot see images the same way that humans can. They do not have eyes and complex brains that we use to get meaning out of pictures and pixels. For this reason, we have had to come up with some other way expressing the meaning behind images.
Luckily, the creators of the Internet were forward-thinking and they provided us with a factor called image alt text. Alt text is the alternative text that is shown when an image can’t load. This is done on purpose so that people who are blind are able to extract meaning from something when they cannot see it. This worked really well for search engines because they are effectively blind and therefore they can put that information into the image alt text to understand the meaning behind images.
5. Internal Links
We have an entire section on links. But, what I want to cover in this post is just internal links. An internal link is a link that points from your website back to a different section of your own website; it is not pointing elsewhere, it is not coming from elsewhere, it is from your website back to your won website. This is important from a relevance perspective.
You will see internal links in your main navigation. For instance, one that likely says “Home”, one that might say “Contact”, and one that says “About”. These internal links show the search engine and humans that if you click on this link, it will be about our company or this will be a place where you can find contact information for us. These things are not votes like external links, but they are relevancy metrics that are extremely helpful.
6. Keyword Usage
When a search engine crawls and processes your website, it does not simply look for instances of keywords, it is a lot more complex than that. It is using a technology called NLP (stands for Natural Language Processing). What it is trying to do is using algorithm to try to understand the meaning of text the same way humans do when they listen to other people talk or read text. Instead of just looking for specific phrases or like the order of words, it tries to extract what is behind that, what is trying to be expresses here: emotion, feeling, food, anything.
So, when a search engine goes to your website, it may see keywords but it is looking for context to them. You may say just “soccer” but just having the word soccer on your website is not going to help you rank specifically for soccer. What you need to do and what is more common and actually happens naturally is that you will use words like goal, World Cup, and referee. Google and other search engines are going to take these into account and understand with that you rank for soccer.
The next factor in on-page SEO checklist that we have is Sitemaps. There are two kinds of Sitemaps: one is for humans and the other is for robots, or crawlers, or spiders. Those that are for humans are called HTML sitemaps and you have probably seen this before. They are generally in the footer of website, click through it and it shows you the major sections of the website and usually provide some search functionality. Those help you understand as a human, what the hierarchy of the website is, how does everything fit together, and how do I get something that I am looking for as quickly as possible. Those are called HTML sitemaps. Like I said earlier, they are generally for humans.
There is also something that exists in the backend called XML sitemap. This is something that you can actually look at but it is formatted for computer. So, it is not going to be easy to read. An HTML sitemap uses a format called XML to show the hierarchy and the priority of each of the URLs on your website. So, the search engines can understand that and figure out how everything is interconnected.
8. On-Page Don’ts
Until this point, I have covered a lot of things that are important and the things you should be doing in optimizing. Now, let’s go to the different direction and cover things that you should not be doing. These are the list of most common mistakes that I see, that should not be done for a well-optimized page.
8.1. Keyword Stuffing
The first one is keyword stuffing. Back in the day, it used to be helpful and again, this is in the past, it is not true anymore. It used to be helpful to put lots of instances of the keyword that you are trying to rank for on the page. Search engines and humans for that matter are a lot smarter about this now than they used to be. Keyword stuffing does not work, you are not going to rank better for any given phrase by putting it a 100 times on the page. So, this is something that does not work, You should not do anymore.
8.2. Hidden Text
Next one is hidden text. Unfortunately, I still see this one all over the web. This is when you write content that is solely for search engines, not for people. And you put it on say, white text on white background. So, a search engine can see this because they are machine but humans cannot because there is no contrast. That also used to work before but that is not a useful thing to invest your time in today. Search engines can tell when it is white text on white background, that’s actually very easy to tell from a computer science point of view.
There are a lot of ways to hide things but when you hide text, modern search engines are more certainly smart enough to be able to figure that out, probably better than humans to be honest. So, don’t bother trying to hide text just for search engines. they are going to figure it out and this could work against you.
8.3. Repetitive Anchor Text
Next one is repetitive anchor text. We have all read these articles where you get to a page and it just does not feel like it was written for people. You are reading a sentence and it is redundant. It’s got lots of links in it, there really do not need to be links. It confuses the way the flow of information on the page because you put links when they are not necessary. This also used to be a tactic, they used to work but is no longer helpful.
Search engines and the natural language processing algorithms have advanced significantly. So, they can tell when something is not readable, when something probably is intended for machines and not for people. So, do not waste your time on redundant links and trying to scroll through page rank or your link equity or the value of your links anyway like that because in today’s world this does not work.
Last thing that I have on here is cloaking. Cloaking is the idea of showing one thing to search engines and something entirely different to humans. That is, also like everything else on there, something that used to work, but as I mentioned earlier, search engines have their algorithms that have got much smarter and much more clever and they can almost always figure out the difference between when you are doing this, if you are showing one thing to search engines and something else to humans. With only a few exceptions that I know of which are in the process of going out, there is no reason to do this. So, it is not something to worth investing your time in.
9. Perfectly Optimized Page
Now, I have covered all the most important factors in on-page SEO checklist. Let’s take a look at what the theoretical perfectly optimized page would look like on the Internet. There is a big asterix here in that, well no page would be perfectly optimized because the Internet’s dynamic and fluid and things change all the time. But, if there was one, it would look very eerily similar to what we are about to talk about.
9.1. Title Tag
Let’s start with the basics. You need to have a title tag. The title tag needs to have optimized keywords in it, perfectly closer to the beginning of it and it needs to be clear and enticing for users to click. Remember, this is what we are going actually see in search results for most of the time. So, a clear and optimized title tag.
9.2. Meta Description
The next thing is an enticing meta description. Remember that meta descriptions are not used for ranking purposes, but they are tremendously important for click-throughs. So, this is your chance to write copy that is going to entice people to click through your result rather than the other ones that will be on the search result page.
9.3. Optimized URL
After that, we have a short optimized URL. The important thing here is that URL needs to be short, easy to share, and easy to understand from a search engine perspective. But, it also needs to contain the keywords that you are trying to rank for. So, keep it there, keep it in plain English, use the phrases people are actually using to get to your site but keep it as concise as humanly possible.
9.4. Page Structure
Now, let’s talk about the page itself. What does this actually look like? How is the structure of the page? The first thing you want to do is that you want to make sure that it is structured in the same way that people expect to see websites. Meaning, there is a title at the top if it is appropriate, there is some kind of navigational elements around the site, there are pictures to make it worthy of me to spend the five minutes of my Internet time grazing looking at your content, and you need to have text that is well written.
Things that are interesting, there is an attitude with the page that it has some kind of opinion, it is expressing information, it is giving me the answers to my question. You make sure this content is written for humans, there is something that I would share with my best friend because I think this is the single best source on the Internet for whatever my information need is at that moment.
After that, it needs to be accessible. I actually see this problem all the time with some of the major news publications in the world. They have a really outstanding article or they have a really beautiful photo gallery but they have done it in a way where the search engines cannot see it, which means that on the Internet it is almost useless. What you need to do is to make sure that you have the world’s best content , but you also have to make it accessible to search engines. So, this is certainly very doable just to avoid technologies like Flash and say Sliverlight and use more open standards like HTML5 that will get you all the way there.
The next one is social. It needs to be social, it needs to be shareable. I had mentioned that when I am trying to create content that I tried to rise to is that it is shareable for my best friend. Well, you need to facilitate that sharing; you need to have some kind of way for them to actually share it. This could be as simple as adding the social sharing buttons or it could be something as easy as enticing them and giving them a call-to-action at the end of the article to share it with their friends or share with people who are important to them. Sharing on the Internet is extremely important, not just for ethical reasons, but for marketing reasons, for bottom line reasons. So, make sure that you are facilitating that.
The last one and it is certainly not the least important one is multi-device ready. Neither care if you use adaptive design nor I care if you use responsive design; just make sure that this content that you have spent so much time crafting is going to work and it is going to be consumable easily on my tablet, phone, gigantic TV.
From this post, one can conclude that:
- The two broad categories of ranking signals are popularity and relevancy.
- Of the on-page factors, title tags are the most important individual field.
- Header tags are important but less so than they were in the past.
- URL is important and should be semantic.
- Alt text is important for search engines as well as for blind humans.
- Avoid keyword stuffing and link sculpting.
- You should always avoid keyword stuffing, hidden text, repetitive anchor text, and cloaking.
- NLP is a technology that aims to understand the intent and semantic structure behind text written by humans.