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A comprehensive guide to on-page SEO for better rankings in 2021

What is on-page SEO and why is it important?

On-page SEO – sometimes called on-site SEO – focuses on the content of specific pages that make up your website. This can cover both the content the user sees and the HTML source code or scripts that make up these pages. This is different to off-page SEO, which refers to signals external to your own website such as backlinks or mentions.

On-Page SEO optimisation is often the first action a webmaster takes in an SEO strategy. This is because it directly impacts how your site is displayed on Google, which keywords a page targets and what the user sees when they visit.

On-page Ranking factors in 2021

Ranking factors evolve over time. How Google evaluates your on-page content may change, sometimes seemingly overnight, but there’s a few core elements that hold true.

Keyword Targeting

Including your target keywords in your page is crucial to ensuring search engines understand the context and purpose of the page. Solid keyword research is the foundation of any good SEO strategy. It’s best practice to use your primary target keyword as upfront as possible, usually within the first 100 words and the title of the page.

Search engines may penalize your rankings if it believes you’re attempting to manipulate a position by using a keyword too often or out of context. This is known as ‘keyword stuffing’ and is usually caused by an unnatural repetition of the same word or phrase, or by an unnecessary use of lists. Google recommends focusing on creating valuable content which uses target keywords appropriately and in context.

It’s important to understand the intent a user has when searching a term to ensure that the content being delivered is what users expect. Understanding whether a user wants to navigate to a specific website, purchase a product, understand a topic or investigation options is crucial to keyword targeting. For example, if a search term includes ‘how to cook salmon’ it’s clear the user is looking for a recipe and could even be supported by a video demonstration.

URL

The structure of your URL is an indication of the hierarchy of your site’s pages, which clearly show how you’re categorising content.

Typically, best practice for creating SEO-friendly URLs is to create them as human readable as possible. This means keeping them short and concise with a consistent structure across your site. This includes using dashes to separate words instead of underscores and avoiding special characters.

Google has recently placed more emphasis on structure, transforming URLs to breadcrumbs in the SERP and even putting them above the title in search.

Title Tags

Title tags are contained within the HTML of the page and are displayed to users on the SERPs. A well-optimised title tag should give a concise summary of the purpose of your page whilst containing the highest volume terms you aim to target.

Title tags are considered one of the most important ranking factors for SEO as they give a strong indication of a page’s intent. This is usually the clearest description of your page and will impact click-through rates. This means it’s important to make title tags as catchy as possible.

Meta Descriptions

Meta descriptions, like title tags, are contained with the HTML of the page and are displayed on the SERPs rather than directly on your site’s pages. Whilst not a direct ranking factor, a well-optimised meta description will improve the likelihood of a user clicking your site compared to others.

Google has experimented with different length meta descriptions and they can even vary between device or different results. However, as a rule of thumb most consider a clear description of the page (including your target keywords) of between 150-155 characters to be optimal.

Header Tags

Header tags – also called H tags – help provide your content with hierarchy and structure. H tags can be broken down into six hierarchies (H1, H2 and so on) decreasing in importance with each level. Best practices are for the H1 tag to outline the overall purpose of the page, like the title tag, with H2s denoting sub-topics or sections within that broader theme. H3s and so onward can be used for specific topic sections.

Page rendering

Slow-loading pages provide a poor customer experience, so it makes sense that Google demotes pages that don’t load well. On top of that, it costs Google more to crawl slower-loading pages, which impacts the frequency Google will crawl or the priority it gives to revisiting your site.

While your site speed is largely controlled server-side or by the distribution network (read more on page speed), there are some basic optimisations you can make on-page to improve load speeds:

  • Minimize or remove unnecessary scripts or HTML

A page will have to render all code loaded on a page whether a user can see it or not. Using a text editor instead of a visual editor to build pages will help reduce unnecessary HTML. Reviewing the priority and necessity of JavaScript used for dynamic content can also lead to significant reduction in load times.

  • Reduce the file size of on-page assets

Every image and video displayed on your page will take time to load, so it’s important to use them selectively. A few well placed images and videos will benefit user experience, but it’s important not to overdo it.

Additionally, the format and size of these can often be optimized. While a 4k resolution image may seem like a good idea, most users won’t see it in that resolution so it’s usually best to reduce it. Next generation formats such as JPEG 2000 or WebP have better compression and quality than legacy JPEG and PNG formats.

Accessibility

Google will favour content that is easily accessible to users. This means text should be correctly sized and the page should be clearly formatted to provide users with easy navigation to additional content.

Beyond the basic visuals on your page, marking up images with descriptive alt text can help visually impaired users with screen readers understand content more easily.

Internal Linking

Ensuring the pages on your website are both linked to internally and provide links to external content is important for ranking in Google. In fact, linking from more authoritative pages on your site to more specific pages will help improve their authority. However, the more links a page has, the less equity it can pass to the next, so Google therefore recommends limiting links on a page in their webmaster guidelines.

As a site naturally evolves over time, content will be updated, removed or moved. Therefore, it’s therefore important to ensure all links on a page still work and go directly to the final URL without hitting a redirect.

Things to watch out for when reviewing on-page content

Cloaking

Cloaking is the practice of delivering different content to search bots than to the user. Google may perceive this as trying to hide content from the user to manipulate rankings and penalise you for it. Google can also recognise black-hat practices such as hiding text on a page by setting the text the same colour as the background and therefore invisible to users.

Thin content

Thin content is content that is considered to have little to no discernable value to the user. These could be pages that don’t cover a subject in enough depth or have no clear purpose, creating an unnecessary step in a user’s journey. The latter is why it’s vital to consider how your users will navigate your site and move through it in a multi-page journey.

Duplicate content

Duplicate content is where identical content sits on two separate URLs with nothing to define the difference. It’s always best to create pages that are unique, but there are plenty of cases where it is necessary for two separate URLs to contain identical content. In these cases, it may be best to use a rel=”canonical” tag in the HTML which signals to Google which of the two (or more) pages you consider ‘canon’ and should therefore be shown in search.

Keyword stuffing

Keyword stuffing is when the content overuses the target keywords in the content with the thought that it will increase Google’s likelihood to rank it. Remember that Google’s overall aim is to provide the best value content to the user. That means all content should read naturally and not look as if it was written by a robot.

Now we’ve covered the basics, learn how to write awesome content for your site that will rank.

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