Updated 8/11/20 to include new information.
On-page SEO is more than a checklist of factors that you need to optimize and maintain. It’s the gateway to getting your content in front of users, growing your brand, and maintaining a loyal customer base.
In this blog post, I’ll explain what on-page SEO is, why it’s essential, and demystify which factors to consider when making on-page SEO optimizations.
What is On-Page SEO?
On-page SEO is the practice of optimizing website content to grow organic search traffic. That said, the idea of “on-page SEO” can mean different things to different people.
To those that may be new to SEO, the terminology may sound technical. And while an on-page SEO strategy is somewhat of a formula, at its core, the approach is very much user-centric. The ultimate goal of any on-page SEO strategy is to align with user expectations and deliver quality content.
Why is On-Page SEO Important?
On-page SEO is vital because it helps users, and search engines, read and interpret website content. While there’s a science to building an on-page SEO strategy, it’s important to note that quality on-page SEO optimization means more than adding keywords to title tags and meta descriptions (more on this later).
That’s not to say that title tags and meta descriptions aren’t necessary parts of your on-page optimization strategy. However, you have to think beyond what looks good in the search results. Think of your website as a book; if the cover looks stellar but the rest of the pages are mediocre, it won’t take long for your readers to switch to a novel curated by your competitor. When pages aren’t optimized, they lead to a high bounce rate, which negatively impacts SEO.
11 Ranking Factors of On-Page SEO
Now that you understand what on-page SEO is and why it’s important, let’s take a look at 11 essential ranking factors that help landing pages rise to the top of organic search results.
1. Keyword Mapping
Always start your on-page SEO audit with keyword mapping. If you don’t know what keywords you’re targeting, there’s no point in optimizing the landing page for “SEO.” There’s a good chance that the topic you’d like to rank for can be approached in a few ways, which is why it’s important to target keywords with high search volume. If keywords have traffic, users are already looking for them.
Not sure where to start? Choose 3-5 keywords you want to target (including long-tail) to ensure that the page’s subject is clear.
For example, in this blog post, I’ve set out to target the following keywords:
- on-page SEO
- on-page SEO checklist
- what is on-page SEO
If you scroll back up and scan the headlines of this blog post, the keywords I outlined above will become apparent. Read on to learn why this is important.
2. Search Intent
Think about how users will find your content. Then do the same search and optimize your content based on what is coming up for you in the search results.
Pay close attention to the features that you see: images, rich snippets, Knowledge Graph, People Also Ask, videos, sponsored ads, etc. Google is continually testing and optimizing its search results based on user behavior. You can learn a lot about what the user expects to find based on what shows up at the time of your search.
3. Duplicate Content
Before writing this blog post, I did a quick search of Portent.com to see what we’ve previously published on this topic. As you can see from the screenshot below, we had roughly 25 pages that mention “on-page SEO” at the time of my writing.
And while we’ve touched on the topic in the past, we haven’t published a blog post that covers on-page SEO in as much depth. However, if this was not the case and we’ve already written about the topic, my blog post might compete with the one that already exists on our website–which would be a waste of our efforts.
To learn more about duplicate content, read our blog post: What is Duplicate Content and How Does it Affect Your SEO?
4. Title (<h1>)
The page title, also known as the <h1> tag, is the most crucial heading on a page and is even considered a minor ranking factor. The more significant reason it’s important, however, is because it’s one of the first pieces of on-page content visitors and search engines typically see when viewing a page. A good <h1> can improve engagement metrics like time on page and bounce rate.
When writing titles for your website, make sure to include target keywords and make the title descriptive enough to pass the blank sheet of paper test.
5. Subheadings (<h2> – <h6>)
Like the page title heading (explained above), subheadings should include target keywords and make sense when read on their own. Think of your headers as a table of contents. They help users understand what the landing page is about, scan and locate the information with ease, and provide an overall positive user experience.
When writing subheadings, be sure to order them by importance, with <h2> header being the most important (after <h1>, of course) and <h6> being the least important.
Remember never to use subheadings for styling! It will harm the accessibility of your website, user experience, as well as SEO. If you don’t like the look of your subheadings, work with your developers to address the issue, don’t sweep it under the rug!
Roughly 50% of U.S. adults read at an 8th-grade level. This means that to appeal to a broader audience, content must be easy to scan and digest. When optimizing my own content for “readability,” I do the following:
- Use shorter and simpler sentences.
- Use numbered and bulleted lists – like the one you see here :).
- Reduce jargon, acronyms, and words that don’t apply to general audiences.
- Break up heavy content blocks into shorter paragraphs, separated by descriptive subheadings.
- Avoid passive voice.
To ensure that our content meets readability standards, we lean on apps like Hemingway and Grammarly to score the quality of our content. For example, as you can see from the below screenshot, the Hemingway app gives you a readability grade:
7. Image ALT Attributes
The image ALT attribute (also referred to as ALT text) allows users with screen readers to hear a description of an image read to them aloud. Image ALTs still play a significant factor in website accessibility.
But they are also important for SEO: search engines still can’t “see” or understand images very well, so they look at an image’s ALT attribute in the HTML for clues to its content.
Image ALT attribute contents can work together with the other on-page SEO factors to improve that page’s chances of ranking and, by extension, improving visits and conversions.
When writing Image ALT attributes, be sure to:
- Write an accurate and concise description of the image (think stock image names).
- Keep your description to 140 characters – about the length of a tweet.
- Use relevant keywords, if possible, to reinforce the relevance of the page.
- Avoid keyword stuffing!
8. Internal & External Linking
Internal links can help pass link equity to other pages of your website. Since blog articles are more likely to generate external links, it is especially helpful to link them to your product or service pages.
On the other hand, external links should be used sparingly, be authoritative, and should always open up in a new window.
When linking one page to another, use anchor text that describes the page you’re linking to. For accessibility purposes, be sure to avoid generic anchor text descriptions (e.g., ‘as mentioned here,’ ‘see in this chart,’ ‘this link’).
To learn more about internal linking, read our blog post: Smart Internal Linking for SEO.
9. Title Tags
The title tag is one of the most important on-page elements for SEO. It’s a direct keyword ranking factor, and it serves as the blue link in search results that your visitors click on to get to your site.
The ideal length of a page’s title tag is approximately 50-60 characters. Any longer and Google will truncate it or write one on their own, any shorter and you’re missing out on the search engine results page (SERP) real estate.
When writing title tags, be sure to:
- Keep title tag length at 50-60 characters (545-560 pixels).
- Create unique title tags for all indexed pages.
- Always includes target keyword(s), preferably at the beginning of the title tag.
- Write with searcher intent in mind (make it descriptive enough so that the user will want to click on it).
- End title tags with the name of the brand.
To learn more about title tags, read our blog post: How to Write a Great Title Tag, and Why They Are Important.
10. Meta Description
The meta description doesn’t directly impact rankings, but it affects click-through rate, making it a powerful SEO tool. When written effectively, meta descriptions can provide clear and concise messages within your search result that can drive potential visitors to click through to your site.
Unoptimized character length can cause Google to truncate, rewrite, or simply ignore your meta description altogether.
When writing meta descriptions, be sure to:
- Keep meta descriptions under 160 characters for pages without dates and 130-145 characters for pages with dates (e.g., blog posts, news articles, etc.).
- Create unique meta descriptions for all indexed pages.
- Write meta descriptions with primary CTA or the goal of the landing page top of mind (think “what is this page trying to get the user to do after they land there?”).
Don’t let your Content Management System (CMS) write URLs on your behalf. For instance, if it were up to our CMS, the slug of this blog post would read on-page-seo-how-to-optimize-landing-pages. Sounds familiar? That’s because a CMS, like WordPress, take the designated landing page title and make it into a URL slug.
The problem with this URL is that Google will likely truncate it due to its length, like so:
When writing URLs, be sure to:
- Keep URLs concise
- Use hyphens to separate words. Using anything besides hyphens is a bad practice.
- Use lowercase letters.
- Incorporate target keywords.
Warning: if you decide to update URLs retroactively, remember to set up proper redirects!
If you want to check and see how your title tags, meta descriptions, and URLs will appear in the SERPs before adding them to your site, check out Portent’s SERP Preview Tool.
Now that you know what it takes to keep your on-page SEO tip-top shape, you’re ready to audit your content! I’ve provided the information in this post in a quick-reference checklist below to help you get started optimizing your landing pages.
On-Page SEO Checklist
Use the following list as a starting point to evaluate the essential on-page SEO factors on your own landing pages.
- Keyword Mapping. Page is targeting 3-5 keywords, uses synonyms, focuses on long-tail keywords, and avoids keyword stuffing.
- Search Intent. Page has a clear focus and goals. Content is aligned with Google’s search features (eg., images, rick snippets, people also ask, etc.).
- Duplicate Content. Page is not completing with other landing pages on the website.
- Title <h1>. Page uses one <h1> tag, which includes target keywords.
- Subheadings <h2> – <h6>. Page uses <h2> – <h6> tags to separate topic ideas and break up heavy copy. Header tags flow well when read on their own and include target keywords.
- Readability. Page copy passes readability tests, uses simple sentences, and avoids jargon, acronyms, and uses active voice.
- Image Alt Attributes. Images on the page contain alt attributes and are descriptive enough when read on their own.
- Internal and External Links. All links use descriptive anchor text. External links are of high quality and open in a new window.
- Title Tags. Do not exceed 60 character limit, includes target keywords, and ends with the brand name.
- Meta Description. Does not exceed 160 character limit and is unique to each piece of content.
- URLs. Are short and relevant to the article. Use hyphens, lowercase letters, and incorporate target keywords.