The Top 9 On-Page Search Engine Optimization Essentials

Once you select your keywords, it’s time to apply and optimize them. The page text is critical to the search engines. Search engines value very highly the titles and headings, or emphasized text. Items at the top left (i.e., things that come first) are often given more weight. So make sure you have just one or two main keywords for each page and plenty of text, headings, bullet points, photos, etc., to adjust.

There are over 200 items you can address for search engine rankings and these change over time, but I’ve boiled it down to nine key items to address:

Top 9 Essential Elements to Optimize

  1. The <title> tag: This defines a title in the browser toolbar, provides a title when a page is added to a visitor’s “favorites,” and often displays a title in the search engine results pages. It is required in all HTML/XHTML documents. The title tag is the most important tag on the page and is the first element a search engine encounters. Write title tags that are not overwhelmingly long, as search engines display only the first 65–75 characters of a title tag in the search results. Beware, if they look overly SEOed, you might not engage people enough to click, even if you do rank. If title tags only have your company name or are too long, your rankings will suffer significantly. Make sure your keywords are listed here at least once, ideally at the beginning. We like to add the brand name toward the end. Don’t overuse keywords in the title tag—or anywhere else for that matter.
  2. Heading and subheadings: The page heading and subheadings are the next most critical elements on the page. Add keywords, ideally at the beginning of the headings, because in general, search engines value anything that comes first. Headings are not only an essential place to add keywords, but they also help the user feel grounded by making it obvious what a page’s topic is. Don’t use graphics for these tags, as the search engines can only fully read text. To check if a heading that looks like text is text or an image, left-click and drag over it to highlight it. If you can’t highlight it, then it’s likely an image. You can also right-click on it and if there is an option to “save image as,” then you know it’s an image header that the search engines won’t care about. If you are stuck with graphical headers, use alt tags (text that pops up when you mouse over an image) on each graphic, but realize that alt tags only give you a small fraction of the benefit gained from text-based heading.
  3. Body copy: In addition to the title and page headings, your page should have some text that describes what the page is about. This is often displayed in the listing in the search engine results pages, so use keywords in the top section of your text. The first paragraph of your page is the most critical section to optimize. Don’t be too worried about specific keyword density. You can add the keyword in the heading and a few times on the page. That is often enough if your links and social media activity are strong. Do what is natural, but obviously you must use the exact keywords you have chosen and in the exact order they were defined in the keyword research. Using related keywords such as those suggested by Google Instant will also help.
  4. Bold and italics: Keyphrases that are made to be bold or italicized also help the search engines understand the page’s key topics. This technique also helps the user scan and skim the page more easily.
  5. Bullet points and lists: These also help the user see clearly what the page is about (making it scan- and skim-friendly).
  6. Hyperlinks: Use keywords when linking to another page on your own site. Link to the green widget page by saying something like “Check out our Sale on Green Widgets,” not “Click here.” Don’t use the keyword you are targeting as a link on that page; instead, have other pages link up to the page that wants to rank for a given keyword, using that keyword.
  7. Silos—themes and sub-themes—interlinking: Make sure your site has a main theme and sub theme. If you are about widgets, make sure you have mostly widget-related information. To strengthen a sub-theme silo, like the red widget section, have other website pages in and outside the silo link up to the main landing page for all types of red widgets using the keyphrase “red widgets” in the anchor text. That funnels energy to the primary page of the silo and will help it rank better than its subpages. You will likely prefer people to land on a general page about red widgets than for them to land on a page about fuzzy red widget shipping procedures. Do not link out from the page you are optimizing for an exact keyword using that keyword, as it sends a signal that the page you are pointing at is also about that term. That dilutes the message to Google in terms of what page to rank.
  8. Alt tags and photos: Make sure your images are named with keywords, not randomly named. Also add alt tags to each image to describe what it is in a logical way, using keywords when possible. This way you will make your site more accessible to the disabled, while at the same time adding in more keywords.
  9. Meta tags: Meta tags were once the godfather of all SEO. Now they don’t do much to affect your rankings. To see your meta tags, you can right-click on your website and select “View Source” or select the menu item “View” in the top of the browser bar, and then select “Source” or “Page Source,” etc. The meta description tag is valuable because the users can often see it in the search results—versus the keyword tag that is hidden and just for the search engines. If Google knows the user is involved, it is more likely a ranking factor. We still use the title and description tags but see almost no value in the meta keyword tag.

Are you giving equal weight to all these elements on your site?

photo credit: wellcome images via photopin cc

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