On-page SEO is a powerful tool for doing business in 2021, driving over 1000% more traffic than social media referrals. And seeing how the internet swelled by a whole 35% thanks to the global pandemic, it’s safe to say that 2021 is going to be another lucrative year for the strategy.
If you aren’t already familiar with on-page SEO, however, jumping in can look daunting. There are plenty of terms, tricks, and best practices out there—not to mention tons upon tons of possibly conflicting guides.
To get you started on your journey to mastering SEO, we’ve prepared a comprehensive guide for your reference and study. It contains everything we’ve learned about the subject over our decades of experience and we’re sure you’ll find what you’ll need to hit the ground running.
What Is On-Page SEO?
On-page (or on-site)SEO is the practice of optimizing the content, design, and structure of a website and its pages in order for it to perform better on search engines. It’s where you’ll encounter things like keywords, meta data, tags, and URLs—pretty much the building blocks of your website as well as the content that populates it.
Don’t confuse it with off-page SEO, which involves things like generating backlinks and making sure your NAP data are cited properly in listings and directories.
If you’re wondering whether it still matters after so many years in the spotlight, the clear answer is yes. Backlinko crunched the numbers and discovered that age-old SEO tricks (like using keywords in your page titles) do in fact lend to higher rankings on Google. Truthfully, we don’t see the art of speaking to search algorithms in ways that they can understand ever going out of fashion.
To summarize: on-page SEO involves fixing elements on your web pages to rank higher on Google, and it empowers businesses to chase local leads and generate more value from their content marketing.
With all that said, let’s get down to brass tacks, starting with…
Structuring Your Web Content for On-Page SEO
At the end of the day, your website revolves around the content it houses: blog articles, product descriptions, videos, et cetera. It only makes sense to start at the center of all the action, and this section will cover the basics of structuring your pages and content.
Deploy Your Primary Keyword Early in Your Content
Everyone knows that keywords matter when it comes to SEO, but few are aware that when determining how pages rank for a given keyword, Google prioritizes those that use the keyword in their first 100-150 words of their body text.
It lines up with Google’s approach to their search algorithm: they want to present users with the most relevant content for any given search. When their chosen keyword appears right at the top of an article, that’s taken as a sign of relevance—the article cuts directly to the content that the user is looking for.
Luckily, this is normally an easy thing to accomplish. Without sacrificing creativity, be direct and assure your audiences (and Google’s crawlers) that your articles and pages will give them exactly what they’re hoping to get.
Use Keyword-Rich HTML Tags for Your Titles and Subheaders
Using titles, headers, and subheaders on your webpages serves a handful of purposes. It reassures readers that the page is what they were expecting (or gives them an idea of what to expect), it lets you use catchy and interesting hooks to keep your bounce rates low, and it helps Google understand what your content is trying to say.
To explain that last benefit, it helps to understand Google’s indexing process. In the same way that having titles and nested headers help your users understand how your pages are structured, they also help Google’s software make sense of your content.
<h1>On-Page SEO: A Complete Guide for 2021</h1>
<h2>What is On-Page SEO?</h2>
<h2>SEO and Your Web Content</h2>
<h3>Deploy Your Primary Keyword Early in Your Content</h3>
<h3>Use HTML Tags for Your Titles and Subheaders</h3>
…lets Google know that our page title is “On-Page SEO: A Complete Guide for 2021” and that it includes sections on “What is On-Page SEO?” and “SEO and Your Web Content”. Moreover, it’s clear that the “SEO and Your Web Content” section has further details below.
This approach comes with two advantages. First, it allows you to leverage your keywords to tell Google what your pages are about. Second, it shows that your page has structure and complexity. Google prioritizes high-quality content—and written content that takes the effort to be structured and thought-out are more likely to offer valuable information.
Applying this point probably seems intuitive when it comes to blog articles, but they work well with just about any web page that features text. Consider the following example of a products page looking to rank for the keyword “gaming laptops for sale”:
<h1>Brand New, Powerful Gaming Laptops for Sale</h1>
<h2> ASUS Gaming Laptops </h2>
<h3>ROG: Republic of Gamers</h3>
Organizing a products page by vendor, then by brand tells Google everything it has to know to conclude that your webpage does indeed talk about gaming laptops—and does so in detail.
Be Smart About Your Keyword Frequency
In the earliest days of SEO, people believed that the best way to rank was to fill their webpages with as many instances of their target keywords as possible. While it was a successful and popular method at the time, it was not one that led to positive user experiences. Just imagine how annoying those articles would be to read!
Times changed and Google got much smarter, but keywords appearing with some degree of frequency remained a significant factor in determining a page’s rank. Just think of it rationally: how sure can a search engine be that a 2000-word article is talking about “interior decorators in New York” if “interior decorator” and “New York” only appear once, in the title?
Even the most insightful and most well-structured pages can benefit from the natural use of keywords at least 5 or 6 times across their length. There’s no magic ratio or ideal number—just be sure to include your primary keywords enough times in your body text to drive the point home.
Likewise, we strongly urge you against going overboard. Google actively penalizes web pages that use keywords too frequently, unnaturally, or in any other ways that make articles difficult or unpleasant to read.
Link to Other, Reputable Websites
One reliable way of letting search engines know about the reputability and usefulness of your web pages is to cite other authoritative websites. In the same way that arguments are more compelling when they can provide clear evidence to support their claims, Google and other tools recognize the importance of providing support to your content.
Many of today’s most popular SEO tools (such as Moz and Backlinko) have features that let you check for a website’s authority. If you or your marketing agency are subscribed, it’s a simple matter of running a search using your tool of choice and deciding on which online resources would be the most compelling to cite.
Right off the bat, we can tell you that websites under the .gov and .edu domains are typically reputable—governments make many of the rules and policies that content might report on, and we’re sure you’re aware of the information generated by universities.
There are plenty of ways that outbound linking helps your SEO. Your site visitors will be impressed by the amount of research that goes into your work, and search engines will be more likely to treat your content as serious and useful stuff.
Use SEO-Friendly URLs
Search engines reference everything they can to conclude whether your web pages are indeed relevant for certain keywords. This extends even to your URLs—the text that goes into a browser’s address bar when viewing your pages.
URL structure plays a small, but ultimately important role in SEO. For starters, you’ll notice that Google’s results pages feature your URL under the title of your webpages. From a user’s perspective, seeing their keyword of choice reflected in a short and precise URL will improve your click-through rate (CTR): they see what they’re after, and will be more compelled to read more.
From a search engine’s perspective, a URL is yet another piece of real estate that can be cross-checked for signs of relevance. Whether your page is laser-focused on one primary keyword or used to try and rank for a wider set of terms, your URLs factor into their algorithms.
Even better, your URL structures can go a long way towards creating clear and valuable site maps. Think of your website as a series of nested folders:
Just looking at the URLs in the imaginary sitemap above, you can get a pretty clear idea of what the website sells and where it operates. Likewise, Google’s services will have an easier time making sense of the website with the help of a clear set of URL structures.
This is even more important when you want to implement a strong content marketing strategy: your blog’s pillar articles can and should serve as informative hubs that link to other more specific content under the same category. Having easy-to-understand URLs makes sorting through the content easier for your readers and for search engines to browse.
Why Title and Description Tags Matter for On-Page SEO
Many people who are new to SEO or content marketing think that as long as you’re writing great content and deploying keywords strategically, your pages stand a great shot of making it to the front page.
In reality, there are things to consider that go beyond the content that appears on your pages. Tags and other data used to describe your web pages—stuff that won’t make it to your actual content—are just as important.
In this section, we’ll be explaining the importance of proper title and description tags when dealing with on-page SEO.
Use Keywords in Your Title Tag
When you look at a search results page or hover over a tab on your browser, you’ll see a page title that usually doesn’t appear in your content proper. These titles are essential for both your site visitors and for search engines: they’re the first place people look to decide if your web pages can provide the answers they’re looking for.
It only makes sense, then, to use your pages’ primary keywords once in each of their title tags.
But take note that the strategy here goes deeper. Using the tag is a good step, but experts suggest making sure that your keywords are front-loaded in your title tags. This is to say, write them so that the very first words that appear are your primary keywords. It grabs attention, and may have an effect on your ranking.
This can be challenging, especially if your page covers a very specific aspect of that keyword. Take this ebook for an example: our first instinct was to have the title be A Complete Guide to On-Page SEO for 2021 because that’s how we’d naturally phrase it.
Instead, we opted to write it out as On-Page SEO: A Complete Guide for 2021. It takes a bit more creative work to pull off, but it’s a rewarding habit to keep in the long run.
Use Adjectives and Modifiers in Your Title Tag
A big part of what makes SEO so difficult to master is that you can never predict exactly what your target audiences will type when searching for content like yours. Someone might type “running shoes”, “running shoes for sale”, or “affordable running shoes for sale”.
It makes sense to rank for the most general form of your keyword, and we suggest you spend a great deal of effort doing just that. But long-tail keywords (longer and more specific phrases) are highly valuable because they can signify that a searcher is more likely to spend. Just think of the difference between “flower bouquets” and “custom packaged flower bouquets”.
In light of this, we recommend that you be descriptive when writing your title tags. Be strategic, do some research on popular long-tail keywords related to your content, and then craft descriptive title tags for each of your pages.
This takes a lot of practice, and will likely benefit from some amount of A/B testing. But when it works, your titles will capture the attention of engaged customers and rank for more than just the basic form of your primary keyword.
Pay Attention to Your Meta Descriptions
Meta descriptions are brief write-ups that describe each of your web pages. Despite the fact that they only appear in two places (in the code of your pages and on search results pages), they’re essential to beating other pages for rank.
Meta descriptions give you more room to tell search users and search engines what your pages are about. Since your website is bound to feature a lot of pages, the habit for many people is to breeze through meta descriptions with variations of the same, general writing.
Our best advice is very different: you want to spend time crafting helpful, informative, and unique meta descriptions for all of your pages—from your leading blog posts to your contact page. There are suggestions on how to write meta descriptions for each type of content, but keep the following three best practices in mind:
- Be helpful. Write meta descriptions that give accurate and useful info about your pages—like a summary or a sales pitch for what your page has to say.
- Be original. Take a look at how pages similar to yours write their meta descriptions and take steps to stand out.
- Use keywords strategically. Context is key to using keywords in meta descriptions: let them happen organically, and balance the number of keywords used against the quality of how your descriptions are written.
Writing Optimized Content (a.k.a. the Fun Part)
Hands-down, our favorite part of on-page SEO is writing the content itself and we hope you feel the same. You can draw a great deal of pride from winning your readers over and earning precious conversions.
This section will cover our recommendations for how you should plan and execute your website’s content for the best SEO results.
Offer Valuable Content
We can’t stress this point enough: the best way to write content is to offer as much value as possible to your readers. When someone clicks through to your website after performing a Google search, you can bet they’re after some kind of solution—be it information or a product or service you offer.
Winning their trust and their business is a matter of being genuinely helpful, and yes, this does translate to SEO results. Google’s end-goal is to connect search users to valuable content, and they’ve said as much in their publications. As they improve their algorithm, useful and informative pages will be rewarded accordingly. We’ve seen this happen: results pages have come a long way from the days when keywords were the end-all of SEO.
Another benefit is that your pages are more likely to receive natural links from other sites if they’re useful. As experts, we understand the value of our peers in the industry and link to their websites when they do a good job of covering information that we haven’t yet. Expect to see the same when you write stellar content. After all, there’ll always be bloggers looking to back their claims with links to content.
There are other, material benefits to this beyond ranking. If a business proves it can solve basic problems (i.e. a need for information), then they’re likely to be trusted to solve further problems (i.e. a need for a product). Your website is the bedrock of your reputation online; investing in quality content means investing in your status as a business.
Offer a Unique Perspective
At the end of the day, nobody knows your market better than you. As a business operating in a specific market, servicing a specific sort of clientele, and offering a specific set of solutions, you’re a natural expert at doing what you do.
No two businesses have been through the same experiences or take the same approach. Applying your own, original takes to your site content allows you to stand out and forge a unique reputation.
And of course, it helps your SEO. Google punishes duplicate content, meaning you can’t copy and paste your way to a stellar ranking. Likewise, you can’t use the same old paragraphs (no matter how original they are) in multiple places across your website.
Google is getting better at telling when a site owner has done its research and created content that adds value for their users. Plagiarism and re-framing existing content won’t get you very far!
Use Images Where Appropriate
Web pages aren’t books. People have come to expect visual variety and useful media when browsing the internet—and Google prefers websites that can meet their users’ expectations.
Injecting rich content into your web pages can elevate well-written content to front-page material. We recommend using media to give your users breaks as they read your content: a ratio of one image for every 300 words can give the browsing public rest stops as they sift through your writing.
Likewise, don’t add images for images’ sake. Keep them relevant to your topic and when you can, add images that help you get your points across.
Keep Your Material Fresh
A common tactic among the best on-page SEO minds is refreshing content with periodic updates. While a good chunk of your web pages might never go out of date (ex. tips on covering the best ways to apply paint to an indoor wall), some details may have changed over time (ex. the most effective types of paint available on the market).
Refreshing your existing pages by updating your statistics, revisiting your suggestions, and even inserting better images and media can keep your page “fresh” when Google scans the web for content. For many topics, Google prioritizes content that was written or updated more recently. They know that people discover and develop better ideas over time, and they don’t want their search users left out of the loop.
Keeping your material fresh can also help extend the usefulness of your content. You squeeze more value out of each article, and make sure that no amount of effort put into your content marketing goes to waste.
Satisfy Your Visitors’ Search Intent
The most useful and most important tip we have to offer is simply this: be mindful of what your visitors are looking for when they use a specific keyword. Satisfying search intent is the ultimate goal for Google, and it corresponds directly with the web pages that they award top ranks to.
When researching keywords, planning content, and doing the actual writing, we urge you to pay attention to what questions you’re answering. You’ll find that this approach makes writing easier (you have direction), that it improves your site metrics (you prove your site has what people want) and boosts your page rank (you show Google that you mean business).
Search intent matters for both short-tail and long-tail keywords.
“Business attire” likely means your users are implicitly asking “What is business attire?” or “What are examples of business attire?”
“Business attire online store”… well, you don’t need to think too hard to figure out what people are after when they search using longer terms.
Your approach to on-page SEO (and to content in general) is to reward people who search on Google with content that gives them what they’re after. If you can start with this outcome in mind, you’ll go much further than most when building your website.
Maximizing Your CTR
Ranking on Google is one thing. Making sure that search users actually click through to your website is a whole other matter entirely. A top-ranking page is useless if it doesn’t draw any visitors or lead to any conversions.
In this section, we’ll discuss tips and tricks to elevating your site from high-ranking to well-performing.
Ask Questions with Your Title Tags
The biggest challenge in CTR is proving to search users that your web page has exactly the kinds of answers they’re after. Relevance is the end goal, but there are a million ways you could get there.
For many on-page SEO specialists, the best way to prove it is to ask the same questions as their visitors—literally.
Some time ago, Backlinko discovered that web pages that had questions in their title tags performed 14% better than those that didn’t when it came to earning clicks. The likely reason behind this is that people who search for, say, “organic produce” want to know what organic produce is. Otherwise, they would’ve used a more specific, long-tail keyword.
Note that this works best for short-tail keywords where people might actually be looking for basic information. It’s a bit of guesswork, and we’d say that you don’t have to follow this advice for middle-length or long keywords. That is, unless you’re ranking for specific questions; we imagine “how much is a hair transplant?” is frequently asked in that industry.
Use Powerful Language in Your Titles
Emotion is a powerful thing, and there’s a reason why people respond well to communicators who resonate with them. It can help to write your page titles with punchy and eye-catching language.
Look at the difference between:
How to Spot Quality Sports Gear | Athletica
How Serious Athletes Choose Their Sports Gear | Athletica
All things being equal, the latter title has a more marketable spin: it speaks directly to the kind of customer who might be interested in investing in higher-quality sports gear. At the end of the day, it looks more compelling and offers a more promising pitch than the former.
Of course, there’s a limit to how much emotion and punch your titles should pack. Don’t go as far as something like this:
How to Be the Best Sports Gear Buyer in the World | Athletica
As with all things, there’s a right balance to strike here. Know your target market, and speak to them in terms that they’ll respond to.
Add the Current Year to Your Titles
This might seem like a gimmick, but hear us out: adding the year to your titles can be very useful in certain circumstances. A lot of SEO analysts have caught onto the tactic, and there’s mounting evidence that it makes a difference when Google chooses results to showcase.
It’s an easy step that won’t cost you much in the way of creativity. There are plenty of ways to work a year into your title: just think of reframing it to emphasize how current and recent your information is.
Your basic pages (ex. Products, Home, About) can probably do without it, so save it for information and catalogs that benefit from being updated recently. Likewise, use restraint to make sure you aren’t putting the year in blog articles that don’t need it. You aren’t fooling anyone with, “Who was Plato ?”
Integrating UX Signals to Your Pages
Both Google and web users have come to have high expectations for how they should experience web pages. If your site feels clunky, disorganized, or poorly executed, your ranking and site metrics are bound to suffer.
Rather than falling behind the curve, here are key suggestions for optimizing the look and feel of your pages.
Keep Relevant Content Above the Fold
The parts of your web pages that visitors can see without needing to scroll are described as being, “above the fold.” Respecting the fold is important when it comes to web design: your visitors are after information, and if the first thing they see when landing on your page is a useless header image or a long and winding intro, they’ll be more likely to switch to a friendlier website.
You can keep your bounce rate low (and preserve your site’s rankings) by keeping useful information above the fold. Don’t force your site visitors to work harder for the information they’re after—they’ve already taken the time to click and load your page.
Remember that modern internet users have little patience for long load times and needlessly elaborate websites. Simple and straight-to-the-point is a better than approach than trying hard to impress.
Make Your Content Easy to Read
If you’ve ever had to read an assignment for school or work, then you know how much of a headache it is to have to struggle through what feel like miles and miles of single paragraphs. People aren’t used to climbing mountains of text to get the information they’re after anymore, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing—it simply means that the common standard for writing (at least online) has become more efficient. Longer paragraphs are no longer popular, and insisting on huge blocks of text will probably discourage your readers more than pull them in. Conversely, short content appears friendlier and easier to read than sprawling messes of words that seem to go on forever and ever.
If you skipped ahead to this line, then you’ve proved our point.
Common internet users prefer shorter, punchier, and more elegant writing to massive walls of text. Give them an easy path to the information they’re after, and they’ll reward you with longer amounts of time spent on your site.
Three rows of text per paragraph is good, and two is better. Short chunks of content give the impression that what you’re writing isn’t too hard to get through—so people will read for longer.
Again, this leads to longer dwell-time on your site, which in turn leads to better performance on search pages. Google won’t reward sites that turn people away as soon as they land.
Encourage Community Activity
Comments sections are a great way to have people engage with your content. By opening the floor for readers to share their thoughts and ask questions, you can get them more invested in following and revisiting your website.
If you can increase your site visits and show Google that your website offers something that has people coming back for more, then they’ll be likely to regard you as more authoritative.
Should you choose to go this route, be sure to invest in moderators to keep your comments clean and civil. Spambots, trolls, and other malicious actors are common on the internet and you want to make sure they have as little opportunity as possible to hurt your site’s reputation.
Advanced Tips and Tricks
If you’ve made it this far, you’re ready for a handful of more advanced on-page SEO tips.
Use Internal Linking to Your Advantage
When a high-quality web page links to another page, Google takes this to mean that the linked-to page has something good going for it. It’s like receiving a recommendation from someone who’s respected.
When refreshing your top-performing web pages, you can take the opportunity to link to other pages you’d like to prioritize. As long as your anchor links are well-crafted (i.e. relevant, natural, and not misleading) you lose nothing and spread your success to pages in need of help.
Improve Your Page Speed
Ever since Google began prioritizing mobile experiences for their search users, page load speed has become a bigger factor in on-page SEO. Faster load times keep your bounce rates low, and tell Google that your content won’t frustrate search users.
Work with your web developer to optimize your page’s design, simplify your HTML, and reduce the number of assets pulled from across the internet.
Curate Your Media
Your images and videos can rank as individual pieces of content, and contribute to the success of the pages they appear on. Spending time to give them appropriate titles and writing descriptive, keyword-laden alt text can make your site more accessible and rank better in return.
We suggest making adjustments to the workflow of your site design and publication. It’s easier to make titles and alt text a part of creating new pages than to sift through years of media to catch up with what you missed.
Build for Voice Search SEO
Voice recognition is the future of search. Years ago, Forbes reported that 40% of adults used voice search on a daily basis. As the number of smart assistants and voice-enabled devices grows, we expect that the proportion has increased dramatically since then.
There are many tips for optimizing your site for voice search, which we don’t have time to cover. We will, however, say that keywords for voice search tend to sound more like natural language (questions, conversational speaking) than written terms. Likewise, devices like Alexa will return the most accessible, most direct answers to questions possible.
This means simplifying your content and being sure to structure your content as simply and straightforwardly as possible. This means really taking the time to use tags to indicate what you’re writing about.
On-page SEO isn’t easy. As you can tell, there are many factors to consider—and we haven’t begun to scratch the surface of what’s out there. There are metrics, new techniques, and programming considerations to make that can lend to your success.
Our final suggestion is this: keep learning, keep reading, and keep practicing. Experts aren’t made overnight, but rather grow over a lot of time and as the result of a lot of study.
Of course, for businesses that need the benefits of great on-page SEO as quickly as possible, marketing agencies like Igloo are around to take decades of expertise and translate them into fast and reliable results.
If you’re after a website that impresses visitors, ranks at the top of search pages, and generates more revenue for your business, we are an award-winning SEO agency with over a decade of experience in SEO and all things digital marketing.
Contact Igloo for a consultation—we’d be glad to explore your options and help you stay on top of the competition with your marketing.