A detailed guide to web page optimization for better ranking
- Is on-page optimization still important?
- Optimizing URLs for SEO
- Make your URLs read well
- Categories and site structure
- Underscore VS hyphen
- Optimizing page titles
- Page title length
- How to use keywords in the page title
- Making your page title look good in the search results
- Optimizing descriptions for a better Click Through Rate
Optimizing page headers
- Optimizing content
- Keywords within content
- Keyword variance
- Content length
- Optimizing images
- Outbound links
- Flash Content
- Page load speed
- Ad placement
- Page layout
Is on-page optimization still important?
On-page SEO is becoming increasingly overshadowed by off-page factors. However that’s not to say it’s not important to have your on-page SEO spot on. By getting on-page right you're putting down a solid foundation to build upon with other activities.
To make it easier to break down the information, we’re looking at a page in isolation in this article. In reality I would be looking at it as part of the website and thinking about all the possible ramifications to both on-site and off-site activity.
Google uses the on-page content in order to work out what the page is about. So which keywords your pages rank for is determined by the content they contain. Within this, Google assigns more or less relevancy (the influence given to which keywords you rank for) to different elements on the page.
We're going to analyze this page and work through those elements within it.
Optimizing URLs for SEO
The URL can be a bit of an underrated asset for a page. Not only does it provide additional value to your keywords, it also appears within the search results.
This means your URL actually forms part of the ‘ad’ which appears for your site in the organic search results. That then has a direct influence on whether people choose to click your link. Note that Google shortens longer URLs, like this one, to make them display neatly. The middle section is hopped over, leaving the most important parts for the user - the domain and the page.
Make your URLs read well
Your URL should be readable to a human and make sense. It doesn’t need to be perfect English but at a glance the content that you would expect to see on the page should be clear. A good test is to see if your URL reflects your page title.
If you want to learn more about site structure and the other elements in the breakdown of this URL you can do so in this article on The Ultimate Guide to On-Page SEO.
Some popular CMS such as Wordpress use a numerical default for URLs, meaning that when a page is created it is assigned a numerical code which forms the URL. For SEO this isn’t great, you want it to be human-readable. Luckily enough this is pretty easy to change. Just use the permalinks option within your install, which will change the URLs to words, instead of numbers.
Try and keep your page URL short, don’t use too many words. 3 to 4 is a good number but a healthy dose of common sense should steer you in the right direction. Obviously you can use shorter words or fewer longer words. Just make sure it’s clear, use your main keywords for the page and it actually looks good on page.
Categories and site structure
The placement of the page on the site has an impact on how relevant Google deems its content. This is done through the site structure, with content placed in categories which are also relevant to the search term ranking better. Naming your categories and subcategories utilising keywords will not only benefit those pages but also the pages listed within them.
Should I use an underscore or hyphen in my URL?
The debate rages on - which is better for SEO, underscores or hyphens? Luckily enough there is a definitive answer from Matt Cutts. He was the head of Webspam for Google, so he’s well worth listening too. So here’s a video from Matt:
The likelihood is this has a pretty minimal impact whether you do actually use hyphens for separating words and underscores for a single phrase. Best practice is great when creating new pages but I would advise against going back to old pages and changing the hyphens and underscores. Changing the URL means implementing a redirect, which will lose you more value than this change would gain.
Optimizing page titles
Next down from the URL it’s time to take a look at the page title - probably the most abused and one of the longest serving core on-page SEO factors. Your page title is the element on the page where it is most important to strike a balance between readability and SEO.
Let’s start off by taking a look at how Google is displaying your page title. Simply search for the page in Google so it shows up in the results. Using the 'info' command in Google, then putting in the page URL, will show the result without any personalization:
What page title length will Google display?
In some cases you see how the final part of the title is truncated, so cut off and followed by a couple of dots. This is because there is a maximum character limit to what Google can display in the results. This varies on the result type and the actual characters you use. This is because it’s actually a pixel limit, so the space Google has to play with is determined in pixels (512 if you’re interested). Use wider letters and you’ll fit fewer characters.
Unless you're a web designer you’re unlikely to think in pixels and it’s much easier to think in characters. We recommend you always use a nominal limit of 69. You should be able to fit 69 of all but the fattest characters into your 512 pixels.
How to use keywords in the page title
The page title is the single most important on-page element for your keywords (unless you count the body copy as one element). You need to make sure your core terms are placed within your title with the most important terms at the front.
Adding brand name at the end of the page title is a good tactic as it means the part most likely to be truncated off matters the least. Some systems place the brand at the front of the page title. We would advise against this as you're using up valuable space with repeated, low value keywords. Keywords placed at the front of the title also carry more value than those at the end.
We have used a ‘How to’ format for the title as these searches are popular and a great way to capture organic traffic for your site. If you want to pull new visits in, this is an effective way to do it. You can actually search for ‘keyword questions’ in a Keyword Tool to see which are the most popular questions people are asking in your niche. It’s a really powerful way of generating content that ranks well and captures fresh traffic.
This page title is a good combination of SEO factors, making sure we get the main key phrase we want to rank. This will help with capturing additional long tail keyword traffic and also helps create a more attractive title when read in the search results.
Making your page title look good in the search results
This is the other part of why a page title is so important. It forms part of the advert for your site which appears in the search results. Whether or not someone clicks on the result for your site isn’t just determined by the position it’s ranked in, it's also how attractive the result looks to them.
People search to find a page which contains the content they need. It might be a specific product or information about a product or anything else. The important thing is that they are looking to fulfil that requirement. Within the page title you must clearly demonstrate that the content of the page fulfils that requirement. In simple terms, they are going to find what they need on your page. We would then be answering the question that was being asked. However we are more likely to rank for our question-based keywords by including that within the title. This is the balance between the two factors.
How to optimize page descriptions for a better Click Through Rate
I feel confident in saying that there are few out there who still think that page descriptions affect rankings. It’s been known for many years that they don’t. What’s still a bit more contentious is whether there is a secondary effect via the influence of Click Through Rates. As of last year, that’s not a factor either (or at least not one Google wants to admit to).
It’s likely that having Click Through Rate as a ranking factor created too big a headache for Google, with proxies and offshore dev teams providing cheap and accessible ways of generating false clicks.
So CTR doesn’t influence rankings. However, it does have a big influence on how much traffic comes through to the page. So you want to make sure your ad in the search results is as optimized as possible to gain the biggest share of those clicks it can.
The FAB principle is a good one to follow here. This is a classic sales copy technique where you state:
Feature : What it is
Advantage : Specifically what it can do
Benefit : Why that’s a good thing
Then after this, include a Call To Action, or CTA. Here’s the description created for this page:
You might recognise this as the introduction as well. This is because our CMS uses one piece of content to generate both the excerpt and description. This means you have to consider how it will look on-page as well as within the search results.
Length is once again restricted, much like page titles. Here we have a little more room with around 156 characters to play with. Once again this isn’t a hard limit but that this is a good number to work to.
Optimizing page headings for SEO
Page headings are used as both a styling element and as an SEO element. They are still relevant and an active ranking factor. However just how important they are has diminished. Once again it’s an element that we wouldn’t recommend going to great lengths to change, but if you’re creating content from scratch then it’s definitely worth looking at.
The heading tag is an element that can be added in the page code that denotes the text as a heading within the content. Styling is then automatically applied according to the heading type, so these are often a larger font than the normal body copy.
The code used is a heading tag. This is a piece of html that wraps around the content. You open a heading tag like this <h1> and close it like this </h1>. You can have as many different heading types as you want, although 3 - 6 is most common. A secondary heading or h2 would be displayed with the <h2> tag and <h3> for h3 etc etc.
Google knows that headings are used to denote a summary of the following section, like mini titles for each section within the content. So it makes sense that Google would place extra weight on the words used within those headings. Headings carry more meaning than words used elsewhere on the page and have been thought about more carefully.
As they aren’t displayed in the results, headings don’t carry any restrictions so it’s up to you how you use them. Use them as they are intended, as clear concise titles for each of the sections within the page. Higher numbered headings denote the main sections and the lower numbered headings are for subsections within these.
The readability of the content on page will have a much bigger impact than any SEO benefit derived from headings, so make sure they read well. However, you can still create them thinking about the search terms that you want the page to rank for.
How to optimize your content to rank better
The biggest, most influential, on-page factor by far is the content. This isn’t just about using the right keywords but also writing content that's high quality, in other words, stuff that people will want to read, share and link to. Crack this and you’re most of the way there.
We’ve written a lot about how to create killer content so let’s focus on what you should be doing from an SEO perspective.
Keywords within content
Keywords are important. They are how search engines link what people are searching for to the content ranked for those searches. It’s the bridge between the intent of the searcher and the information shown on-page. You need to make sure that the keywords you want to rank for are included in the first 100 words of content.
Make sure that the primary and secondary keywords are within your body copy and feature prominently. However, don't fall into the trap of sacrificing the quality of the copy to include your keywords. Additionally if you're finding you're having to try and shoehorn your keywords into the page, you probably have the wrong keywords for the copy. As covered in the next point, Google looks at the overall meaning of the page. Including keywords which don't really fit isn't going to do much for you.
If you want to know more about using keywords then check out my article on how search engines use keywords.
The way Google assesses keywords is down not only to where they appear but also how they relate to each other. It was previously the case that how often a keyword was repeated mattered. This made for not the best content and ultimately a poor experience for the reader. Google has since moved away from this and got a bit cleverer. Now it breaks the content down and looks at the relationship between the words that are used rather than just the number of times they are repeated. So it looks at how those words fit into the overall content of the information on-page.
By keeping your content on topic and focused around a single topic per page you should find that you naturally create content where the keywords have a strong relationship. This gives a strong indication to Google what the page is about and therefore what it should rank for.
Ideally you would have at least 500 words of focused content on a page, but the reality is that this is not always possible, especially when you have design or CRO considerations. A single page has to serve many purposes, and ranking in the search engines is just one of the things you need to consider. Think about what purpose the page serves and how important it is that it ranks for non-brand terms or long tail searches.
The more important it is that the page ranks for a broader spread of terms, then the more you’re going to want to place increased focus on the content. If it’s a homepage this is probably less important as you’re likely focused on your absolute most important generic keywords. If it’s an informational page like this one, then the content becomes much more important.
Optimizing images for SEO
Once again I wouldn’t recommend going back to already created content and optimizing the images. It doesn’t create enough benefit to do that. However, if you’re creating fresh content then you should be following best practice.
Images have a couple of elements to them that should be properly optimized. The first is the image file name. Make this descriptive and unique. I’ve found getting into the habit of naming images properly has come in pretty handy when looking through my laptop or on a CMS to dig out an image to use for an article.
Images also have a written description, through the image title and alt tag. These are two HTML elements which provide written information about the image. I tend to just fill out the alt tag for an image and leave the title blank. Technically the title is there to give the image name and the alt tag is meant to describe the image. The alt tag is also important from an accessibility viewpoint. Screen readers will read the alt tag to describe the image to the user.
Make sure the image alt tag uses keywords related to the information on-page. Google also uses the content surrounding an image to try and determine its purpose. You want to make sure that this all ties together and focuses on the same topic.
It's not just who links to you that's important, but where you link to. This can affect both relevance and trust. If you're linking out to on-topic sites from your content that's a good indication that the content is relevant to the terms in question.
Linking out to low quality sites from bad neighbourhoods, sends a negative signal to Google. Even no-follow links to poor quality sites are likely to damage rankings.
Flash and SEO
Google does not like flash. In fact not many people do. The main reason for this is the security risk that it poses. It’s easy for malicious types to use it to infect your device when it’s loaded by your browser. Many people (including myself) have flash turned off by default in their browser. HTML5 has now come along and replaced much of the functionality flash was used for. Even display ads are now phasing out flash in favour of HTML5. Signalling what may be the death knell, Google Ads will not allow you to upload flash based ads from this July and will stop displaying flash ads across the network from January next year.
Suffice it to say Google is not a fan of flash. Aside from the accessibility and vulnerability problems, flash pages have no URLs. So it’s hard for Google to access and understand the content. Text within flash can be indexed, but with the rise of mobile devices which do not support flash Google actively steers mobile searchers away from flash heavy sites:
There is no reason to be using flash on your website. You might be able to get something built in flash cheaper than HTML5, but there’s a reason why flash developers are going cheap these days. The best way to optimize your flash website is to rebuild it in HTML5.
Usability is becoming an increasingly significant part of SEO, with dedicated parts of the algorithm looking at things like page layouts and updates being rolled out specifically targeting this. It makes sense from Google's perspective as a poor user experience means people disliking the search experience and a potential loss of business for Google.
Page load speed
If your page takes an age to load, it's going to create a poor experience for the user. They are likely to click back to the search results and go looking for another result. Google recognises that slow pages provide a poor user experience and therefore incorporate load times as a ranking factor.
Google mentions in its developer guidelines that a score of above 85 in its page load speed (within their Page Speed Insights tool) indicates the page is 'performing well'. It's a reasonable assumption therefore that there is a threshold to page speed you need to pass, rather than incremental gains in rankings across page speed.
The PageSpeed Score ranges from 0 to 100 points. A higher score is better and a score of 85 or above indicates that the page is performing well.
There are a couple of different ways Google may measure page speed. One is using a network agnostic test, so ignoring any factors that may vary the load time such as connection speed or location. This is the same method as the Page Speed tool which it provides for webmasters to measure page speed. The other mechanism it has available is through looking at user data passed back from Chrome which of course is subject to all those different variations. It may load considerably quicker for a user on a high-speed 40mb connection than a slow 2mb connection.
Within this the measurement is broken down into several variations. It's a fair assumption that the different measurements given within the page speed tool are reflective of the measurement Google considers important.
Desktop loading speed : How long it takes to load the page for a desktop device
Mobile loading speed : How long it takes to load the page for a mobile device
Above the fold load time : How long it takes to load the portion of the page which is immediately visible
Full page load time : How long it takes the entire page to load
If your page is covered in ads that make the content hard to access or read, it's going to negatively affect rankings. This is a difficult one for webmasters as it demands striking a balance between profitability of a page and rankings. Ultimately the lower the ranking the fewer the visitors, but the page may only generate revenue from ads.
Specifically, ad placement above the fold is problematic, as are ads which interfere with the content itself. If you have lots of ads above the fold, test dropping these down the page and see if there is an impact on rankings. Google wants content first, ads second.
Similar to the problems with too many ads, Google looks at the page layout as a whole. If your content is below the fold this may trigger problems for you. Make sure that the written content starts above the fold. If for instance you start off posts with large images, think about adding a headline above the image.
And finally... Readability - debunking it as a ranking factor
This is a more contentious point. It used to be the case that Google displayed readability within the search results, but that information has now been dropped from the search results. As it was used as a search filter there was a lot of speculation that it was an actual ranking factor.
There is a pretty big issue here with using this as a ranking factor. What's a good reading level? If your site is aimed at kids then maybe an advanced level isn't ideal; if it's an article on the intricacies of quantum entanglement though that's probably ok.
It's more likely that there is a readability threshold, with auto-generated content using techniques like swapping words with synonyms, so scraped content can be made unique. If Google can understand how well-written content is, it makes sense that they would be automatically dropping out pages which are unreadable or machine generated.