On-Site SEO Factors
I’ll start this post by saying that list of on-site SEO factors that is in front of you is meant to be a (short) recap of how certain factors can affect your rankings and how important they might be. To put things in perspective, on-site SEO has less impact on rankings compared to some other factors like trust and authority of domain and number and quality of external links. But here is something that you need to think about before dismissing on-site SEO as unimportant:
- Having good on-site SEO might not be enough reach top rankings by itself but having that aspect of SEO neglected will most definitely bring penalty and hamper your other efforts to achieve good rankings. To make extreme example, pages that have no title or try to rank for “Web Design” and page title is something like “Pet Food” really won’t do that well.
- While on-site SEO is relatively less important for broad and very competitive keywords, when it comes to long tails its importance raises dramatically. Having carefully chosen title for certain inner page that has good content and a lot of inbound links and you just might see page getting top rankings if overall domain trust is high.
On-site SEO is integral part of your overall SEO strategy and you should never allow yourself to neglect it – sooner or later you’ll pay the price if you do. With that in mind let us begin with…
If there is one thing that has general consensus in SEO community it’s the importance of Title Tag. In famous article published by SEOmoz practically all panelists (really important names in SEO industry and people who know what they talk about at least when it comes to SEO) agreed about its exceptional importance. So what’s the catch with titles?
Before anything else, each title needs to be unique. Duplicate titles (similar to duplicate content) are very bad thing. It may seem daunting to have unique title for each page on big website but it’s the only way to go.
Second, title can’t be too long. Ideally 65 to maybe 70 characters including spaces and no longer – it may vary but anything longer than that and part of your title gets cut off and replaced with “…” most likely and that’s something that you definitely don‘t want to happen if you can help it. Of course, you can have title longer but in that case I would always go with placing most important phrases in those 65 characters.
Length limitation of the title tag brings us to next issue with titles – it needs to have keyword phrases.
Short digression before I continue. Keyword research is of paramount importance for any successful SEO effort. To put it simply, all that you do will be based on proper research and choice of phrases you will try to rank for. So whatever you do don’t be lazy doing your research. Invest as much time as you need to do it properly first time around, it is time well spent. In the long run it’s well worth the effort simply because you will waste much more time and resources if you base your SEO campaign on poorly and hastily chosen keywords instead of doing good and detailed research.
Ok back to titles and keywords. As I said keyword(s) need to be in title if you want that page to rank for them. Choose them carefully and don’t be afraid to go with long tail keywords if they are important and relevant. In fact, on-site optimization affect rankings of long tails much more than it does for broad, competitive keywords. Include as many keywords as you can as long as they remain relevant to content of the page minding the before mentioned length limitation of course. Try to have your brand mentioned– add in the end of each title you make your website or brand name. To separate logical parts of your title, like product names and categories of products use some divider: I use mostly hyphen “-”
One more very important thing about titles and keyword – from pure SEO your keyword, or most important keyword you intend to have in title, should be at the very beginning, first word of title if possible. Although there are some disagreements about it, having phrase you’re trying to rank for at the beginning of page title has high correlation with doing well in SERPs.
- make titles unique
- keep it short if at all possible
- carefully choose KWs in title and keep them relevant and accurate to page content
- your keyword should be the beginning of title
Next on page factor that can influence your rankings is meta description tag. Unlike title which is one of the most important on page SEO factors description has considerably smaller importance but it still shouldn’t be neglected. Writing good, precise description is especially important for click-through rate.
Similar to titles description for each page should be unique, containing phrases relevant to page content. Try to keep description precise and accurate and you can, in a way, consider description tag to be elaboration of page title – it doesn’t suffer from title length limitations so you can describe page content in more detail.
Important thing is to note that search engines do not necessarily always use meta description for snippets in search engine result pages.
Overall description won’t dramatically influence your rankings but good description will affect CTR so at least some attention should be devoted to writing good descriptions.
Meta keywords tag is least important of three and you can assume that that for better part it’s ignored by search engines. Despite being rather insignificant meta KWs shouldn’t be completely ignored or better to say you shouldn’t have 100 KWs in meta tag that don’t even appear on page. Keep it up to 10 keywords and make sure than, when you’re bothering with it, those phrases relate to page content.
Having keywords in H tags used to have a significant impact on rankings but seems it’s considered less and less important as time passes. In short, put keywords in H tags when you can but affect on rankings will most likely be small. It’s fairly easy to find pages that utilize no H tags at all and still rank very well. H1 has biggest impact and having keyword from title repeated in H1 used to be considered good practice but it simply lost its significance lately.
This might be a good place to mention something important when considering keywords and on page elements like H and meta tags. It’s the concept on “over optimized” websites. If you title, meta description, H tags, alt text, basically all of your on page elements that impact rankings in one way or another, are too well aligned you might have a problem there. It might sound like a paradox, but such pages or whole websites simply appear too optimized and artificial in a way. If you add too well aligned anchor texts all that together might incur you a ranking penalty. It’s important to keep that in mind and not overdo with optimization.
Alt attribute of image element or “alt tag”
Regarding alternative text for images there are few things to consider. Accessibility wise, it is really very important to use it properly. In case you are interested in what exactly is proper use of alt attribute for images you can read more about it here.
From SEO point of view using good, descriptive alternative text has its own benefits as Matt Cutts explains. Note the typical confusion about using “alt tag” phrase – many people (including myself) simply say alt tag instead of alt attribute which would be correct.
When it comes to rankings using alt tag for image that has desirable KW is in no way bad thing. If your image is in fact a link then alt tag has function of an anchor text – and as we all know anchor text is very important thing.
In case that it’s not a link alt tag will not help page rankings a lot by itself but it is very important for Image search. Ranking highly for image search is good by itself simply because it can be decent source of traffic and if you add Universal Search to the equation is becomes clear that spending some time writing alt tags is time well spent.
In short – use alt tags and place KWs in them if it’s possible and makes sense, if not just describe image, after all img alt attribute should be description of an image.
Page URL and canonical issues
There has been a lot of debate about how much keywords in page URL (and in domain name for that matter) influence rankings and advantages of static vs. dynamic links. Now first to make one thing clear: Google can and does crawl dynamic URLs. Whole notion that they can’t be crawled simply isn’t true. Problem is not in the link being dynamic by itself – problem occurs when links are too long (no matter static or dynamic) and if link has too many parameters that Goggle might consider rather useless.
Basically having keyword in URL is an advantage – not something that will have major impact on your rankings but it is still an advantage. Besides, some rankings boost it will provide, having nice static URL with keyword in it increases CTR by basically saying “this page is about what you searched for” together with title and description which is enhanced by search term being bolded in URL. Additional benefit is that when someone links your page using URL, which becomes an anchor text at that point, it will at least have keyword in it.
So, keep your URLs reasonably short, rewrite them if you know what are you doing and add KW in URL if possible.
When it comes to ranking and picking a domain name – exact match brings advantage. So if you can get testwebsite.com it will help you rank for “test website” being an exact match.
Another important issue that revolves around URLs is concept of canonical URL. What it comes down to is that, for example, www.testsite.com and testsite.com/index.html are different as far as search engines are concerned despite the fact that they have same content. Canonical URL is the version of URL that is most important and it is considered to have the greatest authority compared to other variants by search engines.
Having one variant showing all the time is especially important for linking. Having backlinks for different variants of your home page, for example, is not a good thing. To avoid it one of the best things you can do is add a rule to htaccess that redirects all possible page URL variants to the one you have chosen – I’d pick www.testsite.com/ for my canonical format. Another thing to do is to keep your internal links consistent and always link to certain page using same pattern with www and trailing slash in my example.
Internal Link Structure
Internal Link Structure is one of the most important aspects of on-site SEO and at the same time one of the most complex issues. With all honesty, it would take whole post dedicated to it to be even close to explaining basics. So instead of trying to explain such a broad and complex subject as a whole I’ll focus on the effect that internal links have on rankings of specific pages.
Internal link popularity of a specific page is very important and significantly affects its rankings compared to some other on-site SEO factors. Basic rule is that the more popular certain page is within website’s internal link structure better it ranks. This is particularly important for long tail keywords. Linking certain page from home page and some other popular pages on your website that pass a lot of link juice, especially if you can get proper anchor text for those internal links, will boost rankings for long tails a lot. Certain pages might get top rankings despite lacking backlinks if enough inbound links point to it. This is really good because it can help you get some important pages, for example certain product page on your ecommerce website or some article which you’d really like to receive more attention, that may be buried deep within the site to front rows by simply linking to them.
Before I sign out I’d like to make something clear. Weights given to different factor are, at the time of writing, more or less accurate but that doesn’t mean things are set in stone and that they won’t change. In fact you can rely on the fact that some factors will influence SERPs more or less as time passes with search engines constantly working in improving and changing their algorithms.
Another thing I’d like to point out is that at least two important things were not included in list: introduction of rel=”canonical” and changes to how nofollow works. Reason behind decision not to write about them is pretty simple – both of these, at the time of writing, deserve a separate post so trying to squeeze them into this post would simply be too much. For those interested to learn more about these changes Dave Naylor has interesting post about canonical tag and affiliates and SEOmoz dedicated one Whiteboard Friday to dealing with nofollow changes.
Think that’s about it. I hope you’ll find this post useful and all comments are welcome as always.