What Is On-Page SEO?

According to a recent study conducted by BrightEdge, a whopping 68% of all online experiences start with a search (PDF).

Let that sink in for a second. Despite all the hubbub surrounding social media, PPC ads, and email, nearly 70% of all your website’s traffic is going to come from web searches. Now, consider that Google has 86% of the search engine market share, and with a little napkin math you’ll see that approximately 60% of all your traffic will likely originate from one site: Google.

The data is clear: showing up on Google searches is a big deal. But just being on Google isn’t enough— you need to be on the first page of Google. Indeed, less than 1% of Google searchers click a link on the second results page, so if you’re not on that coveted first page, you’re going to miss out on a lot of business.

How do you ensure that you show up near the top of Google? The answer is search engine optimization, more commonly known as SEO.

What is SEO?

In a nutshell, SEO is a group of practices that aim to help your site show up higher on the Google SERPs (search engine results pages). These practices achieve their aim by making sure web pages and content are structured in a way that Google’s algorithm will interpret them as especially relevant to a particular search term.

You can think of it as a way to game Google’s algorithm. But “gaming” isn’t necessarily negative in this context: Google’s algorithm has become so advanced over the past few years that “gaming the system” really just means making sure your content is high quality (with a few extra caveats).

SEO is commonly divided into three types: on-page SEO, off-page SEO, and technical SEO. In short, on-page SEO refers to the actual content of your web page, off-page SEO refers to the connections your page has to other websites, and technical SEO has to do with the technicals of your site, like how fast it loads, its security features, etc.

What Is On-Page SEO and Why Is It Important?

While all three types of SEO are important, on-page SEO is arguably the foundation that all other types of SEO are built upon. It is so fundamental, in fact, that on-page SEO terms like “keywords” have entered the general lexicon.

Essentially, on-page SEO refers to any practices you employ within the actual content of your site to improve its ranking on Google. This may include including specific keywords in your copy, using HTML tags, and adding outbound links.

To understand why on-page SEO is so important, you need only consider the purpose of Google’s algorithm: to serve up the most relevant content for a given search. Clearly, the relevance of the content itself will be prioritized over other factors like backlinks and page load speeds, unless something is drastically wrong with them. While on-page SEO can include some behind the scenes work like setting up different schemas, if you do nothing but create a piece of high-quality content, you’ll be well on your way.

In short, if you’ve got a great piece of relevant content, Google (and other search engines), will generally want to direct searchers to it, even if the page loads a bit slower than others and doesn’t have as many connections to other sites.

What Are the Factors That Affect On-Page SEO?

Now that you have a basic understanding of what on-page SEO is, let’s get a bit deeper into the nuts and bolts. When evaluating a page, Google’s algorithm will take several different factors into account. Let’s take a look at some of the most important ones.

Content Quality

While this factor is a bit more ephemeral than the others we’ll go over, it’s perhaps the most important. Unfortunately, it’s also the factor that can be hardest to get right because there is no clear definition of what makes high-quality content.

In Google’s opinion, high-quality content has three elements: expertise, authority, and trustworthiness. Google refers to this as E-A-T. In theory, content that exhibits these traits will be beneficial to searchers, so the search engine will prioritize it.

Google breaks all content into YMYL (Your Money or Your Life) and Non-YMYL content. YMYL content that’s inaccurately presented can negatively impact the future health, happiness, or wealth of searchers that stumble upon it. So, Google is much more discerning in what it serves up to searchers in this category. Examples of YMYL content include health care and investment advice. If you’re creating content in a YMYL vertical, you need to be extra careful to ensure that it’s completely accurate and that its quality is off the charts.

Overall, the takeaway here is that you need to start with a piece of high-quality E-A-T content. From there, you’ll be able to bring it up to snuff with the following factors.

Title Tag

The title tag of a page is an HTML element that, ideally, summarizes the page’s content in a few words. It’s essentially the title of your page. As an example, the title tag of our “About Us” page looks like this:

Example of the title tag: About Soda Web Media | Atlanta Design Studio

Title tags are important because they’ll end up as the clickable link in the Google SERP:

Example of how the title tag shows up in google search
If your title tag isn’t concise, descriptive, and intriguing, searchers are less likely to click on it. Additionally, the title tag text will also be the text displayed on the page’s tab when a user is viewing it.

Overall, writing a good title tag won’t do too much for your page’s ranking. However, writing a bad title tag can have some negative effects. For example, if you attempt to keyword stuff your title, Google may end up rewriting it for you, which won’t do you any favors. That’s not to say you can’t include your target keyword (that’s encouraged), but you shouldn’t go overboard and try to throw four different keywords into your title tag.

Meta-Description

A meta-description is another HTML element that provides a bit of additional information about your site. It shows up directly below the page’s title in the Google SERPs.

In HTML, the meta-description looks like this:

Example of the description meta tag.

On the Google SERP, it shows up like this:
Example of how the description tag shows up in google search

Although Google has stated that your meta-description won’t directly improve your ranking, a good meta-description will help sell your page to searchers who aren’t sure which result to click on. A good meta-description can improve your clickthrough rate (CTR) by making your site more appealing to searchers.

Just like your title tag, your meta-description should be concise and intriguing. It’s a good idea to include your target keyword (and perhaps a second if it will fit naturally), but once again, the key here is providing value to the searcher, not tricking Google’s algorithm — it will beat you every time.

URL

Like the title tag and meta-description, your URL provides valuable information about what your page will be displaying. For example, the URL for our About Us page is www.sodawebmedia.com/about-us. Google will be happy with this URL: it’s concise and easy to understand. On the other hand, a URL like www.sodawebmedia.com/about-us-web-design-graphic-design-web-development-we-the-best is not going to do you any favors with Google’s algorithm, despite the numerous keywords.

Keywords

These days, unnaturally stuffing your content full of keywords won’t get you very far — Google’s too smart to fall for that. But that doesn’t mean that keywords don’t matter at all.

Although keywords aren’t as important as they used to be, they’re still very effective at indicating what your page is about. Think of it from a robot’s perspective: if you’re writing an article that’s supposed to be about how AI will revolutionize healthcare and you never include the words “AI” or “healthcare,” how relevant can your page actually be for a search for the terms “AI healthcare?”

To win at the keyword game, all you really need to do is include your target keyword a few times throughout your text, especially in headers, and particularly in your H1 tag. You don’t need to include it every other sentence, but just use it when natural. Cough on-page SEO.

Internal and External Links

When you link to other authoritative sites, Google is more likely to view your content as trustworthy, which is one of the three parts of E-A-T content. If you think about it, this makes sense: an article that links to a piece from an established publication is more likely to be providing visitors with helpful information than an article that includes no sources for its information or links to articles from Fake Science Weekly.

Once again, the key here isn’t to trick Google’s algorithm but to understand what it’s looking for so you can provide it. Google wants to see valuable content that’s well-researched and cited, so as long as you have a few links to authoritative sources, you’re doing it right.

It’s also a good idea to include a few internal links back to your site so that Google can get a better idea of how your pages fit into the larger picture.

The Bottom Line: Think of Google As Your Customer

Working with Google’s algorithm doesn’t mean trying to trick it — falling into that line of thinking is a trap that can end up doing more harm than good to your organic rankings. Instead, your goal with on-page SEO is to understand what Google wants and figure out how to deliver it.

Overall, Google’s goal is to provide valuable and relevant results for search terms. If you want to succeed at SEO, all you need to do is show Google that you have great content.

Of course, that’s much easier said than done — you may as well say that all you need to do to write great music is make something that sounds good. But at the end of the day, that’s what you need to remember to prevent yourself from getting lost in the weeds of new SEO trends.

If you want to see success, start with great content first, and the rest will follow naturally.