Succeeding in organic search today requires optimizing for a combination of factors that search engines consider important – technical, on-page, and off-page.
Over the years, we’ve seen increased focus toward off-page techniques – such as link building – and other technical elements.
But the reality is, off-page SEO won’t do much good if you don’t pay attention to the fundamentals – on-page SEO.
Smart SEO practitioners know that on-page optimization should be constantly prioritized.
And because the search landscape is ever-evolving, it’s important to make sure your on-page SEO knowledge is up to date.
What Is On-Page SEO?
On-page SEO (also known as on-site SEO) refers to the practice of optimizing web pages to improve a website’s search engine rankings and earn organic traffic.
In addition to publishing relevant, high-quality content, on-page SEO includes optimizing your headlines, HTML tags (title, meta, and header), and images. It also means making sure your website has a high level of expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness.
It takes into account various aspects of the webpage that, when added together, will improve your website’s visibility in the search results.
Why On-Page SEO Is Important
On-page SEO is important because it helps search engines understand your website and its content, as well as identify whether it is relevant to a searcher’s query.
As search engines become more sophisticated, there is a greater focus toward relevance and semantics in search engine results pages (SERPs).
Google, with its plethora of complex algorithms, is now much better at:
Understanding what users are actually searching for when they type a query.
Delivering search results that meet user intent (informational, shopping, navigational).
Adapting to this development is essential, and you can do it by ensuring that your website and its content – both what is visible to users on your webpages (i.e., text, images, video, or audio) and elements that are only visible to search engines (i.e., HTML tags, structured data) – are well-optimized according to the latest best practices.
Additionally, you can’t simply ignore on-page SEO because you have more control when optimizing for on-site elements – as opposed to off-page SEO that consists of external signals (i.e., backlinks).
If you put effort into on-page strategies, you’ll see a boost in traffic and a rise in your search presence.
This guide will walk you through the most important elements of on-page SEO.
Paying close attention to these 10 areas will help improve your content and authority – and increase your rankings, traffic, and conversions.
E-A-T, which stands for Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness, is the framework that Google raters use to assess content creators, webpages, and websites as a whole.
Google has always put a premium on high-quality content. It wants to make sure that sites producing high-quality content are rewarded with better rankings and sites that create low-quality content get less visibility.
There is a clear relationship between what Google considers high-quality content and what appears in the search results.
Call it correlation or causation – whatever it is, E-A-T is somehow playing a role in Google’s organic search results. This means E-A-T must be a consideration in your SEO strategy.
The title tag, an HTML tag that exists in the head section of each webpage, provides an initial cue or context as to what the topical subject matter is of the respective page it is on.
It is featured prominently in the search engine results pages (typically used as the clickable link) as well as in the browser window.
The title tag by itself has little impact on organic rankings, this why it’s sometimes overlooked.
That said, missing, duplicate, and poorly written title tags can all negatively impact your SEO results, so make sure you’re optimizing for this element.
Since the early days of SEO, meta descriptions have been an important optimization point.
Meta descriptions, meta tags that provide a description of what the page is about, are often displayed in the SERPs underneath the title of the page.
While Google maintains that meta descriptions don’t help with rankings, there is anecdotal evidence that indirect attributes of better descriptions do help.
Optimizing meta description correctly can help improve:
Click-through rate (CTR).
Perception of the quality of the result.
Perception of what your website offers all change.
Want your website content to perform well on search? Then start writing compelling headlines.
Coming up with a title for a blog post might seem too basic, but a great headline can mean the difference between a click and an impression – that’s why it’s important to create them strategically.
Your headlines need to spark interest for it to stand out on the SERPs – enticing users to click through and continue reading the rest of the content.
Header tags are HTML elements (H1-H6) used to identify headings and subheadings within your content from other types of text (e.g., paragraph text).
Header tags aren’t as critically important for your site rankings as they used to be, but these tags still serve an important function – for your users and your SEO.
They can indirectly impact your rankings by:
Making your content easier and more enjoyable for visitors to read.
Providing keyword-rich context about your content for the search engines.
SEO writing means writing content with both search engines and users in mind.
There is a strategy behind writing solid SEO content – and it is more than just keyword research and fill in the blanks.
Simply producing content for the sake of it won’t do. Remember that you’re writing content for people – therefore that content must be high-quality, substantial, and relevant.
True or false? The more pages you have targeting a keyword, the better you’ll rank for that keyword.
Targeting a specific term across multiple pages can cause “keyword cannibalization” which has some potentially disastrous consequences for your SEO.
When you have multiple pages ranking for the same keyword, you’re actually competing with yourself.
It’s important to identify whether keyword cannibalization exists on your website and resolve it right away.
Most content creators are focused on creating new content that they forget to audit their existing content. And this is a mistake.
Auditing your existing content is crucial because it helps you:
Evaluate whether your existing content is achieving its goals and gaining ROI.
Identify whether the information in your content is still accurate or has become stale (or even outdated).
Determine what types of content are working for you.
Content audits can greatly help your SEO strategy and they should be done on a regular basis.
Adding images is a good way to make your webpages more appealing. But not all images are created equal – some can even slow down your website.
Optimizing images properly will help you make the most of a valuable SEO asset.
Image optimization has many advantages, such as:
Additional ranking opportunities (show up on Google Image Search).
Better user experience.
Faster page load times.
Images shouldn’t be an afterthought. Make sure to incorporate images that support your content and use descriptive titles and alt text.
Enhancing your website’s on-page SEO elements is only half the battle.
The other half lies in making sure that users will not bounce – but instead, they’ll continue viewing your content, interacting with it, and keep coming back for more.
Retaining engaged users is a great challenge in itself, but it’s certainly doable. To increase user engagement, focus on aspects such as site speed, user experience, and content optimization, among others.
Off-Page SEO: What It Is and Why It’s Important?
Off-page SEO embodies any efforts taken outside of a website to improve its search engine rankings. Link building is a big part of this, but it goes way beyond that.
Why is off-page SEO important?
Google takes into account many off-page factors when deciding if and where to rank web pages. Links are one of those factors, but there are many others.
For that reason, it’s challenging to rank on the merit of your content alone.
Here’s a good example that proves this:
At the time of writing, this page from The Times ranks #1 in the UK for “best places to live”:
At first glance, it looks like an entirely worthy piece of content. So it wouldn’t be crazy to assume that it ranks high for that very reason. However, as soon as you click on any of the places, you hit a content gate.
Because of this, the page has no real value to most who land on it… and it certainly doesn’t deserve to rank in the top spot.
A much more deserving page would be this one, which showcases the results of polling 1,000 people about the best places to live.
Bringing this back to off-page SEO, the reason the former outranks the latter is not that the content is better but most likely due to off-page factors.
Link-related off-page factors
Backlinks are perhaps the most critical part of off-page SEO.
Why? Because Google search is built on something called PageRank: an algorithm that looks at the quantity and quality of backlinks pointing to a web page. Some SEO professionals see PageRank as an outdated concept, but Google confirmed that it’s still a ranking factor only last year.
That’s likely why we see such a clear correlation between the number of referring domains (unique websites) pointing to a web page and its rankings.
…which brings us neatly onto our list of link-related off-page factors:
Number of referring domains
Not only does having more links from unique websites (referring domains) equate to higher rankings, but also more organic search traffic.
SIDENOTE. This is a correlation study. It doesn’t prove causation.
You can see that ahrefs.com has 4.11M backlinks from 31.2K referring domains.
However, the aim isn’t so much to build more backlinks to your website overall, but rather to build them directly to the pages you want to rank in search engines.
We have tons of articles and videos on building more links. See below.
Not all links are created equal. Quality matters.
This fact is built into the way PageRank works. The higher the “authority” of the linking page, the more authority it passes onto the pages to which it links. In other words, a link from a high-authority page is worth more than one from a low-authority page.
So the question is, how do you judge the “authority” of a web page?
Google used to have public PageRank scores, but they discontinued those in 2016. While no exact replica of PageRank exists, there are a few similar metrics around, one of which is Ahrefs’ URL Rating (UR).
UR shows the strength of a target URL's backlink profile on a scale from 0 to 100.
To see the UR score for any web page, paste the URL into Ahrefs Site Explorer.
You can also see the URL Rating of all referring pages in the “Backlinks” report.
This helps judge the quality and authority of a linking page when researching backlink opportunities.
Plus, according to our study of ~14 million web pages, UR correlates nicely with organic traffic.
“Dofollow” vs. nofollow
Google doesn’t transfer PageRank across nofollowed links (i.e., links with a rel=“nofollow” tag), so it pays to prioritize the building of followed (“dofollow”) links.
Most links on the web are followed, but some websites like Forbes “nofollow” almost all outbound links. So, if you’re actively building or pursuing links from a particular website, it pays to make sure that their outbound links are followed.
To do this, install the nofollow Chrome extension, which highlights nofollow links on the page.
You can also filter many of the reports in Ahrefs Site Explorer to see only “dofollow” links. Once again, this is useful when researching and prioritizing backlink opportunities.
Filtering the “Backlinks” report in Ahrefs Site Explorer for “Dofollow” links only.
Of course, there’s still value in nofollowed links. They can drive referral traffic, which can have a positive indirect effect on SEO. But if you’re putting a lot of time and effort into link building, then it pays to prioritize your efforts.
Anchor text refers to the clickable words used to link one web page to another.
Google states in their original PageRank patent that:
Google employs a number of techniques to improve search quality including page rank, anchor text, and proximity information.
In other words, it’s likely that backlinks with anchor text relating to the overall topic of your web page have some influence on rankings.
This is something we studied, and we did find a correlation between exact, phrase, and partial match anchors—albeit a very small one.
Unfortunately, if you’re building links via white-hat methods, you won’t have much control over the anchors of the links you’re earning (with the exception of guest blogging).
But even if you did have control over the anchor text of external inbound links, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Penguin—which is now part of Google’s core algorithm—penalizes sites that attempt to manipulate rankings by building links with keyword-rich anchors.
Luckily, most people naturally link in natural and relevant ways. If your article is about x, then the chances of someone linking with anchor text related to x is quite high.
Backlinks are effective votes. If a site links to you, they’re vouching for the quality of your content or business. But not all of these votes are created equal. The relevance of the linking website and web page also matters.
Let me explain why with an analogy.
Say that you’re looking to hire a catering company for your wedding. Two of your friends recommend two different companies. You like both of your friends equally, but one of them is an accountant, and the other is a chef. Who are you going to trust? It’s a no-brainer—the chef.
Things work much the same way online. If you’re a catering company and you have a link from a food blog, then that’s likely going to carry more weight than a link from a finance blog.
But, is relevance more important than “authority?”
To try to answer that, we asked a few SEO professionals a simple question:
All else being equal, would you rather have a high-authority link with low topical relevance or a low-authority link with high topical relevance?
Here are their answers:
I like relevance better than authority, but I would say that my answer would depend on what the goal is. If it’s to get better rankings quickly, I’d probably go with high-authority/low topical relevance. If sustained rankings/traffic/conversions were my goal, I’d go for lower-authority high topical relevance. Julie Joyce, Founder Link Fish Media
I go back and forth on this, and I think context matters a lot (i.e., the competitiveness of the space, the authority of the site, etc.). That said, most of the time I’d go with the authoritative link. Particularly in competitive markets, it’s tough to rank without authority (regardless of how relevant my other links are). I can make up for some of the relevance issues by optimizing keywords, internal links, etc. Paul May, Co-founder Buzzstream
If a client needs to drive some juice into a money page, I have found the larger DR links (even if not super topically relevant) tend to move the rankings more. That said, if traffic is equal and the campaign goal is targeted referral traffic and conversions, then I’d lean towards the lower authority topically relevant link. Robbie Richards, Founder RobbieRichards.com
I would rather have the link that my competitors will find harder to get. If the high-authority link with low topical relevance comes from an article in a newspaper or magazine, then I’ll take it. There is an editorial decision being made, so I trust the judgment of the journalist or editor, and I’m confident that the link has been added because they considered that it would offer value to their readers. That being said, I would not publish irrelevant content on my site in the hopes of attracting high-authority links from media outlets. It might work once or twice but eventually, journalists start asking, ‘why did [brand] release content about [irrelevant topic]?’ In short, low-authority links with high topical relevance will be easier to land, so I pick the high-authority link. Gisele Navarro, Operations Director NeoMam Studios
Links from pages with lots of organic traffic have more weight than links from pages with little or no organic traffic.
You can see the estimated organic traffic to any webpage in Ahrefs Site Explorer.
You can also see organic traffic to referring pages in the “Backlinks” report.
If you’re looking to replicate your competitors’ backlinks, or are pursuing a link building tactic like the Skyscraper Technique, you can quickly sort the report by organic traffic to prioritize and pursue links from the most high-value pages.
Still, while it does make sense to prioritize links from pages with traffic, there’s no evidence to suggest that links from pages with little or no traffic are worthless. If the linking pages are relevant and have some level of “authority,” then you should absolutely still pursue them.