Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is the practice of optimizing both internal and external factors of a website to ensure that its pages will rank high in search engines, thus increasing the quantity and quality of the organic traffic.
The internal optimization can be divided into two main areas: on-page optimization, which includes the individual elements on each web page, and on-site optimization, which includes the structure of the website as a whole.
In this lesson, we will cover the on-page search engine optimization factors.
The Title Tag
The title tag is an HTML element that is used, as the name implies, to title web pages. It is displayed on top of the browser when you view a web page, and it is not related with the visual title displayed on the screen. The two can be similar and even identical, but that is not a requirement. The title tag is the single most important on-page SEO factor, and most search engines weight it very heavily within their algorithms.
The title tag is also used by most search engines as the title of your page in the search engine results page (SERP), so it plays a role in the number of clicks that you will get from search queries.
Practically speaking, an optimal title tag should:
- describe the content of the page,
- contain the main keywords of the page, and
- be appealing to human visitors.
A common question that comes into people’s minds is how long the title tag can be. There isn’t a limit to how many characters you can have in your title, but search engines will only display a certain number of them. Google, for example, truncates somewhere between 63 and 67 characters, and will truncate at the end of a word.
That does not mean you should make your titles as long as possible. In fact, the more concise you can make them, the better. This is because search engines will spread the algorithmic value of the title tag across all the keywords contained in it. The fewer keywords you use, therefore, the higher the value that each of them will receive.
Let’s use an example to illustrate this point. Suppose you have a blog called “John Doe’s Blog”. The blog author then publishes a post targeting the term “how to build muscle.” One possible and often used structure for the title tag here would be the title of the post followed by the name of the blog:
How to Build Muscle – John Doe’s Blog
The title describes the content of the post accurately, but it is not as concise as possible, because the name of the blog is not related to the post content at all. The keywords “john”, “doe’s” and “blog” are therefore reducing the relevancy of the title and diluting the value attributed to the main keywords.
A better title tag here would be just the post title:
How to Build Muscle
It is also worth noting that the first words of the title are weighted more heavily than the last words, which is known as prominence. If you want to target a specific keyword with the homepage of your website, therefore, the title:
Keyword to be Targeted – Domain.com
would be better than:
Domain.com – Keyword to be Targeted
The separator between the different sections of your title is not necessary, but it does improve readability. Most publishers use a colon (:) hyphen (-) or Raquo (»). There is no advantage to using one over the other, so just be consistent.
Ideally, you want to target one term with each page and title tag. Sometimes, however, there are singular and plural versions of your term, and you might want to target both with the same page. You could achieve that playing around with the phrases:
Las Vegas Vacations – Planning Your Las Vegas Vacation : Domain.com
Repeating keywords occasionally in the title tag is OK, as long as it describes the content and makes sense for human visitors. However, be careful to not repeat keywords excessively, else you might be flagged for keyword stuffing. Here is an example that could create problems:
Las Vegas Vacations, Discount Las Vegas Vacations, Cheap Las Vegas Vacations – Domain.com
Finally, it’s important that you avoid duplication of title tags throughout your website. Ideally, each page on your website should have a unique title tag. Having the same title tag on a few pages, while not ideal, is OK. Having the same title for most or all of your web pages will cause problems.
A meta tag is an HTML tag that resides in the <head> section of a web page. Unlike other HTML tags, meta tags do not appear anywhere on the page itself, so most visitors never see them. Different meta tags serve different purposes, but they are generally used to provide additional information about the page for search robots and other applications.
The meta keywords tag is used by the search engines to determine what are the main topics of a web page. However, due to abuse from webmasters, who would insert duplicate or irrelevant keywords, most major search engines attribute a small weight or completely ignore meta keywords.
Secondly, some engines consider identical or nearly identical meta keywords tags on a website to be a signal of low quality.
This tag won’t help a lot, but every small bit helps with SEO, so you probably should use it. The proper format for meta keywords is:
<meta name=”keywords” content=”keyword1,keyword2,keyword3″>
Unlike the meta keyword tag, the meta description tag is still considered by most search engines. Ideally, your meta description tag should be a short (i.e. one or two sentences) summary of the page. Here is an example of proper format:
<meta name=”description” content=”A one or two sentence summary about the page goes here.”>
Most of the time search engines will show your meta description tag under the page title in the search engine results page, adding to its importance.
In some cases, for instance, when someone is doing a very specific multi-word search, search engines will show content from the page instead of the meta description.
In other cases, search engines will show the description from the ODP (Open Directory Project) instead of your meta description.
If no meta description exists, they will show a section of the page that contains the keywords searched for.
Like with the title tag, each page on your website should have a unique meta description tag. Having the same meta description tag for entire website could be very problematic. In fact it’s better to have no meta description tags than to have the same one across the entire site.
Meta ODP Tag
As we mentioned above, in some cases search engines will show the Open Directory Project (also called DMOZ) description for a website instead of using it’s meta tag. You can prevent this by adding the following meta tag:
<meta name=”robots” content=”noodp”>
The meta robots tag has two functions: telling the search engine robots whether or not they should index the content of the page, and telling the search engine robots whether or not they they should follow the links they will find on it. There are two “switches” for this tag, and each is controlled separately:
- index/noindex – this tells the search engines if they should index the content of the page
- follow/nofollow – this tells the search engines if they should follow links they find on the page
Here’s an example of how to use the meta robots tag:
<meta name=”robots” content=”index, follow”>
This tag will tell the search engines that they can index the page and follow the links. In reality this is the default condition assumed by all search engines, so including it is not necessary. This is an example of the opposite condition:
<meta name=”robots” content=”noindex, nofollow”>
If a search spider encountered this tag, it would not index the content of the page or follow any of the links on the page. It is possible to mix the settings if you desire those results, using either
<meta name=”robots” content=”index, nofollow”>
<meta name=”robots” content=”noindex, follow”>
Keep in mind that if the search engines find a page with the “noindex” robots tag, the URL will still be included in the index. What won’t be indexed is the content of the page. This means that keyword based searches will not be able to find that page, but special site based searches might.
No Archive Meta Tag
Usually, when a search engine spider crawls and indexes a page, it keeps a cached copy stored locally on the search engine servers. In the event of your website temporarily going down, an end user can click on the “cached” link in the SERP and see the stored version of the page.
Similarly, the archive.org often crawls websites and make copies of their web pages, to keep track of how they are changing over time.
In some cases, however, you may not want a cache or copy of your pages to exist. For example, you might publish a sales page that should be available publicly only for a limited time.
To prevent caching and archiving of your content, use the noarchive tag as follows:
<meta name=”robots” content=”noarchive”>
Miscellaneous Meta Tags
There are several other meta tags such as “expiration date”, “author”, “revisit after” , “distribution” and so on. These tags are used for other purposes, and were never largely supported by search engines.
Heading tags are structural page elements that convey a hierarchy about the page. An H1 tag is the most important one. H2 is the second most important one, followed by the H3, H4, H5 and H6. Search engines do give some weight to heading tags within a document. In most cases, a document should only have one H1, but there is no limit to the number of H2-H6 tags that may be used. Think of them as section headings and use them to organize your content.
Without any CSS styling, a H1 tag has the tendency to be visually overwhelming, so most webmasters and publishers use CSS to make the documents more aesthetically appealing. This is perfectly acceptable and within the search engine guidelines. However hiding (with text indentation) or obfuscating (with font color equal to the background color) heading tags is a risky tactic and should be avoided.
Main Body Content
Most modern search engines have the ability to isolate the main body of a web page from the header, sidebars, and any footer elements. As a result, the content present in the main body receives a greater weight in the algorithms.
But how should you optimize the content that will go in the main body of your pages? Many people have a misconception here, believing that optimized content will contain the main keywords that you are targeting over and over again. Good SEO content should contain the keywords you are targeting, possibly singular, plural or stemmed version, but more importantly, it should read normally and be crafted with human visitors in mind.
If you use an unnatural pattern with your content and keywords, your page or website might get flagged for over-optimization or even for keyword stuffing, damaging most of your search engine rankings.
There is a simple test that you can use to make sure your content is not over-optimized. Simply hand it to a friend who doesn’t know anything about SEO, and ask him to read it. Once he is done, ask what he thinks about it. If he says that the text looks a bit weird because you are using certain keywords over and over again, then you probably should revise it.
Keyword density and keyword prominence (discussed later in this document) don’t play a significant role. So be sure to mention the words you are trying to rank for as naturally as possible.
One important thing search engines look for is unique content. They don’t want to see the same or very similar content inside a website or across different websites.
In most cases, when search engines encounter duplicate content, they will filter out any versions they don’t think are the original. While this process is reasonably accurate, it’s not infallible. If the search engines find two URLs inside your website with similar content, for example, they will filter one out, and it might not be the URL you want removed.
Secondly, if duplicate content is generalized inside your website, or if you are using duplicate content to artificially increase the size of your site or to attract more organic traffic, you might get a penalty that will affect most of your search rankings.
There is no minimum or maximum length that you can have for a page. However, very small pages tend to receive a low value from search engines. This is because they are less likely to contain the information that the end user will be looking for, and because spammers often use small pages to inflate the size of their sites. As a rule of thumb, aim to have at least 200 words on your pages.
Using images that are related to your content or main keywords can help with the search engine optimization. The ALT tag inserted in your images, for example, is one of the factors that search engines consider inside pages. Just make sure that your image ALT and TITLE tags are not stuffed with keywords but rather describe the image correctly and briefly.
Keyword density is the number of times a specific keyword appears in a page in comparison to the total number of words. The result is expressed as a percentage. If a keyword occurs 10 times in a 400 word document, for instance, the keyword density is 2.5% (10 divided by 400). There is no magic number or golden range for keyword density. Use the word as often as it makes sense, and use similar words to make your document read more naturally.
Keyword prominence is a measure of how close the keyword appears to the beginning of the text. The closer it appears, the higher the keyword prominence. The closer to the end of the text, the lower the prominence. Again there is no magic number or golden range you should strive for, however using it near the beginning of the copy is advisable for usability.
Bold and Italics
Having your main keywords in bold or italics can help slightly, but you should use those where it makes sense for the readability of the document. In other words, bold or italicize keywords where it will help the visualization of the content, and not exclusively for SEO benefits.
Links and Anchor Text
Anchor text is the underlined clickable text of hyperlinks. When linking to other pages on your website, try to make your anchor text as keyword rich as possible and avoid using phrases like “click here” or “more information.”
That being said, having 100% of the internal links to a particular page using the same optimized anchor text may not be a good idea, as it might get your site flagged for over-optimization. Instead, try use variations of the anchor text where appropriate.
Additionally, try to avoid linking to the same page two or more times inside a page with different anchor texts, as this dilutes the value of the link.
Link out to other websites where it’s appropriate and don’t be concerned about “leaking” or “bleeding” PageRank or link equity. While you probably don’t want to put any external links on your sales page, on informational pages it will make sense. Try to link to authoritative documents or resources whenever possible, and avoid linking to low-quality websites.
Linking to too many low-quality websites may have a negative impact on your website. Moreover, you should review existing links periodically to combat link rot (links to pages that no longer exist or that have changed substantially and are no longer relevant).
- Analyze the title tags being used in your website, making sure that they contain your main keywords and not unrelated ones.
- Make sure that you have unique title and meta tags on each page of your website.
Browse inside the different sections of your website to make sure that you don’t have duplicate content around.
- Review the factors that contribute to the optimization of the main content on any website.
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