On-Page SEO 101
Search engine optimization (“SEO”) can be a scary term for those who don’t know what it is. Images of lines upon lines of code or Internet wizardry may spring into the minds of the uninitiated when they hear about it. In addition to involving neither of these things, SEO is something that everyone who owns a website or blog can work on. Even if you have no web development skills whatsoever, it’s possible to optimize your site to become search engine friendly by working on on-page SEO.
The term on-page SEO is used to described the SEO factors that pertain to what is actually on your website. These factors include the ways your content is formatted, what keywords you use and how images are coded (among many, many others). On-page SEO factors differ from their off-page cousins, like the number of backlinks your site receives, in that they are (relatively) easy to control. You can’t freely make the New York Times link to your site, but you can change your content formatting to your heart’s content.
Of course, on-page SEO won’t make or break a site. You won’t be able to put your site on the first page of search engine results for every keyword you target by beefing up your on-page SEO alone. Regardless, on-page SEO should be the foundation of every SEO strategy and arguably offers the greatest gains if you only have a small amount of time to invest in it.
How to Format Web Content
The most basic form of on-page SEO is something that everyone who publishes content on the web should be doing anyway – formatting their content correctly. Content formatting assists with SEO in two ways.
First, well-formatted content that is easy to access and understand is more likely to be appreciated and read fully than a poorly-formatted piece of content that consists of massive blocks of text. Search engines want to provide the best search results for their users, so articles that visitors spend five minutes reading and then interact with using social media (i.e., give it a Facebook “like” or Google+ “+1”) will always rank higher than similar articles with no social media interaction that visitors that spend mere seconds reading.
Second, search engines use formatting styles to understand what web content is about. For example, an article with the term “Seattle kayaks” in every header will be understood as an article about that term by Google and other search engines. Proper formatting thus ensures that your web content will rank higher than it otherwise would for the keywords you’re targeting.
Make sure you use the following formatting styles, when applicable, for every piece of content you write.
Nothing screams poor writing more than a 1,000 word article consisting of only a couple of paragraphs. Every paragraph in your web content should encompass one thought or idea. Don’t be afraid to overzealously break down paragraphs into smaller ones; it’s better to err on the side of small paragraphs than to run the risk that they will be too long.
The easiest way to communicate what your content is about to both your human and search engine readers is through the use of headers. Divide every piece of content you write into topics (and, if appropriate, subtopics) and write a descriptive header with related keywords for each.
Consider this blog post. It consists of three main topics; content formatting, keywords, and image optimization. There is a header for each of these topics. The content formatting section (the one you are reading now) also has many subtopics, including lists, paragraphs, and horizontal rules.
It is necessary to create headers using HTML code so that search engines can identify them; search engines will not “see” headers unless you use the proper HTML code. Bracket your primary headers with the following HTML tags in your site’s HTML or “text” editor:
. Bracket your secondary headers with these HTML tags using the same method:
. Want an example of how these tags are used in practice? Right click this post’s text and click on “View page source” to see how its headers were formatted.
Lists are the best way to organize a group of related sentences. For example, a step-by-step guide to listing your home can be implemented with a numbered list to make communicating this lengthy, complicated process easier to follow. Likewise, an outline of the defining characteristics of your local market should be organized using a bulleted list. In this example, chronological ordering isn’t necessary but it’s easier read and process these market characteristics if they’re broken out of a giant block of text.
There is arguably no better way to visually communicate a thematic break in your content – to both search engines and human readers – than to use a horizontal rule. If, for example, you switch from talking about developments in your local real estate market to sharing updates about your business in a blog post, you should use a horizontal rule to demarcate the topic shift. Add a horizontal rule to your web content by adding the following HTML code snippet to your site’s HTML or “text” editor:
. You can adjust the height of the horizontal rule by changing the number found here: “height: ___px.” For example, the horizontal rule created using the code snippet
would be twice as tall as the one given in the previous paragraph.
Bold, Italics and Underline
These text stylings are excellent ways to draw your readers’ attentions to single words, strings of words or entire sentences within paragraphs. However, the SEO benefits of using these text styling are dubious. Some, though not all, SEO experts claim that putting the first instance of one of your keywords in bold will help search engines identify what the content is about.
How to Properly Use Keywords in Web Content
As you are writing a piece of content, identify the words and phrases that human and search engine readers can use to easily identify what it is about. For example, a blog post about businesses that rent kayaks in Seattle during the summer might use keywords like “Seattle kayaks,” “Seattle water sports,” “summer kayak rentals” and “kayak rentals.”
Keywords are added to content in various ways; the exact method depends upon what content management system (CMS) you use. In the WordPress blog and page editor, keywords are entered into the “Tags” section while in the ActiveRain blog editor they should be add to the “Tags” textbox.
It is important to use keywords sparingly and appropriately. Try not to use a single keyword more than five times per article, and do not tag more than four to five keywords for every 500 word article (or five to seven keywords for every 700 word article) you write.
Also, only use keywords when doing so makes sense given the context of the words around it. The keyword “Seattle kayaks” makes sense and belongs in the sentence “While kayaks found in the interior of the Pacific Northwest are normally small and maneuverable, Seattle kayaks are generally of the large, stable – and unwieldy – ocean-going variety.” This keyword does not make sense in the sentence “Tourists should visit the Space Needle, Pike’s Place Market, and Seattle kayaks” and should be removed.
The location of keywords within content is also important. Your most relevant keywords must be located within the title, headers and the first 100 words of each piece of web content you write.
Optimize Your Site’s Images Alternative (“alt”) text is what search engines use to identify the content of an image. Search engines need alt text because they can’t see the image itself and thus need text-based clues as to what they contain. Alt text thus needs to convey exactly what the image itself conveys. Short, non-descriptive alt text is of little value because it does not do a good job relaying what images are about.
Image titles also provide important textual clues to search engines but are more about labeling the image than describing it. An image’s title is also the text that is displayed when a visitor to your web content hovers their cursor above the image. You thus want the title to be professional (capitalized when appropriate, spelled correctly, etc.) and don’t want it to have the same descriptive explanation provided by the alt text.
Andy Fulton is a community manager for RealEstate.com. He has more than three years of experience with blogging, outreach, and managing social media accounts for a handful of companies and non-profit organizations in the Seattle area.