Neil Patel

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Your Quick Guide to SEO (Checklist Included)

Ever noticed a change in your SEO rankings for better or for worse, even though you didn’t make any major changes? This may be Google at work.

Over the past few years, Google has released several updates to its search engine algorithm, with Panda, Penguin, Helpful Content, and Hummingbird being some of the biggest. Those updates set augmented rules on how owners should structure their sites for link building, both building incoming links and using anchor text for outgoing links.

Despite the updates, however, on-page SEO hasn’t really changed all that much. Every on-page SEO task is really for the user’s benefit. Yet, most SEO professionals still haven’t come to terms with that fact.

Google wants the user to be happy when they visit your web page. The only way that Google will know that your site users are satisfied is when they’re engaged. How long do they spend reading your content?

In this on-page SEO checklist, I’m going to show you the essential things to pay attention to. They’ll improve your search traffic, boost your rankings and make off-page SEO a lot easier for you.

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

On-page SEO refers to any practices that include optimizing content on web pages for both search engines and users. Right off the bat, the term probably is a pretty vague phrase to most people. I know it was to me when I first heard it. In the world of search engine optimization, there are three main activities that can help your website get more traffic and visibility from the search engine results pages:

  1. Try to attract other websites to link to yours (i.e., “link building”).
  2. Create content (such as blog posts, webpages, videos, and infographics).
  3. Optimize your website code, content, site structure, meta tags, and other “on-page” elements to be “search engine friendly.”

There are several reasons on-page SEO is important:

It increases your website’s overall SEO efficiency.

While it’s true that link building can help your website rise in the search engines, proper on-page SEO can help you convert more from results pages (by having properly crafted title tags and meta descriptions) and even help you win those neck-in-neck battles on the first page of Google search results.

It builds a platform you can continue to iterate on.

When it comes to elements like site architecture, you want to build a one-and-done initiative that’s made to scale. For things like optimized H1 tags and title tags, you may find yourself wanting to go back and adjust the on-page SEO as algorithms and user intents change.

It will ensure that your traffic is more targeted and relevant.

This is a very significant benefit. If you make a conscious decision to pay attention to your on-page SEO, you will get more targeted and relevant traffic. It’s when you ignore it that you get lower-quality traffic.

It’s completely white hat (safe).

Assuming you don’t try to keyword spam, on-page optimization is by far the safest form of search engine optimization — it won’t get your website penalized by the search engines.

If you want to stick to a 100% safe SEO strategy, focus only on on-page SEO and creating content.

It makes for good usability.

As it turns out, when you are diligent about on-page SEO, you end up crafting a website that is logical to both human visitors and search engines. Some of the things involved in establishing good on-page SEO include cutting out duplicate content, simplifying web pages, and making intuitive site architecture.

Good usability is a great way to get people to like your website, which in turn can lead to backlinks and social mentions.

So with that said, let’s go into the recipe…

1. Site Speed

This makes sense. After all, don’t we all hate to wait? The instant gratification of the web has only made us more impatient, also.

So, it makes sense that Google cares about page load time (and has for a very long time). From the Webmasters Central Blog:

A quote from Google explaining the release of Google Page Speed Online.

Nowadays, speed is essential, nearly as much as a cornerstone keyword phrase.

One study showed that a delay of a single second in page response time can yield a 7% reduction in conversions.

A statistic explaining that a delay of a single second in page response time can yield a 7% reduction in conversions.

So, in case it wasn’t already clear, site speed absolutely affects rankings, as asserted in this infographic (click here to enlarge):

An infographic explaining how site speed impacts site rankings.

You can use Ubersuggest’s site audit tool to check your site’s load time, among a variety of related tasks like conducting an SEO analysis. Here’s how it works:

Step #1: Enter Your URL and Click “Search”

The URL entry field for Ubersuggest.

Step #2: Click “Site Audit” in the Left Sidebar

A view of the Ubersuggest side dashboard.

Step #3: Scroll down to “Site Speed”

An Ubersuggest report showing different site speeds.

You’re shown the loading time for both desktop and mobile devices. The results above show that my site is in the “excellent” range for both.

In addition to loading time, it also tests:

  • First Contentful Paint
  • Speed Index
  • Time to Interactive
  • First Meaningful Paint
  • First CPU Idle
  • Est. Input Latency

If your results aren’t optimal, don’t worry – there are many ways to increase your site speed. The easiest way, which will often cost some money, is by using search engine content delivery networks.

That aside, if you’re a WordPress user, you could delete unused plugins for an instant speed boost.

2. Essential Tag Fundamentals

Do you take meta tags seriously? Although the effect of the title tag or meta description has changed significantly over the past several years, it’s still a good practice to pay attention to them.

In on-page SEO, the major types of meta tags that you should pay attention to are:

Title tags: Title tags define the title of your web page or document. They’re mostly used to display preview snippets of your web pages. When you’re writing your title tag, it should be short, clear, and descriptive but don’t duplicate content from the page content.

Code depicting an HTML look at title tags.

The ideal length is 50 – 60 characters. If your title tag exceeds 60 characters, Google will only show the first 60.

Meta description:

This is how a meta description usually appears in the organic search listings:

Search results in Google for "how to educate a child at home."

The meta description is what search engines use to gauge what topic you’re writing about and the exact audience that they should send to that page. So, make it descriptive and short – no more than 160 characters.

There is no need to stuff keywords in your meta description (which would work against you anyway). Instead, use synonyms or latent semantic indexing (LSI) of your main keyword in the meta description, keeping search engines happy.

For example, if your main keywords in the headline are “generate website traffic,” here are LSI keywords that you can use:

  • get site visitors
  • drive free traffic
  • attract site visitors
  • attract website visitors

You must also be careful to never duplicate title tags or meta descriptions. Ubersuggest can also help with this. On the same results page (site audit) that displays site speed, you’ll see something that looks like this:

An Ubersuggest report on top SEO issues for a website.

You can then examine any issues with your title tags or meta descriptions. For example, the above shows that my site has 8 pages with duplicate title tags. By clicking on the issue, you’re given the following:

An Ubersuggest report showing existing pages with duplicate title tags.

As you click on each result in the Page URL column, you’re presented with a list of pages that share the same title tag, which is displayed in the second column:

An expanded version of the Ubersuggest report showing specific pages with duplicate title tags.

Unless there’s a good reason for it, such as using the same title for content in different languages (see above), it’s important to make the necessary changes from your technical SEO site audit.

3. Creating Content That Drives Search Traffic

Content is the backbone of a thriving business and on-page SEO is the backbone of content marketing. To find success here, though, you have to publish the kind of content that will drive traffic and grow your business.

This involves using specific keyword phrase components that include long-tail anchor words.

You’ll also notice that when you start creating in-depth content, you’ll see a corresponding increase in traffic from long-tail searches, a very specific keyword phrase indicating buyer positioning and urgency. These search engines help give you juice because you are helping people solve problems with your content.

A graph comparing traffic percentage driven by head terms versus long-tail keywords.

These days, your customers are smarter than you think. You have to be willing to listen to and learn from them – their search for solutions motivates them to ask certain questions. Those questions can tell you exactly what they want most from you.

Content that drives traffic:

  • Is practical, useful, and valuable
  • Is interesting to read
  • Is in-depth and well-written
  • Is written with the user in mind
  • Solves a problem
  • Is easy to share
  • Is optimized for a high-volume keyword

According to HubSpot, 30% of consumers look to influencers or UGC(user-generated content) creators’ recommendations to make buying decisions. Other than general trust, they know the influencer is sharing an opinion on an area they hold expertise. This is why almost 60% of marketers have seen influencer marketing to be the most effective marketing trend to date. The content is authentic and offers versatility with the creative expression a short form video brings with audio and visual elements.

Graph showing how marketers are changing their investments in 2023, and creating content showcasing their values is among the investments.
Graph showing which marketing trends have the highest ROI with short-form video content at number one.

Source: HubSpot

Traffic-generating content makes the user happy. So, we’re going to start with the aspect of content marketing that matters most: user experience optimization. It often starts with a keyword phrase relating to what the user is searching for.

Optimizing for the user is all about presenting your content and design so that users can find what they’re looking for immediately – another reason that you need to speed up your site load time.

A quote from Forrester describing the importance of answering questions for online consumers quickly.

It’s also important to answer search users’ questions with easy-to-read content, not merely targeting their keywords. For example, if customers are searching for “electric guitar lessons,” here is the wrong way to write your headline and introduction:

Easy Electric Guitar Lessons For Those Looking To Learn Electric Guitar

Do you want easy electric guitar lessons that will make you play guitar like a hero? Well, this electric guitar lessons post will definitely guide you on the right path, so you can master the electric guitar chords in 30 days or less.

The above headline and introduction are not optimized for the user. The keywords are stuffed in and the article introduction is confusing.

Let’s write a better headline and introduction, while still targeting the keyword “electric guitar lessons”:

Best Electric Guitar Lessons That Will Turn You Into a Pro

What is the best way to learn guitar at home? Many people prefer to read books, but there is a better way. Take some electric guitar lessons from a professional who knows what he’s doing. I don’t want to flaunt my guitar skills here, but trust me, I can help you master the art.

See the difference? In the second example, the main keyword phrase appears once in the headline and just once in the introduction. Moreover, the opening doesn’t promise anything that sounds too good to be true.

Remember that when it comes to creating content with the user in mind, use of keywords is not the major factor. Instead, the critical issue is addressing the user’s intent – in other words, the reason why the user is searching for that particular keyword.

When you do your on-page search optimization efficiently, your listing will be more attractive and the users will benefit, even before they click to visit your web page.

Another important aspect of user experience is functional design. Steve Jobs knew that design isn’t just “how a device looks” but also about “how it works.”

A picture of Steve Jobs with one of his quotes next to him.

Fittingly, another example is the Apple brand juggernaut. Many companies focus on selling features, but Apple also believes in the power of good design.

Apple customers trust the brand completely and happily recommend it to others, not because it’s the most affordable or sophisticated, but because of the sleek design and how the Apple experience makes their lives better.

Understand the Google Panda algorithm

The algorithm update was first released in February 2011. It was designed to help Google return high-quality results when users type a keyword phrase into the search box. Panda algorithm update was first released in February 2011. It was designed to help Google return high-quality results when users type a keyword phrase into the search box.

A depiction of Po from Kung Fu Panda with the Google logo.

While other updates have come and gone, Panda’s effect is still going strong. You may recall that Panda penalized low-quality content and thin sites. If you consider the state of search now, you’ll agree with me that Google’s ranked top results have vastly improved since Panda.

Marketers have come to realize that nothing spectacular can be achieved without the right content.

Panda made it easier for smart content marketers to start creating a conversation with their content. You give insights and advice to your customers and they respond with their questions, appreciation or suggestions.

If you want to improve your search rankings, you need to consider two aspects of your content:

Avoid Low-Quality Content

The days of generic content with no value are long gone. Enough said.

No more 300- or 500-word posts, unless you’re also using an infographic on the same page. Instead, write in-depth articles of 2000 words or more, because content length affects rankings.

A graph from SERPIQ showing the average word count of content in the top 10 of SERPs.

98% of the articles that I publish on this blog hit that 2000-or-more word count. And, by being consistent with the creation of in-depth content that offers a lot of value, I’ve significantly improved my search rankings for several keywords.

Content Freshness
The percentage of content, within a page, that remains fresh, has an effect on the site’s rankings. Google takes freshness very seriously.

As a result of this, Google now prefers fresh content, breaking news, and other recent content updates that deal with trends.

When it comes to on-page SEO, you may be wondering how Google scores fresh content. Well, according to Amit Singhal, “different searches have different freshness needs.”

A graphic showing a scoreboard with the words "Freshness score."

Naturally, some search terms or keywords require fresh content or insight. For example, when you’re looking for a hosting coupon code for 2019, it’d be utterly useless to find a coupon code that was generated in 2017 or 2018 and was only good for those years.

Singhal described the categories of keywords that will most likely require fresh content:

Hot trends: These are things that are happening right now, all around the world. Some other keywords for hot trends can be found at Google.com/trends.

A typical example of an authority site that will benefit from a Google freshness reward is Mashable. This popular site constantly publishes fresh content, based on what’s hot in varying fields.

Recurring events: Events that take place every month, every quarter, every year, etc., can also lead to an increased freshness score because such content requires constant updating. These keywords are recurring:

  • AT&T earnings
  • NFL scores
  • The Voice contestants

Frequent information update: Some other keywords that are searched for in Google require frequent updates. For example: best dslr cameras and top fitness programs.

These three yardsticks are important to Google when scoring a web page for freshness. But, don’t forget that Google also gauges the freshness of a web page based on the date Google discovered it. Over time, this freshness fades and new content with a newer inception date replaces the older piece.

So, what are you supposed to do for your site, in order to boost its freshness score and ultimately attract more search traffic?

First, you’ve got to consistently publish fresh content.

If you can, publish regularly and make sure that you share helpful tips for your target audience. This will ensure that your web pages are fresh and attract fresh crawls from Google’s spider, as well as deep bots that will sustain your indexed pages.

Research shows that Google prefers to serve up fresh results – like SEO optimized copy – to users when they search for a keyword. To get around this preference, some people use black hat SEO tricks to manipulate web page freshness, like changing the implementation date on older articles and pages.

This might work, but it’s very risky and it’s not sustainable. Why would you want to manipulate freshness and inception dates, only to risk your page getting penalized by Google?

Content engagement: The word “engagement,” in this context, means the state of interactivity. The true test of high-quality content is the engagement that it creates. When you’re conscious of engaging your audience, you’ll most likely create the right content for them. Search engines love this.

A graphic showing the different varieties of content engagement.

This initial on-page optimization will align a piece of content with the user’s needs. If you’re going to attract the right clients to your business, you’ve got to focus on engaging your prospects.

4. Optimizing Crawlability

SEO is not complicated at all. In fact, people who generate the most results aren’t operating at a higher plane than the rest of us – they simply work harder on the basic elements. If you want SEO explained simply, there are 3 crucial factors:

  • Crawlability
  • Content
  • Link building

If you’re not familiar with “crawlability,” a quick search on Google will help, straight from the Google Knowledge Graph:

A Google search result for the definition of crawlable.

You’ve got to recognize that search spiders are not as intelligent as they’ve been portrayed to be by most SEOs.

If your link is broken and spiders can’t crawl your web page easily as a result, trust me – they’re not programmed to go looking for the right link. They’ll simply stop there – and you know what comes next, don’t you? Poor performance in the search engine results because of inattention to link building.

Also, interlinking internal blog pages is an important step toward improving your site’s crawlability. Remember, search engine spiders follow links. It’s much easier for them to pick up your fresh content page from a link on your homepage than by searching high and low for it.

Having seen the importance of making your content pages easy to find (crawlable), let’s look at some simple ways to go about making it happen.

Your URL Structure: The URL – Universal Resource Locator – is the address of the web page on your site. It’s an important SEO best practice. So, why are there no ultimate guides for structuring your URLs?

Blog page URLs are meant to provide some information and meaningful experience to humans and computers alike. This is why we don’t use binary numbers or IP addresses, but rather real words, in our URLs.

Structuring the page URL has been a controversial topic in the blogosphere. Most people believe that you should make it shorter, while others prefer it to be long.

Since the rules aren’t set in stone, the best way to structure your URL is to see how the authority sites are doing it. You can have your category come before the keywords that you’re targeting, the way that HubSpot does:

A look at HubSpot's preferred URL structure for pages.

Or, you can model Copyblogger, which doesn’t use the category for structuring the URL of any web page. Instead, they simply add the 3 keywords that the headline revolves around:

A look at Copyblogger's preferred URL structure for pages.

Brent Carnduff recommends that, when you write your URL, you should make it 3 – 5 words separated by a hyphen (-), not an underscore (_).

In all, both long and short, keyword-rich, generic URLs do well in the search engine results pages (SERPs), especially when the content is useful and easy to implement.

Write URLs that will further educate the reader on what you’re talking about. You don’t want something too difficult to memorize and recall. For example, could you memorize the URL of the post you’re reading right now?

It’s much easier for the user to memorize and tell others about this particular web page because the URL is short and contains just the 3 words representing the main topic of the article:

A sample Copyblogger URL.

Above all, your URL should first and foremost be self-explanatory. In other words, the user shouldn’t need anyone to interpret what you’ve published on that page. Make it clear and avoid spelling errors.

Crawl Error Resolution: In the process of doing on-page user optimization to attract the attention of search engine spiders, there may be a crawl error encountered. Don’t panic – just let it motivate you to do what needs to be done.

If you go to Help Center in the Search Console and use the URL Inspection tool, you can open the tool and await results:

When you find crawl error messages, it means that other sites can’t get access to some of your web pages. The faster you resolve it, the better off you’ll be.

If you get a “not found” error, it can be resolved in a similar manner, with a slight difference.

A list of reasons for 404 errors.

5. Mobile-Friendly (Responsive)

When Google Panda was rolled out, many sites didn’t take it seriously. And, consequently, they paid dearly. For example, eBay lost 80% of its prime rankings.

The moral of the story: Before a new update jumps out at you unexpectedly, you have to prepare for it.

Google gave mobile users a gift, by setting up standards that force every site owner to consider mobile users. It was predicted that the update could affect over 40% of Fortune 500 websites.

Those who weren’t prepared got dinged in search rankings. One legal software company with a responsive design saw an initial decrease in rankings, but then a substantial rise, a week after:

A Google Analytics graph showing sessions progression.

Box Office Mojo, on the other hand, didn’t have a mobile-friendly site. When the update was released, their search rankings and visibility tanked:

A graph showing a major drop in Mobile SEO for BoxOfficeMojo.

Searchmetrics compiled a list of authority sites that lost and those that gained from the mobile update:

A list of sites that lost Mobile SEO visbility after a major Google update.

Trust me, the passion that Google has for mobile users will only increase in the future. You’ve got to organize your site for mobile users with mobile devices generating over 50% of global website traffic. You can always check whether or not your blog/site is responsive, through Google’s Mobile Friendliness tool. Just plug your site URL into the search box, then click the “Test URL” button. Just plug your site URL into the search box, then click the “Test URL” button:

The interface for Google's mobile-friendly testing tool.

My blog is mobile-friendly. If yours isn’t, you’ll get this result:

A result showing a site is not-mobile friendly from Google's tool.

6. Avoiding Cannibalization

This is where you’re going to want to get out a piece of paper or open a spreadsheet.

You are going to want to organize your web pages by subject matter and categories. If your website is small, you probably don’t need to worry about categories. As a matter of fact, having a flat architecture is better than trying to come up with categories for a site with less than 50 pages.

Each page on your site should be dedicated to a specific keyword you want to obtain traffic for. The easiest way to explain this is:

  • Your home page keyword should reflect your USP.
  • All other product or service pages should use keywords that describe what those pages are about.
  • Consider seeding your about page with your founders’ names as keywords.

List all of the possible pages on your website, and see if the keyword you want to rank for matches what the page is about.

keyword to webpage match up

Here’s a hypothetical website and how you would assign keywords to each URL.

If you notice that you are repeating keywords for multiple pages, then you are entering the dark world of keyword cannibalization. This is when you inadvertently optimize multiple webpages for the same keyword. The problem with this is that it’s confusing to the search engines. You end up forcing them to choose which page is more important for that particular keyword out of the group of webpages. This weakens your ability to obtain traffic for that keyword.

That’s why it’s essential to look at your website architecture closely.

7. Build Internal Links

You can actually use your own site’s search engine power to boost up other pages within your site. You can do this by simply linking to other webpages from within your content.

For example, if you mention a complimentary service on one of your service webpages, you should link that service to the appropriate webpage. Wikipedia is all about this:

Wikipedia internal linking example

This seems super obvious, right? Well, it often gets neglected. I’ll bet you could cruise through your own website right now and find places where links can be inserted.

It is crucial to show the search engines the keywords that are vital to your business in the form of link text. (This is the basis for “link building.”) So be sure to set up internal links.

Now, don’t think that you can “get more points” by creating tons of internal links to try to boost the SEO power of certain webpages. Search engines are well aware of when people get “spammy,” and it can end up hurting your efforts. The bottom line is – if it makes sense to create a link, then do so.

8. Checking for Duplicate Content

If your website likes to create different URLs with the same content on them, well then, you have a problem on your hands.

You see, a lot of people use content management systems (such as WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla) to help make maintaining and expanding their websites easy. But a lot of times, these management systems create duplicate content. It can be hard to detect it. But there are a few ways to sniff it out:

  • Use http://www.xml-sitemaps.com/ and create a sitemap file. The sitemap they generate for you may show you all kinds of URLs you had no idea existed. Check them to make sure there is no duplicate content on them.
  • Google Webmaster Tools will clue you into duplicate content – usually through their duplicate title tag and meta description warnings.

The easiest way to solve duplicate content issues is to use the canonical tag.

canonical meta tag

Simply place this tag into the head of any page that is creating duplicate content. In the canonical tag, place the URL of the original webpage that should be the only one you want “exposed.” This will tell the search engines to ignore the pages with duplicate content on them.

You can also:

  • Physically remove duplicate content from your website (if possible).
  • Place a “No Index” meta tag into the head of the duplicate content.
  • Block the duplicate content in the robots.txt file of your website.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an example of on-page SEO?

On-page SEO can be as simple as incorporating primary keywords in your headers. Focus these keywords in your <h1> and <h2>. This concept can be applied to other content elements like alt text, meta descriptions, or page URLs, to name a few. So, if your keyword is ‘father’s day gifts,’ center the piece around ‘10 Father’s Day Gifts Dad Will Love.’ Making it feel like a gift guide will allow you to be seen as a subject matter expert to users and an SEO expert with Google. You’ll see how these placements reflect in your results.

What is on-site SEO and off-site SEO?

On-site SEO refers to the strategies used to optimize a website’s content and structure for search engines. This includes keyword research, meta tags, site structure, and content optimization. Off-site SEO refers to the actions taken outside of a website to improve its search engine rankings like link building and social media marketing.

What are the top 5 on-page SEO factors?

What are the top 5 on-page SEO factors?

  • Site speed: Page loading efficiency for enhanced user experience.
  • Copywriting: For rich content that thoroughly explain what the user needs to know and what search engines can crawl to connect your content to users.
  • Title tags/Meta descriptions: Topics of focus.
  • Keywords: To answer user’s needs through your content.
  • Internal ink building: To link to similar content that builds upon the information.

Conclusion

A while ago, I wrote a post titled “The Ultimate Google Algorithm Cheat Sheet,” in which my goal was to give you an overview, as well as the exact steps, of how to build a content-driven blog that will generate the right leads for you.

I’ve taken the same approach with this in-depth article. However, if you don’t remember everything mentioned here, just keep in mind the true purpose of on-page SEO: to educate, inspire and guide your users properly, as they navigate your site.

Get your site ready, before going out there to build authority inbound links, because the foundation is what matters most when it comes to SEO. Always study your Google webmaster tools and analytics, as both will educate you on what your ideal customers truly want from your site.

Both B2B and B2C marketers are beginning to realize the need to implement basic SEO practices. You need to commit yourself to the process, not just to the results that you’re after.

You’ll learn a lot more with that mindset than you could ever learn just by getting the top rank in Google.

Have you implemented any of these on-page search engine optimization hacks? What was your result?

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