On-Page SEO Best Practices in 2013: 7 Rules of the Game

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By now, I’m sure you’ve heard enough about on-page optimization to last a lifetime. I don’t want to repeat the same mantras you’ve been hearing since last year. Yes, on-page SEO has become more important (I can hardly remember a time when it wasn’t), and yes, on-page SEO can make or break your chances at ranking high on Google SERPs. But what has changed is the way we perceive and behave toward on-page SEO.

Most SEOs tend to think of on-page optimization as a very specific technical influx of code. You know the drill: meta tags, canonical URLs, alt tags, proper encoding, well-crafted, character-limit-abiding title tags, etc.

Those are the basics. And at this point, they are very old-school. They continue to appear on the on-page SEO checklist, but you and I know that the whole demography of SEO has changed vastly, even though the basic premise has remained the same. Because of that change, the way you perceive on-page SEO has to adjust as well. That’s what we’re going to look at now.

On Page SEO: The Foundation

If your website isn’t properly optimized on-page, your efforts off the website (link building, content marketing, social media) probably won’t yield substantial results. Not that they won’t generate anything at all, but more than half your efforts may end up going down the drain.

There’s no clear rule book that says: do X, Y, and Z in on-page optimization and your rank will rise by A, B, or C. On-page optimization is based on tests, analytics and errors. You learn more about it by discovering what doesn’t work than what does.

But of all the things to keep in mind, there’s this: If you don’t take care of your on-page SEO, you’re likely going to fall or stay behind: in rankings, in conversions, and in ROI.

Why The Fuss?

But first let’s clear this one up: Why the fuss about on-page SEO? After all, there’s a ton of material available about it already. Many experts have written well about it.

The changing demography of search engine algorithms has altered the factors playing in to how one chooses to perform SEO. You can no longer think in terms of keywords and inbound links alone. Similarly, you can no longer think in terms of the meta and alt tags alone (yes, this includes the title tag, too).

On-page SEO isn’t just about how your site is coded. It’s also about how your site looks bare-bones (the robot view), and how your website responds to different screens. It includes load times and authority. And with the direction that Google is headed in 2013 and beyond, it’s clear that on-page elements and off-page elements must line up and agree with each other in a natural, clear, organic manner. That’s why we need to reevaluate on-page SEO a little more carefully.

1. Meta Tags Are Just the Beginning

We’ve known and used meta tags since their arrival. The meta “keyword” tag is long-gone, as an SEO ranking factor, but a lot of heat has been generated in discussions about the utility of meta description tags from an SEO point-of-view.

More significantly than SEO ranking factors, is the fact that meta description tags provide an opportunity to affect how your website is displayed in search results. A great meta description tag can get your result clicked before the guy ranking above you. It’s still good practice to use keywords when you can, along with geographic identifiers (when applicable), but first and foremost should be the intent to attract clicks from humans.

2. Canonical, Duplicate, Broken Links, etc.

Google’s robots have become very smart, to the point where broken links and duplicate pages raise red flags faster than a bullet. That is precisely why you’ll find canonical links (and their corresponding codes) to be highly important.

Broken links and dupes aren’t just anti-SEO. They are anti-user too. What’s your first reaction when you click on a link that just shows a page error?

3. The Robot’s Point of View

Text remains the most important part of any website even today. While Google does rank some videos and media higher than others for certain keywords, well-formatted and content-rich websites still rule the roost.

To get a view of how your website looks to the crawlers, you can disable the javascript and images (under Preferences/Settings of your browser) and take a look at the resulting page.

Though not totally accurate, the result is pretty much how your website looks to the crawler. Now, verify all the items on the following checklist:

  • Is your logo showing up as text?
  • Is the navigation working correctly? Does it break?
  • Is the main content of your page showing up right after the navigation?
  • Are there any hidden elements that show up when JS is disabled?
  • Is the content formatted properly?
  • Are all other pieces of the page (ads, banner images, sign-up forms, links, etc.) showing up after the main content?

The basic idea is to make sure the main content (the part you want Google to note) comes as early as possible with the relevant titles and descriptions in place.

4. Load Time Averages and Size

Google has long noted the size and the average load times of pages. This goes into the ranking algorithm by most counts and affects your position in the SERPs. This means you can have pretty good content on your website, but if the pages load slowly, Google is going to be wary of ranking you higher than other websites that load faster.

Google is all for user satisfaction. They want to show their users relevant results that are also easily accessible. If you have tons of javascript snippets, widgets, and other elements that slow down the load times, Google isn’t going to award you a high ranking.

5. Think Mobile, Think Responsive

This is one of the most hotly discussed topics in online marketing today. From mobile ads and local search to market trend in desktop/tablet consumption, it’s clear that moving toward a mobile-optimized site is the wave of the future.

When you think of a mobile/responsive website, how do you go about it? Responsive as in CSS media queries, or entirely new domains like “m.domain.com”? The former is recommended often because this keeps things in the same domain (link juice, no duplication, etc.). It keeps things simpler.

6. Authority & AuthorRank

The author-meta gets a new lease on life with Google promoting the AuthorRank metric. It’s a little more complex than that now, however. You will have to enable rich snippets for your website, make sure your Google+ profile is filled up, and link them up with your blog/website. AuthorRank has emerged as a very important and tangible metric that affects page rank, and is one of the on-page SEO tactics you should definitely do. Not only will it improve your rankings, but it will also improve your click-through rate in the SERPs.

7. Design Shouldn’t Be the Last Thing On Your List

Ironically, I had to write about this as the last thing because many people remember only the last thing they’ve read in an article. Hardcore SEO people regularly overlook the importance of design.

Aesthetics and readability stem directly from the design of a website. Google is good at figuring out what shows “above the fold” on websites, and Google explicitly recommends that you place content above the fold so your readers are treated to information rather than ads.

On-page SEO isn’t only about the meta code and the canonical URL. It’s about how your website connects to the user and to the robot. It’s about how you make sure your website is accessible and readable, and still has enough information under the hood for the search engines to pick up easily.

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