Introduction – If you are still learning about search engine optimization (SEO), you are probably a bit confused about the difference between on-site and off-site SEO strategies. On-site tactics are more straight-forward for the beginner and are probably written about the most. I thought I would write an article and cover what I’ve learned. This pool of SEO knowledge comes from working with about 10 clients and another 10 personal web sites over an 18 month period.
To anyone with an SEO background, there are certain basic on-site SEO tasks that any web master, business owner, or Internet Marketer needs to be aware of. These include the following major components:
1) Title Tags – The title tag in your HTML meta code is the tag that tell the browser what to display in the title of the window at the very top of the screen. Because this text is so visible to the user, Google likes to rely heavily on this text as a clue as to what your page is about. As a result, it is a really important SEO strategy that your title tag be filled with keywords that are appropriate to the content of the web page. Furthermore, you really don’t want the same title tag on every page. This is not good for SEO. Instead, you want to have different keyword phrases in your title tags that properly identify the theme of that particular page. Remember, you are trying to help the search engines easily digest your content. That’s basically what SEO is. You want to aid them in their understanding of what this page is really about.
2) The first H1 tag – Similar to the title tag, Google will look at the first H1 text to appear on your page as a strong signal as to what the page is about. Use it wisely. Again, you want to place keyword phrases here that are thematically related to what the information on the page is conveying to the end-user.
3) The name of the page itself – As you name your pages in your web site, use plain English as much as possible for SEO. You will notice that WordPress uses this extensively in their blog software. This is no accident and WordPress is considered the best blog for SEO. For example, http://example.com/?On-Site-vs-Off-Site-SEO-tactics&AID=22 will perform much better for SEO than http://example.com/?AID=22. Why? Because there is descriptive text in the longer version of the page name that helps the search engine know what the page is about. Many people have written about issues around “dirty links” and SEO (links including system variable data such as AID=22 in the example above). I think it is better if you can design your system without any variable data at all. It just takes this SEO issue away. And it’s just easier for the search engines. It’s also easier for the end-user. However, there is no problem promoting pages via SEO with variable data in the links. I’ve been able to make both fly using the same SEO tactics with no problems. The search engines are smart enough by now to manage through that variable data. Just make sure your plain English is in there.
4) Keyword meta tag – This tag used to get a ton of play for SEO, but is now largely ignored by the search engines. I believe it fell out of favor due to manipulation and misuse. It is a tag that is not seen by the end-user, so unscrupulous web masters abused it and it became less-and-less important for SEO. Real SEO tactics don’t abuse or deceive. I still populate my keyword tags because I believe they are still looked at, but I don’t believe they are very critical. If nothing else, it’s another instance of your keywords. They all help SEO.
5) Description meta tag – This tag is still useful, but probably more for Yahoo and MSN. Since you will be in this part of your web site anyway to get the Title right, you might as well make this variable-driven as well and make the description appropriate to the page. Again, it can’t hurt SEO.
6) Keyword Density – This is very important for SEO. Keep in mind that the search engines are just large computer programs digesting your site and trying to figure out what it is about. One of the simplest things they do is to count up all the words and look for repeats. They then calculate percentages, or densities, of specific 1-word, 2-word and 3-word phrases that are found in your text. By looking at the most popular keyword phrases, their programs understand the important themes of your page. If you observe your own writing on a specific subject, you will see the patterns as well. I don’t recommend that you write solely with keyword density in mind as it will result in lower quality content. However, I also don’t recommend that you completely ignore keyword density in your content creation. My preferred approach is to write content straight-up for the first draft. Then, as you edit for grammar, consistency, and clarity, also edit for density. Run your content through a density checker and see what phrases are used the most. Make adjustments accordingly so that your top themes / keyword phrases are showing up between 2-4% of the time. But don’t do this to the extent that anything reads as unnatural. You need to always keep your audience in mind.
7) Outbound links – What your page links to matters, in terms of both the quality and quantity of links. As you build links out of your page, be specific about where they go. Don’t link to low-quality or bad-neighborhood sites. Also watch your number of links. Generally, the less the better. However, having no outbound links is not always good. I believe Google uses your outbound links as a way to position your site in the vast weave that is the Internet. Often times, Google can get a good feeling about what your site is about just by looking at who you link to. So again, select these links wisely understanding they will actually impact your SEO.
8) High-quality, original, content – I probably should have put this first because it can’t be stressed enough for SEO. Your site needs to provide high-quality and original content. You will read this maybe a hundred times as you research SEO. Content is king. And I firmly believe this to be true. If you are under the impression that the internet is so big that search engines can’t identify content as really unique, guess again. One afternoon spent playing with CopyScape will convince you that there is technology available today that is able to tell you if any given sentence has been repeated anywhere on the Internet. It’s staggering, actually, when you really think about that. The volumes of data are just outrageous. But if CopyScape can do it, I’m betting that Google can do it also. And I firmly believe that your site receives a positive bump when Google determines that the content is original. Many people have asked me if using content that is repeated on other sites will penalize the site. I believe the answer is no, you will not be penalized by Google (copyright infringement is a completely different and very serious legal topic that I won’t go into today). But I also believe that you won’t get where you want to be by using content that already has high mileage. The other hot debate related to how sites using duplicate content can actually rank higher than the site where the content originated from. Yes – This has been demonstrated empirically a bunch of times. But you don’t need to be too concerned with that for reasons we will get into later. Just keep your eye on the ball. Put in the time, energy and creativity it takes to create unique content and you will be rewarded. Plain and simple.
9) Appropriate amounts of content – Somewhat different from #8 is the issue of how much content to put on your site for good SEO. I don’t believe there is a single magic answer as each site has a different objective. But as far as SEO goes, I generally believe the more the better (assuming you are following #8). Give those hungry spiders as much food for thought as you possibly can. But let me also qualify that statement. You need ensure that your content doesn’t stray too far from the core message of your site. If it does, this can create confusion around what your site is really about. Tightly focused sites perform much better than more generically focused sites. For example, a site selling used Honda Civics that uses appropriate SEO strategies will probably get ranked higher and faster than a more generalized site selling all types of used cars. This is a generic statement, and there are many exceptions, but it’s a reasonable place to start your thinking about niches and themes.