Understanding SEO: On-Page Optimization

Chapter 3: Keyword Research Basics Chapter 5: Understanding Backlinks

On-Page Optimization

Almost no web page gets indexed in Google for a single keyword exclusively, even if there’s one particular keyword that seems to be the road to fame and fortune. Certain keywords, using the formula mentioned in the previous chapter, are worth well over $1000 a month in AdSense revenue alone, and often worth  several times more on an affiliate or ecommerce site.

If you have a website about cheap tires, you’ll probably get traffic from Google on searches that you didn’t optimize for. The site might have a page for the more obvious keywords like “cheap tires online” or “cheap tires for sale”; but when you look at the referral keywords in Google Analytics, you see that 12 people in the last month visited your site through a Google search on “cheap tire and wheel packages,” a phrase that appears nowhere on your site. This happens because Google’s algorithm sees a wide enough set of related keywords on a certain page that it’s assumed to be relevant. The page has keyword relevance because the site has developed keyword authority in the domain of cheap tires.

While each page should be optimized for a primary keyword, it should cast a wider net of related and relevant keywords: the long tails. These long tails shouldn’t be chosen for their CPC values, search volumes, or the competitiveness that we’ll analyze later; they’re only included for keyword variation. A normal web page wouldn’t have “cheap tires” appear 20 times. It would include variations like “discount tires,” “used tires,” “cheap offroad tires,” “cheap auto tires” and so on.

Incorporating primary and long tail keywords into article copy is actually much easier than it might seem from the description above. Writers overschooled in SEO theory feel compelled to use keywords in every sentence due to concerns about keyword density. The idea behind keyword density is that a keyword has to appear a certain number of times relative to the number of total words on the page. St. Louis SEO gurus disagree on good and bad density percentages, but a 1% to 3% range is generally considered acceptable; anything above this risks appearing spammy to search engines.

Don’t overthink what needs to go into an article. Just make sure that your primary keyword appears at least once or twice, and get a couple of long tails in if possible.

 HTML for On-Page Factors

Most people who read content on the web aren’t aware that they’re actually looking at code. A word on web page will appear differently if it’s in a post title instead of a paragraph, or it might be in italics or boldface, or perhaps in a different color in a pullquote. The word might not even be visible on the page, but it may be hidden from view in a “meta tag” for a search engine to read.

Formatting code is handled with HTML, or Hypertext Markup Language. If you were building a website from scratch, you would need to know a lot of HTML. If you’re using a blogging platform like WordPress, Movable Type, Blogger or Tumblr, you just need to know enough HTML tagging to make you dangerous  with SEO.

A tag is a formatting description enclosed in a pair of angle brackets—the greater-than and less-than signs. The content being formatted gets enclosed in a pair of tags: an opening and closing tag. The HTML for the word “boldface” in boldface would look like: <strong>boldface</strong>. When a browser sees this code, it knows to render the word in boldface. The closing tag always hasFig. 4-1. A title tag within HTML code. This code is interpreted by a browser to render a web page.a forward slash between the first angle bracket and the formatting description. The first tag on a page is almost always the <head>. The <head> section contains all of the meta tags. You can view the HTML source for a page by right-clicking it and selecting “View page source”.

Meta Tags

There are three key types of meta tags that need to be addressed for SEO: the title, meta description, and meta keywords tags. The title tag is by far the most critical.

Title Tags

A web page titled “The Truth about Aardvarks” will have a title tag that looks like: <title>The Truth about Aardvarks</title>. This title won’t necessarily be the same as the post title, since the post title is an H2 header tag, but it’s often the same. WordPress and other content management systems tend to assign  whatever’s in the H2 to the title tag as well.

You should always try to find a way to work your primary keyword in the title tag. If you found that a certain page was getting traffic for “cheap tire and wheel packages,” you could embed the keyword in a title like, “Where to Find Cheap Tire and Wheel Packages” or “What to Look for in Cheap Tire and Wheel Packages,” or whatever is congruent with the content of the post.


The content of the title tag doesn’t appear on the web page. It appears in the browser’s title bar (Firefox and Internet Explorer), or in the tab containing the page (Opera and Chrome). More importantly, it appears in the SERPs as the blue link you click to get to the page. For this reason, your title should be as  appealing as possible.


Technically, search engines recognize up to 120 characters, but Google only displays the first 65. If a title overruns the visible 65-character limit, the title is truncated with ellipses (“…”) at the end. Titles cut off in this manner have historically had a 20% lower clickthrough rate on average, and they’re subliminally perceived as incomplete. Always count the number of characters that go into your title tag, and edit them to 65 characters or less.


If you’re using WordPress as your content management system, you can install the popular plugin All-In-One SEO Pack, which allows you to edit the contents of title and meta description tags directly in a visual editor.


Once installed, go to the plugin’s options configuration panel, and set the Post Title Format so that %post_title% is the only option displayed in this field. It shouldn’t contain other options like %blog title%, which is a “branding” flourish that weakens your SEO by making each page on your site less unique.


Whatever you do, avoid using figurative language in a title tag, regardless of how catchy it seems. If a post about cheap tires is titled, “I Love the Smell of Burnt Rubber in the Morning,” the literal nature of a search engine is unlikely to pick up on your wit. Get your keyword in your title tag. If you must use a more “creative” title for some reason (your editor might insist on it), you can always keep the creative version as your H2- tagged post title and use the keyword optimized version for the title tag.

Meta Description Tags

The meta description tag usually doesn’t show up on the page, but it does show up in the SERPs underneath
the blue link created by the title tag. In Google, the meta description is essentially summary text that expands on your title, with a maximum of 153 visible characters. If you’re using WordPress and the All-In-One SEO Pack, you have the chance to write the meta description for each post. Otherwise you can use good old HTML code: <meta name=”description” content=”This is a short description of what you’ll be reading about if you click me.”>. The meta description tag is self-contained, and doesn’t have a closing tag.

Like the title tag, keeping your meta description down to the visible character length is recommended, since excessive characters are also delimited with ellipses. Unlike the title tag, search engines don’t actually use keywords in the meta description for indexing purposes. But since you still want to influence the highest clickthrough rate possible, it’s a good idea to work your primary keyword into the tag to reinforce the search result’s relevance.

 Meta Keywords Tags

Google doesn’t pay much attention to the meta keywords tag for a good reason. If SEO were as simple as inserting a long list of keywords in a tag, everyone would be doing it. This is a pretty unimportant element for SEO, but it needs to be clarified since it’s often described as “the meta tag”. Since meta tags actually refer to whole set of title, meta description and keywords tags, some people erroneously conclude that “meta tags” do not matter anymore, when what they’re really referring to are meta keywords. If you’re motivated to tweak the meta keywords, you can edit them in the All-In-One SEO Plugin’s Keyword field, or use the HTML code: <meta name=”keywords” content=”tires, cheap tires, used tires, cheap offroad tires, cheap autotires”>.

Header Tags

The three header tags you’ll need to manage are the H1 post title and H2 and H3 subheaders. Obviously, the post title appears above the content, the main sections of a post are denoted by H2 subheadings, subdivided with H3 subsections. All use the code format <H1>This Is a Title or Heading</H1>, substituting the appropriate <H2> or <H3> tag. Try to get the primary keyword in the post title and one of the subheaders, and try to get one or two long tails in the subheaders. These aren’t make-or-break SEO factors, but they should be taken advantage of whenever possible.

Bold and Italic Tags

Up until a couple of years ago, SEO copywriters insisted that using <strong> and <em> tags for bold and italic emphasis respectively would help boost a page in search engines. The hallmark of keyword articles churned out by so-called “content farms” was the boldfaced keyword that invariably appeared in the first  entence: “The Internet makes searching for cheap tires easier than ever.” The evidence that these tags helped at all was always slim, and after Google’s “Panda update”—an algorithm change designed to marginalize content farms—even keyword article writers now only add emphasis tags to words that actually need emphasis.

Image Tags

The <img> tag definitely improves search traffic if edited properly. It’s hard to recommend one plugin that’s universally loved, so we’ll stick to the HTML code: <img src=”used_tire. jpg” alt=”Cheap used tire”>. Note the use of a keyword in the image file name. You should rename any image file name to  incorporate a keyword. With some keywords, like celebrity names, there is substantial search volume on the “picture” long tail: e.g. “brad pitt picture.” If this turns out to be the case in your keyword research, use the “picture”-appended version in the file name: “brad_pitt_picture.jpg.”

Similar principles apply to the altattribute, which is designed to make images identifiable for the visually impaired with special text-to-speech software. Whatever you would use for the image’s caption, you can use for the alternate text. Image tag optimizations should also be used for GIF logos and banners.

The Domain Name

If you don’t already have a domain name for your website (www.domainname.com), you’re going to have to think about whether SEO considerations matter more than branding. If SEO is the most important factor, the Holy Grail is the exact match domain (EMD).

As the term suggests, an exact match domain is a .com, .net or .org name that matches a keyword exactly in spelling and word order. Cheaptires.com would be the EMD of “cheap tires.” The .org and .net versions would also be EMDs. Unfortunately, any other domain extensions (known as top-level domains), like Cheaptires.info or Cheaptires.biz, do not count as exact matches for SEO purposes. Furthermore, any constituent words in the domain name cannot be separated by a hyphen—so Cheap-tires.com would be out of the running as an EMD.

Exact match domains can rank highly in search engines with far fewer links than other domains. For less competitive keywords, it’s sometimes possible to get a #1 ranking in Google with a dozen links, while competing pages have hundreds of links.

EMDs are fine if you can get them, but there’s no reason to get obsessed with them. Most keywords with any commercial significance have already had their  corresponding domain names picked over, and if  they’re already owned by a private party, they’re probably going to be expensive to buy. More  importantly, unless you’re already getting traffic for a keyword, you can’t assume that it will perform as well as the Google Keyword Tools suggest—and once you’ve built a site around a domain name, changing it can get complicated.

Jump Starting Your On-Page Optimization

For a small site, optimizing on-page factors for search engines is something that can be done in an evening. If your site has dozens of pages, you’ll obviously have more work, but an even greater improvement opportunity. For Google, the index count of your site (the number of pages in Google’s index) is an SEO factor, since more pages can hold more “Google juice.” Regardless of your site’s size, you’ll need to do the following:

  • For each page on your site, review the title tag to ensure that it contains the keyword you want the page to rank for.
  • To maximize the readability of your page’s listings in the search engines, keep your title tag to 65 characters or less, and your meta description tag to 152 characters or less. A plugin like All In One SEO Pack can be used to edit these tags without having to muck around with the HTML.
  • Edit each image’s alt text and file name to be keyword relevant.
  • If you have yet to pick a domain name for your site, incorporating the main keyword is extremely helpful from an SEO perspective. An exact match domain will give your site a huge SEO boost for its main keyword, but lacking an EMD isn’t the massive SEO liability that some Internet marketers make it out to be. You might even decide that a keyword focused domain name is less important than branding, in which case it’s still possible to have strong SEO based on other factors.

It would be nice if optimizing on-page factors was enough to get a good ranking in the SERPs. On-page SEO is necessary, but not sufficient. The main purpose of Google’s PageRank algorithm is to discourage keyword stuffing by using the quantity and quality of incoming links as its primary metric. Let’s get into the heart and heavy lifting of SEO: backlinks.

Chapter 3: Keyword Research BasicsChapter 5: Understanding Backlinks