This article will outline how to look at your own site and know what to optimize. It will help site owners look at their site and understand what on-page changes they could or should make (or ask to be made).
I get a lot of questions about key website elements that one needs to pay attention to. As a result I've written a number of posts about on-page SEO on my blog.
The truth is that there are tones of great article written on the topic and majority of them are true regardless the changes in Google algorithm. For example, there's a post on SEO site audit checklist by Mat Siltala. Let's take a look at the five categories of On-page SEO. Please note these are my way of structuring things and may not be consistent with everybody's.
Both search engines and users should be able to understand the structure of your website. The following elements will help in making the site be more understood.
- XML Sitemaps. An XML sitemap is usually located in the root of your domain and has the following name: /sitemap.xml. Such sitemap allows search engines to see your entire website structure. You should ensure that the sitemap file updates dynamically every time there's new content on your site.
- Robots.txt. This file directs search bots away from certain directories on your website (scripts, includes, etc.) that we don't want the robot to index. Make sure that the robots.txt file does not prevent bots from indexing valuable content (images, product categories and the actual root domain, which happens quite often).
- URL structure. Your URL should be easily understood by both engines and people. Make sure there's one URL per page and avoid parameters in you URLs. Stay away from lengthy URLs (over 100 characters) and deep pages (3 directories and deeper).
- Redirects. Redirects are used to re-route search bots from old pages to new ones. Ensure your redirects are working properly. Redirects are usually done through a canonical tag in the meta section of your page or an .htaccess file in the root of your site.
- Webmaster tools. Tools like Google or Bing Webmasters serve as a window to search engines. These tools monitor your site for potential issues as it relates to search engines. Having an account setup will ensure that, if anything is wrong with your site, you will get a notification from search engines and will be able to fix the issue before your site is demoted.
Meta is data about data. Each page on your website will have this section at the top of the source code that will tell search robots about the page. The following elements are important:
- Meta Title is the most important on-page SEO elements. It should tell an engine what the page is about in a short form. Avoid stuffing the title tag with keywords. Optimal title length is between 70 and 100 characters long including spaces. For dynamic titles I recommend you go from detailed to broad things: Product | Category | Brand name
- Meta Description is no longer directly affecting how your page ranks, so there's no point in stuffing it with keywords. However, short (under 150 characters including spaces), descriptive and leading-to-action meta descriptions lead to higher click-through rates. So make sure your descriptions are enticing for people.
Again, the terminology may disagree with widely accepted terms but I refer to on-page content elements as "anything that a human eye can see".
- Headings are considered a second most important on-page element affecting website rankings. Headings (H1, H2, etc.) are supposed to divide your page content into logical sections, therefore presenting a value to search bots trying to understand what your page is about. Make sure your pages use heading, and those headings include your page's focus terms. Also, my rule of thumb: One H1, Two H2s and Three H3s per page. You don't have to follow this exactly, but make sure there's only one H1 per page.
- Images, especially if they clarify the content on a page is a great way to present your pages. My take is that the more diverse your page content is (text, image, video, etc.), the better the page explains the subject and the higher the potential it will rank well for the chosen key phrase. See the details on optimizing image files in my recent post.
- Page copy is anything that gets inside <p> tag on your page, in other words, it is text. I'd like to recommend page length of around 350 words. A recent study by SEOmoz suggests that pages with more text content have a potential to rank higher. However, keep your user in mind when developing page copy, make it readable and remember that users prefer images and videos over text these days.
- Page size is another important page attribute. According to Google page load speed is a factor, although not a major one. Still make sure your page loads fast, look at things that might prevent it from doing so. For example, review the page for unnecessary scripts (.js, CSS, etc.) and disable them if applicable. Make sure your images are optimized for better web performance. JPG or PNG of 72 dpi are more than enough for web display.
Links are like votes. The more votes your site gets the higher its authority is. There are two primary types of link we want to check: internal and external.
Links leading from page to page on your website. Search engine bots use these links to travel from one page to another. Make sure the following link elements are in tact:
- Link anchors (linked text) should be descriptive of the page it's pointing to. It should have a target keyword as part of the anchor text. There's navigational links and there's content links. Your navigation links will be pretty much the same on all pages. Make sure your pages are interlinked using content links too.
- Number of links. Page will a lot of links and very few copy will not deserve a high quality score. So make sure you have a balance between the amount of copy and the number of links. Don't be afraid to link out to relevant resources. Just don't overdo it. Feel free to no-follow outgoing links to "irrelevant" sites (i.e. sponsors, clients, friends outside of the industry).
These links lead to your site from external websites bringing search bots and people to your pages. Both quality (relevancy and authority of a linking site) and quantity is important.
- Link anchors. It's less important to have exact keyword in your anchor text these days (see the SEOmoz study link below). Diversity of link anchors is important. I recommend you showcase the natural style of your link anchors instead of pushing on keywords.
- Number of links is still important especially if you're optimizing a website for a competitive industry. I recommend you check your competitors using Open Site Explorer to see the amount of links you'll need to schedule.
- Link sources are important. Ensure they are diverse, avoid links from same c-blocks. Look for links from relevant website. Consider guest posting with industry publications.
Location SEO elements
With a huge importance of Local SEO these days, we want to make sure the site is relevant in local searches, especially if your site offers products or services locally. Make sure your pages have the following elements in tact.
- Top-level domain (TLD). Does your Canada-based site has a .ca TLD? If your website caters to Canadian audience it's recommended you make it relevant geographically using this domain association.
- Google Places. Does your business / website have a Google Places listing? Today, when the web grows local, and Google gives its SERP real estate to local listings, it's important that your site has a well optimized local listing.
- Physical address and a phone number. Does your page have a physical address and a phone number displayed? If not, you should put it either in the header or footer, but make sure it's in text, not an image. This will allow search engines to tie your page to a location, and, as a result, give it higher rankings for location oriented search terms.
At the end of the day, the goal of any search engine is to give the most relevant results for a given search query. So make sure your website answers positively to the following questions:
- People. Is the site people-friendly? Is it easy to navigate? Are the conversion paths clear? Are there calls to action in place? Can a real person trust your site (company)? Will my visitors share my pages with their friends?
- Search engines. Do other sites trust me? Do people link to my site in their articles? Are the links from industry authorities? Is my site understood by search engines?
- Growth dynamics. Is my content growing, expanding? Do people comment on my posts / pages.
Great site audit resources
The five categories of website audit should get you understand the process better. These categories are major things your should look at when reviewing your website. However, if you want to see a more detailed review of SEO website audit, here's a great video at SEOmoz.
In addition, you may want to look at tools to check your site quickly. For example, WooRank and WebsiteGrader are the two at the tip of my tongue. Please note that these are automated review tools and a bit more human touch to site audit is required oftentimes. An SEO professional will be able to tell you about the relative importance of factors as well as make the decision on fixing things one way or another.
Finally, if you'd like to stay up to date with which ranking factors Google uses to rank your site, I suggest you check the 2011 study by SEOmoz. It's not a definitive answer to how Google ranks sites but a study that uses input from a lot of good people in the industry. And is definitely worth taking a look at.