With every algorithm update that Google releases SEO gets seems to get a little more complex.
Back in the early days, on page SEO was basically synonymous with keyword stuffing, while off page SEO involved little more than getting as many links as possible as quickly as possible to your pages.
Fortunately for everyone who has to use a search engine, both on and off page SEO have evolved significantly. Each component of search engine optimization now has its own components to attend to, and each one offers its own potential for ROI.
This overview will walk you through the important distinctions between on page and off page search engine optimization so that you can prioritize your SEO tasks effectively.
What’s the Difference Between On and Off Page SEO?
Novice SEO practitioners tend to start with on page optimization because it relies almost entirely on the site you’re trying to optimize. As the name implies, on page SEO involves addressing all the parts of your page or website that affect its search engine rankings.
There are some signals that we will call “on page” even though they aren’t strictly visible to human visitors to a page. Page load time and mobile friendliness both impact users’ experience of your page and consequently influence how your site gets ranked, but they are really “on site” more than “on page.”
Off page SEO, on the other hand, consists of all the external factors that influence how a page and/or website rank in search results.
For obvious reasons Google doesn’t share how it calculates its search results, but through intensive investigation and long term experimentation SEO gurus have identified key areas on and off page that digital marketers can control.
Many of these are gathered in this very handy infographic from SearchEngineLand and Column Five, so we’ll be using it as our guide through on and off page SEO.
When we’re referencing a particular SEO “element” on this table we’ll cite it with its elemental symbol (Cq for Quality).
3 Factors that Make Up On Page SEO
There are a lot of things that we can control on our sites, and Google takes them all into account when ranking our pages. They fall into three major categories: written content, unseen infrastructure, and site organization.
The Content On Your Page
Hopefully you have content creators who are writing with keywords in mind, because these have a major impact on your search engine opportunities.
You need to have 2-3 keywords (Cr) that you’ve chosen for each page on your site, and those should appear not only within the page’s text (Cw) but also in the meta title and description (more on these in the next section).
The presence of keywords alone aren’t enough, however, as Google is getting increasingly sophisticated at identifying well written pages (Cq). They note the reading level of the text on the page as well as how long readers stay on the site (Ce), and these weigh heavily in your pages’ ability to rank well.
If you use images (and you should really be using images), you should make sure that they are sufficiently low resolution so they don’t slow down your load times, related to your content, and tied back to your keyword strategy through good filenames and alt text.
HTML: The Invisible Part of On Page SEO
Some parts of your page’s foundation will creep out from behind the scenes, such as the meta title (Ht) and meta description (Hd) that appear in search engine results:
Additionally, while the HTML that you use to identify headers and subheaders in your text doesn’t appear (Hh), it does have a direct effect on how your content appears on the page. This can make it easier or harder for people to consume your content.
Whether or not you include keywords in all of these “invisible” components will be directly reflected in how your pages rank.
Similarly, tagging structured data (Hs) like reviews, product information, software applications, etc. can impact how your pages appear in search. Done right, this extra information can improve engagement with both your search results and your page (Ce), driving up your rank over time.
The Big Picture: Website Architecture, Page Speed, Mobile SEO
Google and other search engines will reward you for creating a website that’s easy to get around, both for their bots (Ac) and your human visitors.
That means you need a high level structure that supports your content as it scales, and makes it easy for you to address any errors that might come up.
Your URL structure, for instance, need to create URLs for your pages that are fairly short while still containing your targeted keywords whenever possible (Au). Going back to change URLs when there are existing links pointing to them is enormously difficult, so it’s worth your time to get your URLs done right the first time.
Speaking of links, you want to make sure that you have different pages and sections of your site connected in a meaningful and intuitive way. Guiding Google and your visitors through related areas in both your sitemap and your navigation will help increase engagement and establish how your content relates.
Additionally, you want to make sure that everybody can access your site quickly (As) on any device (Am). Google will actually tag your site as “not mobile friendly” in search results if it isn’t prepared to accommodate visitors on phones or tablets, so make sure you have taken the time to test your site for mobile issues.
3 Aspects of Off Page SEO Work
Managing an off page SEO initiative is typically a larger undertaking, because you’ve got to start trying to affect the big wide search world, not just your corner of it. Done right, however, you can get some big bumps from off page work when it’s done right.
Here are the off page areas you can work on.
External Links to Your Website and Page
Also known as backlinks, these are links that other websites have created pointing to your page and domain.
Before Penguin and Panda updates, the sheer number of links (Ln) was once the primary metric of off page SEO success. Now, however, the quality of the links you earn (Lq) is far more important.
The way that links are structured is also more important now, with the anchor text (Lt) weighing more heavily in search rankings. Essentially, you want a wide variety of words and phrases linking to your site, not just tons of repetitions of your targeted keywords. This indicates authenticity of your link profile.
How Trustworthy is Your Domain and Page?
Along these same lines, Google is checking how trustworthy and authoritative your site is in general. The sites who link to you, both on their websites and via social media, should also be of high quality (Ta).
This means that you sometimes need to request not-so-great backlinks be removed; keep an eye on your Google Webmaster Tools for warning signs.
Historical data (Th) can also play a role in off page SEO success, as a well-established site that’s been operating in the same way for many years is likely to be a safe search result. This isn’t an insurmountable hurdle, however, so don’t be afraid to dive in with a new high quality site.
Finally, Google looks to see if a site is trying to verify its identity and those of its authors (Ti). No matter how strapped you are for content, you never want to put out spammy, link-stuffed content from an untrusted source.
Social Media Signals
Google recently confirmed that it’s indexing tweets, and it’s long been suspected the a site’s popularity on social media impacts its rankings.
This is actually great news, because it means that skillful engagement on social media can get you not only direct traffic from clicks on your shared content but also better organic rankings (Ss).
Don’t be tempted by promises of massive follows and shares, however, because just like with backlinks a link from a low quality social media profile can do you more harm than good (Sr).
Super Off Page Factors: Personal Search Tendencies
This group certainly influences whether or not your site shows up in search results, but I’m not including them in the list of places to focus your off page SEO efforts because there is nothing you can do about them.
These signals are highly specific to the searcher and include:
- Location (country, city, region)
- Search history (have they visited your site before or engaged with it on social media?)
- Social signals (have social media connections favored the site?)