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Chief HubSpot Consultant at MFrankJohnson.com and author of the Perfecting HubSpot Series, Frank contributes daily at Community.HubSpot.com where he's been voted #1 HubSpot Solutions Author in the USA. As a lifelong learner and college educator, Frank builds powerful HubSpot Marketing automation solutions for HubSpot Enterprise and HubSpot Pro users, and publishes a wide range of inbound content for the freelance HubSpot consultant community.
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On-Page SEO

Google has gone down in history as having unleashed arguably the most advanced machine-learning (ML) system known to man for precisely one purpose --

To answer questions from humans and machines more than 3 billion times a day better than any other source on the planet.

By tasking their ML system (called 'RankBrain') to select the highest quality answers for their audience--Earth, Google has positioned themselves as the de facto warehouse of human knowledge. And if Google can reliably provide high quality answers to our questions for 'free', why would we go anywhere else?

Exactly. We wouldn't.

In contrast, cheap content pieces are valued like $3 umbrellas from street vendors. They're convenient. They're timely. And ... well, they're cheap!

But wait. As quality content becomes cheaper and more abundant from writer-for-hire websites we should see higher quality content pieces on the web, right? Not so much.

Google's efforts to improve content quality for searchers kills organic SEO for nearly everyone and has changed On-Page SEO as we know it.

If your organic SEO (search engine optimization) strategy hasn't been updated or revisited in more than a year, you're already seeing steady declines in search traffic and in search traffic quality. And, if your content strategy doesn't prioritize organic SEO, content quality, and advanced marketing automation, as Seven of Nine (the world's favorite Borg from Star Trek Voyager) would say,

"You will fail."

The good news is, things will get better for nearly everyone as Google's RankBrain system gets smarter. The bad news is, 'nearly everyone' really means Google and those few who properly implement quality content marketing that includes flawless On‑Page SEO.

Let's take a look at what's happening and what you can do about it right now to improve how Google views your pages.

Spoiler Alert

It involves implementing FLAWLESS On‑Page SEO and producing killer content.

On‑Page SEO - This is your Google SERP (pre‑2015)

The main thing to notice about pre-2015 SERPS is that the organic rankings appear predominantly above-the-fold. Known as 'pristine SERPS', these are quite rare after 2015.

MFJLabs On-Page SEO - Google SERP (pre-2015)
Source: MFJLabs - Google SERP pre-2015
(click for larger image)

Dr. Pete at Moz reported that over 97% of SERPs across 10,000 keywords tracked daily by the MozCast project included rich SERP features as of September 1, 2015. (see chart below)

Moz On-Page SEO - Google SERP Feature Prevalence
Source: Moz On-Page SEO - Google SERP Feature Prevalence 2015

On‑Page SEO - This is your Google SERP on RankBrain (2018)

Above-the-fold content in post-2015 SERPS is dominated by Google's rich SERP features. According to Rand Fishkin in Whiteboard Friday #999 (date), these rich SERP features can account for as much as a 999% drop in engagement with organic results due to their more prominent placement on the page. The solution is to On-Page SEO great content so that it becomes part of these rich SERP features -- a not-so-easy task.

MFJLabs On-Page SEO - Google SERP on RankBrain (2018)
Source: MFJLabs On-Page SEO - Google SERP on RankBrain 2018
(click for larger image)

So, what is Organic SEO | On‑Page SEO | On‑Site SEO?

Organic SEO (search engine optimization) is the process of obtaining a natural placement on organic search engine results pages (SERPs).

On‑page SEO (also known as On-Site SEO) is the practice of optimizing individual web pages in order to rank higher and earn more relevant traffic in search engines. On‑page refers to both the content and HTML source code of a page that can be optimized, as opposed to Off‑page SEO (Off-Site SEO) which refers to links and other external signals.

Beyond helping search engines interpret page content, proper On‑Page SEO also helps users quickly and clearly understand what a page is about and whether it addresses their search query. In essence, good On‑Page SEO helps search engines understand what a human would see (and what value they would get) if they visited a page, so that search engines can reliably serve up what human visitors would consider high-quality content about a particular search query (keyword).

- Moz -

On-Page SEO - Historical Ranking Factors (still relevant)

Moz On-Page SEO - Google Ranking Factors
Source: Moz On-Page SEO - Google Ranking Factors (pre-2015)

On-Page SEO - Local Search Ranking Factors (2017)

Moz On-Page SEO - Local Search Ranking Factors (2017)
Source: Moz On-Page SEO - Local Search Ranking Factors (2017)

On‑Page SEO - Timeless Ideal Optimization Factors

An ideal web page should do all of the following.

  • Be Hyper-Relevant To One Topic - (usually a single product or single object)

    - Include the subject in the title tag

    - Include the subject in the URL

    - Include the subject in the image alt text

    - Specify the subject several times throughout the text content

  • Provide Unique Content About A Given Subject - description
  • Link To Category Page - taxonomies are typically indexed by search engines and represent an opportunity to add additional content about the larger, overarching topic.
  • Link To Subcategory Page - (If applicable)
  • Link To Homepage - (normally accomplished with an image link showing the website logo on the top left of a page)

On-Page SEO - 2018 SEO Checklist by Rand Fishkin

Rand Fishkin, Former Wizard of Moz
Rand Fishkin, Former Wizard of Moz 2018

Rand Fishkin, formerly Moz CEO and 'Wizard of Moz', departs Moz in March 2018. Rand leaves behind arguably some of the most comprehensive work done on the subject of SEO.

Moz On-Page SEO - 2018 SEO Checklist by Rand Fishkin
Source: Moz On-Page SEO - 2018 SEO Checklist by Rand Fishkin
(click to open large image in new tab)

On‑Page SEO - Easy Wins

  • Use The Canonicalize To Manage Internal Duplicates - Dr. Pete from Moz has been telling us about this one for nearly a decade. And while that's true, not a single SEO client has taken advantage of this powerful (and essential) On‑Page strategy before we met in 2017.
    Moz Canonicalization Link Tag Example
    Source: Moz - Canonicalization Link Tag Example 

    While there may not be a duplicate content penalty (with a Capital “P”), there can be serious consequences to letting your indexed pages run wild, especially in a post-Panda world. Google often does a poor job of choosing the right version of a page, and low-authority sites can end up diluting your site's index and pushing out deeper, more important pages (like product pages). There are three common varieties of internal duplicates, in my experience:

    - Duplicates caused by session variables and tracking parameters

    - Duplicates caused by search sorts and filters

    - Duplicates caused by alternate URL paths to the same page

    If search spiders see a new URL for the same content (whether that URL appears static or dynamic), they’ll see a new page. It’s important to canonicalize these pages. When the duplicates really are identical, using the canonical tag or a 301-redirect is often the best bet. In some cases, like search sorts or pagination, the situation can get more complicated.

    Example of rel=canonical using an explicit reference:

    <link rel="canonical" href="https://target-domain.com/target-page">

    Example of rel=canonical using a relative reference:

    <link rel="canonical" href="/">
  • Write Unique TITLE Tags - The TITLE tag is still a powerful ranking factor, and it’s still far too often either abused or neglected. Pages that you want to rank need unique, descriptive, and keyword-targeted TITLE tags, plain and simple. You can easily track duplicate page TITLEs through the SEOmoz PRO Campaign Manager, including historical data:

    Duplicate Titles in PRO App

    This data is available from multiple locations, including the Campaign Dashboard and “Crawl Diagnostics” tab. You can also track exact duplicates in Google Webmaster Tools. You can find it under “Diagnostics” > “HTML Suggestions”.

    The solution here is simple: write unique TITLE tags. If you have a huge site, there are plenty of ways to populate TITLE tags systematically from data. Writing some decent code is well worth it to fix this problem.

  • Write Unique META Descriptions - While the META Description tag has little or no direct impact on ranking these days, it does have 2 important indirect impacts:

    - It (usually) determines your search snippet and impacts click-through rate (CTR).

    - It’s another uniqueness factor that makes pages look more valuable.

    Again, there are plenty of ways to generate META descriptions from data, including just using snippets of product descriptions. Try to make descriptions meaningful and attractive to visitors, not just pseudo-sentences loaded with keywords.

  • Shorten Your TITLE Tags - Long TITLE tags tend to weaken the SEO impact of any given keyword, and can also turn off search visitors (who tend to skim results). The most common culprit I see is when someone adds their home-page TITLE to the end of every other page. Let’s say your homepage TITLE is:

    “The Best Bacon Since 1983 | Bob’s Bacon Barn”

    Then, for every product page, you have something like this:

    “50-pound Mega-sack of Bacon | The Best Bacon Since 1983 | Bob’s Bacon Barn”

    It may not look excessive, but you’re diluting the first few (and most important) keywords for the page, and you’re making every page on the site compete with your home-page unnecessarily. It’s fine to use your company name (or a shortened version, like “Bob’s Bacon”) at the end of all of your TITLE tags, but don’t repeat core keywords on a massive scale. I’ve seen this go to extreme, once you factor in long product names, categories, and subcategories.
  • Re-order Your TITLE Tags - On larger, e-commerce sites, it’s common to list category and sub-category information in TITLE tags. That’s fine up to a point, but I often see a configuration that looks something like this:

    “Bob’s Bacon | Bulk Products | Bacon Sacks | 50-pound Mega-sack of Bacon”

    Not only does every TITLE tag on the site end up looking very similar, but the most important and unique keywords for the page are pushed to the very back. This is an issue for search usability, too, as research has demonstrated that the first few words in a title or headline are the most critical (possibly as few as the first two). If you’ve got a structure like the one above, flip it around:

    “50-pound Mega-sack of Bacon | Bacon Sacks | Bulk Products | Bob’s Bacon”

    It’s a relatively easy change, and it’ll put the most important keywords up front, where they belong. It will very likely also increase your search CTR.

  • Add Direct Product Links - On sites with 100s or 1000s of pages, a “flat” architecture isn’t possible or even desirable. So, you naturally end up taking a hierarchical approach where products are 3+ levels deep. I think that’s often fine, if the paths are clear to crawlers and visitors, but it can leave critical pages with very little ranking power. One solution is to pull some of your top sellers to the home-page and link directly – this effectively flattens the architecture and pours more link-juice where it’s needed. Don’t go overboard, but a “Featured Products” or “Top 10 Sellers” list on the home-page can really help boost important deep pages.
  • Re-write Internal Anchor Text - I’m amazed how often I see internal links, even main navigation links, given cryptic, vague, or jargon-loaded labels. If you’re trying to rank your category page for “kid’s clothing”, don’t label the button “Apparel (K-12)” – it’s a bad signal to search engines, and it probably doesn’t make much sense to visitors. Your internal anchor text should reflect your keyword strategy, and your keyword strategy should reflect common usage. Use labels people understand and don’t be afraid to be specific.
  • Remove 10 Low-Value Links - There’s an old adage in copywriting – say what you need to say in as few words as possible, and then, when you’re done, try to say it in half that many words. I think the same goes for internal linking. If most of your inbound links are coming to the home-page, then your site architecture is the single biggest factor in flowing link-juice to deeper pages. It’s natural to want to link to everything, but if you prioritize everything, you effectively prioritize nothing. Find 10 links on your home-page that are either low priority for search or that visitors never click on (a click-mapping tool like Crazy Egg is a great way to test this), and remove them. Focusing your remaining link-juice is an easy way to boost your most important pages.
  • Entity Salience & Topic Clusters - Entity Salience, a geeky term to describe the strength of the relationship between words. Cyrus wrote about this way back in 2014. Today, this focus on word relationship and topic clusters is at the center of most core On‑Page SEO strategies.
    Moz Entity Salience Example
    Source: Moz - Entity Salience Example

    In the diagram above, an article contains the topics Iron Man, Tony Stark, Pepper Potts and Science Fiction. The phrase "Marvel Comics" has a strong entity relationship to all these terms. Even it only appears once, it's likely significant in the document.

    On the other hand, even though the phrase "Cinerama" appears multiple times (because the film showed there), this phrase has weaker entity relationships, and likely isn't as significant.

On‑Page SEO - Not So Easy Wins

  • Use Of Links - How many links are there on the page? Are they internal or external? Where do they point to?

    strategy

  • Page Load Speed - description Particularly important for e-commerce sites, page load speed can cost x% of visitor traffic for ever 1 second additional page load time required. (source: )
  • Use Of Schema.org - structured data or other markup

    strategy

  • Page URL Structure - description

    strategy

  • Mobile Friendliness - description

    strategy

  • Page Metadata - description

    strategy

All of these elements tie back to the same basic idea: creating a good user experience. The more usable a page is (from both a technical and non-technical perspective), the better that page's on-site optimization.

On‑Page SEO - Elements of Great Content

  • element - description

    strategy

  • element - description

    strategy

  • element - description

    strategy

  • element - description

    strategy

  • element - description

    strategy

Google's Organic SEO Killer Content

SERP Feature Examples

Remember that 'Mega-SERP' (the 1st image in this article)? That's what Google was doing in 2015. Since then, Google has taken ownership of our content by including it in the following 'Google SERP features'.

  • SERP Feature - description

    image

  • SERP Feature - description

    image

  • SERP Feature - description

    image

  • SERP Feature - description

    image

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While I researched and wrote this article I used lots of content from top SEO's on the web and in print. I've done my best to credit each of those sources (with supporting links back to the original content). However, as a final gesture of my respect and thanks to them for their hard work, I've set this page to noindex, nofollow. If you link back to this page, please set the nofollow attribute on your link when doing so, or use the following link text. Thanks in advance.

<a href="https://www.mfrankjohnson.com/blogs/marketing-lab/googles-organic-seo-killer-content/?utm_source=nofollow" rel="nofollow">Google's Organic SEO Killer Content</a>

References
(in order of relevance)

Google Algorithm Change History (by Moz)
https://moz.com/google-algorithm-change

How to Survive Google's Trojan Horsing of the Web - Rand Fishkin MozCon 2017
https://www.slideshare.net/randfish/how-to-survive-googles-trojan-horsing-of-the-web/74-3InvestincontentGoogleeithercantshowinSERPsorthatbuildsyourbrandwhentheydoEven_if_Google_launches_their

Here’s why you can’t blindly trust keyword search volume for traffic estimations
https://ahrefs.com/blog/keyword-traffic-estimation/

How to Rank in 2018: The SEO Checklist - Whiteboard Friday
https://moz.com/blog/rank-in-2018-seo-checklist

Content Trends 2018 - BuzzSumo Research Report
https://www.slideshare.net/buzzsumo/content-trends-2018-buzzsumo-research-report

3 Creative Ways to Give Your Content Efforts a Boost - Whiteboard Friday
https://moz.com/blog/give-your-content-a-boost

Writing Headlines that Serve SEO, Social Media, and Website Visitors All Together - Whiteboard Friday
https://moz.com/blog/writing-headlines-seo-social-media

10 Things that DO NOT (Directly) Affect Your Google Rankings - Whiteboard Friday
https://moz.com/blog/10-things-do-not-affect-rankings

How Google AdWords (PPC) Does and Doesn't Affect Organic Results - Whiteboard Friday
https://moz.com/blog/how-google-adwords-ppc-affects-organic-results

How Google Gives Us Insight into Searcher Intent Through the Results - Whiteboard Friday
https://moz.com/blog/how-google-gives-us-insight-into-searcher-intent-through-the-results-whiteboard-friday

Why Google AdWords' Keyword Volume Numbers Are Wildly Unreliable - Whiteboard Friday
https://moz.com/blog/unreliable-google-adwords-keyword-volume

The 3 Easiest Link Building Tactics Any Website Can Use to Acquire Their First 50 Links - Whiteboard Friday
https://moz.com/blog/link-building-tactics-to-acquire-50-links

Link Strategies that Stand the Test of Time: A Tribute to Eric Ward (Link Moses) - Whiteboard Friday
https://moz.com/blog/tribute-to-eric-ward

Getting SEO Value from rel="nofollow" Links - Whiteboard Friday
https://moz.com/blog/seo-value-nofollow-links

Google Analytics Spam: Common Questions and Concerns Answered
https://carloseo.com/google-analytics-spam-faq/

add new references here

The Beginner's Guide to Structured Data for SEO: A Two-Part Series
https://moz.com/blog/structured-data-for-seo-1

Schema.org Markup
https://moz.com/learn/seo/schema-structured-data

new entry

new entry

The Google Glossary (SERP feature definitions) - Dr. Pete (Moz)
https://moz.com/blog/google-glossary

Entity Salience - Cyrus Shepard 2014
https://moz.com/blog/7-advanced-seo-concepts

On‑Page SEO Easy Wins - Dr. Pete 2011
https://moz.com/blog/8-easy-wins-for-on-page-seo

Can we machine-learn Google’s machine-learning algorithm? - Jayson DeMers, SearchEngineLand
https://searchengineland.com/can-machine-learn-googles-machine-learning-algorithm-267229

Guy Kawasaki, Chief Evangelist at Canva

“There’s a similar attitude with growth hacking and SEO. Basically, Google is in the business of finding good shit. And they have fifty thousand PhDs figuring out how to find good shit.

“You’re not going to outsmart and out game them. So, why wouldn’t you just post good shit and depend on Google to find you?

 - What 17 Enterprise Executives and $276.96 Billion Can Teach You About Unlocking Growth

https://www.shopify.com/enterprise/growth-strategies

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Chief HubSpot Consultant at MFrankJohnson.com and author of the Perfecting HubSpot Series,...