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How to Master On-Page SEO: Your Guide for 2020

July 13, 2020
Mike McLeod
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Optimizing for on-page SEO is all about crafting a valuable asset that brings users to your site and keeps them there.

There are a lot of moving parts involved, but once you establish a solid foundation and instill on-page SEO best practices with your team, you’ll be set for sustained ranking and conversion success.

What Is On-Page SEO?

On-page SEO is the art of implementing best practices onto individual web pages to generate more traffic through search engine rankings and improve the click-through rate (CTR). It consists of all contents of a page, including written/ visual content and source code. 

It differs from off-page SEO, which deals with factors outside your site, such as backlinks.

Why Is On-Page SEO Important?

Improving on-page SEO is important because it focuses on giving users the best possible information for their queries. This lines up with the goal of search engines, which is to provide its users with the right answer the first time, giving them a reason to come back.

Optimizing your web pages with SEO best practices will help increase rankings on search engine result pages (SERPs) and increase CTR, resulting in higher (and more relevant) traffic to your site that converts.

It’s a win-win-win for each party, making it a crucial focus of any digital marketing strategy.

Important On-Page SEO Factors

Optimizing a page for SEO involves many factors, with a lot of small parts contributing to a whole. However, a properly optimized page can have a great impact on your site’s ability to generate traffic.

Some of the most important factors include:

  • Valuable content
  • Meta titles and descriptions
  • Natural keyword usage
  • Readability and user experience
  • Internal and external links
  • Image optimization

More often than not, a page ranking first on SERPs has focused on most, if not all, of those factors. This makes it important to consider each and try to get as close as possible to “perfect” on-page SEO.

How to Do On-Page SEO Optimization

The process of performing on-page optimization starts well before you even begin writing content. To ensure the best results, it must also work in unison with your off-page and technical SEO strategies.

Once you have built the framework for a fast, user and mobile SEO-friendly site, you can begin to go through each factor in the process and improve your on-page SEO.

1. Find User Intent and Needs

The first part of the process is to figure out what your target users really want. For what it’s worth, I believe it’s the single most important on-page SEO factor there is. 

Think about it: Search engines such as Google make money off of knowing what a user wants when they type in a query. If they don’t give users the right results, they won’t continue using the search engine. 

Google has invested millions in perfecting the natural language processing (NLP) behemoth BERT, which aims to help the company understand what it couldn’t before: Is the user looking to buy? To learn? For something similar but not exactly what they typed in?

With that information and the profiles they have on their users covering their search histories, interests and more, Google can serve up the correct content for each query much more often than before.

What’s that mean for webmasters and content creators? You have to know exactly what Google rewards for certain keywords because that’s most likely exactly the type of content users want.

How to Find User Search Intent

This process isn’t as difficult as it sounds, so there’s no reason not to make it a priority before you even fully conceptualize a potential piece of content.

When you have a potential blog topic or keyword you want to create, head to the SERPs. Take a look at each of the top 10 pages (if there’s no clear pattern, look at page 2 to try and find one) and ask yourself this question: What is the point of this page?

Is it a high-level, informative blog introducing a user to a general topic? A targeted deep-dive on a technical aspect of the subject? A product page to try and sell something? An infographic? 

It should be clear that the search engine has made a decision — based on machine learning and the click behavior of users previously searching that query — that this is the type of content users for this keyword are looking for.

That’s your user intent.

2. Choose the Right Keywords

Love them or hate them, choosing the right keywords is still a critical on-page SEO factor in 2020. The key to performing great keyword research is to balance search volume, competitiveness and intent. 

Once you know the search intent that your page is trying to match, this part of the process gets much easier. Start by looking at some of the top-ranking pages for your topic and find out what keywords they’re ranking for. You can do this with many tools, but we use SEMRush’s Organic Research tool.

Once you have a list, you can use it alone or merge it with a list of keywords you produced from your favorite keyword research tool. From there, go down the list and find opportunities to get quick ranking wins.

Focus on keywords that have good search volume but are attainable. It’s difficult for a new site to compete with industry stalwarts. Choosing lower-volume, long-tail keywords can be a better strategy for most sites. This is a strong tactic when performing on-page SEO for e-commerce sites, which have uber-competitive head keywords such as “shoes” and “best coffee.”

When evaluating keywords, type each one into Google and see what shows up. If the keyword doesn’t return results that match the search intent your page is keying in on, skip it. Keep in mind it’s always possible to use it for another piece of content if you think it works for your site.

3. Use Keywords Naturally

After narrowing down your list, you’re ready to start writing content. Whether you do this yourself or turn to a team member or freelancer to write it, it’s important to consider the natural usage of keywords in the copy.

When creating on-page SEO content, writers must understand the current intelligence of search engines and adhere to what they want: high-quality content.

Creating high-quality content involves a focus on using keywords as a means to an end, but not the end you might be thinking about. Instead of using them to rank higher, Google and others want you to use them to explain your content.

Instead of using outdated, black-hat SEO tactics (which we’ll talk about later) to outrank the competition, the only way to get on top of SERPs in 2020 is to have a quality page on a given topic.

Don’t focus on getting a certain amount or concentration of keywords on a page. Instead, put effort into trying to write a thorough post targeted at the user. Write it for a person, not a computer. Readers can see right through this and will quickly leave your site to find their answers elsewhere.

4. Focus on Readability

Users, especially on mobile, expect pages to be easy to read. Instead of going through every word, many readers “scan” a page, looking to headers and the beginnings of paragraphs to try and locate the info they want.

To satisfy readers, you want to give your page flow. A few things you can do include:

  • Break your copy up into shorter paragraphs
  • Create a natural flow of subheadings
  • Use visuals between blocks of text
  • Cut out the “fluff” or unnecessary copy
  • Answer questions immediately

I like to pay special attention to the last 2 tactics. Users want to get to the point, so do it. It might feel great to pen a masterpiece of a paragraph filled with fancy synonyms and metaphors, but your readers likely won’t care if they came to your site to learn about a software product.

As someone who took a double major in English, you can trust me when I say this burns me to my core, but it’s true. They simply don’t care — and neither do search engines. Your rankings will thank you for trimming the fat.

An added bonus is that getting straight to the point can help you obtain the almighty featured snippet on Google. Answering a question in a heading 2 (H2) immediately and thoroughly can put you front and center on Google’s first page over other web pages, all else being equal.

5. Use Headers Effectively

The effective use of headers will help make using keywords and creating readable content easier. This on-page SEO tip should be a focus of the outline phase of your content process.

Before writing, you can start by determining your main headline, the H1. Use your top keyword and make sure it explains what the page is about. When creating an outline, aim to use keywords in your, H2s, H3s, etc. If you choose to focus on long-tail keywords, many will lend themselves perfectly to this strategy.

By optimizing your subheadings, you do a few things:

  1. Use keywords in high-value areas
  2. Show search engines what your page is about
  3. Let users scan and find the info they want
  4. Allow you to better target featured snippets on long-tail keywords

Take this example of subheadings from our blog post on mobile-friendly SEO:

Be sure to use visuals between blocks of text.

As users scroll down, they see relevant subheadings that utilize keywords but let them see what the section will be about. This helps satisfy the needs of both search engines and users alike, making it an integral part of on-page SEO content.

6. Leverage Internal and External Links

Backlinks may be king off page, but you can improve your on-page SEO by using internal and external links effectively.

External Links

For external links, this means linking out to relevant sites as attribution or to help readers understand an issue better. If you take data or opinions from another site, you should link to the page you got it from. Call it internet courtesy.

This ensures readers get the most thorough picture of a topic and have the option of reading more if you don’t have an internal page to send them to. It isn’t exactly ideal to have them leave your site, but if your content is good enough, they’ll be back.

Attributing info to authoritative sites can also help establish your credibility with search engines and can actually impact rankings. 

We recommend using a hub-and-spoke strategy with internal links.

Internal Links

Internal linking is an important but often overlooked on-page SEO factor. Having a clean linking hierarchy is great for rankings and helps drive user retention and conversions.

We recommend using a hub-and-spoke strategy with internal links. This means having blogs and product pages (spokes) link to important landing and category pages (hubs).

For search engine crawlers, they follow these links to understand what your site and pages are about. If pages are linked together, they can infer that these pages are similar and a part of the same journey for readers.

Think about it from a reader’s angle. If they land on a hub page, they can follow links to the spoke pages to go in-depth or find a subcategory of products that interests them. Go the other way, and readers can go back to the hubs if that fits their needs. 

You also can use internal links to provide authority to certain pages. If you have many smaller blog posts pointing back to a large guide or landing page, search engines can consider it to be a more authoritative page and rank it accordingly. Likewise, sending a link from that landing page to a fresh blog can boost the authority of the new post.

Make sure to always try and link to new posts. If you don’t it can create “orphan” pages that are difficult for crawlers and users to find. This can mean a page isn’t indexed and, therefore, not seen or read.

7. Create the MVC: Most Valuable Content

After understanding the framework of what goes into good on-page SEO, it’s time to make sure your content is as valuable as possible. It’s the second most important on-page SEO factor you can focus on, behind understanding what your users want.

Simply put, you need to create better content than your competitors. You can have an edge on them in other areas of SEO, but you’ll still fall behind in rankings if your competitors are providing better content.

Some of the main components of truly outstanding content include:

  1. Write highly relevant content targeted to a specific topic
  2. Ensure content is up-to-date, informative and, if possible, contains proprietary data
  3. Provide something unique, be it an opinion or an expert insight
  4. Provide helpful visuals (charts, tables, infographics, etc.)
  5. Include a video that helps readers understand your topic
  6. Ensure content is easily digestible and  scannable

What it comes down to is making sure the user is 100% satisfied with your page compared with the pages of your competitors. To do that, it’s pretty simple and only takes a few steps:

  1. Go to Google and search for your topic
  2. Look at the top-ranking pages
  3. Assess what they’re doing right and wrong
  4. Improve upon every aspect of their page

It can be easier in theory than practice, but it can’t be stressed enough how important great content is to successful on-page SEO. Optimization for one great page will be more worth the effort than taking the same time to create 3 mediocre pages.

Search engines will understand and reward your page’s expertise as users frequently click and stay on your page. This shows that your content is doing its job and helping readers, and will lead to repeat visitors who are more likely to convert.

8. Write Enticing Meta Titles and Descriptions

On-page SEO best practices don’t stop when you’re finished writing the page. After crafting a perfect blog that readers will love, you need to have catchy titles and meta descriptions to get them to click through. Too many sites get caught up in their content and forget to optimize for what users actually see on SERPs.

Users have to wade through 10 possible choices and maps, featured snippets, images, videos and more with any given search. Your page needs to stand out. You need to give users a reason to want to choose you over competitors, especially if you’re not at the very top of rankings.


A user looks to a title to make sure a page is going to give them the answer they want. Usually, that’s something that includes the keyword they used for the query.

This doesn’t mean that you have to exact-match the primary keyword, but it’s important to make sure that the keyword is front and center.

Let’s take a look at results for a query many parents, coaches and players search for every year: “best baseball bats.” 

Let’s take a look at results for a query many parents, coaches and players search for every year: “best baseball bats.”

The query has about 2,400 monthly searches and average competition, so it’s worthwhile for many blogs and retailers in the sports industry. In total, 8 of 10 sites use the exact keyword phrase “best baseball bats” somewhere in the title. Many have it at the beginning, or close to it.

Doing so lets readers who scan a SERP find pages they think will be relevant. You don’t want someone glossing over the page you worked so hard to rank for just to pass by because they only look at the first couple words of a title before scrolling down.

Many pages also improve on the title by including qualifiers such as “2020” or BBCOR, which refers to a specific type of baseball bat. These let readers know that your content is current and relevant to what they’re looking for. If someone is looking for another type of bat next year in 2021, neither of those posts will be relevant to them.

Tip: Make sure to update content and titles using dates. It can be much easier to update a blog with fresh data and copy than to start over from scratch.

If your page is a listicle, infographic or another special format, include that info in the title. Something like “9 Best” like the example above shows readers they can expect a list of the best options. Adding “[Field Tests]” to the title also shows that the 9 choices will be backed up by real-life testing, which is an added incentive for many readers.

Take a look at competitor titles to understand what’s working. Titles are a ranking factor and help search engine crawlers understand what your page is about. Odds are those ranking at the top of SERPs are enjoying the highest CTR, so that’s where you want to be.

Meta Descriptions

As with titles, users read meta descriptions to get a better look at what to expect on a page. If the title leaves them unsure, the meta description is your last chance to entice them to click.

Although you don’t have much space (about 140-160 characters depending on pixel size) you have enough to get the job done. Quickly describe what the page will give the readers. What will they learn? What special information do you have? Aim to make readers think they will be worse off choosing another page over yours.

It’s important to note your meta description doesn’t need to have a keyword in it, as it isn’t a ranking factor. However, most times including some form of your main keyword will make sense to ensure readers know that your page is relevant to them.

9. Optimize Your URLs

Optimizing uniform resource locators (URLs) is an important on-page SEO factor that flies under the radar. However, it’s important to complete the picture of what your page is about, and can also help users click through on SERPs.


The first thing you need to do is make sure that your site is using HTTPS, which stands for “Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure.” Simply put, it means the information on your site is encrypted and, therefore, more secure.

Google wants its users to be secure on every site they send them to, so HTTPS has become a significant point of interest in its ranking algorithms.

For e-commerce sites that take customer information for transactions, HTTPS implementation is even more important.

Make sure to get an SSL certificate and make sure it doesn’t expire, or else your readers will be at risk and you can be penalized with lower rankings from Google.


Although keywords in URLs isn’t a huge ranking factor, every little boost you can get will help. It’s recommended to use a main keyword or 2 in your URL, just as you would a title.

Make sure it’s not haphazardly thrown in, however. Your URL should still make sense and give readers and search engine crawlers an idea of what your page is about.

Build It for Users

Speaking of, you should craft your URLs with an understanding that readers will see it. That means it should be clear and to the point, staying away from random numbers and letters that you see in randomly created URLs. 

Remember, although titles and meta descriptions are more important, some users may look at a URL to determine whether a page matches what they’re looking for.

10. Don’t Forget Your Images

Your expertly crafted content has great-looking images in it, yes, but your work on those images should start before you even upload it to your page.

Many webmasters focus on ranking for text-based organic keywords, overlooking the impact image search can have on their traffic.

If you want your images to rank on image search, follow these tips:

File Name

When saving your image file, name it by describing what it is and using a keyword. For example, instead of using “bat.jp2” you can use “best baseball bat 2020.jp2” to let search engines know what the picture shows.

File Extension

After choosing a name for your image, it’s important to save it in a next-gen format. JPEG and PNG images can slow download times on your site, so it’s best to stay away from them.

You can use JPEG 2000, JPEG XR or WebP.

Alt Text

Alt text is used to describe images to search engines and screen readers. In that way, it helps with accessibility on your site (which search engines and visually-impaired users will thank you for) and lets crawlers know what your image is.

Think about it the same way as your file name, but with more room. In about 125 characters, mix in keywords and a description of the image. 

Let’s use an example for our own blog image, here:

Alt text is used to describe images to search engines and screen readers.

Optimize Images for Site Speed

Even if you aren’t concerned about image search, images have a big effect on your site’s loading speed. With Google’s emphasis on site-loading speed, this is becoming an increasingly important on-page SEO factor.

To ensure your images aren’t slowing your site to a crawl, make sure they’re compressed to as small a file size as you can. Make sure they’re scaled to the size they’ll be displayed on your site, so they don’t take unnecessary space. You can even implement lazy loading so images further down the page don’t hurt initial load times.

These seemingly small changes can help your rankings, bounce rates and dwell times significantly.

Creating Your On-Page SEO Strategy

By following each step in the on-page SEO process in conjunction with other SEO best practices as well as your off-page efforts, you can create sustained ranking and traffic success.

Make sure all members of your content and development teams are well-versed in every on-page SEO tip that pertains to them.

By drilling it into your teams, you can rest assured that things won’t fall through the cracks and every aspect of the strategy is being adhered to.

With on-page SEO content being a premium ranking factor, it’s the right time to take your strategy to the next level. Set attainable goals as you put the process to work and, as always, make sure to analyze the data and make changes to best fit how your improved on-page SEO is performing. 


Mike McLeod

Mike's strengths lie in adapting SEO to fit the challenges and opportunities unique to each client. Combining his expertise in optimizing content and his uncanny ability to empathize with varied audiences, he's able to deliver compelling messaging every time. When he's not performing site audits or keyword research, he's on a quest to find the perfect burger.

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