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On-site SEO Factors for 2012 According to 17 Industry Experts

by Miguel Salcido

in Organic SEO, SEO News

Google has been the top search engine used by millions of people around the world for over a decade. Many businesses have set up websites in order for people to search, find and utilize their websites online. But now, this has become an “arms race”; a challenge to people to have the top spot on the search engine results pages. Because as every online business site know, getting the top spot means dominating the market of your industry. Thus, Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, was born.

There are many factors in SEO that help sites climb their way to the top rank. And as time changes, so does Google’s algorithm. And with that, all sorts of changes happen within a website, from building quality links, to optimizing their pages so Google reads and ranks them better. Many changes have been made (Hello Panda! What’s up Penguin?), and so does the way of optimizing your website. And of course, as all SEOs know, without proper on-page optimization, even your link building efforts will be in vain.

So how do we know which on-page elements still need to be focused on? Well, I wouldn’t expect you to just take my advice on it. Let’s ask the experts! I’ve tapped some answers from top SEO experts/practitioners/industry leaders regarding the 3 most important on-page factors right now, in 2012.

THE QUESTION: What do you think are the 3 biggest on-site factors in 2012?

Rand Fishkin

Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz

Rand Fishkin is CEO of SEOmoz

#1 – Great design and UX: this leads to positive benefits of all kinds in SEO, link acquisition, brand building, trust, etc.

#2 – Body Content: I think Google likely has some pretty sophisticated content analysis algorithms running that most SEOs still don’t understand. There’s a lot of results where my spidey sense are tingling about something to do more with the quality and focus of the content than anything else. If I had to put my money on something, I’d say it’s related to topic modeling.

#3 – Keywords in Titles: Still matter a lot.

James Agate

James Agate of Skyrocket SEO

 James Agate is the Founder of Skyrocket SEO

I would say the biggest area we concentrate on when it comes to on-site optimization (aside from the basics like making sure the site is accessible to search engines etc) is to optimize the user experience. Obviously this is quite a broad topic but common things we will look to do and improve include:

  • Consolidating pages so that there are fewer but more relevant and high-quality pages on a site
  • Keyword targeting checks to ensure each user is landing on the best page for their query
  • Clear structuring – not just shoehorning keyword rich anchor texts into navigation but analyzing how the user navigates the website,
  • Furniture removal – recently we have been stripping more and more “furniture” away from client sidebars and footers to make everything much cleaner and less spammy looking.

I know that was more than 3 :-)

Dan Petrovic

Dan Petrovic of DejanSEO

 Dan Petrovic is the Director at DejanSEO

Quality Filters
On-site factors haven’t changed much, but new filters have been introduced.  For example title tag is still super strong, but fail at one of the following two things, no on-site element will help you:

  • Index Bloat - Too many pages in Google’s index due to ‘browsable’ tags, faceted navigation and failure to canonicalise.
  • Muffin Top - Aggressive ad placement and lack of content prominence.

Rich Snippets / Structured Data
This is something Google is quite fond of and many do not utilize it. At the other had we’ve already seen signs of abuse which was expected, but still sad to see. Google has recently rolled out two updates related to rich snippets allowing HTML input in their testing tool and rolling out product snippets globally.

Authorship Markup

Google’s message is clear: “We want real authors to produce real content.”

Having authorship signals present in your content adds the extra layer of confidence to both users and search engines and hints at content quality. This can separate your website from other questionable quality resources. There are plenty of articles explaining how to best implement authorship including various methods of verification. Author stats are also available in Google Webmaster Tools.

Ross Hudgens

Ross Hudgens of Full Beaker Inc

 Ross Hudgens is the SEO Manager at Full Beaker, Inc.

Title tag and URL structure is still highly important for relevancy and CTR. The third which might be “jumping up the rankings” in many areas is freshness – how often is the page updated? How much of the document changes daily? Where is the time stamp? Is the search relevant? We’ve seen incredible jumps in traffic by employing these types of changes on “fresh” SERPs. Of course, it’s always important to have relevant content to the on page targeting, so if you ignore that, you’re fried – but I think that “freshness” piece is something relatively new and super important in 2012.

Cyrus Shepard

Cyrus Shepard of PlaceFull Inc

 Cyrus Shepard is former SEO at SEOmoz and now the Director of Marketing for PlaceFull Inc.

  • Title Tag Usage – Still an important factor, although Google is more sensitive to over-optimization.
  • Overall Internal Linking Structure
  • Quality of content

Jon Cooper

Jon Cooper of Point Blank SEO

 Jon Cooper is the Owner of Point Blank SEO

  1. Page Title – It continues to be and in my opinion always will be the strongest on-site factor.
  2. Depth of content – if you’re trying to rank thin content, you’re going to have an increasingly hard time in the future. On a couple of my niche sites, all the articles are 800+ words (might be overkill, but you can never have content that’s too in-depth for the search engines), and I can tell you it’s working.
  3. In-content links – Are you linking with relevant anchor text elsewhere, and are you linking to credible online sources? If you’re trying to rank for “running shoe reviews”, make sure you link out to other pages with anchor texts such as “Reebok running shoe review”, etc. Also make sure you’re not linking only to your site – throw a Wikipedia link or an industry authority link in there somewhere.

Hugo Guzman

Hugo Guzman of HSN

Hugo Guzman is the Sr. Manager, Online Marketing at HSN

I’d start by saying that it’s completely depending on the nature of your site. Different sites have different technical SEO challenges, so the key is to figure out what your site’s particular challenge might be (e.g. internal linking architecture, duplicate/canonical content issues, thin content, poorly optimized title tags, etc.). I don’t think that’s any different in 2012 then it was in 2011, 2010, etc.

Ann Smarty

Ann Smarty of MyBlogGuest

 Ann Smarty is the Owner of MyBlogGuest

  • Unique and natural content (i.e. not keyword-stuffed)
  • Load time
  • No linking red flags: e.g. dirty links in the footer

Nick Leroy

 Nick Leroy is SEO Consultant at FindLaw, a Thompson Reuters business

I believe a lot of the on page ‘basics’ will continue to be essential for 2012.  This includes title tags, supporting content, alt tags etc.  Factors that I believe will become more important will be social signals which I now integrate into my “on-page” SEO.  It’s important that you include “like” buttons and other social buttons.  Finally I have always been a HUGE advocate for proper site architecture.  If you don’t have proper navigation and content silos set up then you’re losing a lot of potential value.

Zarko Zivkovic

Zarko Zivkovic of Practical SEO

 Zarko Zivkovic is the Founder of Practical SEO

-        Titles and Headings
-        Page layout, design for improved user experience (with above/below the fold content in mind)
-        Smart internal linking

Titles and headings are an oldy, but important as before. Page layout and design can be considered a direct factor when above the fold content is not optimized, or full with ads, but I prefer to make sure that the above the fold has everything a user needs to see, not just search engines. And internal linking, with too many plugins for WP creating automatic links this is almost borderline spam, so smart linking with various anchors is important factor.

Tom Demers

Tom Demers of Measured SEM

Tom Demers is a co-founder and managing partner with Measured SEM, a search engine marketing firm that offers paid and organic search marketing consulting services.

Of the things I’d consider on-site SEO I think information architecture/internal linking, duplicate content issues, and title tags would be the three biggest. This will vary some from site to site (for instance a large publishing site would be majorly impacted by site structure and technical issues while a smaller, more focused B2B site would be more heavily impacted by the title tags they’re using on their key pages).

I think information architecture is probably always going to be very important in terms of signaling to search engines what pages are important, helping highlight content for users, etc. and I think with the Panda updates duplicate content and really thin pages are even more important than ever (though they were always important). Title tags are definitely being de-emphasized in general, but at least through 2012 I think they’re still a really important on-page ranking factor.

Wayne Barker

Wayne Barker of Hallam Internet Ltd

Wayne Barker is Online Marketing Consultant at Boom Online.

  1. The old stuff is still important: Don’t get dragged into the latest revelation (whether that be from the mouth of Matt Cutts or whichever SEO rock star has the post of the week). Refer back to the SEOmoz ranking factors and get your basics in place. Do title Tags matter? Yes but make sure they look good in the SERPs and aren’t stuffed. Should you optimise your Alt Tags? Yes because it is good practice for accessibility and screen readers. There is no harm in getting the essential in place with some optimisation but don’t go crazy and think about the user first. Format correctly from an SEO and usability point of view and you are in a stronger position than if you don’t!
  2. Going the extra mile: For me this is the key factor moving forward – make sure that the content that you serve up on pages is the best that you can make it. Don’t cut corners, know what ranks for the keywords you are chasing something that is better and deserves the coveted number one spot.
  • Fill your content with great images
  • Back your content up with data
  • Make data pretty
  • Include videos or screen casts
  • Use quotes or interviews that you have conducted yourself
  1. Be useful: This one may sound odd as an on page factor but times have changed, search engines have changed and you need to change accordingly. The more useful your content is the more likely people are to stick around and no matter what service or product that you offer you need your users to stick around. Google hints at the fact that the end user should be your main priority week in week out – it’s about time website owners, SEOs, Internet Marketers (or whatever we are called this week) start paying more attention to this – Google is!!

Jason Acidre

Jason Acidre - KaiserTheSage of Affilorama

Jason Acidre is a Marketing Consultant for Affilorama

There’s a lot actually, (knowing that Google use hundreds of factors, and a lot more being added to their list), but for me, these 3 would be the ones that I will personally be focusing on:

  • Absolute relevance of the content to its targeted search term, particularly the use of the keyword (broad or exact) on the page’s title tag, URL, and especially content, wherein the content’s sentiment, format and information should be very relevant to its targeted query. With this in mind when optimizing the site’s pages, it can somehow improve the user-experience it provides to its target audience, which is also good in getting high scores for usage-data (that Google is certainly using to gauge the quality/relevance of content to its designated keyword).
  • Good site architecture and internal linking, where the hierarchy of pages is set to make the site’s most important pages pretty obvious and accessible to both users and search engines as well as to make the site’s other deeper pages crawlable for them to easily be indexed and ranked in the search results.
  • Authorship markup and other rich-snippet markups (schema/microdata). It can heavily exemplify trust and authority in search results, which can simply increase the site’s pages’ CTR from search results. Higher click-through rate can certainly increase rankings and traffic.

Paddy Moogan

Paddy Moogan of Distilled

Paddy Moogan is SEO Consultant at Distilled

  • In general, on-site factors haven’t changed too much over the last few years.  However one big thing to be aware of more than ever is protecting yourself from Malware on your site.  If Google can spot this and find that it doesn’t get removed, it can lead to major ranking problems as Google do not want their users security compromised.  So make sure you have security installed on your website and hosting packages and register with Google Webmaster Tools so that you get notified of Google finding Malware on your site.
  • Another factor that is important is page speed.  I still feel that is plays a small part of the overall ranking overview in the majority of searches, but it is still something you need to focus on for user experience.  Users are getting faster and faster internet connections and are expecting the websites they use to be super-fast.  So I’d recommend focusing on making your site as fast as possible for user experience and conversion rate.
  • The third factor would probably be making sure that your website has responsive design and functionality that allows it to be viewed on mobile devices.  More and more users are browsing the web using mobile devices and many are converting into customers.  So you need to make sure that your website is responsive to mobile browsers and arranges the page for mobile conversions.  For example if a user views your site on a mobile phone, you should make sure that the phone number is prominent enough for the user to find it and click on the number to call it.

Danny Dover

Danny Dover SEO ConsultantDanny Dover is an SEO Consultant and a writer at LifeListed.com, a bucket list blog.

I think these are essentially the same as they have been for some time.

  • Title Tag
  •  URL
  • General relevancy of on-page crawlable text.

John Doherty

John Doherty of Distilled

John Doherty is an SEO Consultant at Distilled

Three biggest onsite factors have not changed. They’re still title tags, internal anchor text, and quality copy. In terms of attracting links (which helps with rankings of course) I am seeing that pages with many forms of media (text, images, videos, animations, etc) are attracting more links.

Kieran Flanagan

Kieran Flanagan of Salesforce.com

Kieran Flanagan is European Online Marketing Manager at Marketo.com

If we are talking purely in terms of on-site factors that can have the biggest impact on your search engine performance I would go with:

  1. Keyword Strategy: I still think choosing the right keywords are one of the most critical aspects of a sites success. This is not just about selecting keywords that you feel will be relevant to your business. It’s about selecting keywords that match user intent, drives these to relevant pages; keywords you can realistically compete for, keywords that will help you construct your navigation in an appropriate manner. Too many SEO strategies gloss over keyword selection and move straight to link building as it seems to have become what everyone in our industry talks about.
  2. Navigation: For me, how you construct your navigation can have a massive impact on your site, from proper keyword mapping, to internal linking, to duplicate content
  3. Error Free: This may be a bit all encompassing, but ensuring your site is free from lots of random errors, has quick loading pages and doesn’t have any nasty hidden spider traps is really all things any best practice SEO strategy should entail.

About the Author: Having held Director and VP level positions at large search agencies over the past 8 years I have gained a wealth of experience and knowledge. I now offer agency quality SEO consulting services without the big agency overhead so that more of your dollars will go into your campaign. Follow me on Google+, and Twitter for regular updates.

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott Cowley July 2, 2012 at 8:16 am

The next time we hire an SEO, I’m going to ask them what the 3 most important on-site SEO factors are. No matter what, 9 out of 10 SEO experts will disagree with them.

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Miguel Salcido July 2, 2012 at 8:30 am

Hi Scott,

LOL, you bring up a great point and this is part of the reason why I wanted to gather the thoughts of a group of experts independently. The most important factors for a site are going to depend on that site’s situation at any given time. So let’s say you bring on a client that “Client Brand – ClientDomain.com” as the Title tag for every page. Well their most important factor will be title tags. Or if you bring on a large site that just can’t seem to get more than 45% of their pages indexed. Well their factor will be site architecture and flow.

So its sort of a loaded question to ask any SEO what “THE” most important factor is in general. Hopefully hearing all of these factors here can give people a well rounded idea of what is important for on-page SEO. And there certainly are recurring themes throughout. ;-)

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Linda Buquet July 2, 2012 at 8:37 am

This is a great and timely piece because with all the algo changes lately you have to wonder if your strategy is still on track. I specialize in Local SEO, but the blended algo is mainly about organic factors – so good on-site is still king, along with a well optimized Place page of course.

What this piece really proves is what I always tell SEOs in my Advanced LOCAL Search Training. “SEO opinions on best on-site techniques are like you-know-whats – everybody has one!’ ;-)

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Miguel Salcido July 2, 2012 at 9:19 am

Hahahaha, thanks Linda!

A tad bit of topic but while I have you here, what is your opinion on Google reviews boosting Place page rankings? Many feel that they are heavily weighted, do you see that?

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Around Claremont July 2, 2012 at 9:41 am

Hmmm, soo what you’re saying is… Title tags are important ;)

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Danny Dover July 2, 2012 at 10:12 am

That was my take away too :-)

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Linda Buquet July 2, 2012 at 10:25 am

Hi Miguel,

“A tad bit of topic but while I have you here, what is your opinion on Google reviews boosting Place page rankings? Many feel that they are heavily weighted, do you see that?”

Well in the OLD 7 pack algo yes # of reviews counts, but it’s not the most important factor.

PLUS there are 2 algos in local. Currently the 7 pack (old Places algo) only shows for about 30% of keywords and typically the less popular ones. The blended algo shows up about 70% of the time now and usually for CORE keywords. And the blended algo IMO is 90 – 95% based on regular organic factors.

That’s why sometimes you see someone ranking in the A spot, that has a bare empty unclaimed Place page, far from the centroid and with zero reviews. They got there based on the strength of their organic ranking.

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Ricardo Figueiredo July 2, 2012 at 10:30 am

This is one of the reasons why I love what I do. You ask a bunch of guys who are undoubtedly talented and by all means know their stuff, and you get a bunch of different answers. I can’t say there’s one or two who are right, since as I’m reading all of their opinions my head is nodding. This is one of the things that makes SEO so dynamic, specially this year when compared to the past. There’s so much you CAN do!

UX has really been creeping more and more into the SEO world. The use of authorship tags, schema.org micro formats, and so many other elements can make a huge impact in certain business verticals. Now, let’s see a follow up post on the experts’ answers to the “What do you think are the 3 biggest on-site factors in 2012?” question for each of the major verticals on the web. :)

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Linda Buquet July 2, 2012 at 10:51 am

Re LOCAL aglo, should have mentioned for anyone that has not heard. David Mihm’s Local Search Ranking factors just came out a couple weeks ago. It’s THE Bible on the local algo and goes into reviews as ranking factors and a ton more.

Timing was a little off because all of us contributors weighed in, then a week later the big update to G+ Local happened. But so far that update did not appear to affect the algo much.

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Jonathan Goudy July 2, 2012 at 12:17 pm

I agree with Rand, content is the best thing for onsite optimization. If a site is lazy in producing new content often it just kills the whole seo strategy. Google Web search is all about more and newer content.

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Miguel Salcido July 2, 2012 at 12:31 pm

Hi Jonathon, thanks for commenting. And producing new, quality, content just makes sense. Its something that you cannot argue against really. The more content you have, the more traffic you will get. Its that simple. Not only that, but content attracts visitors consistently over time, making it very stable.

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Darren July 2, 2012 at 12:25 pm

Nice post. I’ve been ‘studying’ SEO for many years now as a casual interest. That said, it looks like the ‘Title’ remains the most potent tool in the arsenal. Where’s the evolution?

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Miguel Salcido July 2, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Hi Darren, thanks for reading and commenting. The title tag is pretty important still. But another theme I see is content and relevancy having become ever more important. Especially with the Google Panda and Penguin updates. Also noteworthy is design/UX.

But everything depends on the situation. So if a client has great title tags, and so do all the top ranking sites, then it will not be that much of a factor and you’ll have to dig deeper to find out what is more important for THAT situation.

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Bill Vasiliadis July 2, 2012 at 4:02 pm

I was asked this exact same question recently by a client. What immediately came to mind was:

- The Title Tag

It is still important though these days it needs to read naturally while still containing the page’s target phrase(s).

- Quality Content

Search engines will always strive to match given search queries with relevant content. Content needs to be of high quality and useful.

- Design

It is critical that websites offer their visitors an enhanced user experience. Not only do they need to present information concisely, intuitively, and efficiently, but they also need to inspire, engage, and gain social approval via visually appealing and useful design elements.

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Miguel Salcido July 2, 2012 at 4:12 pm

Thanks Bill and I agree. The funny thing is that the last two also end up getting you linked to as well. And that take on-page items and makes them relevant to off-page.

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Bill Vasiliadis July 2, 2012 at 4:15 pm

Yes absolutely Miguel! Thanks for adding that in and thank you for the great post.

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Matt Morgan July 2, 2012 at 7:28 pm

It’s nice to see some common responses amongst the top SEOs for on-page ranking factors. If I could only optimize 3 areas on a web page, I’d go with Title Tags, SEF URLs, and at least 300 words of relevant/quality content (in that order).

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Chris July 3, 2012 at 5:59 am

Interesting read, its obvious that Title tag still holds huge importance but there is a slight change i.e Google often strips the long Titles so it can also impact website’s ctr.

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Miguel Salcido July 3, 2012 at 7:27 am

@Matt Morgan, good assessment.

@Chris, yes it is odd when Google does this and can be very frustrating too. It happened to my homepage last year for a while and I could not get it back to what it was supposed to be. Eventually it switched back to my title tag out of nowhere.

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Saïd Hamaïd July 3, 2012 at 2:55 pm

Great post! An element that I only see mentioned once here is page load optimization. Page speed has numerous advantages including SEO and conversion/usability. I predict it to be drawing more attention in the years to come especially with the rise of mobile.

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Miguel Salcido July 3, 2012 at 2:59 pm

Great point Saïd and you reminded me of something. That one of the factors that I noticed as newer and in fair consensus is the idea of good design/UX. And page speed I think would fall under that, making it sort of a “sub factor.” :-) You know I love making up new words!

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puya turkiyan July 4, 2012 at 2:01 pm

A great source from an amazing group. I specifically like pointblankseo’s intake on on-site seo. And yes 800+ articles do work more. However, you need to write a good useful article.

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Jason Spiegel July 5, 2012 at 1:45 am

The problem is: what’s important is relative. To what industry. To what size. To what skills possessed. To what bias exists based on simple observation.

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Quentin Aisbett July 5, 2012 at 2:57 pm

Great to hear there’s some consistent advice still pointing to title tags and site architecture.

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Andy July 7, 2012 at 12:32 am

Some great tips.. especially Jason’s answer makes lots of sense.Surprised to see how people are recommending load time to be an important factor..

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Phil Johnson July 8, 2012 at 11:57 pm

All you have to do is follow Google s webmaster guidelines http://support.google.com/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=35769

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Globalecommercegroup July 12, 2012 at 3:35 am

Great to see that Title and Desc. still plays the major role…… One should not forget the Content as well…

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Mikhail Tuknov July 12, 2012 at 9:09 am

As you can see, the SEO is all the same! Don’t reinvent the wheel. Just follow the old proven techniques.

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