Most digital marketers know that content marketing and search engine optimization (SEO) go hand-in-hand. Content is what everyday users experience when they visit your site. SEO is the long list of techniques and attributes of your content, site, and brand that help users find you.
SEO is shorthand for ranking high on Google search engine result pages (SERPs). So, what is the difference between on-page and off-page SEO? Both are lists of factors that determine how Google judges your site. On-page is what's on your site and in your content; off-page is what the online community says about you and your brand.
On-site vs. off-site SEO is a bit of a false dichotomy, as these elements are both essential. They also work together. A cheat sheet of what you need to know about getting high on Google's SERPs must involve an overview of what's contained in on-site SEO and off-site SEO.
What Are Google’s Ranking Factors?
Google determines search engine result page (SERP) rankings based on a long list of factors. By some accounts, there are at least 200 ranking factors, covering such aspects as:
- User interaction
Google looks at a virtual laundry list of elements to try to ensure that SERPs conform to its stated goals: ranking content that is best for a user based on:
Although Google publishes best practices for developers and outlines its goals for ranking, it does not say which ranking factors of the at least 200 are most important. Web developers and SEO experts have been left to make their best guesses.
Some assert there are only a few important ranking factors out of the 200+, and the rest are merely “tie-breakers” for SERP results. So, it is tough to determine which of the factors are “low-weight,” “mid-weight,” or “heavy-weight” ranking signals. These can also shift and change over time, as Google continually updates its criteria for ranking websites.
What developers do know is that some factors are “on page” and some are “off page.” So, what is on-page vs. off-page SEO? On-page SEO refers to your site, its code, and its pages. It’s essentially your content and the HTML code behind it. These elements are essential to improving your organic SEO.
Off-page SEO is what the outside world has to say about your site. It refers to factors like backlinks or how many other sites choose to link to yours. Review websites and search engine business listings also form part of off-page SEO.
In order to maximize your website’s reach and authority, you can take advantage of techniques to improve off-page and on-page SEO. These techniques involve technical SEO, which includes elements in your site code and on-page formatting that can improve ranking factors. Technical SEO works alongside strong content to maximize your credibility and reliability to users.
Google also prefers sites that conform to standards for core web vitals. These look at three elements, all intended to improve the overall user experience:
- Loading: The page should load within 2.5 seconds.
- Interactivity: The site should process an interaction within 100 milliseconds.
- Visual stability: The page should not shift its layout too often, such as when a banner loads or a page shifts down while a user is reading it.
Adhering to some rules of thumb about on-page and off-page SEO can help improve your site user experience and can also improve your SERP ranking.
On-Page Elements and Their Role in SEO
On-page optimization includes the behind-the-scenes tweaks you make to your HTML and domain information, as well as how pages look to users. SEO writing keeps these aspects in mind, so the Google ranking factors naturally form part of your content development plan.
Want to get started on your own site right away? Download our on-page SEO Checklist.
Pre-click elements are what the search engine, and in some cases your eventual reader, sees before clicking through to your site. Each of these aspects speaks to Google by either telling the algorithm whether or not your site is relevant for a particular search or whether it’s worthwhile as a reliable and credible source.
Meta titles and meta descriptions are both meta tags. So, what are meta tags? They are examples of the information in your HTML code that tells search engines about your website. A meta title is the name of a particular web page, but its details are important. The meta title is what appears to users in SERPs, so it should include your relevant keywords. This is a mid-weight ranking factor as it tells users what the content is about.
Meta descriptions are paired with meta titles in SERPs. A meta description is a brief blurb, usually about 155 to 160 characters, of what the user can expect when it follows the link. To maximize SERP placement, you want to include your target keyword and a brief pitch for why a user should click on your site’s hyperlink instead of the others.
Meta descriptions, like titles, are also a mid-weight factor as they are closely linked to content. "Keyword stuffing" in metadata can also harm your ranking.
For some tips on how to do this effectively, you can read our primer on how to write meta tags.
Structured data is how the search engine interprets the content of your website. It encompasses areas of your code that tell Google what information to pull in response to a searcher’s query. Certain tags in the HTML, or the schema markup, tell Google what information refers to what.
So when a customer wants to find the opening hours or the local grocery store, the store’s structured data tags tell Google where to find that info amongst the other letters and numbers on the page.
For SEO, structured data has another key purpose: to tell Google exactly what’s on a page. It makes it easier for Google to highlight the site in response to specific search queries. This match between on-page content and user search query makes the web page an option for the “featured snippet,” which is a prominent placement on a SERP.
Structured data, or schema, is likely a low-weight factor but can still bolster SEO.
Uniform Resource Locators (URLs)
Uniform resource locators (URLs) also play a role in onsite SEO. You might think of it as the address of your website that most people don’t notice, but a page URL can impact SERP ranking. Although it is likely a low-weight factor, the URL improves user experience. It might also include a relevant keyword, which can help match your site address to a user search query.
A well-written URL can tell a user the subject matter of a page before they click, so in that way, it acts as its own anchor text. People know what they are getting before they follow the link and might be more likely to do so. A URL ending in “/about-us/” likely takes a person to team member biographies or a company history, while “/contact-us/” probably includes a web form, street address, email, and phone number.
Post-click elements are likely what most people think of when it comes to on-page SEO techniques. These are ways to write your online content to improve user experience and conform to Google’s best practices.
Headers are now a standard element in online content. They break up the text and help guide your readers and the search engines through the components of an article or blog post. Headers are essential for a good user experience, especially when most readers of online content tend to skim through pages to find what interests them.
Headers are likely a heavy-weight ranking factor, as they are an important element of content.
Types of headings include:
H1: the title of the page
H2: to identify the main points of paragraphs and sections
H3: to break out subpoints under each H2
H4: to further break out subpoints under H3s
There are also H5 and H6 headers, which offer opportunities for further subcategorization. Google looks to well-crafted headers in order to decide on ranking. Using relevant keywords in your headers can signal to the search engine that you discuss what the searcher wants to read.
Google also uses headers to identify sections of text most relevant to a particular search query. So, if a user has a search query that is more relevant to a subsection than to the top of the page, a Google search result might take them right down to that section of the page so they don’t have to bother scrolling through.
Headers are also a fundamental tool for accessibility, as they make reading a web page for people with different cognitive strengths easier.
As much as technical SEO is fundamental to ranking, on-page and off-page SEO ultimately comes down to what a reader consumes when they get to your website. The body copy is the text that’s in your blog posts, articles, and static pages. It’s the information users came to your site to find.
Body copy is a heavy-weight ranking factor.
Google’s quality rater guidelines look for four elements in website body copy: experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. Your body copy should work with all parts of your site to show users you are credible and know what you’re talking about. By posting well-researched and relevant content and posting your company’s contact information and bios, you can get closer to achieving E-E-A-T.
Anchor text is hyperlinked text leading to an internal or external website. The text you choose to hyperlink tells the user what they can expect when they click. Google’s guidelines recommend writing good anchor text for better SEO. The text should be relevant and descriptive while still reasonably concise.
A good rule of thumb is to aim for three to five words. It’s also best to avoid anchor text that gives no information, such as “click here.” An action, description, or offer are all examples of good anchor text: “sign up for a free trial,” “list of SEO products,” and “10-day trial subscription.” Users know what they’re getting. When Google crawls the site, the bots also know what to expect with the click.
Anchor text is a mid-weight factor, as it helps Google to understand what's on your site.
Images and Videos
Images and videos require some specific on-page SEO techniques to help ranking. Google’s guidelines note that images can show up in Google search result pages, but since images use a different format compared to HTML, you should take extra steps so your images are found and indexed. You should add file names to your images and videos that describe their content, as well as titles and alt text. The alt text describes the image or video and is particularly important as an accessibility feature for people with different sensory capabilities.
One way you can improve the indexability of your videos is to dedicate a page to a video. You can also create dedicated sitemaps for videos and images. Make sure your images are available and searchable if you’re using call-to-action (CTA) banners that give visitors an easy way to get in touch with you.
Images and videos, as part of content, are a heavy-weight ranking factor.
Online forms are often simply filled forms that allow your users to get in touch with you. Those who fill out forms are typically qualified leads you want to follow up with to close a sale or encourage further engagement.
Optimizing online forms is part of your SEO on-page strategy. You can optimize in two ways: to improve the user experience, which can help with ranking, and you can optimize for conversion, which can help you increase sales.
Some ways to optimize forms include:
- Placing the form near the top of the page
- Make the form headline an action step
- Find the “sweet spot” between too few and too many fields
A high-converting online form, therefore, is easy to spot and gives the reader something to do, such as “sign up for our free newsletter.” While a name and email address might get you a lot of sign-ups, it might not help you with remarketing later on. Adding a few more fields, such as company name and title, can give you that added boost of information without overwhelming the reader.
These forms impact user engagement, making them a mid-weight ranking signal.
Internal links are important to keep users engaged with your website. They take them from one page to another, following topics that interest them. Internal links also help Google crawl and index your site, so more potential pages appear in SERPs. They help Google develop a picture of your site as one that has comprehensive coverage of a particular topic so you meet the criteria of authority and credibility. Internal links, like anchor text, are likely a mid-weight ranking signal.
Off-Page Elements and Their Role in SEO
Off-page elements are also vital to SEO, but they are more about the world outside of your website. These factors demonstrate that the internet community recognizes your site as a reliable and trustworthy source of information.
A backlink is when someone links to your site. When you link from your site to another site, you are giving that other site a backlink. By doing so, you are not only generating traffic for them but also telling the search engines that you value what that site has to offer. Backlinks are a heavy-weight signal.
Backlinks are, by default, “dofollow” links, although it is possible to make a backlink a “nofollow.” It’s not essential to know in detail dofollow vs nofollow backlinks, but suffice it to say both drive traffic to the external page, but only “dofollow” links actually improve SEO.
So, how do you get backlinks? You can work within your industry to get your profile on other reputable and relevant pages and ask them to link back to you. Perhaps you have a charitable foundation about a medical condition; having a reputable medical information website interview you can link back to your foundation page is a strong backlink.
You can also consider guest posting on other sites or joining professional organizations that host online directories.
Many businesses have come to dread or laud the Google or Yelp review. These review sites are extremely important for SEO, as Google reviews, in particular, form part of the primary search results for relevant businesses. Review sites are a mid-weight signal.
If you own a restaurant, it’s likely you already have a few Google reviews attached to your business name. To improve your online reputation, you might want to engage with positive reviews by thanking reviewers for their visits and helpful comments.
Google Business Profiles
By setting up a Google My Business profile, you can be certain that Google knows your business exists. It also links to your contact information, hours of operation, and most recent reviews. This is a mid-weight ranking signal.
Social Media Profiles
Your social media profiles on sites like Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and apps like TikTok can improve SEO by raising your overall brand profile. You'll get more traffic to your website by building brand awareness and trust. Over time, that should increase the number of reputable backlinks you receive. This is a low-weight signal.
On-Page SEO vs Off-Page SEO: Which Should You Tackle First?
Whether you’re in the mood to tackle on-page or off-page SEO first, you might want to take a moment to download Compose.ly’s on-page SEO Checklist so you have a guide to get you started.
It might seem like on-page SEO has a great deal of small details to take care of, but those details are largely under your control. You can tackle your on-page SEO right away by working with your web developer and content creators to do an audit of your HTML, your on-site content, and other elements of what can be optimized to improve your SERP ranking.
Off-page SEO, on the other hand, is largely out of your control. You can’t really force a client to write a positive review, nor can you line up enough reputable websites to ask them to link back to you. By focusing on what you can control, the on-page SEO, your off-page SEO can come closer to improving.
Get Your Feet Under You With Compose.ly’s SEO Services
Ready to get started? You can get the help you need to optimize your web presence with Compose.ly’s SEO services. SEO-optimized content can provide consistent returns through ongoing, qualified website traffic that sustains your business. Partnering with a firm focused exclusively on SEO content services can allow you to focus on other aspects of running your company. Contact us today to see how we can help you improve your business.