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Stephen Logan

Just How Important is On-page SEO?

31st May 2012 SEO 4 minutes to read

Ever since we have been able to game search engines optimise websites, huge importance has been placed on an array of on-page factors. First it was Meta and keyword stuffing, then it was anchor text links and creating unique copy. But in a post-Penguin world, where over-optimisation could result in punishments, the game may be changing ever so slightly.

Before plunging headfirst into a festering quagmire of easily disprovable assertions, I should get a few disclaimers out there. First of all, the Penguin and Panda updates haven’t rendered keywords obsolete, nor do they mean that you should immediately abandon everything that you are doing. If you haven’t been negatively impacted, now is not the time to be making rash moves.

However, it is equally important that nobody assumes that the current field of play won’t be altered drastically in the coming months. The Penguin algorithm update (important to note that these aren’t manual penalties) only impacted 3% of searches initially – this will certainly change. Unfortunately, some reputable and respectable sites were impacted, leading to complaints and various manual tweaks. However, in the most part, those that suffered weren’t following any kind of quality guidelines, thus can’t complain too bitterly.

Take a step back and look at it from the search engine’s point of view.

Some might have thought that it was a good idea to ensure that 80% of all links into a particular page included the same anchor text. On top of this, that very same page will have a H1 tag, a few H2s, Meta, Alt tags and clunky copy full of that very same keyword. Sure, it might provide context, but a few decent paragraphs of text and a page title can do that. By piling up dozens, if not hundreds of keywords (both on-page and off), you are labouring the point – it’s not natural.

So Google took action (finally). Nonsense doorway pages, unnatural anchor text links and other elements of “over-optimisation” were unearthed by the algorithm update and downgraded accordingly. Webspam got a bit of a kicking.

So where does that leave on-page optimisation?

Well, the search engine that deals with over 90% of all queries in the UK has said, in no uncertain terms, it doesn’t need all of these keyword indicators. Sure, it needs some, but not to the extent that many SEOs have become accustomed to.

Do you need keyword optimised Alt tags, Meta, headers and internal links? Probably not. Of course, as mentioned earlier, there’s no need to strip everything back and start again – unless your rankings have nosedived. However, there’s no point in wasting valuable time doing work that will have little or no impact in the future.

Remember, SEO isn’t just about the here and now. You have to consider the implications of mobile search (top 3 organic results a must, PPC to guarantee top spot and local factors at the forefront), a semantic-based system and other logical upgrades to the algorithm. Google has already rolled out the knowledge graph and have been inching towards semantic results for some time now. Local and semantic results won’t require keywords, certainly not to the extent that a pure search algorithm (of the kind that Bing are really pushing for) does, so your on-page efforts and inbound anchor text will be rendered useless.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Semantic search is still little more than a theory. Mobile search is increasing hugely, but very few have been able to nail the perfect formula for optimising sites purely for smartphone results – beyond creating a mobile-friendly website and continuing with the usual SEO stuff.

What should you be doing on-page?

The good news is that you don’t need to change much about what you’re doing already, in fact you may be able to get away with less. The onus is now on creating on-page copy that visitors can relate to. As I’ve mentioned previously, “quality content” is a bit of a misnomer; as long as each page has unique content, in reasonable quantity and is contextually linked with what you’re targeting – that’s pretty much all you need.

If you haven’t already, it’s time to abandon keyword density or any notion that the same term needs to be repeated on every element of a page. Make sure that you have a term in mind and use it, but context is the most important factor now. Build content that works around a central, logical theme.

So be sensible with your on-page optimisation. If you’re doing something for the benefit of SEO, or that you believe will increase the clarity of your keywords, the chances are that it won’t have the impact you’re hoping for. Never change a strategy that’s working for you, but be careful not to waste too much time optimising the wrong things. Work on what your visitors can see and read, improve their experience first and foremost, then worry about if your H1 has a keyword in it or not.

As a sobering thought, if semantic search were to kick off in a big way, keywords and the endless research we do in identifying them would be all but defunct. Context, relationships, user intention and even the searcher’s circle of friends could be more influential in which sites are returned for any given query. The results one person receives for the same query  could possibly be entirely different to what another sees.

So, beyond the copy, I would argue that on-page SEO is less important than it has been at any other time. However, I might well be alone on this one, so what do you think? As always, comments are welcome below.

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