A long time ago, a wealthy businessman named Harry was looking for a new driver for his carriage. His old driver, Rudford, had recently retired after driving for Harry for 20 years.
Harry found three potential drivers that he felt could do a great job for him. To help him decide which of the three candidates to choose, Harry gave them each the same challenge. There was a mountain pass near his town with a narrow road. One side of the road was merely a rock wall, while the other side was a sheer drop of about 150 feet. Harry asked each driver to showcase their skill and drive a carriage along the pass.
The first driver had considerable skill and decided to show Harry how close he could drive to the edge of the road and therefore the sheer drop. Harry was impressed as the driver skillfully drove with the wheels on the right side of the carriage within 1 foot of the edge.
The second driver, knowing he could do better, drove the length of the pass with the carriage wheels no farther than 6 inches from the edge of the road.
The third driver, not influenced at all by the first two, drove much more slowly and stayed as far away from the edge of the road as possible, hugging the rock wall on the left side. When approached by Harry, the third driver explained, “If you want somebody who showboats to be your driver, I’m not your man. If you want somebody to get you and your carriage to your destination safely, there’s no better option for you than me.”
Why do I tell you this story? It’s a valid question. For years, so-called search engine optimization experts have been telling you to take the same approach to on-page optimization as the first and second drivers in the story. Don’t over optimize, they’ll tell you, but get as close to over optimization as possible. If using your keyword six times for every 500 words will get you penalized, make sure you only use your keyword five times. This approach is reckless and dangerous. Dangerous because flirting with the penalization line is a great way to get your site penalized. Reckless because your site is one Google algorithm update away from disappearing from existence. Plus, keyword usage hardly has any effect on rankings anymore!
The search engines have gotten smart. Really smart. But you don’t have to be smart to figure out what a page is about. If the URL, page title or H1 tag has your keyword in it, that’s a pretty good indication that your page is about that keyword (We recommend having your main keyword in two of those three things, then use a variation of your keyword for the third). Add your keyword one or two more times throughout the content, sprinkle in a few variations and the search engines will have no doubt what your page is about. If the search engines can figure out the topic of your page, your off-site optimization will — and should — do the rest. Effective and smart off-page optimization is the only ranking technique that has withstood the test of time.
The days are gone when keywords on your page get you ranked (unless there’s just no competition to speak of). What gets you ranked is building quality links correctly and consistently. What gets you penalized is over optimizing for your keyword throughout your content. If you flirt with using your keywords too much and you avoid penalization, it’s still not going to affect your rankings. The risk bears no potential for reward. Therefore, we urge you to be like the third driver. Under optimize for your keywords if anything. If there’s any question as to whether you’ve overused keywords, get rid of some of them. Stay as far away from the keyword over-utilization line as possible.
The five most-important components of on-page optimization are — in order of importance — domain, title, h tags, description and content.
Make sure your keyword is in the URL. If your domain doesn’t have the keyword you are trying to rank the page for, you better make sure the URL (slug) does. Then make sure that your main keyword is either in the page title or an (the) H1 tag. Again, we don’t recommend having your main keyword in all three. Use a variation of your keyword in the title or H1 tag. We also recommend using only one H1 tag, then using H2 or H3 tags throughout the rest of the page.
Remember all of that stuff we said about staying as far away from over optimization as possible, even to the point of under optimizing? Forget that when writing your meta descriptions. Pack as many different keywords in there as you can while keeping it natural. Note that I said different keywords. Don’t use the same keyword over and over. And it must be readable and enticing!
If you follow the above advice, the search engines will know exactly what your sites are about and will have no reason — or desire — to penalize them. Then if you implement a solid backlinking strategy, your sites will inevitably climb up those rankings. These strategies are exactly how we are doing on-site SEO at tidalwavesearch.com for our websites as well as for our clients’ sites, and it’s how we are driving these sites to the top of the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).