Reaching On-Page Optimization Nirvana Part I

On the surface, on-page optimization seems so simple.  All that’s involved in website optimization is finding keywords that all the kids are searching for, cram them into your content approximately 10-23 times, and maybe–if you’re in a generous mood–fiddle with the URL a bit, and you’ll be certain to improve website ranking. Soon you’ll rank right alongside Wikipedia for your given product of customizable widget solutions.

However, doing keyword research and finding this keyphrase is not as easy as it seems.  Suddenly, the once solid distinction between keywords and the phrases they modify has melted, and the line between well optimized content and unreadable junk is blurred.  Unfortunately for you, you’ve wandered off into Keyword Samsara, the Buddhist cycle of endless anxiety about keyword research.  Luckily, there are tips that can set you on the path to SEO on-page optimization nirvana.

Keyword Research: What is This All About, Again?

Oftentimes, discussions of keyword research and seo on page optimization begin with a graph that looks like this:

Chart showing keywords popularity and long tail phrases

Image Credit: Chris Anderson

And ends like this: “There’s gold in them longtails!”  And indeed, the majority of searches queried today are longtail keywords, and these types of searches will likely only gain share in the future.  What’s more, and what makes long tail keyword phrases so appealing to new and small websites, longer keyword phrases typically have lower competition than shorter ones; optimization around long tail keyword phrases is therefore one of the most effective ways to generate traffic to a site.

However, following this path with too much abandon will quickly yield a completely unrecognizable page; somehow, by simply trying to pinpoint that magic long-tail for on-page optimization, your page on customizable widget solutions has morphed into a page on fully extensible widget editing platform interfaces.  The only downside here is that your company does not, in fact, make fully extensible widget editing platform interfaces.

The Follies of Over-Optimization

It’s pretty obvious what went wrong here–instead of identifying the page’s subject matter and choosing the appropriate keyword phrase, the keyword phrase was chosen as the principle around which the page was written.  This is a completely backwards approach to seo on-page optimization.  Discerning what the subject of a particular page should be is no easy matter, and this gets to the real difficulty with keyword research.  Ideally, in any complex task, we would like to abstract the different elements involved into discreet modules, so changes in one module don’t interfere with any other.  For example, by drawing the distinction between CSS and HTML, web designers have been able to separate textual content from the way it is presented.

Similarly, we would like to be able to abstract away keyword research and on-page optimization from the site’s information architecture and the even larger issues of the site owner’s marketing plans and business goals.  But this just isn’t possible.  Without clarity on how a page fits in the larger scheme of the sites information architecture, there can be little hope for understanding what the page is truly about.  So before sitting down to optimize a given page, we should always ask ourselves, what is the essence of this page, and what can be discarded or changed?  The keyword research will necessarily flow out of that answer, and once a primary key phrase has been selected, optimizing the page for it will be natural and simple; it won’t be necessary to cram it into the prose in a forced and arbitrary manner.  The phrase will recur the number of times it does because it makes sense in the context of the copy for it to do so, and this will ring true with both your readers and the search engines.

In part II, we’ll delve further into the exploration process of discovering a keyword phrase that fits both the intent of the page and generates a large volume of traffic.