On-Page and Off-Page SEO: Understanding the Difference

Published on June 27, 2018

Have you ever heard the phrase “a rising tide lifts all boats?”

In our experience, it’s a great way to think about the principles of SEO, or “search engine optimization.” SEO is all about doing what it takes to make sure that your brand ranks highly on search engines like Google - and it’s one of the core tenets of our content marketing strategy here at Geek.

So, with that said, why exactly are we talking about boats? The answer comes down to the two primary aspects behind effective SEO: on-page and off-page optimization. In order to successfully prime your content to rank highly on search engines, like Google or Bing, you’ll need both on-page and off-page strategies in place.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For now, remember that rising tide?

An SEO Story

Picture a harbor or river – maybe Montrose Harbor right here in Chicago, not too far from the Geek office in the beautiful Ravenswood corridor.

Imagine lots of boats anchored in that harbor – but it’s low tide. All of the dinghies and yachts and sailboats are a little low, bobbing below dock level. Too low to get in.

Now imagine that you can actually add water to the harbor. As you dump more and more fresh water into the cove, all of the boats rise up, higher and higher, making it easier for the eager sailors on the docks to climb in and set off to sea (or, well… out to Lake Michigan).

So, in this scenario, what do you need to get the boats to work the way they should? Well, in order to reach the boaters standing on the docks of the harbor, you’ll need both lots of water, and the high-quality vessels.

Believe it or not, your website works exactly the same way. In order to reach the “searchers” entering targeted queries into Google, you’ll need both supportive off-page SEO strategies (“water”) and structurally-sound on-page SEO elements (“boats”).

What is On-Page SEO? The Vessel.

Broadly speaking, we can think of “on-page” SEO as the way that your web page communicates with a search engine. These SEO elements are the structural and content aspects of your site, which you can control and optimize to better appeal to search engine crawlers and algorithms.

In other words, by optimizing certain parts of your site for Google’s search tools and signal, you’ll be allowing your site to rank more highly by letting it speak the language of search.

While the rules and best practices of SEO do seem to constantly be shifting around like a life raft in a tropical storm, the foundations of on-page or on-site SEO are keywords.

Keyword Optimizing Your Site

In some ways, then, on-page SEO is about targeting the “language” of your page to better pick up what an audience is looking for, and help it communicate with search engines at the same time.

Now, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do this. Rather than relying on “blackhat” tactics like keyword stuffing, meaningful keyword optimization means strategically implementing keywords into the elements of your page that we know are most important to search algorithms, including:

  • Descriptions and Meta-Descriptions
  • Headings and title tags
  • Image text and alt-text
  • URLs
  • Internal links

The Importance of Creating Content for On-Page SEO

The other way to optimize on-page SEO? Create genuine value and a high-quality product!

This means writing valuable content that is genuinely informative and compelling to your audience, as well as making sure that your site is responsive, intuitive, and quick to load on both desktop and mobile devices.

Even better? The more pages you add to your site, the more likely it will be to rank highly to search engines. At the same time, you’ll be able to focus on the sorts of narrow searches that will net you more eager, responsive users (we call these “long-tail” queries).

Creating great content is about more than keywords! In addition to knowing what keywords you want to target, you’ll need to take some steps to make sure you’re creating the type of content that your audience wants to see. There’s a reason that the average blog post takes more than 5 hours to write - there’s a lot of audience research, subject research, keyword research, and design that goes into making a relevant, SEO-friendly website page.

What is Off-Page SEO? The Tide.

If on-page SEO is the ship that you build, steer, and modify by hand, then off-page SEO is the water that surrounds it: It provides the natural buoyancy that your ship needs to get moving. Like water, it’s a little more abstract and harder to control - though it’s certainly not impossible to get a grasp on it!

In practical terms, off-page or off-site SEO typically refers to external ranking signals that search engines use to evaluate your site, with backlinks being both the most common and the most significant.

The more that other sites refer to your domain, the more authority and significance it has in the eyes of search engines, which try to place their searchers with the most trustworthy site available.

As with so many things, when it comes to backlinking, remember, though, that quality may trump sheer quantity (this is due to rule changes that search engines have been implementing to punish companies for buying shady backlinks).

With this in mind, it is still important to drive in referral traffic – and drive up your domain and page authority – with backlinks. One of the best strategies to generate backlinks, as we’ve mentioned, is to create truly high-quality content. The more great content you produce, the more likely it will be to be shared, linked to, and featured by other sources online. The more that Google recognizes your page as an authority, the more it will elevate its rankings on search results pages (or SERPs).

In the meantime, there are a few hands-on methods you may use to increase the number of links and referrals sending positive signals about your site:

  • Package your best content and send it out as an email newsletter
  • Maintain a robust social presence to share and generate links
  • Create genuinely awesome content that will gather word-of-mouth (or viral) buzz, causing others to link back to your content
  • Generate relationships with “influencers” in the media or in your field

Putting On-Page and Off-Page SEO to Work for You

For a truly effective SEO campaign to take off, you’ll need both on-page and off-page optimization. They’re indispensable components of a total whole.

Want to talk more about what goes into a Geek campaign? Curious about whether SEO can really work for your brand? We’d love to continue the conversation! Why not drop us a line or reach out on Facebook or Twitter?

Stay up today on the latest Tech and Digital Marketing Trends with our newsletter.