On-Page vs Off-Page SEO: Beginners Guide for Businesses

Woman holding tablet On-page vs off-page SEO

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On-page vs off-page SEO simply refers to work that takes place either on your website or outside of it to help improve its search engine results page ranking.

There are thousands of puzzle pieces that SEO (search engine optimization) specialists tinker with to try and get more visitors to your website. A common way to divide this workload is into on-page and off-page SEO.

You may already know that numerous improvements to your website can result in ranking higher on search engine results pages (SERPs). This work is known as ‘on-page SEO’. By contrast, any efforts to create URL links from authoritative websites back to your website is ‘off-page SEO’.

Where can you find on-page and off-page SEO specialists? Check out our guide for best SEO companies.

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On-Page vs Off-Page SEO: What’s the Difference?

On-page SEO is very different from off-page SEO. In fact, most of the typical SEO tips and tricks you’ll hear about relate to on-page SEO. In practice, it means making technical improvements to your website and adding quality content that web users benefit from. A simple example of on-page SEO is ensuring the keyword you’re targeting is in the page title tag, H1 (the heading at the top of the page), first sentence and the meta description.

By contrast, off-page SEO refers almost exclusively to securing URL links (known as “backlinks”) from other websites. There’s nothing you can really add to your website that would guarantee another website links to yours. Therefore, off-page SEO involves press relations, outreach, and other kinds of networking to encourage high-profile website owners to read and link back to your website.

infographic illustration with examples of off-page vs on-page SEO
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What is On-Page SEO?

On-page SEO – also known as ‘on-site SEO’ – is vital work that has to be done to make your website visible to search engines and useful to readers. To improve on-page SEO, you should tweak existing text, images and page structure to better satisfy search engine requirements. And ensure that new pages also satisfy the necessary SEO guidelines.

The crucial elements of on-page SEO include, but are not limited to:

On-Page SEO: Content Elements




Fresh content optimized for keywordsProvide useful information for web visitors
Match content to search intentAnswer the search engine user’s query accurately
Page divided into sub-sections (H1, H2, bullet point lists)Content is easy to digest and users can skip to relevant sections
Include alt tags with imagesImprove website accessibility for partially-sighted people
Structured data (such as FAQs)Provide answers to “people also ask” section in Google SERP
Quick definition: keyword

A “keyword” is the phrase a web user types into a search engine. Ideally, you want your website to “rank for certain keywords”, which means appear high up on SERPs when users run a search for that keyword. For instance, if you sell farm supplies online, you want to be on the first page of Google results when users search “buy hay storage shed”.

On-Page SEO: Technical Elements



Logical site architecture (link pages together across the website)Users can easily find the section of your website they are looking for
Responsive design (screen size changes depending on device)Mobile users can read your website as easily as desktop users
Quick page load timeReduce bounce rate and improve conversions
hreflang set-upEnsures your website displays altered web pages for web users in different countries

On-Page Content Optimization Example

How can I improve my web content to attract more traffic? It’s the question on every business leader’s lips. In this example, we’ll look at: how to find a great content idea and how to fit that into the desirable structure for SEO.

A great place to start is keyword research. This is the process of finding a popular search term that your ideal web visitor is typing into Google (or Bing or Baidu).

Fortunately there are many tools that can aggregate and analyze what popular topics are trending on search engines. A great place to start is Google Trends and Google Keyword Planner. An industry tool called BuzzSumo is top-notch for coming up with content ideas.

Let’s say Jackson runs a dry cleaners in Brooklyn, and wants to encourage more clicks on his website. He runs a search on “dry cleaning” in the Discover Topics section on Buzzsumo, and gets this word cloud of popular search terms:

wordcloud of search terms related to dry cleaning
BuzzSumo aggregates data from search engines to suggest related topics.

There’s loads of ideas in here that Jackson can use to come up with blog post ideas for his website. He notices the phrase “stain removal” and clicks on it. BuzzSumo then offers multiple tabs with options for further research. He chooses “View keywords” and gets a list of popular search terms relating to stain removal. The top result is, “stain removal guide”.

stain removal keyword list from Buzzsumo
Buzzsumo's Discover Topics tool gives a list of keyword relating to specific search terms.

Jackson notes down all these keyword phrases. He knows all about stain removal and could write a “stain removal guide” in his sleep. Before he ran this search, Jackson had no idea that web users could be so interested in learning this from him.

But what format should the new web content take? Jackson clicks back into the Content Ideas Generator on BuzzSumo and runs another search on “dry cleaning”. He discovers that video is overwhelmingly the most popular format in terms of engagement. Jackson isn’t very confident in his video skills, so he mulls over the next best option: a how-to article.

barcharts screengrab from BuzzSumo
BuzzSumo generates charts to show the popularity of content types based on social engagement.

Jackson decides to have a go at writing a how-to guide on removing stains from common fabric types. He’ll aim for 1,500 words, ensuring he focuses on covering the topic clearly and comprehensively.

He’ll need to take several specific actions to improve on-page SEO, including adding the keyword into:

  • Page title
  • Meta description
  • Headings, including the H1
SERP labelled with SEO features
When you edit certain pieces of your website code, the data is pulled into the SERP.

You’ll need to make these edits directly into the code of the website. Alternatively, you can use your regular CMS (content management system) which is a more user-friendly way of editing website content.

You can see from the above image that Google bolds the words in the meta description which appear in the keyword. This helps users find more relevant search results. It’s best to write your own meta description to describe your article contents in a nutshell. However, Google often replaces the meta description with content from elsewhere on the page which the bots deem more useful to readers.

Now that you have a decent understanding of on-page SEO, we’ll take a closer look at off-page SEO in the next section.

What is Off-Page SEO?

As we touched on briefly, off-page SEO refers to gaining ‘backlinks’ from high-authority websites to add credibility to your site. Search engines “spiders” read a hyperlink from one website to another as a vote of confidence on the trustworthiness of that site. Web enthusiasts used to refer to this as “link juice”, which carries the idea of authority flowing from one domain (website) to another. It’s now more formally known as “link equity”.

You want as many backlinks from authoritative, well-regarded domains to your own as possible. The accepted theory is that the greater your number of quality backlinks, the spiders will be favorable when rating your site.

But how do you know exactly how many backlinks you should aim to secure? This is where competitor analysis comes in – an essential stage of creating your SEO strategy.

ahrefs backlink off-page SEO screengrab
The Ahrefs Domain Comparison tool lets you compare key metrics of competitor domains, such as the number of backlinks.

There are many tools you can use to analyze competitor domains in various ways. The above screengrab is from a widely-used tool, Ahrefs Domain Comparison. We’ve chosen to compare three domains that appear on the first page of Google after searching “Brooklyn dry cleaners”. If you were setting up a new website for a dry cleaner in Brooklyn, these would be your competitors for organic search traffic.

Highlighted in orange is the number of backlinks per domain: 101, 603, and 11. The average of these three is 238 – which would be our target number of backlinks for our new dry cleaner’s domain.

Now, of course, we cannot measure the quality of these backlinks with this simple metric – we only get the quantity. And, as any qualified off-page SEO expert knows, the quality of the backlink is far more important than quantity. In this instance, we get a rough indication of the overall strength of the collective backlinks in the “Domain Rating” score (this metric is unique to Ahrefs).

On-Page vs Off-Page SEO: Which is More Important?

This is a difficult question to answer for several reasons; not least of all that Google is by no means transparent about the identities and importance of all its ranking factors. That said, most SEO professionals will tell you on-page SEO is equally important as off-page SEO. Honestly, there’s no need to choose between one or the other because no SEO strategy is complete without equal resourcing of both.

Indeed, two of the most important factors in SEO, as a whole, are: time and attentiveness. It takes at least six months to one year plus for a brand new domain to gain “authority”. You have to allow time for search engine spiders to crawl and index your site several times, and compare the latest version of your website to the previous iteration. It also takes time to accrue backlinks as the word spreads about your excellent, insightful content.

As for attentiveness? Google makes thousands of updates to its ranking factors every year – most of which are hardly noticeable. However, there are over a dozen other significant search engines, including Bing, DuckDuckGo, Yandex, Neeva, Baidu, and social media platforms. That means you need to pay attention to SEO-related news and conform to ever-changing industry best practices. To succeed, you’ll need to combine work for on-page and off-page SEO consistently throughout the year.

Your website could have the best content in the world, but if users and search engines are having trouble interpreting that content due to poor on-page SEO, your content will likely struggle to rank and, subsequently, not be read  – which no amount of off-page SEO can fix.

On-page SEO is important to tackle first. Once those foundations are in place, you can later focus on your off-page SEO efforts.

Caitlin Hathaway
Caitlin Hathaway SEO Manager, Expert Market
Get your website up to its full potential with professional SEO expertise

How can SEO Professionals Help with your On-Page and Off-Page SEO?

As you can see from the above, SEO is a complicated skillset, be it on-page or off-page. Even minor oversights can result in blocking “spiders” from crawling your website, meaning your website won’t appear on SERPs at all.

On-page SEO done by professionals can vastly improve user experience as well as search engine visibility – that’s a double win for your business. Conversion rate also factors into on-page SEO success, and is, of course, vital to maintaining reliable revenue from your website. Clearly, it’s crucial to get your SEO strategy right on the money and to keep this up over time. This is why it’s our top recommendation to get professional SEO support to help you make this work for your business.

Should You Hire an SEO Specialist?

SEO specialists, working freelance or within agencies, have access to industry-grade software which measures the technical elements of your website that are invisible to the human eye. You can’t achieve anywhere near the same level of website optimization without the help of SEO experts.

Don’t miss out on the chance to outrank your competitors on search engines. And – whatever you do – please don’t pay a black hat SEO scammer to make useless (or even damaging) “improvements” to your website.

Instead, use our free supplier matching service to connect with a trustworthy SEO professional today. If you let us know the bare basics of your SEO needs, we can put you in touch with the right expert to achieve the goals of your business.

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Written by:
Sabrina Dougall
Sabrina is a business journalist whose career began in news reporting. She has a master's in Investigative Journalism from City University London, and her work has appeared in The Times, The Daily Express, Money Saving Expert, Camden New Journal, Global Trade Review, and Computer Business Review. She specializes in writing about SEO (search engine optimization). Having run her own small business, Sabrina knows first-hand how critical digital marketing is to building a client base and local reputation.
Reviewed by:
Caitlin Hathaway
Caitlin is experienced in SEO strategy design and execution, enabling businesses to grow their search engine visibility meaningfully over time. Caitlin was a keynote speaker at international SEO conference BrightonSEO, sharing her knowledge on SEO project management.