How to Write Great Content for SEO

The current wisdom is that we should be writing content for our website’s visitors, and not for search engines. That great content is great, no matter what we do for SEO.  I agree with that – for the most part.

The point that that particular wisdom is missing is that search best practices, by and large, are a checklist of how to write articles that are great for web users.

Search Engine Best Practices Are Meant for Web Users

Where best practices are concerned, they are talking about making content user-friendly, meeting user intent, answering a question completely, and having the design of the site be so intuitive it doesn’t cause friction in the user’s understanding.

The title of this page is wrapped in an “H1” HTML tag, which should be used to signify the title of a page.  The bold subheading above is wrapped in “H2” which says that’s a section break, subheading, and less important than the title.  Were you, the reader, at all confused by this use of H1s and H2s on this page?  Nopity nope. In fact, it made perfect sense to you.

I tend to type in short bursts of sentences and paragraph break more often than I would in fiction or academic prose.  That’s really common for web writing, because we are using a different visual medium, and internet users tend to skim.  In fact, they skim a lot. They will jump to bold words and bullet points!

How People Really Read the Web:

  • Skim titles, things in bold
  • Read the first few sentences of the first paragraph
  • (Or the TL;DR if there is one)
  • Jump to pulled out quotes, photo captions and bulleted lists
  • If they are really interested, they might go back and read the whole thing
  • … but probably not.

Writing your content to get the maximum depth of understanding based upon people’s web skimming tactics is a great way to ensure you’ve covered all of the topics you need to cover.  Oh, and before I forget to mention it, all of these things are also on that list of best practices that your SEO person gave you.

Don’t Be Intimidated By the Word Jumble Game, Please

Google has read everyone’s content, and they have graded all the papers. They know which content includes all of the details necessary to show a complete answer to a user query.  That’s their job.

If we want to compete, then, we need to also use all of the pieces of a complete answer to a question.   Tactically, an SEO whiz can tell what words, phrases and questions should be included in an article by gazing at Search Engine Result pages, the pages of top-ranking competitors, and by brainstorming all of the things we need to know about a topic.  They then hand a list of words to a writer.

This is like the writing exercise in school where you have to fit those words into a page. It’s a creative challenge, not a constraint.  Synonyms are our friends, and we don’t need every one of them jammed on a single page.

What the word jumble does is allows us to ensure – checklist style – that we’ve answered all of the facets of the questions that people have about a topic.

But What about Keywords?

You know how we call it “rolling down the window” in the car, but we’re talking about pushing a little button. Or the meaninglessness of the “save” icon to a kid who has never seen a 3 1/2″ floppy diskette?  What about the phone receiver icon that we press on our smart phones to pick up or “hang up” a call?  Those symbolic anachronisms are about as relevant to modern SEO as the word “keyword”.

Yes, we still research volume of queries to specific topics, and make prioritization and decisions based on that.  But we don’t use a single keyword or phrase to be the end-all-be-all for the questions that web users have about a topic.  Often, you’ll here “topic” or “semantically related” ideas being bandied about in the SEO world way more than keywords.

The problem is that everyone knows that word, and just like the save icon being a relevant symbol for an obsolete technology, the word lives on.

It’s a Tool – Like a Checklist – Not a Formula

An obsolete SEO joke:

An SEO walks into a bar, tavern, pub, drinking establishment …

A more current SEO joke:

Q: How many SEOs does it take to change a lightbulb. 

A: Well,  it depends. 

Search is holistic, fluid, and really specific to each site’s industry, goals and visitors. Much of SEO is about finesse and improvisation.  The problem comes in when people still mistake it as being formulaic.  “Put this keyword here, and here, then synonym 1 goes here.”   I find that people who want to reduce search to always-do and always-don’t sorts of rules end up being frustrated by the job.  It’s always about trade-offs.

So how do you write great content for SEO?

Well, it depends. What are your visitors asking questions about?

Back to basics: Baseline Metrics

baseline measurements
Google Webmaster Tools

I’ve spent a lot of time at work the past few weeks cleaning up my baseline reports.

I’ve been there for three months, and the results of the work I did in November are starting to appear in the inbound search trends. This is gratifying, but I also know that what I measure, track and report against now will be what will make or break me going forward.

I cleaned up a lot of those reports to ensure that everything was in place to help me succeed in the project in the next quarter, by the end of the year.

One of the ways that I track my project is simply search engine result rankings for a list of 500 popular and relevant keyword phrases. Once a month, we pull this information from Hitwise, and I’ve got a snapshot of my progress. It’s a little simplistic, but it is good for tracking and trending over time.

Unfortunately about 20% of the words on my original report were things we’d never achieve rankings for, so I had to revise the list. I am pretty confident that the new list supports business goals better, and will more accurately reflect my work. But it got me thinking about baseline metrics, and how incredibly important they are for SEO consultants to prove worth and return on investment.

So much of SEO still comes across as smoke and mirrors. So much of it is guesswork. I freely admit to using my intuition almost as much as my analytical skills in my day to day work. If I’m playing hunches, then how can my boss or his boss or some EVP decide whether I’m any good at this, or just a lucky little gambler? The numbers. The results.

And now at the beginning, when I’m still building my reports, I’ve got the one-time shot to decide how to present this case. This is massively important for my success within the company and my success in my long-term career.

SEO and Gambling on Content

Last night, I had a wacky dream where there were three web content strategists competing on some sort of game show.  They had to pick titles of content and see who could get the most valuable content portfolio, but all they could see were Jeopardy-like 2-word titles.

They were gambling and guessing their way through content strategy. And the winner took home the pot because of one factor alone: luck.

I woke up scribbling a post-it note to myself to write about gambling on content. Because unless you’re doing keyword research, looking at insights and trends, and watching your own analytics to see what your visitors are looking for, that’s exactly what you’re doing. Taking a shot in the dark, and hoping something sticks.

Me, I am not so much of a gambler. In fact, I don’t even play the lottery because I prefer to have a dollar in my pocket than dream about lightning striking someday.

Web content costs money. Whether it’s in resource time to write and edit it, or freelancer hours to translate it, or the time and money to negotiate using someone else’s content. Why would you fritter that away on the hopes that luck will win out and you’ll have what people are searching for?

SEO for a Local Business vs. SEO for a Global Content Provider

I’m shifting gears in my professional life as a Search Engine Optimization specialist.  With my recent change in full-time employers, I’m also going to have to change the SEO strategies and tactics I want to use.

Beyond the obvious difference – targeting entirely different search terms – these changes include shifts in:

  • Target Audience
  • Search Goals
  • Site Goals
  • SEO Strategy

Currently, my audience is one major metropolitan area.  If my sites here get attention in the rest of the state, great, but that’s not the focus. If these sites get attention in other states, fantastic! But again, that’s not the point of my day-to-day business goals.  My goal is to get visitors to the site, and to convert them into leads for the purchase of a car.

For this local business, the SEO strategy includes local directories and listings, it includes social media, and the vast majority of the content is, in fact, what’s in stock in the inventory.

Soon, my target audience will amount to… the population of the UK, and other countries that might use UK-English related search terms.  This means I’m basically going to have to master a new dialect of my native tongue. (fun!)   My search goals will include encouraging readers to dig deeper, delve further for more information, and come back for more.

The SEO strategy here will be about site architecture, link-building to individual pages, and the daunting task of page-by-page SEO optimization of thousands of pages of content, as well as creating ongoing content strategy.

What does this have to do with anything?  Just this: if you want to optimize a site – any site – for search, you need to know those four bullet points before you even start researching tactics and getting an action plan together.

  • Who do you want to find your site? (Are they in a particular location? Do they speak a particular language, or have a particular interest?)
  • What do you want them to do once they get there? (What are your success metrics? How will you measure the success of your SEO program?)
  • How do you make that happen? (Which SEO tactics will help you attain your goals? What is the best way to prioritize your effort?)

Setting SEO Priorities: What do I do First?

I’ve already addressed the idea of outsourcing SEO or hiring someone to do it for you.  Well, the other option, of course is doing it yourself.   I’ve recently gotten several emails from friends and connections who are attempting to do just that.

While I can give the basics on keyword research, optimizing content, optimizing images, and so on, that would be an exercise in repeating what’s already been said all over the web.  Needless to say, there is a lot that can be done to a website to make it friendlier for search engines.

I find that these small business owners are running into the same problem time and again while attempting to optimize their home-grown sites on their own: they get overwhelmed.

Trust me, this is my full-time job. I know it can be overwhelming, particularly if you have a business to run on top of the SEO project!

Here are 5 tips to help you prioritize your on-page SEO project so you can get the most out of it right away:

  1. Set up Analytics. If you don’t already have an analytics program running on your site, this is a mandatory first step. You can’t make key decisions if you don’t know what people are doing when they visit your site. Do this a month or two before you plan to get started.
  2. Use the Analytics to identify your goals for your SEO project, identify 2-3 competitors for your keywords, and research your keywords so you can use that information later in your project.  Are you selling a product or service? What counts as a “conversion” from a web visitor to a sales lead? What counts as a “conversion” from a lead to a sale? How will you track that so you can improve it later?
  3. Optimize your homepage. Make sure it is fast and light, that you are encouraging clicks to deeper in your site, and that you provide basic usability on this page.
  4. Know your top-selling pages, products and topics.  Start there. If you sell more of one product than any other, work on the landing pages, product pages, and content that is relevant for that product first.  Organize the rest of your project in descending order from there. This will give the money-makers more oomph, and help you pay for the time you’re spending on optimizing your site.
  5. Keep going.  Use your analytics to check in with progress and to decide the best direction. Touch your homepage frequently, tweaking links to subpages as they gain importance and relevance, testing to see if you can get more conversions or fewer bounces.