How writers’ and SEO professionals’ minds can combine for awesome, eyeball-attracting content.
As an SEO professional, I work with many writers to optimize their content. While there is often a disconnect between the two groups, when content and SEO teams really talk through issues, they find they are more aligned than they think they are.
We've all heard that content is king, especially original, unique, and valuable content. To extend this metaphor, I propose marketing is queen, and SEO is the Jack of all trades.
SEO is just one element of a strong content marketing strategy. It's one of the more important elements if you want to have long-lasting value and evergreen content. You can write great content you think answers a user's need—but who cares if no one can find it?
That's where SEO comes in.
You need that great content to market effectively. An effective digital marketing strategy balances the search engine needs with readers’ priorities.
One thing that frustrates writers is having to use a specific term over and over. You do need to include the terms you want to show up for in the content, but with semantic indexing, you really have a primary topic and then relevant terms that will occur naturally if you have a good writer working on content.
Google releases hundreds of smaller algorithm updates every year. It can be hard to keep up with all of Google’s algorithm updates, but the big ones give you insight into where Google would like your content to be headed.
The Hummingbird update was a switch from Google looking at individual search terms to eyeing the context of different words used together.
For example, if I'm searching for the Olympics location today, I'll get a lot of information on Tokyo. In a year or so, as the winter Olympics get closer in 2022, I'll start seeing more information related to Beijing. Google is constantly adjusting these algorithms to improve the results, location, timeliness and the keyword modifiers you're using in your query for long-tail search queries.
RankBrain is a machine learning element of the algorithm that was added on top of Hummingbird, and it considers at a deeper level user engagement data and connecting relevant terminology to the intent of the user's query.
BERT, or bidirectional encoder representation transformers, expanded the functionality of RankBrain and added language processing to the algorithm that assesses the way words are used in a query and how they relate together.
Getting back to repeating search terms, it’s not about one term being used as much as possible, as much as having relevant terminology specific to the term that answers a user’s query and fulfills the intent of that search.
Let's take ‘Digital Experience Platform’ as an example. It’s a relatively new term I believe Gartner came out with a couple of years ago. Digital Experience Platform (DXP) is an evolution of the web content management system, where you're looking at the larger journey online and leveraging different customer journey tools and features, as well as plug-ins to improve the experience of users.
If you search for a ‘Digital Experience Platform,’ you'll see a lot of content about what it is. Because it's such a new term, users are looking for the definition, what it is and the elements that put it together, with a handful of like comparison sites of the top DXP solutions. But as time progresses and people become more familiar with that terminology, the results will change in Google.
You must know what Google cares about to write effective content. Google offers an idea in its Ten things we know to be true philosophy. These suggestions have been the same for quite a while.
Number one: “Focus on the user and all else will follow,” Google argues. Don't write for search engines. If you're writing based on rules, you will write like you are AI, and AI doesn't have personality, nor does it create great content yet. It might in the future, but there needs to be a focus on the user and exactly what they're looking for.
“It's best to do one thing well,” Google advises. For example, don't write 10 blog posts about Digital Experience Platform. Write one great informative piece that answers all the questions users have about Digital Experience Platforms.
If you write a bunch of different pieces of content, you will cannibalize your search results. Google sees all these different pages that seem like they're about the same topic, but Google doesn't know which one should rank highest for that topic. So, you run the risk of spreading the value of that content too thin and not getting the results you're looking for.
“Fast is better than slow,” the search king says. Google cares about UX and page speed. Democracy on the web works. Therefore, you see search results for all types of different companies and not just the big players when you hunt for something. They even the playing field on the organic side of things. If your UX and page speed match that of the goliaths, and your content is great, you can rank just as well—or better!
Think mobile too. “You don't need to be at a desk to need an answer,” reminds Google. Make sure your content looks good on mobile. The UX needs to flow to a mobile device just as seamlessly as on a desktop. A lot of us work every day in this industry and are on our computers at work. We don't think about the experience or the content from a mobile perspective as much as we should. The easiest way to ensure your content experiences are stellar on desktop and mobile is with responsive website design.
“You can make money without doing evil,” is another Google truth. 16% of Google's job postings require a PhD. That's tens of thousands of PhDs you're trying to out-think. Don't waste your time doing that. It's fruitless. There's always more information out there. Google is constantly trawling the web to find the best content and testing that content to see how people engage with it.
There's also something called Pogo sticking. If a user searches for something, clicks on a result, is on that page or dwells on that page for 10 seconds, then goes back to search results, clicks on another result, and stays on that page for five minutes, that's a good indication to Google that that user found the second page more valuable for that query. Google is likely to rank that second page result higher in the future.
Finally, Google believes, “You can be serious without a suit.” You don't need to write content that's just a big research paper. You can make it interesting and make it a story. Great isn't good enough. If you think you wrote a great piece of content, but it's not the best content out there, you're not going to outrank them.
Google’s mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. To accomplish that, they have over 200 ranking factors. This is how they organize the content on the web, instantly match your search, present results in helpful ways and continually improve user experiences.
When thinking about SEO, align yourself to Google's goals. That will make your content stand out. At the same time, you’ll write content that speaks to the user's intent—that is something Google likes a lot.
You will achieve SEO success with a philosophy that includes the four main drivers that align to Google's mission: visibility, efficiency, experience and intelligence.
Can search engines and users find your content? Are you prioritizing the most beneficial content to write about and promote on your website and marketing channels? Are users finding your content useful and easy to engage with?
Once all those elements are in place, the intelligence part comes in. Can we inform business decisions and learn from the engagement we're seeing? Once you write a piece of content, your job isn't done. You must review and optimize.
Sometimes the best thing isn't to write a new piece of content about a topic but revitalize a previously written piece of content. There's more history to that content. It probably attracted social shares and backlinks as well as eyeballs. Looking at the engagement on the page offers information to make that piece of content much better and more successful.
When you're matching those efforts to actions, think about visibility. Visibility is about crawlability, promotion and keyword research.
With content, the ‘you build it, they will come’ idea rarely works. You need to share content in your other channels, whether it's email, social or offline events.
Are your content marketing and SEO strategies aligned, or are you simply tossing darts at the wall? You need to know your end goal, what the structure of the content topic on your website is going to be, whether it's going to be one piece of content or several pieces of content—and how those pieces of content connect.
Interlinking is a vital part of SEO and gives Google indications that this piece of content is relevant to a query or type of keyword. By interconnecting pieces of content, you're creating a web. And we are talking about the web, after all. Google created a search engine to find all the relevant content that you're interested in. If you have a large web of relevant content, it makes your website more authoritative, and it's more likely to capture the attention of Google and the online user.
To optimize SEO, you need both writing and SEO in peak form—and working together. An SEO friendly CMS is a great start, but you should also integrate your content marketing initiatives and reporting with a full team. Don’t operate in silos. Make sure you're as efficient and collaborative as possible.
On the digital experience side, conversion rate optimization is obviously important. You should review the user experience and structure the website and content accordingly. On the intelligence side, leveraging analytics and tracking is key. Heatmap reviews are one of the best ways to see how people are engaging with a piece of content.
We've talked about Google and the story the writer is trying to tell without having to sacrifice the quality of the content. Google will pull out brief intros and information into featured snippets. In other cases, someone is looking for a bullet list and Google pulls that out—even if it is not the primary piece of content in the beginning of this blog post and may be the fourth item on the list.
You need to structure content in a way that's skimmable and easy for the reader to find the information they want. Google will take care of the rest and present that information in the right way.
Many think blogs and other types of content must be long to rank well, and so they write blogs that are consistently over one thousand words—and often far longer. The problem is that content length is not a ranking factor. You'll hear SEO people say it's got to be X number of words. But there's no ranking factor in Google that says it needs to be X number words to rank in X position. It just turns out that longer-form content performs better, partially because writers spend more time on it.
There are also more related queries to different types of related topics with a longer piece of content, and readers spend more time on it, so it likely offers a better user experience. It also attracts more backlinks because people link to authoritative resources and not briefs, or superficial pieces.
Longer pieces also tend to get more social shares. Headlines that are 14 to 17 words in length generate 77% more social shares than short headlines. That probably makes sense. We have all read headlines and sometimes take that story or narrative with us even if we don't click on the link. It's an elevator pitch. Use it as such. That is one reason to not be vague in the description of what the page is about.
There is no optimal length. One suggestion is to see how long the pieces of content are that rank well. See if your piece can answer the same question in an informative and succinct way that the user can navigate through easily. A lot of content success is about the formatting, layout and structure of the page, so don't write big blocks of content. A 2,000-word blog won’t perform as well as a thousand-word piece of content that structurally makes a lot more sense and is easier to skim through to find the answers readers are looking for.
When balancing priorities, ask yourself: who is your ideal reader? What terms are you expecting them to search for? SEO can help you find what those search terms are and how often people are searching for them, so you can prioritize the topic.
You will want to search for those terms yourself to understand how Google sees the intent of your search. Can you write something that's better than the first result? It's not worth writing a piece of content that's super short and not very informative if you can already find better content. Google's not going to rank you higher than something that's obviously better than your content.
Other questions to ask: What kind of results is Google serving for those terms? Are there video results? Are there image results? Are there FAQs, blogs, product service or solution pages?
Review and referral sites are big because SEO isn't just about on-page optimization, it's about improving your overall visibility online. A big element of that is referral sites and review sites for both big products and software companies, as well as local service businesses.
My parents own a bed and breakfast on the Eastern shore of Maryland, The Inn at Mitchell House.
Sorry for the plug, but they’re a great example of this and do extremely well online because they have such great reviews and their focus is never about generating reviews—it's about providing a great experience and making sure that their guests have a great stay.
SEO success happens naturally if you focus on what you do well, and don’t forget about mentions of your brand beyond your website. You can piggyback off the authority of a referral site or maybe even other review sites.
Learn more about how to prepare for Google’s page experience update.
Content Guru Doug Barney and I did a webinar with MarketingProfs on “Optimizing Your Site: How to Write for Google and the Reader” if you’re interested in taking a deeper dive into the subject.
Zach Stone is VP of Marketing at DeltaV Digital and has been an SEO and analytics consultant for Progress Software since 2018. With 12+ years of digital marketing experience he has developed a passion for analyzing data & connecting the dots between all marketing channels. When he is not walking his dog, Key Stone, he enjoys cooking, gaming, hiking, biking and making terrible puns.
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