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SEO Content Optimization Tips for 2021

14 min read

Writing for search engine optimization is always a tricky undertaking. Just as you think you’ve got all the right elements to rank on search, Google releases another algorithm and your content is pushed down the ranks.

Why does this happen? What is the special sauce content creators need to rank?

The answer? There is no special sauce, and there’s no secret hack ranking sites are keeping to themselves.

It all boils down to two things: SEO optimization and quality content. That’s what defines ideal SEO-friendly content.

Improving Content Quality Versus SEO Optimization

Which one of these will get eyeballs on your content? Is one more important than the other? Let’s explore these two concepts.

What’s the difference between optimization and content quality?

Before we dig into one versus the other, you need to understand the difference between optimization and content quality.

Optimization refers to all the technical fixes you make to improve your SERP ranking. That includes the use of keywords throughout your piece, proper technical formatting (title and H2 tags, for example), metadata; and proper, working internal and external links.

All of these details help Google’s crawlers get a clear picture of what your content is. It also gives them the first clue as to whether or not your content is quality. If you’re missing H2 tags, for example, it signals to crawlers that your blog post has no subheads and may not be covering the topic in depth.

Other optimization techniques include the appropriate use of quality imagery; content that is responsive or mobile-first; or quality video, infographics or other visuals that enhance the user experience. These are also a big part of how Google ranks content.

Quality content, on the other hand, refers to how well-written your content is. To evaluate that, Google uses a combination of crawlers and real people. Content is examined to ensure that your topic is truly addressed in an in-depth way, and that it matches a user’s search intent, rather than detracting from it.

Now, at this point you might wonder if you could just get away with optimizing your content for those ranking factors without having to go back and edit (or rewrite) your blog post.

Not really. You should absolutely make sure every piece is optimized, but be aware that Google and other search engines are putting more and more emphasis on quality content when they rank search results.

Here’s why.

Why Is Traditional On-Page SEO Not Enough?

There was a time, from about 2005 to the beginning of this decade, when the name of the game was on-page SEO. You had a keyword phrase on which you wanted to rank. You plugged that keyword into your title, the first 50 words of your post and then every 100 or so words after that (if your piece was even that long). You threw that same keyword phrase into your conclusion plus a few times in your metadata and you were good to go. That was the extent of on-page optimization.

The goal was to get the attention of web crawlers by creating content around a search term users were looking for. If you included the term enough, search engines would pick up on that and push your content to the top.

Unfortunately, not everyone on the internet was interested in creating informative, well-researched content that truly satisfied users’ needs. What resulted was a pervasive lack of quality content.

Some content creators posted short blogs that only lightly addressed a topic or keyword. Some content had nothing to do with a chosen keyword at all. And, even worse, some content, particularly in the health and wellness space, included un-researched or blatantly wrong information that endangered the lives of readers.

As users’ trust in online content waned, Google and other search engines stepped in to regulate content through their search results.

A depiction of major Google updates since 2010.

In 2015, Google released their Search Engine Quality Evaluator Guidelines. In this very detailed document, Google outlines what they look for in the quality content they push to the top of SERPs. Essentially, they’re looking for well-written, in-depth, well-researched content that truly addresses user intent.

In other words, when a user searches for information on how to treat a sunburn, they should get articles that give them safe, effective options and step-by-step directions from either an expert or a writer who has consulted experts and other reputable sources.

Google also cracks down on low-quality, or thin, content through their algorithm releases. In the past, algorithms have rewarded content that display EAT (expertise, authority and trustworthiness), as well as content with quality backlinks, longer pieces that cover subtopics and posts with quality imagery and video.

So, while good keyword research is still important in identifying key topics to write about, the idea of plugging in short- or even long-tail keywords as a means to push your content up in the SERP rankings is a thing of the past.

AI and natural language technology are making search much more intuitive. What search engines and users are really looking for is content that truly serves a purpose.

Can You Optimize for Search and Improve Your Content at the Same Time?

The answer is a resounding yes. You should go through every piece you own for both optimization and content quality.

Think about it. If you simply optimize and don’t improve the quality of your content, Google is going to get wise to you and punish your site by pushing it down in the ranks. If you improve your quality but don’t optimize for SEO, you’ll be missing all those signals the crawlers use to match your pieces to search terms.

SEO Content Optimization Tips

So, where do you start? How do you make sure every piece is optimized for search and quality? Here are a nine tips.

1. Match Content With User Intent

A piece of content will often have trouble ranking if there’s intent mismatch. Get it wrong and all the optimization tips in the world won’t help your content rank. MarketMuse can help you do some of that intent analysis at scale and alert you to cases of fractured intent. Those are situations where the search engine results page (SERP) shows multiple intents.

MarketMuse Topic Card for the topic "user intent" showing top related pages and their title, volume trends by month, and current SERP features.
MarketMuse Topic Card showing SERP features for the topic “user intent.”

Still, you should examine the SERP manually to understand why searchers use the term you’re targeting. If the search result is oriented towards one intent, and you have a different interpretation, that could be problematic.

Think about how you can answer those searches in a meaningful way for your audience. What is the true intent behind a search? For example, if you want to write content about beach destinations, think about who your audience is. Are they younger readers looking for lively beaches with walk-up bars, or are they families looking for quiet beaches where their children can play safely?

Pay attention to any rich snippet as it can guide you to a better understanding of that intent. Either modify the intent of your content to match or consider creating a whole new piece.

Writers often struggle turning a list of keywords into great content. That’s because keywords tell you how people search for a topic, not how to write about it. For that you’ll need to turn to topics and topic modelling like that provided by MarketMuse.

A topic model provides a list of related topics that need to be covered when writing about a subject. They often offer suggestions as to how often the related topics should be mentioned. This has nothing to do with keyword density or keyword stuffing. Rather, it’s an indication of topic depth. Understand that certain topics will require further elaboration and adjust your content accordingly.

MarketMuse Suite Research Application showing topics related to the subject "family-friendly beaches" along with their suggested distribution and number of variants.
MarketMuse Research Application shows topic semantically related to the main focus topic.

Just keep in mind that a page can rank for many more terms than its target keyword phrase. Here are some examples of pages targeting low volume keywords that generate lots of traffic. They do so even though they’re not optimized for all these search terms.

3. Write for Information Gain

Optimize content to provide the most information in a concise manner. Look beyond search engine results to provide additional information that adds to the conversation and differentiates your content. We call this content writing for information gain.

Be concise. Try to impart as much information in as few words as possible. That’s the true mark of expertise. 

You can capture that using two MarketMuse metrics, Word Count and Content Score. Here, lower scores are better because you’re using fewer words to convey the same amount of information.

This doesn’t work if your content grader only uses letter grades, because you can’t divide letters by numbers.

4. Title Tag Optimization

Your title tag should contain the main keyword. At MarketMuse we call it the focus topic because it denotes what your content is about. Since this essentially defines your content, it’s one of the most important aspects of content optimization.

SEO copywriting principles come into play due to the limited number of words/characters available to convey the information (around 60 words/580 pixels). Naturally, you want your title tag to reflect the subject of your content. Ideally, you should also entice readers to click through based on the inclusion of other powerful and motivating words.

5. Optimize Content Structure and Subheadings

Hiring writers who specialize in your industry or chosen topic will help you create quality content. They’ll know the right sources to go to, the jargon used, and the esoteric information your readers already know.

Although not required, it’s best to stick with one H1 heading tag. Most articles have multiple H2 tags and higher, although it’s rare to see H5 through H7 tags.

Headings are important to humans and search engines in understanding the structure of an article. Take a look at the subheadings from this article. Notice how easy it is to understand the structure.

Table of contents for this article shows how it is structured.
Subheadings for this article.

When possible, incorporate a relevant keyword (a topic with high relevance) into each of the subheadings. Remember that the subheading reflects the content that follows in the section. Don’t try to force something into the subheading, otherwise you’ll set yourself up for a guaranteed content optimization fail.

6. Internal Linking Optimization

This is an important step. By giving your writers an in-depth summary of exactly what

Link to high authority pages on your site that are closely related to the topic. It’s a great way to boost your topical authority as you’re linking related pieces of content together into a cluster. Make sure to use appropriate anchor text that’s consistent with the main keyword (topic) of your content piece. 

The fastest way to do this is using MarketMuse (either free or paid). Provide it with the primary keyword (focus topic) of your content and it returns a list of possible connections. You’ll receive up to 10 different anchor texts, each with up to 10 different URLs. The anchor text comes from the topic model and it’s highly relevant, so stick to those anchor text suggestions.

MarketMuse Connect Application showing anchor text and suggested internal pages to link to.
MarketMuse Connect Application offers relevant linking suggestions including anchor text to build topic clusters.

7. External Linking Optimization

Here we’re not talking about link building. Rather, we’re looking to link externally to other valuable resources. It’s an important part of building authority as links to external sites are expected both by search engines and your audience.

But done incorrectly, this can prove disastrous to your SEO content strategy. 

The best links pointing to external resources are:

  • Authoritative
  • Relevant to the focus topic of your content.
  • Use anchor text with a relevant keyword.
  • Are non-competitive in the SERP. 
MarketMuse Connect Application showing anchor text and suggested external pages to link to.
MarketMuse Connect Application provides suggestions for links to relevant but non-competitive pages.

As with internal linking, MarketMuse can provide the same output for external links. It offers suggestions for external pages that are topically adjacent to that of your content. So while humans and search engines will find them relevant, the pages aren’t in direct competition.

8. Image Optimization

Finally, make a checklist of all the SEO optimization elements every piece should

When optimizing content, don’t neglect your images. Here are a few simple yet effective ways to optimize images.

  • Use descriptive filenames so search engines can understand the contents of the image.
  • Use alt text that describes the contents of the image. This is useful for search engines and screen readers (for members of your audience who may have a visually impairment).
  • Use appropriately sized images so that image files aren’t unnecessarily large.
  • Use image compression so that image file sizes are as small as possible.

9. Meta Description Optimization

Although Google will often rewrite the meta description it’s still a good idea to spend some time writing one out based on your target keyword phrase (focus topic). While it isn’t a ranking factor, a well-written meta description can improve click-through rate, which is a vital objective.

Once again, this is a great place to apply SEO copywriting principles. Aim to provide as much information as possible in a way that encourages searchers to click on your entry. Just make sure that it’s appropriate to your target keyword phrase; otherwise Google will likely rewrite it.

The Takeaway

You may have heard that SEO optimization is dead, but that’s not entirely true. It still serves an important role in Google and other search engines finding your content and matching it to certain search terms.

SEO strategy has evolved, so you shouldn’t rely on traditional methods to optimize content. Instead, create the absolute best content you can; content that search engines and, more importantly, your audience finds valuable.

What you should do now

When you’re ready… here are 3 ways we can help you publish better content, faster:

  1. Book time with MarketMuse Schedule a live demo with one of our strategists to see how MarketMuse can help your team reach their content goals.
  2. If you’d like to learn how to create better content faster, visit our blog. It’s full of resources to help scale content.
  3. If you know another marketer who’d enjoy reading this page, share it with them via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook.

Laurie is a freelance writer, editor, and content consultant and adjunct professor at Fisher College.  Her work includes the development and execution of content strategies for B2B and B2C companies, including marketing and audience research, content calendar creation, hiring and managing writers and editors, and SEO optimization. You can connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.