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 what defines ideal SEO-friendly content.
There’s no shortage of advice on optimizing your meta description for a higher click-through rate, making sure you have the keyword phrase in your title tag, and the like. So we’re not going to go there.
Instead, this post focuses on processes that improve content quality while enabling search engines to better understand the 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.
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.
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.
Optimization Tips That Improve Content and Help SEO
So, where do you start? How do you make sure every piece is optimized for search and quality? Here are a few tips.
1. Understand Your Audience
Before you can write anything, research your audience fully. Go beyond the usual demographics of age, race, tax bracket, etc. Understand their daily pain points and needs. How do they spend their leisure time? What pop culture references resonate with them?
And most importantly, what are they searching for online?
2. Create Content Clusters Focused on Relevant Topics
Topic clusters help search engines and your audience discover more about a given topic. Plus, they are a great way to position yourself as an expert on a chosen topic. To this you’ll need:
- A pillar page.
- Supporting content that is semantically relevant.
- Well-structured internal linking with appropriate anchor text to tie this all together.
3. Outline Content That Matches Intent
Now, 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?
SERP features are helpful in better understanding search intent. MarketMuse Suite shows the SERP features that appear alongside search results for a particular search query.
4. Research and Choose Your Keywords
I know what I said before: You shouldn’t be using keywords as your sole SEO ranking tool. But keywords still play a somewhat important role in your content.
First of all, keywords create a framework for your piece. If you’ve chosen family-friendly beaches as your keyword, you know exactly what you’re going to write about.
You also know which subtopics to choose to cover all angles of a topic and create a quality piece. Some related topics are: sand, picnic tables, ice cream, sand castles, nature trails, etc.
Keywords also play an important role in your technical optimization. Using them in your metadata, for example, will help Google categorize your content.
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 generated lots of traffic. And it wasn’t because they thoroughly optimized their page for a particular keyword that page has done so well.
5. Hire the Right Writers or SMEs
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.
That’s also true of subject-matter experts (SMEs). Professors, doctors, executives in a particular industry, even your local landscaper can act as SMEs and write a piece that displays that essential EAT quality.
6. Write In-Depth Assignment Briefs
This is an important step. By giving your writers an in-depth summary of exactly what you want, you’re more likely to get back a piece that fits your needs. Include title suggestions, keywords, topics and subtopics, sources and internal pieces to link to and questions to answer.
7. Edit for Quality and SEO
When you get the piece back, go beyond editing for grammar, spelling, content and flow. Keep in mind the optimization elements you have to include.
When I got a piece from a writer, I first edited for quality and then for SEO. I would switch to HTML view in my CMS and edit tags and metadata. I would make sure there were enough images and that the links were quality and working.
8. Pull All the SEO Levers
Finally, make a checklist of all the SEO optimization elements every piece should contain. Editors should go through the checklist for every piece to make sure they are fully optimized.
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.
Written by Laurie Mega