When I first started out in content marketing, I was young and naive. I thought as many do, that content writing was simple. All I had to create was interesting, compelling content that was useful to my audience and then watch the users pour in.
Turns out, there’s a lot more to it than that.
Sure, your content might be topnotch, fulfilling every need of your target audience. But how do they know it’s there in the first place?
That’s the job of the search engines. And if you don’t write your content for them, as well, your audience will never find it.
Granted, search engines like Google do have human beings reviewing content. But they’re not the first set of eyes, so to speak, on your site. First, the search engine’s algorithms assess the quality of your content, and those algorithms are looking at your content very differently from the way humans do.
So how do you create content that satisfies both search engines and humans? It’s a tricky balance, but it can be done.
I’ve put together a guide to help you find that happy place.
The Path to SEO-Friendly Content
So what are search engines looking at when they look at your content? For them, it’s all about structure, relevance and quality.
Let me explain by giving you a set of building blocks with which to set up a quality article.
Topics and Keywords
There has been a lot of debate about keyword density and prominence in quality content, but let’s not go there. Let’s just say that before you write your blog post, you need a strong, focus topic.
A good topic frames the entire piece.
Now, this wasn’t always the case. Back when content marketing was in its infancy, there were those who believed they could pick a popular keyword, stuff it into a piece as many times as possible (hence the term keyword stuffing). They would throw content around it that may not even be related to the keyword. That was the extent of their on-page optimization.
Unsurprisingly, users found this to be extremely frustrating. When they don’t find your blog posts useful, your bounce rate skyrockets as your audience leaves in droves, never to return.
Enter user intent. It’s not enough to pick a good keyword and run with it. The content you create for it must match user intent. That means when someone types in a keyword to a search engine and clicks on a result, the content should match what the user expected to find.
This can become especially tricky if a keyword has multiple meanings. Let’s take, as an extreme example, the keyword polish. If I type that into Google, I get results for both nail polish and Polish culture.
Think about how your audience is searching for the content you want to create. In this case, you might want to rethink your keyword to better match your content and your user’s intent when searching.
Get more specific. Search for more long-tail keywords like nail polish or Polish language.
Search engines also evaluate user intent. If your content doesn’t match your keyword, you can get penalized for what they deem low-quality, or thin, content.
Just like keywords, titles were once an all-important element to ranking in search engines. And you always put your keyword as close to the beginning of your title as you could. I wrote so many articles with colons just so I could get the keyword at the beginning.
Dog Collars: What Are the Best Ones Out There?
Affordable Cruises: Find One That Fits Your Cruising Style
Free-Range Parenting: Is It For You?
But, according to Search Engine Journal, algorithms have become smarter. Now, it’s about having a well-written title that, once again, matches user intent. It’s still important to have the keyword in there, but it’s not the end-all-be-all.
A well-written, attention-grabbing title that matches what your users are looking for and, in turn, matches your content (you don’t want to be writing clickbait, here), will help boost your content with both search engines and your audience.
And don’t forget, click-through rate on your headline from SERPs, can impact rankings.
Subheads are also an important way for search engines to get a good picture of your content. They help the algorithms understand how content on a page is organized and ensure you’ve covered a topic fully and in a useful way.
Keywords, or variations of your keywords should appear in your subheads, as well.
Related Content and Keywords
Of course, you don’t have to use the exact same keyword throughout your piece. Algorithms are smarter than that now. If you’re writing, for example, about how to polish your nails, you could use variations like polishing your nails and how to apply nail polish, as well as keywords for related topics — how to dry nail polish quickly, the best nail polish for beginners.
Related topics and keywords prove to both your audience and search engines that you are covering your topic thoroughly, creating a quality piece.
It also serves another purpose, if you include other keywords related to the topic, you could start ranking on those related topics. Win, win!
When it comes to SEO and SEO-friendly content, it’s not all about what’s on the front end. Tagging on the back end plays a big role, too.
There are two types of tagging search engines look at. First, there’s your HTML tagging. Formatting your content correctly on the back end helps search engines like Google “read” your content and understand how it’s structured. Your HTML tags include h1, h2, alt tags, and video tags.
There are also meta tags. These include your title tags, your keyword, and subject tags and your meta description. The title tag and meta description are the tags help search engines determine what to display on SERPs.
The keyword and subject tags help organize your content within your own site and tell search engines what your content is about. Correct tagging makes it that much easier for search engines to categorize and prioritize your content.
Correct linking to credible sources is also really important in creating SEO-friendly content. Google especially wants to see you linking to statistics and background information from credible sources. And, of course, any links you include should work. Broken links make for poor user experience and your ranking is likely to suffer as a result.
Make sure you don’t link to directly competitive pages in the SERPs. Whether it’s on page one or page five doesn’t matter. Linking to another page sends a vote of confidence to search engines, so it’s not wise to link to pages which you’re looking to outrank.
Let’s not forget internal linking. Though most people don’t give this nearly enough thought, it’s one of those things that can really move the needle. Here’s a good post by Kevin Indig on optimizing internal links.
Link optimization at this level isn’t something you can perform manually. If you’re looking to seriously up your game, you’ll need to automate this process leveraging some sophisticated AI.
How to Write Compelling and Useful Content
Now, just because you’re including these more technical elements in your content doesn’t mean that your content can no longer be engaging and valuable to your users.
On the contrary, the more useful your content and the more compelling your readers find it, the greater your pageviews and the higher your time on page. Both of these metrics signal the value of your content to search engines, boosting it in the ranks.
Speak to Your Audience
So how do you make sure your content is compelling and useful? Create your audience persona and stick with it.
In understanding your audience, you understand the kinds of questions they would ask. If you can make a list of relevant questions, you can answer those questions effectively, creating useful content for your readers.
Let’s take our nail polish example again. Millennial buyers are more likely to be interested in all-natural beauty products, including nail products. If you’re creating content on the best nail polishes out there, including more toxic products or brands that test on animals may not answer a millenial’s questions about buying nail polish.
An algorithm or Google evaluator may not pick up on this marketing subtlety, but readers will. If you’re not writing for the right audience, you’re not speaking to them. They will leave.
The same holds true for compelling content. Stick to topics that interest your audience if you want to attract their attention; content that addresses their pain points and speaks to their lives.
If your audience persona describes a single mom, for example, she’s most likely going find content about how other single moms are coping compelling. She probably won’t find an article about being the perfect Pinterest mom all that interesting.
Compelling and useful content goes beyond the content itself, though. You should take care to structure your content in a way that keeps your reader interested, too.
People don’t really read an entire post from end to end. More often, they scan content for the information they’re looking for by looking at subheads and the first few words of a paragraph.
That makes your subheads that much more important to your content. It’s the place you should be answering your audience’s questions.
Don’t be vague or mysterious in your subheads. Get right to the point. Use your keywords and let readers know exactly what the section will be about.
How to Create More Relevant Content
You’re probably seeing a pattern, here. Creating compelling and useful content that is valued by search engines is, in large part, about creating relevant content. We’ve talked about content that is relevant to specific search intents and to your audience. All of this is key to producing quality, content with high-ranking potential.
To really nail relevant content, it should address your user’s search intent (yes, we’re going to talk about that some more) and it should cover a topic as in-depth as possible.
More on User Intent
When Google released their Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines (pdf), they gave brands a lot of insight into user intent and how it affected ranking.
Google instructs evaluators to look for four kinds of user intent when assessing content quality:
Know Query: A query in which a user is looking for information on a topic
Do Query: A query made to accomplish a goal or take an action
Website Query: When the user is looking for a specific website
Visit-in-Person Query: When a user is either looking for a specific business or a category of businesses to visit in person
Most likely, your content is going to fall into the Know Query or Do Query categories. You’re either creating content to help people learn about a topic or help them complete a task, whether that be meditating or buying a new snowblower.
Google’s evaluators will compare your keywords to the effectiveness of your content in satisfying the intent of that keyword.
Answer The Questions Readers Are Asking
Behind every search is a question waiting to be answered – most likely there’s more than one. Your job is to determine what the question(s) are and answer them concisely within your content.
Poring over all the top ranking articles to figure out the questions that are answered is one way to do this – although it is extremely time-consuming.
Sometime you’ll get lucky and can just scan the SERPs.
But luck is no way to run a business. Fortunately, MarketMuse Suite offers a reliable way to gain insight into the questions be asked by searchers on any topic.
Covering a Topic Completely
As I mentioned before, when you’re covering a topic, there will most likely be subtopics with their own keywords to address, as well. Don’t be afraid to include them in our piece.
In fact, go looking for those subtopics and make sure you include them. Doing so will only help your ranking and keep your audience interested in your content.
There’s strong evidence that Google algorithms now use topic modeling to determine how in-depth a topic is covered in a piece of content. Topic modeling looks at keywords and phrases throughout a piece to find related meanings.
They’re not just looking for keywords, they’re looking for topic variants, or essentially subtopics. Content Marketing Institute recommends a very specific placement of keywords and their variants to help you rank.
Focus Topic: Your main topic (i.e., your target keyword), as well as its variants, should be mentioned in the headline, first paragraph, and as frequently as possible while sounding natural.
Related Topics: Each subject most commonly associated with your main topic should have its own subheading within your content to ensure that it’s discussed appropriately.
Secondary Related Topics: Somewhat tangential to your focus topic, if your competitors are discussing these related topics, you should too, to improve your chances of ranking. (If you find a secondary related topic is more important than the competition deems it, take that opportunity to differentiate your content and cover it more deeply than the top-ranking pages.)
There are a couple of ways you can find good subtopics and their keywords. You could just google your keywords and then take a look at the related searches at the bottom of the page.
There are, however, tools that can make your research a little easier. If you’re already using a tool like SEMRush or Ahrefs, it can help you find related keywords and their current coverage in search. Once you choose your keywords, MarketMuse can help you find related topics to ensure you’re covering every angle.
Bad SEO Tactics to Avoid
We’ve talked about all the things you should do when creating quality content. Now, let’s talk about the things you shouldn’t do.
There are some tricks content creators have used in the past (and even now) to get their content ranked. But with every update, Google algorithms are getting wiser and wiser to these tricks, and so are users.
I talked about this a little bit above. Keyword stuffing is the practice of grabbing a popular keyword and packing it into every title, subtitle, tag and paragraph you can to try to push your content up on SERPs.
Since search engines are putting more emphasis on content quality and relevance, keyword stuffing doesn’t work anymore.
It’s also very off-putting to readers, particularly if it’s an awkward keyword like how to polish nails. In fact, since Google uses topic modeling to understand the content on a page, you don’t have to include exact keywords in your content anymore. You can now include topics and keywords with semantic relevance. If your favorite keyword tool gives you how to paint nails, you can include how to polish your nails, polishing your nails for special occasions or nail polish for beginners.
Including Unrelated Content
I talked about this, too. Google knows when you content doesn’t match your keywords, and so does your audience. If a site tries to rank this way, it will get a double whammy. First, Google will punish it for thin content. Second, users will leave as soon as they realize what’s happening, reducing time on page, a sure signal to Google that you’re not legit.
Bad Linking Practices
As I said before, first and foremost, make sure all of your links are live and going to the right places. Broken or misdirected links signal to Google that your content is not quality.
And don’t link to disreputable sites, either. You will lose credibility with both Google and your audience.
Finally, make sure your content is original to your site as well as to the internet in general. Duplicate content is flagged and punished by search engines.
The SEO Guideline to Remember
It really is a balancing act, creating content that is relevant, useful and compelling to your audience that also ranks well in search. No one method or formula is going to get you the result you want. Rather, keeping audience in mind, doing your research and making sure you’ve covered the technical, structural aspect of your content will help you create well-rounded, optimized content pieces.
Featured image vector designed by Freepik