For most writers, creating content for the web is intimidating. Creating good quality content is hard enough but the mystery of search engine optimization can be enough to send a lesser writer running for the hills. In this short guide, we will take a look at how humans search online and also explore how search engines crawl, index, and rank content so that you can maximize the effectiveness of the content you create.
Write for humans not for search engines
Before we dive into how search engines work it is important to make a critical point. Please remember that you’re writing for humans and not for search engines. This cannot be stressed enough. Far too often, writers and SEO professionals get so caught up writing robot-friendly content that they end up completely neglecting the real humans that read their content. As a result, the content they create is confusing, boring, and repetitive. This type of uninspired content is NOT effective. Even if it does succeed in generating traffic, it will fail miserably at connecting with the user. Instead of inspiring a prospect to take action it will likely inspire them to hit the back button and find a competitor!
How Search Engines Work
What do search engines do?
Search engine algorithms are insanely complex but the methodology can be easily summarized. Search engines have three primary functions. They crawl, index, and rank website pages.
Crawl – Search engines like Google send out thousands of ‘robots’ that follow links on websites from page to page and site to site looking for new pages and new content. Once new content is found the content will be queued for indexing.
Index – When new content is discovered, search engines will closely examine that page and its content. The content of the page as well as a number of pieces of information about the page and its relationships are stored in a giant database of pages.
Rank – When a query happens, the search engines will evaluate the pages stored in the index to find the page that is the most relevant to the user’s search query and provide the searcher with results ranked in the order of relevance to their query.
How do search engines know what is relevant?
This is where things start to get tricky. In the early days of the Internet, search engines weren’t nearly as complex as they are today. If a content creator wanted to optimize a page for the keyword “cars” they would add the word “cars” on the page several times and before they knew it they were coming up for car queries. The more times a page said cars the more relevant that page was for the term. This seems great but it was so easily exploited that search engines really couldn’t provide meaningful results.
To combat this problem search engines began incorporating other ranking factors. At this point, nobody knows precisely how many ranking factors Google, Bing, and other search engines use but there are over 200 confirmed primary ranking factors that Google and other search engines use to help rank pages. These factors range from how fast a page loads to how many other websites link to a particular page. All of these can be indicators of the underlying quality, popularity, and messaging intent of the page. While each of these ranking factors play a role in how a website page ranks, many are outside the control of the writer and several of the most important factors are completely external to the website. For the purposes of this document, we will focus on the elements that can be directly influenced by the content developer.
One important element of relevance and rank is a concept that is directly related to the keywords that a user types and the keywords on the page. This concept is commonly known as Latent Semantic Indexing or LSI. LSI is best described with an example. Imagine a user enters a phrase like “cars” into a search engine. The word cars can have a wide range of meanings. When a user searches for cars they may be looking for new cars, used cars, Cars the movie, Matchbox Cars, or an infinite number of other possibilities. A search engine must take what that search enters and translate the words or phrase into something relevant. Most users realize this intuitively and will add more words to a common phrase. For example, if our fictitious user searches for “red cars character” the search engines will use the combination of keywords that was entered to find pages that are highly correlated with those phrases. In this case, there may be a number of pages about red sports cars or red cars for sale but our searcher is not looking to buy a car, and the search engines know that because the word “character” was part of the search. That word tips off the algorithm that what the searcher is really looking for is a character from the movie Cars that is red in color. The search engines will then return Red the firetruck and Lightning McQueen from Cars the movie because they’re both red in color and characters, even though terms like firetruck and Lightning McQueen were not entered at all! These mathematically keyword correlations are tremendously important in modern search engine optimization and we will dive deeper in the Keyword section.
How Users Search
Understanding how users search for items similar to the content you’re creating is immensely helpful in structuring your content in an effective way. For example, if you’re answering a question, including the question and the answer makes it very easy for both the search engine and the user to make the proper connection. When it comes to search queries there are three primary types of search queries:
- Navigational search queries – Searches where a user has a clear destination in mind. These are also often referred to as branded search queries. An example of a navigational search query could be a user typing in a phrase like Ford or Chevy with the clear intent to navigate to those websites.
- Informational search queries – Searches where users are looking for information. This could be asking a question like “how to wax a car” or “best scenic drives.”
- Transactional search queries – Searches with a clear intent to buy or engage. These could be searches for a specific item, model, service, or tool. This is where the bulk of commerce takes place. An example here might be a “2021 Toyota Tacoma” or a “Used Prius.”
Unless you’re the brand in question, obtaining a navigational search query is highly unlikely, but there is a tremendous amount of opportunity in both the informational search queries and the transactional search queries. Creating valuable content that answers the most commonly asked questions or provides the most common solutions searchers are looking for can help get in front of potential customers seeking information, and then you can use your content to inform them and turn them into a customer.
Keywords are one of the most overrated and underrated aspects of search engine optimization and web content development. They are critically important in many ways but they’re also only part of the equation. Writers and website owners can get so caught up worrying about cramming in every conceivable keyword that they dilute the meaning of a page or make it unappealing to readers. There is a more strategic approach that will yield exponentially better results. This concept is based on a three-tiered keyword strategy that you would apply uniquely to each content page of your website.
Every page should have a single primary keyword or keyword phrase. This keyword is the primary phrase that best represents the content on the page. This is typically the most common or popular phrase that users would use to find this particular content. This can contain multiple words but it must be something that is explicitly searched to find the content that will appear on the page.
This is a short list of keywords usually one to five at most but ideally two or less that are closely related to the primary keyword. For the phrase “cars” examples of secondary keywords might be “car”, “automobile”, “truck”, or “SUV”.
Related or LSI Keywords
Related keywords also known as LSI keywords are the keywords that would commonly appear alongside your primary keyword to help lend meaning. Again using the cars example, these could be phrases like “eco-friendly” or “MPG” or they could even be words like “new” and used” that lend meaning to the content of the page and help the search engines understand when to show a particular page.
Laying Out Your Page or Article
The recipe for a successful page makes strategic use of each of the types of keywords in very specific regions of the page. As the writer you have a good deal of flexibility over the content, the messaging, and the visual layout of your page or article, but it is advisable to use your keywords strategically throughout the page in the following format.
- URL: primary keywords
- Title tag: primary + secondary keywords
- Meta description: primary + secondary + related/LSI keywords
- Heading: primary + secondary keywords
- Subheadings: secondary + related/LSI keywords
- Body text: primary + secondary + related/LSI keywords
- Image alt text: primary + secondary + related/LSI keywords
Some of these elements like the URL or image alt text might be foreign concepts even to users that spend a tremendous amount of time on a website, so we will take a look at each of these elements and its key role in helping search engines understand a page.
The URL is the actual address of your page. Typically you won’t have control over the domain (which is the primary website address), but in most modern CMS systems there is some control over the next part of the website address often referred to as the permalink or slug. It is advisable to place the primary keyword in this portion of the URL.
For example: https://domain.com/enter-primary-keyword-here
Your page titles simply tell viewers, and search engines, what a particular piece of content is about. The title tag is one of the most critical places to put your primary keyword. This is the text you will see displayed in your browser tab when you open your webpage and it is also the text that will show on the search engine result pages as the primary blue link when your page displays.
Meta descriptions are brief descriptions of a web page that are not visible when viewing a page but they are visible to search engines. Meta descriptions are also the blue description and heading text displayed when your page shows on search engine result pages.
The heading is the primary headline for your page. The heading should make use of the <h1> heading tag and should contain the primary keyword but it can contain other supporting words. The headline is designed not only as a holder for your primary keyword but also as an opportunity to connect with and engage users to let them know they have found the answer to their query.
A web page can have many subheadings. These headings should use a combination of <h2> through <h6> heading tag types based on the true hierarchy of the content. These subheadings should help divide the content and make it easy for users to scan and understand and they should also contain secondary and related/LSI keywords.
Body text is the meat of the page. That is where the bulk of the on page text occurs. It is ideal to try to integrate your primary, secondary, and related/LSI keywords throughout your body content. It is best to do it in a clear and grammatically correct fashion. Resist the temptation to stuff a large number of keywords within your body content or use keywords in unnatural ways to force them onto the page. Certainly use your keywords to their full extent, but in ways that the keywords fit into the content and provide real value to the reader.
Also, make use of structural elements like blockquotes and bullets to help a reader understand the content and the search engines understand the relation of information.
With bullets you can:
- Quickly make or reiterate key points
- Highlight statistics that show the value of what you’re selling
- List different product options in a succinct way
- Set off important ideas so they’re easy to notice
Image alt text
When an image is inserted into a web page it should also have a corresponding alt tag. An alt tag is hidden text that describes the image. This text is helpful both for search engines and users using assistive browsers. It is ideal to include your primary, secondary, and related/LSI keywords within your alt tags but it is important to do so in a way that provides context and meaning to a user.
That’s It? Now I Am Optimized?
Those are certainly the key pieces of creating optimized page content but there is a lot more to creating successful website content. Getting users to a page is a critical part of online marketing, but providing them with interesting and engaging content that inspires action is the real goal. Aside from good SEO there are a few more things that can be done to make each webpage more successful:
Write to your audience:
Who is going to be finding and reading this content? What are their goals? Where are they in the buying process? Often thinking through the frequently asked questions about a particular topic or service can be a great springboard to finding the right topics and questions to answer for your readers. Also, it is critical to remember that your audience isn’t there to hear how great you are, they’re there to find a solution. Talk to your user not about yourself.
Write for your audience:
Resist the urge to use complex industry terminology. It is likely that potential customers are less familiar with these terms than you are. Writing clear, concise, and simple content that clearly speaks to all users is far superior to complex content that turns users away or baffles them.
Make use of images, lists, and headlines:
Users are rarely going to read your page or article from start to finish. They will look at the images, the headlines, the bullets, and other call-outs to get the general picture. Spend time making sure that these elements tell the right story and lead a user to take action just as they on-page content does.
Have a clear call to action:
Every webpage should invite the user to take the next step. This could be as simple as reading another article or it could be downloading a whitepaper, an e-book, or buying a product. Leaving a user at a dead-end is a huge missed opportunity. Each page should lead the user to the next logical step to keep the user engaged or inspire action.
Wrapping It Up
Following these simple tips will help you create more engaging, and better ranking search engine content. By leveraging the right page structure and a solid, strategic keyword mixture you can now create content that will attract, inform, and convert website visitors into customers!