SEO 101, Part 3: Write Great Content

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This is the third of a 5-part series

If you’ve been following this series, by now you have a basic understanding of how search engines work and know how to discover what your target visitor is looking for. Now you’re ready to put this information to work and start creating optimized content that will bring more visitors to your website.

Writing for people 

The most important thing to keep in mind while creating content is to write for your audience. Not Google, not Bing, not Yahoo. Some website owners and search engine optimizers use tricks to try and fool search engines into sending traffic to a page. This is a bad, bad, bad idea for a couple of reasons:

  • The Google police WILL catch you. Google and the other search engines actively, constantly look for websites that violate their terms and conditions. Google et al. continually update their algorithms to automatically detect pages and websites trying to cheat the system. Even if you aren’t caught by the algorithm, the search engines review reports of cheating submitted by the public and will take manual action to punish sites that attempt to fool the algorithm, or violate the guidelines. It’s pretty easy to report pages that violate the guidelines… is it too far-fetched to imagine your competitors might notice if you cheat, and report you?
  • The second (and more important) reason is that the search engines are not your target audience. You have specific goals for your website. You want your visitors to buy something from you, or think of you as a thought leader (so they trust you and so buy something), or engage with you, or read your content and think you are (cool, smart, knowledgeable, etc.). Even if you’re a publisher selling advertising on your site, you want your readers to appreciate the content enough that they will read it and visit more pages. In every one of these cases, you’ll be more successful if you create high quality content for your audience. Bringing random traffic to your site won’t accomplish your goals. You want to bring the right visitors – the ones who will be happy with the content you are sharing with them. If your visitors find your content valuable, they will be more likely to convert (whatever that means to your specific business), link to it, and share it with their social networks.

Six best practices for writing content

These tips work both for search engine ranking and serving your visitors.    

1. Target 1 keyword per page. Remember the keyword research you did when you were considering your target audience? Pick the single word or phrase that the article/page you’re writing should distill, that it can be found by. It’s difficult to optimize a page for more than one or two keywords, so select something that will resonate with your audience.

2. Include the keyword in your copy. If a visitor is coming to a page on your website from a search engine, they expect to see the words they searched on in the page. You want to use each keyword phrase three to four times within your copy — more if it makes sense and still sounds natural.

3. But don’t overdo it. You are writing for real people, not search engines. You want your writing to sound natural. If your text sounds awkward to you, slice your keyword usage or use synonyms.

4. Use the exact term. Search engines are very good at interpreting a searcher’s intent, but they still rank pages that exactly match a searcher’s query higher than a page that has all the words –just in a different order.Your keyword research told you how your customers think and the words they use. This includes the order in which they use words. Take advantage of this research and write your content accordingly.

As an example, “Symptoms of diabetes” is not the same as “diabetes symptoms”, and returns different rankings. didn’t rank in the top three for “symptoms of diabetes.” They instead optimized for “diabetes symptoms,” probably because this was the precise term much of their audience was using. Every other factor remains the same, but because the word order matches the search query, they are able to bump WebMD and down and take the number two spot on a query that gets 673,000 searches each month. This increased ranking for this one term brings an estimated 40,000 additional highly qualified visitors each month that would otherwise go to one of their competitors.

5. Don’t over optimize. People may not consciously know what’s wrong with your page, but if you use the exact same words in the exact same order, too many times, your visitors will feel like something isn’t right. This requires a balancing act with #4, but you want to make sure that you use natural language to communicate your message (synonyms, varying word order, etc.). Use the exact term in strategic locations (see below) and throughout the body copy when appropriate, but if a different term makes more sense when you are writing the main copy on the page, use it! Never sacrifice the user experience to force your copy to meet a SEO goal.

6. Page length. Page length should be dictated by the message you want to communicate, not an arbitrary limit. A minimum of 250 words is a good target. Longer copy provides a better opportunity for keyword placement that sounds good and allows you to provide more information to your visitors.

Write for the machine

It’s not entirely about people; there are some mechanical issues where judicious keyword use will help you. There are four places where you want to make sure you include your target keyword:

1. Title Tag. Get this one right! It helps tell search engines what the page is about. It’s displayed when someone bookmarks your page, and shown in search results. A well-written title tag that uses the same keywords your audience uses will help your page rank better and will increase the number of searchers that click through to your content.

2. URL The URL is another extremely important place to put your keywords. It will help your page ranking because people linking to your page will automatically include your keywords in the link. It will also help visitors make the decision to visit your page. When you include your keywords, separate the words with a dash. Removing the spaces and smashing the words together make them hard to read, and underscores are treated as a real character instead of a word separator (e.g., “Diabetes_symptoms” reads as a single 17-letter word). 

Which of these two pages about diabetes symptoms are you more likely to visit?


3. Headlines and sub-headlines. Headlines help your audience understand what a page is about and quickly navigate to the sections that interest them. Search engines understand this and look at content with header tags <h1> to help understand what a page is about. Don’t overdo it though. If you have a paragraph of text in a <h1> tag, search engines will think it is spam. Try to limit your <h1> tags to 10 or fewer words.

4. Call to action links (hyperlinks). The web is built on links. Links are how search engines find new pages to index and how people discover new content to read. When you link to another page, it is a vote of confidence for the content on the page you are linking to. The anchor text (the words in your text that you hyperlink) tells both readers and search engines why you think the content you are linking to is important. It won’t help the page you are working on rank better, but it will help the pages you are linking to. It will also help your visitors understand why they should follow your link.


Posts so far:

Upcoming posts:

  • Part 4: Optimize your site for SEO
  • Part 5: SEO tactics including navigation and canonical URLs

Note: Last week we promised to discuss the old chestnuts of SEO that don’t work anymore this week, but we realized that the information in this post needs the keywords “good + SEO” and the things that don’t work require the keywords “bad + SEO.” If a single post/page/article can’t be represented by a single key word phrase, then do consider breaking the post/etc. into sections that can have their own natural keywords. The Bad SEO post will be published as an epilogue when this series finishes.