Once upon a time, not so very long ago, the common advice for getting more eyeballs on your website was simple: publish regularly, and comment on and link to other sites. The writers on those sites would then generally return the favor.
A lot has changed in the last decade, and the internet is now a very crowded, very busy place. As the number of websites has exploded, and more and more online distractions fight for your attention, it's become much more of a challenge to cut through the noise and make your voice heard.
In our last post, we discussed several simple ways to make your website more discoverable. The first step we recommend is improving your SEO, or search engine optimization. A lot of people think of SEO as being complicated or a type of cheating— gaming the system by writing for robots rather than writing for people. This viewpoint stems from an incomplete understanding of what SEO is all about, and how it has evolved and continues to evolve.
Writing for SEO is simply good writing.
Here's what you need to know about SEO and putting it to work for your website.
What SEO means
When someone searches for a term on a search engine, they are then given results for that term based on an algorithm. Writing for SEO just means writing in a manner that optimizes your placement within those search terms: the higher up you appear, the better your odds of being seen and getting traffic on your site.
Generally speaking, readers who arrive via search engine (“organic traffic”) are internet gold, because they have arrived at your site looking specifically for what you are offering.
What SEO doesn't mean
When publishers first started to catch on to how SEO worked, some began using what we refer to as “black hat” practices. Along with “invisible” keywords and questionable/irrelevant linking, this included keyword stuffing (using the same search phrase over and over again in an article in an effort to rank highly for that phrase), which left a lingering perception of SEO being writing for robots. Uninteresting and repetitive at best, obnoxious and irrelevant at worst, and usually not very helpful for humans.
Writing for SEO AND humans
The good news is that search engines have continued to evolve and refine their algorithms, so that writing for SEO is more and more the same as writing for humans. Google WANTS the top search returns to be practical, informative, and useful. Learning to write with SEO in mind means making your content far more discoverable, and can help inform and format your writing so that you provide a better experience for your reader.
With all that in mind, our tips for writing for SEO and humans:
Determine your keywords first. What is your main topic? Narrow that down to a single word or short phrase. This helps search engines to determine what your post is about, and helps keep you focused on your topic.
Determine related searches. If someone searched for your keyword, what else do they likely want to know about that topic? Answering those questions as well will make for a better experience for your reader, keep them on your site longer (which is something algorithms look for), and lead you to naturally include related keywords that enhance search engines' understanding of your topic.
Remember that Google isn't the sole search engine. The Google algorithm is the gold standard for SEO, and it makes sense to adhere to Google's best practices for that reason. However, using other popular searchable sites like Amazon, Pinterest, Reddit, food recipe sites, etc, will help you refine what people are actively searching for.
Remember that searches change over time. Use common sense— not all keyword returns will make sense for your topic. For instance, at certain times of year insomnia cookies is the top keyword search return for insomnia, because the shop Insomnia Cookies delivers cookies until very late at night and is a nice gift for students cramming for finals. Insomnia cookies are probably not a good fit for your post about finding ways to fall and stay asleep, however.
TIP: Doing a little research can help you greatly when it comes to being competitive for a specific keyword. There are many programs that can help you find that sweet spot of terms with high search volume and low competition, but there's a certain level of time commitment involved. Google AdWords and Google Trends are free options that pertain specifically to Google, the king of search engines.
Use useful descriptions for images. We often forget Google Images as part of Google search. When titling your images, be descriptive, and make sure to fill out the alt text field when uploading— this is what appears if the image does not appear, filling in the blanks for those readers. Search engines can't “see” images, so this practice puts them in context.
Be thorough. Make sure you actually answer whatever question or search that brought readers to your post. No one likes a bait and switch! Google's algorithm prefers longer, more informative posts: the average first page return contains 1,890 words. Also, you don't want someone to arrive at your post and immediately click away because it doesn't fill their need (a “bounce”). Google takes these fast bounces into account as well.
Be organized. Break your content up into organized pieces and set them off with informative headlines using H2, H3, etc. Use italics and bold to point out key phrases. This all alerts search engines as to what's important, and allows the human skimming eye to quickly digest the highlights of your article.
TIP: Using a plugin like the very popular Yoast for SEO will help you remember to do all the little things that boost SEO on every post.
Pay special attention to the beginning and end of your post and cite sources. When it comes right down to it, everything you need to know about SEO you learned writing essays in school:
- pick a topic
- tell us what you're going to tell us
- give information, broken into their own sections, using examples and source material (cite your sources)
- tell us what you told us
Google weighs the beginning and end of each post slightly more, and notices when you link out to credible sources. This also offers authority and confidence to your readers.
It may feel redundant to state your topic/use your keywords several times, but it helps both search engines and humans to understand what you're writing about and how the post hangs together.
[clickToTweet tweet=”Should you write for search engines, or should you write for humans? How to write for both:” quote=”Should you write for search engines, or should you write for humans? How to write for both:”]
While there are tweaks you can make to optimize your content for discoverability by writing for SEO, ultimately your main priority should be writing for your audience. Search engines may bring people to your site, but it's YOU— your content, your style, your writing— that keeps them there and keeps them coming back, and a loyal reader is the best kind of reader. Ideally writing for SEO and writing humans should work hand-in-hand, complementing each other.
However: if your audience responds best to cheeky, slang filled copy, then you do you and give your audience what it needs. The worst thing you can do is try to shoehorn SEO practices into your writing if it makes that writing stilted, repetitive and unenjoyable. As SEO continues to evolve, it will catch up to where you are.
Until then, working within SEO best practices simply means clear, concise, informative, useful writing that's easy for readers to process. Don't we all want more of that?
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