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Optimizing Content for Search Engines and Users

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This post is part of a series called SEO Fundamentals for Web Designers.
Take Control of Your Social Snippets
Website Optimization Techniques for Local Businesses

So far during this session we’ve talked about various technical measures that can be taken to optimize your website for search engines. But what’s perhaps even more important is the content of your pages. Today we take a look at how we can optimize our content not only for search engines, but also for users.


Why Quality Content Matters

When we’re using a search engine, we’re looking for information to solve a problem. These problems can be very diverse:

  • Is a product worth buying? Search for reviews.
  • Looking for a place to eat? Perhaps Google can help you find something in the area.
  • Don’t know how to unclog a drain? There’s bound to be a how-to article or video.
  • I’m bored. Show me some cat videos.
  • ...

A search engine’s job is to list the most relevant pages that will solve these problems. The most relevant results will be displayed on the first page, less relevant on further pages.

When we compare first page results with lower-ranked pages, we usually see a big difference in quality. The former are probably extensive articles that are easy to read and contain a lot of valuable information. Chances are that the latter mostly have thin content (little or no original content that is of low value).

Quality content will automatically attract more links. This will in turn improve the ranking of the page. As we’ve seen in our introduction to SEO article; every link to a website is seen as a vote for that website. The more links you get, the higher the page will rank. Remember that links from high authority websites are more valuable than links from less established sites.

Another benefit of quality content is that it’s easily shared with others. Interesting web pages will quickly find their way to Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Linkedin... thus increasing your social visitors.


A Word About Content Strategy

The creation of quality content is often neglected. Web designers have been talking about information architecture, user experience, user interfaces, etc. for years. But what's the point of having the 'perfect' web design when there's no content to match it?

That's where Content Strategy comes into play. Content Strategy refers to the planning, development, and management of informational content.

The first question we should ask ourselves is; why are we publishing content? What's the purpose? Nowadays a lot of companies are starting with the creation and sharing of content in order to attract new customers (Content Marketing). But a blogger will probably have a different goal in mind. A content strategy bridges the gap between business goals (selling products, improving customer loyalty...) and visitor needs (solving a problem).

Note: Because this is an SEO Session, we're going to talk about content strategy from an SEO perspective. If you want to learn more about Content Strategy and its other varied aspects, I highly recommend Content Strategy: the Philosophy of Data by Rachel Lovinger.


Content Planning

First step first: the planning of content. When it comes to search engine optimization, good planning can mean the difference between 100 visitors to a page and 1,000 visitors. It's an important factor for success. The first step of this process is deciding what we're going to write about.

Choosing a Topic

Sometimes you know already know what you're going to write about. Unfortunately this isn't always the case. A lot of writers have trouble coming up new topics to write about (problematic if you're producing content for a living). Thankfully there are several ways to find topics that are interesting for your users.

My favorite method to find new topics is by using Quora. Even for seemingly boring niches you'll find valuable topics in no time. Let's say you're selling lawn fertilizer and you want to write some articles for the company blog, in order to capture some long-tail traffic. If you head over to Quora and look for questions that use the word 'lawn', you'll find plenty of good threads that can be turned into interesting articles;

  • how to stop dog urine from killing grass,
  • best time of the day to water the lawn,
  • how to get rid of moss

There are plenty of other sources to find interesting topics, such as search engines, social media, blogs, forums... Dainis Graveris wrote an article to help you come up with ideas.

Keyword Research

It’s always a good idea to do some keyword research prior to writing an article. Choosing the right keyword can help you attract the right kind of visitors. Google's AdWords Keyword Tool is a great starting point for this task.

Let’s say you’re a kitchen manufacturer. You have a website where you write articles about everything that is related to kitchens. Via these articles you want to get some extra visitors to your website. For your next article you’ve decided to write about popular kitchen design tools, i.e. computer programs that help you plan a kitchen. But is ‘kitchen design tools’ a good keyword phrase? We can use the Adwords Keyword Tool to check this.

Note: Log in to your Adwords account (or create one) to see the ‘ad group ideas’ tab.

kitchen design tools in adwords

In the keyword ideas list I noticed the term ‘software’. Perhaps we should use ‘kitchen design software’ instead of ‘kitchen design tool’? When we take a look at the amount of monthly searches, we see that the phrase that includes software has a higher search volume.

kitchen design software in adwords

To gain a larger audience for our article we should consider using the keyword-rich phrase ‘kitchen design software’.

Remember that these are estimates; the amount of visitors you’ll get is probably much lower. This largely depends on the ranking of your page, rich snippets, author information, title, description...

Research

Now that you know what you're going to write about it's time to do a little research. The chances are that there's probably another website which has already covered the same topic. So why should people visit your page instead of the other websites?

Do some research and see what other people have written. Think about how you can improve upon these articles. Is there important information that they've forgotten? Are there statements that you disagree upon? Use this information to come up with a relevant, unique piece of content.


Content Development

So far we've selected the 'right keywords' and we've performed some research around the subject. Now it's time to start writing the content.

You'll need to add some structure to the article to help people find the information they're looking for. Nobody likes to read a big chuck of text that lacks paragraphs, headings and an overall structure.

There are some tips that can help you write good articles, at least from a structural point of view. Not only users, but also search engines will appreciate this. A good structure makes it easier for visitors to read the page.

Structuring content

One of the easiest ways to add structure is via headings. Headings effectively cut an article into smaller, bite-size pieces. It helps readers scan the article for relevant information. Assuming your choice of heading elements properly represents the hierarchy of your content, search engines spend extra attention to them, especially h1 and h2.

You can use bold for important elements of your content. The SEO-value of this is negligible, but it’s very useful for your visitors. Bold text is a great way to emphasize important parts of your text. Google treats the bold and strong tag with the same weight.

Lists are a great way to structure certain pieces of information. They are usually a real eye-catcher and they can break-up big chunks of text. According to Bill Slawski, lists also have some SEO value. His findings are based on a Google patent about a document ranking system that is based on semantic distance. The semantic distance between the list title and list item is actually shorter than the semantic distance between list items.

A picture says more than a thousand words. Add some images to your articles to make it visually more appealing. We recently published an article on how to optimize your images for SEO with some useful tips. Images can not only get you extra visitors via Google Image Search, but can also help your ranking. Correlation analysis has shown that images, specifically the alt-text, are a well-correlated metric for SEO.

Internal links can also help establishing an SEO-friendly site architecture. Instead of using a generic anchor text (e.g. ‘here’, ‘this article’...) use keywords from the page in question. Internal links are also useful for visitors who want to know more about a topic.

Rather than scrolling down the page past a slew of ads, users want to see content right away.

Make sure that the beginning of your content is visible above the fold. Some websites dedicate a lot of space above the fold to ads. If visitors first need to scroll down to see the content, that’s not very user friendly. That’s why Google started penalizing websites that were top heavy with ads. But how much is too much? And do we still need to take the fold into account because of the variety of screen sizes? That's left to the webmaster to decide. However, Matt Cutts says that this change only affects sites that load the top of the page with ads to an excessive degree or make it difficult to find the actual content.

Keyword Placement

Remember that we did some keyword research? It's only natural that we want our page to rank for that keyword.

Search engines pay extra attention to certain parts of a page. If we want our page to rank for a specific keyword, we need to use it in these parts:

  • The URL: a strong indicator for the relevance of the page.
  • The title: use the keyword as close to the beginning as possible.
  • Headings: the keyword should be used in one or more headings (h1, h2, h3).
  • Images: use the keyword in the file name and alt-tag.
  • First paragraph or near the top of the page.

Besides these elements you'll probably use the keyword several times in your article. It would be strange to write an article about a topic, for example the White House, without using that keyword. If possible use synonyms to make your text less repetitive.

Don’t forget that keyword stuffing is bad. Make sure that the text is natural and that it’s easy to read. Keyword abuse is not appreciated by visitors nor search engines.

The Myth of Keyword Density

Some articles talk about ‘the perfect keyword density’. It’s a ratio that shows how often a keyword has been used. Keyword density is usually expressed in percentages (e.g. 10 times in 1000 words is a keyword density of 1%).

Is there a perfect keyword density?

No. Keyword density is not a measure for quality content. Adding irrelevant keywords to a page will not make it rank for that keyword (e.g. the keyword ‘red sweaters’ in an article about gardening). It’s best to use your keywords in a natural way.

Creating Unique Content

Search engines want to show the most relevant pages for a search query. Having two or more pages with almost identical content is not very useful for users. That's why search engines' algorithm filter out duplicate content.

Rand Fishkin from SEOmoz notes that unique content is not the same as unique value. You can copy an article and change most of the words. Technically you've created unique content, but you have not provided unique value. As we've said before: unique value comes from quality content that solve the searcher's problem. Always ask yourself: why should he read my article instead of my competitor's?


Content Management

Now that you have published your articles, content management comes into play. When it comes to content management, an SEO is mostly concerned about the accessibility of the content.

Choose the Correct Redirects

There will be times when you need to move domains or pages. If you want to prevent an overdose of 404-errors in Webmaster Tools you should implement redirects.

The two major redirects are 302 and 301. Webmasters often use a 302 redirect to send traffic to a new URL. Unfortunately this is seen as a temporary redirect so it passes no link juice to the new page. This means that the new page starts with a clean link profile. That's why it's best to use a 301 redirect. This is a permanent redirect that passes most link juice to the redirected page.

Add Structured Data

To make our content more useful for search engines, we can add structured data. Structured data is information formatted in a universally understandable way. By tagging specific pieces of text, search engines can understand the underlying meaning of it.

You can use microdata, microformats or RFDa to implement structured data. This markup is used by search engines to display rich snippets (e.g a star-rating, thumbnail, video duration, etc.). This can improve the CTR of you pages.

Great Design isn't Always Crawlable

Not all content is accessible for search engines. As the title says: a beautiful page isn’t necessarily a page that’s optimized for search engines. A designer wants a page that looks good, whilst the SEO wants a page that can easily be crawled. The challenge is to combine these two approaches.

Problems can arise when certain page elements, for example a call-to-action or a discount-banner, are implemented as images. This allows the designer to easily manipulate fonts, textures, gradients, etc. But as a result, important information in the call to action or banner can’t be crawled because it’s embedded in the image.

Thankfully this problem can be solved with a combination of HTML and CSS. By using code instead of an image, these elements are fully crawlable. Web fonts are also handy for creating a visually appealing website (so you don’t have to use images as a work around). Google has a large collection of open source web fonts that you can use free of charge.

Another technique is the mouse-over effect. This is a great way to add crawlable content to an image. The example below combines the visual preference of the designer (the images) with the crawlable content for the SEO (the excerpt via the mouse-over effect).

mouse over effect for SEO

So instead of simple images with an alt-text, search engines have much more information.


Users Come First, Search Engines Second

This is probably the best piece of advice in this article: design your site around visitor’s needs. Make sure you write unique content that can solve the visitor’s problem. Whether they’re looking for information, a product, service, fun … fulfill their needs.

If you can create valuable pages with unique content, you’ll probably do well in the search results. Even if you site isn't completely optimized for search engines, your content will still rank well. After all, search engines try to emulate users. If users likes the content and find it relevant and interesting enough, search engines will probably agree.


Content Checklist

To end this article I’ve compiled a short checklist to optimize your content for search engines and users:

Content planning

  • Are you targeting the 'right' keywords?
  • Can you improve on previously published work? (i.e. create unique value?)

Content development

  • Is there a clear structure? (heading, lists...)
  • Did you use your keywords in key-positions? (URL, title, heading, first paragraph...)
  • Did you use images? Are they optimized for search engines?

Content management

  • Is your content crawlable?
  • Did you choose the correct redirect?
  • Have you added structured data?

Conclusion

Quality content is what the web is all about. If you can provide unique value to your visitors, you'll probably do well in the search results. That's why users come first and search engines second.

Nevertheless there are some techniques you can use to improve the visibility of your content. Structuring your content in a meaningful way can help a lot. By using the 'right' keyword in strategic places, search engines get a better idea about the topic of the page. There are several other technical requirements that can help, but these are all subordinate to what really matters: solving visitor's problems in a useful, relevant and unique way.

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