By John Biundo and Eric Enge
Writing effectively for search engines is, at first blush, not much different from writing effectively for any other medium. Certainly many key guidelines remain the same, such as writing well structured paragraphs centered around one key idea. One overarching guideline is that the best way to write for search engines is to write for real people. Search engines are strategically aligned with the goal of providing the best content (for their human customers) in their search results, so they’re constantly being refined to evaluate content in a way that supports this.
This means they reward content that is well organized and well written, and they continue to get better and better at weeding out content that is artificial — for example content that is stuffed with extra keywords. Attempting to “game” the search engines is, in the long run, a recipe for failure. Instead, focus on writing high quality, engaging content that people will want to read, and that is presented well for the web medium. If you follow this single strategic principle, you are most of the way towards writing search engine optimized articles.
Where you can keep the search engines explicity in mind are the following areas:
- Upfront planning — primarily, keyword research
- Effective markup
- Article inter-linking
Later in this article, we’ll also provide some brief guidelines on one related topic that addresses the “presented well for the web medium” part of our strategic principle — effective style — though that subject is not the primary focus of this article.
For keyword research, we’d like you to start with an overview of content development. This article desribes the overall context, strategy, and process for building good content. It explains the role that keywords play in search engines, and how this affects your content. It talks about the value of long-tail searches, and gives other tips on the mechanics of producing good content.
With this as background, you should then read more details about selecting and using the best keywords. The basic message is that you can write content that will be more likely to rank well by carefully choosing keywords, then writing naturally about those keywords. Doing this will cause you to naturally include the keywords in your content, which will give it the best chance for ranking. This is a large topic, and the referenced articles address the key areas in some detail.
Developing keyword-driven content — that is, content specifically designed to rank well on specific keywords, which have been established before the writing begins — is a large topic area that we will cover briefly here. We will provide a few guidelines that can be used when it’s your goal to “laser target” an article for a specific keyword phrase. However most of the rest of this discussion applies equally well to less extreme optimization exercises. For example, when your topic is driven by other business objectives than pure optimization (such as establishing an authoritative body of content on a particular topic), or when you’re retroactively editing an existing body of content.
For developing keyword-driven content, the most important considerations are:
Using the tools and techniques described in the keyword selection article, identify a small number (2-4) of keyword phrases to be used for each article
These phrases are often best if they’re 2, 3, or 4 (or sometimes more) words long. Single keywords tend to be very competitive. On the other hand, “long tail” (3+ word phrases) tend to indicate much more focused searches on the part of the user, so you’re likely to be seen by a much more qualified audience (“buyers” instead of “shoppers”). In addition, these phrases are much easier to rank for.
Having a site that does well with lots of “long tail” phrases is a much easier way to build traffic than going for the “home run” phrases.
Identify a similar number of secondary phrases to be used for each article. These secondary phrases will also be used throughout the article, and will allow the article to rank well for terms that are “just off the mark” from, but strongly related to, the central theme of the article.
Use these keyword phrases “several times” (there’s no magic formula for this) throughout the document, but do it in a natural writing style The basic strategy is simple: if the theme of your article is clear, the keywords should “jump out” of that theme, and should automatically appear in appropriate ways in a well written, themed document (we assume this is what you’re already writing!).
Fortunately, this is where search engines’ and users’ needs converge. If the document is “about” something, words associated with that something will naturally appear in the document (and with a little effort, you can make sure they appear in the right places within the document; more on this later). Magically, these words (combined with some other factors) tell the search engine what the page is about. Trying to analyze it in much more detail than this tends to be counter-productive. For example, forcing specific keyword densities is likely to both frustrate your reader, and miss the (ever changing, and not-so-simply quantified) mark with the search engines.
Put another way, don’t let the quality of the document, from a reader’s perspective, suffer due to attempts to impose keywords where they don’t fit. Here are a few tricks to keep in mind:
The frame of mind to adopt is one of a general awareness of the keyword focus, but to otherwise forget about search engine optimization, and write for your readers.
It can be helpful to ensure your keyword focus is in place by using some standard writing techniques, like developing an outline, or an abstract, of your article before writing it. Simply ensure that your outline or abastract contains, and is oriented around, the keywords.
Alternatively, you can write your (focused, on topic) article without thinking about keywords explicitly, then go back and look for opportunities to replace or “tune up” phrases to more fully utilize your primary and secondary keyword phrases. Again, readability and a “natural style” trump all; don’t force fit keywords.
A couple of items that must not be left to chance, and must directly address the use of keyword phrases, are the article title, first heading (<h1> tag), and first paragraph. Specific guidance for these key elements is provided below.
Consider the formulas provided above as a way to write articles that are pre-meditated to perform well on particular, pre-selected keyword searches. However, many sites contain large volumes of information with articles that range across a broad cross section of topics. In these cases, your strategic goal may to be to create an authorititative body of information that covers a topic area comprehensively. While less “concentrated”, much of the thinking outlined above still applies. You can simply think of it as distributing a larger set of keyword phrases across an entire set of articles.
Similarly, in some cases you are retroactively editing existing documents, and do not have the luxury of starting out with keywords. In these cases, it is often helpful to simply apply the basic editorial technique of making sure that your article is well-titled, and using effective markup techniques, as described below.
Even if you didn’t start out with keyword phrases in mind, it is usually straightforward to identify the keyword phrases (again, this is closely related to a tight “theme”) that apply to an existing article, and to make sure that the title includes that phrase. Once again, this sounds like an SEO rule, but it’s really just the same way you would ensure that any article is clearly themed and properly titled, regardless of the medium it’s delivered on.
For effective markup, there are some simple but important mechanical rules:
- Construct your title (the <title> tag) carefully. This is the most valuable real estate on the entire page so treat it accordingly. It should be no more than 60 characters, and should have the following qualities:
- The first 40 characters should describe the topic (and not be wasted on generic terms or – in virtually all cases – branding)
- It must contain your primary keyword phrase
- It must convey the key content of the article in terms of value to the reader
- It must make sense when read out of context. Do not assume the reader knows what your site is about, or what page on your site that you’re linking to this page from
- It must be unique from all other titles on your web site, and ideally unique across the entire web
- Use mixed case
There should be one, and only one, <h1> headline in each article. This headline should also contain your primary keyword phrase. This headline should be distinct from the title but, like the title, should convey the central message of the article.
Make use of other subheadings to organize your article. This is important for both SEO and readability. A related stylistic/structural note is that each paragraph should be “short and sweet”, and contain one logical idea. You can display one subhead for each paragraph if you want, but you should be able to identify such a subhead, even if you don’t use it.
- Try not to go more than three levels deep in nesting subheads, and avoid going more than four levels.
- Do not put two headlines (e.g., <h1> and <h2>) immediately adjacent to each other.
Use the top keyword phrase in the very first paragraph. You may also use additional keyword phrases in this paragraph, as long as it flows naturally.
Use unique captions for each image.
Create a unique meta description, of up to 150 characters, for each document. The meta description is often used as the short phrase describing your site, appearing below the title of your document in the search engine results. It should be written with this in mind. It should be a factual, yet inviting description of the contents of the page, informing and encouraging the reader to click through to your article. Avoid overly salesy prose and jargon in the meta description. Do use a few of the more important (primary and secondary) keywords in the description, as these will automatically be highlighted, and draw users’ attention, in the search engine results.
Hyperlinking is the central nervous system for the web, and it’s central to providing good structure and navigation for your web site. It’s also important from an SEO perspective, as it turns out that search engines learn a lot from how you link your documents together. Again, good editorial judgement rules the day. Use hyperlinks between documents when the linked document can provide value to the reader. In fact, you may find that hyperlinking allows you to create more focused documents by relegating subtopics, background information, and other related content to other pages, leaving your main page laser-targeted on its topic, which is a good thing.
The mechanics of hyperlinking are straightforward, but the choice of the “anchor text” you use in links is critical from an SEO perspective. As mentioned, the search engines learn about your document by what other people (including other documents on your site) say about it. Linking to a document with anchor text that describes the contents of the document is far more valuable than linking with generic text like “read more here”, or “follow this link”. Try to use your primary keyword phrase in the link anchor text of the most important inbound link to your article (deciding which is most important is covered briefly below).
If it’s appropriate (from an editorial standpoint) to create multiple links to a document, try to vary the inbound link anchor text among the various links, and use some of your alternate keyword phrases, as long as doing so makes good editorial sense.
Usually your most important page, in this context, is the one with the highest pagerank, and/or the most relevantpage on your site. Often your home page is the most important linking page. If there are multiple candidates to choose from, choose the most relevant page with the highest pagerank as the one to concentrate on (i.e., the one to try to link to using your primary keywords in the link anchor text).
Here we want to discuss a few guidelines for writing style. The motivating factors are that the web is a less formal medium than print, readers tend to scan quickly rather than read, credibility is at a premiuim and must be established quickly, and the medium is increasingly dominated by search-based navigation. The implications for writing style are as follows:
Use familiar words, not jargon. Use “old words” vs. “new words”, where possible. Old words are familiar, and familiar words spring to mind when users search. In general, use words that match your target users’ querying vocabulary. Customers/users define their needs, and hence their search queries, in familiar terms. Plain terms are, by definition, less “sexy” than marketingese, and it’s tempting to dress up the language. Plain terms are also, by definition, plain because they’re common and familiar. This is what most users will search for, and this is what your document should use to match their queries. Think “cheap hotels” vs. “value priced accomodations”.
Related to using plain language is avoiding an overly “salesy” style. The importance here is in not undermining credibility. Remember that most visitors are coming to an unknown remote server that hasn’t been vouched for, and are approaching it with healthy skepticism. If you shout a sales message at them up front, you’re likely to at least miss an opportunity to gain credibility, if not outright blow it. Some other things that help establish credibility:
outbound links to other sites (linking only internally is a signal that you are “hording” the user; linking out indicates that you’re an active participant in the web, and are providing useful resources to the reader).
use a byline. Anonymity undermines credibility.
Users are notorious for scanning, and hate to scroll. You must make it very easy to understand the main point and to find the key information. The most important information must appear at the top of the article. Use an “inverted pyramid” style, where you state your conclusion at the top of the article, along with a short summary of the remainder of the article.
Each page must live independently from all other pages. Users can navigate directly to any page in your site from a search engine result, and haven’t necessarily seen your home page or any other “lead in” page you’ve carefully crafted. Make sure the page can stand entirely on its own. One thing that can help is to link out from your page to supporting/background information (both on- and off-site).
As mentioned, the web is usually relatively informal when compared to printed media. As such, users expect and appreciate a style that is clean, direct, friendly, personal, and (sometimes) humorous. Use simple sentence structures. Use familiar words. Omit unnecessary words. Limit paragraphs to one key idea.
The web is international and egalitarian. Be careful of assuming too much about your readership. Be wary of puns and metaphors, as the requisite cultural context may not be in place to ensure that these work as intended.
Use tables and numbered or bulleted lists more than you would in print. Users scan. Lists arrest the eye and capture attention.
Spelling and grammar matter. Be sure to spell check and grammar check your documents.