I received a request on Twitter (I am @stonetemple) from @nsandlin for an article on how to balance on page content between enticing content for users and keyword rich content for search engines. It’s a great question, and I am going to run with that, but expand it a bit to include my philosophy on how search engines evaluate on-page tags. My short answer on how to set this balance is to default to users first, but as you might expect, there are some subtleties to this!
How search engines look at a page
I believe we need to look past artificial perceptions about how search engines look at a given page. For example, whether you use an <h1> tag or a <h2>, <h3>, or whatever on a page does not matter. What does matter is the relative nature of what you do. For example, if you have lots of basic text on a page, then headers such as these will stand out:
<p><strong>Your Section Header Here<strong><p>
This will stand out just as much as an <h1> tag on that same page. So in my view, you don’t need to use heading tags at all. In contrast, imagine if the <h1> was evaluated as the defining element of your page, then it might be a good idea to put all of the content on your page inside an <h1>, wouldn’t it? Of course that does not make sense.
The better way to think about it is that the HTML markup elements you use on your page are a way to communicate to users what your page is about, and as long as you use basic HTML markup the search engines will see those signals and weight the words/phrases in them accordingly.
If you have multiple types of heading tags, or use my <strong> tag type heading above with other more traditional heading tags, then the search engines will consider the relative weight of these. These tags will cause extra weight to be allocated to the words embedded in them.
Ultimately, think of this as your page having a score–we can call it a certain amount of equity points–that is defined by its link profile and other external signals. These equity points can be allocated to the content of a page, and your use of heading tags of various types, and other HTML tags helps the search engine see how you weight the various aspects of the page.
Note that I am making this up and I have no proof as to exactly how the search engines look at this, but I believe that the basic concept I am about to outline is essentially correct. Bottom line is that how you use heading tags does not add equity points to the page, it simply allocates the points you ualready have. I.e, it’s all relative, so spend your points wisely!
Balance of Keyword Rich and End User Enticing Headings
There are many scenarios where this does not need to be a choice. The great thing about keyword tools is that they provide real insight into the user mindset for many common web interactions. For example, if you use the Adwords Keyword Planner, and you search on “digital cameras, canon cameras, nikon cameras” in the search volume section, and then click the keyword ideas tab, you will see that “canon cameras” and “nikon cameras” come out on top with 110,000 and 60,500 average monthly searches respectively.
This type of data tells you something about how people search when they are looking for a digital camera – there is a strong tendency for people to search on brand names first, rather than entering a generic search query like “digital cameras” (which still comes in at a healthy 12,500 average searches per month). This is an example of the type of insight you can get from these tools. This also maps into what users will look for when they look at your web page.
Clearly if they search on a phrase like “Canon cameras” they will respond well to that phrase being present on the page. But what if they come from another website via a link, or as direct traffic? It turns out that the keyword mindset may still work out well for you for that type of visitor.
My examples so far keyed on the search for a digital camera, but what if you are writing a news article of some sort? That can be a different story, particularly if your site is a news or blog site with lots of subscribers. The person’s mind may not be on a product. Instead, they may just be browsing looking for things that interest them. What will catch their attention may be something like: “16 ways that green tea can save your life”.
Know Your Hook!
The distinction is that in the digital camera scenario we were dealing with people who are shoppers. They are looking to acquire something, either now, or in the near future. In the news scenario we are dealing with browsers. Their mindset is quite different. They don’t know what they are looking for yet, so the hook to get them engaged needs to be different. In deciding how you to approach things on your site, the first step is to decide what type of user is going to be on the page in question. Are they browsers or shoppers?
For shopping oriented pages the triggers for the user are easily discovered using a keyword tool. For a news oriented page, the orientation is probably different. You need to think beyond the keyword tool to hook the user. On some sites you can have both types of pages, and you need to treat them differently. That’s perfectly OK.
Notice that the way I have outlined this I am not trying to use the blog as the direct means for bringing people in for conversion purposes. Of course, you can use blogs differently, in which case you would need to adjust. However, my preference is to use blogs to attract users, links, and build relationships with the community, and to have other pages on the site that are keyword focused.
One other factor that I want to mention, and that is the impact on potential linkers. Links, and social media sites, play a large role in driving rankings on your site. Whatever you do, don’t do things that alienate that audience. They will be your judge and jury. Give them a great experience, and they will reward you with links or positive social media mentions.
My philosophy is to lean in direction of the user the great majority of the time. As noted, keep in mind that keyword tools often provide valuable insight into the web population’s way of thinking of things. In other scenarios, such as the news or blog scenario, the mind set may be quite different, and you need to treat those pages differently. Do the search engines recognize all of these signals perfectly? No, they don’t, but they are definitely trying to get there.