It happens every time you write.
Your content is epic. Your readers are ecstatic. You get lots of social media shares...
But you have no idea how to write and optimize your articles for SEO in 2016.
Figuring out what works, what to focus on (and what not to) is a huge task.
And with Google constantly changing the rules you probably feel like you have no idea how to keep up.
That is why I spent the last week compiling this post to show you exactly what you need to do to create amazing content that is also SEO friendly.
The following SEO content guidelines are the current best practices for getting your content to the top of Google while still keeping your readers happy. Yes, a win-win!
All you have to do is dive in and absorb this amazing Google goodness.
It's All About Topics Not Keywords (Are Keywords Really Dead?)
I know that it has been discussed before.
And I know you guys are sick of hearing it, but...
Keywords as we once knew them are actually DEAD
Let me explain.
With the introduction of the fast moving Hummingbird Google has now gotten a lot smarter.
Well, "smarter" is perhaps the wrong word, but they at least understand what content is about without having to be told
and over again.
That means, you no longer have to use your keywords so often to get the point across - to Google at least. (some users may still require a bit of repetition though :>)
Hummingbird is all about semantic search, and if I may borrow Dan Shewan's words to help explain that SEO jargon:
Semantic search focuses on determining what a user really means, rather than a string of keywords, and then serving relevant results.
- Dan Shewan, WordStream
Back in the day you had to very clearly match the search with the search result. Now, Google can interpret searches and come up with smarter answers.
That is great news for us because it means: you need write naturally about your topic of choice, rather than focus on stuffing your page with keywords like a candy-filled stocking at Christmas.
You Can't Ignore Keyword Research Though
Although you should now be focusing on "topics not keywords" you should understand that your topic is still really just keywords in disguise.
(Yay, keywords are alive again!)
Keyword research is still the key (no pun intended) to finding out what people are searching for on Google.
You need to figure out what your exact topic should be.
Because without keyword research you are just firing alphabet spaghetti at the wall (in the dark, without night vision goggles - or are there night vision Googles too?)
Sure, there are times when it's not important to focus on search engines (I am sure Seth Godin doesn't do his keyword homework) like when:
- You have a huge audience anyway
- You don't care if anyone reads your stuff (you just wanna get it off your chest)
- You are answering questions you know need answering for your audience
However, if you are taking the time to write something why not do some basic keyword research and find out if anyone is looking for your words.
Kills two birds with one stone, right?
Amazing content that might also get found on Google!
Now comes the million dollar question...
How do you write content based on a topic, that satisfies your reader, but still get it ranked on Google? (big question I know!)
Here is a helpful box full of tips for you:
Write For Topics Not Keywords
- Write your content for the reader based on a topic (which is a keyword you have researched).
- Focus on that main topic and add variations, synonyms, related words throughout the content (see the LSI keywords section later for more detail on this).
- Just write naturally and 99% of the work will be done naturally. However, it pays to always do keyword research to find the kinds of words people actually use.
Optimize For Your Keywords
After all of the above talk of "focus on the reader" and "don't keyword stuff" you might think optimizing for your keywords has fallen by the wayside.
It is still important to add your keywords in "the right places". It's a strong signal to search engines clearly telling them what your content is all about.
You will notice in many cases that the top results on Google are optimized for the search you made.
Although it might be less important (and impactful) than it used to be, Google still takes its cues from a lot of the basic on-page SEO that you carry out.
In a 2015 SEO survey Moz asked a wide variety of SEO pros how influential they thought on-page keyword optimization was (on a scale from 1-10). Here is what they thought:
As you can see, quite a few got 5 and above. Meaning that keywords optimization is still a thing.
A very simple take-away from this survey is:
On-page keyword optimization is something you should still care about.
So, how do you do such optimization?
Well, if you are using WordPress, it is always worth using a helpful plugin - like Yoast or All in One SEO.
However, there are just a few simple places you need to put your keywords. And below is a handy Pro Tip box again to make it easy to digest!
On-Page Keyword Optimization
Place your keywords in
- The URL
- The Title (preferably towards the beginning)
- The content (first 100 words is often cited as best practice)
- An image Alt attribute (often the first one)
- Bold or Italic (might help)
- LSI Keywords (more on that in the next section)
LSI Keywords - Your Keyword Cousins
Google understands what your content is about without having to see your keyword all the time.
I mentioned that above (maybe too often, I know).
They are looking for certain words, and combinations of words, as a sign that you are writing about a specific topic.
It gets a little confusing (like that algebra! damn).
To make it clearer, let's take a look at an example:
Let's say I am writing about my carbon footprint and how I can save the environment by reducing how much CO2 I produce. (Never a bad thing, right?)
The problem for a computer (like Google) is that I will be talking about footprints.
I did something similar for a client recently and when I used the word footprint in Keyword Planner we got all sorts of keywords we did not want like:
Google was having a hard time understanding what we wanted because language is a complex thing..
This is when having a lot of similar or related words helps put things in context.
When you are reading about carbon footprints you would expect to see all kinds of words in an article such as: CO2, greenhouse gases, emissions, Al Gore etc.
That is what Google expects too.
Here is the search result for carbon footprint to show you exactly what I mean
Your content should also naturally include all sorts of related words, synonyms and concepts.
Which leads us to the topic of LSI keywords.
What Are LSI Keywords?
LSI (Latent Semantic Indexing) keywords are words that are related to your main keyword. They could be synonyms, similar or related words.
Adding these kinds of words to your content has a few handy benefits:
- They give a strong signal to search engines about your content topic
- They provide you with a tonne of keywords that you can rank for
Ok, so LSI keywords are the bomb! All the cool SEO kids are using them.
But how do you find them? After all, you can't know all the related words you should be using.
Below are a whole bunch of tools you can use, including a few LSI specific tools to help you get there faster.
Next time you write a piece of content be sure to add at least a few keyword variations and related words as you can. Some are even great to use as sections within the content and can become your headings.
Format Your Content For Success
Google is starting to pay more attention to user behavior.
That means design and formatting are starting to play a key role in rankings.
Sure, these things are not so easily measurable, but Google has their eyes on all sorts of user data to see whether people like our stuff. (remember they have access to Search, Youtube, Chrome, Android etc)
What does this mean for you?
You need to format your content in the most reader-friendly way to get people to hang around longer.
After all, the easier it is to read your stuff, the longer people will stay.
And don't forget that most people usually scan on the web, as Nielson famously showed all those years ago.
So, formatting is critical to your content's success online.
And that means it also affects SEO (Google is watching if people "bounce" from your site or stay for a while and put their feet up).
Now, let me show you how you can format your content for maximum results!
How To Format For Maximum Impact
There are quite a few things you can (and should) do to format your content well.
Rather than bombard you with them all in one massive list, I have broken them into three sections with pretty pictures and videos to help.
I recommend applying at least the basics and sprinkling some of the others in as you see fit.
Remember, the more your reader enjoys your stuff, the longer they will stay, and the more often they will come back.
- Break up text into small sentences and paragraphs
- Make good use of headings (H2) and sub-headings (H3, H4 etc) -
- Note: H1 is the title, so don't use that
- Make use of bold or italic to highlight specific parts of text
- Add bullets for lists of things (use numbered bullets when there is a specific order of items)
- Use a clear sans-serif font (modern fonts like Arial, Lato, Roboto and Open Sans are great)
- A bigger font is usually better (I use 16-18px depending on the font type - I am also over 40 and starting to (not) see the problem with small fonts)
- Use plenty of white space (give your content air to breath - it increases comprehension)
- Add lots of images (Hubspots marketers survey says so)
- At least every 500 words, although some claim more often
- Neil Patel found that hand-drawn images, graphs and infographics work best
- Try to keep them relevant to the topic at hand (sure some gifs are funny, but don't overdo it)
- Make sure they are the right format
- Optimize your images for SEO
Content with relevant images gets 94% more views than content without relevant images.
- Add quotes - most themes have them built in (mine are from Thrive Content Builder)
- Try a table of contents at the start if the content is long (I use Thrive Content Builder, but you can also try Table Of Contents plugin)
- Add tweetables/click-to-tweets to your content - they give extra social shares and make for nice quotes. (I use Social Warfare, you could also try Click To Tweet)
- Embed other social media (almost every type has an easy embed code you can grab from the post itself)
- Embed slideshares (people love interacting with graphics, and they are generally a great way to get more traffic too, ask Ana Hoffman)
- Add Video that supports or teaches and your readers will love you. Plus video is taking over the web, whether you like it or not. Just check out the video below, it might seem a bit familiar...
Beware: Stunning Headlines Ahead
You are standing at the checkout waiting for the woman in front of you to count out her change when a magazine headline catches your attention:
Obama Founded ISIS
Now that got your attention. What was Obama doing starting a terrorist group while he had a country to run? Where did he get the time. That man is sooooo busy.
Oh, hang on, the cashier is staring at you now - waiting! It's your turn. The headline distracted you.
Headlines are important.
They catch our attention and force us to ready crappy articles while waiting in line at the supermarket. It's the same online.
You are competing for attention with the other insane number of blog posts published each day.
The father of advertising David Ogilvy is often quoted as saying:
On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.
If your headline sucks, your blog post was written for nothing!
That is the unfortunate truth.
Headlines Also Affect Your SEO
This idea translates to SEO as well.
We are all competing for attention on Google.
There are 10 results on the first page, and even if we manage to get there we may not get "the click".
Your headline needs to stand out on search results too in order to get the searcher's attention.
It has even been shown by a few SEO legends out there that getting more clicks on your search result can move you up in the rankings.
Rand Fishkin made a great video on how things like clicks are affecting rankings:
Although no one is actually certain this stuff works (and Google has never confirmed it, of course) it kinda makes sense.
After all, if people click one result more than others, perhaps it should rank higher, right?
Larry Kim of WordStream even got his hands dirty (in the data) and set out to prove it in this in-depth article. His conclusion:
The more your pages beat the expected organic CTR for a given position, the more likely you are to appear in prominent organic positions.
- Larry Kim, WordStream
Results that get more clicks - deserve to be at the top!
Convinced you need to write stunning headlines? No?
What about this recent test by Brian Dean of Backlinko. He just sent his list this mail a few days ago and showed how he increased the traffic to one of his pages by 45.5% with one simple change.
Just by improving the headline!
How To Write Amazing Headlines
A book could be written on this very topic (and indeed many have), so I am only going to cover the basics.
Now, let's just jump in and learn some quick and actionable ways to make awesome headlines.
Steve Rayson of BuzzSumo wrote an article recently on creating viral headlines. The BuzzSumo team are worth paying attention to because they have their hands on a shipload of data.
He shows how a great viral headline is usually made up of 5 elements:
- Emotion (Superlative)
- Content Type
Here is an example from that post:
You can see that the headline is perfectly crafted to include all these elements and it really makes you want to click (at least if you like baking!).
Sure, you won't always include all these elements, but they are worth keeping in mind.
Now, let's take a closer look at a few of those elements and how they can help with your headline.
Choosing A Content Type
Choosing your content type it is going to depend on what you like to create, as well as what your audience likes to consume.
However, it is also worth thinking about what people love to read and share. Because that is what they will react to in your headline.
This chart from Noah Kagan and Buzzsumo show that lists and infographics get a lot of love on social media:
And if you check out some of my most shared posts, they usually include an infographic.
Take my recent post on internet business ideas - it has been pinned over 8000 times so far (and it is growing daily).
Whatever content format you choose for your content (and your headline) be careful to mix them up - it's a good part of your SEO diet.
Make Emotions Count
We all react strongly to emotions.
And headlines should include them.
The Buzzsumo formula above recommends adding emotion, as does almost every other copywriting pro.
And one of the easiest ways to include them in your headline is to take a proven list of powerful words and find one that works.
Adding these kinds of words to your headline can make all the difference, just don't overdo it.
Imagine this post's headline without emotion:
- How to write SEO Content
How about this instead:
- How To Write The Perfect SEO Content (And Keep Google Happy)
Watch The Length Of Your Headline
Most people forget this one:
Make sure your headline fits on Google search results.
Even some pros forget or ignore it, but I recommend you keep it in mind.
Moz recommend aiming for about 55 characters to be sure. But Google are using pixels so it kinda depends on the letters.
Here is a chart that shows the most common title lengths seen in search results to give you an idea of the spread.
There is no exact "right" number of characters, but once it's published you will know soon enough and can change it when needed.
Cheat And Use A Headline Tool
When trying to craft the perfect headline we all like to think we are awesome, but let's face it: we often have no idea.
That is when a great tool comes into play.
I like to keep it simple and use two tools to craft the winning headline.
1. Coschedule's Headline Analyzer
This makes it pretty simple to test the effectiveness of your headline and compare the different versions you come up with.
They also provide a huge array of tools and tips that help make your headline better.
Here is an example of me trying out the headline for this post and how they rate it (note the emotional and power words are highlighted):
The tool also analyzes lots of other things like:
- Headline Type (what type of headline category you are using)
- Headline Sentiment (how will your headline be interpreted)
- First and Last 3 (people focus more on the beginning and end)
- Keywords (gives you and idea what keywords you are using)
- Length Analysis (you want your headline to appear correctly on Google)
- Search Result Preview (great idea to see how it looks on Google)
Almost no stone is left unturned! Thanks Coschedule!
A/B Test Your Headlines
Another great idea is to keep testing your headline even after the article is published.
I wrote a post about how you can do this in a very rough way on social media.
The short version: compare the headlines at the same time of day on Twitter and see the reactions.
It's hardly scientific though.
What is even better is a tool that can do it for you.
That is where the Thrive Headline Optimizer comes in.
It basically runs split tests on headlines to see which get the better reactions.
The results are then easy to see and analyse in your WordPress dashboard:
No matter how you choose to optimize your headlines, learning how to be damn better at this is well worth your while.
Below you will find many of the resources mentioned in this section and even more.
Go check them out and make your headlines rock!
- Jon Morrow's - Headline Hacks
- BuzzSumo's - How To Write Viral Headlines
- David Hartshorne's - How To Write Powerful Headlines
- Coschedules - 55 Easy Ways To Write A Headline That Will Reach Your Readers
- Buffer's - Most Popular Words In The Most Viral Headlines
- SumoMe's - Turbo-Charge Your Marketing With These 355+ Power Words
Your Links Should Not Be Forgotten
The links on your website are actually a powerful way to control your SEO.
Hard to believe, especially when we are all chasing links from other sites, but it's true.
It just makes sense to me that you should be linking to authoritative and relevant content from within yours.
I guess you noticed from the amount of links in this post.
I have been doing this almost since I started blogging 3 years ago. And Google has not thrown a rock at me yet!
But many people either:
- Don't link linking out for fear of losing "link juice" (kinda like a leaky SEO boat?)
- Try to keep keep people on their own sites longer by not linking out
- Do link out but nofollow all the links (more on that below)
Many of the pros have suggested that linking out is a good thing. Although there is no concrete proof of it (like most of the SEO we do to be honest).
Dan Petrovic wrote about how Google could be measuring how long users stay on linked to pages in this in-depth article on Moz. His main point on this topic was:
...if you link to pages that people spend a lot of time on, Google will add a portion of that “time credit” towards the linking page. This is why linking out to useful, engaging content is a good idea.
In even simpler terms what he means is - if you link to good content, Google will reward you.
Another older discussion on this topic suggests that the pages you link to show Google what you are writing about on your page. Again, there is no clear study on this but it is worth keeping in mind.
I saved you the best one for last.
Some actual proof.
Reboot did a small study on a bunch of pages they had control over. By selectively adding (or not) outbound links on those pages they were able to show that they helped
we have proved they [outbound links] do have a positive impact if used correctly
- Shai Aharony, Reboot
It starts to become clear: linking out to relevant, authoritative content is worth your while.
However, many people are still scared of linking out. And even if they do, they seem to want to "nofollow" all the links.
I wrote a detailed post on No Follow Links recently and covered this already, but here goes (again) in case you missed it:
Nofollowing All Your Outbound Links?
If you are one of those "no follow all my links" people, be aware it annoys your guest authors, does not help "protect your link juice" or "stop Google penalizing you" - please stop it.
See how many links are in this post, let's see if Google sends me to purgatory as a result!
No Follow is meant for ads, affiliate links and other OBVIOUS links you would not want to be associated with. Not as a blanket way to protect your website.
Another area you have a tonne of control over is the internal links on your website.
These are kind of the "long forgotten" links of SEO.
Sure, they don't have the power of links coming to your site, but they are still quite useful.
Quick Tips on Internal Links
There is actually a lot to say on the topic of internal links, so I will just limit this section to a few important ones. The rest you can read in the resources.
1. You should always be linking to your own relevant content within your site.
Both on old and new posts.
When you publish something:
- always go back and insert the new post into relevant old content.
- link to relevant older content within the new post.
2. Where it makes sense, use the power of anchor text (ie. the keyword that you are after for that page) to create the link to that page.
3. Links from your most "powerful" pages (the ones with the most incoming links) are useful to boost the rankings of other less powerful pages on your site.
Andy Crestodina wrote a detailed post on this idea (and many others) which I recommend you check out.
Internal Link Resources
- Internal Linking Strategies (Andy Crestodina, Orbit Media)
- Internal Linking for SEO: Examples and Best Practices (Search Engine Watch)
- Internal Linking 101 (Gotch SEO)
- 7 Commandments of Internal Linking (Kissmetrics)
You Need To Write Longer Content, Or Do You?
If you want to please Google, you need to write the most useful piece of content your readers have ever seen.
That might also mean writing long-form content to get on page one for the keyword you are targeting.
And, it might not.
Let me explain.
There are certainly enough articles out there telling us that longer content is the way to go. Just read this article or this one from Neil Patel published just last month - I could go on, but two is enough to keep you off the streets.
These articles don't actually suggest long-form content for the sake of it. But they are putting their weight behind it.
On top of these kinds of articles, the number of times I have seen the chart below leaves me without fingers to count on:
That chart "implies" that you need to write longer content to rank on page 1 of Google (2455 words to be exact - so get busy!).
Ready for another "you have to write longer content" chart?
This next one might disappoint you.
Tim Soulo of Ahrefs (hi Tim, love your work!) also wrote this very interesting piece recently where his team found that longer content is ONLY a very slight ranking factor (the correlation is 0.08, which is quite low in case you were wondering).
Note: And look! We only need to write 760 words to rank in position 1! This chart is way better! (ignore my Australian humor)
Perhaps Your Content Should Be Shorter Instead
The opposite (of long content) can also be proven to be true: take a look at this post on CopyHackers. With examples like Seth Godin, IFLS and Disney, they show how short-form content is the way to go. At least for those 3 publishers.
There is certainly "some" data out there supporting both long and short content. However, a lot more people seem to moving in a different direction.
Time For The Long Content Backlash
It's not that people are now against long-form content. Instead I think it is better to say they are making sure we understand that it is not "the" answer to ranking higher in Google.
Rand Fishkin, the king of taking the complex world of SEO and making it simple, had this to say back in April
Great Content ≠ Long-Form Content
- Rand Fishkin, Wizard of Moz
Rand is not the only one to say this, but I think that quote sums it up well. He then went on to say that we should produce the right content instead.
- serves the visitor's intent
- delivers an amazing experience
- gets them the information fast/efficiently
- does this better than anyone else in the space
A similar idea was aired by Ramsay Taplin on the Blogging Tyrant when he wrote about long form content. His post's conclusion is worth noting:
Long-form content is worth the work if you are sure that you are providing something useful and distinctive. Make sure you do your research and know the exact type of person that you are pitching it to and then work like crazy to be amazing.
Long-form content is not the only thing you need to get to the top of Google. And in some cases it is not worth it at all.
Let's sum it all up in this handy (even sexy?) Pro Tips Box.
Longer Content Is (Sometimes) The Answer
- Make sure you are writing longer content for a good reason (your audience, the topic etc)
- Don't just write longer content to make it longer (thinking you will rank higher)
- Write the best content possible (well researched, planned, supported) and consider using the PEAC Principle (Practical, Entertaining, Awe-Inspiring and Credible).
- Sometimes your audience wants something shorter (or even different - video, podcast etc). You need to know your audience.
Should You Write For The Reader Or Search Engines
Depending on who you ask, you should either write for the reader or for search engines (SEO).
It doesn't always seem like an easy choice, right?
We love them both!
The People Vs Search Engines
Write for people only, and you miss out on the SEO benefits (because you did not optimize for Mr Google - so no one sees your content anyway).
Write for SEO only and your content suffers because it is too keyword focused and the reader gets forgotten (your content might rank well, but people won't stay to read it)
Lucky for the reader, content creators are swaying towards the side of the "people" (yay for us!) and we are getting far better content (like this awesome post- give me a tweet!).
But what is this amazing, people-friendly content that I am talking about.
In rough terms, it is content that is:
Such great content in turn leads to all the other fun stuff like shareable, rank-able, link-worthy etc. (what other marketing words can we use!)
Back to the People vs SEO.
Which is it?
Should we write for the reader or should we write for search engines?
A great debate went on not too long ago on Inbound.org where this very issue was discussed in detail by some very smart people.
So, rather than me trying to be just as smart, I thought we might as well check out what they had to say...
Josh Garofalo had this to say:
And similarly Sean Kirby had this to say:
But I think Rand Fishkin (yes, him again) summed it up best with this:
Write For People Who Use Search Engines
To summarize, I think you should do this:
1. When you write content you should focus on helping people
2. However, you should also try to optimize that content for SEO (keywords) where possible
Why do both?
Because a lot of your traffic will come from search engines and you might as well do both.
You don't have to sacrifice readability, appeal and helpfulness in order to optimize your content for SEO. Not anymore (as the earlier sections showed).
Google no longer needs to be given the keyword 50x to understand the intent of your content, so just be more subtle and optimize where necessary.
In other words, sprinkle in your keywords, don't ram them in with your fist!
Write For Your Readers First (But Do Keyword Research)
- Write your content for your readers first
- Research one main keyword and optimize for that at the end
- Also find supporting sub-topics/keywords and add those to your post too
- Don't keyword stuff or re-write something for the sake of SEO, Google can understand what you mean (focus on the content)
How To Write The Perfect SEO Content
That is a lot of information to take in, I know.
But SEO is becoming more complex and starting to be affected by everything we do online.
I believe that if you are a content creator of any kind, then this stuff is important.
You need to know how your content is affected by SEO and vice versa.
Rather than memorize this stuff:
I recommend you grab my SEO Content Guide (a handy summary of this post below).
You won't regret it :>
All the best tips and tricks from this post in one place