Can you really go full SEO on your website? Ask a copywriter and an SEO consultant — you’ll get very different answers.
Content and technical SEO have been battling for top spot since Google launched its Panda algorithm update in 2011. The aim was to raise rankings for websites delivering original, quality content while demoting the rest. But since then tension has ratcheted up between demand for great content, and the absolute necessity of mastering all the knobs and switches on SEO’s big mixing board.
On the one hand, you need the freedom to say what you need to say, in a voice your audience finds persuasive. On the other, SEO is time-sensitive, delivers traffic – and it works.
There will be times when you have to emphasise one over the other. But how do you choose?
Fighting the content firehose
SEO – and by SEO I mean Google – is going to be more important in the years to come, not less.
While you read this, an avalanche of new content is landing online every sixty seconds:
- 2.4 million Facebook shares
- 570 new websites
- 215 new mobile web users
- 200 million emails
- 4 million searches performed on Google alone
Put another way, by the time you’ve got through this post there will be billions of new online baubles to distract your site’s users. You’re not just fighting with direct competitors for attention; you’re fighting with everything. And everything is expanding at warp speed.
Search is how people sift through a sea of non-relevant content to find what they really want. That means Google’s dominance can only grow.
So if you aren’t optimising website content to achieve high rankings, not only will you miss opportunities now, you’ll see your rankings diminish in future as more and more SEO-ready content pushes to the front of the queue.
Balance is the keyword
So can you make Google happy and still have a compelling, engaging, readable website?
It isn’t easy. Google rewards you when you use keywords at the top of a page and then repeat them at intervals (carefully) though the body text. That can be a real creative downer. The repetition can feel forced and obvious, and the syntax people use to form search queries can make for clunky construction when wedged into a sentence.
Still, even with its preference for top-of-page placement, Google offers enough flexibility to help you strike a balance between page titles and body text. SEO-unfriendly page titles – no matter how well crafted – will push down your ranking, but you can keep it from dropping off the map entirely by using keywords in the lede of a blog post, or the opening lines (first 50 words) of a web page’s main body.
You can also include keywords in the HTML page title tag, which tells Google and other search engines what the page is about. Title tag is a significant factor in Google’s search algorithm, and Google often pulls text from it to create the clickable link in search results.
Writing to please Google’s algorithm does take practice — but it shouldn’t be causing creative convulsions. There are at least two approaches writers can use to create catchy content that will also pull organic traffic: selecting a trending topic, and strengthening ‘semantic relatedness’.
Choosing a trending topic that suits your product or service involves more than letting your creative muse run wild; it means understanding the content your target audience prefers, knowing what factors influence their choices, and locating the words and form of words that spur them to action.
So you’ll need to do some research at the start of a new content project to understand the relevant popular search queries. You should also look at what the competition is doing. If there are commonalities in the subjects or business pains the other team writes about, you might well take inspiration from their efforts.
Understand Semantic Search
Getting to grips with the concept of semantic search is another way to make the link between quality and SEO unbreakable. It arguably requires less keyword research, but you’ll still need to optimise for factors like contextual content, knowledge graph, and voice search.
When Google launched its Hummingbird algorithm update in the Autumn of 2013, it added a module that can understand a searcher’s overall intent.
Called RankBrain, this new AI-enabled component looks for the contextual meaning behind searches, making the results generated far more accurate and more likely to be what the user is looking for.
It can even anticipate follow-on actions. If for example I were to search for “how to replace a smashed apple watch screen,” Google might also show me the logical next steps like ‘where to get an Apple Watch screen fixed,’ or show me a list of questions ‘people also ask’ when making similar searches.
The take-away for content creators is to write not just for Google, but specifically for the signals RankBrain looks for.
Writing for Ranking
What RankBrain seeks is keyword phrases as well as individual keywords, especially longtail keywords that suit voice searches by smart phone. That should be music to the ears of content writers. Google is starting to reward the use of natural language in a longer form.
In that sense, satisfying SEO can actually kickoff a creative process. Try this:
Start by crafting a set of keyword phrases:
- First create a primary keyword phrase that sums up the core brand/USP message.
- Then draft follow-on phrases you would naturally associate with the main phrase in writing or conversation.
Together they will clearly convey the content topic in a way that RankBrain can interpret. And it becomes a sort of launchpoint for further content optimisation — using these techniques:
Generate contextual content
More good news for writers, Google still genuinely wants to deliver the highest quality content to users, so creating it will help your semantic search rankings. What works best is original, well-written content that offers something of value — long-form content that uses long-tail keywords, semantic HTML markup, and meta tags and descriptions, to clarify the context of each web page.
“One does not create a work, one constructs it with finished parts, like a machine.”
– Sergei Eisenstein
Broaden your content ‘presence’
The broader your brand’s online presence, the better. Semantic search rewards websites that are mobile friendly, include author names, allow content sharing via social buttons, have a profile on Google My Business, and display search engine-friendly press releases.
Optimise for Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI)
LSI is Google’s system for identifying semantically-related keywords that surround the main keywords you use. It makes it easier to understand the context of your content and rank it accordingly. You can use LSIGraph or other tools to find related keywords, or look at Google’s Related Searches suggestions.
Optimise for Google’s Knowledge Graph
Sometimes called ‘featured snippets,’ Google’s Knowledge Graph relies heavily on semantic search to help it find the best results. To improve your chances of appearing on a Knowledge Graph:
- Have business profiles on LinkedIn and YouTube
- Create a company listing on Wikipedia
- Use structured data on your site. It makes it easier for Google to crawl, index, and display your content
Optimise Internal Links
Having an effective and consistent internal linking structure helps RankBrain understand your content better and how it relates to other subjects — especially if you use descriptive keywords in the anchor text to add context.
Optimise for Voice Search
As mentioned above, voice search is becoming more important and Google has started rewarding content that answers standard search FAQs before searchers have to ask. Displaying company name, address, phone number, email, and opening hours on every web page is one technique to consider. Posing questions about your products and services and then answering them with your USP in mind is another.
Finding détente between content and technical SEO.
Some content folk see balancing creative and SEO priorities as a chore. More than a few think there’s a clash between the machine requirements of technical SEO and more human-centered writing.
But is SEO-optimised content really so different? Copywriters employ creativity to advance a client’s strategic objectives. Crafting copy within the parameters of target audience, brand voice, CTAs, pain and proof points, acronyms and sector-specific language already requires a structured approach. It’s even been said that all human creativity is algorithmic.
The great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein said, “One does not create a work, one constructs it with finished parts, like a machine.”
The truth is it’s entirely possible to play Switzerland between the demands of brand, voice, audience, content creativity, and technical SEO. You just need to think of Google as a key influencer in the audience, and add search ranking requirements as a new layer in the copywriting stack.