Writing for SEO strategy: When an algorithm is your audience

The way you write is more important than you think

What are you trying to accomplish when you set out to write a blog post, a homepage or any other piece of content for your website? Attract more visitors, get more customers, provide insight on your subject matter, sure. But your writing is also engaging in some behind-the-scenes negotiations with the ranking function of search engines—the bytes of code that determine whether your website ends up on the first page of results, or in the graveyard of the tenth.

A single piece of content is doing a lot of work for you. In addition to conveying useful information to readers, it’s telling search engine optimization (SEO) algorithms that the website as a whole is reputable and worthy of a good rank on a SERP (search engine results page). There are certain traits these algorithms have been programmed to recognize in high-quality websites. Modeling your content in a way that encourages these bots to check off their list and give your site a gold star can make the difference between getting 67% of all clicks or none.

How bots help you write better content

Search engine algorithms are mainly looking for content that was created with common sense. You can use their guidelines as an outline for your content. Here’s a checklist of what makes a high-quality webpage, according to Google:

  • E-A-T: Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness
    • Formal expertise is very important to Google, especially when your webpage deals with topics concerning your money or your life (medical, financial, legal advice, etc.). Expertise can be less formal for lower-stakes content, like recipes or humor, but still involve a high level of authoritativeness if the source is reliable, well-known and well-liked. Consider what expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness mean for your website. Who are your experts? What is making you a trustworthy source?
  • Prioritizing the right information
    • Think of your titles, headlines, anchored text and image names and descriptions as snapshots. They tell the algorithm about your webpage’s purpose and what the main content is trying to accomplish. These are the places to include keywords you’re trying to rank for, but be cognizant about the user experience. Are the keywords you’re choosing the ones people actually use to find you?
  • The inverted pyramid
    • Understand how readers scan text. Headlines and subheads are really important, as is the first paragraph. Include the main message and your feature keyword in your first paragraph. People recognize the word they were looking for and feel they’re in the right spot. Make your content “top heavy” by including the most important information first—no hedging or burying the juicy bits.

Ever-changing algorithms

SEO algorithms are really unglamorous critics. They have no faces, they shape shift all the time (in fact, it’s estimated that Google makes algorithm updates 500–600 times a year) and to top it all off, you can’t really fault them. Their whole purpose is to make it easier for the average Googler (or Binger, rare breed that they are) to find the most useful and user-friendly information. While most of these hundreds of updates are minor tweaks, there are major changes once or twice a year; you’ve just got the hang of Penguin when Pigeon flies in your face asking you to play by new rules.
We understand, it’s frustrating. You’ve gotta be a people pleaser, as well as a code coddler. What’s a writer to do? It’s not really as bad as all that.

Writing for SEO algorithms (without writing for SEO algorithms)

Scale it back. While, theoretically, most of the world could have access to your content, it’s highly unlikely that an audience that size is searching for what you’re serving up.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you.

Except not, because it makes your life much easier. You’re always going to be writing for a niche—a metaphorical audience of 10,000 and some bots. But remember, those bots are sifting through the internet finding the content that serves those 10,000 people best. They’re servants of the people, and that means…

Bots don’t want to be written to.

In fact, they penalize pages that attempt to game their system with keyword stuffing (repeating the same words or phrases you’re trying to rank for so often it sounds unnatural), shallow content (quickly created content of subpar quality and a low amount of useful information), anchor text overuse (linking to other webpages using words that you’re trying to rank for, even when it’s unrelated to the link) among other shady practices.

The long and the short of it is you can’t let the bots know you want them too badly. You’ll turn them off with needy, low-quality content. Instead, write organic and interesting content that drops hints with high-power keywords and well-written headlines that makes them want you. Play hard to get.

Do what feels natural

Write naturally. Write for people. Write for people who are specifically searching for the information you have, and don’t worry about casting your net beyond that audience. Most (if not all) web content is answering a question in some shape or form. Get to the core question of what your readers are going to be asking themselves while they sift through the web. Then, when they stumble across your website, make them feel like their search is over.

That’s the true secret to satisfying SEO algorithms.

Writing for SEO strategy: When an algorithm is your audience
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