Chapter 2: Content & search engine success factors
Content should be your first priority when thinking about SEO. Quality content is how you engage, inform, support and delight your audiences. Creating authentic, valuable content is also critical for search engine visibility. Indeed, that’s why the Periodic Table Of SEO Factors begins with the content “elements,” with the very first element being about content quality.
Whether it’s blog articles, product pages, an about page, testimonials, videos or anything else you create for your audience, getting your content right means you’ve got a foundation to support all of your other SEO efforts.
“Just think about what the users want and think if you were in the shoes of the search engine, would you feel comfortable sending users to your own website?” says Frédéric Dubut, senior program manager lead for Bing. “Would you feel proud to vouch for that website and put that at number one for a given query?”
“If the answer is ‘yes,’ then that’s where a lot of the more technical work and more traditional SEO may come into play. But, if the answer is ‘no,’ then that’s probably a sign that you need to add more value for users before you start thinking about technical stuff.”
Providing users with substantive, useful and unique content is what compels them to stay on your pages, building familiarity and trust. What constitutes high quality will depend on the nature of the content and varies based on the type of content and industry.
Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines (section 5.1) break down the characteristics of high quality content by type:
- Informational content should be accurate, comprehensive, original and professionally presented.
- Artistic content should be original, unique and convey a high degree of skill.
- News content should be in-depth, well cited, accurate, and contain original reporting.
Brands creating Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) content need to pay particular attention to these standards as Google’s algorithms may give more weight to authoritativeness, expertise and trustworthiness (E-A-T) signals.
Content is the cornerstone of your SEO efforts and not a place to skimp. Creating — and investing in — a clear content strategy is critical to your SEO success as nearly all other factors depend on content quality.
For the latest content news and tips, bookmark Search Engine Land’s SEO: Content and Writing section.
Researching the keywords (the search terms your target audience is using) is perhaps the most important SEO factor after creating good content. It will help you develop content that “answers” what people are searching for. Keyword research can also carry benefits beyond ranking for those queries.
“Understanding the language that customers are using is incredibly important,” says Eric Enge, longtime SEO and general manager at the consulting firm Perficient Digital, “it makes you so much more relatable when you talk the way they talk, and that’s not going to change. So, keyword research for me is very, very important and there’s new offshoots of it where the way you might apply keyword research might be evolving, but the need for it is not.”
Keyword research can provide you with insights on the nature of your audiences’ pain points and needs — whether that’s navigational, informational or transactional — their interests, the amount of interest out there (indicated by search volume), the level of competition for those queries, and even the format in which they prefer that information.
Once you’ve evaluated which keywords are viable, use them to inform your content creation and include them within the content itself so that your audience has a higher chance of finding you in the search results.
“Consider classifying keywords by their intent: informational, transactional, navigational or local. Cross-reference your potential keywords with what currently ranks in the search results to see the types of results Google chooses to display for each query. Google may assign a different intent to the keyword than what you expect; for example, typing “sandwich” generates mostly local results — so a local strategy may be required to compete for that keyword. Understanding what type of content Google displays for the various keywords you’re researching helps clarify what type of content you’ll need to build and which of your pages will be eligible to rank for those terms.” –Lily Ray, SEO director, Path Interactive
For more, see our SEO: Keyword Research section and these resources:
- The essential metrics to analyze for keyword research success
- Ask the SMXpert: Keyword research and copywriting
- Searcher intent: The secret ingredient behind successful content development
After you’ve researched the keywords your audience is using to find you, include those keywords within the body of your content, your subheads and your titles — but not at the expense of readability or other compromises that prioritize search engines over readers.
To put it simply, consider the words you want your page to be found for and use them naturally.
“The trick is not speaking in terms of what the searcher is going to type into the search box, but speak in terms of what the searcher wants to read,” News Editor for Search Engine Land Barry Schwartz explained, touching upon the difference between the language used in search queries and the content users expect their queries to surface.
“I think that you don’t have to necessarily think about what the query is. So, for example, I wrote a story about Google Search Console adding notifications around removing the noindex directive for the robots.txt file,” said Schwartz. “Back in the old days, I probably would have actually included the subject line of that Search Console notification directly in the title because people are going to be copying-and-pasting that line of text and trying to search for it to find more information. Now, Google is a lot easier and smarter about this and you don’t really have to worry about doing exact keyword matches on the query — Google’s much smarter to expand that beyond.”
Always keep in mind that you’re writing for users first and that search engines are getting much better at understanding natural language. Throw out any notion of “keyword density” formulas to improve your rankings.
Search engines love timely, up-to-date, “fresh” information.
This does not mean you can make minor updates to your pages, update the publish date or continuously churn out new, low-quality pages to get a freshness boost.
If you have a library of aging content, you can update it or retire obsolete and expired pages. Doing so will make your site more useful to viewers and also indicate to search engines that your content is well maintained.
Google has also long applied what it calls Query Deserved Freshness (QDF) as a content ranking factor for certain types of queries. If a search query suddenly becomes popular — “hurricane” when there is an active hurricane, for example — Google will apply QDF to those searches and the results will change to reflect the stories, news and information about the topic. This is true for featured snippets as well.
You may be able to harness a freshness boost to increase your visibility on the results page by creating content relating to popular trends, upcoming events or holidays and breaking news. Be aware, though, that a QDF-related boost may subside over time and your page may get shuffled deeper in search results.
“Looking at news, Google alerts — things like that can help give you topic ideas that are fresh for your industry. When news is fresh, most likely not all of the topics/areas have been covered as usually the story is developing. That gives you the opportunity to write about a specific angle that hasn’t been covered. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a very controversial opinion, but rather giving people more things to think about. This can be useful for getting engagement and potentially some nice backlinks.” –Itamar Blauer, SEO and video marketer
There is tremendous value in explicitly answering users’ questions on your pages. For one, you’re creating content specifically designed to meet your audiences’ needs. Two, search engines are increasingly trying to show direct answers in the search results. If you answer questions well enough, your page may be displayed as a featured snippet or returned as a voice search result on Google Assistant.
Research indicates that more than half of Google searches end without a click to other content, and that’s partially because search engines are looking to satisfy users by resolving their searches right on the results page. Some of those answers are licensed (as is the case with music lyrics) and some are drawn directly from web pages with a link for attribution.
Optimizing your content for featured snippets and direct answers may yield more visibility than a standard organic search result, and doing so may also increase the chances that it gets returned as a voice search result.
“Some of my clients have said that when they get [rich results], they do get clicks,” says Jessica Bowman, owner of enterprise SEO consultancy SEO In-house. “I think that there is some strategic thinking that needs to be applied to the keywords that you’re trying to rank for rich snippets to determine, ‘Does it look like I’m going to get a click or should I focus on something else?’”
“Sometimes, you want that rich snippet — that box at the top — because whatever their intent was, they’re going to need to get deeper,” says Bowman. “But sometimes, a user’s intent is to get a quick answer and leave Google. If that’s the intent, it may not be such a great query.”
The decision to invest in content that can be turned into answers on the search results page should be determined by what the increased visibility means for your brand. If you’re looking to increase brand awareness, that investment may be justified; if you’re looking to drive more traffic, you’ll have to evaluate whether users are likely to click through after viewing the answer.
“Whenever I write a post relating to a specific question, I try to make the answer as accessible as possible to the reader by adding an H2 within the post. Accessibility is important, but making sure the reader sticks around is where it really counts. I recently wrote an article titled Google’s solution to search results dominated by FAQ Schema. I investigated the constraints around the SERP treatment appearing in search results, with the key takeaway being that Google will only display a maximum of 3 rich results, appearing on the first page only. The answer was provided quickly, but I added in a couple of lines directly after to encourage the reader to continue on.
Hard to say if this worked well because I don’t have access to the Analytics for SEL, but it was pleasing to see Google display some of this text within a Featured Snippet. If only this was the default text to be included for all results…” –Brodie Clark, Brodie Clark Consulting
For more about direct answers, see our related sections:
“The content on your site should be deep enough to answer the user’s question in a ‘substantial, complete or comprehensive’ manner, as the Google core update advice post says,” advises Barry Schwartz, news editor for Search Engine Land.
“Are you providing ‘insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?’ Does it contain original information? Is that information researched and factual? You want to make sure your content provides substantial value when compared to other pages in search results, because that is exactly what type of content Google wants to rank at the top of its results.”
The tricky part is figuring out how thorough your content should be. As mentioned above, you’ll want to provide more value than your competitors, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should throw more words at it to achieve an arbitrary word count. Some queries, such as “what is the fastest land mammal,” have a relatively straightforward answer, as where other questions, like “why is the cheetah the fastest,” may warrant a more in-depth explanation. Take the query, your audience’s preferences and your competitor’s offerings into account when deciding how deep to dive.
Text is the foundation that the internet is built on, but that doesn’t mean it’s universally the best medium for your content. Other formats can also provide added exposure in the search results. Consider using images, video, audio or other formats that appeal to your audience and set your brand apart from competitors.
After you settle on the format that’s best for your users, optimize your multimedia as well as the pages you embed it within to make it more discoverable. One way to do that is by using a content delivery network (CDN) to serve your multimedia and take some of the load off your servers. This can keep load times down, which is great for site speed and your user experience.
Whichever formats you go with, you’ll still want to use descriptive text to supplement your content and provide context to search engines and users alike. If it’s a video or a podcast, you can add a transcript. If it’s an image, make use of alt-text and captions. You can also mark up your multimedia with structured data to increase the chances that it gets returned as a rich result.
Don’t go overboard, though. Too much of a good thing — like GIFs, for example — can be obtrusive, which ultimately works against your goals.