While there are compilations of hundreds of actionable SEO tips, 90% of SEO-related success is attached to being able to produce valuable content answering practical questions that web users often have, again and again. The key word here is ‘produce.’ And in an effort to get the most with the least, or follow the 80/20 rule, or some other Occam’s Razor-like heuristic, there are a but a few actionable SEO tactics that produce a large portion of potential SEO success.
But first off, what is SEO? Most simply, it’s an acronym standing for search engine optimization. Search engine optimization is a set of techniques aimed at helping content or other portions of a website obtain more visitors from search engines. More specifically, when a user utilizes a search engine they enter in a number of keywords. The search engine then returns pieces of content –in descending order– depending on how closely a piece of content or site matches the subject matter and intent of the keywords searched. Nearly every piece of content deemed in some way valuable by search engines has obtained a search engine results page (SERP) placement. Generally, a SERPs rank of 1-10 places a piece of content on the first page of a search engine, 11-20 on the second, and so forth. A vast majority of users ALWAYS follow a link from the first page of search engine results. Thus ranking highly results in many more potential users.
Despite what they may say, no SEOs (those whose is primarily to focus on SEO) truly know the exact procedure search engines use to rank pages. What SEOs do have are educated guesses based on posting (in many cases) thousands of pieces of content in multiple verticals. By isolating changes, using A/B testing, and just through experience many SEOs come to hone a number of prominent techniques. These techniques –many of which are close enough to being right to trust– are what you will find online if you search for tips on how to perform SEO.
Without any more ado, here are some of the most high impact SEO tactics that can be performed by content creators and site managers:
1.) Optimize Content Length
Search Engines are in the business of providing content that users will find valuable, and true value often comes with some element of comprehensiveness. While some traffic sources (example: social media), industries, or target audiences (example: children) will expect shorter or bite-sized content, and thus “bounce” (immediately leave the page, an occurrence that is bad for SEO), generally longer content performs better. While a minimum that is often associated with blog post or press release-length entries is 400 words, the closer content can get to 1,500 words or above, the better it generally performs. This has been backed up in a number of studies all echoing around the same length in different forms.
Takeaway: Content that takes around 7 minutes to read, or is about 1,500 words in length generally performs the best.
2.) Optimize Keywords
First, what is a keyword? In SEO a keyword is a word or group of words that define a prominent topic in a piece of content. In a well-ordered and successful piece of content the main topic will be represented with the largest grouping of keywords, and those will be the keywords the piece of content holds the highest SERP ranks for. In reality, different keywords have radically different amounts of competition, and a piece of content may get ranked for a range of keyword groups, some that you may not even have intended. A common example of this comes about when pieces of content obtain top ranks for keywords for image searches. While the central topic of the piece of content may be quite competitive, the page might show up first in search engine queries matching the name of an image on the page.
So how does one optimize keywords in a piece of content? First and foremost, make sure the piece of content is about the keywords you want to rank for. And beyond that, make sure the piece of content answers the intent of a search engine user for given keywords. An example of intent in search engines could be seen in a lazy search for “top university.” In this case the intention of the user is likely to get a look at what the “top” universities are, and thus search engines return rankings of the top ranked universities. Note that this is not what the user literally inputted at all. From the volume of similar queries and the most successful content, search engines make an educated guess as to the intent of a user. When someone searches “nearest pizza,” often a map of the nearest pizza parlors shows up. Of course we all know this from experience, but the practice of gauging the intent of a searcher and truly writing to that intent through the article can help make the content better in all ways.
The second most important way to optimize keywords in content is by focusing on amplifying certain keywords above others. The simplest way to do this is to have a higher density of keywords you would like to rank for than other words in the document. Noting that search engines often discount words like “the,” “a,” “an,” “but” and so forth, seek to repeat the central words or phrases that describe the content more than other unrelated words. A good tool for this can be found at wordcounter.net, that offers both a count of the words in your document as well as the highest frequency keywords (in groupings of one, two and three words). Below is an example of the read out from a keyword-optimized piece of content on information security managers.
The next most important way to amplify keywords is through the use of semantic html (html that reinforces the meaning of different elements on the page). Keywords that are placed in header tags (<h1>,<h2>,<h3>, and so on) are judged to be more integrally related to the main topic of the content. The same goes for anchor text in links (the text that is linked), bolded text (text that uses <b> or <strong> ), emphasized text (<em> or <i>), or text that is in the page title and meta tags (more on that later).
One final note on keywords is that there are literally billions of keywords a piece of content can rank for. Search engines often group synonymous keywords when trying to provide for the intent of users, so there are often a very wide variety of keywords one can try to rank for. Check out UberSuggest for a good, free keyword synonym tool. Alternating related keywords and phrases also makes content read more naturally, so there’s really nothing to lose!
3.) Riff off of the broader context in which the content will be posted
Search engines attempt to reward sites with coherent messages site-wide. Generally, most pages on a SEO-optimized site will be indexed by search engines, and so search engines have a pretty good view of the context of any given piece of content. They also look at the internal links to try to get a sense of how users might navigate through the content of a site to find solutions to whatever problem the site solves. While we all know all sites have to find funding in some way, search engines prefer sites that attempt to add to the ecosystem in which they exist, not just straight up sell something to users. Thin sites are sites where there aren’t many steps between when a user gets on a site and where they’re presented with a selling proposition. Search engines prefer sites that provide good informative content that a user can explore for some time before an attempt to ‘sell’ the user takes place. And this is part of why search engines look at the broader site when evaluating a page. It also helps to push sites with proven track records of quality content (a lot of it, and over a long time) to the top of search rankings. With this in mind, content producers and site managers should be mindful that every page is ranked according to both the rank of the broader site and the specific content. So while every piece of content should attempt to excel in it’s own right, it should also be aware of it’s context within the site.
Helpful questions for situating content in the broader site:
- Is its main purpose to amplify keywords for the site as a whole?
- Is it meant to grab keywords for a few queries the site does not already cover and then funnel users to another piece of content?
- Does the site already cover the keywords this piece of content covers? (If no, then keyword optimization is additionally important.)
- Is this piece of content a tangential backlink magnet, rather than a keyword-focused piece? (If yes, then you may want to focus more on entertaining the audience, or performing the information-bait, rage-bait, click-bait, etc. function of the piece)
4.) Focus on the Readability of Your Content
Of course you don’t want your content to read like Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, but for SEO purposes readability goes beyond “easy to comprehend”. The Flesch Reading Ease Score is often thought to be the tool used by search engines to calculate the readability of content. The Flesch test is easy to internalize for writing purposes and passes text through the following formula: Reading Ease = 206.835 – (1.015 x Average Sentence Length) – (84.6 x Average Number of Syllables Per Word). The result ranks pieces of content on a 0-100 scale, where 100 is very easy to read, and 0 is very confusing. While very few people could fully compute their reading ease value on the fly, it’s enough to emphasize clear direct sentences and shorter words. Many tools can rapidly test your content, however. Including WordCounter.net which returns not only keyword information but the education level at which a reader should be able to comprehend the text. Many SEOs have noted that search engines seem to preference content written at high school or “some college” levels.
5.) Create Semantic Blocks
As mentioned previously, search engines strive to read the intent of searchers and match queries with pages that satisfy that intent. While queries will often lead to results that are more specific than entire domains, the structure of the domain as a whole is integrally tied to the performance of individual pieces of content in search. It’s the job of individual pieces of content to coherently fit into the structure of the site. Look at the funnel that your piece of content is supporting and play a coherent role in the overall structure. If you’re writing about a tangentially related topic or a resource page, this could involve linking users to the start of a funnel. If you’re providing amplification for monetized keywords, this could involve sending users to the conversion page. If you’re writing the final selling page –on which users should already be targeted– direct them to conversion at natural intervals. Search engines are sophisticated when it comes to understanding the broader structure of sites, and are able to gather some performance metrics on most pages. If some portion of your site funnel is broken, conversions will be down from all traffic sources, but likely traffic will also be down from search engines. So organic performance is often a good sign of whether your funnel is working no matter your traffic source.
6.) Understand the Role of Backlinks in SEO
Backlinks are links to your page from other sites. Search engines regard links to your page as votes of confidence, or statements that your content is valuable for users across many sites. There are actually two types of backlinks: nofollow and dofollow. While nofollow links do not count for SEO purposes (they are commonly seen on sites that rely on user generated content, like Facebook or Wikipedia), most links from one resource to another are dofollow. The number of dofollow links, and the quality of the sites they come from is perhaps the single largest predictor of SEO success for content. So as content producers and site managers, it’s important to get in the mindset of other content producers and site managers. What do we link to? What provides a resource worthy of other sites directing their own traffic to? Also of note is that only some pieces of content should be made with the explicit goal of gaining backlinks. Some pieces of content are focused on growing keyword presence, some for supporting roles on a URL (an about page, for instance). But generally speaking a backlink is normally great, and it’s important for content producers and site managers to keep how their content might fit on someone else’s page at the forefront of their mind when formulating and creating content.
An actionable tip for finding what your vertical wants to link to: use tools like AHREFS to find competitor pieces of content and see who linked to their competing content. If you’re unaware of what exact pieces of content will be your competition, search in Google for the keywords you’re targetting, then push similar pages through backlink tools. Or use the content explorer by topic on a tool like Buzzsumo or Ahrefs.