SEO Step Four of Ten: Content Optimization
Content Is King
Content is king. More than a truism, the phrase is a mantra. Content is the stuff people are looking for on a website. A commitment to developing and deploying great page, document and site content is a commitment to good SEO.
Comprised of the most common site elements, content is the most effective tool SEOs have to work with. Loosely defined as All Things On-Page, the term “content” would include titles, tags, text, in-site links and out-bound links. In some SEO practices, the acronym ATOP is used to refer to the hands-on work environment. (ATOP, i.e.: Mark sends the keyword targets to Jade whose staff works ATOP in the overall SEO effort) Content optimization is where creative art gets mixed into the webmaster science of SEO.
In the SEO process, content optimization describes most of the hands-on work done to make unique documents place well in search engine rankings. For the purposes of search engine optimization; content either exists, has to be created, or both.
Sometimes optimization of existing site content only requires the SEO to perform minor textual tweaks. Sometimes content does not exist and has to be written by the SEO. Frequently, SEOs come across pre-existing page content that needs to be totally rewritten or redeveloped.
The object is two-fold. The first goal is to feed data to search engine spiders, the second to serve information to human visitors.
Writing for Robots
By basic definition, the goal of search engine optimization is to achieve high search engine rankings. That means writing for robotic consumption. The first rule of writing for robots is, keep it simple.
For all their silicon guts and algorithmic abilities the robots are not that bright. They cope best with one concept at a time. Though a page might rank well for any number of keywords or phrases, the best site copy is written to focus on one topic per page. Addressing multiple topics per page dilutes the overall effectiveness of a site-wide SEO effort and the ranking potential of individual pages.
Limiting your focus to one topic per page makes it far easier to work keyword targets into each of the basic on-site content elements; titles, meta descriptions, body text and links. When optimizing site content, each of these elements needs to be worked on one-by-one and then examined in relation to each other. In practice, I prefer to work from the top to the bottom of a page before spending the bulk of my time messing around in the middle.
Titles are important
The first page element search engine spiders and most human visitors see is the page title. If you found this article on a search engine or through an RSS feed, chances are the title of the page was used to make the reference link you clicked on to get here. Passing primary topical information to bots and to search engine users, the title of a web document is used by SEOs to address specific keyword targets and to convince human visitors to select the page.
A lot of webmasters overlook the title when designing and maintaining their websites. To make the point, think of the countless number of websites with index pages sporting the title “Home”.
Look at the very top of your screen. See the words beside the Firefox or Internet Explorer symbol? That’s the title of this page. Being published in WebProNews, the title of the original page this piece was published on reads, “SEO Step Four of Ten: Content Optimization | WebProNews”.
Each page in a website should have a unique title. As pages in the website gets more specific, so to should the titles of those pages. Since SEO is about getting good placements under a variety of keywords or phrases, including “long-tail” placements, topically relevant keywords should be worked into the title of each page.
Here are a few examples of optimized page titles in a general page-tree order:
- Eco-Friendly Products for Healing Healthy Hippies :: Green Wingnuts (INDEX page)
- Ecological Alternatives :: Healing Healthy Hippies :: About Green Wingnuts (About page)
- Magic Healing Balms, Tinctures and Lotions :: Health Products for Hippies :: Green Wingnuts (Product Stock Page)
- Organic Yellow Blue Algae Lotion :: Nutritious Health and Healing Products :: Green Wingnuts (Specific Product Page)
Search engines use titles to gauge the topical intent of individual pages in a website. So do human search engine users. It makes sense to give both the information they need to make the decisions you want them to.
Meta Descriptions Make a Difference
There are dozens of meta tags that have been used in the history of search engine optimization. The only extremely important one is the meta DESCRIPTION tag. Though found in the source-code and not part of the visible website, the meta description tag can have a decisive impact on rankings and selection.
Search engines use the meta description to help confirm the topical intent of web pages. They also use them for a much more practical purpose. The description is often used to phrase the short paragraphs found under the Title in search engine results. When a search engine users is making a decision which link to click, a well written meta description might make the difference. Don’t ignore this tag, each page should have a unique one.
<meta name=”description” content=”Green Wingnuts makes healing products for healthy hippies. Ecological alternative health products for a better planet” />
Visible Elements, Text, Images and Links
When approaching a fresh optimization project, SEOs takes stock of what they have to work with. SEOs often think like doctors when assessing a website with the understanding that they could do quite a bit of harm if they are not extremely careful. More often than not, changes made to titles and meta descriptions are beneficial to clients. As they are frequently overlooked or under-utilized, augmenting the titles and descriptions of pages usually helps a site achieve better rankings. Changes to the text that appears on a page, on the other hand, might unleash a host of unintended consequences. Aside from the chance a SEO might mistakenly change the message the client is trying to convey, messing around with body-text might also damage current search engine rankings. Keep that in mind as we move into making content optimization decisions.
The first task in content optimization is analysis. Having a full understanding of where a clients’ web pages rank, under which keyword phrases and the degree of success current placements enjoy is critically important for making decisions about what to work on. Analysis requires data and data requires information.
In an earlier part of this series, Dave Davies addressed Keyword Research and Selection and the making of a list of several keyword phrase targets. Content optimization analysis is about figuring out which pages are most relevant to keyword phrase targets on the list.
Almost any page in a URL has a good chance to achieve strong search engine placement under a limited number of keyword phrase. In deciding which phrases to apply to which pages, I start by dividing items on the keyword selection list into categories ranging from general to specific.
On the INDEX page of the Green Wingnuts site, the phrase “Green Wingnuts” would be the most general phrase as it is the business name of the client. The target market is deemed to be health conscious hippies, hence the slightly more specific variations on “healthy hippies”. Ecology is an important interest for most health conscious hippies, thus the use of “Eco-Friendly Products”. In this example, the index page is primed to rank for three unique keyword phrases and is easily associated with variations on each.
At first mention, content optimization might be thought to be about writing primarily for search engine spiders. It’s not. Well optimized website content should be created for live-human visitors and deployed in a way that that draws the reader towards a decision. Anyone can talk to a bot. Compelling website visitors to commit to an action and achieve a conversion is a bit more difficult.
As noted earlier, a good working rule is to stick to one topic per page and to consider the overall website as a document tree. The top of the tree is the INDEX page. Below the INDEX are the second or upper-level pages that tend to describe the company, its mission, goals, general services, and contact information. Pages found on subsequent levels of the website tend to feature more specific information the deeper a document is found on the tree. In the Green Wingnuts example, you can see in the titles how content gets more specific as we descend down the document tree.
Writing for a web-based readers and search engine spiders is much like writing for newspaper readers. Because the web is a dynamic environment, readers have notoriously short attention spans. Important points and keyword phrases need to be mentioned early in the copy and, by the end of the third short paragraph; the reader should know what they are supposed to do next. Subsequent paragraphs are used to support the story told by the first three. The goal is to hold their interest long enough to confidently direct them to the next step.
For instance, when writing copy for a real estate website, I want to ensure the readers are A) getting the information they need to assess the local area and decide they want to live there, B) understanding that the realtor is there to provide whatever they need to make a decision, and C) confident enough know how to move to the listings of properties for sale.
When applying text to a page, content optimizers need to think about its placement against other elements present on the page. How headlines or “strong” text looks beside an image is as important as the slight algorithmic bump that emphasized text brings. More important to the goal of improving the page is making it accessible to all users. Adding descriptive Alt-tags to images helps visitors who use screen readers and gives SEOs opportunity to insert relevant keywords into the alt tags. While I still use <h1> and <h2> tags, I tend not to worry as much about SEO considerations as I do page layout considerations. As long as the target keyword phrases are prominent in the titles, meta description, body text and judiciously used as anchor text, I trust the search spiders to find them.
I am far more concerned about where the pages I work on are being found. An emerging consideration in content creation asks the question, “What if it plays better in Pittsburg than it does in Cleveland?” Search engines are getting far better at delivering the right information to the right person. Knowing that there are fewer common standards in search engine results, content optimizers have to think about the regionalization of search.
Finding your regional audience
One piece of SEO software I really like that is called Enquisite. Designed to tell users how pages within their websites rank from the points of view of search engine users in regional markets around the world, Enquisite provides extraordinary information about what ranks well where. Having used Enquisite for over a year, Metamend finds it an indispensable tool.
When we develop new content or think about making changes to existing page content, we check how that site is performing in regional search markets using Enquisite. Because search engines have become extremely good at targeting where a search engine user is located they are able to serve regionally relevant information to different users in different places. While the overall object is high rankings for search queries everywhere, the advent of personalized, localized and “universal” search results make us consider create regionally specific content for the strongest markets indicated by Enquisite.
Helping site visitors move from their point of entry to an essential action or a conversion is an important part of content optimization which will be fully addressed in the ninth essay in this series. To touch on it briefly, if the overall site optimization effort goes according to plan, search engine users will be able to find specific product pages on the first page of search results. That’s an optimal visitor but a content creator has to think about directing visitors who find their way to a page from a link on another site.
Internal links are important enough to obsess on. Designing a practical and elegant navigation path through a website is essential to gaining and retaining converting visitors. A big part of an elegant navigation path is how internal links are written and phrased; a process that also has an effect on a search engine’s impression of the site.
Internal links should be short and, whenever possible, be phrased with the most relevant keyword targets to the page the link leads to. A link leading to “Health Products” is far more compelling than one leading to “Green Wingnuts Products” and gets another mention of a target keyword phrase in an area that associates it with the page the link leads to. A similar approach should be taken to phrasing links in a sitemap file.
Content optimization comprises the bulk of the work SEOs do when working on a website but that work doesn’t stop when the initial optimization process ends. Content optimization also includes the regular creation of new pages and periodic changes of existing content. These topics will be covered in future essays in this series, most likely in the ninth and tenth articles, Conversion Optimization and Keeping it Up.
More Info on This Series
This article is part of a ten part series of essays on SEO written by search marketing experts from several unique disciplines. The series is being supplemented by a weekly show on Webcology at WebmasterRadio.fm Thursdays at 2PM eastern. Be sure to tune in or download the podcast to hear the authors talk about their takes on search marketing.
The next article in this series will address one of the most important aspects of an overall SEO campaign, Link Building. That will be in two weeks as next weeks Webcology broadcast will be pre-empted by WebmasterRadio coverage of the SMX-West conference in Santa Clara.