If you make content for the internet, you’re likely familiar with SEO techniques and practices.
SEO Techniques to make your page more appealing to search engines, and appear higher in results, so that your website becomes more visible to potential visitors.
One detail often seems overlooked, though.
SEO means targeting your site to bots, automated software that crawls through HTML code looking for predetermined, objective markers and returning a score based on how many they find.
The results are then ranked by those software generated scorecards.
The problem is that quality is a subjective measurement, not an objective one.
Making objective rankings of subjective things are difficult at best, near impossible at worst. Bots operate on mathematical algorithms, so a horrible page can rank high if it ticks the right boxes.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve personally closed the top ranking result within seconds, because it’s painfully obvious that being number one on google was more important than the pages visitors.
The good news is, those bots are genuinely trying to find the best sites, and what they look for are genuine indicators of a good page.
As easy as it is to fill a bad page with the same indicators, a good page will have them organically, and the bots are always updating to better tell the difference.
The trick is to put visitors first, and the search bots second.
What is User Optimisation?
Let’s define what we’re talking about. Most people talk about user experience (UX) with a focus on things like site layout, navigation, colour schemes and accessibility.
That’s important but should be part of your web design already.
That’s like walking into a shop and having enough space to move around, products well presented, plenty of light, things like that.
I’m focusing here on the individual presentation of content pages.
To continue the metaphor, that’s the shop’s staff. Whether you feel like they care about you, or just your wallet.
Are they just trying to get as many customers in and out as possible, or are they trying to make sure each individual customer has the best experience possible? Which would make you go back?
Since we’re on the metaphor, think of SEO as the stores advertising campaign.
It captures people’s interest but means nothing once they show up. The best ad in the world won’t help if the product isn’t worth buying.
If your content is user optimised, it means a visitor feels like they’re the priority.
That the page is there to deliver something to them, rather than them feeling like they’re just another tick on your sites view counter, another sale, or another e-mail on your newsletter list.
Plus, those search bots are constantly trying to find the best content for users.
If your goal is to deliver the best to users, rather than chasing the bots attention, the bots will be chasing you, and with every refinement you’ll be a little closer to the top.
Make good content first, optimise later
The first step is to focus on making good content above all else.
Instead of thinking “How to get lots of traffic”, think “Would my community want this?”
If an article isn’t worth writing, if the information isn’t worth sharing, then who’s going to care?
The mantra here is “Quality over Quantity” – both is best, but if you have to lose one, one visitor who loves the experience is more valuable than two visitors finding it mediocre.
This extends past just the initial creation. When you’re editing and adjusting content to fit the site, first priority should still be quality of content. Pay attention to what the content is saying, and make sure the final formatting isn’t hurting the piece.
For example, most people know it’s a good idea to leave plenty of white space on the page for easy reading.
So, best SEO techniques would suggest splitting content up into lots of short paragraphs, often with a paragraph break after every sentence or two.
Do not do this.
Sentence structure and paragraph structure share a purpose with grammar.
That purpose is to represent something about the language, and make it easier for the reader to understand.
For paragraphs, the purpose is organising information.
The value of short structure is impact.
Making every paragraph one sentence long is similar to making the entire article bold and italic.
It leaves you nowhere to go when you really want something to have a punch, unless you clutter the page with quote boxes and the like.
I’ve gone into more depth here, but without geeking out over language now, breaking a paragraph that shouldn’t be broken is just as bad as writing one that’s too long.
The way text is formatted gives it tone. Tone which SEO bots can’t recognise – but visitors will feel.
Use Multimedia with purpose
Interactive multimedia is probably the greatest advantage of internet content over more traditional media.
So no surprise SEO advises using it. In general, it’s a good idea.
In practice, it often winds up with sites that look and feel like your cringy old teenage myspace page had babies with a candy store.
There’s an old writing saying, “Kill your darlings”, which is meant to remind young writers that just because they’re attached to a particular scene or event doesn’t mean it deserves to be there.
Applying the same rule to your content will make it more appealing to visitors by never overwhelming them.
Think back to the days of limited bandwidth and slow connections. If it isn’t adding to the visitor’s experience, it isn’t earning the resources it uses.
This applies double, nay, triple, to elements included just for SEO.
If you use an image, it should complement the written content, or replace it entirely. If you use a picture and text side by side, on the same point, they both need to be adding something the other isn’t.
Every time text is actually repeated in the image word for word, a kitten gets sick with the flu.
The same for video. If taking it off the page won’t take anything from the visitor’s experience, why is it there?
Take a look at the layout of your content. How many elements are competing for attention?
More importantly, what is the average visitor going to be looking for at that moment?
If the page has just loaded up, the easy money says that a visitor is going to be looking for the main content of the page.
If the first thing presented to them is a splash screen for your newsletter signup link, you’ve just lost points.
Why? Because you’re taking away choice by forcing the visitor’s attention away from what they want and onto what you want.
It’s like a pushy salesperson, who keeps telling you the perks of the deluxe model while brushing over your questions about the mid-range you’re interested in.
On the other hand, a visitor who reads through to the end of your content?
They’ve enjoyed it enough to stick around – giving them the option then to join the newsletter and see more is probably something they’re after.
More like that other salesperson, who takes a moment to ask what you’re needs are, and points out that even the midrange is a waste of money when the budget model is more than sufficient.
Which of those two imaginary salespeople makes you want to stick around?
You want to think about where you’re visitors attention will be, and what they’re looking for at that moment, then put what they want where they’ll be looking.
What your page puts focus on also implies what you consider most important.
So a newsletter signup or “Get more content here” link at the bottom of the page is good, giving clear direction to visitors who like what they saw enough to follow to the end and probably want more.
The same link at the start of the page tells the visitor you just care about view stats and puts something between them and the content they want.
Splash screens have the specific purpose of interrupting the page to present something to the visitor, so make sure it’s something worth interrupting with. Like a “This page contains adult material” warning, or an alert that the page will be moving to a new URL soon. Something that the visitor needs to see before anything else. If it can wait, it should.
The use of ads for revenue is unavoidable in many cases but think about how those ads impact the flow of content. Each ad is an interruption, and competition for attention. A barrier between the visitor and what they’re looking for – too many barriers and they’ll turn away.
It should also go without saying to never have a video set to autoplay.
Especially a video ad. Auto-playing videos are the popup windows of the modern internet.
They force the visitor’s attention and deny them the choice of watching the video or not.
Unless the video is the only thing on the page worth attention in the first place, it should be set to wait for the visitor to address.
Buzzwords are the enemy
Marketing types will probably say buzzwords are called that because they create a buzz of reaction, excitement, and impact.
The dictionary tells you they’re words “fashionable at the time”.
As a writer, I would like to tell you buzzwords are named accurately; because they’re the written equivalent of meaningless buzzing.
SEO techqniues suggest using your keywords early and often, but for user optimisation, I caution against forcing it, and if your keyword is a buzzword, burn it.
Here’s the rationale.
Have you ever played that game where you repeat a word over and over again until it starts to sound weird?
The more frequently a word is used, the less meaning it carries. That’s partly why “said” tends to be invisible in novels. Our brain becomes so familiar with it that we tune it out.
Repeating a word more than absolutely necessary steals strength from it. Buzzwords tend to be this on a large scale, being used everywhere. “Synergy” refers to two elements working together with a result greater than the sum of the parts. A good word for an otherwise clunky concept – and I’ll bet you can’t hear it without imagining a guy in a suit pointing at a whiteboard.
Overusing a word or phrases weakens your content.
Buzzwords are often common in searches, so avoiding them entirely isn’t always wise either, just be aware of the effect. If it’s a search term everyone is trying to appear in, it means you’ve maximised your competition. As Sun Tzu would advise, strike where the enemy is weak and avoid where he is strong. If you just load your content with buzzwords, you might be missing an opportunity to appear in other searches with little to no competition.
The advice here will sound familiar by now. Put content first. Use whatever wording will deliver best to the reader, not what will most please the bots – appropriate keywords will likely appear organically (look how often I’ve said “SEO” in this article by chance). Remember; using a keyword once or twice while being useful will get you more positive shares than an article that is full of excuses to hit the same word.
As long as it needs to be, but as short as it can be
Another case where treating SEO advice like a mechanical checklist will only hurt your page.
“Post longer content”.
The idea here is that a longer article gives more value to readers, keeps them on the page longer, and is more appealing that short bursts of text.
Now consider this. The fastest way to improve the quality of writing is cut from it. Lose anything that isn’t essential.
As Stephen King puts it; “Second Draft = First Draft – 20%”.
That doesn’t mean long content is bad, but it means you should always consider if it could be shorter.
We’ve all gone and seen a two-hour movie where the second half was spent thinking “Will this ever end?”
Likewise, there are movies out there that leave you thinking “wow, has it really been three hours?!”
Is the content long because it has a lot to say, and every sentence builds on its point?
Or is it long because someone has stretched out what could have been a 500-word article into a 2,000 word one, because they had a target to hit?
I could write an entire article on length, and probably will someday, so I’ll keep it simple here.
What’s the ideal length? As long as it needs to be, which is as short as it can be.
Links come last
I’m putting this one last because, well, that’s where it belongs.
Hyperlinks, both within your own site and outward bound, are a cornerstone of SEO practices. The first ranking algorithm worked by measuring links between sites to estimate how useful a page was.
They figured, the more valuable a result, the more often other pages would direct there.
So why do I suggest this comes last?
Links are kind of like using a highlighter. They stand out from normal text and draw attention to it, loudly declaring “There is more here, if you want it”. Too much noise and it all becomes meaningless.
If you set out with a goal of including more links, you’ll probably wind up with a whole bunch of forced lines, or links that don’t really make sense for the page. Similar to the multimedia overuse mentioned above.
Wait until the content is more or less finished as a stand-alone piece. Write it by hand in a notebook if you must. Then look for natural linking points. Anywhere that references another site, make a link. Anywhere that touches on a related page, link. Mentions a business, link. Somewhere a link would be hilarious? Link. A technical word that the article only very briefly defined? Link. A suggestion of other content? Definite link.
This will help keep the page itself focused on its point, and make links a natural flow of the page. They’ll appear at moments when the visitor is already thinking “I wonder if there’s more here”, meaning you’re matching their attention rather than directing it. You’ll start forming a reputation of links worth clicking on.
You may find there are less links on the page when it’s been built to work as a stand-alone. Don’t worry, one link every third paragraph is more potent than one every four words.
Or you might find more, depending on the topic and how many connections show up. But it’s less likely those links will be trees lost among the forest if each one has earned its place.
Wikipedia and TvTropes are both famous for liberal use of links that can leave a visitor with two new tabs for every one they close, while those links are almost always natural parts of the text. Spending some time there could help give a feel for how to place links well.
So what does all this mean?
I may be coming across like I’m trying to bash SEO here.
It’s a useful tool, and one I’ve taken an interest in because, honestly, it makes a fun challenge.
Just be careful about treating it like a checklist, or letting it become the primary focus of your work.
Be careful not to mistake a high Google rank for a good page.
It’s like exams in school. The kid who learns the most will likely get a decent score.
But the kid who puts all their energy into a perfect exam mark, more often than not, winds up having learned nothing but how to beat the exam.
Likewise. If you focus on building your website and its content to optimise for the user’s experience, you’ll probably hit a lot of the same points as SEO anyway. But if your focus is on appeasing the search bots, you’ll probably miss the mark on what makes a page really stand out.
Chris is an Australian writer and freelancer, with delusions of knowing what he’s doing. You can find him writing about writing, or hire him to make words for you.