SEO is a very broad topic nowadays encompassing complex data analysis, increasingly technical areas of importance and an integration with wider marketing strategies, to name just a few.
That said, SEO fundamentals haven’t changed much in 20 years when it comes to how how to optimise a single page for SEO.
Are You A Blogger Or a Journalist?
If you are a blogger or a journalist, you don’t need to know much more about SEO than how to optimise the content you are writing. If your site or blog has a particular topic it wasn’t to be authoritative for you may also consider this when writing your content, but for the most part a page has primary and secondary keywords and your content should be relevant enough to encourage Google to index this content for those terms.
Content is Still King
You should also know that your content is the driving force of your site’s visibility in Google. Content quality is one of the three top ranking factors in its algorithms and it its machine learning algorithm can do a pretty good job working out what good quality content looks and reads like. Natural language processing, reading age, semantic and latent semantic and RankBrain are but a few means by which Google makes these evaluations.
SEO Doesn’t Have to be Super-technical
So SEO doesn’t have to be a technical geeky quagmire if you’re a regular content creator.
Let’s get into what you need to know to make the biggest difference to your article’s chances of being seen and clicked on in Google’s search results.
The Fundamental 5 of SEO
Title Tags used to be SEO. I mean really, they did. There was genuinely a time when ensuring your keywords were present in the HTML was about 60% of the SEO effort required.
1) HTML Title Tags
In HTML, a Title Tag looks something like this.
<title>Insert Your Target Keyword Here</title>
You’ll recognise it when you look at the top of this web page
Somewhere else you’ll see it is in the search results.
So while the Title Tag serves a powerful function when it comes to helping Google decide what keywords to rank a page for, it also has influence over users when they search, encouraging them to click through to your page.
It’s still true that the HTML Title Tag has prime importance in SEO, but Google is much more fussy about what pages it ranks for keywords. Most sites have templated or manually crafted Title Tags.
If you’re a writer, your Title Tag will usually become the HTML Title of the page unless you’re using WordPress or another content management system that allows you to set it manually. This means that your article title has a great deal of impact on your SEO.
Killer Headlines Don’t Always Make For Killer SEO
Journalists were traditionally trained to write headlines that use puns and witty shorthand in order to attract attention. This made sense in the ancient world of journalism where headlines were ‘pushed’ into people’s attention. As the internet has matured, writers have learned new ways of writing headlines in order to get clicks (clickbait).
Goodbye Cruel World
Hate Preacher Goes Shopping for Yogurt
SEO is a ‘pull’ channel, by which we mean that it’s designed to gain clicks by harvesting interest that already exists (rather than generating it via a ‘push’, as with traditional media).
If people aren’t searching for what you’re writing about in your headline Google won’t rank it for what you want to be found for and you have very limited space for your headline.
Google actually uses a rather oblique means of truncating Title Tags in its search results. The limit is 600 pixels in width and as different letters have different pixel counts, you can’t really use a definitive character count in order to ensure that your Title isn’t cut off. The best guideline in 2019 is to keep your titles less than 60 characters.
WordPress plugins such as Yoast <<link>> have built in tools to help emulate what the Google search results will look like as you write your title, so if you use WordPress, make sure you use Yoast for that alone.
What You Should Do
Consider what your target audience would search for and make sure you include those terms in your article title.
Finding a balance between keyword inclusion and creating enticing headlines is a challenge, but essential if you want to get a lot of organic traffic.
2) Meta Descriptions
Meta descriptions are the text you see below the Title Tag in the search results and this is their primary purpose.
Having a compelling meta description is a really important part of SEO because it plays a key role in compelling readers to click on your article.
On a lot of content management systems the first 160 characters or so of your content will become the default meta description. If no meta description is set on an article, Google will often use its own heuristics to use this text anyway.
However, if you are able to set the meta description manually (say in WordPress), you’ll be able to craft something that summarises your article in a concise way so as to take advantage of this snippet.
What You Should Do
A good meta description should have 3 factors included.
- Target keyword
- Selling point of the content, be it a product or the main concept of the article
- A call to action. Calls to action are more important for products but can also be useful for content pages. Asking your users to ‘find out now’
3) Heading Tags
Headings are often marked up as <h1> in HTML and are traditionally important for anchoring the relevancy of a page to its target terms. From an author’s perspective, this meant that <h1> tags are the headline of your article.
What You Should Do
Ensure they contain the target term that the page should rank for in search.
4) Body Copy
If ‘content is king’, as a writer, you are the kingmaker.
Body content from a technical perspective is inside the HTML <body> tag and forms the textual and multimedia content of your articles.
Google used to use secondary signals as a metre for understanding the value of content. Indeed, one of Google’s main innovations was to use links as a measurable heuristic for evaluating the content of a page – the more links of greater quality, the more likely the content is to be good and authoritative.
Links are still used by search engines to evaluate content, but Google in particular is now very good at understanding the quality of content directly using machine learning.
Gone are the days where keyword density as a metric of success made any sense, since Google has broad semantic understanding and looks at piece of text as a whole in order to work out what it’s about.
Try using a Thesaurus to make use of synonyms to vary your copy and still reinforce the keyword relevancy of your piece.
What You Should Do
That said, it’s still important to include your target terms in the copy of your page, but don’t overdo it. Google wants you to write great content for your users. If you please them, you will please the algorithms.
It’s always good practice to avoid very thin pages where possible, but if you really only need to write a few paragraphs to make your point – do that.
It’s best to include your target terms in the first paragraph of your copy and make use of synonyms and related phrases throughout the piece. In other words, write eloquently and use terminologically comprehensive language in relation to the topic you are tackling.
Be an authority. If you aren’t an expert in a given field, that’s ok, but make sure that you reference experts when you make claims. This is especially true in what are known as Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) pieces – anything related to health or finance would be counted in this bucket. If you use WordPress install a citations plugin or at the very least, link from the text to studies and authority sites that substantiate your claims.
Break up your content with images and graphics. This makes otherwise long pieces easier to digest and if you mark them up with <alt=”description of your image”> tags, the images themselves may rank in images search.
Videos count as content and Google loves them. We won’t go into the ins and outs of why (that’s for another post), but good videos will help you rank higher. They can also end up in your search engine snippet, allowing for higher click through rates from the search results = more traffic.
5) Internal Links
Internal links matter in the same way that links from external sites count as votes for your pages.
As an author, you may have limited control of links from within your site that point to your pieces (if you write on Medium for example). In other cases you might own your own blog and therefore have a lot of control of your internal linking.
Google was the first search engine to use ‘link text’ as a signal for the ranking privileges of the page that the link points to. In HTML it looks like this.
<a href=”http://example.com“>click here</a>
Back in the day, anchor text was so powerful a ranking signal that a well optimised title and lots of links pointing to your page with the anchor text corresponding to the keywords you wanted the page to rank for was 80% of SEO.
This was illustrated by the example above, where back in 2009 and before, the site that ranked number 1 for ‘click here’ was.
Note that the term ‘click here’ is not apparent in the Title Tag or the Meta Description. It’s not even on the page! The reason the page ranked was because millions of pages on the web linked to this page using the anchor text ‘click here to download…’.
Nowadays when we search for ‘click here’ in the UK, Adobe only rank around position 29 for this term and we get something like the following at the top of the results.
Google has a lot more sophistication and a wider distribution of signals in its algorithms and understand that there are lots of results more relevant than Adobe.
What You Should Do
Note that the first result for ‘click here’ as a search term is an article about why you should never use ‘click here’ as the anchor text. This is generally good advice and it’s much better to use phrases from articles to link to other relevant pieces of content.
A note about keyword stuffing – don’t overdo anchor text. There are WordPress plugins that automatically create a link to a given page every time you mention a term in your content. This can get you penalised as it can be considered manipulative. It’s much better to mix up your anchor text that points to given pages.
For example, if I was linking to a Wikipedia article about the Bearded Seal, I would like to it like that. This is what is known as a phrase match anchor text, where additional terms around the main term ‘Bearded Seal’ are used to create a more natural link than if one were to use the exact match Bearded Seal text as a link. Exact match links are ok, just don’t overdo them.