Marketing & Advertising

SEO 101, Part 8: Content Optimization

This is the eighth installment of my “SEO 101″ series, following:

Content optimization is the process of transforming keyword research into live text that can influence your site’s ability to rank well in organic search results. In the previous SEO 101 installments, I explained how to do keyword research and how to map keywords to pages on your site. With those tools in hand, it’s time to optimize content.

Writing Optimized Content

It’s typically more effective to optimize something that already exists rather than trying to write something for SEO from scratch. When you try to work a piece of creative content around an exact keyword phrase it tends to emerge feeling mechanical and, well, like SEO copy. Customers don’t want to read clunky keyword copy. It doesn’t represent the brand well, and search engines prefer natural-sounding copy as well.

The keyword research and keyword map should absolutely guide decisions on which topics are chosen for content creation, but give the writers the freedom to express their voice and the brand within the framework of that topic.

At the same time, make sure that the writer understands the direction implied by the keyword assigned in the keyword map. In order to optimize a page for a specific phrase, the page really needs to be about that keyword topic. Just mentioning the keyword in a page of content about something that’s slightly related to the keyword target will not result in strong SEO performance.

Keep your keyword tool open in your browser to research related keywords. Writers will often come up with a creative spin that search marketers hadn’t anticipated, necessitating a return to the keyword research tool to unearth additional keywords. This interplay between creative and search marketing should ideally strengthen both.

Optimizing Content

Content optimization is more than using some top keywords in each page. Effective content optimization focuses on using very specific keywords in very specific places to send the strongest possible relevance signals for that keyword target.

Keyword prominence, the importance of placing keywords in the most prominent places, is the most important aspect of content optimization. Use the exact keyword assigned to a page in the places to which search engines assign the most prominence to encourage stronger rankings.

  • Page name. The page name in the content management system influences some very valuable SEO elements like the default title tags for the site, the headline, and the navigational text. If you’re able to able to specify the page name, and if it makes sense for user experience and branding for each individual page, use the exact keyword in the page name. For more on the importance of page names to ecommerce sites, read “SEO Depends on Page Names.”
  • Title tag. The title tag is the single most important content element on a page for SEO. Title tags are not displayed on the page itself, but are included in the head of the HTML code for a page. Title tags are displayed by browsers in the page tabs at the top of the screen, and can be used as in search results pages as the blue underlined link customers click on to get to your site. Because customers don’t see them as directly, many ecommerce sites feel comfortable using keywords in title tags that they wouldn’t use as strongly in more visible content areas. Limit title tags to around 65 characters, including spaces, because that’s all the search engines will display in search results. Since characters after that limit are not visible to searchers, it is thought that their value is less than the first 65 characters. In addition, the very beginning of the title tag is more prominent than the end, so place the exact keyword you’re targeting at the beginning of the title tag and end with your brand.
  • Meta description. Similar to title tags, meta descriptions can be found in the head of the HTML for each page and do not display as regular content on the page. Unlike title tags, meta descriptions do not influence rankings for organic search. They can be shown in the search result page as the descriptive text for your search result listing. As a result, using the exact keyword in the meta description along with an engaging call to action can increase clicks from the search results page to your site. Limit meta descriptions to 150 characters, including spaces.
  • Meta keywords. Leave them blank. Meta keywords haven’t been used as search signals since 2009, except as negative algorithmic signals when overstuffed. They clue your competition in to the keywords you’re targeting, and add no SEO value. Use them only if your internal site search requires them, and then as sparingly as possible.
  • Headline. The headline should also be the H1 heading for the page if the templates are optimized for SEO. Even if they’re not, the headline is at least bolded and at the top of the page, which gives the headline more prominence than common body copy. Use the exact keyword in the headline, as close to the beginning as possible while still preserving its readability.
  • Body copy. Use natural language to incorporate the exact keyword into body copy at least once, as close to the beginning as possible. If you can work it in to a subheading as well, that will also help. Depending on the length of the copy, repeat the exact keyword.

Which brings me to keyword density, the idea that a certain percentage of the copy should be devoted to keywords. Keyword density is an outdated concept. There is no exact formula for the number of times to use a keyword. Keyword prominence is the focus for modern content optimization.

When trying to determine if the keyword has been used optimally in the body copy, follow these three priorities:

  1. The first SEO priority using the exact keyword once in the body copy.
  2. The second SEO priority is natural readability.
  3. And the third SEO priority is repeating the exact keyword again additional times while preserving readability.

Remember to never force keyword repetition.

If possible, work a couple of HTML links into the body copy to link to related products or articles on the site. Links in body copy are seen by search engines as more natural and therefore more prominent and valuable than navigational links.

As with keyword repetition, don’t overdo text links in the body copy. Including lots of links will look like what it is — an attempt to over-optimize your site for SEO rather than cross-linking for the customers’ benefit.

When linking, use as anchor text — the blue underlined words — the exact keyword assigned to the page being linked to. If you’re writing copy for a Shoe page and you have a chance to link to the Sneakers page in the body copy, use the exact keyword that the keyword map assigned to the Sneakers page as the anchor text for the link on the Shoes page.

Wrapping Up

Content optimization is a skill that takes practice. Think of it as an ongoing experiment. Optimize a set of pages according to your keyword map. Two to four weeks later, measure the performance of those exact pages. Did the organic search visits to those pages improve? How about conversions? Did rankings improve? And based on what little keyword data you have, does it appear that the keywords optimized for drove more organic search visits?

Based on the data collected, re-optimize and measure the results. Continue this process until each page drives as much organic search performance as possible while working within the constraints of your other business needs. But continue to monitor the ranking, visit, and conversion data to look for opportunities to re-optimize.

Editor’s Note: This concludes Jill Kocher’s “SEO 101” series. Her next series, “SEO 201,” explains technical, backend aspects of site architecture and organization. The first installment is “SEO 201, Part 1: Technical Rules.”

Jill Kocher Brown

Jill Kocher Brown

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