How to write great content that ranks for SEO

Writing for SEO remains somewhat of a mystery to many, despite the number of articles, webinars, Twitter chats and workshops available on the topic. In fact, a study found that 1 in 4 businesses say they're not at all or only vaguely familiar with SEO.

Let's start by saying that no matter who you listen to, they probably don't have all the answers. And if you ask a different "expert," you'll probably get a different answer.

If you're paying someone to provide SEO services, the proof is in the pudding. If you're getting results (i.e., ranking higher), their approach is most likely working.

But, for the rest of us, who may be trying to figure out how to write in a more SEO-friendly way without hiring an SEO expert, what should we be doing to help optimize our copy?

Some SEO truths

If you follow the topic of writing for SEO (search engine optimization), you may see a lot of conflicting advice. We know SEO is important for our businesses to be found online—but how much should we focus on it? And what are the right things to focus on?

"If you're writing a blog post, for example, start with an idea, then do some keyword research," said Holly Landis, digital marketing consultant and copywriter. "You might use Ahrefs or Buzzsumo to see if people are looking for that topic. Are people interested? Or is it a waste of time?"

How many keywords should you plan to include? Three to five keywords for a piece that's 500 to 800 words long, suggests Landis.

The user experience is where you should start, Landis says. "If you forget just trying to write for Google and focus on providing a good user experience, all the metrics—traffic, shares—will increase. If your content is shareable and there are varied backlinks to it, these are great signs to Google that you have valuable content. This will increase the likelihood of it ranking higher and appearing more frequently in search results."

If you make SEO less of a priority and write with your user in mind, that's likely the direction Google will be moving in, Landis advises. "Google won't be coming out with any guidelines that refute quality content, that's for sure."

Another point to remember: SEO is a long-term game. It may not show success overnight (like many other marketing initiatives), but If you focus on user experience, you can have peace of mind knowing that you're doing the right things.

If you choose not to put your users first, you might damage your SEO in the long run. It's not worth any short-term gains you may see, Landis suggests. "It's kind of a common-sense direction Google is headed in."

Practical tips

What are the main tenets when writing with SEO in mind?

1. Check the basics: There are nuts and bolts you can address on your site, such as site speed, rankings and tags. Check to make sure those are in order.

2. Make the content as long as it needs to be: Longer content may rank better because it contains more keywords, making it more SEO-friendly. Even so, make it only as long as you need it to be, says Landis.

Longer content won't necessarily perform better. Producing quality content should be the goal. Google likes informational content, which could draw links from other sites.

3. Don't write filler: Don't produce content just for the sake of producing content. Audiences are looking for well-written content that gets to the point.

One example of content that is sometimes longer than it needs to be are those long recipe posts that have a lengthy opening that no one wants to read. "There's no need to fill word count just to have a certain number of words. Just write till you're done," Landis says.

4. Use common sense when it comes to keywords: When choosing keywords, Google knows, for example, that attorney and lawyer are the same. There's no need to repeatedly use both throughout your copy.

Landis suggests using three to five keywords per post/page in defined keyword topic groups. Include the main keyword(s) in the first 100 words of your content. That lets the user know what it's about right away, so there's also an advantage from a practical standpoint.

5. Use headings strategically: Using headings within your post can help break up the copy, making it easier to read. Use of keywords in H1 or H2 headings can help give you an SEO boost, Landis advises. She says to use one H1 tag for every post, and perhaps H2 or H3 headings. "Use of headings can be helpful for both the reader and for Google," says Landis.

6. Phrase titles naturally:Titles don't need to be written with ranking purposes in mind, Landis says. Just write them naturally for the best results. "Use common sense—don't worry so much about getting the little green button in Yoast. If you do, it isn't always going to read well for a human being," Landis says.

Resources to check

If you want to keep up on SEO advice, trusted sources to follow include:

And Landis recommends following these individuals:

Questions to ask when hiring SEO help

 If you decide you want to hire someone to help with SEO, it can be challenging to find a consultant or company you can trust. Here are some questions you should ask:

  • Can you tell me about your approach to building a strong backlink profile?
  • What is your typical process for improving on-page content for SEO purposes?
  • Can you guarantee that my site will be on page one of Google?
  • How quickly can you get me ranking number one for [X keyword]?
  • "If someone answers 3 and 4 as 'yes, I can easily do that in no time at all for $1 million,' run for the hills!" says Landis. "Really what this is about is looking for someone who isn't overpromising by doing sketchy work and not setting realistic expectations upfront."

    Michelle Garrett is a PR consultant and writer at Garrett Public Relations. Follow her on Twitter @PRisUs or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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