If your content is on the web, but the people who need it can’t find it, it might as well not exist.
Search engines work by analysing pages, working out what they are about, and matching them to what the searcher asks for. Whether you’re a writer or an editor, you want to make it as easy as possible for the search engine to do this accurately.
SEO is the art of helping potential readers find your content.
I will assume that your goal is to attract readers who actually want what your site has to offer – whether products, services or information. There are also techniques for drawing people to your site who aren’t looking for what you offer, but who might be persuaded to want it: these are sometimes described as ‘black hat’ SEO.
SEO advice from Google
Despite challenges from Bing and others, Google remains the dominant general search engine. At Google webmaster central you can find links to a range of tools including Webmaster guidelines for content and design.
Bing and Yahoo also provide advice for webmasters, but it is more fragmented, and you have to dig for it.
The first step in writing effective web content is to identify what you are writing about, and what your potential readers call it. Large organisations seem particularly prone to using ‘clever’ marketing or business terms to describe their products and services: but if your organisation’s word for a product doesn’t match the word that people who want it type into a search engine, those people are unlikely to find you.
These are your keywords – the words that people use to describe what they want to know or do when they come to your site. There are a number of tools available to identify keywords – some paid, others free – or you can undertake market research. One important source of keywords is people who deal directly with the site’s customers: they are the ones who are most likely to know whether your widget is called a thingummy or a whatsit by the people who use it. Don’t ask the marketing department!
If you don’t have access to any of this, you can use your skills as an editor to understand the potential audience for each page and the language they are likely to use.
Writing search engine–friendly content
Once you’ve identified your keywords, what should you do with them?
Your page title, headings and opening paragraph tell readers what the page is about, so this is where you include the most important of your keywords. Repeat them, and variations of them, throughout the text, but don’t stuff them into every second sentence: any visitors you do attract that way will quickly become bored and leave!
In the body of your content, start with the information that’s most valuable to most people, before moving on to more obscure, technical information, or details of interest to a small segment of your audience – you can even put these on separate, linked, pages. Don’t forget to include your keywords (where relevant) in the alt text for images.
Some web writers swear by keyword metadata, but Google in particular gives relatively little weight to it. Consider that if a Wikipedia article matching your search term exists, it will usually appear in the first few search engine results, despite the fact that while Wikipedia articles have good titles, they have no keyword or description metadata.
The next article in this series will look at metadata in more detail.