Over the last few years, search engine optimization has become one of the most misunderstood terms in the world of publishing. Ask marketers about SEO and some will probably tell you it’s a chore, a nuisance meant to promote spam. Others might nod vigorously like the term is important, even if they don’t really know why. For those who are still unsure or unconvinced, know this: SEO remains incredibly important. According to Shareaholic, search accounts for about one-third of all Internet traffic. So if you’re serious about getting the most value out of your content, understanding how to use SEO the right way is something content marketers should be paying close attention to in 2015.
Starting in the late ’90s, publishers and marketers alike started to taint SEO with the ugly of practice of keyword stuffing. As Google worked on updating their algorithm, marketers sabotaged the quality of their work by forcing feeding too many keywords into their writing to see if it would benefit a page’s ranking.
To see how keyword stuffing might look on an article page, Google gives an example about humidors:
We sell custom cigar humidors. Our custom cigar humidors are handmade. If you’re thinking of buying a custom cigar humidor, please contact our custom cigar humidor specialists at email@example.com.
But Google stopped all this by changing their search algorithm so it would penalize content creators who tried to rely on cheap tricks like keyword stuffing by pushing them down search rankings. As many of you probably know already, Google’s algorithm is fluid and esoteric, meaning content marketers and publishers will always be a few steps behind SEO best practices. By 2003, Google’s Florida algorithm update had already begun to improve rankings, and over the next decade, dozens of updates from Panda to Penguin to Pigeon fine-tuned the process. Last September, for example, Google’s Panda 4.1 release sought to penalize publishers who stuffed keywords into meta descriptions and title tags, not just body text.
But as search engine algorithms have gotten more sophisticated, experts say we need to get more sophisticated as well.
“Instead of focusing on keywords, focus on content,” says Ambar Shrivastava, a veteran developer who is now VP of product management for Tutor.com and the Princeton Review. “Really try to map out content to your target audience. You want to think about your audience and what’s important to them instead of creating pages built for keywords.”
Find What Makes You Unique
Focusing on content is an umbrella strategy that encompasses a number of different SEO tactics. But just about everyone can agree that content should be unique and useful. In other words, content creators need to find a niche that will help them stand out and try their best to avoid self-promotional pitches cluttering their prose. Moz, an inbound software company, suggests a good benchmark to measure the value of a piece of content is for pages to “be described by 80%+ of visitors as useful, high quality, & unique.”
As “The Wizard of Moz”—seriously, that’s his title—Rand Fishkin told Contently in a recent interview, “I think there’s still a lot of [misguided] belief around quantity over quality. The vast vast majority of links and shares and amplification signals of all kinds are going to only the top five or ten percent of content that gets put out. There’s not a whole lot of value in writing a decent blog post anymore. [There’s not a lot of value] unless you can be pretty extraordinary.”
Learn to Love Long-Tail
If you have high-quality content, the next step is to make sure people can find it via search. All publishers want to show up on the first page of a search query on Google, but to direct users to relevant content, marketers need to learn how to master long-tail keywords, or distinct multi-word phrases specific to your brand and its publishing efforts.
According to Neil Patel, 70 percent of search traffic now comes from long-tail keywords. If you’re an up-and-coming men’s fashion service with a blog, like Trunk Club, you probably won’t get on the first Google page if someone searches “men’s clothes.” However, if you optimize your site effectively, when someone searches “handpicked men’s clothing,” you’ll show up near the very top of the first page.
The key is to be consistent. One of the major consequences of Google’s recent algorithm changes is that publishers can no longer track what keywords people type to find a site. In Google Analytics, search referral traffic shows up as “[not provided],” which makes it difficult to monitor popular keywords (although there are some external tools available for tracking them, such as HitTail, which Shrivastava helped build). However, this also has upsides, as it prevents content marketers from resorting to keyword stuffing. Instead, content creators can pay more attention to the little things. For example, page titles should be under 75 characters, URLs under 90 characters, and meta descriptions under 160 characters, per Moz.
Essentially, all of these factors point toward a new strain of SEO that favors a holistic experience. “SEO is a process: the way things earn attention, how they are amplified; who amplifies them; how they earn links; whether they’re targeted at things that people actually search for,” Fishkin said. “Whether they solve those search queries is the user experience you provide.”
UX looks like it will emerge as the final piece of the SEO puzzle. Even though some people view SEO as an editorial issue, it’s become much more nuanced than that. Editorial teams need to work closely with design and development teams to ensure that your content loads quickly on all platforms and that all visuals are formatted correctly.
“SEO and functionality are going to become much more intertwined,” Shrivastava adds. “Google is looking more at usability and user metrics. Making sure your site is mobile-friendly is becoming a big factor.”
Of course, these takes on SEO are all relevant right now, but Google will continue to refine their search algorithm, and when that happens, marketers will need to keep adjusting. SEO isn’t about gaming the system anymore; it’s about learning how to play by the rules. And the next time the rules change, publishers that focus on producing quality content will already be ahead of the game.