SEO doesn’t just “happen.” Yes, it’s true that having a content marketing strategy in place already puts you in a better position to gain rank for keywords relevant to your industry, as long as you stay consistent with your posting strategy.
However, you can’t just write “any” type of content and throw it onto the web haphazardly. There’s an important series of steps and considerations you’ll need to take if you want to ensure your blogging strategy is doing everything it can for your SEO campaign.
The purpose of this guide is to look at all of these “optimization elements” on a per-post level, guiding you in crafting perfectly optimized web posts every time you’re ready to publish a new article.
An active blog has many benefits, including:
First, let me take a step back and explain that SEO is a complicated, multifaceted strategy that unfolds over a number of different channels and tactics. Search Engine Land recently tried to condense this broad spectrum of factors to a single infographic:
(Image Source: Search Engine Land)
Ultimately, your onsite optimization, your onsite content, your offsite content, and your peripheral strategies (like link building and local SEO) will all factor into how you rank for keyword phrases relevant to your brand. That means your content is only responsible for a fraction of your overall results—a significant fraction, but a fraction nonetheless.
Similarly, there are overall strategic factors that will come into play in your content strategy that aren’t covered here, such as where you publish your content, how you set up your blog, how you syndicate your posts, and so on. This guide will tell you how to optimize your individual posts to maximize their success—but that alone is only one part of your overall SEO strategy.
With that in mind, let’s start digging into what is it that makes any given blog post “optimized.”
Before I start looking at the individual content and technical factors that make an individual piece optimized, we need to know what we’re optimizing for, specifically. A handful of optimization factors are standard best practices you can apply to any post exactly the same way, but the majority of them are dependent on your specific targets. Accordingly, you’ll need to outline what it is you’re trying to achieve before you start trying to achieve it.
(Image Source: Shout Me Loud)
At this point, you should have a good idea of what keywords, topics, and demographics you want to target, and we can start looking at how to optimize for them.
First, let’s look at the content features of your post. These are somewhat more approachable for novices, as they can be controlled during the writing and production process, and require virtually no technical expertise.
Your headline is going to serve a number of important functions, so you need to nail it. It’s one of the first things Google looks at when evaluating the topic of your piece, but even more importantly, it’s what most users will see when they encounter your article for the first time. In search engines, you’ll have more control over this “first impression” with title tags (which I’ll get into in the technical section), but don’t forget, users will be encountering your blog post on your actual blog, and on social media as well.
Generally, you’ll want a headline that:
Your content should be broken down into sub-sections, no matter what your primary focus is. Even a short-form post should have at least a few paragraphs, and those paragraphs should be marked by headers. These headers and subsections help users visually identify how your article is organized, and help them skim your content; skimming isn’t ideal, but they’re going to do it anyway, so you might as well help them out. Your headers will also come in handy for helping Google to understand what your content is and how it’s organized—more on this when I touch on H1 header tags in the technical section.
The first sentences of your paragraphs and sub-sections get extra priority when Google crawls your content, so make them count. Take the one in this sub-section as an example; it clearly describes the main point without giving everything away upfront. Include a keyword or two if you can, but focus most of your attention on setting up the sentences that follow. This is also important for users who are trying to speed read your article to get the gist of what you’re saying.
Visual content is a major trend in the content marketing world, and for good reason. Posts with images and videos get far more shares and click-throughs than posts without them, users are increasingly spending time seeking images and videos rather than written content, and since visual content is harder to produce, there’s still a competitive advantage in being one of the few companies in your niche to pursue them. Having visuals in your content will make your piece bigger, better, more visible, and with a higher potential for going viral. Try to include at least one visual element in every piece you publish, preferably something original.
This is a bit tricky, since there’s no “golden rule” for keyword inclusion. Generally, you’ll want to include your target keyword phrases at least a handful of times throughout the course of your document, but you also don’t want to run the risk of keyword stuffing. To avoid this risk, please your users, and make the most of the Hummingbird algorithm all at the same time, rely on conversational variations of your keyword phrases instead. Try to incorporate general terms for your target keywords, and talk about them in natural ways. Think of it like a date. Don’t try so hard to impress Google that you end up seeming awkward; just be yourself.
There’s no single rule that dictates the “ideal” length of a blog post, though we’ve taken a stab at trying to figure this out before. The truth is, both long-form and short-form content have advantages in SEO. On average, standout short-form pieces are more likely to earn links and shares. However, standout long-form pieces are more likely to, when they earn links and shares, earn far more links and shares. That’s a mouthful, but the takeaway is this—each has unique advantages and disadvantages, but if you do the work necessary to make a long-form piece successful, long-form has higher payoffs. Strive for length, as long as you can make that length valuable (no fluff).
This is such a basic step I shouldn’t have to mention it. But the sad fact is, I do have to mention it. Though Google doesn’t penalize things like grammatical inconsistencies and poor spelling, these errors can have an indirect effect on your rank. Plus, if you’re suspected of using unnatural language, you could earn a direct penalty, and that’s not even mentioning the poor user experience effects it can have.
Now, let’s look at some of the more technical factors of post optimization. These aren’t as technical as, say, creating a new navigation, or trying to optimize your site for mobile devices, but they have more to do with how the post is structured and interpreted by search crawlers than they do with your actual content.
Your title tag is what appears in Google search results as the blue hyperlinked text in every entry. Here’s a perfect example:
(Image Source: Google)
As a general rule, as long as you have a good headline, you can use your headline as a double for the title tag. You might also want to include some text at the end, the way the example uses “REI expert advice” to optimize for a brand term and some peripheral keywords after the relatively short title. Feel free to include an additional keyword here, but be mindful that you aren’t over-optimizing.
Generally, your title tag should be 50-60 characters. Any more than that and Google will cut you off. Remember, you’ll also want to optimize your title tag for inbound users, making your title as appealing as possible to maximize click throughs.
Your meta description is a tag-team partner for your title tag. Here, you’ll have 150-160 characters to work with, so you get more breathing room and more opportunities to naturally include some of your target keyword phrases. This is the written text that appears under the title and link (see the example in the preceding section), so it’s another opportunity to capitalize on user interests on SERPs. It’s not as important as a title tag, for search engines or for users, but don’t neglect it.
Include H1, H2, H3, etc. tags
In my section on content considerations, I outlined the importance of including sub-sections with clearly marked headers. There’s also a technical component to this—you’ll need to include these bits of information with header tags for search engines to index and understand your content properly. Include an H1 tag for your first header, an H2 tag for your second, and so on, and remember to be as descriptive as possible.
(Image Source: Hobo)
Most modern platforms will take the title of your article and make that the URL; this is good enough for most SEO strategies. There are just a handful of bad practices you’ll want to avoid to ensure your URLs are optimized for search engines and for users. For example, you’ll want to avoid excessive numbers and characters at the end of your URL string; these are incoherent and make it hard for users to share or remember links. You’ll need to include a breadcrumbs trail (though this is usually not an issue), and you’ll want to include at least one strong keyword in a useful description at the end of your URL.
(Image Source: Moz)
You know you need to include images and videos for SEO, but you also have to optimize them so search engines can understand them. These optimization tactics won’t increase the rank of your page directly, but will help your images and videos achieve higher visibility, which will indirectly drive more traffic to your page (and site).
For images, this means giving the image an accurate title, resizing it so it can load quickly and properly, using alt tags to describe the image, and including a caption so your users know why you’ve chosen the image in the first place. It also helps to align your images with the edges of your piece.
For video, this can be more complicated or less complicated depending on your goals. For example, if you’re merely embedding another person’s YouTube video, you don’t really have to do anything other than embedding it. However, if you’re running your own video content marketing strategy, you should engage in separate best practices for optimizing video so they can be found through search.
This is a seemingly minor step, but it’s an important one. Reference other posts you’ve written and other pages of your site in the body of each blog post you publish (within reason; usually three to five is plenty). Google favors sites whose pages are easy to get to; as a general rule, no page should ever be further than three clicks away from any other page. Interlinking helps strengthen the navigational “tightness” of your site, and furthermore, encourages users to spend more time on your site by leading them to different areas.
This is another basic step, but you’d be surprised how many people miss it. Especially with embedded images and videos, you’ll want to do a “dry run” of your content and make sure it loads correctly on all types of devices and browsers. There are many tools for this, such as BrowserStack, so there’s no excuse not to investigate before finalizing your publication.
The more your users engage with your piece, the more they’ll be willing to share it, the longer they’ll spend reading it, and the more authority you’ll earn for your efforts. Encourage your users to engage with your material by making it easy for people to leave comments (and by writing material that facilitates discussion in the first place).
(Image Source: SEO.co’s Link Building Guide)
You’ll also want to encourage your users to subscribe, to build your recurring readership and give a visibility boost to any pieces you write in the future. These can be RSS feeds or email newsletter subscriptions—anything that keeps your users coming back for more.
Contrary to popular belief, social shares don’t pass authority the way that backlinks do. There’s some evidence to suggest that social signals are correlated with higher ranks, but it’s more likely that social shares are an indirect ranking signal. The more users share your piece, the more visible it becomes, and the more links it’s liable to earn. Those links are what are actually passing the authority. Because of this, social shares are important for SEO, just not in a direct way. It’s still in your best interest to capitalize on this correlational phenomenon, so make it easier for your users to share your content by including social share prompts at the bottom of every post.
(Image Source: SEO.co’s Link Building Guide)
Up to this point, we’ve been examining considerations for onsite posts, but don’t forget that onsite content should only be one part of your SEO and content strategy. You also need to focus on optimizing your offsite content if you want to be successful.
Fortunately, the same rules I’ve extensively outlined above are going to apply here (for the most part). For example, you’ll still need a good topic, a catchy headline, proper formatting, etc., but many of the technical factors are going to be out of your control. If you’re working with a high authority publisher, you can pretty much rest assured that these technical fixtures will be taken care of for you. However, there are a handful of special considerations you’ll need to bear in mind when producing and submitting offsite content:
You’ll also need to be aware that different publishers will have different systems, processes, and standards. You’ll have to adapt if you want to make the most of all of them.
Now that you know the ins and outs of how to optimize a blog post for SEO, there are just two more general rules you’ll need to follow to be successful. The first is a rule of consistency. You can’t pick and choose when you follow these best practices, or only follow some of them if you want to succeed in the long run. You need to apply these optimization tactics to every piece you publish, no matter what. Overall, these tactics will help you write better, more valuable user-focused content, and the few technical tweaks you need to make should only take you a few minutes each to complete. It’s well worth the extra investment, but only if you do so consistently.
The other rule is one of adaptation. People don’t produce perfect content on the first try, ever. You won’t write perfect titles or meta descriptions, and you won’t target the “perfect” set of keywords in your first run. Give your strategy some time to marinate and prove its worth, but if something’s not working, you can’t be afraid to change it. Pick a variable, make an adjustment, and see if things improve. Repeat as necessary until you start seeing the results you want.
Google’s Freshness Update has shown just how much importance Google is placing on showing up-to-date, fresh information in its search results. This is a major reason for websites to ensure they are continuously updating their existing content as well as publishing new content.
Blog posts also fall under the category of pages that search engines love to crawl and index. Not only should companies be updating their regular website content pages regularly (ie, their About Us and Contact Us pages), blog posts should be the medium through which significant additional value is added to readers, customers, and potential customers. They provide that dose of freshness that search engines are looking for.
One of the types of content that’s great for SEO and readers alike is company news, which can include new hires, products, services, or new locations. These types of posts are filled with information (such as employee names, product names, and city names) that users might be searching for in search engines. They also reveal what’s been happening in the company recently, which is useful for potential customers, and shows Google that the company takes customer service seriously, making them a better candidate for displaying prominently in search results. Google’s emphasis on fresh content stems from its desire to provide the most up-to-date information available for website visitors, because this gives users a better experience.
In addition to existing readers and customers that can stay updated from these types of news items, new visitors will also appreciate a cohesive view of what the company has been up to recently. This could lead to repeat visits or even a contact that could translate into a sale.
A good mix of blog content includes unique news releases specific to the company as well as articles that offer compelling, actionable value to readers. While writing informational or insightful articles for a blog is excellent, throwing in once-in-a-lifetime news pieces as part of the company blog provides even better variety.
Search engines are currently building in personalized search to more accurately find the right results for their users. This means that companies need to meet that need by focusing their blog content writing on what’s most engaging for their readers. This happens by writing content that answers questions or fosters discussion. In other words, it’s important for bloggers to stay updated in their industry and write posts that educate and keep reader interest.
Blog posts that usually do well have a great title (such as those that begin with “How to…” or “## Reasons Why…”), can capture initial interest, while unique opinions or resource round-ups can keep it. To write posts that are SEO-friendly and engaging to readers, look at what gets the most traffic and social shares, and prioritize writing about those topics or in that format. For instance, if video blogs generally yield the highest traffic, replacing one written post with a video equivalent may actually take less time (depending on editing) and could have a higher impact.
And that’s where it all comes full circle: higher reader interest and more engagement results in better overall site and blog traffic. Great content is the best form of natural SEO.
Writing great content will naturally lead to better exposure, both through social media and other blogs and websites. Active social media users and bloggers love to share great content with their own audiences that they believe has merit. Because Google and Bing have incorporated personalized social search into results, blog posts written by companies or individuals with an extensive social network are often shown more frequently and prominently in search results, thus leading to more traffic.
In addition, when a blog establishes itself as an authority in its field, it will be more likely to garner inbound links, which are a core factor in the ranking algorithm. More exposure for a company’s blog posts online will indicate to both online readers and search engines that a company’s website (and by extension, the company) is a credible source, building brand loyalty, improving conversion rates, and resulting in better visibility in search engine results pages.
This effect is amplified when Google Authorship is implemented, which causes search results to include authorship markup, placing an image next to links in search results. These images draw the eye and attract more clicks, resulting in higher traffic, more leads, and more sales. Additionally, Authorship has been shown to increase the average ranking of pages on which it is applied, due to the effect of Author Rank.
Being seen as a credible resource in the industry should be the top priority for all companies looking to build an extensive online presence. Luckily, a blog is the first step to becoming an industry resource, while vastly benefiting the overall SEO initiative.
With all these practices in place, you should have complete control over your blog optimization strategy. Though it’s only one piece of the SEO puzzle, it’s a powerful one, and you should start to reap the rewards in mere weeks.