SEO Zen Wisdom: To Enhance SEO, Do Not Aim for “SEO”

Posted by Owen Matson, Ph.D. on Apr 20, 2017 6:44:51 PM
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The Danger of SEO as “SEO”

In the content marketing biz, one tends to get a lot of questions about Search Engine Optimization (SEO).  Certainly, concerns about enhancing SEO make sense.  After all, publishing content on a company blog site will not generate business growth if prospects can’t find that content when searching the web.

That said, I tend to avoid talking about SEO as “SEO”—not because I don’t see the value of the concept.  To the contrary, I consider SEO among the most important aspects of content strategy.  The thing is, I also happen to believe that quality content represents the best route to SEO.  So, instead of talking about SEO, I prefer to talk about producing really great content. 

In my experience, the danger of focusing too much on SEO strategy has more to do with misuse of “SEO”—the term, not the concept.  Unfortunately, over-concern with “SEO” can occlude the core goal of producing quality content. Like missing the forest for the trees, misuse of “SEO” can devolve into a focus on process void of substance—a reductive set of shortcuts that overshadow the fundamental good of producing useful information in accessible and engaging terms.  

Effective SEO cannot be reduced to instrumental scripts. Sure, content strategy benefits from some guidelines that enhance the visibility of quality content.  But there are no hacks for getting fluff to rise to the top of a Google search.

SEO: Much More than “Keywords”

In my experience, the greatest misstep in SEO strategy involves the overuse of “keywords.” Since users enter keywords when searching for information on the internet, traditional SEO wisdom has long rested on the assumption that maximizing the use of keywords in a particular piece of content will lead to a higher spot in search rankings.

As a strategy, however, stuffing content with keywords leads to a bigger problem: Overusing a particular set of words and phrases can quickly turn content into a pretty dull bit of writing. Consider the overuse of “all-terrain tires” as a keyword:

Looking for some new all-terrain tires?  We sell the best all-terrain tires.  And our new line of all-terrain tires represents the latest innovations in all-terrain-tire design developed specifically for the demands placed on all-terrain tires.  When purchasing an all-terrain tire best-suited to your all-terrain-tire needs, makes sure to check out our all-terrain tires.

The algorithms employed in search engines no longer rely on simple keyword counts.  The rise of machine learning has profoundly complicated how Google and other search engines rank useful content. As a result, overuse of keywords can now lower your search rankings.  Worse, it just makes for bad writing.  When businesses confuse keyword counts with effective SEO, they risk exponential losses.  The stakes go well beyond search rankings. Misuse of keywords can undermine client trust and the authority of a brand voice--all of which ultimately can quickly domino into long-term losses in sales.

SEO and Meta-Data

What is meta-data?  “Meta” means “about.”  (By the way, here's a bit of parenthetical meta-commentary: I've loved the pre-fix "meta" since before it was cool, back when calling things "meta" just made you look like an egghead. Metanarrative, metafiction, metaphor, metamorphosis, metaphysics--I love all that stuff.  Actually, relatively speaking, "meta-data" is a new one for me.  But--dang!--"meta-data" is a great "meta" word (which, by the way, is different from a "meta-word"(just saying))! "Meta-data"--it's got alliteration and everything.(Wow--did I just stuff this post with the keyword "meta-data"?))

Anyway, “Meta-data” means data about data.  In addition to being an awesome-sounding word, it happens to serve as a very useful term for SEO strategy.  Meta-data is the information about the information in a particular site or piece of content.  To draw on a pre-digital example, think of books in a library: Each book contains data/information; library cards contain the meta-data used to categorize the book according to subject, author, publication date, etc.  On the internet, data includes the information—the words, numbers, images, etc.—in a post.  The meta-data is the “outside” or unseen information that search engines use to categorize your post.

Search engines scan the meta-data of a particular web page the same way people scan library cards.  (Well, not the exactly the same way--at least not yet, anyway. (By the way, I love parentheses.  I don't use them nearly as often as I should.  I've always been more of a dash man.  Maybe it's time I got a bit more parenthetical. (Then again, maybe not.))) Consequently, SEO involves, making sure to include the useful meta-data search-engines need to find and sort your content. 

Meta-tags: A Great Place to Use those Keywords

As I have already mentioned, I am generally wary of any SEO practices that involve self-consciously stuffing keywords into content. Meta-tags, however, mark an exception to that rule.  What is a meta-tag?  In strictly literal (that is linguistically literal) terms, the word "meta-tag" means a tag about a tag.  In more practical terms, a meta-tag is a form of meta-data that provides descriptions of your content.  When optimizing your SEO (which is just a redundant way of saying "when optimizing your optimization"), include keywords in your meta-tags.  Here's how:

  • One unique meta-tag description per page. The presence of a meta-tag description is important. Make sure the content is unique. Try not to duplicate descriptions across multiple pages (few exceptions).
  • Begin your meta-tag description with your most important keywords.  It's okay to use pronouns (it, he, she) and prepositions (of, by, and so forth) and articles (the, a, an) to make the meta-tag description grammatically correct and understandable. Just keep important keywords prominent.
  • Minimize keyword repetition. The presence of a keyword (or keyword phrase) is more important than keyword density in the meta-tag description. If a little repetition makes sense and communicates 'aboutness' of content, then go ahead and repeat a word. Don't overdo it.
  • Regularly monitor web search listings. Google and other search engines might not use your page's meta-tag content as the snippet in a search listing. They might use a snippet of actual page content or generate their own. If you see the latter occurrence happening, then you might want to improve your description (more accurate, comprehensive, etc.)

For a complete summary of meta-tags, check out this post at Search Engine Watch.

(By the way--and maybe it's just me--but "meta-tag" also happens to stand out as yet another awesome "meta" word. (Then again, for my part, I think adding "meta" to just about any word tends to make it more awesome. (Just saying.))) 

SEO Requires Quality--Original--Content

So what is quality content?  That's a big question.  But, for starters, the best content is original.  I don't mean absolutely never-seen-before original.  By "original," I mean great content at least offers some kind of new take, even if the basic idea is familiar.  Originality also involves avoiding "sameness"--that is, too much repetition, including the repetition of keywords.  

Presenting information in a unique voice and style, for instance, makes a big difference in the quality of content.  There are lots of blog posts on SEO.  But how many of these posts have my cool knack for parenthentical asides?  Just saying.  Developing a unique voice and style personalizes your brand.  It also avoids the kind of repetition that makes your blog sound like everyone else's.  Lacking a personal voice can also hurt your SEO.  Too much repetition--as in the above example of the all-terrain tires--can actually hurt your search ranks.   The more original your take on a topic, the more likely it will stand out in a Google search.  At the very least, make sure to vary your word choices.  Changing up your diction makes for more interesting reading.  So try not to use the same words and phrases over and over again--at least not in close proximity.  

Effective SEO Means Producing Content for Audiences, Not Algorithms

Google designs its search engine to provide audiences with the most useful and relevant information possible.  Therein lies the whole mission behind Google’s regular revisions to its search algorithm.  The problem is that many pursue SEO according to a backward logic: Instead of providing content audiences find most useful and interesting, many try to produce content for Google itself--and even Google doesn't want like that kind of content!  Google cares about user satisfaction.  So, to optimize for Google, optimize for audiences.

SEO as UX Optimization

In addition to quality content, think about ways to improve your user’s experience with a site.  Consider the following:

  • Search-engine-friendly URLs
  • Site loading speed
  • A “Read More” break or tag: Use this to truncate and control how much of your entry is visible from your blog’s home and archive pages.
  • Shorter paragraphs: These help the reader cruise through your content.
  • Breakups and emphases: Use bullets, numbered lists, block quotes, italics and bold fonts to cut up chunky text or to emphasize a particularly important point.
  • Call-toAction in the closing statements. This call-to-action is something that asks your readers a question, tells them where to go for more information and/or invites them to engage with you on social media or through integrated commenting. 
  • H2 and H3 tags: These are essentially sub-headlines throughout your blog post. They not only break up content and entice further reading, but they allow search engines spiders to easily crawl and rank your post. 
  • Internal and external links. A good post will link to other useful, related content sources. These links can help expound on ideas without need for on-page explanations and they allow search bots to re-crawl your old posts.

Visual Content and SEO

Yes—use lots of images and video.  Why?  As already mentioned, Google wants to provide users with search results that will provide the best information and overall experience.  Remember this SEO mantra: If audiences like it, Google likes it too.  And since images and video enhance the user’s experience, Google likes pages with images and video.

  • Image Size: Also—and this is important—make sure to format your images to fit the width of your post space. Websites like Canva (my personal favorite) provide very useful—and free!—tools for customizing images to fit specific sites. Anyone who has posted images that published in cropped form on LinkedIn likely know the importance of well-formatted images.  
  • Rename Images: Specify a filename for your image—make sure the name matches your topic. Keywords still play and set the title, ALT text and caption to include your main keyword phrase to ensure search engines can instantly recognize the value.
  • Keywords still play an important role in titles, URL’s, and subtitles. The key is not to over-rely on keywords as a replacement for original content.

Hidden Details of SEO: The Importance of Links

In addition to the elements that make a page more user-friendly, make sure to attend to more “hidden” details such as the functionality of internal and external links. Here’s why:

  • Links play an essential role in Google’s search engine.
  • Google discovers new sites by crawling links on sites it already knows about.
  • Google also relies on links to index and categorize what it considers the most important pages on a site.
  • Internal linking on your own site improves your SEO: When you include internal links to key pages on your own site, Google is going select those pages as the most important on your site. 

Here are some signs of bad links:

  • External link sitting in a footer
  • External link in a right side bar
  • Proximity to text such as "Sponsored" (and/or related phrases)
  • Proximity to an image with the word "Sponsored" (and/or related phrases) in it
  • Grouped with other links with low relevance to each other
  • Rich anchor text not relevant to page content
  • External link in navigation
  • Implemented with no user visible indication that it's a link (i.e. no line under it)
  • From a bad class of sites (from an article directory, from a country where you don't do business, etc.)

Here are other details to avoid:

  • Small number of words on the page compared to competing pages
  • Low use of synonyms
  • Overuse of main keyword of the page (from the title tag)
  • Large blocks of text isolated at the bottom of the page
  • Lots of links to unrelated pages
  • Pages with content scraped from other sites

Beyond the Homepage

Dated external- and back- links will hurt your SEO ranking.  Attention to hidden details also means attending to the “inner pages” of your website.  Optimization does not end with your site's homepage.  However, many businesses make the mistake of optimizing their homepage and overlooking the substance within the site itself.  Google doesn’t rank sites for every keyword they have on the homepage of their domain. In fact, the most valuable content on a site lies deeper within the pages of a blog. As a result, search results often point to inner, high-quality pages and bypass the homepage. 

SEO Experiment

Try this experiment: Do a quick Google search of a relevant and somewhat specific topic in your industry—for example, I’ll just search “tire valve stem.”  Take a look at the top 3 pages in the search.  Most of the time, these top results will be inner pages that are effectively formatted. Google search scans for well-formatted, user-friendly presentations of information with multiple subheadings.  Home pages are important but inner pages are where you have the advantages of developing serious potential for your business.

Your website is a garden. 

It grows deeper and stronger over time.  It also requires maintenance.  Effective SEO ultimately involves a complicated process that includes

  • Quality content
  • A well-designed site
  • Working links

High SEO rankings and scores are the result of authentic viewer engagement, not keywords and hacks. While challenging, these steps are essential for success in an increasingly competitive digital marketing environment.  For more on SEO, download our guide to 10 Myths of SEO.  Or feel free to get in touch!

(I meant to revise this piece for grammar and ended up just adding a bunch of parenthetical asides! (Oh well.))

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Topics: Content Strategy, B2B Digital Marketing, SEO

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