Content optimization is the process of improving the quality and relevancy of your site’s content. We’ll discuss a number of things about how both users and search engines interpret what makes good content. But first, let’s go through a few examples of how you and I as human beings might read a piece of content and figure out what it’s about.
Let’s take a look at the example of Backpacking in California. Let’s pretend that someone gave us a one-page document, and they told us that the document was about backpacking in California. We read some text describing some landmarks along the West Coast of the United States. We might see some pictures of oceans and beaches, and we might read about parking regulations along the sides of highways.
Now, this might be about backpacking in California, but by reading this document it’s not very clear.
You put the page down and you’re probably disappointed. Even if the exact phrase, backpacking in California, was used in the text here and there, the narrative was all over the place, and there’s really no central theme to focus on.
Both people and search engines expect clarity and quality from your web pages. They want to know without any hesitation what your content is all about. And even more importantly, they want that content that they can trust. If I ask you to find me a resource on backpacking in California and you come back with a piece of paper with a few mentions of the term and text about some loosely related landmarks and things about the state of California, I’m not going to ask you next time. Or if I do, I’m not going to trust you with quite as much.
On the other hand, if you give me content that’s truly remarkable, discussing how to backpack through all of those California landmarks with maps and hiking guides, trail recommendations, descriptions of California flora and fauna that you might see while backpacking, and reviews of California backpacking trips from other hikers, I’m going to come back to you with more questions in the future. And I’m going to trust your answers.
In the online world, when people find content that they like, they tend to share it. Search engines can see a lot of this sharing, and they view it as a sign of trust that will reward you with more search engine visibility. So when we think about content optimization, keep in mind that we’re optimizing our content so that it benefits both users and search engines. And the two key concepts to focus on are tight, relevant themes and building trust.
As you focus on more and more keywords and themes, you’ll be developing more content on your website and you’ll start to have a lot of pages to hold this content. It’s going to be important to structure all of these pages in a meaningful way, because in order for search engines to return your pages to searchers in response to relevant search queries, they need to understand how your pages relate to one another.
Let’s imagine that you’re visiting a bookstore for the first time. You’re looking for a fiction book written by an author whose name starts with the letter J.
Since it’s your first visit, you don’t know where anything is and you’re going to have to learn the layout of this new bookstore. Fortunately, the bookstore has some really good navigation to help you out. You look at the store directory to find where the fiction section is located. Once you reach the fiction section, you can identify the specific shelf that has fiction books written by authors whose name start with J. You then look at that shelf and you find the specific book that you were looking for.
Now, imagine you keep going through this process to learn the entire layout of the bookstore. You’ll figure out all the different sections and shelves, categories and authors, and eventually you’ll end up knowing about all of the individual books. This is exactly what a search engine does. It crawls and navigates an entire website to learn what’s there, how it’s organized, where exactly all of the content can be found, and what it’s all about.
Now, imagine that instead of simply visiting the bookstore, you now work at the bookstore. You’ve learned everything about how this store is laid out and where specific books are. If a customer walks in the door and says, hey, I’m looking for a fiction book written by an author whose name I can’t quite remember, but it starts with a J, you’ll be able to immediately guide them to the book they’re looking for. Now, you’re the search engine. People come to you looking for information and you point the way to it. You can do this quickly and efficiently because you’ve understood the content and how it’s structured.
On the web, a search engine will find your home page and start to navigate through your website using your links. The way you link to pages within your own site is very important and it’s known as internal linking.
If you’re an online store, for example, you might have a system of product categories that link to subcategories that hold links to individual products.
If you’re an informational site, you may be organized by authors or topics, and then dates of publication.
Whatever structure and strategy you use, a clean site structure will really help search engines understand your entire website, find your content, and help searchers find what they’re looking for. On the other hand, a bad site structure can be detrimental to a search engine understanding your site.
You might find websites that have no navigation at all or they might force you to scroll and click around aimlessly to find what you’re looking for. You might see links that take users down a dead-end path with no way to get back to where they started, or you might click on links that go to pages that don’t even exist anymore, or the link might not properly describe the page it’s linking to, so you can’t even be sure that it’s worth clicking in the first place.
Back to our bookstore example, think how difficult it would be if you walked in the front door and there was just one big sign that listed every book in the whole store, line-by-line, in random order. Or worse, what if they never updated that sign when people bought a book and it wasn’t even in the store anymore?
If a search engine can’t understand the layout of your site, doesn’t believe that the structure makes sense, can’t tell what distinguishes one link from another, or finds all kinds of missing pages, they may not come back that much and they certainly won’t be recommending you to other people.
Because everyone’s websites and objectives are different. There’s no right structure that works for everyone.
The most important thing to remember is that your site structure should be clear to you and it should be clear to people.
Remember, search engines are just trying to emulate human processes, so once you spend some time designing and developing a site structure that’s logical and easy for people to understand and navigate through, you can feel confident that search engines will understand your site structure as well.
To understand the different kinds of content that users and search engines can interact with on the web, we’re going to be taking a look at the Explore California website.
And before we start focusing on what search engines like, it’s important to take a moment to appreciate just how many options we have to provide humans with different formats and mediums. At the end of the day, it’s these humans that we need to impress with our pages.
So let’s do a quick review of some of the content types we have available to us on the web. One of the most common forms of content on web pages is text content. We see some text here on the Explore California homepage that helps let us know what kind of information we would expect to find on this site.
When we click into the Resources section, we find more text content presented in a few different ways. There are some organized headings and subheadings along with the paragraphs of body text.
There’s even a checklist at the bottom, organized by bullet points.
And when we click on the FAQ link, it takes us to a page of text content organized by a series of questions and answers.
All of this different content is formatted in different ways so that it’s easier for both users and search engines to understand that content.
Another form of content found on webpages is images. Images can often be more effective than text in conveying a powerful message.
For example, on this Mission page, we’re immediately drawn to the image of a person standing on the beach and it helps us understand the experience of standing on a pristine California beach watching the waves crash in. While the text of this page says the same thing, the feelings and emotions of the message are much better communicated through imagery.
Video is another form of content that we find on the web. If we head over to the homepage and scroll down a bit. We see a featured section around the Explorer’s Podcast as well as a video clip.
The rich sights and sounds of video can do what images and text alone cannot. Here we get to see and hear from people that are actually there allowing us as website visitors to almost experience it.
There are, of course, many other creative forms of content out there as well. Audio clips, interactive animations, social clips, augmented and virtual reality, infographics, games, and more abound across the internet. The key is to think about what kind of content will be effective, useful, and helpful for your specific audience. And while the search engines are what may bring your visitors to your site, once they get there it’s up to you to engage them and ultimately convert them on your business goals. And using a mix of the most effective content types is sure to help the user experience.
The main goal of a search engine is to guide people to content that is relevant to the keyword or phrase that they search for. We can fine tune the relevance of a page for a certain topic through the process of on page optimization.
The Explore California website has a page focused on backpacking tours in California. And let’s imagine that through our keyword research we decided that we wanted to optimize this page for the phrase backpacking tours in California. Let’s walk through how we might optimize the different elements on this page for that particular search term.
The first element we’re going to optimize is the URL. The URL is the location of the page we’re looking at and you can find it up in the address bar. You can think of it almost like a file on your computer, and much like the path to any file on your computer, we can follow some simple guidelines that allow us to create a good URL that can be found and understood quickly. The URL length should be as concise as reasonably possible. While at the same time, contain some usable information about the page itself.
You might find that your website structure uses a system of sub folders and this can be good in that it helps with the site structure. Just be cautious about too many of them appearing in a URL. Generally speaking, shorter and more succinct is best. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll want to make sure that the keyword phrase we’re targeting is found in the URL.
Here, we can pick out the individual words of California, tours and backpack which is certainly helpful. But if we’re targeting this page for backpacking tours in California, we can probably tighten that up a bit. Let’s go ahead and change this page name to backpacking-tours-in-california.html. It’s short, it’s very descriptive of this page and it matches the keyword phrase we’re targeting.
Also, notice how we use hyphens instead of spaces or underscores in the URL. This is important and helps the search engines break up words properly. Of course, it’s best that you choose a proper URL from the outset. Generally speaking, you never want to rename already existing URLs solely for SEO purposes. But if you do, you’ll need to ensure that you’re using the proper redirects from the old URL to the new.
The next element we’ll look at is the meta title tag and here, we’re going to dive into the source code of this page. If you’re a programmer, you’ll be right at home here and if you’re not, don’t worry, just keep reading so you’ll be able to talk the talk when it comes time to implement these items on your own website.
This page’s title is pretty generic, and doesn’t really give a search engine any indication that this page is about our target keyword phrase.
So let’s go ahead and change it to backpacking tours in California – explore California.
Once our programmers have made this change and pushed it live, we see that we’ve got a title that’s fairly short, very descriptive, and very targeted to the phrase we want to rank for.
Notice that we didn’t simply use our target phrase by itself or just repeat it over and over. Here, we included the hyphen explore California at the end. One reason for this is that the meta title tag is also the title that’s used for the page’s search engine results listing. Not only are we trying to optimize a title so that search engine identify the theme of our page, we’re also trying too entice users to click on it when they see it in the search results.
In this example, we believe that mentioning the website name might reinforce the context of where this page lives and help convince people to click our result over the competition. But don’t make the title too long or detract too much from your target keyword phrase as it will need to be readable. Too long and it will get cut off by the search engines. Tools like the Moz Title-Tag Preview Tool can help you visualize and test how your title will look on a search engine results page.
Another meta tag we can configure is the meta description. Although optimizing this tag won’t likely do much to improve your search engine rankings and is largely ignored by the major search engines it can improve your search engine result’s click-through rate. And that’s a metric that informs how search algorithms evolve. You’ll want to pay attention to it, because this tag can often be used as the text that shows up under the title of a listing in the search results, and optimizing it properly can both improve your click-through rate in the present and positively impact your rankings over time.
Spend some time writing compelling text that will lead people to click on your site and using keywords in your description will help reassure users that this is exactly what they’re looking for. And as with many other aspects of SEO, you’ll want to tweak it over time to see if you can improve how it helps drive engagement with your page.
Next, let’s take a look at the h1 header tag.
This is typically the markup used for the main visible headline of your page and search engines know this. The purpose of using it is to give the reader a clear idea of what the content below is about, much like a newspaper headline does.
The current header tag, backpack Cali, is not very descriptive or specific to our target keyword phrase, and you’d have to read through the text to realize that this is actually the name of an organization. The truth is most people won’t stick around long enough to do that and think about how confusing that must be to a search engine. Well, that might be important information to include later in the content, it’s probably a waste of a header.
So let’s try to improve this element with something like: Backpacking Tours in California provided by Backpack Cali. This not only clarifies the message it also works in our target keyword phrase. There are no defined character limits to headlines but much like in the news world, it’s more effective to be concise.
Now at this point, if you were a search engine, you’ve seen a URL, a title and a headline that are all talking explicitly about backpacking tours in California, and you’re starting to get a pretty good idea of what this page is all about.
And now we have the content itself. The most important thing about your content is that it needs to be optimized for people first and search engine second. Make sure that your content is written so that it communicates to your target audience in a way that is really engaging. As far as the search engines go, there’s no magic formula for the perfect page. But what you want to remember is that search engines are trying to emulate a human being reading something and then figuring out what it’s about. Search engines are looking not only for your target keyword but also for variations of that keyword.
It just makes sense that in a piece of content about backpacking tours in California, words like backpack, trip, outdoors and vacation will popup here and there. Different word orders are likely to be a part of the narrative and if you were a search engine, you probably wouldn’t be surprised if related words like tent and map show up here as well. Search engines can get very sophisticated trying to map the semantic and thematic relationships between words on a page which is exactly what we as humans do. So ultimately, writing the way you would for a human is the best way to optimize these for algorithms. And while there’s no hard and fast rules, you might generally shoot for including your target phrase one to three times in the text, depending on the length of your content. Don’t over think it and don’t overdo it.
One last element to optimize on this page are the images. Let’s take a look at this first image. As human beings, we can look at this and quickly figure out that those are some footprints next to the words Backpack Cal.
But when a search engine looks at it, all it sees is a bunch of dots and different colors. While machine learning and artificial intelligence are tackling this problem, search engines aren’t yet relying on a machine’s ability to read words that appear in an image, or see the image like a person does. So search engines rely on a few other signals to understand just what those images are.
Let’s take a look at the code behind this image. Inside this image tag, you can see a few attributes. The first one is the source file name, or the URL of that image. This tells the browser where to go find the image so it can be loaded. The alt text is reserved for a description of the image for those people or browsers that can’t see the image itself.
Both of these elements can be optimized to accurately describe what the image is about and also help support the keyword phrase we’re trying to optimize for.
Just like we changed the file name of this page in the URL, we can change the file name of the actual image on the server. To use the keyword phrase we’re targeting on this page, and then update the reference to that file in our code. Something like backpacking-tours-in-California.gif. We can then update the alt text to something like Backpacking Tours in California by Backpack Cali to be more descriptive to both the humans that need this description and the search engines that are trying to figure out what the image is all about.
While there are many more items on a page that can be optimized, focusing on your URL, title, description, headers, body text and images will take care of a very big chunk of your on page optimization. Of course, doing this from the very beginning is the ideal situation. But take a look at the existing pages of your site after you’ve done your keyword research and mapped your pages to your target phrases. You might be surprised at just how much optimization there is to do.
Search engines are generally very good at analyzing and understanding the text content on web pages. But search engines have a more difficult time with other forms of content like images, videos, and audio clips. Let’s take a look at a few different ways we can go about optimizing these types of content for our target keywords.
One simple best practice is to use the text surrounding the non-text elements to describe what it’s all about. This makes perfect sense, if you think about it.
Having a paragraph of text describing a particular video right next to that video is very common practice, and images embedded inline with text often have text titles under them, and they’re typically very relevant to the text on that page.
Image slide shows or carousels often contain a textual title and description of each photo, and an audio clip typically has a description and may even have a complete transcription as well.
Search engines do analyze the text that’s in close proximity to the non-text components, making the assumption that there is some topical correlation between those elements.
On the Explore California homepage, we can see this in action. For example, this logo for Cycle California is an image, and even though those pixels are arranged in such a way that humans can quickly read Cycle California, and see that it’s a logo, remember that search engines can’t do this quite as easily. So while the search engine will look at the image filename and the alt text, it will also look at the text nearby.
And, in this case, we can see that it’s all about a Cycle California tour that’s being featured, telling search engines a little more about that image. You can also make use of image captions, and when an image is also used as a link, you can use a title attribute to give search engines even more information about the image itself.
Aside from using the text that’s near the non-text elements, there’s also some code we can use to help the search engines out. What’s known as structured data allows us to markup our code with some very relevant, very specific metadata, specific to a certain type of content. It’s useful to note that there are different ways of marking up your structured data, but for this example, we’ll format the schema.org markup using JSON-LD, which search engines tend to favor.
These are some of the properties that you can define for an image object. And if we scroll down, you can see examples of the difference between your standard image tag, and one that’s been enhanced with schema.org markup.
Note that there are markup specifications for audio and video clips as well.
Let’s take the example of the video that’s on the homepage of the Explore California website.
We can see that there’s some code that embeds the video, and right now, there’s not much that can tell a search engine about the contents of that video.
But by adding in some special markup, we can provide search engines with all kinds of rich metadata, and this will help them really understand what this content is all about.
Now, when a searcher types in something like explore California podcast, we’ve positioned ourselves for this page, or even this video, to pop up in the search results.
Take a look through schema.org, and you can see all of the different properties and elements that you can define for non-text data. Making sure to provide as much information as you can to the search engines can only help your overall search engine visibility.
And when you’re adding markup to your site, be sure to test it using search engine tools like Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool.
Using a mix of content types in your pages can be a great way to engage with your visitors and help them down the conversion path. And just because a piece of content doesn’t use words, doesn’t mean we can’t help a search engine understand just what it’s all about. Through surrounding text, some code elements, and structured data, you can open up all of your content to search engines, and be well on your way to attracting new traffic to your pages.
We’ve covered how we can optimize a page for a target keyword phrase using the URL, title, headers and overall content of that page. But determining just how well a page has been optimized can often be difficult to gauge. And we may want to isolate more opportunities for improvement. To help us do this we’re going to use the on-page grader. A tool that’s part of the SEO Moz Pro Tool set.
It’s important to note that if you’re going to get serious about SEO, you’ll probably want to invest in some tools. And while for these examples we’re using a Moz Pro account you’ll find lots of excellent tools like SEMrush, Ahrefs and more. Any of these services will give you access to a whole suite of tools designed specifically to help you with search engine optimization. So you should do some research to see which is the best fit for you.
Let’s go back and take a look at the backpacking tours page on the Explore California website. We’re already determined that we want this page to be optimized for the phrase backpacking tours in California. And we’ve taken a look at many of the on-page elements that could stand to be optimized. But we haven’t actually made any changes to the page yet. So let’s run this page through the tool to see what recommendations for improvement we can find. We’ll start by adding our keyword phrase backpacking tours in California. And entering the URL of the page we want to have analyzed. Then we’ll let the tool go to work.
As you can see this page isn’t very well optimized currently. And there are a lot of things we can do. After we get over the shock of our low score remember this is out of a hundred, we can scroll down and see that this tool has just provided us with a to-do list of all the things that might help this page be more optimized for our target keyword phrase.
The factors analyzed are grouped by level of importance. And we can switch between factors that are hurting and helping the overall score. For each issue we can see why these things are problems, suggestions around how to address these issues, and even some commentary and links to more information.
In this example our keyword phrase doesn’t show up in the title, the URL, the description, any of our headers, anywhere in the body, anywhere in bolded text or in any image alt text. If you were a search engine would you rank this page for the keyword phrase? Probably not. It’s not all doom and gloom though. Reviewing the elements that we’ve done well can be helpful in making sure that we carry these best practices over to other pages as we optimize. And again, there’s lots of great information here to help us understand more about each element that was analyzed.
If you’re looking for a way to quickly generate a fairly comprehensive evaluation of the pages of your site along with a list of recommended actions, this is the type of tool you’ll want to use. And following these recommendations to clean up the on-page factors of your webpages, is what will end up showing the search engines what keywords your content has been optimized for.
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An important strategy for growing search engine visibility is to continually generate new, unique, and quality content. But, there’s only 24 hours in a day, and it can be pretty difficult to do that with your own resources. Fortunately, you can leverage the interest and knowledge of your website visitors to create new content for you, and this is better known as user-generated content.
User-generated content is content that normal website visitors create for your website, and given the right circumstances, user-generated content can be a very scalable and cost effective means of content creation.
So, what are some good examples of user-generated content? Blog comments and forums are examples where allowing people to simply express their views can help generate new content for your site. Some websites take this to the next level by cultivating expert comments, or allowing users to vote or assign weights to certain members of the user community. And allowing top contributors or other experts from outside your organization to write guest blog posts and articles can be a great way to post new and enticing content, and have others generate comments and conversations around that content. If you sell products on your site, you can allow users to leave reviews of your products as a means to generate new and relevant content.
Again, you could find ways to organize and display these reviews, and you can work on ways to solicit more from your customers. In the business to business space you might ask your happy customers to work with you to create testimonials or case studies. And keep in mind that content doesn’t necessarily need to be textual. If users want to share interesting information in the form of video clips or photos or other media formats, by all means, let them.
And don’t forget to take advantage of user-generated content through social media outlets. A big reason for the explosive growth of these social media services in recent years is that people have a natural tendency to share interesting content with other people, and these services make it easy to do that. Remember, sharing content, whether you’ve created it or your users have, provides even greater opportunity for people and search engines to find and see your content as authoritative.
Last, you’ll want to make sure that you have some kind of approval process in place if you’re going to let visitors write or post whatever they want. Unfortunately, the world is full of potty mouths, and automated bots, and angry people that can and will take full advantage of the ability to post inappropriate things on other people’s websites. You can have a blacklist of words and phrases that flag a post as needing approval, or you can set all posts to require approval. You’ll also want to consider if you’ll be allowing any code, HTML markup, or links in your user-generated content, which can pose some additional issues. And no matter how you structure your user-generated community, you’ll want to read, watch, or listen to what’s going up on your pages.
In a world where content creation costs time, resources, and money, leveraging user-generated content can be a great way to help with your continuous stream of new relevant content that search engines can find and make available to your prospective customers.
Understanding the process of personalized search, requires understanding search intent and the role of search engines. Remember, the goal of a search engine is to provide the best results to a specific person at just the right time and in the right place and to do that, there is personalization that’s being done. Two different people doing the same search may see different results. So how does this personalization impact your SEO strategy? Well first, you have to understand that there are many factors that influence personalized search results.
Search engines take into account things like the device you are using, the location the device is connecting from, and even your previous search history. Let’s take a look at how location influences the search results that you might get.
Search engines can use location information from an IP address, GPS, or other signals to understand where you physically are. So a search for ‘pizza place’ done from New York will give some very different results than that same search done in Seattle. But searchers can also indicate a location by adding it to the search query. For example, if I’m in a Seattle airport, about to board my flight to New York, and I want to find a pizza place to go to when I land, I might type in ‘New York pizza place’. Here I might see results showing both New York style pizza places in Seattle as well as restaurants located in New York.
This complexity means that your strategy for keyword targeting should absolutely consider location based search intent and what people are really looking for with the different searches that they’re doing.
Personalization is also done at the device level and you’ll probably notice that search engine results with the same query can be different across mobile and desktop. Knowing that many mobile searchers are on the go, search engines often adjust the mobile results to cater to maps, paid results, knowledge graph results, and even the ordering of mobile rankings. Keep in mind that search engines test interactions with these results often, refining those results to provide you with the relevant information and then evolving your personalized experience.
Last, your search history can be used to populate future results. The websites that you visited in the past, as well as your personal search settings, and linked account activity, will influence the way that search engines provide information in the future.
There are a few ways that they do this. And it’s important to know that this can effect both paid and organic results. On the paid side, clicking on a search result can activate targeting criteria that advertisers can use to show you related ads regardless if they’re related to that initial website. On the organic side, search engines are always prodding and testing because they want to understand your click preferences.
Take the example of a search on the term ‘avatar’. At first a search engine doesn’t know your intent with this search so you might be presented with generic options at first. If I were to click on the results related to the movie rather than those related to online personas, the search engines would remember this, and when I perform future searches, my preferences can be used and results related to the film are more likely to be displayed.
As search engines continue to evolve with voice inputs and adapt to increasingly complex queries, their ability to solve human problems like where I might like to eat or the best place for me to purchase something are tailored more and more to the individual conducting those queries. Personalization means that the future of search is about catering results to the individual. And as we develop and refine our SEO strategies, knowing that the search experience will provide more personally relevant ads and organic results will help us stay ahead of the curve and leverage this personalization ourselves.