SEO writing is critical to your site’s success.
In order to rank high, you have to know how to create copy that gets both searchers’ and search engines’ attention.
In this article, I’ll break down the factors and best practices to consider for your SEO content.
If you’ve been in the marketing game for a while, you’ve probably noticed some pretty significant changes over the past few years.
From the early ’10s rollout of Hummingbird and Panda to the more recent updates like BERT and a hyper-competitive, snippet-centric front page, Google’s algorithms are all grown up in 2020.
And marketers, for better or worse, must evolve alongside the bots.
In this article, I’m going to take a deeper dive into what SEO writing looks like in 2020, covering the following core areas:
- Does SEO still work?
- What is SEO-friendly content?
- Writing for end-user intent
- How keywords factor into today’s content strategy
- Snippets, no-clicks, and the new front page experience
Does SEO Still Work?
The short answer is, yes, SEO still works.
Despite the zero-click panic (no-click results now account for 50% of all search traffic) and Google’s shift toward becoming more than a source of answers, SEO is still alive and well.
Though SEO remains central to any digital strategy, that’s not to say it’s easy.
Marketers, website owners, and search engine optimizers face some unique challenges that didn’t exist a few years back.
- Thanks to a smarter set of algorithms, including the recent BERT update, Google now relies less on links and keywords to serve up relevant results. Today, Google is much better at capturing the nuances behind the search, using contextual clues to determine what to present to users.
- These updates, per Google’s consumer-facing blog, all aim to provide end-users with a better “search journey,” and use AI to weave together a story based on search histories, preferences, and other factors.
- As a result, SERP success now hinges on great (expert-level, yet engaging) content and a deep understanding of the intent behind searchers’ queries, which means SEO is increasingly about using topic modeling and semantic analysis to provide thoughtful answers to real questions.
What is SEO-Friendly Content?
Today, SEO writing is held to the same standards as any other piece of content that users consume. In other words, SEO-friendly writing is just plain “good writing,” with a few slight differences.
SEO copy aims to help both searchers and machines quickly size up a piece of content and find an answer that best matches a searcher’s query.
It isn’t just about plugging keywords into some throwaway blog anymore. We now face the unique challenge of writing content that appeals to human readers and Google crawlers in equal measure.
So what does “high-quality” mean in 2020, anyway?
Interestingly, the concept of high-quality content hasn’t exactly changed since 2011, when Google published this set of guidelines following its Panda update. ”
A few highlights from the post include:
- Is your content something you would trust if you were the reader?
- Is it well-written? Does the author know the topic well?
- Are there any spelling or grammar errors?
- Has it been fact-checked?
- Is the content original?
- Does it provide substantial value to the reader?
- Have you selected topics based on the genuine interests of your audience?
- Is the article free of bias?
- Is there an excessive amount of ads on the website?
The 2011 post is a good starting point, though I do think it’s important to add some new additions, too:
- Dig into what the people want. While the concept of intent is pretty straightforward, a lot of it boils down to understanding your customers so well that you can anticipate their questions and be ready with an answer.
- Address the users’ pain points. Remind your audience that they have a problem and the impact it has on their productivity, finances, appearance, health, or whatever your product/service addresses. Paint a picture of a better life using your audiences’ language to describe key benefits. For more on how to find and address pain points, check out my full article here.
- Then solve them. The notion of bringing up a problem without offering any solutions or guidance is admittedly pretty annoying. How can you make your audiences’ lives easier? Additionally, you’ll want to cover potential problems that could make their journey more challenging. For instance, if you offer a website building service to non-technical folks, you might address some of the questions they need to ask service providers before committing. Then, you can dig into your recommendations—think, “our solution helps with X, Y, Z, so you can do A, B, C.”
- Give your readers a positive experience. Even something that seems small, such as slow load times or an “ugly” checkout page, can cost you potential customers. More and more marketers are realizing that all the details add up and are taking ownership over their role in customer experience.
SEO-Friendly Content Answers Searchers’ Questions
The first rule of creating “SEO-friendly” content is making sure you answer searchers’ questions.
For marketers used to taking an ad-hoc approach to search terms and topics, writing for audience intent means you’ll need to build your content calendar around target topics, ideally for each persona and place in the buyer’s journey.
Keep in mind, not all content is made for search. Breaking news updates, thought leadership, and social media posts all work best when they focus on new ideas.
In those cases, pigeon-holing the “people also search for” questions into a story just comes off as a new take on keyword-stuffing.
SEO Content Gets Down to Business
Think about this: if you ask someone a question, do you want them to provide an answer full of unrelated tangents and niche-specific jargon?
Or, would you prefer a straightforward response that covers key points and makes sense of abstract concepts?
It may seem obvious, but making a point of completing the following steps before publishing can make a big difference:
- Don’t use more words than you need to make your point.
- Replace jargon with simple, plain-language terms.
- Be sure to swap out any instances of passive voice with its active counterpart.
Though clarity is key, Google also places a high value on being thorough. This means marketers need to be careful that they don’t mistake long content for comprehensive content.
If you can answer a question in its entirety in a few sentences, it’s plenty comprehensive.
Follow the E-A-T Rules
Danny Sullivan of Google swears by the E-A-T (expertise, authority, and trustworthiness) rules laid out in the quality rater guidelines.
While the advice he offers up in this particular tweet may be frustrating to some, getting to know Google’s quality standards can only help you improve.
E-A-T came up repeatedly over the course of 2019, thanks in part to the devastation caused by the March and June core algorithm updates.
While E-A-T isn’t officially a ranking factor, the guidelines offer a 168-page roadmap for creating the kind of content that both humans and search engines love.
It’s also a useful resource for helping content creators keep track of the tiny things that can make or break your reputation, like adding a physical address to your website or making sure your authors have bios and headshots displayed on the blog.
SEO and Intent
As evidenced in that 2011 blog post, search intent has always mattered. It’s just that In the past, Google’s algorithms would determine relevance by scanning for certain keywords.
As such, SEO copywriting has historically been focused on cramming keywords into blog posts, often in ways that felt a bit too spammy.
Intent Plays a Major Role in Mobile & Voice Search
A while back, Google introduced this concept of micro-moments, a series of small interactions that marketers could use to win big in the “shift to mobile.”
The idea was to create an SEO strategy designed to ensure that your brand would be there with answers at each stage in the funnel—available any time an “I-want-to-know,” “I-want-to-go,” “I-want-to-buy,” or “I-want-to-do” moment strikes.
So, why am I harping on this micro-moments idea?
A lot of it comes down to the rise of voice.
Voice search is tightly connected to mobile—perfect for quick searches performed on the move. Think, where can I eat? Is there a gym nearby? How late is my local dry cleaner open?
In 2015, Google wrote that these moments are “high-intent.” Users reach for their phone to fulfill an immediate need, whether that’s finding a hotel or looking up a fact to prove someone wrong.
What’s changed in recent years is that searchers are now using voice-based queries to perform these quick searches.
Optimizing for voice search helps local businesses increase their visibility and, by extension, foot traffic.
It also helps informational websites increase the chances that the Google Assistant will “read” their content out loud.
To become eligible for that distinct honor, you’ll need to apply the appropriate markup to your content–which tells Google to consider your site as a snippet result. Keep in mind, something like 40% of voice results are pulled from position zero.
Keywords Do Still Matter In SEO Writing
I know, I know. I did just say that intent is a major factor when it comes to writing for SEO these days.
However, it’s critical that people can actually find your content if you want it to have an impact.
Here’s the thing: Google’s algorithms are getting smarter every day, but they still can’t identify just what it is that makes a piece of writing read well.
By adding keywords, you’ll increase the chances that your article appears in front of the right audience. While this is an oversimplification, think about keywords as your way of helping out the machines, whereas focusing on intent is your way of helping out your human reader.
Some things to keep in mind as you update your keyword strategy for 2020:
Embrace a “Query Mindset”
Today, it makes more sense to think about keywords as “queries” or “search terms” then target buzzwords.
While it might sound like a nitpicky semantics gripe, that shift in mindset is central to bringing keyword optimization and intent together.
According to Google, October’s BERT update intended to help searchers ditch the “keyword speak” they’ve gotten used to and search more naturally.
For example, instead of typing in “food near me open now,” BERT allows users to enter something like “what nearby restaurants are open right now?”
With that in mind, Google’s John Mueller advises writers to focus on including some or all of their target query in their content.
For example, if I enter the following query into the Google search bar: How many types of dogs are there?
These are the top results that come up:
Notice how the first and fourth articles both repeat the question in the meta title, then directly answer it in the description.
While this approach may at times feel like keyword stuffing, the idea is to let searchers know that you have the answer to the question they entered.
Keyword Research Needs to Get Strategic
Text Optimizer takes Google’s search data and uses it to analyze the context associated with searchers’ queries. From there, the tool offers up a list of related topics and entities that help Google crawlers understand and categorize the content.
Answer The Public is another free keyword research tool that doesn’t even force you to create an account. The site pulls from Google Suggest data, helping users discover the questions, comparison queries, and search terms that feature prepositions.
While you can find that same info on Google, Answer the Public’s mesmerizing visualizations streamline the research process.
Speaking of Google, SERP staple People Also Ask is another great place to start searching for the kinds of terms you can build topics around. Click on the expandable menu to uncover more.
These phrases could work as standalone blog topics or as a series of headers in a longer article. In fact, SEOs are increasingly using this approach to systematically build-out focused, long-form content designed just for the snippet.
Check Out Your Search Console Analytics
Google Search Console’s 2019 revamp has made it easier for SEO pros to bring keywords and intent together to support a data-driven strategy.
Navigate to Google Search Console > Search Traffic > Search Analytics to find out which queries people actually enter to land on your site.
Additionally, you’ll want to keep an eye on what your competitors are up to. What are they ranking for? Are they landing the snippet? Are they missing the mark somehow?
There is no shortage of SEO tools out there for unearthing competitor keywords (Moz, SEMRush, Ahrefs, etc. all come to mind).
Remember to focus on the keywords themselves versus the actual content. The goal is to create original content in your unique voice, not a carbon copy of the last blog post you read.
Know that Keyword Research isn’t a One-Time Effort.
Ultimately, keyword strategy is getting more sophisticated than it used to be.
SEO writers will increasingly need to pay attention to Google Search Console query reports and build conversational content around the topics people care about, and from there, branch off into those sub-topics.
Featured Snippets and Zero-Click Searches
I’ve talked about the featured snippet, structured markup, and schema at length several times over the past few months.
For the uninitiated, featured snippets, or rich snippets, come in several different flavors (the graphic below shows a few common ones), including Local 3-Packs, Knowledge Graphs, Recipes, and Google News.
Though snippets vary considerably, they all make use of graphic elements, outlines, or images to capture searchers’ attention.
Because the snippets aim to answer a user’s question right on the first page of Google, they often eliminate the click-through to a website.
As mentioned up top, zero-click results are on the rise, which means that websites may find that they receive far fewer clicks than they have in the past.
While it’s understandable to fret about the impact, SEOs need to adapt. More and more, marketers need to work on increasing visibility on Google itself by adding structured markup and following the platform’s content guidelines and technical requirements.
That said, you’re not doomed to a reality in which the only way to measure your organic marketing efforts is impressions.
Recently, we surveyed over 500 searchers to learn more about SEO and intent.
One of the more interesting tidbits we discovered in the data was that meta descriptions and branding wield the most influence when it comes to click-throughs.
Interestingly, just over half of our respondents said they wouldn’t click on a brand they haven’t heard of.
Meaning, landing a spot in the no-click results could be an effective way to familiarize yourself with your target audience, setting them up for an eventual click.
This means you’ll need to get strategic in your approach to snippets to drive clicks. Newer additions to the schema library like FAQs, HowTos, and News markup are among those examples that can drive clicks.
Do note that while anyone can now submit News content through the Google Publisher Center, the quality standards are serious business.
Wrapping Up SEO Writing
In the end, it’s important to understand that, at its core, SEO has always been about creating content that people want to read.
Sure, we have Assistants to contend with, and a lot to learn about schema, but the actual “writing” part of SEO writing has a lot in common with the 2011 standards. Only these days, we need to unlearn bad keyword habits and take a more holistic approach to content planning and creation.
There’s no doubt that the practice will continue to evolve; after all, the SERPs are an unpredictable place.
But, I believe the marketers who can keep up with the changing demands of the buyer while embracing the latest feature Google throws into the mix, will continue to find success in the SERPs.