Authority and relevance.
Before we get started, this is worth keeping tucked away in the back of your brain because it’s going to keep coming up. Search engines are built — and then improved on — to understand how relevant web pages are to a search that’s being made and what makes those pages experts on the subject matter. Everything you do in SEO is a tactic to demonstrate either authority or relevance.
With that said, let’s get going.
For a lot of people, SEO is a bad word. It’s like cheating at cards with your website. When I first heard of it, I thought it was basically technical writing, where you’re writing for robots instead of humans. To do SEO well, I thought you had to sacrifice clarity and artistic expression to the temperamental gods of marketing and the internet. You know, chain Andromeda to the rock.
So, and this is true especially for artists, SEO becomes a dirty word, a cheap ploy to syphon traffic, no better than click bait.
Of course I found out that’s rubbish. Writing for SEO is empathetic writing, writing from the perspective of your audience, putting yourself in their shoes and providing comprehensive answers to the questions they have in a format they can easily consume.
SEO is about value.
And at the heart of it all like keywords.
What are keywords?
Keywords are the words people use when they’re performing a search online, whether that’s through Google, Bing, YouTube (yep, that’s a search engine), Giphy (also a search engine) or even over voice search like Alexa and Google Home.
So they’re not just a single word (though they can be: theatre) but usually a string of words (theatres near me) or a full question (are all theatres closed right now?).
“Keywords” is a bit of an obsolete term that’s not super descriptive of their place in our process. It’s a lot more useful to call them searches, queries or even topics instead because that’s what they are.
We’ll stick with “keywords” for now, but it’s probably worth dumping whatever preconceived notion you might have about them…
Keywords are clues left behind by your audience but they’re also a structural way to unify the content on your page, a theme.
What is keyword optimization?
In the olden days of SEO, the way you made a page rank for a search was basically to insert a keyword as often as possible throughout.
And that’s one of the many ways SEO made a bad name for itself (there are way worse things people did back then to rank, that world gets pretty bonkers…)
That’s because search engines were kind of dumb and you really had to connect the dots for them. For example, back then search engine optimization and optimization for search engines would be seen as two different searches.
Modern keyword optimization
Nowadays, search engines are sophisticated enough to understand language contextually, not just on a page where you’ll talk about musical theatre, musicals, Broadway musicals, Hamilton…but across a site as well.
If your site has a lot of content on it related to musicals, then search engines understand that you are likely some kind of expert source on the subject matter. If on the other hand, the majority of the content on your site has to do with plumbing and suddenly you have this one page talking about musicals, search engines will think, “What makes you an authority on musicals all the sudden?”
Relevance and authority.
So doing keyword optimization these days is not just about finding keywords that get searched a lot (this is called a high search volume) and inserting them as often as possible on your page. It’s about understanding the searches people are doing on Google around a certain topic and writing content that answers those questions. Comprehensively.
I’ll just say it one more time.
Ahem. Relevance and authority.
How often should you mention your keyword?
Even nowadays, you’ll find tools (such as Yoast) or articles from highly authoritative sources that will encourage you to mention your keyword throughout your post a certain number of times or with a certain frequency.
I like Yoast. But that’s not a particularly helpful way to think about optimizing your content because it’s the mindset that leads to keyword stuffing.
When you’re writing for SEO, it’s more important to write naturally than to try and mention your keyword as often as possible.
The thing those experts are trying to point out, I found more useful to think in terms of topical relevance. The topic in your title should apply to your entire post. If you were to describe your post (like you do in your meta description — we’ll get to it), that summary should apply to your entire post.
For example: if you write a post about musical theatre, you’re going to naturally mention “musical theatre”. If halfway through your post, you suddenly never write the words “musical theatre” again, that might be a sign that you’ve strayed off topic.
But that might not necessarily be the case. Your topic might be theatre around the world for example and it’s possible you won’t repeat that keyword in your post after the introduction but each of your sections: noh and kabuki, commedia dell’arte, Broadway… support that topic. Nowadays, search engines are sophisticated enough to know that.
Page ranking factors
Does this mean then that to optimize your content for searches, you don’t need to do any tweaking of your copy?
Not quite. But it’s important to move away from the keyword stuffing approach to SEO and into a mindset of understanding the searches surrounding your topic and to providing comprehensive answers on them (comprehensive doesn’t mean “long” by the way…)
There are certain elements on your page that have more weight to them (to anybody who has an existing understanding of SEO, we’re only talking about on-page ranking factors that are relevant to here).
Your page’s title
There are two places your page title appears (and those can be different, though they should be similar):
- the page title tag, which affects the title that’s shown on search results (as well as the browser tab)
- the H1 tag, which is the title that appears on the page itself.
While the H1 tag can be as long as you’d like it to be, you should try and keep your title tag to around 60 characters. Anything longer than that will get cut off in the search results so nobody will ever see it. Keep the important information (i.e. your keyword but we’ll get to that) near the beginning.
Your page’s URL
The URL is the web address for your page. The unique identifier of the page on the URL is called the slug.
Keep your URLs as short and informative as possible. Don’t include dates in URLs and if your page is a listicle, leave the number out so you have the flexibility to edit your post at a future date without having to change the URL.
If you do change a page’s URL, make sure you set up a redirect from the old URL to the new one.
Your page’s meta description
The meta description is the short paragraph that appears below the title on search results.
A recent study by Ahrefs reveals that
- a quarter of top ranking pages don’t have a meta description at all
- 60% of the time, Google rewrites meta descriptions anyway
So you might think, “What’s the point of writing this thing if Google is going to rewrite it anyway (or if I can still rank without one…)?”
And that’s a fair question. My response is this: if we’re going to criticize SEO for being about writing for search engines instead of people then jump at the first opportunity to ditch writing for people because the impact to a search engine might be minimal, it seems like the critique might be disingenuous.
Your meta description is your opportunity to tell searchers what your post is about and why they should read it. Make a good impression, don’t leave that up to Google.
Keep your meta description to within 155 characters so it doesn’t get cut off and, like with your page title, include your keyword towards the beginning.
Your page’s heading tags
Remember the H1 tag that functions as your page title? You will only have one page title and so only one H1 tag.
This is true whether you’re writing a blog post, a home page, a services page or anything else.
For your other paragraph or section titles, you want to use H2s and H3s (H4s if you need). Heading tags are tools to convey organization and hierarchy, not just to search engines but to readers as well.
So you end up with a page structure that looks like this:
If you can think back to your days writing essays, this is essentially your outline. You’re making sense of your topic (H1) through your supporting arguments (H2s) and examples (H3s).
This structure also makes it easier for readers to absorb information as you’ll be breaking up walls of text into clearly labelled sections and paragraphs, making for a more visual experience.
Your page’s image alt tags
Speaking of a more visual experience, let’s talk about your images. Image alt tags are an important ingredient of your on-page SEO recipe.
The primary function of the alt tag is accessibility for sight-impaired users who rely on screen readers. When a screen reader comes across an image, it will read out the alt tag.
There are two additional SEO wins alt tags provide: it adds relevance to the topic you’re writing on (an image of the cast of Hamilton rehearsing on a page about musical theatre) and it helps your images get found through Google Images.
Here are some best practices for writing good alt tags:
- Don’t mention that it’s a picture or screenshot. Just describe the content.
- Keep them short and descriptive.
- No keyword stuffing!
- Don’t write alt text for decorative or stock photos. Reserve it for those images that are necessary to the point you’re making. If the image doesn’t require an alt tag, the best practice is to leave a blank alt tag by inserting a space.
Links are a critical component for getting your content discovered. We’ll talk about other sites linking to you at a later date, but it’s also important to make sure you’re linking pages on your website to each other.
One of the ways you can optimize a page is to link it to another relevant page on your site.
How to do keyword optimization
Start with your topic
Everybody’s writing process is different, but it’s likely that a certain point you’re going to decide: “I want to create content on X” where “X” is your topic, let’s say musical theatre.
Sometimes your topic is quite specific at the beginning (musical theatre in the 90’s), but usually it starts quite broad.
When you’ve refined your topic, that’s going to be your “focus keyword” for your page (if your site is on WordPress and you use Yoast, you’ll recognize this terminology).
You want to feature your focus keyword in your:
- page title (both H1 and search title)
- meta description
Then you’ll want to build an outline that best answers that keyword. When you think back about your keyword as a search somebody is doing, really think about what the best possible answer to that search will be through your outline.
In order to do that, you will need to…
Do keyword research
Once you have your topic, you want to know:
- What are people searching for around this topic?
- What are the answers other sites are currently giving?
- What’s missing? Or: How can I give a better answer?
The answer to that lies in keyword research. The point is (and this is probably the most important takeaway from this entire post) keyword research isn’t just information you use later to decorate your post. You’re letting keyword research influence your content.
Start by creating a Google Sheet or Excel doc. Write your topic in the first row.
Then go to Google and type in your topic. As you’re typing, Google will make suggestions. Add each relevant suggestion on a new row in your spreadsheet.
In the search bar, before or after your topic, you can cycle through the letters of the alphabet or add an asterisk (*) additional suggestions.
Then take each entry in your spreadsheet and do a Google search. Take stock of the type of content being shown in search results (it should be similar) then go to the People Also Ask boxes.
Like you did with the Autofill suggestions, add every relevant question to your spreadsheet.
Finally, scroll to the bottom of the search results page (this is called the SERP, by the way), and take a look at the Related Searches that are there. Add every relevant search to your spreadsheet.
Doing keyword research this way is worthwhile especially when you’re starting out because you’re going to be paying attention to the search results in a way you’ve never done before. You’re also thinking critically and carefully about every result and paying closer attention.
But you’re probably this takes a lot of time and surely there’s a quicker way to do this without having to pay about $120 CAD. And there is. Welcome to Answer The Public. Just enter your topic in the search bar, and it will do all that work for you.
You can export the data and add it to your spreadsheet. Then you can go sift through it and get rid of the queries that aren’t relevant.
Getting search volume data
At this point, you’ve probably got at least 100 rows (if you don’t, you’re lucky), some of them are very similar.
Part of the outcomes of doing keyword research is you’re seeking to refine your topic and identify which searches you should prioritize for.
Understanding the search volume for your keywords is a helpful way to shape your outline.
There are a couple ways you can do this using free tools. The first one is to go to Google Trends and compare similar keywords manually.
This won’t give you exact search volume but rather a relative volume out of 100, 100 being the peak of the volume over a certain period of time.
Another way to do it is to head over to Google Ads and use the Keyword Planner Tool. You’ll need to create an account, but you don’t have to run ads. When you create an account, Google will default you to Google Ads Express, so go to Settings and Switch to Expert Mode.
Then you can find the Keyword Planner in Tools & Settings > Planning > Keyword Planner.
Go to Search Volume and Forecasts, then copy-paste your rows into the text box and click Get Started.
If you don’t have ads going, you’ll get some pretty broad results compared to what you can get if you do have a campaign running. It doesn’t really matter; at this level you just want to get a general sense.
To add to my ongoing argument of always choosing relevance first, broad keywords (musical theatre) will commonly have more search volume than specific or niche keywords (history of musical theatre). So the better choice isn’t always the keyword with the highest search volume.
This is called a head keyword versus a long-tail keyword and in competitive spaces, a successful long-term keyword strategy is built using long-tail keywords to rank for the highly sought-after head keywords. But that’s a post for a different day.
Right now, choose the most relevant keyword. If there are several similar keywords, choose the one that has the higher search volume.
If you are looking for a paid tool to do your keyword research, my recommendation for beginners is Moz (you do get 10 searches a month for free and can get a 30-day free trial of the full tool so you can take it for a serious spin before you have to pay a dollar).
My personal preference though is Ahrefs.
Build an outline
You’ve done your keyword research, now it’s time to build your outline. At this point, it probably just builds itself.
Remember how your page structure looks like this:
This is how you’re going to build your outline, by putting the keywords your research uncovered verbatim (whenever possible) in those heading tags.
Remember how search engines look for relevance and authority? Having those keywords show up as close to word-for-word as possible contributes to relevance, not just for Google but for the user as well. When a searcher lands on your page, seeing their question in your post (whether in your title or one of the H2s or H3s) will tell them that this post is worth reading.
Ultimately, just like you don’t want to stuff your main keyword in your post, you also don’t want to just cram it with a bunch of barely related topics.
Always, always, always: prioritize relevance.
You’ve done all the hard work, now it’s time to write.
With your outline, you focused on demonstrating relevance. Now with the content you’re going to write, you want to show authority. You want to create the best content possible for every section, building to the best post on your topic there is.
Focus on delivering value
People want shortcuts. With social media, they want a shortcut to going viral. With email, they want a shortcut to explode their list. With SEO, they want a shortcut to ranking on page one.
There are no shortcuts: you can’t fake value. Either you have something helpful to share with your audience that at the very least meets their expectations (I always advocate for exceeding expectations) or you don’t and you’re just making a bunch of noise.
There’s a technique to SEO you can master. But you can spend all the time in the world doing keyword research and tweaking your content, if it provides no value to your searcher, all that work won’t get you anywhere.