When search engine optimization (SEO) and marketing professionals optimize content, it means they are updating/editing/fixing a web page to boost its organic search performance and bring more traffic to their website.
Using search analytics tools, they can identify the posts that are performing well and the ones that need optimization.
The benefits of creating and optimizing content can be significant for businesses. Google reports that 71 percent of B2B buyers begin their customer journey with an unbranded search. If your business is not creating content that appears on the top SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages), you could miss out on reaching nearly three-quarters of your potential customers.
Overall, optimizing content can drive more traffic to your website. And if that content contains effective CTAs and opportunities to convert, businesses can transform their web content into lead generating machines to help grow their sales.
How does Google rank content?
Google assesses thousands of signals to rank pages, and with the rise of machine learning, ranking factors are somewhat mysterious. Not even Google can precisely state every factor. However, industry experts regularly run tests and share their findings to determine what factors boost the ranking of content.
Changes made during the optimization process range from simple to complex, but the main goal is to improve the content experience for the user. The actions of users are the signals that Google assesses to determine ranking factors.
For simplicity, ranking factors can be segmented into three buckets:
1. Off-site SEO
These activities involve promotion and marketing initiatives that take place outside of your website. Securing backlinks on other websites is one of the most valuable off-site SEO wins for a website.
When your site earns backlinks on high-quality, authoritative sites, Google sees this as a positive “vote” for your content. The more backlinks earned, the more positive signals are sent to Google in support of your site. This could help improve the ranking of your content in search engines.
To earn these links, reach out to relevant businesses with a request to include a backlink to your content on their website. You can also post links to your content in online forums or in the comments of social media posts. However, in an ideal situation, your content is strong enough to earn backlinks without promotion (think of it as an earned media placement without sending a pitch).
2. On-page SEO: Technical elements
These are fixes done on the back-end of a website, usually by a web developer or technical SEO specialist. This includes fixing index and crawl errors, identifying broken links, cleaning up the sitemap, improving page speed, maintaining the mobile UX and much more. While these changes might not be visible on the page, they are critical to ensuring that the content you create performs at its highest potential.
[Related content: Technical SEO – How to Improve Page Speed to Boost Search Rankings]
3. On-page SEO: Content quality
The main purpose of optimizing content for quality is to implement factors that provide an overall stronger user experience (see the top 5 factors below). Changes made are an attempt to encourage positive SEO signals from users, such as staying on the page longer, browsing other pages on the site or sharing content with their social networks.
As a marketer, on-page SEO is the most efficient way that to optimize content without needing help from a developer or relying on backlinks from other sites.
Making on-page improvements is also a valuable activity to do after a content audit, which is a process that can help you identify dated content to optimize to boost SEO performance.
How to choose content to optimize
Conducting a content audit is the most thorough process for determining which posts to optimize. However, you don’t need to spend tons of time looking at every past piece of content to get an idea of what’s worth optimizing. Ask these questions to guide your choice:
For what topics does your company want to rank?
Search engines are a valuable brand awareness platform. If there are topics that your brand wants to assert authority and expertise in, optimizing content to rank in search engines is a great way to establish credibility.
Optimizing content by topic is also a good way make sure you’re covering every subtopic possible. Creating a series of posts under one topic is a common tactic to increase authority because you can internally link each post to the other, which helps Google get a better sense of your expertise.
What content converts?
While conquering topic authority in the SERPs is a great brand awareness play, how are you going to turn those visitors into loyal readers or customers? Including a newsletter sign up or “contact us” call-to-action (CTA) in your highest performing organic content may help increase conversion rates.
Also look at content that already has a high conversion rate. How do users typically find this content if not in organic search? If there is a page that converts well on social or in paid search, and can you optimize it to rank organically? Or can you create more content related to that page to increase your authority on that topic?
What content meets or does not meet KPIs?
KPIs indicate how users interact with content on the page or in the search engines, including:
- dwell time
- how long users stay on a page
- pages/session, which shows that a user browsed other pages on your site
- Impressions in the SERPs (how many people see your content as a result)
- Clicks (how many people click on your content from a SERP)
- Click-through rate (CTR) = clicks/impressions
If you want to use a free and simple tool for assessing KPIs and choosing content to optimize, Google Search Console (GSC) is your best friend. (To start using, enable GSC with your Google Analytics account.)
How to optimize on-page content quality: The top 5 factors
Content optimization is similar to the process of editing and revising an article. However, the main focus is on improving the whole user experience of the piece and making changes based on SEO factors. Updating grammar or tightening a sentence could be enough to improve the readability of the piece, but updates typically need to be drastic for Google to recognize them.
Overall, your updates need to make the content more helpful for users in some way. Here are five common factors of high-ranking content that you can use to start optimizing today.
1. Meta title and description
The meta title and description are what users see in search engines. Along with rich snippets, this is the only information searchers see in a SERP.
Despite the brilliance of your content, users won’t click on your post if the meta title does not relate to the query, include relevant keywords or help answer their question.
Editing the meta title and description is one of the first things you can try to improve the CTR of a post.
To start, open GSC, set your date range and choose the landing pages tab. Display the impressions column from high to low.
Impressions represent how many users viewed your content in search engines. Posts with high impressions, but few clicks, will have a low CTR. These posts present the best opportunity to improve CTR by editing the meta title and description.
As an example, let’s compare Post 1 with Post 5. Though Post 1 ranks first for the most impressions, it received far fewer clicks than Post 5. Thus, Post 1 has a much lower CTR.
Post 1 is the perfect candidate for optimization.
In GSC, you can then click on the landing page, which brings you to keywords that were searched to find your content. Using these keywords, along with additional keyword and SERP competitive research, you can create a more relevant title and description. (Yoast is a popular WordPress plug-in that provides a place to insert meta title and description, as well as help with other SEO functions.)
While the keywords in a title matter for ranking, the description is not crawled by Google. However, the description can make a difference with CTR if it gives an accurate and enticing summary that proves your content is the best option.
Note that the SEO title is different from the post title displayed at the top of the page. This allows you creative freedom with the post title, however, it should still accurately represent the focus of the article with targeted keywords.
Have a blog post from 2011 that analyzes key findings from the most important industry report of the year? Your analysis might be thought-provoking and may have received social shares and backlinks, but it has since become stale, left to collect virtual dust.
Google uses the Quality Deserves Freshness (QDF) algorithm to determine what topics and searches require the most updated results. This includes recent events, hot topics and time-sensitive updates (like research reports).
If that 2011 report is an annual occurrence, add this to your editorial calendar every year so you always have the most updated version on your website.
Additionally, look at top-performing content that may benefit from regular updates to include the most recent information or research.
Even if there isn’t new information to add, updating a post with significant changes will still send a freshness signal to Google that indicates a post has been improved, which and gives your content a better chance of climbing the ranks.
3. Readability and user experience
When optimizing for readability, your main goal is to make your content as easy to read and understand as possible.
No matter the quality of the writing, the formatting is EVERYTHING. A long block of text is intimidating to a reader, especially on a mobile device. They want to be able to find the answer they are looking for ASAP.
This means no fluffy intro, no long paragraphs, and no excruciatingly long sentences that might be found in a David Foster Wallace novel. Word choice matters, too. If your top-of-funnel content includes beginner guides for someone new to your product or industry, stray from jargon they won’t yet understand.
One of the easiest ways to make your content readable is to break it up. If you’re working with a long block of text, split it into multiple paragraphs, add subheads, bold words and phrases, create bullet points, add an image, embed a video or social post, etc. Considering 79 percent of people scan web pages, these formatting techniques will guide readers to the information they’re looking for.
Not sure how readable your page is? Check its reading score with the readable.io tool.
In our experience, many clients have a misunderstanding of keywords — there’s too much focus on keyword placement. The most important role that keywords play is to drive the editorial content to ensure a searcher’s question is accurately and thoroughly answered.
Google wants to see that your content provides the most satisfying answers possible, including related questions. This is where keyword research is critical. Go directly to Google and type in the target keyword or long-tail phrase.
What other questions appear in the “People Also Ask” box? What results appear at the bottom of the page under related searches? What other keywords and topics are suggested by tools like Answer the Public, Ubersuggest or Moz?
It’s also helpful to look at top posts for that query. Can you create even better content than what exists?
This research also helps determine the length and word count required if you want to remain competitive in the SERPs. Don’t believe any articles you read that suggests the best word count. It all depends on your industry and the competitive landscape.
You might only need a 500-word post, or you might need 4,000 words. A tool like MarketMuse does the competitive research for you and provides a targeted word count based on the top content in a SERP.
5. Expertise, Authority, Trust (E-A-T)
It’s recommended in Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines that brands establish E-A-T in their content to increase the overall credibility of the brand and its website.
The Aug. 1, 2018, algorithm update observed that sites with low E-A-T were hit the hardest, especially healthcare industries that fall under the YMYL (Your Money Your Life) category.
A blog is an excellent place to show off your company’s expertise, but now there is a greater emphasis on demonstrating such knowledge because of the positive SEO impact this type of content may have.
Though E-A-T is documented in the resource used to help Google’s human evaluators rank content on a scale of “Lowest” to “Highest,” which helps Google understand how algorithms perform, they don’t have direct input in the algorithm. This has caused debate among the SEO community about whether E-A-T is a true algorithm factor.
However, content that establishes expertise, authority and trust will drive positive SEO behavior from users. They will continue to browse the site or come back later, and will more likely share content that they believe to come from a trustworthy source.
All of these actions send Google positive signals, which can help boost rankings.
Measuring the results of your optimization efforts
After publishing a post that’s been optimized, don’t expect to see results in a day, a week or even a month. First, Google must crawl the page to “see” the new updates. While this can happen with just publishing the article, you can also manually resubmit the page to ensure Google crawls it with the new updates.
Then you’ll have to wait for users to begin interacting with the content after finding it on the SERPs. If the changes improved the user experience, then users will interact positively with that page and Google will reward it with higher rank.
Unlike Google AdWords, which shows results immediately, SEO is an ongoing process that takes time to see results, but it can also provide benefits far into the future without spending ad dollars. It’s a cost-efficient way to attract new users to your website, but it’s not a set-it-and-forget-it tactic. Optimization works best when it’s a consistent component of your content strategy.
These five factors just scratch the surface on tactics for optimizing and improving your content. For more in-depth guides on each of these factors plus others, check out the 10-part Quality Content Series.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of SEO as told through the lens of industry pioneers such as Rand Fishkin, Danny Sullivan and Jill Whalen, check out SEO: The Movie, a 40 minute documentary created by Ignite Visibility.