January 5, 2016

How to Write Web Content for Human Visitors and Search Engines

The idea of blogging is relatively straightforward; short articles which express particular opinions posted regularly, and available for the perusal of any online user who takes an interest in the subject matter.  But, since search engines need some sort of written content in order to create a list of results for every search query, blogs have been elevated in the world of digital marketing and are seen to possess an unrivalled power.

The dark history of blogging seems characterised, albeit somewhat unjustly, by the underhand techniques known as ‘Black Hat SEO’.  This term refers to various techniques which were considered to be outside the terms of service stipulated by search engines.  Black Hat techniques included practices such as deceptive redirects, hidden links and text, keyword stuffing, flagging competitors, and numerous other immoral processes.  Written content falling under this category would use any possible course of action, no matter how devious, in order to rise in the search engine rankings.

The reasoning behind Black Hat SEO was that ranking was everything.  Creators believed that if their website hit the top spot in the search rankings, people would be convinced of the business’s legitimacy, no matter how clumsy and inelegant the content seemed.  Fortunately, this practice has been ended by two fairly recent developments:

1. Search engines can spot Black Hat techniques from a mile off
2. Web users are no longer easily duped

These two factors have resulted in somewhat of a renaissance regarding web writing.  Blogging is now not only about pleasing search engine crawlers, but also about pleasing readers.

Laptop on a table

What Does Web Writing Entail?

The new approach to web writing requires copywriters to please two distinct audiences.  On the one hand, the content still needs to please the search engines and their new algorithms for judging quality content, and on the other hand the content needs to please the users who decide to read it.  Essentially, the content should appear high in the rankings in order to be discovered by readers, and should be good enough to turn those readers into customers.  This requires a delicate balance, but these two objectives are not exactly polar opposites.  In fact, search engines tend to have many of the same tastes as human readers.

Human readers want substance.  If they stumble onto a blog on account of an interesting title, but find it to be nothing more than a poorly constructed search engine lure, chances are good that they’ll back-peddle as quickly as possible.  However, if the blog offers fresh insight into a particular topic, and the reader stands to benefit from spending time reading it, he or she might be persuaded to take the time to ingest its content.

Many search engines are aware of the factors which contribute to a good blog, and reward such blogs with rankings.  However, there are certain on-page optimisation techniques which are still required to get a blog to rank well in the search engine results pages.  In an effort to outperform their competitors, many web writers load their content with popular search terms.  However, because some of these search terms are strangely worded, fitting them into a blog can become extremely difficult and can result in a blog that pleases search engines (at least for a while) but alienates human readers.

Appealing only to the search engines is a bit like having a beautifully branded shop which contains no products.  Customers will be enticed to step in the door, but then will be immediately disappointed.  Web content must rank highly in order to gain the attention of readers, but it must then deliver on its promise.  Remember, web content must accomplish the following:

1. Attract Readers: This can be done through various search engine optimisation techniques.

2. Retain the Readers: This is far more difficult.  As the Black Hat techniques have proved, it is relatively easy to get people to click on a link.  However, in order to maintain a low bounce rate (which refers to people clicking back from a page shortly after landing on it), the page must compel readers to stay on it and read its content.  This can only be achieved with quality, insightful content.

3. Promote Further Action: This is the ultimate goal of web content; the conversion of interested users into outright customers.  This may be the hardest task of the three, but it is possible through writing that speaks to humans as well as search engines.

So, in order to accomplish this ultimate goal, and please both readers and search engines alike in the process, web writing needs to find a comfortable middle-ground.  But, before we explore the factors necessary to find this middle-ground, let us dismiss the notion that keywords are the be-all-and-end-all of effective web writing.

What Not to Do: Common Blogging Pitfalls Regarding Keywords

Man looking at the laptop screenKeywords are extremely useful in improving search engine rankings, as these can be created to match the terms which users input into search engines.  However, they can be detrimental to rankings if used improperly.  Web writers should thus avoid the following pitfalls:



1. Keyword Stuffing: A fairly common misconception made by web writers is that more is better.  They believe that more keywords in a blog or article which match a user’s search query, the better chance the blog stands of ranking highly for that search term.  However, many search engine algorithms identify this practice as ‘keyword stuffing’, and do not react favourably to it.  While the practice may work for a while, if it is identified as being keyword-heavy it may well be demoted down the ranks by search engine algorithms.

2. Contrived Keywords: Popular search terms can be easily accessed by web writers.  And, when added to their blogs, articles, or website copywriting, these terms can boost organic (unpaid) rankings.  However, because users know how search engines work, many of the most popular search terms involve only the words necessary for the search.  For example, if a user wanted to find companies which offer SEO services in London, he or she might enter ‘SEO services London’.  This keyword is good for the search engines, but makes the writing awkward.  However, it is important to note that, since 2014, Google is no longer concerned with creating exact matches with AdWords.  While it hasn’t been explicitly stated, it is fair to assume that the same goes for organic search.  Thus, the more sentence-friendly ‘SEO services in London’ would theoretically garner the same results.

So, with a couple of ‘bad practices’ identified and discarded, what is the best way of going about writing a blog or article for humans that pleases the search engine bots, too?  The following are some tips for on-page SEO that will ensure a neat and tidy article that still possesses the right contents for effective search engine results page rankings:

How to Write Content That Pleases Humans and Search Engines Alike

1. Choose One Topic and Build on It
Whether the writing is for a blog, online article, or a web page, it is important to decide on a single hand on a keyboardtopic and flesh that out with one or two keywords.  Covering a multitude of topics simply to condense a great deal of keywords into a single piece of writing will not impress either the search engines or the piece’s readers.  It is far more practical to choose a topic and select a small amount of keywords which can easily be worked into the text without raising any eyebrows.

The days of keyword stuffing being able to garner effective results have long since passed, but keywords themselves are still important for rankings.  It is thus important to include pertinent keywords in important elements of the text, such as the title, headings, and sub-headings.

2. Choose Keywords That Work
It is very important to write content that readers will believe was written expressly for them.  The inclusion of difficult phrases for the sake of exact match rankings is both detrimental to readership and not necessary for rankings.  It is much better to use the terms identified by search engines’ keyword tools as guidelines; terms which can be adapted to fit into coherent sentences but still generate search rankings.

Furthermore, the inclusion of deliberate spelling mistakes should be completely disregarded.  It is true that many of the most popular user inputs do exhibit various spelling mistakes.  In the days of exact match the inclusion of these misspelled terms could perhaps be understood, although not condoned, but with the top search engines automatically correcting spelling errors, this is now absolutely unnecessary.

3. Capitalise on Heading Tags
It is important that heading tags meet the demands of both readers and search engines.  Readers should be enticed to read the article or web page based on the premise of the heading, while search engines should be prompted to display the article or web page based on its relevance to a given search.

Humans can be satisfied with a proper choice of words, but search engine crawlers often need to be shown where to look.  This can be accomplished through the use of heading tags in the page’s HTML code, which shows <H1> either side of main headings and <H2> and <H3> either side of sub-headings.

It is also helpful to use headings which stray from the norm, such as ‘Hub’ in place of the more generic ‘Home’.  And, importantly, do not use image-based text for main headings, as crawlers can’t read this text and the article will fail to capitalise on the heading tags.

4. Use Meta Tags
Meta tags are essentially keywords that are not included in the body of the text, but are still referenced by search engines looking for results to display.  These are thus a great way of maintaining free-flowing sentences in blogs, articles, and website copy while still providing the necessary elements for the writing to please the search engine crawlers.

Blogging sites like WordPress use plug-ins which allow meta tags to be entered at the bottom of each post.  These can, of course, be coded into the HTML format, but the plug-ins simply make the process easier.

5. Optimise Images
The use of images is quite important for blogs or articles, if only for aesthetics.  Especially in the case of longer articles, the long blocks of text can appear quite boring or perhaps daunting to some reason.  Adding images effectively breaks up the text, making it seem less heavy and more visually appealing.

But there is no reason that images should not be used for search engine optimisation as well.  The text that displays if the image is unable to load is known as alt text, and this can be handy in having the blog rank well.  There are numerous methods of image optimisation, but an easy one is the simple insertion of relevant keywords into the image alt text.

6. Keep URLs Short and Descriptive
Just like the text in a page, the page’s URL is crawled by search engine bots looking for relevant results to display.  The optimisation of URLs is thus important to the page’s ability to rank.  Shorter URLs tend to fair better when being crawled, so it’s good practice to shorten these as much as practically possible.

Furthermore, URLs are useful for the inclusion of keywords without creating awkward body text.  Keywords in the URLs are sure to be crawled, and they can feature search terms that might not fit neatly into any sentences.

URLs featuring relevant keywords reportedly perform better than cluttered URLs.  For example, website.com/keyword will generate better results that website.com./587/593/blog/long-description.

Writing for search engine bots is important since this is the first step in the ultimate goal of any online marketing campaign – which is customer generation.  In order to connect users with a piece of writing, that might make them purchase a product or use a service, it is necessary to have that piece of writing show up in search results.  However, this is only half of the goal.  Once users click onto a site, it is important to keep them there.  Thus, writing neat, eloquent content is equally as important.  In order to bring users to a site, keep them there, and convert them into customers, it is necessary to find the exact balance between writing for humans and writing for search engine bots.

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About Shirish Agarwal

Shirish Agarwal is the founder of Flow20 and looks after the PPC and SEO side of things. Shirish also regularly contributes to leading digital marketing publications such as Hubspot, SEMRush, Wordstream and Outbrain. Connect with him on LinkedIn.