The days of keyword stuffing are long gone. Google’s series of algorithm updates, most of them named after fuzzy animals, have made sure of that.
However, that hasn’t solved an issue that many writers, designers and webmasters deal with on a daily basis. That issue is the question of whether or not web content should primarily be written for people or to generate search engine traffic.
This is important if you want conversions, because you need to be attracting the right traffic.
In fact, one way to increase your conversion rate is to lower you traffic numbers. Seems like a bad move, I know, but if you attract only the traffic most likely to convert, then your conversion rate will go through the roof.
Let’s look at how you can approach SEO and your web content to do that.
The Problem with Search Engines
In an ideal world, search engines would order content based on the question the person doing the searching is really asking. Unfortunately, two things make it difficult for search engine algorithms to do this well:
- The average search engine query is only one or two words, so intent isn’t always clear.
- Longer queries often contain stop words and/or lack the ” marks required to indicate an exact-match search.
Funnily enough, one search engine that actively tried to remedy these issues in the ’90s/’00s by encouraging the use of full questions–Ask Jeeves–has since been redesigned to look more like other search engines.
Writing With Search Engines In Mind Is A Must
All of this means that, like it or not, “writing with search engines in mind” is still a thing that people need to do. Or at least something people think that they need to do.
Unfortunately, the majority of desirable terms are pretty difficult to fit into a piece of copy. Let’s say that a business wants to target the term “car dealership North Dakota.” There’s a limit to the number of times you can fit that phrase in, even when using punctuation sneakily…
e.g. “We offer a personal touch because we’re a family run car dealership. North Dakota has hundreds of dealerships, but you won’t find hands-on service like ours at any of them!”
…before it becomes obvious what you’re doing.
But with search engines generating such a huge percentage of web traffic, it’s very easy to understand why people press on with doing so anyway. I’ll get to why there may be very little point in doing so shortly.
The Case For Writing For Humans
Some brands and business owners are still surprised when I tell them that keyword usage is only one part of SEO strategy. They’re more surprised when I tell them that it’s not even a particularly big part of it.
We can see from the above chart, borrowed from Moz.com, that over 50% of how pages are ranked is determined by factors external to the website. We also know that these factors are very difficult to influence. That’s why the conversation comes back to keywords time and time again.
However, it’s clear from the above chart that writing relevant, high-quality content is just as, if not more important, than meeting the more technical requirements of SEO.
A Closer Look At Search Engine Traffic
In 2011, Slingshot SEO conducted a study looking at how people act once they get to Google’s results page. You can download the white paper yourself, but the following findings are most relevant to the point I’m trying to make:
- The number-one spot on Google’s search results receives 18.2% of all clicks
- Second position receives 10.1%
- Third place takes 7.2%
- Spot number four receives 4.8%
- All others receive under 2%
The top five to ten spots in Google for most short-tail queries–and, by now, a lot of long tail queries too–have already been taken by sites that receive thousands of hits and shares per month. Barring going viral, or some black-hat wizardry, it’s all but impossible for the average person to displace any of these sites.
With that being the case, basing your content around keywords and nothing else isn’t the smartest way to go about generating search traffic.
Do You Need A Content Strategy? (Spoiler: Yes)
The phrase “content strategy” gets bandied around a lot these days, and it’s ended up with a bit of a bad name as a result. But let’s think about why a content strategy is actually necessary.
Websites are like that field in Field of Dreams–build it, and they will come. I know this, because I’ve built sites that now attract thousands of visitors every month by focusing very heavily on a set of interlinked keywords that generate enough search engine traffic to bring in a steady flow without being too competitive to crack.
To do so, I used the following guidelines:
- Domain name matching a search term I was looking to target
- Page titles/’h1’s that target a very specific term
- Mentioning that term several times in the content
- Adding the term and/or variations to ‘h2’s and alt image tags where appropriate
And that’s it.
BUT, each page I build on this site eventually hits a peak of, say, 1,000 visitors per month and then levels off. That’s because the site has no content strategy. It’s written to target search terms but, because it’s an affiliate marketing site with quite a clinical feel, there’s not much in the way of opinion or personality in the mix.
As such, it doesn’t get shared much on social media sites and it probably doesn’t have a very good retention rate.
That suits the site in question just fine but, for the majority of people reading this article, it probably doesn’t suit yours. You need social shares, paid advertising and backlinks in the mix to ensure that your traffic doesn’t level off the second you stop producing content. Your goals include conversions.
It’s All About Balance. Isn’t It Always?
Like so many things, creating a site that targets certain keywords but doesn’t read like a spammy mess is a balancing act.
If you don’t give some thought to what you’re writing about and reiterating certain terms, you’ll receive traffic that isn’t even slightly targeted and have a very high bounce rate. Obsess too much over your keywords and you’ll end up creating something that’s, at best, a little clunky and, at worst, downright unreadable.
What’s really surprising is that this is still an issue at all.
We’ve all seen those science fiction movies in which the protagonist tells their virtual assistant to “find X, Y and Z for me” and it’s all there a few seconds later, but we don’t seem to be getting any closer to making it a reality.
Considering the technical advances we’ve made elsewhere, that’s frustrating. The good news though, is that the way things are heading is creating an opportunity for a new breed of SEO experts armed with content strategy, an understanding of what makes for viral/shareable content AND knowledge of best practices when it comes to keyword usage.
That’s the only way to have a crack at reaching those elusive top spots on Google that every substandard SEO company used to go around promising to anyone who would listen.
If you find yourself looking for help with SEO, make sure you ask a few probing questions to make sure that that anyone you have in the mix gets that.
Had a bad experience with an SEO professional? Got a good story about walking the line between optimizing for search engines and humans? Let us know in the comments!
Read other Crazy Egg articles by Art Anthony.