Optimize your web content

March 24, 2018 •

Search engines don’t read like humans. We actually make sense of the individual words and their combinations (phrases, sentences, paragraphs, pages, page hierarchies, etc.). We even read between the lines and take all visual design and aural elements into account.

Search engines aren’t that sophisticated (even Google – although it’s getting there!). In fact, they don’t really process meaning at all; they categorize a site’s subject matter based on the words that are used most often in the body copy, headings, links, etc.

So content optimization is simply the act of using your target keyword phrases frequently on your site and in the places that matter. (‘Target keyword phrases’ being the words your target customers are searching for when they’re looking for your product or service.)

TIP: When you optimize your website for a particular word, you’re essentially telling the search engines to include you in the results when people search for that word. As a rule of thumb, the more frequently you use your keywords, the more relevant you’ll be considered by the search engines, and the more likely you are to appear in searches for those words. (How high up the rankings you appear depends mostly on the number of links back to your site there are.)

You also need to optimize your web development and your blogging platform. This post deals only with optimization of content.

For more information…

WRITING SEO COPY

The trick to optimizing your copy is using the most important keywords frequently and in the right places, without compromising readability.

But how do you define “frequently?” And what are the right places? What if you want to target a few different keywords? And for that matter, what should the word count of your pages be? Below are a few tips that will help you out.

WHAT SHOULD THE WORDCOUNT OF A PAGE BE?

You’ll hear a lot about the importance of a lot of content. While I definitely agree that ‘content is king’, there’s no need to write volumes for every page. I recommend approx.:

  • 100-150 words for your home page (usability studies show that you should never make your reader scroll down on the Home page)
  • 250-400 words for pages lower in your hierarchy (increase word count as you increase your level of detail)
  • 300-1000 words for blog posts

Search engines don’t count your number of words and strike you off the list if you’re too high or too low. They’re only interested in your word count insofar as it’s an indication of the helpfulness of your website. Typically a helpful website will have a lot of words. (Note that they consider a lot of other factors as well, not just word count.)

HOW MANY TIMES SHOULD I USE A KEYWORD?

You don’t want to fill every page up with your keyword. That’s called ‘keyword stuffing’ – a form of search engine spam. More importantly, it reduces readability, so your visitors won’t stay for long.

Just try to ensure that on MOST pages, your target keyword phrase appears more frequently than any other single word or phrase (ignoring words like “if” and “the” etc.).

The best way to do this is to run your copy through a word cloud generator. I use Wordle. Here’s a word cloud generated from the home page of my own website, www.divinewrite.com.

Word cloud generated from the copy of my home page

Word cloud generated from the copy of my home page

As you can see, the words “copywriter” and “copywriting” are very prominent in the cloud. This means I’ve used them more than any other word or phrase.

Don’t worry if the words of your target keyword phrase aren’t the most prominent in the cloud for EVERY page. You should have many other pages of copy on which you’ll be targeting the same phrase(s). So long as they’re very prominent on MOST pages, you should be right.

FORGET KEYWORD DENSITY

Until recently, I advocated the use of a metric called ‘keyword density’ to assess whether you were using your target phrases often enough. I no longer advocate this measure.

Keyword density is the ratio of the number of times your keyword phrase appears to the number of words on your page, expressed as a percentage. e.g. If your page has 200 words, and your keyword phrase appears 6 times, its density is 3% (6/200 x 100).

The problem with keyword density is that it’s completely arbitrary. Google isn’t looking for a specific density; in fact, it doesn’t measure density at all. Yet people who use keyword density tend to become obsessed with it. They become fixated on achieving a density of 5%, 10% and even higher, without proper regard to the impact this has on the readability of their copy.

Having a high keyword density won’t necessarily help you. In fact, if it’s too high, it may actually impede your rankings, as Google may perceive you as a spammer.

Forget keyword density. Just generate a word cloud from your copy. That will tell you all you need to know.

INCREASING THE FREQUENCY OF YOUR KEYWORDS WITHOUT UNDERMINING READABILITY

When you actually sit down and try to write some SEO copy, you’ll see that it’s not always easy to include your keywords more often than any other word or phrase. At least to begin with.

The easiest way to do it is to be specific. As you write every sentence, ask yourself, “Could I be more specific?” For example, if you sell cheap second hand computers, don’t just say “our computers” or “our products”; ask yourself if you can get away with saying “our cheap second hand computers”.

Similarly, don’t say things like “with our help”; instead, say “with the help of our cheap second hand computers”. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll find there are many opportunities to replace generic wording with your keyword phrase.

Obviously, there’s a bit of an art to it; sometimes it ends up sounding like you’re repeating your keyword phrase over and over again. If this happens, you may just need to restructure the sentence or paragraph. Always remember: your site reflects the quality of your product or service. If your site is hard to read, people will infer a lot about your offering… Readability is all important to visitors. And after all, it’s the visitors who buy your product or service, not the search engines.

If you can’t include your keywords frequently enough without impacting readability, don’t panic. You’ll no doubt pick it up on another page. You can have some pages with a high frequency, and some with a low frequency, and still attain a high search ranking. The important thing is that you use your keywords more often than any other single word or phrase.

For more information on how search engines analyze the text content of a page, see The Keyword Density of Non-Sense.

EXACT STRING OR JUST ALL WORDS IN THE PHRASE?

If you’re targeting very specific keyword phrases in your copy, you’ll soon discover that it’s quite difficult to do. If you repeat your keyword again and again, your copy can become very unfriendly to readers.

For example, targeting “shoes” is easy; but targeting “blue tennis shoes California” is a lot more difficult. If your web page has 200 words, your keyword phrase will probably have to appear around six times to be more frequent than any other word or phrase. That’s fine if it’s a single word, because there’ll still be 194 words of normal copy left. The keyword won’t be so noticeable to readers. But if there are four words in the keyword phrase (as in “blue tennis shoes California”), there’ll only be 176 words left. That would make the keyword phrase a lot more noticeable.

What’s more, exact keyword phrases can be difficult to incorporate into your copy in a natural way. Try writing a sentence that includes “blue tennis shoes California”, in this exact order…

Fortunately, however, you don’t have to actually target the exact phrase. (It’s better if you do, but you don’t have to.) You can simply target all of the individual words. So instead of repeating the exact phrase “blue tennis shoes California” six times, you’d simply repeat “blue” six times, “tennis” six times, “shoes” six times, and “California” six times. These individual repetitions could appear anywhere on the page. The important thing is that they don’t have to appear next to each other in the exact string “blue tennis shoes California”.

Using this approach, you can more easily achieve the density you’re after without sacrificing readability.

I will qualify this: when someone searches for “blue tennis shoes California”, all things being equal, a website that targets the exact string “blue tennis shoes California” will rank higher than a website that targets just the individual words. But when are all things ever equal?

As always, the important thing to remember is that human visitors are more important than search engines, and that keyword frequency is not the be-all-and-end-all of SEO.

WHAT IF I WANT TO TARGET MORE THAN ONE KEYWORD PHRASE?

If you’re targeting quite specific keyword phrases in your copy, you’ll find it difficult to aggressively target more than two keyword phrases per page. You can target a few extras (maybe related words), but only incidentally.

For example, let’s say you want your tennis clothing page to rank well when a customer searches for the following phrases.

  • “blue tennis shoes California”
  • “green tennis skirts West Coast”
  • “purple tennis hats”
  • “fastest tennis shoes world”

Let’s also assume 400 words per page.

Now, if you try to optimize your web copy for all of these phrases, you’ll find that it becomes very difficult to read. You’d need to include all of the words from each of the above phrases around 10 times. That would mean approx. half of the copy on your page would be keywords!

The best way around this is to create additional pages. Have a cluster of pages for “blue tennis shoes California”, another cluster of pages for “green tennis skirts West Coast”, another for “purple tennis hats”, etc. This way, only around 10% of your copy will be dedicated to keywords. This results in much more readable, natural-looking pages.

And in the above example, it would also result in a much more logically structured site; a well structured site typically wouldn’t discuss all of the above items on the same page.

For more information on clustering, see ‘Structure your site around keywords’.

WHERE SHOULD I USE MY KEYWORDS?

When identifying your site’s subject matter, search engines try to act human. If humans tend to pay close attention to particular parts of a page (e.g. headings), the search engines will do the same. The logic is that they assume your keywords are more likely to appear in those places. So try to include your keywords in:

  • text links
  • headings (using <h1>, <h2> & <h3> heading tags in your HTML)
  • the words closer to the top of the page
  • bold tags
  • bulleted and numbered lists
  • domain names & URLs

USING KEYWORDS IN TEXT LINKS

Because the anchor text (the visible text) of a link is usually a good indication of the content of the target page, search engines place a great deal of emphasis on it when indexing your page. So when you’re linking to other pages on your site (or, for that matter, to other websites), ensure you make your anchor text keyword-rich.

But don’t overlook your visitors. They use anchor text to decide whether that content will be useful to them, thus whether they should click through. If you have to decide between visitor and search engine, choose visitor.

IMPORTANT: I used to advocate using your keywords in unmarked internal links (i.e. links that look just like the rest of the text on the page – no underline, no different color). I’m not so sure this is a good idea any more, though. It’s a little too like using hidden links (which is spamming). However, because I’m not 100% convinced it’s spam, I’ve included a discussion of how to do it below. You can ignore it or use it at your own risk!

For more information on search engine spam, see ‘DON’T use spamming techniques’.

Using unmarked links

To create an unmarked link, first include the following in your CSS file (you only have to do this once):

<style type="text/css">

<!--

a {text-decoration: none;}

-->

</style>

Then format the HTML of each link as follows:

As well as providing blue tennis shoes to top ranking 
players in California, we sell stylish and functional <a 
href="pcs.htm" style="text-decoration:none"><font color="#000000"> 
green tennis skirts to the entire West Coast</font></a>.

USING KEYWORDS IN HEADINGS

Like human visitors, search engines rely on headings to ‘scan’ your site. This means headings play a big part in how the search engines will index your site, and you should try to make them keyword rich.

In fact, think about inserting extra headings just for this purpose. Generally this will also help the readability of your site because it will help customers scan read. For example, if you have a page detailing the benefits of purple tennis hats, you could break it up into logical sections with the following headings.

  • Stylish purple tennis hats
  • Tennis hats – purple and practical
  • Comfort comes first with purple tennis hats

However, when writing your headings, try to make them a little different from your Title tag, as there is speculation that this may cause penalties. Also, it’s important that you instruct your web developer to tag these headings with the appropriate level heading style (i.e. <h1>, <h2>, <h3>).

And finally, try to include your keywords close to the start of each heading. But don’t do this if it stops your headlines from being engaging and compelling.

USING KEYWORDS AT THE START OF THE PAGE

Many SEO experts believe that the search engines see words at the start of a page as more representative of what your site is about than words at the end (i.e. prominence). So it’s a good idea to make sure you use your keywords toward the start of each page. (See also ‘Position your content toward the top of your HTML code’.)

BOLDING KEYWORDS

The jury’s out on whether bolding your keywords is worthwhile for SEO. My personal opinion is that bolding should be used to help visitors scan your page. If keywords aid this cause, use them; if they hinder it, don’t. In practice you’ll probably find that your keywords will make it into those bold sections quite a bit. After all, they’re key to your subject matter, so it’s logical that they’ll occasionally help readers who scan.

USING KEYWORDS IN BULLETED AND NUMBERED LISTS

Although it’s logical, there’s no hard evidence (that I know of) supporting the claim that search engines pay particular attention to the words you use in bulleted and numbered lists. Once again, my recommendation is to use lists for scannability. If your keywords happen to end up there, all the better. If not, no big deal.

USING KEYWORDS IN DOMAIN NAMES AND URLS

Once again, the jury’s out. Some people argue that having a domain name that includes your keyword is useful, while others argue that it’s only useful if it’s an exact match. Some say it’s a good idea to separate keywords with hyphens, others say hyphens raise trust issues. And some say it’s completely irrelevant! In any case, most of the time, you won’t have much say in domain names and URLs.

For more information on writing SEO copy, see my ‘Practical SEO Copywriting’ ebook.

SUMMARY

Optimization means using your target keyword phrases frequently on your site and in the places that matter.

  • Aim for 100-1000 words per page.
  • Try to use your keyword more frequently than any other word or phrase. Generate a word cloud from your copy to assess whether you have achieved this.
  • Don’t undermine readability.
  • Target one keyword per page (unless there is very little competition for your keywords).
  • Don’t get too hung up on keyword frequency – use it as a guide, not a rule.
  • If you need to target more than one keyword, create a new page for each.
  • Use keywords in links and headings.
  • Don’t use unmarked links.
  • Try to use keywords more often at the start of the page than at the end.
  • Structure your site around your keywords.
  • Ensure bots can traverse your entire site via text links.
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