When creating search-engine-optimized content for the web, the content creator is tasked with providing users (or readers, if you prefer) with specific information that is accessible, easy to read, and easy to digest. To further complicate the task, the user could be from literally any part of the world and from any background. The user can be of any age, and there is no guarantee that he or she will be proficient in the language in which the content is written.
Despite these variables, SEO content still needs to be appealing and informative – all the while staying focused on the information it is trying to deliver.
The task is further complicated when we stop and consider what exactly it means to create search-engine-optimized content.
One of the biggest points of frustration when it comes to writing SEO content is that, to a certain extent, the content is meant to appeal to an algorithm. The SEO content creator can quickly become disillusioned as he or she might get the impression that they are writing for a machine – or “spiders,” the bot the search engines send out to scour the web and peruse the content they come across.
Writing for these spiders or trying to appeal to an algorithm has the potential to not only frustrate content creators but frustrate readers as well. After all, creating content is a way for people to interact with others (other people). And the fact that SEO content is meant to appeal to bots can be quite disheartening to the creator.
Additionally, from the reader’s perspective, it’s quite easy to identify content that is more interesting in appealing to an SEO algorithm than it is in appealing to a real flesh and blood reader. Perusing content that you know is not intended for you kind of defeats the purpose of optimization – or at least it should.
Be that as it may, it is possible to create content that can appeal to both the algorithm and the reader. In fact, certain components of the search engine algorithms are meant to ensure that the content is reader-friendly – through the determination of the artificial intelligence (the bots or “spiders”) still remains a poor substitute for the real thing.
In this short article, we’ll be taking a more optimistic approach to SEO writing – despite its shortcomings. To achieve this, we’ll be taking a look at some tips of the trade that can help you to create content that is both appealing to search engine algorithms and appealing to readers. We’ll also be taking a look at some common characteristics of SEO writing that are widespread but that you might want to avoid.
The Shortcomings of SEO Writing
The goal of the search engine is to find content that will best respond to a user’s query. In order to achieve this, the search engines will scour the web, looking for content that contains many of the elements the search engines estimate correspond to what the user is looking for.
This includes, but is not limited to, the precise words that make up the user’s query, as well as similar words or tangential words. And, to a large extent, search engines operate on the principle that “the more, the merrier.” This means the more often the keywords and their derivatives appear in the content, the greater the chance the content has to satisfy the user’s query.
Readability and Appealing to the Least Common Denominator
Furthermore, search engines are not interested in filtering out any users. Instead, they want to find content that would appeal to any user regardless of their reading level or assumed reading level.
As a consequence, content that contains short, easy-to-read sentences will always be favored over content that is loaded with long sentences and long (perhaps rarely used) words.
For a content creator that is trying to reach a more sophisticated readership – or a readership with a high level in the language the content is written in – search engine optimization will invariably work against the content creator’s goal.
Constraints Can Be a Catalyst for Creativity
The inherent shortcomings of search engines impose certain constraints, parameters, or guidelines on the content creator. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, having all possibilities available to a creator can be a source of great anxiety.
On the lip side of the white page syndrome, when more constraints are added, the creator has an easier time producing. Eventually, there comes a tipping point where too many constraints render the creative process overly difficult. But the key is to find the right balance.
For example, the research shows that creative writing students were far more productive when they were obliged to stick to certain arbitrary rules imposed on them.
An oft-cited example of this phenomenon is the classic children’s book Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seus. Legend has it that this work came about as a result of a challenge offered up by the publisher: create a book for children that contains no more than 50 words (repeated as often as needed). Since its publication in 1960, the book Green Eggs and Ham has gone on to sell well over 8 million copies worldwide.
Thus, instead of lamenting the constraints search engines impose on content creators, we can embrace these constraints and use them as a catalyst for creativity.
Characteristics of Reader-Friendly Content
What one reader gravitates to may very well be different than what another reader gravitates to. After all, tastes and reading preferences are subjective. However, we can identify a few common trends that make certain content more reader-friendly than other content.
Make the Content Skimmable
Nine times out of ten, when a user makes a query, they are expecting a quick answer to a specific question. The objective of the search engine is to provide the user with a response that will satisfy their query as quickly and painlessly as possible. The search results are not intended to invite the user to dive into a lengthy and time-consuming read.
For this reason, search engines place a high premium on content that is skimmable. The search engines would like the user to be able to quickly peruse the content, get the answer they were looking for, and move on to the next query.
Skimmable content is coherently divided into immediately recognizable sections. Thus, search engines have a preference for content that is clearly labeled with headings (and a table of contents is helpful too).
A good rule of thumb is to have no more than 4 paragraphs following each heading. And the paragraphs should contain no more than 6 lines. This type of formatting doesn’t necessarily make for more readable content, but it does make for more skimmable content. And that is the priority.
Unlike other platforms such as streaming services and YouTube, where the goal is to keep the user engaged, search engines want the user satisfied as quickly as possible so that they can proceed to the next query. It’s a numbers game – the more queries, the better (in contrast to YouTube, for example, which places a premium on time spent on the platform rather than the number of videos the user clicks on).
It is a bit counter-intuitive, but reader-friendly content should be content that doesn’t need to be read. It’s content that can be easily skimmed.
Break Up the Content With Appealing Visuals
Part of making content that is skimmable is to make it easy on the eyes. This means avoiding hard-to-read fonts and avoiding colors that are hard on the eyes (overly bright, overly dark, or colors that don’t go well together).
A large percentage of readers of online content consume the content on their phones. The others mostly consume the content on their laptop or tablet. This means that in addition to focusing their attention on black words against a white backdrop, they also need to contend with the glare of the screen and potential reflections. After a while, this puts a strain on the eyes.
It is important to give the eyes a rest as the user is scrolling through the content. Break up the text with the occasional image, picture, or graph. The images can also be used as a compliment or even a substitute for a heading, letting the reader know what kind of information they can expect to find in the paragraphs that follow.
Break Up the Prose With Bullet Points
Bullet points or numbered lists are excellent ways to make sure your content is easy to skim. They can also serve to break up the monotony of the paragraphs, giving the eyes a bit of a respite.
Friendliness Isn’t Always Your Friend
You may have noticed that a lot of SEO content takes on a very familiar or casual tone of voice. Oftentimes the writer addresses the reader as if they were longtime friends. There are instances and contexts where that type of tone is appropriate, but in my experience, this type of familiarity is often overused.
Depending on the intent of the content, adopting an overly familiar, “friendly” tone might not be to your advantage. Oftentimes, SEO content is meant to respond to a specific query or to answer a specific question expressed by a keyword search. In such cases, what the user is likely to want is content that comes from a place of authority. To some readers, authority and a “casual, friendly tone” are not synonymous but rather direct opposites.
It is possible to be both friendly and informative, but there is a lot of SEO content on the web that prioritizes the former to the detriment of the latter.
Some examples of stylistic choices that work against creating authoritative content include:
- The overuse of exclamation points – What can be qualified as “overuse” is up for debate. Some would argue that even the inclusion of 1 exclamation mark qualifies as overuse.
- Rhetorical questions – Have you ever noticed how rhetorical questions can easily come across as presumptive? They tend to give the content a conversational tone, yet almost no user who is coming to online content is asking for or expecting a conversation, especially if they are searching for authoritative content.
- Analogies – Using analogies can sometimes create more confusion than they do clarity. They also run the risk of coming across as condescending, as if the reader isn’t capable of understanding clear, direct language.
- Anecdotes – It is difficult to include an anecdote in authoritative content that doesn’t end up serving more as a tangent steering the reader away from the information they are searching for. For example, SEO content that is meant to respond to a query about working and living in New York should include pros and cons and possibly statistics. the inclusion of anecdotes would only serve to derail the content and render it more like an essay. Naturally, there is a time and a place for anecdotes, but they rarely serve to answer a user’s query. And they come with the added disadvantage of rendering the content less skimmable than it needs to be.
Creating SEO content comes with many constraints. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. Respecting a certain amount of constraints has been shown to have a positive effect on creativity.
Strive to make the content skimmable with clearly marked sections and short paragraphs. Strive to make the content easy on the eyes by including visuals and bullet points. And be wary of adopting an overly friendly tone which could serve as a detriment to the authority the content is meant to express.
Robert is a part-time blogger and internet entrepreneur. Join Robert and thousands of other monthly readers to learn how to build and scale up the next-gen of online entrepreneurship. While running this blog, Robert is the founder of his media company, Times International, and a PR Team Lead at Lensa.