Writing a steady stream of content for your website or blog can get monotonous, discouraging, and even overwhelming. Coming up with new topics that haven’t been covered a thousand times before; adding personal insights that add value to the conversation; and writing in a way that actually gets your content ranking in the search engines.
This need to consistently create reams of new relevant content shows no signs of slowing down: according to the Content Marketing Institute’s 2015 B2B Content Marketing report, 70% of business owners say they’ll be ramping up their content creation even further over the coming year.
Fortunately, Searchmetrics has recently released the 2015 version of their Search Ranking Factors report, which offers some important insights into how to write and structure your content for optimal rankings. If you’re going to inject a significant amount of time and money into your content strategy, you want to make sure it actually ranks! Here’s how.
The subject of optimal word counts has been a tricky one. With more and more content being created specifically for mobile users, short-form content has taken on an increasingly important role. The problem, of course, is that this type of content may have difficulty getting high rankings on desktop search, which typically favors longer, more substantive copy.
According to Buffer, 1,600 words is the ideal length for a blog post. This works out to an average reading time of 3 and 6 minutes. The folks at Medium came up with a similar number, finding that blog posts that took 7 minutes to read had the best chance of ranking. This also works out to around 1,600 words.
According to the Searchmetrics report, Google is showing a preference for longer content, even more so than in 2014. They found that the average word count for pages in the top 30 search results was 1140; and this number was even higher for top 10 results, with the average word count being 1285.
The report authors warn, however, against creating longer content simply to enjoy better rankings. It must provide truly relevant and valuable insights and helps, or it won’t have a chance of ranking – regardless of its length.
Takeaway: When writing content, focus on covering all aspects of your topic. Figure out what’s already been written on the subject, and then do a better job than everyone else. If you’re doing this, you don’t need to get hung up on word count. Generally speaking, high-quality, comprehensive posts will naturally end up being at least 1,000 words – usually longer.
Keywords in Description
The meta description – while arguably more a technical component rather than pure content – should still be an important part of your ranking strategy. Your description acts as your ad copy in the search engine results, and can have a significant impact on your click-through rates.
According to Searchmetrics, simply having a meta description attached to your content can improve your chances of ranking. Among the top 30 highest ranking pages, a whopping 99% had a meta description. But what about keywords? Is it too old-school to think we need to incorporate our chosen keywords into our description’s copy?
Turns out it’s no longer quite as important for ranking. The prevalence of keywords in the meta description continues to fall, and the correlation between rankings and keywords in the description have now entered the negative zone. But, don’t forget the keyword thought process yet.
Takeaway: Searchmetrics says it best: “Ideally, good pages get rankings for hundreds or even thousands of keywords – but do you want to write them all into your meta title? Forget it – concentrate on an optimally formulated description with relevant content instead!”
Keywords in Body
While plugins like Yoast SEO can certainly help provide structure for your SEO efforts, I find they further propagate the old-school idea that you must have x-number of keywords within your copy in order to rank. And, as you have probably seen, this overuse of keywords can lead to awkward, clumsy, over-optimized content.
Fortunately, the importance of keywords for ranking is continuing to decrease; at least in the way they have been used historically in the past. Factors like minimum keyword density or precise placement within content (for instance, in the first sentence of a post) are no longer as important, as Google gets better at deciphering the content of a page using other factors.
That said, Searchmetrics found that the number of keywords within top-ranking pages did increase this year. This is likely due to the increased word count among top-ranking pages, more so than specific keywords actually becoming more important for ranking.
Takeaway: While keywords are, and likely always will be, important for rankings, Google is getting better at using other factors – like related terms and semantic destiny – to determine the subject of your content. You’re better off focusing on creating a comprehensive piece of content, rather than on using your chosen keywords x-number of times.
Proof and Relevant Terms
One of the ways in which Google deciphers the subject of content is through “proof” terms. These are words or phrases that are typically used in all articles covering that topic. For instance, in a blog post about SEO, you would typically also need to use words like Google, search, rankings and optimization. In essence, the use of these words provides proof that you’re sufficiently covering the topic at hand. According to Searchmetrics, 78% of top-ranking sites use proof terms.
Relevant terms, on the other hand, are words and phrases that are often used to help supplement a topic. In their 2014 Search Rankings report, Searchmetrics states that relevant terms are “semantically removed relatives of the main keywords, and are usually part of a subordinate topic cluster. They are not mandatory but are often included in the main copy.” Using the example above, some relevant terms might be content, keywords, or headings. 51% of the top 30-ranking websites contained relevant terms.
Takeaway: Again, when you aim to cover your topic in a thorough way, you will naturally use many proof terms and relevant keywords. You may want to consider coming up with a list of topics and subtopics you want to cover before you start writing, and be sure to include these in your copy. Focus on actually structuring your content around these topics, not just on incorporating them into your copy as an afterthought.
Keywords in Links
While internal links remain an important element for maintaining high rankings, using keyword-rich external links can dilute your own rankings for that keyword. For instance, if I’m writing an article that I hope will rank for “organic dog treats,” I’ll want to make sure I’m not linking externally using that anchor text.
While the importance of internal linking decreased slightly since 2014, Searchmetrics still recommends using keyword-rich anchor text to connect your content, maintaining a strong internal link structure that leads to high rankings.
Takeaway: Improve your site navigation and user experience by linking internally to helpful and related pages and posts. Use keyword-rich anchor text where appropriate. A good rule of thumb when deciding which anchor text to use is: What anchor text will make the most sense to my readers? Avoid linking to external pages using the anchor text you yourself would like to rank for. Doing so will ultimately hurt your own rankings, while building up someone else’s.
Many times business owners and writers use their own level of writing and reading ability to determine the complexity of the content they produce. What they fail to recognize, however, is that the readability of text actually plays a role in how well their content ranks.
According to Searchmetrics, the content of high-ranking URLs has become slightly less complex since 2014, with the average result being around 76 on the Flesch reading scale. Pages in the top 10 search results have a slightly higher rating; meaning they are even less complex.
Takeaway: First and foremost, make sure to match the readability of your content to the reading level of your audience. Content meant for a general audience should be kept somewhat less complicated, however, if you’re writing for a more niche crowd – for instance, CEO’s or academics – your readability level may be somewhat higher. When in doubt, use a tool like Readability-Score to help you determine just how complicated your content is.
Bonus Tips: Use These 3 Strategies to Boost Your Rankings
Much of my business has been built on and around writing web-based content. Over the years, there are a few additional strategies that have consistently helped me get my content ranking in search. Here are 3 of these strategies.
1. Use descriptive title tags wherever possible.
Notice I didn’t say, “Use your keywords in your title tags where possible.” Google has become increasingly sophisticated in its ability to make connections between words and to determine the context behind content. Through the use of Latent Semantic Indexing, search engines are able to identify semantically related words and phrases to determine the topic of your page. In other words, while you shouldn’t stress about including keywords in your title tag, you should be sure to use important words or terms that adequately describe the subject of your page.
2. Focus on long-tail search.
Using longer, more descriptive keyword phrases not only gives you a better chance of ranking, it generally results in more qualified visitors. For instance, someone searching for “dark brown entryway shelf” will be far more likely to make a purchase than someone looking for “shelf.” Use a tool like HitTail to help you brainstorm possible long-tail phrases you can use in your content.
3. Aim for the #1 ranking.
Isn’t this obvious? Shouldn’t we always be aiming for the top-ranking spot in the SERPs? Here’s what I mean: It’s not enough to simply write great content. For the best chances at ranking, aim to write the best, most relevant, most informative, and most unique piece of content on your topic. In his whiteboard Friday piece on Why Good Unique Content Needs to Die, Moz’s Rand Fishkin takes aim at webmasters who are satisfied with simply having ‘unique content’: “The minimum bar today for modern SEO is a step higher, and that is as good as the best in the search results on the search results page. If you can’t consistently say, “We’re the best result that a searcher could find in the search results,” well then, guess what? You’re not going to have an opportunity to rank.”
Getting high rankings for your content isn’t rocket science. There is no magic formula or framework that will guarantee high rankings. However, knowing your audience and writing content they’re hungry for is always a good strategy; this will often naturally result in your content meeting most of the criteria above.
What strategies do you use to get your content ranking in 2015? What’s missing from the list above? Share below!