One of the things I really like about the field of SEO is how so many professionals are willing to help others in their free time. They volunteer to help non-profits, write blog posts for free (ahem!), and attend public SEO meet-ups.
In the Puget Sound area of Washington State, the Seattle SEO Network holds a pair of monthly meetings: one for Pro SEOs to exchange ideas and help each other learn, and another to bring together SEOs and local business people starting in the world of online marketing who might not know a <title> tag from a local search citation.
Having volunteered my time for much of my professional career with industry user groups, I attend the Seattle meet-ups when I can (which unfortunately means not often enough). Still, it’s always great to meet new people and hear new perspectives about today’s online marketing challenges.
At a recent meeting, one of the new attendees asked an excellent question of the pro SEOs in attendance. He said he had repeatedly heard the generic recommendation to “publish great content”.
But what he really wanted to know was this: what is “great content” exactly?
The question is not as simple as it sounds. The range of answers generated by the SEOs in the crowd was impressive and interesting. I thought I’d share some of them here with you in case one of our newer readers might be interested in the answer.
Defining great content depends on your point of view. What does it consist of, how is it used, and how to measure its value, are just some of the perspectives to be considered. Let’s take a look at how this breaks down.
What Does Great Content Consist Of?
First of all, great content is something that can be easily read by a person browsing your website. But that’s not where it ends. In fact, that’s where it starts!
Great content also has to be easily read by a computer, such as a search engine crawler. Since crawlers are generally not very intellectually flexible entities, we need to spoon-feed them content that they can technically consume, and more importantly than anything else, this needs to be in the form of text.
As you may know, search engines can’t reliably read content buried in such types of rich technology. Same goes for text presented within images, videos, animations, and the like. All of that important text is buried in binary files.
The beast wants text, so instead of using RIA or graphics for pretty text, use CSS technologies to make your text look fancy while keeping the page easily digestible for a search crawler.
One big piece of advice: if you really are a true fan of flashy, blinky, loud, colorful, and otherwise cool RIA content, do a favor for your site and your end users who are not fans of the flashy, blinky by making your RIA content accessible by down-level users. These users include those who choose not to install browser plug-ins, those who surf with old or incompatible browsers, and to the point, those who are simple search crawlers.
The process of providing a lesser, secondary experience for these users is known as graceful degradation, and while it’s a bit more work to do (and certainly less sexy than flashy, blinky), it’s also critical for getting the content of that page reliably indexed in search.
Content Is The Secret Sauce
While you’re thinking about page text, don’t forget the search secret sauce: writing on-page metadata, aka content about the content on the page.
If you ignore writing great, unique, and optimized text for <title> and <meta> description tags, you’re missing an invaluable opportunity to define the theme of the page for both human users and crawlers.
Same advice goes for <h1> tags and <img> alt text. The <title> and <meta> description are typically used in the search engine results pages (SERPs) list (<title> text being the blue-link text, and the <meta> description text serving as the descriptive snippet beneath the blue link text).
The <h1> serves as the on-page headline for the page, and the <img> alt text is where you can define the content of the image in text form (and aim to make the alt text relevant to the page instead of just a generic image description).
Best of all, the text in the tags <title>, <h1> and <img> alt text are valued by search engines as high quality sources for defining keywords for the page.
Bottom line: Write great content for human consumption, but think of your primary readers as humans who rely on using computer screen reader applications. If you write great text content for people that is readable by computers, you and your readers all win!
How Is Great Content Used?
Great content serves a very important purpose: it informs the reader about the topic of the page. When great content is smartly developed and used strategically, it easily accomplishes the following tasks:
- Helps people understand the topic
- Demonstrates your unique expertise or angle on the subject
- Makes people want to come back and read it again
- Makes people want to link to it so other people can access it from their website, blog, social network feed, etc.
- Compels people to do the following:
- Buy something on the site
- Download a document, a file, or an app
- Write a review or endorsement
- Subscribe to a site’s RSS feed
- Follow the author’s Twitter account
- Generate a Like on the author’s Facebook page
- Submit the page to StumbleUpon or Reddit
- Submit their email address to subscribe a periodic newsletter from the same author
Great content is what the Web was originally designed to facilitate. Write what you know, make it compelling, and people (and search engines) will respond accordingly. It may take time, of course, but even viral content starts with an initial post.
But How Do You Create Great Content?
Great content is, well, great! Of course, that can also be a relative thing. It’s like the old story of being in the woods with a bunch of your coworkers when you accidentally encounter an ill-tempered bear. When the chase begins, you personally don’t need to outrun the bear (good luck with trying that). You only need to outrun the other people you’re with.
Sure, that’s a grizzly (pun intended) tale with a morally ambiguous message, but that’s why I made the other people your coworkers. Business is business, after all!
If the lack of great content is what separates your site from your competitors in the SERPs, then you’re not likely to ever surpass them by corner-cutting moves. You’ll need to invest in developing that great content you know you need. Hey, if getting high page rank was easy, anyone could do it!
So what is this elusive great content you need to create? Read what you have on your site’s pages and ask yourself the following questions (or better yet, ask someone who is not biased toward your site so you’ll get an honest answer):
- Is the content informative?
- Is it authoritative on the subject matter?
- Is it interesting?
- Is it well-written (complete sentences are important, but so is approachable writing rather than being stodgy)?
- Is longer content broken up into well-organized sections by headings?
- Does the content make good and interesting use of visual elements?
- Is the writing free of embarrassing spelling errors or remedial grammar problems?
- Is it written appropriately toward its intended audience?
- Is the content free of industry-insider jargon, focusing instead on terminology your readers would use (and search for)?
- When appropriate, does the content show your unique voice or even a sense of humor?
If you answered No to any of the above, think about your approach and redo it.
How Do You Measure The Value Of Content?
To be sure, while offering the best possible content is always a laudable goal, often the resources for making that happen are very hard to come by. If your site is in a small niche market, take a close look at your online competition in search. If those sites are dull, boring, and uninteresting, you might get away with being just a little better than them. At least for a while.
If the bear is really hungry, in time, an ambling trot in your part may not be enough. Nor may be a half-hearted attempt to post a lazy, “slightly better than the competition” paragraph on a few pages. Sure, it’s a start, but it’s only a start. Corner-cutting optimizations are a tough way to achieve success, especially in the long run.
But what if the online competition is heated, competitive, and you’re up against top-ranked pages? Just understand that search engines, like people, really like great content.
So often websites are conceived as vehicles to promote a business, sell a product or service, or show off some technical handiwork, and writing page content is typically a last-minute (or last-second!) addition. It’s considered drudgery, mere junk to fill a void on the page. These are horrendous mistakes that completely miss the point of the Web, especially if a site owner wants it to be found (and ranked well) in search.
Creating great content should be part of the design process at the beginning. Use the website to tell your tale, show what makes you and your business special. This is the essence of great content.
Images from Shutterstock, used under license.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.