What Is The Secret Sauce In Good Content?

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.

But when I say text, I don’t just mean the appearance of letters and numbers on the screen. I mean good, old fashioned ASCII text in the page. Text content shown by means of rich Internet application (RIA) technologies like JavaScript, Flash or Silverlight may make for fancy pants presentations, and it usually helps designers look unduly impressive in the eyes of unsuspecting clients, but more often than not, at least in terms of search crawlers, it’s actually a disaster.

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.

Now truth be told, Google does occasionally employ optical character recognition (OCR) technologies in an effort to decipher the buried secret messages these otherwise inaccessible technologies are hiding, and they are also making progress (albeit slowly) on reading some bits of JavaScript, but it’s definitely not an optimal way to feed the beast.

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.

YouTube Preview Image

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

The SEO secret sauce

What’s in Search’s 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.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Keywords & Content


About The Author: is an in-house SEO at MSN.com, and was previously part of Microsoft’s Live Search and Bing Webmaster Center teams, serving as the primary contributor to the Bing Webmaster Center blog and then later as an in-house SEO for the Bing content properties. He also randomly adds to his own blog, The SEO Ace.

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  • Kaleena Lawless

    Great article and very true. The web as a whole is nothing without its content.

    However, Stephen Colbert would take serious issue with all of your bear references. : /

  • http://www.facebook.com/arvin.buising Arvin Buising

    This is probably a very good article but I find it hard to read long lines. Is the CSS on the site messed up?

  • http://twitter.com/winlocal WinLocal GmbH

    This is a very nice article, Rick. It’s not easy to describe the secret sauce of great content, as it is indeed relative. But I think your bullet points on how it is used is extremely helpful for businesses in order to understand why great content should be written and to define goals. Well done :-)

  • http://newmediamike.com Mike Allan

    Good article, and unfortunately a necessary one. I am starting to dislike the term “Search Engine Optimization”. We should be creating content first and foremost for the customers of our clients, NOT the search engines. What we need to do though is make the content findable and indexable by the search engines, but IMHO this is secondary to the user experience of mapping the searcher’s (client’s potential customer) intent with the content on the site.

  • Lyndon NA

    I simply don’t understand why “great content” is such a mystery to so many.
    It’s hardly rocket science.

    Most folk use the internet.
    They know what they like and what they don’t.
    Spending merely a minute or two should be sufficient for people to be able to identify the “why” … and from there, the “how”.


    That simple.
    If your content doesn’t hold value for the reader, then it isn’t great content.

    That means the reader must consider the content as being “worthy of their time”, “worth reading”, “worth recommending” etc. etc. etc.

    To achieve that, you just have to hit certain points.

    - Nothing complicated.
    - Information or appeal.
    - Empathy or insight.
    - Answers or evocation.
    - Solutions or provocation.
    - Data or emotion.

    It has to meet the needs, and should exceed the expectation of the audience.
    It should be “more” in every sense that what others are providing.
    It should be readable and comprehensible.
    It should be “usable” and beneficial.
    Ideally, it should be memorable.

    This is of course a “base recipe” – the end results will vary upon audience and sector etc. A “great” bit of car maintenance content is going to be largely different to a “great” product listing.
    But the same points are there, every time.
    All you have to do is understand the audience, their intent and their need – then match it.

    I have to disagree with…
    “… Just understand that search engines, like people, really like great content. …”

    It simply doesn’t work.
    You can have the best content in the world, on the best looknig site, with the best user experience, on the fastest site, with semantic markup and fully optimised on-page factors – Google will not put you on the 1st page.

    It would be fantastic if that were true – but unfortunately it isn’t.

    After creating the great content, you have to do some great marketing/promotion too :D

  • http://ctrl.pragma-tech.com/ Ramy Ghaly

    This is a great article depict the secret sauce behind interesting and informative content. Content enrichment is key to great content as it give the ability to the reader to discover more with rich content data and more.

    What if you can automate the process?

    a) SEO: Adding Meta Data, can be used to ensure your blog gets the best search traffic possible. suggests a list of the most important Meta keywords identified in the text, along with a short concise Meta description.
    b) Story Highlights: Adding Summary, enables users to get a general view of the post content.
    c) User Experience: Adding Related content at the end of your post, is not only a great way to enrich your viewer’s experience on your website by leading them directly to relevant content, but it can also boost search traffic.

    discover how you can make your content awesome -http://www.ctrl-search.com/blog/

  • http://twitter.com/theseoprofessor SEO Professor

    Great post. So many SME’s out there would do well to try to emulate what some of the big brands do well, that is create great content.Good content is a great leveller and can help smaller businesses compete when done well.


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