The problem with the ‘structured content’ mindset
As Google gets better at understanding content it will more important to focus on real readability metrics and not something fabricated by your favorite SEO tool.
I score poorly on every SEO writing tool out there. My headers, sentences and paragraphs are all too long. My voice is too passive. The tools are unanimous, my writing for SEO needs to change.
I must be a terrible writer… but wait, what does any of that have to do with writing?
To quote Lord Helmet from Spaceballs, “Absolutely nothing!”
Yet, if you asked most SEOs they would tell you that the key to good SEO content is structure, structure, and even more structure.
I’m here to tell you why I think this mindset is dangerous, detrimental, and debilitating for creating strong content.
Let the eye-rolling begin.
What is the ‘structured mindset’?
What I’m calling the ‘structured mindset’ is really nothing new. It’s the notion that content must be formatted to incredible lengths in order to achieve search engine success. It’s the idea that for search engines to understand our content, they need an obscene amount of structured formatting.
I’m talking about the overuse of headers, tables, bullet and numbered lists, snackable paragraphs, and of course… structured data itself.
It’s the notion that good content is structured content. And that is just not true. How a piece of content is structured does play into content quality. Structure, however, is not content quality per se. It’s merely an element.
More than that, it’s not a universal element and this is where I really have a bone to pick with SEOs.
The ‘structured mindset’ almost assumes that every piece of content needs large amounts of structured formatting. And that my friends, is a dangerous game to play.
Why the structured mindset is dangerous for content and SEO
Can you imagine a grad student handing in a thesis that utilized what SEOs consider best writing practices? It’s absurd.
Why is that so obviously absurd, but the notion that overusing structure can be detrimental to web content probably has most of you rolling your eyes?
In my opinion, it’s because we’ve lost the notion of what ‘content’ or more specifically ‘web content’ is.
I get the feeling that in our minds, all web content looks something like this:
That’s a great piece of copy… for a very specific purpose. It’s certainly not Faulkner nor should it be. For the purpose of driving sales, you don’t want the prose of Shakespeare. What you see here is great.
For the record, our notion of ‘blog content’ is not much better:
I mean just look at it. What a thing of beauty! Wonderful use of headers, short snackable paragraphs perfect for any sort of SERP snippet.
Let’s ignore the fact that it probably reads like every other piece of fluff out there on the topic and ask, does this work for everything? Can you use the same structured and snackable format for content that’s a bit more complex than generic nutrition tips?
What if Einstein, Freud, or Feynman had written in the same format? It would clearly take away from the ability to convey complex topical matters in an effective way. It’s why grad students don’t use ‘the SEO format’ for their thesis.
The problem with the ‘structured mindset’ and the notion that as much structure as possible is a good idea, is that it pigeon-holes content.
Google’s not wrong when they say “write naturally.” Nor are they being superficial. Writing naturally means that the concerns of the content and its audience outweigh everything else. By the way, this is the basis for creating strong content.
Writing naturally is doing what is needed to ensure that the content is created in a way that maximizes its scope and ability to be received by the intended audience.
Sometimes that’s going to be a large amount of page structure. Sometimes it’s not. There’s a reason why successive long-form paragraphs uninhibited by headers is a literary form. It’s not because writers who do it are horrible at their craft. It’s because in order to convey nuance and layered depth – and for the sake of the continuance of the concept – you need paragraphs that are longer than one sentence. Doing so conveys abstract information… abstractly. Which is what you want in such cases.
Applying one content format to all content clearly doesn’t make sense. Yet, when it comes to thinking about content from the lens of SEO, that’s pretty much exactly what we do. And that’s the danger in relying on these SEO writing scores too heavily. It’s the danger in thinking that Featured Snippet optimization is stoically formulaic and that one formula applies to all Featured Snippets.
The danger in the ‘structured content’ mindset is that it tends to coerce how content looks and feels in cases where said structure is not equally applicable as it is in cases of ‘typical’ web content.
It means creating content that misses the mark when it comes to both user intent – and in this author’s opinion – search engines as well. (I personally think Google profiles content and knows for certain kinds of topics/queries a certain type of content construct is more/less appropriate).
But doesn’t Google need structure?
Well, isn’t “structure” needed when looking to secure Featured Snippets? No.
Let me be perfectly clear, I am not against highly structured content. I think it helps the search engines more easily understand the content and use fewer resources when doing so. I think we should structure content as much as is reasonably possible.
My point is, just as you wouldn’t have an H2 followed by a line of content, then another H2, and then another single line of content (yep, that’s not a good idea), so too you should not over structure in certain instances.
That said, I think we overestimate Google’s ‘need’ or even desire for structure when pulling content into a Featured Snippet.
Again, I think that has a lot to do with our ‘content associations’ (i.e., what we think content looks like).
If I could be so bold, when we see a Featured Snippet like this:
We generally think it leads to a page that looks like this:
These kinds of Featured Snippets help reinforce a notion of what web content is. It’s a notion that is simply not true. Not all web content is meant to convert. Not all web content is sales content. Not all web content is informational content that supports a transaction.
I already know what you’re going to say, “Sure, not all content is related to a transaction, we do know what blog content is!”
True, but I have a suspicion that we think that a blog produces a Featured Snippet that looks like this:
Which leads to content that looks like this:
My assertion is that there are plenty of Featured Snippets that looks like this:
But that comes from a page that looks like this:
Notice, there is hardly any structure on the page outside of the title and a header. The paragraphs are quite long and tedious, etc. However, that makes total sense for the content here. It’s a very heady and complex topic and should not get the typical “header and a bit of content” treatment.
Google, clearly agrees.
The ‘structured content’ mindset in relation to Google’s Search inertia
What bothers me about the proposition that a high degree of content structure is needed for Featured Snippet acquisition is that it ignores Google’s ‘inertia’. Let me ask this: is Google putting BERT in contact with nearly every English query so that it has to rely on page structure for understanding or so that it doesn’t have to?
When Google talks about Passages and says, “We’ve recently made a breakthrough in ranking and are now able to not just index web pages, but individual passages from the pages” is the “breakthrough” here a continual reliance on structure for the understanding of content? What sort of breakthrough is that?
All roads lead to Google being better able to understand content written naturally by having tools that allow it to better understand the content that’s less structured. Yet, the notion that we can or might soon be able to let up on the ‘doubling-down’ of structure doesn’t seem to be a welcome one.
To me, that’s a bit surprising.
Google can do some pretty advanced things with unstructured content. If we take them at their word, they’ve made ‘breakthroughs’ here without us adding more and more structure to content. Meaning, to hear the notion that elements like Passages means more content structure is the way to go, ignores that Google already made the breakthrough to create Passages with the current level of content structure out there.
At a minimum, having to extensively rely on page structure to understand content is not where Google wants to go. The advancement that Google seems to be throwing so much weight behind is not in relying more on page structure. Rather, it’s being able to do so where that structure is not present and/or where it’s not applicable to the content in question. So why not ‘skate towards the puck’ to whatever extent is feasible for you?
Let me throw an even crazier idea out there. What if your over-optimizing page structure was exactly what Google isn’t looking for in some cases? What if Google knows that certain types of content don’t lend themselves to being overly structured? What would happen in such a scenario if Google came across your incredible use of page structure?
I have no evidence for or against that notion. But it is interesting to consider when you take some of what Google has said about the way it looks at content along with the advancements in contextual understanding they’ve made into consideration.
Why I don’t care about SEO writing metrics
Coming full circle let’s talk about SEO writing metrics again.
What is the one thing all of these SEO writing metrics have in common? They all have nothing to do with actual readability. I always do well with the classic readability scores (though it’s hard to nail them all down due to the way the various metrics are structured).
Isn’t that weird?
Shouldn’t that tell us something? Yes, it should.
It says, what’s actually readable and what’s SEO ‘readable’ are not synonymous at all. They have nothing to do with each other.
As Google gets better and better at understanding content it is going to be more important to focus on real readability metrics and not something fabricated by your favorite SEO tool.
I’m done. You can stop rolling your eyes at me now.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.