Search engine optimization — SEO — is one of those “you love it or you hate it” topics.
Some get a charge out of the challenge of keeping up with those wily engineers at Google.
Others would rather eat a bug than try to figure out what “headless crawling” means and which redirect is the right one to pick in months that end in R.
I have to confess, I’m in the bug-eating camp on this one.
Fortunately, although technical SEO is still important, there’s a crazy-powerful optimization technique that people like me can get really good at.
Yes, it’s content. (You already knew that, because you’re smart.) Yes, it has to be good content. And yes, I’m going to talk about what, specifically, “good” means.
But first, I’m going to talk about my most important search optimization rule.
The great rule of sensible SEO
My first and primary rule, when thinking about search engines, is never to do anything for the sake of SEO that screws up the experience for the audience.
That cuts out some downright dumb behavior, like overstuffing your content with keywords.
But it also helps you evaluate new advice that comes along. If it makes your site less useable, if it makes your message less effective, or if it alienates or confuses your audience … you should probably skip it.
Here are nine sensible SEO recommendations that also work to make your site experience better for the human beings who read your content, listen to your podcasts, watch your videos, and actually pay for your products and services.
1. Answer actual audience questions
Want lots and lots of people to visit your site, and stick around once they find you? Answer their pressing questions, and you’ll get your wish.
People fire up a search engine because they have unanswered questions. If you’re smart and knowledgeable about your topic, you can help with that.
Tutorial content is wonderful, but also think about questions like:
- Why is [the thing] so hard to get started?
- How competitive is [the thing]?
- How can I get motivated to do more of [the thing]?
- Is there a community of people who want to talk about [the thing]?
- Where can I share my own stories about [the thing] and read other people’s?
2. Use the language they use
Hand in hand with answering real audience questions is using your audience’s language.
That brings us to our friend keyword research.
It’s too bad that some people still think keyword research means looking up a bunch of word salad that makes sense to rooms of computers in Silicon Valley.
Keyword research means figuring out the language that real human beings enter into search engines to find your stuff.
There are great tools out there for finding those turns of phrase. You can also add in some smart social media listening and pay attention to how people talk on the web about your topic. (This is also a good way to find more of those “problems people care about” I talked about in the last point.)
By the way, you don’t have to feel chained to a narrow set of word combinations that you found with your keyword research tool. Use the keyword phrases you find, absolutely, but don’t use them so much that it gets weird. You don’t have to do an in-depth study of latent semantic indexing — just use synonyms.
(Kind of like a real writer does. Golly.)
Use metaphors and analogies. Use a few big or unusual words (if they’re natural to your voice). Flesh out your list of keywords with all of the fascinating and creative things that writers and artists do.
3. Cover topics comprehensively
Content and SEO experts love to write articles about precisely how long your content should be. Over the years, the recommendations have gone up, and then down, sideways, and any other direction you might think of.
My advice: your content should be as long as necessary to make your point.
Some ideas can be expressed quickly, with punchy, interesting little posts.
Some ideas need more time to develop fully. They deserve a longer format or a content series that gets published over time.
A strong series can be repurposed into ebooks, podcasts, videos, infographics, SlideShares, and premium products like courses.
Stop falling for the myth of the “goldfish attention span.”
Twenty-first-century audiences have plenty of attention for the things they care about, as long as you make the content easy to consume. Which brings us to sensible SEO tip #4 …
4. Create a user-friendly experience
It doesn’t matter how brilliant your content is — if it’s published in walls of tiny gray type, without subheads or line breaks, most users will skip it.
It’s actually really simple to take a strong piece of writing and make it much more accessible by formatting it well.
Make sure everything on your site is easy to read, watch, or listen to. Give everything a clear call to action, so people know what to do next. And establish clear paths to the outcomes your users want … using smart content marketing strategy to present useful options at every point along the way.
While we’re on the subject, if your site looks like it was published in 2003, you need a makeover. Immediately.
5. Write about the whole picture
Covering your topic comprehensively matters, but sensible SEO is not just about going deep.
There’s also a real benefit to looking around and going wide with your content.
What’s the context for your topic? Who else is publishing about it? What are the trends? What’s changing? How is the larger environment shaping what’s going on? Who do you agree with? Who do you disagree with?
What do people need to know before they dive into your thing? Where do they start? Where do they go next?
If you write about social media marketing, write about people who have given up on it. Write about people who haven’t started yet. Write about how the larger culture and worldview are changing social media … and how social media is changing the world.
Every topic takes place in a larger context. If that context interests your audience, it should be part of your content mix.
6. Cultivate your community of topic experts
Link-building is one of the most important sensible SEO topics.
Here’s a secret:
Link-building is community-building.
Even if your competitors aren’t into the whole “co-opetition” idea, there’s a larger community that cares about what you do.
My friend Jim is an orthopedic surgeon who creates YouTube content about surgical procedures. Other surgeons might (but probably won’t) link to him, because he’s a true competitor — you only get your knee operated on once. (We hope.)
But runners would link to him. Skiers would, too. And sites about staying athletic as you age.
Think about the community of web publishers who have the audience you want. Develop relationships with them. Support each other.
This isn’t, of course, about spamming people you don’t know and begging them for links. It’s about making yourself a valued participant in a larger ecosystem.
One terrific way to build amazing connections (and the links that go with them) is to publish guest content on excellent sites. Try it in a lazy, cheap way and it’s spam. Put the effort in to craft genuinely excellent material that serves their audience (and invites them to come check you out), and it’s a winning strategy.
7. Keep things organized
Good technical SEOs know all about creating a logical site structure that’s easy for search engines to parse.
As I may have mentioned, I in no way resemble a good technical SEO. Instead, I rely on common-sense tags and categories to keep my site properly organized on the back end.
But it pays to keep yourself organized on the front end as well. That means making sure your navigation makes sense for what your site looks like today, not two years ago.
It means you take your most valuable content and get it somewhere people can easily find it. And it means you link to your best content often, so your audience naturally continues to find and benefit from it.
8. Quit being so damned boring
You can do everything “right” for SEO and still get no traction.
Why? Because no one links to you, no one visits your site, and no one recommends your content — it’s too similar to a thousand other sites. It’s boring.
If your niche is incredibly narrow and no one else can write about it, maybe you can get away with boring. Even then, it’s risky.
9. Don’t rely (solely) on SEO
And the final sensible SEO tip?
Don’t try to make the search engines your only source of traffic.
Relying on one source of customers for your business is unacceptably risky.
Relying on a monolithic megacorporation as your one source of customers is insane.
Google doesn’t care about your business. Not even a tiny bit. Not even if you give them a lot of money every month for ads.
Make sure there are lots of different ways that potential customers can find you. Keep your eyes open for new opportunities. A platform that was a dud for you last year might offer a lot of promise today.
And keep growing your email list, so if you do have a traffic hiccup, you still have a way to reach your most loyal audience.