When you’re a writer trying to understand how to apply SEO best practices to your content, it can feel overwhelming. But I don’t necessarily think that’s because SEO is super complicated. I think it’s more because there’s just so much information out there about SEO.
In truth, SEO is a very broad discipline. There’s on-page SEO, off-page SEO, technical SEO, hundreds of ranking factors, dozens of tools, and millions of articles with both good and bad advice. How do you even begin to wrap your head around how any of that applies to what you need to do as a writer or editor?
My recommendation: start small. Start with these five simple things you can do to make every piece of content you publish more SEO-friendly:
- Use Headers Correctly
- Add a Table of Contents with Anchor Links
- Keep Your Paragraphs Short
- Add Internal Links
- Pay Special Attention to Your SEO Title and Meta Description
1. Use Headers Correctly
Headers should never be used for styling.
Let me explain what I mean.
In both word processors and content management systems, you can add headers to your content. In text editors, these are usually called “Heading 1,” “Heading 2,” or “Heading 3.” In HTML, they’re H1, H2, and H3 tags.
When you apply a header to text, it changes the formatting of that text. Often, it makes the text larger, more fancily designed, or bolder. And for that reason, many writers use these tags to make their content look the way they want it to look. Want that subtitle to be bigger? Apply “Heading 1.” Looks good.
But headers are not designed to be used for styling. They’re designed for structuring content.
Think of headers as if you were writing an outline for a piece of content. You’d start with the title, then you’d add bullet points for your subsections and nested bullets for your sub-subsections.
Title: 5 Reasons Why You Need a Business Blog
- What Is a Business Blog?
- Examples of Companies With Great Business Blogs
- 5 Reasons Why You Need a Business Blog
- Build Brand Awareness
- Drive Customers to Your Website
- Generate Leads
- Nurture Prospects Through the Buying Journey
- Teach Customers How to Use Your Product
- How to Get Started Blogging for Your Business
The structure of that outline is the same structure you should use for your headers. Let’s take a look again, this time noting which headers would be used.
Title: 5 Reasons Why You Need a Business Blog (Heading 1)
- What Is a Business Blog? (Heading 2)
- Examples of Companies With Great Business Blogs (Heading 2)
- 5 Reasons Why You Need a Business Blog (Heading 2)
- Build Brand Awareness (Heading 3)
- Drive Customers to Your Website (Heading 3)
- Generate Leads (Heading 3)
- Nurture Prospects Along the Buying Journey (Heading 3)
- Teach Customers How to Use Your Product (Heading 3)
- How to Get Started Blogging for Your Business (Heading 2)
Every piece of content you publish should have one—and only one—Heading 1. Typically, your content management system will automatically apply Heading 1 tags to your page’s main title. So for the most part, you should just pretend like the Heading 1 option doesn’t exist.
What you need to apply are Heading 2 and Heading 3 tags (and on rare occasions, Heading 4 tags). Heading 2 tags are used for your main sections. Heading 3 tags are used for subsections of your main sections.
Heading 4 tags are used for subsections of your subsections, but I’d recommend using them rarely. When you start creating too many layers, your content becomes difficult for readers to follow. I’ve used them on occasion—so I’m not saying you must avoid them entirely—but try to avoid them as much as possible.
When you use heading tags correctly, it makes it easier for search engines to understand the structure of your content, which could lead to higher rankings and is more likely to earn you a featured snippet.
If you’ve been using heading tags for styling because, for example, you don’t like how the text with Heading 2 tags applied looks on the page, there’s an easy solution: have a developer update the CSS styles for that heading type to make it look the way you want it to look.
2. Add a Table of Contents with Anchor Links
Another way to make it easier for search engines to understand the structure of your content—and to make it easier for users to find the information they’re looking for—is to add a table of contents with anchor links.
This isn’t really necessary if your content is short—say 1,500 words or less. But it’s often helpful for long-form content, and it’s an absolute must for long, list-style content.
As a bonus, having anchor links in your content often gets you an expanded search result in Google. Here’s one for Databox that includes several anchor links below the search result:
And here’s another that directs users to a specific section of the blog post:
Most content management systems make it easy to add anchor links to your content. Here are the instructions for several popular CMSs:
If you use a different CMS than those above, you should be able to find a solution for your CMS by searching for “how to create anchor links in [CMS].”
3. Keep Your Paragraphs Short
A 10-sentence paragraph is difficult to read on a large monitor, and it’s nearly impossible to read on a phone. Shorter paragraphs make it easier for users to read your content.
So why is that important for SEO? Google considers user behavior when ranking content, so if people continuously leave your pages because your content was too difficult to read, your rankings will suffer.
Now I’m not saying you need to go full Neil Patel and write only in one-sentence paragraphs. In fact, I’m more likely to beg you not to do that.
New Year’s resolution for 2019:
1. Write article claiming that the year’s biggest marketing trend will be the death of articles written solely in one-sentence paragraphs.
2. Get article published on popular marketing blog.
3. See results instantly.
4. Enjoy the rest of the year. pic.twitter.com/HlwFP8xQrp
— Jessica Greene (@JessGreeneMktg) January 8, 2019
But it is better for users if you keep your paragraphs at a reasonable length. My general rule of thumb is usually to keep paragraphs no more than 4-5 lines long (as displayed on your published post). And with practice, you can figure out exactly how long that means your paragraphs should be in your word processor, too.
4. Add Internal Links
Linking to pieces of content you’ve written from other pieces of content you’ve written leads to two big SEO benefits:
- A link to a piece of content from your own website isn’t all that different than a link from an external website. In either case, a link is a vote of confidence for the linked-to post, which could help your content rank higher.
- Links help connect disparate pieces of content together, helping search engines see the bigger picture of your authority on and knowledge of a topic—and the breadth of content you’ve written about that topic.
You can add internal links in-text like this:
Mention other content in a related content callout like this:
Or add a list of related content links to the bottom of your blog post:
If you’ve written all of the content for your blog, this is pretty easy to do because you probably know exactly which pieces of content that you’ve written in the past relate best to a new piece of content you’re writing (or a piece of content you’re updating).
But if you’re not familiar with every piece of content on your website (or a client’s website) there’s a simple Google search operator you can use to search for content within a specific website. Just go to Google, type in a keyword, and follow the keyword with site:yoursite.com.
The site: search operator tells Google to only display results from the specified website, so you can easily find content on your website that’s related to a new piece of content you’re writing.
5. Pay Special Attention to Your SEO Title and Meta Description
A final mistake I see many writers make is letting their CMS auto-populate their SEO titles and meta descriptions for them. This usually leads to truncated page titles and less-than-ideal meta descriptions in search results.
For example, the key element in the title for this result is “Twitter.” It’s a piece about content marketing tools for Twitter. But the title gets truncated in the search results, so it’s not immediately clear to a user who’s scanning titles that the post is about tools for Twitter.
The meta description is less important because search engines often just auto-generate a meta description for you based on the search query that a user enters, but it’s still good to write one just in case the search engine doesn’t generate one for you (it doesn’t always do so).
Many times, you’ll need to write an SEO title that’s shorter than the title you’ve chosen for your page because your page title is too long. As a general rule of thumb, SEO titles should be limited to 70 characters, and meta descriptions should be limited to 155 characters.
But that’s just a rule of thumb. Sometimes, search engines will decide to display fewer characters than that. It’s always good to check on your content after it’s been indexed and see what your result looks like to determine if it needs to be edited.
An enticing, fully visible SEO title and meta description will do wonders for your click-through rates and, as a result, your rankings.
If you use WordPress, the free Yoast SEO plugin makes it easy to customize your SEO title and meta description and get a preview of what it’s likely to look like in the search results.
The Trick to Mastering SEO as a Writer or Editor
If you’re searching Google for ways to optimize your content for search, you’ll likely run across huge lists of dozens of things you “absolutely must do” to optimize every single piece of content you write for search. And you probably should be doing all of those things—eventually.
But if you’re just getting started with SEO, don’t try to do them all at once. And don’t take everything published online as gospel. There’s a lot of bad SEO advice out there.
Instead, start small. Start with these five tips. When you’ve mastered them, pick a few more things to incorporate into your writing. And test your results at every turn. Did a change lead to higher rankings, higher click-through rates, or longer times on page/site? Great! Keep doing that.
Over time, you’ll develop an approach to optimizing your content for search that you know like the back of your hand—and that you’ve proven is worth your time.
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SEO Tips and News for Content Marketers
Each month, I curate a list of articles that I believe will be interesting to SEO-focused content marketers.