A few years ago, content experts talked about “writing for search engines” as if it were a skill that was a million miles away from writing for a human audience. The result was often a badly written website with pages filled with keywords shoe-horned into sentences with no regard for the sense or fluency of the piece (called keyword stuffing by those who know better).
Nowadays, that practice has thankfully disappeared (mostly). People generally accept that the criteria to judge whether web pages are well written aren’t so different to the ones that search engines use to evaluate the quality of online content. In other words, write well for your audience and you’ll probably be boosting your search engine optimization (SEO) efforts, too.
A good reference point from which to pick up some useful tips on content quality is Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines. Designed to help human raters tasked with making Google’s search algorithms ever more sophisticated, the guidelines set out what is considered good and bad website content. The document provides valuable tips for anyone who needs to create and manage websites and pages that are useful for their readers, and at the same time are easily discoverable by search engines. But at 167 pages, you’ll be reading it for a while, so here are a few key points.
What’s the purpose of the page?
First and foremost, the content of a page must have a clear reason to exist in the first place. If you want to help your audience decide which piece of software they should choose, make this intention clear in your title and/or intro. Whether your purpose is to make your readers laugh, cry or share gossip, be clear about your aims and you’ll keep everyone in your audience happy, both humans and machines.
Hinde Lamrani, International Search Subject Matter Expert here at RWS Moravia, explains how evaluating your content is essential to ensure it meets your audience’s needs. “You need to ask yourself three key questions: Why did they come to my site? This helps you understand user intent. Second, am I giving them what they’re looking for? This enables you to see if your content matches that intent. And finally, have they easily found what they’re looking for, and do they know what to do next on my pages? This allows you to analyze the user experience.”
The three key guidelines
One of the central themes in Google’s quality guidelines is the acronym E-A-T. This refers to expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness, and Google considers these three criteria to be the core pillars of a high-quality page. Let’s look at them in more detail and examine why they’re so important from a reader’s perspective.
If you search for information about a medical condition, would you rather be directed to a page written by a doctor who specializes in that field, or to a personal blog written by someone with no medical qualifications and who is peddling a questionable remedy? What about a search for tips on baking an elaborate birthday cake? You probably want to be taken to a famous TV chef’s website which has hundreds of easy-to-follow recipes, not to an unknown site with two poorly scanned recipe images.
Both examples demonstrate how your efforts to find useful information could be derailed by people who don’t have the necessary knowledge on a specific topic, but who want to divert you to their sites regardless. We rely on search engine algorithms to filter out the stuff we don’t want to see so that we’re presented with the most relevant and useful pages.
When you’re creating your web content, let people know why you’re qualified to share your ideas, opinions or tips. If you’re writing about the best restaurants in Tokyo and you’ve lived in the Japanese capital for the last 3 years, put your modesty aside and let your audience (and Google) know. Stating your credentials upfront helps you gain instant credibility and means that visitors are more likely to hang around on your site and listen to your opinions.
Search engines will use many factors to judge how authoritative your page is. These include how long users stay on your page, whether they engage through comments or interactive content and how many links you have to your page from other authoritative websites. So, while expertise is what you know, authority comes from others knowing about you and trusting you enough to link and refer to you.
Make sure that your content provides visitors with useful information that’s relevant to the subject of the page. Not only will your visitors be more likely to bookmark your content and return when they need similar information again, but both they and the search engines will identify you as an authority in your topic.
It’s probably easier to define the absence of trust in the content on a website than to explain its presence. Thinking as a user again, we lose trust in a website if it’s difficult to find important information (especially on prices), if there are so many ads that we can’t read the content we came to see or if the business has poor ratings (or even no mention) on a review site.
If you make the user experience (UX) on your website as painless as possible, not only will visitors keep returning, but search engines will reward your efforts. Again, put yourself in the user’s shoes: conduct tests to learn how they navigate your site and tackle any points of frustration before they impact your trustworthiness. This might involve creating FAQs, changing the layout to accommodate users on mobile devices or adding contact details so that customers know they can reach you if necessary. Hinde adds, “With good UX, you can send strong semantic signals to search engines and also help your users find the right content easily.”
While many writers may fear that search engines can constrain their creativity through the “rules” they set, in almost all cases, they have nothing to fear. The search engine companies survive by successfully leading their users to the most relevant and helpful web pages—something which should be the objective of anyone who’s creating online content. User-focused content equals good SEO.