How Can You Improve SEO? Think User First
Boost User Experience And Rankings
Whenever someone asks for tips on improving SEO, I can’t help but feel they’re looking for a silver bullet: Just do x, y and z, and watch your fortunes change.
It’s probably because that’s what SEO was for many years – mysterious tactics few people knew anything about. And, more importantly, those tactics did improve organic rankings.
With SEO, everyone wants a new trick, something akin to insider info on Wall Street – you can’t go wrong with longtails. That could be why they’re shocked when I respond with a simple answer: Think user first.
It’s not that there aren’t specific things you should be doing to improve your SEO. It’s that doing them right, and in a way that produces results, requires a paradigm shift.
Gone are the days of gaming Google with bogus links and keyword stuffing.
Today, search engines reward high-quality content that offers a great user experience and satisfies the searcher’s needs.
Here’s how to take a more human, user-first approach to SEO in order to conquer the SERPs.
A New View On Keywords
Keywords have been a cornerstone of SEO for as long as there’s been SEO. The day may come when keywords aren’t needed for search engines to categorize and recommend content, but that day isn’t here yet.
For now, you still need to use keywords, but you need to change the way you look at them.
Free Market Research
For some reason, there’s a tendency to separate keywords from the people doing searches. In part, that’s because for so long we took an algorithm-first approach to content rather than focusing on how humans interact with it. The result was keyword stuffing and awkward exact match keywords.
Keywords should be viewed as market research that tells you how many people are interested in a topic and what they want to know. This is why it’s important to create keyword-focused content. It’s great if you have topics you want to discuss, but what if your audience doesn’t care about them?
Thought leadership is great, and introducing new concepts is key to advancing discourse. But it needs to be balanced with what your audience wants, and expects to find, from content.
After some quick research, you discover thousands of searches for “IT security services,” and you’re ready to write a blog on the topic. Not so fast. Just because someone is searching for that term doesn’t mean they’re looking for educational content. They may be looking to purchase those services.
The way you use keywords needs to align with the intent of the people doing the search. There are three types of keywords, which match the primary types of searches people do:
- Informational: This is where people want to learn about a topic through educational information. An example would be “how to improve SEO,” and the content that aligns with it would be a blog, article or video.
- Navigational: This is where people want information related to geography. For instance, they may want to know about “yoga studios near me” or “best steamers Cape Cod.” Google uses your location to determine many of these SERPs.
- Transactional: This is where people want information related to products or services they can buy. The above example of “IT security services” is transactional, and the content that aligns with it would be a service page or reviews.
Google determines intent in a very democratic way. It tracks what results searchers click on and how much they engage with the content to figure out what most people want when they put that specific term in the search bar.
Sometimes you can judge intent just by looking at the keyword. Often you can’t. It’s good to do a search in private or incognito mode (to prevent your search history from influencing the results). If the top 10 results are blogs, it’s an informational keyword. If it’s all service or product pages, it’s transactional. If it’s a mix, then it’s both.
Expand Your Vocabulary
When people want to learn about a topic, it’s rare that they only want to know about one specific thing. Even if they think they want to know about just one thing, it’s your job as the expert to introduce them to related topics and help educate them.
Semantic keywords give you insight into topics closely related to a keyword that searchers may want to know about, or should be told about.
For instance, the term “Bob Dylan” might include semantic keywords such as:
- The Band
- Newport Folk Festival
- The Traveling Wilburys
- Pulitzer Prize
- Suze Rotolo
Looking into semantic keywords can inform the content creation process. They can help identify subtopics to explore and serve as building blocks for creating the type of robust content people favor.
Most keyword tools offer insight into semantic keywords. If you need a free tool, LSIGraph can help.
Create Great Content
For most of the digital marketing era, we’ve been creating content for machines. Web pages, blogs, articles, landing pages – the copy was always written with an eye toward capturing keywords and conquering SERPs.
Our primary audience was an algorithm – whether the content was helpful or even good was of little concern.
But that was then. Today, the same old vanilla short-form content might get you on page five, where it’ll live an unremarkable life of anonymity. To get to the top of the SERPs now requires content that is:
Why the shift? The reasons are twofold.
1) More competition: Ten years ago, if you were a business that regularly blogged, you had a good chance of snagging a top ranking. There simply weren’t that many businesses producing content on a consistent basis, so the competition was thin.
Today, billions of pieces of content are created each year. More content means more competition.
So how do you stand out in the crowd? With exceptional content that is fresh and creative. You need to grab users’ attention and offer them something they can’t get elsewhere. It needs to engage them and make them want to keep scrolling and clicking.
2) Algorithms have evolved: In the last couple of years, search engines have made significant advances with their algorithms. Google no longer just counts up your keywords, gives you a rank and calls it a day.
When it comes to rankings, Google is now focused on user engagement. The thinking is simple: If visitors spend a lot of time on a page, interact with the content and click deeper into the site, it must be good.
Google now uses engagement metrics in its rankings, which is why these days you’re less likely to hear SEOs talking about keywords than time on page, bounce rate, clicks per session and dwell time.
So how do you increase engagement? With amazing content.
Initially, sites tried to game engagement by creating super long content or adding videos to keep visitors on page and keep the clock ticking with a long scroll.
But everyone started creating long-form content with multimedia. Blogs that are 2,000 words have become the norm, so yours needs to stand out (see #1). Don’t write more for the sake of adding words. Write to inform the user, add design elements that elevate the content and include multimedia that improves the user experience.
Here’s a thought: If you want to boost your SEO, do something wacky – use professional content creators to create content. Using a skilled creative team is a giant step toward creating the kind of assets that inspire engagement and build credibility for your brand.
Use Linking To Connect Users With More Information
Every time I talk about linking, people’s minds instantly jump to backlinks. But a good linking strategy should include more than just backlinks, and it should be more concerned with user experience than quantity. When discussing links, there are three main ones to consider:
- Inbound links: Known as backlinks, these represent links on other sites that go to your site.
- Outbound links: These represent links on your site that go to other sites.
- Internal links: These represent links that go from one page on your site to another page of your site.
Each can help add value to your content, improve user experience and, yes, boost SEO. Let’s take a look at each.
Inbound Links (Backlinks)
Everyone wants backlinks, and they want as many as possible. Why? Because they’ve traditionally been very valuable to SEO. Before going further, let’s quickly look at the two types of backlinks:
- Follow links: In the eyes of search engines, every site has a level of credibility. You’ll sometimes see this referred to as Domain Authority (a term coined by Moz.) Sites such as www.time.com have very high credibility, while sites such as those related to adult entertainment have very low credibility. Follow links not only refer traffic to your site, they pass on some of this credibility. Think of it as an endorsement, another site telling Google you’re great. The more of these links you have, the better Google views your content and the higher your rankings.
- Nofollow links: These links do not pass on any of their credibility (sometimes called “link juice”). You only get the referral traffic, which is still pretty great and can indirectly help SEO. Wikipedia and social media sites are examples of sites that are nofollow.
Until recently, backlinks were a significant ranking factor, and quantity mattered above all else. So sites added any link they could, any way they could. This led to the buying/selling of links and link spamming.
Now Google emphasizes quality over quantity, and penalizes sites that use shady linking tactics. That means links from quality sites are more valuable than ever. But they’re also rare – those sites don’t just hand out links.
So how do you build quality backlinks? Here are a few suggestions:
- Create great content: If you’re putting out exceptional content that users enjoy, sites are more likely to link to it.
- Look for mentions: Believe it or not, many sites have probably mentioned your business but not linked to your site. Reach out to them, thank them for the mention and ask for a link. You can set up Google Alerts to monitor mentions.
- Only pursue links from quality, relevant sites: You don’t want spammy links and you don’t want a bunch of traffic from visitors who have no interest in what you do – they’ll bounce immediately and kill your engagement metrics.
You might wonder why you’d ever send visitors to another site. But the purpose of an outbound link should be to provide users with more information. If you quote stats from a study, link to it. If you discuss a topic that another site explores in depth, link to it.
Think of outbound links as reference material that supplements your content. Linking out to trusted sources is a way to build credibility with users, but Google also takes note.
Tip: Make sure the new page opens in another window, so the user never actually navigates away from your site.
In the same way you want to send users to offsite resources that can enrich their experience, you want to send them to onsite resources that will further their education and help guide them through the buyer journey.
Earlier, I linked to a previous blog about making your creative team part of your SEO strategy (there, I did it again so you don’t have to go back). Why? Because it’s also related to this topic, gets deeper into the concept of creating great content to boost SEO and would probably be valuable to anyone reading this post.
Internal links should help visitors learn more or take the next step. They can go to related content, content in the next stage of the buyer journey or a conversion point such as a service page.
When done well, internal linking delivers a great user experience that keeps visitors on site and signals to search engines that you have great content worth recommending.
Drive Traffic With Email And Social Media
After creating a stellar piece of content, you should immediately be thinking about how to get it in the hands of people that will appreciate it. Chances are, you have a built-in audience eager to consume it while you wait on Google to acknowledge your brilliance.
If you don’t know by now, SEO is a waiting game. It can take months for a piece of content to climb the rankings and start driving traffic. Heck, if you do nothing but publish your content and wait, it can take weeks before anyone starts engaging with it.
But there are ways to hasten the process. After you’ve made a great new piece of content:
- Link it: Build awareness and engagement by funneling existing site traffic to it.
- Email it: Build awareness and engagement by directing your list to it.
- Share it: Build awareness and engagement by sharing it on social platforms.
By now, linking your content should make sense. But the email and social parts tend to confuse people. So let’s dig into them.
How Email Helps Boost SEO
First, let’s be clear: Email does not directly impact SEO. But it can indirectly improve it.
When you blast your new content to your email list, it will cause a spike in traffic. If you have a well-maintained email list, this is qualified traffic. These aren’t random searchers but people who are interested in what you do and are likely to engage with your content.
If your content is good and you’ve done some strategic linking, an email should result in a bump in site-wide engagement. And guess what? Google takes notice.
At a previous job, I was in charge of creating content and tracking rankings. Anytime we sent out an email blast promoting content, I’d see a temporary spike in rankings. That may not seem like much, but moving up a page in SERPs for a week can translate into hundreds of more organic clicks, which directly impact SEO.
How Social Media Helps Boost SEO
The concept behind sharing content on social media follows the same logic as emailing it. You’ve got a built-in audience interested in your business. Why wouldn’t you share it with them? In fact, not sharing it with them might degrade their customer experience.
Since 2014 Google has said it doesn’t use social signals as a ranking factor. But that doesn’t mean social doesn’t help SEO. A recent Hootsuite experiment found it does.
As with email, sharing content on social media can help drive qualified traffic to your site that will boost site-wide engagement. But with social media, there’s also the possibility that traffic is compounded as members of your network share it with their network and so on.
Mobile First, Site Speed A Close Second
You probably already know that you need a responsive website that provides a great experience to mobile users. Google’s announcement last year that it moved to mobile-first indexing means anything less than a great mobile experience will hurt your SEO.
What you may not know is that it’s not enough to have great mobile design. Speed matters. Today, most people search on mobile devices, and there’s nothing worse than waiting forever for a page to load.
That’s why, along with mobile first, Google has emphasized site speed. It now actively measures how long it takes your site’s pages to load. If it takes several seconds to load a blog post, you can bet it’s being held against you.
One solution is to use AMP (Accelerated Mobile Project), which enables mobile pages to load almost instantaneously.
An easy way to uncover any problems is with PageSpeed Insights. It’s free, offers a speed score for both mobile and desktop, and provides a report that lists potential problems.
While a number of factors can affect site speed, and some are better left to a technical team, often the problem is nothing more than images that need to be resized.
Think Like A Person, Not A Marketer
Marketers have a habit of not thinking like the people we are. We want to gate everything, spam inboxes, and create fast and cheap copycat content. We are so divorced from our own digital experiences that we never stop to remember what it’s like when we’re on the other side of the screen.
If we did, we’d take a vastly different approach to our marketing efforts.
With SEO, Google has forced our hand. It has moved to a user-first mentality with organic rankings. If you want to keep pace with the competition, you’ll have to do likewise.
While many people will undoubtedly bemoan the amount of time and effort needed to create content that ranks today, it benefits everyone. Higher-quality content offers a better user experience. And businesses willing to provide that content will enjoy stronger customer relationships.