This is the second article in a series of guides for content specialists on how to write successfully both for people and search engines in 2017. Check out previous one and stay tuned for new updates.
I don’t like the concept of “optimizing content for search engines.” It kind of gives you the wrong idea about the process: as if you are supposed to write content for flesh-and-blood readers and then, constrainedly, optimize it for bots.
Many writers do so. But instead, these days you’d better keep the requirements of SEO in mind before and while you create your piece of content. This doesn’t mean you should make your content machinelike - it’s about understanding how your article’s vocabulary and structure can influence your rankings.
We’re going to talk about three aspects a writer should consider in 2017 in order to write a good piece of content that will also attract more organic traffic.
- Semantically related words
- Featured snippets
Semantically related keywords
The release of the Hummingbird algorithm back in 2013 made the topic of semantic search extremely important. Here’s an explanation provided by Danny Sullivan:
“Hummingbird is paying more attention to each word in a query, ensuring that the whole query — the whole sentence or conversation or meaning — is taken into account, rather than particular words. The goal is that pages matching the meaning do better, rather than pages matching just a few words.”
Semantically related keywords are one of the signals to Google that the page matches the meaning of the query and, thus, the searcher’s intent.
Let’s say, you are searching for “city bike.” You can easily guess which one of the two articles below will be more likely to satisfy the searcher’s needs (unless the searcher is Jay-Z):
So, to keep up with Hummingbird’s requirements, you basically need to find relevant words to build your article around to show Google that your content is really valuable by understanding the language your users speak, the terms they use, the questions they ask and the formats they prefer.
Easier said than done, of course. But not impossible. There are several ways to approach this challenge.
Start by taking a look at the SERP. Pages from Google’s top 10 tend to have a lot in common in terms of content. Quite often, you’ll be able to identify these similarities at a glance, like with the query “best city bike”:
- Lists and guides rule the SERPs
- Adding a year to a title definitely helps
Next, find out if there are terms that Google considers identical to your target keywords. For example, here we see that Google seems to treat “best city bike”, “best urban bike” and “best commuter bike” as the same term.
Also, explore autocomplete suggestions. These are probably the most exhaustive source of real people’s questions, pains and problems. You can use many of them as ready ideas for your articles:
Grabbing these data manually can take a lot of time. There are tools that scrape, organize and sort related words and Google suggestions: see them in the “Tools to Use” section at the bottom.
You’re probably asking yourself at this point: OK, I’m sure that words like “and”, “the” and “with” can be found on every page in the Google top 10. Does that mean I should use them to get higher rankings?
Not at all. And this is where TF-IDF comes in.
The term TF-IDF is an abbreviation of “term frequency - inverse document frequency.” The two parts of this abbreviation are two separate metrics used to calculate how important a word is to a specific document.
TF (term frequency) defines how often a word is found inside a document; IDF (inverse document frequency) stands for how often the word is encountered in a larger set of documents, often called a “corpus.” IDF is meant to reduce the weight of words used frequently within the corpus that have little importance (articles, prepositions, etc.). This way, less weight is given to terms with a high TF and IDF and more weight is given to terms with a high TF and a low IDF.
So why is this concept essential for a writer these days?
At first sight, TF-IDF may seem like a scientific explanation of why keyword stuffing is important. You identify a nice keyword (for example, “city bike”) with a clearly low IDF, you put it into every paragraph of your article and show Google that your content is super-relevant compared to your rivals’. But it doesn’t work like this. Google’s algorithms are trained to identify pages stuffed thoughtlessly with keywords and penalize them.
There are several SEO tools that use TF-IDF for keyword analysis. For example, SEMrush’s SEO Ideas and SEO Content Template tools rely on TF-IDF to provide you with a list of words to use in your content - your list will be sorted automatically according to the number of documents each word was encountered in.
So you gathered a beautiful set of semantically related words, made sure these words have a good TF-IDF, and you expect your content to make it to the first page of Google and boost your organic traffic.
But there’s a risk that almost no one will click on your properly optimized snippet with a catchy headline, because there’s someone who monopolized the first screen and captured all the searchers’ attention.
This “someone” is a featured snippet.
Featured snippets -- so called “zero positions” -- are the boxes shown right below the number of results found for your query. The goal of featured snippets is to provide you with content that fulfills your request without your having to click on any search result.
Most of featured snippets actually monopolize the first screen. As a result, the click-through rate of the content within it increases drastically - some studies report a four-fold CTR growth- and the other pages in the top 10 don’t get as many clicks as before. This is why organizing your content to appear in the featured snippet is crucial.
How to optimize your content to earn a featured snippet
There are actually no sure-fire recipes to get your content into this box. However, some tactics have worked for SEOs and are worth trying.
Identify your pages that already rank in the top 10
If you start by figuring out which of your website’s pages are already ranking well and concentrating on those, it will save you dozens of hours. Sad but true, only a miracle can make you appear in a featured snippet if you’re currently in the 98th position. Google tends to pick the pages from the top 10 for featured snippets. If you are in the top 5, even better.
Target question-based keywords and provide structured answers
It’s easier for Google to understand the searcher’s intent from the query “how to draw a dog” than from the query “dog drawing” (are you looking for beautiful drawings of dogs or do you want to draw a dog yourself?). Besides questions, there are words that narrow down a search intent quite a lot: “best”, “recipe” and “instructions” for example.
When it comes to answers, write the way you speak. The easier it is to understand, the better. “How to cook spaghetti? - Start with boiling water...”.
If a query starts with “how to” breaking your article down into steps is a must: use numbers or subtitles to divide your content logically.
Make sure to use header tags properly
Search engine bots love clear markups and flawless code. If they can easily scan the structure, extract the most valuable information and index it properly without spending any additional crawl budget, it definitely helps you get higher rankings. A correct use of H1-H6 tags is crucial if you want your content to be included in the featured snippet. Some SEOs, including Barry Schwartz, recommend also using Schema.org Markup.
Keep working to take snippets from your competitors (and defend your spot once you got one)
Nobody can guarantee that once a page gets into the featured snippet box, it will stay there forever. Google can remove your website (see this case study by Glenn Gabe) and replace it with another one, or just leave the page without a snippet (which is actually what happened with the “best city bike” SERP while we were working on this article):
Analyze what you could improve on your page and keep working. When it comes to highly competitive keywords, it’s really worth the candle.
Tools to use: SEMrush solutions
There are a number of SEMrush tools that can help automate the most time-consuming parts of your work. Let’s take a look at how they do it:
SEO Ideas tool helps you identify semantically related words. But there’s one important detail: it only gives you the words used by your successful rivals from Google’s top 10. There’s no point in analyzing hundreds of SERPs for a given keyword. Why look at those who are ranking lower than you?
You can find insights on semantically related words in the “Semantic Ideas” section:
They come with a detailed analysis of how many rivals use each of these words and how frequently each of them is encountered on their pages:
SEO Ideas will also notify you if any of your website's pages are ranking in the top 10 and have a good chance of appearing in featured snippets, with actionable recommendations on how to improve these pages:
SEO Content Template
If you just need to optimize the text on a single page without going too deep into detail, SEO Content Template is an extremely actionable yet simple tool. Simply enter one or more target keywords and the tool will analyze the first 10 pages from Google that rank for these keywords, and give you recommendations on:
- Semantically related words to use on your page
- The readability score you’ll need to achieve
- Text length
- Relevant backlink sources
- Basic SEO recommendations, like length of page title and meta description
You can also get some insights on how to organize your content without leaving the tool - we’ll show you excerpts of your rivals’ texts with your target keywords highlighted:
It would be nice if you could type in a target keyword and see the semantically related words separated into groups, get quick estimations of search volume, keyword difficulty and competition level in one tool. Oh, and see the SERP features triggered by each keyword as well.
This tool does exist. Keyword Magic tool makes it easier by showing you all the information in one tab.
If you need more data, for example, the click potential or average difficulty for a keyword group, use the “Export to Keyword Analyzer” option.
How to write content that succeeds in 2017: Key Takeaways
Spend time on keyword research and defining an SEO-friendly structure before you actually start writing. Stuffing ready articles with keywords and adding subtitles just because you need to will seem unnatural, both for humans and search bots.
Focus on adding valuable words associated with your topic instead of repeating the same keyword throughout your article.
Use multiple sources to enrich your list of related keywords. Explore your and your competitors’ social media pages for keyword ideas and questions to answer. Conduct a TF-IDF analysis. Ask your technical support to observe and note the terms your customers really use.
Make good use of tools to automate the research processes.
Many actionable takeaways can be easily found by simply looking at SERPs. You can discover which content formats are used by your top 10 rivals or borrow some nice ideas for headlines.
Use lists and “step-by-step” formats to increase your chances of earning a featured snippet. “Keyword-based question + direct and concise answer” is another proven format for getting into the featured snippet box.
If you write an evergreen piece of content (a guide, for instance), don’t hesitate to mention the current year in the title. You’ll eventually get back to this article to update it, so a “2016 guide” can then be renamed a “2017 guide” when you add new valuable information to it.
You can’t earn a featured snippet unless you’re already ranking high. To get results faster, start by optimizing the pages that are already ranking in the Google top 10 for your target keywords.
Pay careful attention to your formatting, tags and markups. Make sure these are used correctly and make your content clear, structured and easily crawlable for Google bots.
If your competitor has already earned a featured snippet for your target keyword, it’s not written in stone. Any other website can replace theirs sooner or later, so why not yours?
Passing the mic to you
Have you already incorporated these best practices into your everyday content routine? Or do you consider them newfangled or too far removed from the actual work of a content creator? Let us know in the comments!