How to Optimize Your Content for Search Engines (and Users, Too!)
Writing SEO-friendly content that is suited to search engines and to users isn’t always an easy feat.
For one, you need a thorough understanding of what users are searching for, why they are searching for it, and what they expect to find when they land on your content.
You also need to identify the right keywords and use them in just the right way to align with algorithmic expectations and appeal to users in the SERPs.
Is it as cut and dry as that, though? Of course not.
In this guide, I detail how to create search-engine-optimized content using keywords naturally, based on a deeper understanding of search intent, and how to use tools to inform your content structure.
Can Keyword Usage Really Be “Natural”?
In speaking to business owners outside of the SEO industry, it becomes pretty clear that the use of keywords in content can seem rather unnatural. This is because there is a misconception that keywords must be shoehorned into content for search engine optimization purposes.
For those of us in the SEO industry, using thoroughly researched keywords in carefully planned content is much more natural, thanks to the insights provided by intelligent content optimization tools.
A balance must be found, though, between writing in a way that naturally includes target keywords, and utilizing data-driven tools to inform content structure.
Google would tend to agree.
Google BERT: Great News for Content Optimization
When Google’s BERT algorithm update started rolling out in October of 2019, my little SEO content writer’s heart fluttered with glee.
After soapboxing about the importance of search intent, user experience, and “contextual” keyword usage, I was excited to see Google getting smarter at interpreting the intention behind the search and ranking content to match.
What this means is less reliance on exact-match keyword usage and more focus on creating high-value content that is suited to what users expect to find when they search for a particular keyword.
There is no need for businesses that don’t offer digital marketing services to try to rank for “digital marketing services” with their how-to guides when the search intent is clearly to find digital marketing services for hire.
Instead of shoehorning keywords into content, we should be looking to understand user psychology to create material that is suited to what searchers are really trying to find. Let's look at ways to do this.
Related: Your Title: What Is Your Advice (or Tip) About?
Conduct Audience Research
One of the best ways to understand search intent is to ask your audience what they look for when searching online.
That is why audience research is essential, as you want to
Determine which keywords your audience is using.
Determine how to write content that naturally includes these keywords.
To conduct audience research, you can create something as simple as a Google Forms survey to ask your target audience the following questions:
“What is your biggest struggle when it comes to… [sourcing content, marketing your business, finding an SEO agency – whatever your offer is]?”
“What 3 methods have you tried in order to overcome this struggle?”
“What issues did you have with these methods?”
“What is your number 1 goal when it comes to… [sourcing content, marketing your business, finding an SEO agency – whatever your offer is]?”
After surveying a decent sample size (at least 10 people), you can tally up the most popular responses to determine your audience’s primary pain points and goals.
You should then have a better idea of what your audience is trying to accomplish when searching for the kind of content that could be part of your roadmap.
For example, while you might assume your audience’s goal when it comes to hiring an SEO agency is to “increase Google rankings”, you might find that it is actually more specifically to “get more leads from Google”, or “generate more relevant organic traffic”.
With this in mind, you can identify keywords related to lead generation or organic traffic growth, and work them into your content. You will also be better equipped to create content that provides the value your audience wants.
Consider Search Intent and Users’ Goals
If you know that your audience is trying to accomplish a specific goal when searching for certain keywords in Google, you can frame your content more appropriately to suit their queries.
This means you will naturally include contextual cues that indicate your content provides the value your audience wants, instead of packing it with your target keywords.
Again, if you know that the search intent behind “digital marketing services” is to find and pay for digital marketing services, with the end goal of generating more leads, then you can frame your content around lead generation.
In doing so, you will naturally use key terms and phrases that Google will pick up on, which will help the algorithm develop a better understanding of the context of your content. If you do this better than your top-ranking competitors, you will have a good chance of performing well in the SERPs.
You can see how existing content is performing for any topic or keyword, as well as how people search for it in terms of phrasing, with the SEMrush Topic Research tool. It also suggests topics related to your search term so you can diversify your content, and provide better results for your target audience.
Related: What is Content Audit?
Analyze Your Top-Ranking Competitors
If you are stumped when it comes to determining search intent, take a look at some actual search results.
Google already shows you what it deems to be relevant to the user by ranking certain pages. If most of the pages appear to be, for example, how-to guides, it is pretty safe to assume that users are expecting to see such content when they use search terms that request guidance.
Keep digging by reading through the top-ranking pages to understand the overall “angle” of each piece.
What value is being conveyed?
What is the content trying to help readers accomplish?
Can you provide more value than your competitors?
You will usually find that the top-ranking pages use the target keyword naturally throughout their content, as well as in alt tags and links, but they also use related terms in a natural way, such as in subheaders. This ultimately helps Google understand the content’s relevance to the users’ needs.
“Companies that solely focus on competition will die. Those that focus on value creation will thrive.” – Edward de Bono
Write from Experience (or Hire a Pro)
One issue some website owners can face is trying to rank with content that was created with limited knowledge of the subject matter. Google’s algorithm is getting better at determining what is substance and what is fluff, so content creators are forced to up their games – and rightly so.
Content creators who write from experience will be more likely to include natural, contextual key phrases throughout their content.
For example, a business owner may attempt to write a piece about “B2B marketing strategies”, but if they are unfamiliar with the topic, they’re unlikely to know and use terms like “inbound marketing”, “digital competitor analysis”, or “CRM”. These terms could be powerful ways to tailor the content to suit search intent, so doing without them will likely hamper search performance.
If you don’t know enough about a topic to do it justice, hire a writer who can help you. Otherwise, you risk not including important contextual cues that could make all the difference when it comes to your rankings.
Find out more about the importance of combining in-depth research with natural copy that appeals to user intent in this Ultimate Guide to SEO Copywriting.
Utilize Content Optimization Tools
Some content optimization tools can do the hard work for you when it comes to working out a structure that is suitable for both users and search engines.
For example, SEMrush offers an SEO Content Template that analyzes top-ranking content to make it easier for you to format your headings, use natural keywords throughout your content, and include additional related terms.
It gives you a series of recommendations for how to format your content according to competitor performance and audience needs, so it should be easier to see where your keywords can naturally fit in to help with the overall flow.
Review, Edit, and Optimize
A combination of audience research and data-based content optimization tools should help you create a solid structure for content that is written by an expert, and for the purpose of providing the best value for readers.
You should always review your content at least once a year as part of a content audit in case opportunities for additional optimization arise, or part of the content becomes outdated or misaligned with how your users are searching for your content.
To get started with fresh content, use SEMrush’s SEO Content Template to make the kinds of on-page tweaks that will ensure full optimization.
So long as you always write with user intent and search behaviors in mind, you will naturally create content that includes contextual terms that are recognized and rewarded by search engines.