Writing for SEO used to mean adding the target keyword a few times in the title, introduction, and maybe a subheading or two. Then you’d call it a day.
Unfortunately, most of those old SEO writing recommendations are too basic to make a dent in today’s competitive, sophisticated landscape.
In this article, you’ll find out why those traditional tips don’t cut it, along with three more advanced factors to consider when creating new content for search engines.
Why ‘basic SEO’ writing is no longer good enough
The competition’s not only getting smarter and better today. There’s also just a whole lot more of it.
“Content Shock” is a term created by marketing expert Mark Schaefer. It refers to what happens when we transition from a world with insufficient content or information, to one that’s overrun by it. And he came up with this back in 2014 -- five years ago now!
Another study from Buzzsumo a few years ago showed that at the time, “50% of content gets eight shares or less.”
Image source: Buzzsumo
In other words, there was too much stuff back in 2015 that resulted in most content being ignored.
All of these trends mean that the basics are just fundamentals today, and that it’s going to take extraordinary effort (and execution) to break through.
The other side of the coin, though, is how Google is beginning to evolve. Years ago, if you were trying to rank for a keyword like “dog food,” you used to have to write “dog food” explicitly to make sure Google knew what you meant.
However, today that’s not as true. Google is deprioritizing “exact match” keywords like this across both organic and Ads because they’re getting so much better at guessing what you mean (rather than what you write).
Image source: Google
So if you write “Puppy Chow” today, Google already knows you’re talking about “dog food.” They’re starting to understand the intent behind your searches, as opposed to the strict words you’re typing in.
And that means the way we write for SEO needs to evolve, too.
Here are three advanced factors to start incorporating ASAP to keep up and take advantage.
1. Semantic keywords
The concept of semantic keywords has been around for years.
Semantic keywords are related terms or phrases that often have similar (and adjacent) meanings to your primary keyword.
Another spin on this is latent semantic keywords. There’s some debate over exactly how effective these are. But the point is that using closely related words and phrases can help increase the overall context of a piece of content.
As mentioned, Google doesn’t need to just look for “SEO” written a hundred times in an article to understand that article. In fact, doing so would probably land you in some hot ‘over-optimization’ water.
Instead, the goal is to include related subjects like “content” or “optimization” and lots more (as highlighted by Backlinko here).
Image source: Backlinko
You can also see this trend playing out across Google Ads now, too. Instead of just optimizing ad text around the specific product you’re selling, you can bring in semantic keywords to help increase the overall context around an ad (without relying on keyword stuffing).
Image source: Rob Powell Biz Blog
The good news is that semantic keywords can also make content creation easier. They provide you with built-in topics to write about on each post.
So instead of droning on and on with filler around some generic topic, you can go into more detail on all of these related sub-topics to make your content more specific and relevant.
Semantic keywords are also easy to find. For example, you can open up Wordtracker, type in your primary keyword like “cheap hotels,” and then look for the 'Suggestions' box on the left-hand side.
Wordtracker will display semantic keywords like “cheap villas” or “cheap restaurants” which all “cheap hotels” might have.
Image source: Wordtracker
The other positive is that it means you’re not just doing keyword research for only SEO or only PPC. You can kill two birds with one stone by pulling semantically-related phrases that should work across campaigns to help both people and Google know exactly what you’re referring to.
2. Dwell time (website usage factors)
Dwell time is another old concept that we first heard about years ago, but are just now beginning to understand its full impact.
Essentially, dwell time refers to the amount of time someone spends on a page after visiting from Google.
Generally speaking, the longer someone spends on your site after visiting from Google, the better indicator it is that the person found exactly what they were looking for (and therefore, how well that page satisfies ‘search intent’).
Google’s whole goal is to give people what they want. They want people to be happy about clicking on the first result, and find the answer or solution they were looking for, without bouncing back to Google to click on the other results.
This has led many SEOs to infer that Google is looking at everything from Chrome data to Google Analytics and Google Search Console to evaluate website usage factors like bounce rates, exit rates, time on site, and more.
Google has tried to push back on this narrative. However, they continue to update patents around this very subject that admit they’re actively using this information to determine page and website quality.
Bill Slawski recently investigated this and confirmed as much:
"This patent has been updated three times using continuation patents... The patent tells us that search result rankings may be based upon the length of time that a searcher might spend viewing a page from search results and that documents may later be ranked higher based upon being viewed for longer periods of time."
Now, keep in mind we’re not talking explicitly about bounce rates here, as they can become unreliable or overly simplistic.
For example, a high bounce rate is always bad, right? Well, not always.
Imagine for a second that you’re trying to send leads into an email marketing service like ActiveCampaign, where the ‘free trial’ opt-in is right there at the top of the page.
Image source: Hosting Facts
Best case, someone views your page and enters their email immediately. You don’t want them to hang around and ‘dwell’ too long!
So this isn’t a case where you’d be penalized for a better business outcome.
Instead, the focus is more around creating page content that supports the information someone’s trying to find. In other words, a short, punchy landing page would be perfect for a commercial keyword like that last example. Otherwise, an information-based query should receive something longer to help educate that person.
That’s why we often see longer articles perform the best in search results. It’s not because people like reading (they don’t). It’s because longer content generally provides more insight and keeps people around longer (without them instantly leaving your site forever).
The tricky part is that you can’t just write more stuff. You also have to make it more interesting, entertaining, or useful.
One of the easiest solutions is simply adding more visuals to help break up the text, while also illustrating what the text is saying. (Don’t forget to add your alt image attributes to those images, either!)
Image source: Jetpack
For example, you can tell people about how snowboard sizing should work (in theory). Or you can create custom graphics that provide the breakdowns for people because that’s ultimately what they were looking for.
Image source: Evo
The point is that all content isn’t created equal. So you can’t just write the same for each page, either. You need to really understand what people are looking for (beyond basic keywords), and then work on delivering that experience to keep them around longer (if that’s what they ultimately wanted).
3. Topical relevance
When most people hear about “internal links,” their mind goes to grabbing a few related posts at random and slapping them into your blog posts at the last minute.
However, that’s not exactly the case. Internal links are meant to help reinforce your site’s architecture, or how all of the information on your website is organized.
Good site architecture reinforces topical authority, which is the “perceived authority over a niche or broad idea set, as opposed to authority over a singular idea or term” according to Dave Davies at Search Engine Journal.
You can increase the topical authority of your site by moving away from isolated posts or articles, and moving towards developing related clusters of content.
Image source: HubSpot
HubSpot has been studying and reporting on this approach to content development, as more internal links to create related clusters of content can drive up rankings in search engines.
Image source: HubSpot
This isn’t exactly a new trend, either. Ian Lurie from Portent has been raving about hub pages for years. The idea is virtually the same, and it helps to guide how (or what) you’re going to write about in the first place.
For example, if you have a ton of seemingly unrelated topics across your site, like “golf news,” “golf clubs,” “scandals,” and “Tiger sponsors,” they don’t really make a whole lot of sense to Google. (Keep in mind this example is about a decade old.)
Image source: Portent
You wouldn’t improve this by adding more, new unrelated content like most people do with blogs. Instead, you’d want to create a single pillar article that brings all of these seemingly unrelated ideas together.
Image source: Portent
Your “All About Tiger” page would touch on each of these isolated topics and link out to them, creating a nice web of contextually-relevant information for readers and search engines.
So again, instead of having tunnel vision with stuffing a single keyword into a bunch of subheadings, you’re looking more broadly at how information is organized across your entire site.
You’re comparing it with the information people are expecting to find based on their search intent.
And then you’re writing or rewriting pages to better reflect all of these different points of view to create something that’s more specific, relevant, and authoritative at the end of the day.
SEO writing isn’t about tricking Google.
It’s not about trying to stuff keywords or create a compelling meta description. Some of those things are still important. However, today’s competition means that it’s often not enough.
Instead, you could be researching and using more semantic keywords to help add contextual relevance to each page (so Google better understands how to infer what people are looking for).
You want to create content based on the search intent, so that information-rich pages keep people around longer, boosting dwell time and other website usage factors that tell Google people found what they were looking for.
And you want to create new pillar pages that bring together a lot of the isolated topics on your site so that they now make perfect sense to both readers and Google.
SEO writing is less about blindly following a checklist today, and more about digging into the nuance and tiny details that are often easy to overlook.