There’s a push and pull that happens between SEOs and content marketers — the fight between creating content aligned with the brand that’s also optimized for SEO. As a content specialist working with SaaS brands, I know all about having to placate clients who think that SEO content is going to be too ‘SEO-y’.
But you don’t need to compromise your brand or content marketing strategy to snag those top spots on Google. We’re ditching keyword-stuffing and spammy-linking in favor of high-quality, SEO-friendly content.
What does it mean to optimize content for SEO?
SEO content is the very important lovechild of search engine optimization and content marketing. Regardless of the industry that you’re in, content is king. It’s how you increase visibility, build trust with your audience, and define your brand.
If you want your content to rank at the top of Google’s search results, there needs to be an overlap between SEO best practices and content marketing best practices. Creating authoritative, functional content that boosts your brand, and optimizing according to the rules of search engines so that it ranks better.
So, rather than publishing content that you think your audience wants and that you hope will reach a wide audience, SEO optimization helps to identify opportunities and achieve visibility. This is done by using specific search terms to optimize content, considering relevant topics and user intent, and focusing on topic clusters rather than standalone pieces.
If you don’t optimize your content, it’s likely to gather ‘dust’ on the 5th page of your blog where no one will find it — even if it’s the best article in the world.
So, why does that matter?
Well, if you’re a SaaS brand or an e-commerce site, for example, you need to capture your audience at every stage of the user journey. To do this you need to increase your topical authority and get more eyes on your top and middle-of-the-funnel content. The answer? SEO content.
It goes without saying that you definitely want your bottom-of-the-funnel content to be high up in the Google stratosphere. The solution? SEO-optimized content.
The goal of optimizing content
The number one goal of optimizing content for SEO is to improve page ranking to boost organic traffic. It’s essential to take both of these end results into consideration as it’s assumed that if a page ranks higher it will automatically attract a lot more traffic.
While an improved page ranking will certainly increase organic traffic, optimizing content for user intent is the best way to take advantage of decent page rank and traffic potential.
You may find that your page is at the top of the search results but that very few people are clicking. This could be because the page is ranking for a low volume keyword in which case the low traffic is expected. However, it could be because your meta title and description, and perhaps the entire page, doesn’t match search intent — it’s not what people are looking for.
So, to boost rankings and organic traffic, search intent should be a top priority.
Depending on the content and your site or service, improving conversion rates is a secondary goal of optimizing content for SEO. If your page ranks well and traffic is pouring in, you need to make the most of it. How can you encourage users to take the next step or stay longer on your site?
On-page content optimization in 12 steps
There’s a whole technical side to optimizing content for SEO, including page speed, sitemaps, and the like. But let’s dive into the nitty-gritty of how to optimize your content for SEO with on-page updates that don’t require dev resources and are focused specifically on content.
1. Primary & secondary keywords: Do it right
The first step to optimizing content is identifying the primary keyword that best matches search intent, has decent search volume, and is a realistic ranking target. The head term defines your topic and the surrounding sub-topics and questions.
A smart strategy is to define long-tailed keywords for your head term rather than broad, high-difficulty keywords — especially if you’re creating content in a competitive niche. For example, rather than trying to rank for a keyword such as ‘fraud detection software’ you can narrow it down to variations such as ‘fraud detection software for small businesses’ or ‘fraud detection software for e-commerce’.
Repeat after me: “keyword stuffing isn’t cool anymore.” Gone are the days when you had to use your primary keyword 26 times in an article for Google to notice you. Now, Google actually penalizes these desperate moves for attention and it makes for very unfriendly user content, too.
Use keywords strategically in titles and headings and avoid stuffing them throughout the page. Rather, use related terms and answer common questions surrounding the topic.
Using a content optimization tool such as SurferSEO is fantastic for having a guideline on which queries to use and how many times to use them.
2. Write attention-grabbing title tags and meta descriptions
A good title tag is very powerful for improving rankings, winning featured snippets, and boosting click-through rates. It’s worth spending some time thinking about the best way to optimize the title tag in a way that matches the intent and competes with top-ranking pages.
The primary keyword should always feature in the page title. However, make sure that it’s natural, descriptive, and ‘clickable’.
Optimized meta descriptions make use of the primary keyword and are short descriptive snippets that give users a taste of the page content. Add the most important elements of the page in the description and keep it under 160 characters. Although Google is unlikely to even display your meta description — it does that these days.
3. Plan headings for logical flow & natural keyword use
Keyword stuffing is a thing of the past. Making use of secondary keywords in headings is a good tactic, but avoid keyword-spammy headings throughout the entire page.
Use keywords naturally, and optimize headings to answer common questions surrounding the page’s topic. Headings are also great for featuring keyword variations.
Check the heading structure to ensure a logical flow (H2 > H3 > H4). This is important for user experience and for crawlers to understand the page content better.
Once again, make use of content optimization tools that provide suggested headings and structure based on your primary keyword. These suggestions are pulled from competitor pages and ‘people always ask.’
4. Optimize URLs
If you’re optimizing an existing page, handle the URL with care. If the page is already ranking relatively well then changing the URL is risky and is best left alone.
However, if you're creating new content or updating an existing, poorly ranking page then follow best practices by adjusting the URL to include only the target keyword.
5. Create great content
High-quality content is becoming increasingly important as a ranking factor. As Google gets smarter, black-hat SEO tactics are out the window and authoritative and unique content is here to stay.
Creating rank-worthy content, or optimizing existing content, starts with a logical and digestible structure. The page should cover all of the topics and questions surrounding the primary keyword and especially user intent.
These sub-topics and questions should be formatted with a heading structure that makes it easy for search engines to crawl and understand, and for users to scan and digest.
Try to avoid generic content and copy-paste information from competitor pages. Rather, seek out expert insights and fill the knowledge gaps that other pages don’t. Lastly, make sure the grammar and spelling are flawless — who is going to trust a site that messes up the simple things?
Bonus tip: Creating amazing content, with a focus on originality and authority, is how you become a ‘link magnet’ and acquire high-quality backlinks naturally.
6. Include visuals with keyword-rich, descriptive alt text
Including unique and interesting visuals in your content is important for user experience and SEO. Search engine crawlers scan visuals for keywords and if done right, your image or video may appear in the SERPs.
First things first, in the spirit of creating fantastic content, it’s best practice to avoid using stock images and generic visuals. Take the time to create graphics and authoritative infographics, and use original photos and screenshots wherever possible.
Most importantly, ensure that every visual on your page has descriptive alt text with natural keyword use. Search engine crawlers scan image alt tags for relevant keywords in order to understand the content of a page, and the more information you can provide the crawlers, the better the chances are of a high-ranking page.
7. Use internal links
Internal linking is an important component of optimizing content for SEO. It’s something you should put a little effort into, rather than slapping random links to irrelevant pages all over the content.
To provide value to users and improve site rankings, your pages should have internal links to and from existing content within the same topic cluster. This is how you create authority and validate your content — with website architecture that is built on logical, clustered internal linking.
Internal linking keeps users on your site for longer, but only if it’s valuable for them. This is why you shouldn’t link to your page about ‘employee wellbeing’ from an article about ‘conducting performance reviews, for example. Keep the user engaged with the topic they’re interested in. Otherwise, they’ll bounce.
As a ranking factor, good internal linking helps search engines find the other authoritative content on your site. This can help to boost the rankings of multiple pages!
8. Stick to a competitive word count
There are plenty of SEOs and marketers that insist that Google loves a blog post of around 2100 to 2400 words. While there may be some truth to this, it’s best to approach each piece of content individually. Unless you’re Wikipedia, you might struggle to rank with a 2000+ word post when the SERPs are dominated by 500-worders.
A good rule of thumb is to take the average word count of the top three competing pages as these are the pages you’ll need to de-throne. Most of the time these pages will have similar word counts and give a good indication of how much, or how little, content you’ll need to compete.
Again, if in doubt, use a content optimization tool such as SurferSEO that gives a suggested word count range that is based on the most relevant top pages.
9. Add CTAs to boost conversions
Optimizing content isn’t only about getting your page to the number one spot. If you’ve secured top positions in the SERPs and there’s a steady increase in organic traffic to your site then you need to make sure you’re taking advantage of it.
A page that’s SEO-optimized will feature a clear next step for users to take and an enticing call-to-action to persuade them to take it. This could be anything from visiting another page to subscribing to your newsletter, signing up for a free trial, or purchasing something.
The next step depends on the intent of the page and your overall SEO and marketing goals. Regardless, make sure there is somewhere for users to go, otherwise, they’ll end up bouncing.
10. Organize by topic cluster
Want to know how you can rank without a gazillion backlinks or time-consuming SEO tactics? Topical authority. The goal should be for your site to become an internal search engine for users within your specific niche.
In order to do so, you need to think about how to organize your content so that rather than publishing unrelated, standalone pieces, you create a content hub based on a broad topic that covers all the subtopics in supplementary content.
The best way to do this is to create a ‘pillar piece’. This will be the main page or article for a specific topic. Then, create cluster content to which your pillar piece will link out. Take it a step further by creating content hubs on your site to house all of these clusters.
Here’s a working example of what that would look like vs what you’re probably doing now.
Current blog post content strategy of a recruiting platform:
Likely based on high-volume keywords, low-hanging fruit, and KPI drivers but not taking topical authority into consideration
- Small business recruiting strategies
- Graphic designer interview questions
- How to hire a software developer
- Product manager job description
Optimized strategy based on creating topical authority:
Based on a long-tailed primary keyword for the main topic. Taking high-volume keywords, KPI drivers, and low-hanging fruit into account but prioritizing topical authority. This means including low-volume keywords, too.
- Pillar page: The ultimate guide to small business hiring
- Cluster content: Small business hiring strategies
- Cluster content: Small business recruiting software
- Cluster content: How to hire your first employee
11. Don’t forget about mobile
Not only do most internet searches appear on mobile, but mobile-friendliness is a page ranking factor too. When optimizing your content, you need to make sure that the page displays correctly and functions smoothly on mobile.
Using a responsive design for your site should automatically do this. However, it’s always a good idea to see how features such as tables of contents, CTA blocks, and visuals appear on mobile. Are the visuals correctly placed and CTAs clickable, for example?
12. Optimize existing content
Publishing new content every week is the name of the game, right? Well, not necessarily. While it’s good to have a consistent publishing schedule, there may be plenty of treasures hidden in your archives just waiting to be updated.
If it’s a traffic and KPI boost that you’re after, it’s oftentimes more profitable to spend your resources updating old content than creating new content. Established content takes less effort to optimize and is likely to improve in rankings quicker than a new piece of content — especially now that you know all of the tricks.
Take the time to go through outdated content. Look for opportunities to optimize content, target a better keyword, or merge pages that have similar intent to create one power piece.
Take all of the above steps and apply them to the content you’re updating. Monitor the performance of the page after changes have been made and if rankings don’t improve, try tweaking titles and meta descriptions.
Content optimization tools for SEO-friendly content
SEOs love tools, and for good reason. There are plenty of awesome optimization software solutions out there that save you a ton of time and provide useful insights and guidelines for creating optimized content. Here are four of the best content writing tools for SEO.
SurferSEO is my favorite tool for new content and optimizing existing content — it’s also one of the most affordable tools on the market. With the content editor, you can create SEO-optimized content from scratch or use the audit tool to edit existing content for SEO.
You won’t get away with keyword stuffing, as the content editor flags overuse of keywords as well as a lack of use of queries and related terms. The software also gives guidelines on content structure, helping you to create the ideal optimized piece.
See also: SurferSEO alternatives.
Another popular content optimization tool, Clearscope is intuitive software with a good keyword research tool and SERP analyzer that stacks your content up against the top 30 results. Clearscope is a fantastic tool for optimizing content according to related key topics — not just keywords.
Use the optimize tool and outline generator for creating comprehensive structures and dive into competitor analysis with Clearscope.
The software is a tad more expensive than Surfer SEO (by a tad, I mean a lot). But if your priority is outranking competitors, it may be worth the spend.
See also: Clearscope alternatives.
A powerful AI content optimization tool that is ideal for large businesses, MarketMuse does a lot of the heavy lifting for you. The tool assists in the planning, research, and writing of content.
One of the niftiest features is that MarketMuze creates keyword difficulty scores based on the performance of your existing content. This is a real game-changer as it helps you identify easy wins and low-difficulty keywords according to the competitiveness of your site.
Add that to the automated outlines with natural language generation, competitive analysis, and strategy tools, and you have a content optimization powerhouse.
See also: MarketMuse alternatives.
If you’re churning out content and looking for a way to optimize your content at scale, Frase can help. The software uses AI to scrape the SERPs and build intuitive outlines optimized for your primary keyword.
Frase gives excellent insights into related questions which is helpful for winning that sought-after featured snippet real estate. Like Clearscope and Surfer SEO, it provides a content score based on keyword use, structure, word count, and more.
It’s an affordable software that works well for creating optimized briefs but isn’t an adequate solution for updating existing content.
See also: Frase alternatives.