Writing content for web pages is an art and a discipline. Not only do you have to create quality content that fulfills the need of the business and makes a connection with its readers, but you also have to think about how that web page fits into the bigger picture of your marketing strategy, and how to make the most out of that real estate.
When you create web pages, you essentially have three audiences that must be satisfied: the online visitor, the search engines, and the business. It’s not an easy task, which is why great web pages are backed by a lot of strategy and skill. With Google placing more and more emphasis on quality content in its search results, it’s now more important than ever to approach web pages with a journalistic attention to detail, marketing savvy, and a focus on the user experience.
In this post, we’ll explore a strategy that helps you create web pages that kick butt. From the planning and research phase, to the content development to the tracking, testing and extras, this post has everything you need to get you thinking about web pages in a holistic way.
What Google thinks is quality web content
In May 2011, Google Webmaster Central posted some thoughts on its blog on how the search engine views quality content. Following is an excerpt from the post, “More guidelines on building high-quality sites,” and gives some insight into how Google valuates content on the web. I recommend that anyone creating online content should run through these questions when evaluating new or existing web pages:
- Would you trust the information presented in this article?
- Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
- Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
- Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
- Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
- Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
- Do the articles provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
- Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
- How much quality control is done on content?
- Do the articles describe both sides of a story?
- Is the site a recognized authority on its topic?
- Is the content mass-produced or outsourced to a large number of creators, or spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don’t get as much attention or care?
- Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
- For a health related query, would you trust information from this site?
- Would you recognize this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?
- Do the articles provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
- Do the articles contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
- Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
- Do the articles have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?
- Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia, or book?
- Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?
- Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail (vs. those that pay less attention to detail)?
- Would users complain when they see pages from this site?
Now that we have some insight into Google’s measurement of quality, let’s take a closer look at how you can create web pages with all three of your audience sets in mind (the user, the business, and Google), at each phase of web page creation.
Planning the content for your web pages
In this phase of the content process, you’re going to be doing a lot of research in order to create a high-performing web page. During this time, you’ll decide what the purpose of the page is, what keywords are going to go on that page, and what goals you have for the page.
Sound like a lot of work? It should be. Writing content for content’s sake and without any structure is a waste of time and money. That’s why research and planning should be the bulk of the content process. Two things that are very important to the information-gathering phase are:
- Getting into the mind of the business
- Getting into the mind of the visitor
How keyword research fits in
Keyword research is a component of diving into the mind of your potential website visitor. This is because you are essentially predicting what users want based on a query they are performing in a search engine.
A couple things we don’t have time to get into in this post are how to perform extensive keyword research, and how a single web page fits into the bigger picture of a perfectly themed section on the site, based on the keywords you’re targeting. It is worth mentioning, though, that where a web page is placed into the navigation and what keywords are assigned to it is part of a bigger, more elaborate content and SEO strategy. If you’re just starting out, though, here’s a quick and dirty approach to keyword research that you can take:
- Decide if the web page is about research or buying — informational pages versus pages that are meant for people to buy a product have very different keywords and content (because the user’s intent is different in this stage of the buying cycle).
- Ask the client/employer what they believe this aspect of their business is about (whatever the web page is). This doesn’t mean those words become the keywords, but they do give you a starting point to begin keyword research.
- Find out what kinds of keywords the competition is using. This can be done by viewing a web page, right-clicking on the page, and viewing the page source, looking for the Keywords tag. It’s important to remember that a company’s competition online can vary greatly from what the business thinks the competition is in the market. Online, your competition becomes those sites that are vying for rankings for the same keyword phrase.
- Using the list of potential keywords, start digging into keyword possibilities by taking advantage of free keyword research tools (if no others are available to you). One is Google AdWords Keyword Tool. Input the potential phrases to optimize for, then check the stats and suggested keywords Google gives. In general, many people look for the sweet spot between higher monthly searches and lower competition. But strategies vary, because you want a mix of terms in your set that fall between high traffic and low traffic, depending on where the web page will live on your site (again, part of the bigger content strategy).
There are many tactics and approaches for compiling potential keywords. In fact, one could write a novel on it, and many people have! The takeaway here is that keyword research should be a part of any well-constructed web page.
Beyond the keywords: Understanding the business and its audience
You can more deeply understand the business and its audience through research. This part is important when analyzing how the web page will deliver on the promise and the intent of the search query. It needs to fulfill a requirement. I tend to talk a lot about the need for detailed questionnaires before the start of any content development project. Without this kind of research, you truly can’t connect the business to the audience. These questionnaires are used to interview the client before you start writing (whether it’s the business owner or multiple subjects within a company; same goes if you’re writing content in-house). If you’re really lucky, you’ll be able to interview other key subjects outside the company, like the actual customer, to gain a better understanding of the topic.
Because writers must become subject-matter experts on any given topic on behalf of their clients or employers, interviews are key. The more in-depth the research, the better understanding you have of the topic. Assuming the web page is about a company’s product or service, your questionnaire should include things like:
- What is the brand’s personality, and how does that sound and feel in the written word?
- What’s important to the customer, and how does this product or service integrate into that?
- What solution(s) is this product or service offering? What need is it fulfilling?
- What are the benefits of the features? What do they allow the customer to do?
- What does the website visitor know about your company today? What might they not know?
- What, if any, myths or misconceptions can be dispelled about the product, service, or company?
- Do the demographics of the audience reveal additional attributes for persona building?
Your questionnaire should act as a living document that you continue to build over time with each new project. Once you have a solid inventory of questions for varying types of clients, products, services, and industries, you can pick and choose questions to customize questionnaires every time you have a new project. This type of research, along with the keyword research, comes together to plan for the content that will be on the web page. In general, the subject matter should drive the content; the keywords should be an added bonus that help the content to be found.
Next comes the content development to fulfill the purpose of the web page.
Developing content for your web page
Determine the length of the web page
What is the goal for this page? Is it to educate? Sell? Something else? Planning for what you want a visitor to do when they get to your web page can greatly impact what you say, how you say it and in how many words you say it. It also impacts other crucial elements on a web page, like your call-to-action placement, social media elements, and more.
For example, if this is a landing page that is meant to sell — convert visitors to customers right then and there — your language will be very direct, concise and work in tandem with visuals to instigate a specific action from a user. If the page is meant to educate a person in the research phase of buying, your content will be more in depth.
Often, the length of your web page can be determined by what the top-ranking sites for that keyword are doing. For example, if the top three web pages in the results for a keyword have similar content elements on their web page (word count, visuals, etc.), you might think about using them as a model. In general, for SEO purposes, you really never want a page with less than 250 words of content, and this is more for ecommerce-type pages or even landing pages with the intent to convert. For informational pages, I recommend at least 450 words. This gives you a chance to optimize it with keywords without keyword stuffing, a practice that Google frowns upon. Keyword stuffing occurs when the density of your keywords is too high (keywords per text words). And remember that the longer your web pages are, the more attention spans begin to wane. This is why you want to break up long blocks of content with things like bulleted lists, headings, graphics and white space.
Web content optimization checklist
You’ve written your content and now it’s time to optimize for one of your important audiences: the Google search engine bot. Writing quality content is great for the end user, but you also have to write your content in a way that a search engine bot can understand. A search engine bot cannot “see” your content like a user. It crawls your content and parses the code and cues you give to it so that it can determine relevancy based on its search algorithm. To illustrate, this is what a reader sees:
And this is what a search engine bot sees from that same page:
Google endorses certain SEO tactics like on-page optimization (if done correctly) because it’s helpful to make pages more relevant for search, and makes it easier for the search engine to perform its job. Remember, your web page and the search engine are working together for one person: the end user. That said, here are some optimization tips once your web content is created:
Is the meta data for the page present? Meta data is HTML code on the page that helps the search engine understand what the page is about. It also serves as the title and description in the search engine results for that web page. This makes it extremely valuable content, offering an opportunity to pull people into that page from the results.
Rule No. 1: Don’t make it boring.Here’s an example of what meta information looks like in the results:
Meta tags in the HTML code:
Some guidelines for formatting and writing meta data include:
- The Head section of the HTML code on a web page contains the meta data, and should be positioned as close to the top of the page as possible in the code, so it’s one of the first things the bot encounters. You don’t want the bot to have to crawl through a bunch of code before it can understand what the page is about.
- The meta data is comprised of the Title tag, the Description tag and the Keywords tag. Although Google has said the keywords tag is not a factor in ranking, many people like to include it in their practice. The order of the Head section should be Title > Description > Keywords.
- The Title tag should tell both the search engines and the users what the page is about. Remember, this is prime real estate in the search results, so make it good. It should also include the important keywords for that phrase. Same goes for the Description tag. But do not overuse any keyword in a tag, as this can be considered keyword stuffing.
- When the meta tag renders in the search engine results pages, there is often a character cutoff — meaning the entire title and description will not display to the user. So a best practice is to ensure you’ve included your important keywords towards the beginning of the tag; this is because keywords will show in bold when they match users queries. This increases the likelihood the user will click through. The cutoff for titles is about 70 characters; the cutoff for the description is about 160 characters.
There are many theories on how to best optimize content for the search engines, but the most important thing to remember is not to “over-optimize” your content to the point where it seems forced or spammy. The tactics in optimization should exist to help the content be found and make a web page easy to understand for the search engine spiders. At Bruce Clay, Inc., there are several methodologies we practice for optimizing content:
- Keywords in first 200 words: It’s been noted that search engines put weight on the first 200 words of a page. Ensure all your page’s keywords show up in the first 200 words (use discretion if you have a lot of keywords), and that the most important keyword is in the first Heading tag on the page, the H1.
- Clarification words present: Clarification words placed near the first instance of your keyword phrase help relay what the page is about to the search engine bot. For example, if your keyword phrase contains the word “apple,” the bot has to make a decision about whether it’s the fruit or the tech company. You can find related words to the keyword by performing a tilde search in Google. This requires going to the Google search box, using the tilde character (~) along with the keyword. So it looks like this: ~keyword. The results will have the words in bold that the search engine believes are most related to that word.
- Heading tags formatted correctly: Heading tags help enforce the subject matter on a page, so include keywords. Best practices is to ensure your Heading tags are set up as a table of contents for that page, using them in a hierarchal manner; for example H1 then H2, H2, H3; where the H2 is a subhead of H1, the H3 is a subhead of H2 and so on. Again, this is just another way to make the page readable for the bot.
- Keyword density and distribution check: You don’t want to use keywords too much in your content, but make sure they are used at least twice in the body (bare minimum). The key is to make it natural within the context of the topic. If there’s a keyword in every sentence, it will likely seem forced. Also, just to be sure the theme of the page is being carried through all the way to the end, try to distribute the placement of your key terms as evenly (but also as naturally) as possible.
- Anchor links text: Make sure if you have any outbound links on the page, that the anchor text properly cites what the person can expect when they click through to the other page. Typically in an internal site linking scenario, the anchor text will contain the primary keyword for the page it’s linked to.
- Images optimized: Images on the page should be described so that the search engines know what those images are. This serves a dual purpose. The first is that it complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which applies to websites and states that persons with disabilities may not be denied equal access to goods and services. Screen-reading software is used to help blind people understand web content, so describing what the image is instead of using the default link description is very helpful. Use the Alt attribute to describe the image. Optimizing the image also offers an additional way for that web page to be found, because images are a part of Google’s Image Search results and Universal Search results in Google (a service that returns multiple types of content in the SERPs, including images and videos). To further enforce what the image is about, use the file name and the text surrounding the image (like the caption). If the image is relevant to the page’s keywords, it’s OK to include keywords — but don’t keyword stuff.
What else makes a great web page?
Now you have quality, relevant content that speaks to your audience, and you’ve optimized it for the search engines to help it be found — but what else can you do to create an engaging page? Consider adding:
- Videos: Can the content on the page be summed up in a short video you can embed? This adds an element of engagement and another way for people to access the information. Remember, not everyone wants to consume content in the same way. Upload the video to YouTube and optimize it. This offers another way for your web page to be found.
- Infographics: Is there enough data to create a sweet infographic you can embed to help illustrate your point? This can not only make the page more interesting, but also offer additional ways to market that page by pushing the graphic out through social mediums.
- Social elements: Do you have social sharing buttons on this page? If appropriate to do so, add social sharing buttons to help that content be pushed further into the web. Usually, social sharing buttons are part of a larger sitewide strategy, but it’s worth mentioning here. Be sure to keep the plug-ins focused on the communities that matter to you. Too many choices can leave people feeling overwhelmed.
- Call-to-action buttons: Choosing your call to actions and making them stand out is an important part of telling the visitor what you want them to do next. Make sure any important directives are above the fold (the user shouldn’t have to scroll down to see them from when they first land on the page).
Next steps with your web page
Hopefully, you never just create a web page and forget about it. Web pages are living documents that you can improve over time. Some things to plan for with your web page:
- Adding fresh content: Is there a chance the content will be outdated at some point? Make sure it always offers the most up-to-date information to the users. This is often referred to as “evergreening” your content.
- Tracking in analytics: How is the page performing? You want to track this over time and make adjustments based on your goals. Whole books could be written on this topic, but it’s important to mention that an unexamined page is not helping your strategy.
- A/B and multivariate testing: Testing the performance of your content is an important part of making great web pages. Sometimes, something as simple as changing the placement of a call-to-action button or revamping a headline makes all the difference in the world to moving a visitor to convert. Google offers free tools for this if you’re just getting started. Website Optimizer by Google is going away in favor of its new testing tool, Content Experiments, which takes a new approach to testing web pages.
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