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How to Optimize Your How-to and List Posts

How-to posts are great. Searchers like them because they are actionable (and shareable). Publishers prefer them because they are easier to create and offer a good reader experience.

How can you help more people find your how-to and list content? Optimize it for search engines. In this article, I will show real examples and easy SEO techniques you can apply to your posts to increase your Google rankings and traffic.

Optimize your how-to and list #content so more searchers consume it, says @reliablesoftnet via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

You can use one of these four techniques:

  1. Proper headings and formatting
  2. HTML list element (ul)
  3. HTML list element (ul) with named anchors
  4. How-to schema

Each on-page SEO method is related to how your posts are structured and how good search engines read your page to understand what the content is about.

Let’s get started.

Option 1: Use proper headings and formatting

A how-to post usually has a title that describes what the article is about and content that includes the steps to perform an action or to learn something.

To help search engines understand that it is a how-to or a list post, use simple formatting techniques to pinpoint the important content areas.

Use an H1 tag for the post title and H2 tags for each step.

Use an H1 tag for article title and H2 tags for each step, says @reliablesoftnet via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

This is how it looks when you view the HTML source of a page. (The screenshot only shows the header formatting to help you understand this concept better.)

The SEO industry debates the importance of using only one H1 tag per page. Some say it’s good to have only one, while others say it does not matter. But what makes more sense from a user point of view is to always use a hierarchical approach. It helps both readers and search engines scan the content, which is especially good for long-form articles.

By following this simple technique, your article will be eligible to show as a featured snippet on Google for relevant searches. Here is an example:

Easy to implement, this method can make a huge difference in your traffic, especially if your how-to post ranks on page one – but not position one – on Google.

To avoid any misunderstanding, if you don’t follow this structure, your article may still rank. But in SEO every little bit helps and, in the case of how-to articles, this small change can have a big impact on your rankings.

Option 2: Use the HTML list element (ul)

To optimize for search, help the Google crawler identify the main areas of your list or how-to post by using the HTML list element. I use this technique for my posts and it works great.

When writing a how-to or list post, make sure to:

  • Use an H1 heading for the post title.
  • Use an H2 heading for the title of your list.
  • Include keyword(s) related to the title of your post. For example, if the H1 title was “Best Content Marketing Courses,” your H2 list title could be “Top Content Marketing Courses.”
  • Add a few lines to describe the list below the H2 title.
  • Wrap your list items using the HTML list element (UL).
  • Format the individual list items with an H3 tag.
With list content, use H1 for post title and H2 for list title, says @reliablesoftnet via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

Here is the Google snippet for a “digital marketing courses” search. The post contains a list of digital marketing courses:

On the backend, this is how the post is formatted:

Notice that the title of the list is formatted as an H2 tag and the list items are wrapped in <ul> <li> elements. The headings of the individual list items are H3 tags.

The advantage of this method is that it helps crawlers identify the list items even if other headings exist in your content. By gathering the list items together in a <UL> element, it makes crawling (and reading) easier.

To sum up, if your article only includes steps or lists items, go with the first option. But, if the how-to post has other sections, use this second option.

Option 3: Use the HTML list element (ul) and named anchors

To take it a step further and fully optimize the way your lists posts appear in search results, create internal links for each of your list items.

The process is the same as Option 2 with one additional step – add a named anchor to each list element and link to each anchor in your list.

Make each list item an anchor and link to it, says @reliablesoftnet via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

Let’s see how this is done:

  • Wrap your list in <ul><li> elements.
  • Format each list item title with an H3 tag. Edit the tag to include an ID and give it a name (i.e., anchor it).
  • Go back to your list and add an internal link to each individual list item that points to the respective H3 heading.

This is how the HTML looks:

Below is another example of a post formatted using the Option 3 technique:

Notice how Google displays each step below the meta description. Searchers can click on any step and be taken to that section of the article.

This powerful technique enhances the appearance of search snippets, which usually leads to a higher click-through rate (CTR) and more organic traffic to your website.

I also find having the list items as internal links increases the interaction rate and reduces bounce rate because visitors stay on your website longer.

Make these changes to existing how-to posts and monitor your rankings for a couple of weeks. You should notice that Google will pick up the changes. Also, check your bounce rate and time spent on a page in Google Analytics and you should notice improvements as well.

Option 4: Implement the how-to schema

The fourth method is a bit more complicated as it involves writing a few lines of script. If you are not familiar with adding coding and scripts to your pages, you might need the help of a developer. Nevertheless, it’s worth doing, especially if you have a lot of how-to content on your site.

To help Google understand your site’s content and use it as a featured snippet, rich snippet, or as source for voice search, use structured data.

Use structured data coding to provide @Google with better clues about your how-to content, says @reliablesoftnet via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

In simple terms, structured data is a standardized way of providing explicit clues about the meaning of a page to search engines. This is done by adding small pieces of code (JSON-LD script) in your content that gives more information about your content.

Google developed how-to schema instructions that give publishers the opportunity to specify the steps to complete a task.

For each step, define the URL that leads to each section of your post (as described in Option 3), an image, text instructions, a video (if applicable), and other required resources and time needed.

Here is the relevant section from Google documentation which explains what a how-to schema does:

“Use HowTo structured data to explicitly tell Google that your content is a how-to. A how-to walks users through a set of steps to successfully complete a task and can feature video, images, and text. HowTo structured data is appropriate when the how-to is the main focus of the page. 

“Properly marked up how-to pages may be eligible to have a rich result on Search and an Action on the Google Assistant, which can help your site reach the right users.”

According to Google’s documentation, the how-to schema is for mobile only, but signs exist that it has started testing how-to schemas for desktop as well. Soon, how-to schema will be applicable for all devices and platforms (including voice search).

How-to schema is for #mobile only, but signs exist that it has started testing how-to schemas for desktop, says @reliablesoftnet via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

Before I get into the details, it’s important to note that adding the how-to schema on your page does not change the page’s appearance. Structured data is not visible to users, only to search engine crawlers.

Let’s walk through how this is done.

  • Go through the requirements, especially the required properties and content guidelines. These will help you decide if your content is a good how-to schema candidate.
  • Write the script. You can use this one as the base to create yours. You can keep the basic structure as is and customize the steps and other information (like the titles, URLs, and images).
  • Test your code and preview its search appearance with the Google Rich Results Test.

TIP: If you don’t feel comfortable writing code, some free schema generators may help you or you can contact a developer to make the necessary changes.

Here is an example of a page with the how-to schema as provided by Google:

You’re not done yet. Once everything looks good, you should:

  • Embed your <script> in the <head> section of your page. Most WordPress themes allow you to add scripts on a per-page basis. If not, use one of the free plug-ins in the WordPress repository. If you’re not on WordPress, check with your CMS.
  • Submit your page to Google for re-indexing. Log in to your Google Search Console account and use the URL inspection tool to resubmit the page.

You can monitor the performance of your how-to schemas using the enhancements report of Google Search Console.

Get your how-to and list posts in order

Publishing how-to posts and lists is a great way to keep your readers engaged. To increase your chances of appearing at the top of Google (featured snippet) and at the same time optimize your content for voice search, use one or a combination of these four simple methods.

Option 1 – using H1 and H2 tags – is easy to implement but not the most effective. Option 2 – adding the HTML ul tag – is better but does not give site links. Option 3 – adding anchors and internal links – requires some effort but it’s worth it. It will make your posts easier to read and help improve the appearance of your search snippet in the SERPS.

If most traffic is coming from mobile, Option 4 – the how-to schema – is a good choice. You may need help from a developer, but it is something sooner or later everyone will have to implement.

Finally, don’t forget to monitor the performance of the updated how-to and list pages using the enhancements report in Google Search Console and relevant Google Analytics metrics, including the bounce rate and average session duration. It’s important to understand what’s working better after you made the changes – and if you need to explore other options.

Getting your content read first requires getting your content found. Explore ways to enhance your content strategy in CMI’s now-virtual ContentTECH Summit August 10 through 12. Register today!

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute