Should you create content for Google, or humans?
It’s a debate that’s been raging for years.
But with Google becoming more nuanced in how they understand and rank content, you can’t split your attention 50/50.
In fact, writing with Google’s constantly changing algorithm in mind will probably do more harm than good.
The simple truth is, writing engaging content for your audience is the best way to optimize your content for SEO.
That doesn’t mean you should forget about on-page optimization.
Far from it.
It just means that you should write to the human first, and optimize for search second.
Here are some tips for balancing writing for humans vs. search engines, so you can optimize your content for SEO.
SEO vs. Content Marketing
People often conflate SEO and content marketing.
While they’re certainly interconnected, they consist of two very different skill sets and objectives.
Let’s walk through each of them in turn.
What is SEO?
SEO is a more technical skill set, with a primary focus on website design and structure.
The goal of SEO is to convince search engines to display your content on their search engine result pages (SERPs).
SEO experts achieve this through relevant keywords, optimizing metadata, improving site performance, optimizing for mobile, and link building.
While content is an important part of the puzzle, it’s far from the only piece.
What is Content Marketing?
Content marketing involves generating and publishing educational content on your website, blog, social media, email, and more.
The goal is to attract, convert, and retain your target audience by educating them on your products and services.
While SEO is one channel to draw in an audience for your content, it’s not the only one.
What is SEO Content?
SEO content, then, is exactly what it sounds like: the overlap between SEO and content marketing.
Generating SEO content provides benefits to both types of marketers:
- Publishing high quality content will improve your website’s authority and make it easier to rank for SEO
- Optimizing your content for search helps it rank better, making the content that much more effective
Generally, your content marketer and SEO specialist should work hand in hand to meet their respective goals.
Why SEO Content is No Longer Keyword-Centric
It wasn’t all that long ago that people would generate keyword-stuffed content and instantly shoot to the top of the SERP.
So what changed?
In a word: Google.
Over the past five years, Google has made their algorithms smarter & more sophisticated.
Instead of analyzing simple keywords, these algorithms are smart enough to uncover the underlying intent behind a user’s search.
And while the user’s specific intent varies, one thing is constant: they’re always looking for valuable, relevant, and substantive answers to their questions.
This is why thin content that provides little to no value to the reader, almost always fails to rank. (Click here to read our article on thin content.)
Content that’s written clearly, incorporates keywords naturally, and provides value, on the other hand, is almost certain to succeed.
This is why having an SEO specialist, while necessary to achieving SEO success, isn’t sufficient.
You also need someone who can produce content that closely aligns with your audience’s search intent.
In other words: you need to write to the human first, not the search engine.
If you try and write for Google over people, not only will your rankings stagnate, but they’ll start to fall.
And given how fast Google’s algorithms change, you probably won’t be able to keep up.
So does this mean keywords are no longer important?
But it means you may have to rethink how you approach using keywords in your SEO content:
- Use the keywords naturally throughout the copy
- Don’t just repeat the keyword verbatim — use variations that make sense
- Include related keywords in your copy as well
- Focus on the contextual weight of the keyword, rather than its exact usage or density
In the end, focus on providing value around a particular topic. If you do that, odds are the rankings will follow.
How to Write Content for the Human First
Before we dive into how to optimize your content for SEO, let’s start with how to optimize for the human.
If you want to create content that people will want to read, you need to do the following:
- Write in a readable and engaging way
- Be authentic and trustworthy
- Spend time on research & comprehensiveness (this is how you provide real value)
- Focus on topics your audience is actually interested in
- Offer a unique perspective (if you have first-party data or case studies, that’s even better!)
- Edit, clean, and polish your copy
- Keep your content up to date over time
Here are some specific steps to ensure that every piece of content you write is valuable, engaging, and interesting.
1. Write with the user in mind.
This first piece of advice seems so obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people forget it.
The goal of your content is to attract an audience. So it makes sense you should write in a way that a person would want to read.
Before you or your writer sits down to write, ask yourself: who do I want to read this piece of content?
Even something as simple as this will help you match your content to the user’s intent.
And if you’re having trouble figuring this out, take a look at what similar blogs are doing.
Better yet: reach out to a trusted customer and ask them. Their insights will be incredibly valuable.
2. Use keywords naturally.
We’ll talk in the next section about how to use keywords in your content.
But for now, it’s important to mention that your keyword placements shouldn’t feel awkward or out of place. If they do, odds are you’re engaging in some keyword stuffing (bad!).
Instead, fit them in where it feels most natural. And word them in a way that feels natural as well. Google will pick them up either way, and your audience won’t feel jarred.
3. Be honest, authentic, & accurate.
Your readers are smart; smarter than you may give them credit for.
They know how to sniff out B.S. And if they find it in any of your content, they’ll run.
So if you make promises in your content — including your title, headers, or call to action — follow through.
On top of that, remember that no matter what field you’re in, you’re marketing to a human being.
Even in a B2B context, make sure you keep your content authentic and engaging. After all, businesses don’t buy things — the people in those businesses do.
4. Crosslink with other internal web pages.
Crosslinking is simple and easy, but it can benefit your site in major ways.
By linking to other relevant content, you can direct traffic to pillar pages, downloadable content offers, and other priority pages.
This has the dual benefit of amplifying the value you’re offering your users, while indirectly increasing the number of touches they have with you.
5. Write for readability & scannability.
I hate to break it to you: but your readers probably won’t read every word of your content.
Even though I’m a professional content writer, I can’t remember the last time I actually read a piece of online content.
Instead, I scan each piece, trying to gather what tidbits I can in less than a minute.
When writing content for human readers, you need to keep this dynamic in mind:
- Avoid large content blocks
- Bold or italicize important words or phrases
- Use bullets and lists
- Put your key takeaways into your headers
6. Follow the content’s natural flow.
When a reader is consuming your content, you don’t want them to have a “WTF moment.”
This is when they come across your content and think: “WTF is this doing here??”
Your content should flow logically and naturally. Each subsequent section should build on the previous one, and should make sense to a human reader.
How to Generate SEO Content
Now that we’ve gone over how to generate human-centric content, let’s walk through how to optimize that content for SEO.
1. Tailor the content to the keyword.
Each piece of content you create should target one primary keyword and a handful of secondary words.
The prevailing advice is that you should focus on long-tail keywords. This is because, for newer websites and brands, these are the easiest to rank for, and give you a better ROI.
While that’s true to an extent, you should also target short-tail, high volume keywords as well.
The key isn’t picking one over the other, but tailoring the content to the keyword:
- Create highly substantive, quality pillar pages to target those short-tail, high volume topics
- Generate focus blog posts for each of those long-tail, low volume topics
- Use hyperlinks to connect the two, allowing traffic to flow both ways
When it comes to short-tail keywords, you should pick a handful of terms that are highly relevant to your business and brand.
Then, target long-tail keywords with very specific, niche content.
The specific search volume in question will vary from business to business. A good rule of thumb is 300 monthly searches.
However, if there’s a particular term that attracts a high-quality, active buyer, then you should target it. Even if you only get 10 hits per month from it.
2. Incorporate keywords & variations naturally.
Now that you’ve got one or two keywords, it’s time to incorporate them in your blog post. But how do you do that without keyword stuffing?
Here’s a checklist of where to include your keywords:
- Title tag
- Body text
- Meta description
- Image alt-text
Make sure you’re incorporating not only your focus keyword, but also related keywords into your body text.
This will help search engines see that your content is comprehensive, and they will start to view your website as an authority on the topic.
3. Optimize for mobile devices.
In the past, we would say that your content should be “mobile responsive.”
But it’s 2021 now. Your pages shouldn’t just be mobile responsive, but mobile-optimized.
As many as 60% of all searches are performed on mobile devices.
That’s why Google displays mobile-optimized results first on Google, which has been the case ever since its 2015 Penguin update.
Here are some ways you can optimize your website for mobile.
- Use a responsive design
- Write short paragraphs (no massive text blocks)
- Incorporate mobile-responsive graphics
- Make the text easily scannable
- Reduce visual clutter on the page
It’s safe to say that the majority of your visitors will view your content on mobile. So taking this important step will improve their user experience as well as your rankings.
4. Optimize for voice search.
According to data from Perficient, 55% of users do voice search to ask questions on a smartphone.
And 39.4% of U.S. internet users operate a voice assistant at least once a month, according to eMarketer.
It’s clear that voice search is growing fast. As wearable tech and digital assistants become more widely used, it’s going to grow even faster.
Make sure that you’re prepared for this by optimizing your content for voice search:
- Use conversational keywords (generally questions) in your content
- Provide context with a schema markup
- Build pages that answer FAQs
5. Optimize your meta description.
Your meta description is the additional text that appears on SERPs to show readers what the link is about.
Together with your headline, it helps you demonstrate the content’s value & convince the searcher that it aligns with their search intent.
Generally, the length of your meta description should range from 155-300 characters.
When Google pulls your meta description onto the SERP, it will likely also pull in additional information.
For instance, when we search for “common seo mistakes in digital content production,” we see a search result for one of FEARLESS’ blogs on the first page:
You’ll notice that immediately below the title, the meta description isn’t visible. Instead, it shows the title, and some of the main headers in the piece.
While you can’t control what Google displays, optimizing your meta description can, when displayed, drive more readers to click.
6. Include image alt text.
All blog posts should contain imagery in addition to the text.
And especially if you’ve created some high quality graphics, you’ll want those to show up on a Google Images search.
By optimizing your alt text around your target keyword, you’ll signal to Google that they should include your images in their search results.
So here are some things to keep in mind when creating alt text:
- Describe the image (without using “image of…”)
- Be specific in your description
- Keep it under 125 characters
- Use your keywords (but avoid keyword stuffing)
Image alt text also helps improve the user experience by showing descriptive text when the user’s browser has trouble displaying the image.
7. Review metrics regularly.
Your work doesn’t stop once you hit the “publish” button.
After you publish your SEO content, it’s important to regularly review your metrics. That way, you’ll see which content is performing well, and what needs to be improved.
This informs not only which content to refresh and repurpose, but also can drive the new content you create.
With Google Search Console’s Search Analytics Report, you can analyze the clicks that come from search. This can help you determine which keywords people are searching for when they come across your content.
Final Thoughts on Optimizing Content for SEO
At the end of the day, search engines aren’t your end customer.
Search engines are just a tool that connect you with those humans.
So while you should be mindful of optimizing your content for SEO, the end goal is to create content that your users will love.
Keep in mind that this is a struggle for many marketers.
Odds are, your posts won’t start to rank immediately. Building up this level of search authority takes time.
But if you publish blog posts frequently, optimize them for search, and focus on delivering value to your readers, you’re going to be in great shape.