Content Design and SEO
Last month, I joined an online session on Content Leadership challenges. This was part of the launch of Tempo, a new community for content leaders. While I work more broadly now, some of my background is in content design and I enjoy keeping in touch with this area. There was a great discussion around the overlaps between content design and other disciplines. It was interesting to hear search engine optimization (SEO) described as a dark art, associated with marketing and sales rather than user experience.
Good SEO matches the goals of content design, especially if you think of finding the content as part of an overall user journey. This point was made by Sarah Winters (formerly Richards) a few years ago, and I came away from the Tempo session feeling it needed restating. What counts as good SEO still depends on how search engines crawl sites or pages and use this to rank lists of search results. However, the algorithms used in ranking have changed and they now do more to punish user unfriendly experiences, such as keyword stuffing and shallow content.
Know your google algorithm animals
The evolution of SEO is best shown by the changes in how search engines use algorithms to rank search results. I’m going to quickly go through the major changes to Google’s search algorithms, which demonstrate the changes in thinking. Google is the most used search engine, so SEO advice tends to focus on their algorithms over other search engines. Google names their updates after animals, so in our SEO zoo we have panda, hummingbird, penguin and pigeon.
Panda: decreased the rankings of sites with thin content or that are content farms.
Hummingbird: penalised sites that stuff content with keywords and increased the ranking of sites using natural language.
Penguin: aimed at sites that get extra links by manipulation or building doorway pages that exist solely to generate search engine traffic. It decreased the rankings of pages with little content or large amounts of advertising and lists of irrelevant links.
Pigeon: gives ranking preference to local search results.
SEO for everyone
Recently, I reread Sarah Horton and Whitney Quesenbery’s “A Web for Everyone”. It occurred to me that the algorithm changes and their effects on modern SEO practices can be aligned with the central principles of this book.
With this principle, people are the first consideration and services or products are designed with the needs of everyone in mind.
SEO is described as being for robots or spiders, because the tools for ranking are seen as artificial, insidious and perhaps a little creepy. This is unfair to both algorithms and arachnids. Modern SEO is for people first. At their best, the rankings make sure everyone finds the sites they need and that poor or manipulative content is lower down in a user’s search results. Following good SEO practices is ultimately about putting people first in one of the earliest stages of the user journey: the search.
Products and services should be guided by a defined purpose and goals.
Search rankings are boosted by clearer descriptions and metadata (titles, author and date fields). It’s easier to fill out these fields when content has a clear purpose. Defining the goal and purpose of your content helps users find it at the start of their journey, as well as improving steps that are further on in their journey. Similarly, removing content that obscures the purpose of your product or service is good for both users and SEO. This is because old or irrelevant pages and links are scored lower by the ranking tools. Up to date content is crawled more frequently by the tools, meaning changes to your content will show up in users’ searches more quickly.
People feel confident using a design because it is stable, robust, and secure. This includes being built to consistent standards of html.
The SEO algorithms downgrade poor or inaccurate structure. For example, using multiple h1s or main tags in your html will mean your content ranks lower in search results. Using one h1 and one main tag per page of a website is also the best practice for accessibility. Consistent, structured semantic html gives users of screen readers and other accessibility a more equal experience. Following these standards also helps with maintaining your content by making the html easier to understand at a later date. Better maintenance means a more stable and robust experience for users.
People can use the service or product across all modes of interaction and operating with a broad range of devices.
SEO tools score differently — and therefore rank your content differently — depending on the device a person is using for their search. To rank higher in the search results for all users, your content needs to work well on all types of device. After all, a mobile user would quickly get frustrated if the top results they access work oddly on a mobile phone. Content that is responsive to different modes of interaction and devices is both better for users and ranked higher by SEO scoring.
People can navigate content following self-explanatory signposts.
We can think about wayfinding in terms of navigation to content, as well as navigating around content. Good SEO means people don’t lose focus while searching, or already feel tired by the time they have scrolled through the list of search results. There is also crossover between content that is easy to navigate and content that is well structured. It’s difficult to have one of these without the other, and both benefit users as well as increasing your content’s search ranking.
People can perceive and understand the meaning of all elements in the design.
An SEO tool can’t understand content and elements of a design like a human user, but they can filter out mismatches between perception and meaning. Even if the SEO tool can not “see” all the elements, it’s likely to still know they are there by parsing code and structure, etc. This will decrease the content’s SEO score and lead to lower ranking in search results. For example, hidden text stuffed with keywords used to be seen as a way to increase rankings. This practice is now penalised by SEO tools, and shows how the changes to algorithms can bring the goal of a good search ranking closer to the aims of great, user-centric content.
People can read, understand, and use the information.
Researching how your users speak about a topic and knowing the words they use is a foundation of good design. It’s also necessary to meet the natural language criteria of the search engine algorithms. Content that most closely resembles how people type and talk will get further up the search results. The requirements of SEO match the user need for clear, plain language. People shouldn’t need to second guess the way they talk about a service or product and then add the “correct” term into their search.
People can understand and use information contained in media, such as images, audio, video, animation, and presentations.
SEO tools read alt text and use this in scoring, along with other structured data that is used by accessibility software to parse media. Your content will rank higher if you include descriptive filenames, captions, alt text or transcripts and use semantic markup (for example, img rather than div).
The media situation has become more complex since “A Web for Everyone” was published. For example, you may need to include a trigger warning, add an age limit, or may not have the copyright permission to use the media in a specific country. For these cases, you are optimising the content away from some users and towards others, according to their needs.
People can focus on the experience and their own goals because the service or product anticipates their needs.
Modern SEO emphasises the idea of trusted domains, where a site becomes more trusted and ranks higher because of the quality of the sites and organisations who link to it. If content delights users, they are more likely to link to it. This creates a virtuous loop, making great content easier to find, and more likely to be linked to by trusted sites.
If your content is centered on users and you are dedicated to understanding those users, you already have the information and descriptions you need for good SEO. The next step is making these available and seeing the initial search as an essential part of the overall content user journey.