The complete guide to optimizing content for SEO with checklist

Effective content marketing is a vehicle for modern SEO.

Just as wheels without an engine leaves you pedaling, content without an SEO strategy can’t keep up in a digital marketplace. And just like an engine with no wheels, SEO without content is a shiny machine that goes nowhere.

Content needs SEO to stand out in the din of mediocre blog posts clogging up the internet these days, and Google has said that one of the top three ranking factors for organic search is “content.”

But what does that mean? Not any content, surely. Unfortunately, search engines are not handing out checklists for “high-quality content,” and they probably never will. That means it’s up to those of us who geek out on this kind of thing to study search results, mine Google Analytics and create massive spreadsheets that we pretend to be bored by but secretly love — all to bring you (and ourselves, who are we kidding?) a comprehensive guide to creating “high-quality” SEO content.

Step 1: SEO your content strategy

Too many marketers are still waiting until the end of content creation to bring in SEO as a promotional tool. They try to figure out what they’ve just created, so they can plug in a few keywords and links.

But an effective content marketing strategy should start with keyword and user intent research. Once you know what queries your audience is using, and what kind of content they are looking for, you can design a content strategy that answers their specific questions and helps move them through the funnel.

High-quality content:

  •  is based on an understanding of your audience, as well as keyword and user intent research. Use your audience’s language, and provide the information they’re actually looking for.
  •  helps the reader complete one specific task. Long content (1,000+ words) tends to rank better in organic results, in part because it is thorough. That said, stay on task and don’t let the content lose focus.
  •  features an enticing call to action or a clear next step. When you know your readers and their buyer journeys, your content can point them to more of what they want.

Step 2: Design good content

Good UX is good SEO. When users are engaged, they consume more content, interact with it and share it. From the overarching structure to the details of the layout, make sure you are designing good content.

There are plenty of philosophies about which characteristics make content “good” — or “sticky” or “thought leadership.” They are all worthy considerations, and every piece of content should cover at least a few:

  • Simple/Clear/Coherent
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible/Valid/Experienced
  • Emotional
  • Entertaining
  • Inspiring
  • Educational
  • Relevant
  • Deep/Thorough
  • Practical
  • Novel/Unique (in value, not just in content)
  • Trustworthy

And as you continue to design content, keep your audience in mind: you are writing for people, so search engines can also understand — not vice versa.

High-quality content:

  •  is written to its audience, not your peers. Make sure the language is neither too simple nor full of industry jargon.
  •  is shareable. Take a step back and ask yourself if you would share it — and, if so, could you? (i.e., are social sharing buttons readily available?)
  •  can be scanned quickly. Use short paragraphs, callouts, bold text, bullet points, numbered lists, quotes and so on to make the text easy on the eyes and easy to digest quickly.
  •  uses strong titles and H1s. Create enticing, actionable titles that use keywords strategically and naturally. CoSchedule has a nice headliner analyzer tool if you need help here.
  •  features ideal results, common objections and/or time frames in subheaders. Anticipate the audience’s hopes, fears and concerns.
  •  is better than current SERP winners. Spy out the competition. Review the pages that are currently ranking well for target keywords and ask yourself if your content is better. Make sure it’s better.

Step 3: Create correct content

Is there anything as unsettling as a typo in an otherwise great piece of content? No. There isn’t. While there is no evidence, at this time, that grammar is a ranking signal, it’s a UX/credibility concern.

Additionally, citing sources and linking to other authorities is good technique, but it’s also good SEO — those outbound links demonstrate to search engines that you know your stuff, and that you’re associating with the right crowd.

High-quality content:

  •  is free of spelling and grammatical errors. Proofread. And then have someone else proofread. (No joke, my mother sent me a screen shot of a grammatical error in a Propecta Facebook post recently. Those are the people you need in your life.)
  •  links to good, reputable sources. Wikipedia counts as a good source to Google, no matter what your high school social studies teacher said.
  •  has been fact-checked. Just because everyone else quotes that statistic, it doesn’t mean you should, unless you can find the source.

Step 4: Check your keyword usage

You started with keywords and user intent research, of course, so this is not about figuring out which keywords apply to the piece of content in question. This is about examining how that keyword is being used in said content.

It’s true that keyword stuffing is very, very out. It was never cool in the first place, but now — thanks to Google — it’s also ineffective (if not dangerous). It’s also true that Google is very savvy about keywords. None of that, however, means that keywords are “dead.” It just means SEO needs to use them better.

(It is also worth noting that users look for keywords. Google is smart enough to recognize common synonyms, but when a user types in a keyword, he/she is looking for that bolded keyword on the SERP.)

High-quality content:

  •  is not stuffed full of the primary keyword. There’s no real math for this. A good way to visualize is to use the “Find” feature in your document and search the keyword. If it looks oversaturated, start plugging in some synonyms.
  •  organizes thematic subsections by primary related keywords. Google is getting better and better at understanding related terms. Don’t be afraid of it.
  •  makes natural use of keywords and variants in content. Don’t overthink it. Use synonyms, abbreviations, plurals and so on like a normal human being.
  •  makes natural use of keywords in image text. Image titles, alt text and captions are strategic places for descriptive language. Don’t force keywords, but do use them as applicable.
  •  makes natural use of keywords in titles. Write for people first, but if you can keep that target keyword toward the front of your title and/or H1, do so.
  •  makes natural use of keywords in the URL. This shouldn’t be too hard if you’ve used it in the title.
  •  makes natural use of keywords and variants in the first 100 words. Don’t be awkward, but do, as much as possible, lay all your cards on the table as quickly as possible.

Bonus round: Some technical SEO content issues

Technical SEO is, mostly, an entirely different conversation. Most technical SEO factors are sitewide issues that need to be audited, and the important ones cleaned up, before you start trying to optimize content.

There are, however, a few technical considerations relating specifically to individual content, and I would be remiss to ignore them:

  •  Content loads quickly. Three seconds or less is what you’re working with. Make sure the images and other media files aren’t slowing down the content’s performance.
  •  Content plays well on mobile. This will not likely be an issue if the site uses responsive design, which most do, but make sure forms and CTAs are tappable in the content, images are center-aligned and so on.
  •  Page is included on the site’s XML sitemap. Help Google find and understand the content!
  •  Internal links point to the content. Make sure they are relevant and they use keyword-based anchor text as possible/appropriate.
  •  URLs are short. Top-ranking pages have shorter URLs. Position 1 URLs average 59 characters long.

Go forth and create ‘high-quality content’

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but they have never tried to rank content in organic search. The truth is, for our purposes, beauty is in the eye of the target audience — as interpreted by a machine learning program at Google.

Fortunately, RankBrain, although still fairly vague and nebulous, is at least pretty consistent. That means we can Google thousands of terms, study tens of thousands of results, A/B test our own hypotheses, and come up with a list of characteristics that are very likely beautiful to Google — 77 characteristics, to be exact.

Start your SEO content journey by bringing the two together from the beginning. If you are working with a content marketing strategy that did not start with SEO research, start again. When the wheels and the engine start together, you set out on a much smoother ride.