Content marketing and search engine optimization are inextricably linked. Yet we're in a strange place at present. While search engine optimization companies rebrand themselves as "content marketing solutions," enterprises engaging in content marketing internally are engaging content producers with little or no SEO background.
As a result, search visibility, often a major criterion or benefit of content marketing, falls by the wayside. Yet nothing matters more in search engine optimization than content. Nothing.
Sure, technical aspects of a site play a large factor, as does site architecture. A few things done improperly or mismanaged -- for example, a robots.txt file that prevents a search engine from even seeing online content -- can torpedo SEO efforts. But when it comes to having a well-optimized web presence that's visible to search engines, content is the alpha and omega of those efforts -- more specifically, written content. Search engines can only crawl, index, and understand text -- not images, videos, podcasts, photos, or any other type of graphic or multimedia content.
This is not to say you can't optimize non-text content marketing elements. We'll examine how later.
Keywords are key
Strong, optimized written copy is the most critical part of any SEO initiative. But before the first sentence, tagline, or headline is written, first venture into the heart of search optimization by identifying those keywords and key phrases your target audience are likely to use when searching for your website, articles, blog entries, or other content initiatives, as well as for individual pages or specific pieces of content within a website or blog.
These are the words and phrases searchers use, not necessarily the ones you use back at the office when you're talking with colleagues. Perhaps you're a medical professional who bandies about terms such as "myocardial infraction." The average web searcher is more likely to seek information on "heart attack."
The first step in the keyword research process is simply to brainstorm a list of the words and phrases a searcher might use to find your site or business. The trick here is to be specific. Forget broad terms like "shoes." Focus instead on "running shoes" or "wedding shoes" or "Nike running shoes" or "black patent leather high-heeled pumps." It can be helpful to ask outsiders such as friends, family, clients, or colleagues what terms come to mind.
Once the initial list is in hand, the next step is to determine how useful these terms really are. That's where keyword research tools come in handy. (Both Google and Bing offer free keyword research tools. They require you to first sign up for an advertiser account, but no worries -- they don't compel you to run ads to use the free tools.) By running the list of proposed keywords through a keyword research tool, you'll learn how many searchers are actually conducting searches for a given word or term every day, how many of those searches actually converted, and other analytical information. These tools can also make you aware of words not on the list, or synonyms.
This information should narrow down the selections to a final list of keywords. Plug these into a spreadsheet that helps you to visualize at a glance each word or phrase's conversion rate, search volume, and competition. This list helps narrow your focus and concentrate on the most important terms for your content. Don't completely eliminate very broad terms such as "shoes" -- this helps searchers get a general feel for the content. But it's the very specific, targeted terms ("pink suede ballerina flats") that attract the targeted traffic at the bottom of the purchase or conversion funnel.
The best keywords have:
- Strong relevance: terms for which you have content to support
- Relatively high search volume: terms people actually search for
- Relatively low competition: terms with a small number of search results
Once you've determined which keywords to target, both for an overall content marketing initiative as well as for specific, smaller campaigns, it's time to build content around those terms. Bear in mind that search engines reward high-quality, original content more than virtually anything else out there. This is why content aggregation is fine (and relevant), but also why aggregation should almost always be regularly supplemented with well written and researched original content.
A major way that search engine algorithms determine quality content is by examining how many links there are to specific pieces of content. Links can almost be considered "votes" vouching for quality content. As far as search engines are concerned, this isn't the most democratic process in the world: A link from a major metropolitan daily such as The New York Times is a higher-ranking vote than one from, say, a random tweet on Twitter. And links from sites that are semantically similar obviously make more sense -- and therefore count more -- than a link from something willy-nilly, say a site about politics linking to a page about Christmas cookie recipes.
One of the best strategies for getting people to link to you is, of course, to link to them. Another approach is to follow relevant sites, blogs, online video channels, and social networking presences in your particular vertical and to comment on them, with appropriate and relevant links back to your own content. Authoring articles and other types of content for third-party sites is also a valuable link strategy. Most of these will have an "about the author" blurb that creates a link back to your own site or blog. Internal links are also highly valuable, as links are what search engine spiders follow to find content in the first place. This is where site maps, tags, category pages, and well-considered taxonomies come in handy. They not only help visitors find relevant content, but help search engines find it, too.
Making content as sharable as possible is another valuable link building strategy. It's why so many sites contain those small icons encouraging visitors to share on Facebook, LinkedIn, Digg, Delicious, or Twitter. Individually, social media links might not be as valuable as a citation from The New York Times, but many sites are seeing highly significant portions of their traffic originating from social media sites thanks to such efforts.
To this end, content authors should also be regarded as important link-building sources, particularly guest or third-party content contributors who can leverage links through their own websites or social networks to build links that benefit both parties.
Optimize images and multimedia content
As stated in the opening of this article, search engines can't "read" anything other than plain old text. They can't "watch" a video, "listen" to an audio file, or assign a thousand words to a picture. So in order to optimize images and multimedia content for search, you have to create the words for the search engines.
What all these files types have in common is a need for clear, descriptive names, or titles. These are not by all means the default name spit out by audio, video, or image software (e.g., img230769.jpg). File names should be as descriptive as possible and match what the file represents.
If you've got a shot of an apple, for example, call it a "New York State Macintosh Apple," or "Ripe Harvest Orchard's Macoun Apple," not just plain old "apple." For all a search engine knows, that "apple" could be a computer, or even a mobile phone.
Such descriptive names are not only found by search engine spiders, but often have the added advantage of appearing above, below, or by the image itself, enhancing the user experience as well. Beyond any other optimization tactics, file names are accorded the most weight by search engines when it comes to ranking.
It should therefore come as no surprise that websites that regularly use multiple media files require a naming strategy or protocol to ensure consistency in the names used for graphics, audio, or video.
After giving media files clear, descriptive names, don't forget to add more descriptive text (or meta data) to the "alt" attribute in the file's tag. Make it short and to the point, like the file name. This is an opportunity to go a little bit broader. That New York State apple, for example, might be from Olsen's Orchards, or have been a product of the 2011 harvest, or perhaps this is the place to indicate it's a sweet, crisp, delicious, and nutritious apple. Online merchants might want to use this field to add information, such as a manufacturer, product category, or UPC code. Let's say you sell DVDs online. The name of the media file, in this case a photo of the cover art, would obviously be the title of the film. The "alt" attribute might include the names of the actors, director, studio, genre, release year, and any miscellaneous information, such as "Academy Award nominee."
Perhaps the media file in question is named "Lady Gaga on American Idol." The meta data might refer to the specific contestant in the competition, the names of other judges, or list some of the singer's credits so the video show up on more general searches by her fans.
Keyword strategy, combined with content marketing goals, will inform what type additional data are added in this section.
A caption adjacent to an image or media file helps search engines to "understand" what the file is about, because adjacent text helps search engines contextualize what they've found and determine relevancy. The goal here is to function much like a newspaper or a magazine by adding keyword-rich captions to files. This way, even if someone's been careless and named an image file "Bass.jpg," the adjacent text and caption can help a search engine understand if the image depicts a fish, a musical instrument, or a particular brand of shoe. This approach can be broadened to optimizing the entire page the media file resides on to further increase the depth of context and relevancy.
In the case of images, file type matters. Photos should be rendered in JPEG format, logos should be GIF files. The reason is simply that these are standard formats that search engines "expect" to find. Search engines assume a GIF file has 256 colors, standard for rendering graphics such as logos, while photos are rendered in millions of colors. And when using logo files, it's all-important that the file be named with whatever's in that logo. No search engine is smart enough to deduce that a simple GIF file represents the logo for Bank of America, or Ikea, or for Acme Exterminating.
While it can be labor intensive, posting an HTML transcript of the dialogue in an audio or video file goes extraordinarily far in terms of optimizing the actual content of these media files. Given the nature of the medium, it's best to keep these files short, optimally five minutes or less (particularly in the case of video). Cutting longer media files into shorter segments not only eases viewing, but also affords additional opportunities to optimize the content and to provide extra, spider-able links between episodes or installments. This is particularly helpful in the case of episodic videos or podcasts.
Quality matters. So does specificity.
It's not just content that reigns supreme in SEO; it's quality content. Google's own published guidelines on the topic say, in essence, that anyone hoping to rank well in search should write for their own visitors and users, not for the search engines themselves. The company is putting its algorithms solidly behind this recommendation. In recent years we've seen "content farms," websites that churn out mountains of garbage content to game the search engines and rise to the top of organic search results, plummet, and in many cases even disappear from search rankings.
Creating a lot of garbage is, of course, cheap and easy. Creating -- and sustaining the creation of -- high-quality content requires thought and investment (particularly when everyone else is trying to do it, too).
There are plenty of good reasons to keep content interesting, informative, entertaining, engaging, witty, useful, well-written, and well-presented. Dozens of reasons to have a strong taxonomy, descriptive and compelling headlines, tags and other organizational attributes. Now you can add search engine optimization to that list, too.
You may be creating and publishing the best content on the web -- but what does that matter if no one can find it?
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