Search engines help connect Internet users with the information they’re seeking. Here’s how search engines work:
Search engines analyze the words on webpages, especially words that are repeated or otherwise called out: in boldface, in a headline, in a link, and so on. The engine records those important words and phrases—the page’s keywords—on its servers.
When you type the words you’re looking for into a search box, the engine tries to match your words with the words from webpages it has analyzed, and it then delivers a list of matches. The engine organizes that list from best to worst, ranking the results according to a variety of criteria (such as how many other sites find a page valuable and link to it).
People usually click the links on the first page of results, so sites at the top of the list are more likely to get visitors. And more visitors can mean more page views, more leads, more sales, more ad revenue, and other business benefits.
A search result showing the top two sites returned when we searched on “yahoo finance”
A number of SEO (search engine optimization) techniques exist to give sites an advantage in this ranking, and many of these apply to Web design. But as a content creator, your best SEO techniques are (1) to write information-rich copy that people will want to read and link to and (2) to figure out which words people are likely to use in searches, and then embed those keywords throughout your copy.
SEO copywriting is about using the exact terms that people are searching on so that it’s completely obvious what your page or article is about. SEO copywriting is not about trying to trick search engines by stuffing content with unrelated keywords or with so many keywords that the copy sounds silly. Good SEO copywriting makes your page more readable for both search engines and humans. It helps your website attract visitors, but it also helps your visitors find substantial, relevant content.
Best practices in brief
SEO is competitive: There’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to get your site on a first page of search results. But as a content creator, you can help bump up your site’s ranking just by optimizing the text and links.
Here are the basic principles of good SEO for writers and editors:
- Offer original content with genuine value and relevance to your readers.
- Strategically seed your copy with keywords that describe your content and that correspond with the phrases people are using to perform their searches.
- Embed keywords where they matter most: in the title, headings, links, metadata (part of your page’s source code), and image and video tags.
- Make every page of your site unique: In addition to original content, each page should have its own topic, title, and page-specific keywords (though you can use the highest-volume keywords throughout your site—see “Keyword Research Tools” for assistance in finding the best keywords).
- Deliver on the promise of your keywords: Don’t lure people to your site with words that don’t accurately represent your content.
- Link to other relevant sites, and encourage those sites to link to yours.
- Optimize your site for people first—through clear, concise writing—and for search engines second. Implement SEO without turning your text into nonsense.
Even though people and search engines scan webpages differently, there are some similarities:
- Page title. Both people and search engines need to know at a glance what a page is about. The page title, sometimes called the <title> tag, is inserted in the code of a webpage. You’ll see it in the top bar of a Web browser, as in the following example.
The <title> tag for this page is “The top news headlines on current events from Yahoo! News.”
See “Coding Basics” for examples of other HTML tags, both in page code and as they will appear in a browser.
- Headlines, emphasized words, and lists. Both people and search engines know that anything called out in headlines or subheadings, in boldface or italics, or in bulleted lists is likely to be important. Make sure headings, links, and lists in your Web copy are called out with HTML tags.
- Introduction and conclusion. Readers will scan your opening paragraph or your summary for quick information. And search engines, to understand what the subject of a page is, look for keywords throughout that page, including at the top (the introduction) and the bottom (the conclusion). But don’t just shove keywords into the top or the bottom of your page—distribute them evenly throughout.
- Related links. Humans appreciate options for more information. Search engines, too, like to see that you’ve linked to other websites and that other websites have linked to yours.
Search engines and people both like:
- Verbosity. In the search engine world, verbosity means substantial, relevant, original content. Do fill your page with words, but write succinctly: Make sure that every word you write is relevant to your audience and to the topic you’re addressing.
- Good writing. To a search engine, good writing means using variations of your keywords, including those with different endings. For example, if you are targeting the phrase job interview, use the singular, plural, -ing, and -ed forms, such as job interviews and job interviewing.
Search engines and people both dislike:
- Bad writing. Search engines are more likely to penalize your website when you stuff your copy with unrelated keywords, strand a list of keywords at the bottom of your page, and rely too much on headlines and links. Your entire page should be relevant: Like a muffin with the right amount of blueberries, it should have juicy keywords distributed evenly throughout, but not so many that they overwhelm the whole.
- Broken links. Search engines want to provide a great experience for their customers by directing them to a useful and informative website that works properly. Broken links tell people and search engines that a site is poorly maintained and will give people a bad experience.
(To follow the steps we took in optimizing a fictional site, see “Example: Seed Copy With Keywords for SEO.” In Chapter 17 of The Yahoo! Style Guide, you can learn more about choosing ideal keywords and inserting them in your copy.)