SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is the process of optimizing a website for the search engine in order to rank in the top SERPs. One of the most effective techniques of SEO is content writing.
This article has two goals:
- Take someone with minimal knowledge or noisy misinformation about SEO to a state of having a very clear picture of what it takes to rank using white hat tactics.
- Help the reader conduct basic analysis and write quality SEO content from start to finish with a chance to rank depending on niche.
What a lot of articles don’t really talk about is the work that goes into writing SEO content. While some niches are easier to break into than others, all SEO is long-term. So it’s easy to move forward thinking we have everything we need to succeed. And because SEO is both qualitative and quantitative work, it’s hard to tell what exactly went wrong when we don’t see results.
It’s a case of ‘you don’t know what you don’t know.’
So for this article, what I want to do is to build the ‘mental model’ or ‘way of thinking’ of an SEO writer and analyst. We’ll not only be talking about keywords and backlinks – but we’ll also understand their relationship with the prospect journey, consumer behavior, and the search engine itself.
If you want to ‘understand’ SEO as a writer, a founder, or even a rookie analyst, this is a good place to start. You’ll not be as efficient as someone who does SEO full-time… But you’ll be able to DIY your way into more business, talk about your content strategy with confidence, and actually know what you’re doing right.
Plus, you might get an article to rank all by yourself depending on your niche.
The core elements of a good SEO article are the following:
- Choosing the right keyword
- SEO writing best practices (writing for humans and for the algorithm)
- Link Building
How to Choose Your Keyword
Here are 3 real reasons why it’s important to choose the right keyword:
- Keywords are how our content is found and delivered by the search engine.
- Choosing just ‘any’ keyword is a waste of resources – SEO and content doesn’t stop at publishing. We have to manually build links and strategize for each piece of content.
- Changing it later can negatively affect rank and/or takes considerable resources (but may be necessary depending on the company’s growth trajectory).
Here are the major factors we have to consider when choosing our keyword:
- Search Volume
- Keyword Competition – Backlinks
- Business Value
Let’s break this down.
Search volume is the estimated number of monthly searches conducted for a specific keyword. The higher the search volume, the better for business.
To view search volume, install the free Keyword Surfer Chrome extension for metrics to appear right on the search page.
There’s some back and forth in the community about which tools have the most accurate data… And most of us who do SEO for a living will argue for the case of tools like Ahrefs, SEMrush, and Screaming Frog – which, understandably, can be a bit pricey for DIYers.
But unless you need the holistic SEO analysis that comes with using with one of these tools, we can simply evaluate search volume relative to other keywords we want to target. For beginners and for the purpose of this article, Keyword Surfer will be more than sufficient.
Keywords with higher search volume tend to have more competition. Think of it like we’re ‘bidding’ for keywords using our content, and a successful bid means we get to rank. Backlinks inflate our bid – by a lot.
Backlinks are where other websites link to our content because they think their readers will also get value out of it. My link to the Keyword Surfer extension is an example of a backlink on their side – in other words, I voted for them because they provided me (and my readers) with value. That vote adds to their bid.
We can pick up these links passively, but to compete for top 10 means we’ll have to reach out to other businesses proactively. This is what we call Link Building.
In saturated niches, we’re competing with websites that have hundreds and even thousands of backlinks. Just check out the stats on the top 1 search result for the keyword ‘what is seo’:
That’s… Going to take a lot of emails.
To check a page’s backlinks, paste the URL on one of these limited free tools:
Just remember to specify the crawl towards a PAGE and not the DOMAIN – otherwise, you’ll get backlinks directed at the entire website.
More on backlinks later.
I stole this metric from Ahrefs. On a scale of 0-3, we can score the business value of keywords based on how prominently we can position our product or service as the solution to the searchers’ query.
They already explained this really well so I’ll just grab a screenshot from their blog (which I will link out to them – another vote cast for Ahrefs this time):
In some cases, we will have to target low business value keywords for the sake of traffic. A great example is if we are marketing a SaaS to a tech-illiterate market.
They will most likely be in State 1 of 3 possible ‘Prospect States’:
- They don’t know the problem nor the solution
- They know the problem and know they need ‘a’ solution
- They know the solution and are now seeking options
The reason why it’s important to target high volume, low business value keywords is simple but impactful: Prospects can go from state 1 to 3 in a single article.
Let’s say we’re marketing a CRM. On one end of the market spectrum, we have prospects who know what a CRM is and how to use it. They are good targets for high business value keywords.
On the other end of the spectrum are prospects who have never heard about CRMs… but are dealing with problems that can be resolved by one. The only way these users will end up consuming our CRM content is through related content that they DO recognize.
If we stick that into a funnel like so:
Like I said, it’s entirely possible for someone to go from State 1 to State 3 in a single article – from not knowing what a CRM even is to entering decision mode about which CRM to use for their project.
And according to the Storybrand Framework… If we are the ones who lead them to that point of confidence as their hero’s guide, we stand a better chance of gaining their trust.
So what more can we do with this metric? A tool I use for both evaluating content opportunities and communicating strategy with the team is the prioritization matrix:
What even goes into this matrix is highly dependent on the company’s immediate business goals and available resources. For example, a company with marketing partners might enjoy a higher business value with the keyword ‘lead generation.’
It also helps with creating a content strategy on a budget. While the keyword ‘what is a crm’ has a search volume of 12,000… The minimum number of backlinks you’ll need to break the top 10 is 204.
And we’re not just talking about 204 links from a bunch of shell websites, but 204 solid references from other blogs of varying authority. This is going to cost a couple hundred to thousands of dollars in outreach spend (as in paying someone to pitch your article) depending on the market.
It would make more sense for a young company to target the keywords ‘how to use a CRM’ or ‘customer service tools’ and similarly scored keywords, until they earn enough business to afford competing for higher tier ones.
Another way to find keywords that are more within reach is to search for ‘longtail keywords.’ We can use the free tool Keywords Everything Chrome extension.
Longtail keywords typically have lower search volume and backlinks because most of the bigger websites who can afford a well-oiled SEO machine are competing for the prime keywords.
Again, more on backlinks later.
By prioritizing specific keywords, we can maximize the content budget while achieving important milestones for the blog.
Before we move forward, let’s do a quick recap of what we know so far:
- Keywords are hugely important to SEO because they help prospects find our content.
- Choosing the right keyword is important for allocating and maximizing company resources.
- Choosing the right keyword means evaluating between the following:
- Search Volume (are there enough search queries using that keyword?)
- Keyword Competition (do I have enough resources to compete for this keyword?)
- Business Value (is this the most effective keyword to compete for at this point in the business?)
How to Write SEO Content Using Industry Best Practices
SEO hugely informs decisions on a personal and business level.
There’s been a major flight to quality recently which is awesome, because that means businesses that provide the most value and best empowers customer decisions will be rewarded. That makes for a healthy and productive online economy.
So I’m going to break down this section into 2 parts: Technical Best Practices and Qualitative Best Practices.
Technical SEO Best Practices
- Try to use your focus keyword once in your H1, in one of your H2s, and whenever natural in the content body. If you read your article out loud to yourself and it sounds like you used your keyword too many times, you probably did.
- Sprinkle ‘secondary keywords’ throughout your content. These are supporting keywords that reaffirm Google of your authority on the topic at hand. These can include longtail keywords, which we discussed earlier, as well as LSI keywords (Latest Semantic Index). The purpose of LSI keywords is to give Google context on what you’re writing about. If we’re writing about CRMs, we’d include words like feedback, customer success, follow up, etc. LSI keywords usually come naturally as you write comprehensively about a topic, so don’t worry about it too much.
Try not to think about content length as a metric. I didn’t plan on writing 3,000 words when I fired up Google Docs but I don’t think I could have accomplished the goal of this article with less.
Make it your goal to ensure that your reader is more capable of accomplishing something tangible after reading your article and let content length happen as a natural result.
- Make sure your images are optimized. Load speed is a major SEO factor because a slow-loading website can cause visitors to ‘bounce’ – a term used to describe a visitor’s swift exit from your website. As you can guess, this negatively affects rank. In fact, if a website takes 3 seconds to load, bounce rate goes up by 32%… And if it takes 10 seconds to load, bounce rate is further increased to up to 123% (source).
- Put some thought into your Alt Text and describe the image well. Alt Text is what Screen Readers use to explain images to the visually impaired and you can usually edit this with your website’s blog tool. Alt Text isn’t supposed to be an SEO hack – it’s to help the visually impaired consume and be empowered by content just as well as those who can see.
Qualitative SEO Best Practices
Most articles, objectively, are useless to actual audiences. They’re mostly there to tick a box so Google knows that X website talks about X topic. Even worse, it plays into human biases where we prefer content that doesn’t challenge us to take more action.
I think we can do much better than that. To stand out in a crowd of a thousand soulless articles, make sure your piece has these 3 elements:
- Search Intent Match
- Value First
- Maximum Conversion Potential
Let’s dive in.
Search Intent Match
This is really simple to figure out but it’s easy to miss for those who don’t typically evaluate SERPs as data. The top 10 SERPs is an indication of what information searchers consider the most relevant to their query.
For example, for the keyword ‘what is a crm’, searchers are clearly looking for more information to educate themselves on the topic.
Now, for the keyword ‘best crm’, searchers are looking for product comparisons. If we dig deeper into the existing content, we’ll also find detailed information that searchers consider useful like price, platform availability, public reviews, etc.
We should not only take that into consideration for our own content, but also use it as the minimum standard and attempt to build on it.
Just as well, if we fail to provide relevant content to the keyword, our websites will suffer from ‘bouncing’ – which, again, means that prospects quickly click out of our website because they couldn’t find what they need.
Here’s how I interpret Value First: People who read my blog will start seeing ROI on their content. I’ll help them make more money and expand their business to the point that it makes more sense to hire a guy like me to manage it.
The goal here is to get our prospects to that point. Here is what makes for valuable content in today’s online market:
- Specific and actionable advice that readers can apply NOW and see results. My example for this entry is this article. If you apply what you read here, you will see results without having to spend any money on special tools.
- A big list (for ex. top 20 Facebook ads you can steal)
- Longform interviews of how your customers succeeded with the use of your products and services
- Insider information
- Internal – Insights from experience, research, testing, application, data interpretation (as in not something that common sense and a Wiki skim can tell you)
- External – Quotes from experts, interviews, Q&A, inbound guest posts
- Quotable insights
- Industry news
Maximum Conversion Potential
Let me say this 3 times for posterity: Ask for the sale. Ask for the sale. Ask for the sale.
In this case, ‘the sale’ means either:
- An actual sale
- An action that takes the reader closer to a sale
That might be signing up for a newsletter or reading another piece of content that explores the topic more deeply. In other words, make sure you have CTAs (calls-to-action) that can serve as navigational guides that move the prospect forward.
Every single article can initiate a meaningful engagement with your prospects that doesn’t have to end with closing their browser tab.
I’ll be writing more about this when I talk more about content strategy, so please subscribe if you’re interested in exploring that topic.Subscribe to the TCM newsletter.
Now before we move to the third and final section of this article, let’s do another quick recap.
- After we choose our keywords – taking into account search volume, keyword competition, and business value, we can begin writing our content.
- In order to write SEO content that can compete with other websites, we should abide by the basic SEO technical and qualitative best practices.
- Technical SEO best practices include the following:
- Keyword Placement
- Content Length
- Image Optimization
- Qualitative SEO best practices include the following:
- Search Intent Match – Take a look at the top SERPs and determine what sort of information readers are looking for when using the keyword you want to target.
- Value First – Provide comprehensive insider information that helps prospects accomplish more than before they read the article.
- Maximum Conversion Potential – Make sure you have CTAs that lead prospects to a sale or closer to a sale by empowering them to move forward on their journey.
- Technical SEO best practices include the following:
How to Start Building Links to Rank
So, we’ve talked about the value of backlinks and scratched the surface on what it takes to earn them. The thing about backlinks is that competition highly depends on the niche.
For example – a highly competitive and matured niche like SEO will probably take an entire department of link builders to compete for the top keywords.
On the other hand, a niche like data crawling will be a bit easier to break into because not a lot of writers are versed in data science nor is the consumer market educated enough to seek content. However, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that data companies are soon going to explode onto the scene of marketing, business ops, and more….
So if there are any writers or founders here in the data science niche… You’d better start hustling!
In both cases, sending out a boilerplate email to a hundred domains in one go will probably send you to the spam folder… Which, in this business, is akin to burning bridges.
With all of that out of the way, here’s how you do it:
The first step is to take a look at the backlinks of existing articles. Here are a couple of limited free tools that can help:
Again, make sure you specify the crawl towards a PAGE and not the DOMAIN.
You can either pitch directly to these referring domains (websites who applied the backlinks) or you can reach out to their competition.
Here is how your pitch will be evaluated:
Does your email look like spam? Is the subject click-worthy? Websites get loads of backlink requests every single day, with most of them spouting the same tired lines.
Will your content provide value to my audience that I cannot provide by linking to other articles?
Your website’s ‘Domain Authority’
Domain authority is highly contested in the SEO world… Because many people only see it as an arbitrary metric.
Depending on the tool you use, it factors in things like backlinks, traffic, and rank. Ahrefs specifically focuses on backlinks (their tool calls it DR – Domain Rating). In my professional opinion, domain authority makes sense.
Remember that backlinks are considered ‘votes’ by the community on the value of your content. Votes from high authority sites count for more than low authority ones. It’s like the difference between being vouched for by a rookie staff employee versus a C-level executive.
To add to that, the higher your domain authority, the more incentive your backlink prospect has to link to you if they are interested in gaining links from you as well.
However, a healthy backlink portfolio consists of referring domains from the entire spectrum. My advice is to be conscious of DA when conducting outreach so as to accomplish a diverse backlink portfolio, but as a writer or site owner to focus on providing value and building authority organically. You will be penalized for unethical SEO practices, so don’t try backlink exchanges or ‘link farming’ with high DA sites.
Outbound Guest Posts
Offer to write guest posts for other websites that are related to your business and will be considered valuable for their readers. Most site owners and content managers will gladly let you insert a backlink as long as the content is good.
Submit posts to PR sites like Newswire.
Create Linkable Assets
Infographics are popular assets that blogs love to include in their content. They’ll grab a screenshot or save the image and credit your site along with a backlink.
Help a reporter out by providing quotes about your industry. Got this awesome tip from Brian Dean of Backlinko.
Do note that there are 2 types of links: Do Follow and No Follow. Most forums provide No Follow links which do not pass authority (in other words – their votes don’t count) so don’t spam links to your site on random forums. Not only is it unethical and annoying for forumers but it flat out won’t work. It’s precisely because of this practice that forum links became No Follow in the first place.
Backlinks is one of those things that black hat SEOs love to peddle on sites like Fiverr or even UpWork. Search engines are cracking down on this because it messes with the integrity of the search results – which is their entire business, essentially. But they can’t catch them all.
It’s not only search engines who are pissed. White hat content writers, business owners, SEOs – we hate that cheap tactics are holding back the online economy from moving forward at a faster pace. This is why we can’t have nice things.
For a healthy and productive internet, where businesses that give the most value to their prospects succeed over those who are too chicken to fight fair and square, REPORT these guys to Google.
This article is meant to take someone from State 1 to State 3 of understanding SEO. If you use this as a guide when writing SEO content, you have a much better chance of ranking compared to most websites.
However, there’s still a lot of room to explore the techniques discussed. Contrary to what many believe, you don’t get to be good at this job by reading one article on the topic.
Throughout this blog, I’ll be diving deeper into pretty much everything we just talked about.
If you want to get notified of new articles from The Content Medic, you can subscribe to my newsletter using the form on the left sidebar.
But if you want to get all this work off your plate and focus on growing your business, let’s talk. I offer a free quotation and some (free) friendly recommendations based on what you enter in the form.