The art and science of search engine optimization: creating content that’s easy to discover and read
People often exclusively associate search engine optimization with search engines. This makes sense — search engine is in the name and all. But search engines are designed to provide humans with what they want to find. There’s an art and science of SEO that takes humans and technology into account.
Identifying who and what you optimize your content for empowers you to understand the art and science of SEO. Thinking about SEO this way means optimization is about writing more compelling content that’s easy to find.
The art of SEO: content optimization
I like to say that the art of SEO refers to content optimization. It’s the practice of publishing content that is so compelling that people can’t help themselves but read it, share it and link to it.
The art of SEO falls into the world of content creators, marketers, editors and the subject matter experts who partner with them. These builders craft the narratives of your company. They ensure that every word people encounter along their journey with your brand informs, educates or inspires. This requires builders to develop content that is relevant, useful and credible.
Content optimization takes this a step further by informing these elements with tactics to rank on search engines, including keyword research, search intent and domain authority.
Here’s what that looks like.
Relevant content balances familiarity and curiosity. Familiarity connects to a reader’s conscious agenda, which includes all the things they would answer if asked, “What are you thinking about?” Familiarity gets your content into the mental queue for entry into your audience’s mind.
Curiosity, on the other hand, connects to a reader’s agenda using novelty, excitement or intrigue. Here you need to give your readers new information, a fresh perspective or an unexpected data analysis. Present your reader with information that forces them to pause, sit back in their chair and think “hmmm.”
Familiarity gets you in line for the party; curiosity gets you invited in. Combined, you have relevance.
Relevance and keyword research
Keyword research is the process of identifying the exact words your audience types into their search queries and understanding how to rank for those terms in search results. This allows you to use search relevance to amplify your content relevance.
Keyword research should guide everything you write in service of SEO so that your content aligns directly to what your audience wants. Trusting your gut is not part of the SEO equation.
You should also perform keyword research before you start writing. Many writers start drafting only to discover that they are producing something that no one searches out. Instead, use keyword research to identify the topics you should write on and speak to exactly what is relevant to your audience.
Content is useful when it translates into value or action for a reader. This requires content creators to think like customer advocates. Advocates ensure readers leave with the information they came for, the steps to get to where they want to go or that item they hoped to purchase.
If you create a piece of content to help someone save time, getting them to read the article is not useful in and of itself — giving them the tools to save them time is.
Usefulness and search intent
Useful content needs to align with the goals people had in mind when typing their query into a search engine. This is called search intent.
According to Moz, a leader in SEO software and data, there are four types of search intent.
Informational: looking for an answer to who, what, when, why, how
Commercial: researching and evaluating a purchase
Transactional: ready to purchase
Navigational: trying to get to a specific page without typing in a URL
Align the value or actions offered in your content to one of these four types of search intent to make it useful to the person who finds it.
While relevance gets people to your site, useful content that aligns with search intent gets people to stay on your site longer. When people click over to your site and quickly leave, it tells search engines it was a mistake to serve up your content. When this happens enough, search engines deprioritize your individual pieces of content and, potentially, your brand.
This brings us to our final element in the art of SEO: credibility.
Content credibility answers the question, “Why should I care what you have to say?” It helps readers trust your content and gives them confidence in the value you promise.
Credibility in content comes in several forms. Inherent credibility comes with the name, experience, or title of an author (i.e., credentials). This is why experts play such a prominent role in content marketing.
In lieu of inherent credibility, content creators can borrow credibility. Data, research, testimonials and quotes are proof points that readers already trust and can increase the credibility of your content. Blend inherent and borrowed credibility to create expert content with the resources you have available.
Credibility and domain authority
Domain authority represents the technical credibility of your website. It evaluates the number and quality of links pointing to your domain (website) to generate a score between one and 100.
The more reputable blogs, webpages, articles and other forms of digital content that link to your site, the more domain authority you have. The higher your domain authority, the more likely your content will rank favorably against competitors with less authority.
Content credibility and domain authority go hand in hand. The more credible you make your content to readers, the more likely they are to link to it. The more people link to your content, the more authority your domain will generate.
Writing content that is worth reading and making it easy to find is the art of SEO. The science of SEO builds on this by optimizing the technical side of things — your website.
The science of SEO: technical optimization
The science of SEO refers to technical optimization — the practice of building websites and webpages so that search engines can effectively crawl, index and elevate them. This includes things like website organization, structured data and web-page performance.
The content creator who writes and optimizes content is rarely the person who also manages the backend of the website. This means the handoff between the art of SEO and the science of SEO also prompts a handoff between a content creator and a developer.
As a content creator, your best step toward the science of SEO is to build a strong working relationship with your technical web partners. Use the three elements of technical SEO below to start the conversation with the developers on your team.
Performance and experience
Performance and experience refers to your website’s technical ability to load efficiently and display content appropriately to readers. Google highlights “core web vitals” as its latest criteria for judging website performance. These vitals track a page’s load time, user friendliness and visual stability. Review the blog post “How to Improve Core Web Vitals, to learn how performance and experience affect your content.
Crawlability refers to a search engine’s ability to find the content on your site. Your site structure, or how your content is organized, plays a pivotal role in getting your site crawled. Broken links, dead-end content and poor linking structure reduce a search engine’s ability to effectively crawl your content. Review this article from Semrush to build your working knowledge of search engine crawlability.
Indexing refers to a search engine’s ability to understand what your content is about and accurately add it to its index. Indexing is also how search engines parse through your content to serve it up in answer boxes, recipe cards and other priority result types that are winning content plays in search.
Successful indexing requires the effective use of structured data. This is the metadata that gives a search engine the exact information it is looking for. You can get a deep dive on structure data from a recent live stream hosted by Contentful’s Andrew Kumar and Shy Ruparel.
Both the art and science of SEO require unique sets of skills. The goal is not to be the one person who does it all, but to build a team of creators and developers who can.