Writing and structuring content for SEO: Tips and advice, pt 1
The secret to writing good content for SEO is, well, to write good content.
Now, that doesn’t mean it’s easy, nor does it mean your content is going to be discoverable. You still need to put in the legwork before you’ve even typed your first sentence, from carrying out keyword research to working out what kind of content best serves a user’s particular need. When you’ve done all that – and more – then you’re ready to start.
The American, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough once wrote: “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.” The following pointers are a good place to get you thinking and writing clearly (part two will focus on structure).
Use plain English
There are, to say the least, quite a few words in the English language. A definite number is hard to pin down, but roughly you’re looking at it being in the hundreds of thousands. The words that most people regularly rely on, however, is taken from a comparatively smaller collection of words (a vocabulary of around 15,000–20,000 terms). Moreover, we only tend to use a fraction of that subset. These are what we refer to as ‘common words’, and it’s these words that you should be using in your content. This is what we mean by plain English.
It’s important to note that writing in a plain way is not to be confused with oversimplifying things or being boring. You can, of course, write well and simply about complex topics, as Carlo Rovelli has done in his brilliant Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. Likewise, writing plainly doesn’t mean your content is any less interesting, emotive or enjoyable than, for example, more playful or flowery language. In fact, it’s probably better, more readable and accessible. More elaborate writing, on the other hand, which is often peppered with more unfamiliar terms, can sometimes be unintelligible. Think International Art English and you get the picture.
Keep sentences short
Long sentences are admirable, and there’s certainly a place for them, but shorter sentences are far more effective. The shorter your sentences, the more focused your content – and, in turn, the easier it is for people to understand and read. The longer your sentences, the more opportunities you have of introducing more information and more ideas, which, consequently, increases the risk of losing a reader’s attention, as well as diverting you away from your core argument (see what I did there?).
There’s some consensus that the optimum length of a short sentence is around 15–25 words. For example, Yoast, which is best known for its WordPress SEO plugin, will draw your attention to sentences over 20 words. It’s saying they’re probably too long. GOV.UK, meanwhile, which delivers a masterclass in content design, likes to keep sentences under 25 words. In conclusion, the shorter the sentence, the better. And be creative. Mix it up really short sentences with some longer ones. Nobody wants to read one 20 word sentence after the other.
Write with authority
Hastily-assembled, keyword-stuffed content that is nothing more than just decoration won’t get you anywhere. You can’t earn trust with that kind of approach. In fact, it’ll mark you out for being a charlatan of sorts. So, if you’re going to write, write well and write with authority. That’s your ticket to being credible and getting noticed.
Authority doesn’t necessarily mean having to be an specialist in a particular area, mind, though this does naturally help. Instead, it means knowing about the topic you’re writing about with a level of knowledge and insight that does the subject justice. And this means spending time doing research, speaking to experts and so forth – i.e. actually making time to understand what it is you’re talking about, if you’re not quite au fait with the topic. Do just that, and your words will naturally carry authority.
Write as much as you need to
It’s a mistake to think that too little content on a page is an easy indicator of bad content, and that a 1,000 word article is suggestive of quality. It’s all relative. And it goes back to what you’re trying to do – helping your users get what they want in the most effective way possible.
For example, in her excellent book, Content Design (2017), which we recently discussed here, Sarah Richards explained how the bank holiday page for GOV.UK is sparse, regularly resulting in a high bounce rate. In this context, that’s actually good. Users aren’t typically looking for a detailed entry. All they really want to know is when the next one is – and perhaps the one after. And so, words, carefully chosen are kept to a minimum. In contrast, our recent two-part series on keyword research at scale – part one and part two – is dependent on detail, which is why in total it’s over 2,000 words long. It’s all about context.
That ends part one of our two part series on how to write well for SEO. We hope you’ve found it useful, and if so, you’re in luck – there’s more. In the second and final part we’ll be taking a closer look at structure.
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