I wasn’t around for the SEO Dark Ages. I was still living in New York, trying to make it as a jazz musician. I wasn’t working in SEO when Google rolled out their Penguin or Panda updates and rocked many industries to their core. (I definitely wasn’t around when Google released an algorithm update called Vince, though I wish I was.)
Thankfully, I wasn’t around when some websites’ strategies were based solely on exploiting loopholes that Google’s engineers either didn’t notice or didn’t think they would need to worry about.
So why is it that after years of algorithm change after algorithm change (not to mention countless smaller updates, like the one rolled out in January 2020) designed to close those loopholes, we’re still seeing the same exploitative strategies, thin content, and poorly designed sites Google’s countless algorithm updates are designed to eliminate?
We see websites that manage to rank by doing just enough to get by instead of considering the bigger picture. We see sites that are afraid to change anything because what they have right now is working, even if changes would be better for the user.
I get it: teams have goals and budgets. The old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra is a sensible, cost-effective strategy that works a lot of the time. In many cases, it works right up until an algorithm change comes along and upends your entire site.
Luckily, there are easy ways to format your content for both the user and for search. Here are a few examples of these strategies, why they work, and which sites are already using them—and winning.
Match Your Blog Navigation to Your Site Navigation
My very first recommendation is something we see getting overlooked all too frequently: make sure your blog navigation and main site navigation match.
I’m not talking about blogs on a subdomain versus blogs in a subfolder (though there have been extensive studies showing the benefits of having a blog in a subfolder rather than a subdomain). I’m talking specifically about when the blog design navigation is totally different than the navigation on the homepage.
If users want to buy or browse products after reading a blog, they should be able to do so directly from the blog navigation, just like they do from the rest of the site. A common practice is to create a blog navigation with links to blog categories. But this limits the user’s ability to navigate to your most important pages. (Sometimes you even see blogs that have no link back to the website’s home page, giving users no way to get back.)
REI's "Expert Advice" section is a good example of a middle ground where they’ve added a sub navigation to the blog while still retaining access to the main site’s navigation menu — no matter where you are on the site.
By creating a blog navigation that’s totally different from the main site’s navigation (and often one that doesn’t get as much love as the main site), you create a disconnect in the user’s experience, which can lower trust signals.
Write Natural Page Titles (and Headers)
Your page title, with the page’s main keyword, should be the largest thing on the page. Sure, Google has said they don’t necessarily care how many H1 tags you have on a page, but they’ve also said that the largest text on the page is what they (and consequently, their algorithms) perceive as being most important.
If your target keyword makes the page title sound unnatural, change it so that it sounds natural. Don’t sacrifice readability for the sake of cramming a keyword at the front of your title.
The same thing goes for each subheader on the page. Every subheader is an opportunity to add a related keyword, but you shouldn’t force exact-match phrases into the subheader if they don’t make sense. Write naturally so that the user knows exactly what they are going to read under each header.
Be consistent with your titles and subheads as well. If you’re listing tips, make them actionable (just like I’m doing in this post).
Start with a Table of Contents
Long-form content is a go-to strategy for a lot of keywords. A good rule of thumb is that anything over 2000 words should have a table of contents.
When you read a book, you want a table of contents. When you open a magazine, there’s a table of contents. When you have a piece of content that talks about multiple subtopics, give it a table of contents.
A table of contents not only gives you a nice area to add related keywords to help give Google and the user more context for what’s on the page, but in some listicle articles, you’ll also see this table getting pulled into featured snippets.
At Siege Media, we built out a table of contents for this long-form article on content marketing statistics to give users an easy way to jump to particular sections.
Some sites, like Your Best Digs, even have a table of contents that follows you down the page so that you can jump to any section at a whim.
Optimize for Featured Snippets
The best way to increase your page’s chances of appearing in one of Google’s featured snippets is to answer your queries directly. The majority of top-mid funnel topics that content marketers and SEOs optimize for are informational in nature, so many of these topics are already in the form of questions, making this an easy win.
While Google’s algorithm is sophisticated, it’s still just a machine. The more you can tell it exactly where things are on the page, the easier it will be for it to find them. Not surprisingly, the same thing is true of the user. People want answers to their questions quickly.
In this example, the team at the Content Marketing Institute positioned the answer to the keyword question in a pull quote featured prominently on the page. Their page answers the query quickly and obviously, so it’s not surprising that they’ve won the featured snippet.
The way you were taught to write about things in high school is a lot different than the way you should be writing for the web. There’s no need to dance around the subject before answering.
Think of it this way: if someone asks you what Star Wars is, you wouldn’t start with “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” You’d say something along the lines of, “It’s a space film that George Lucas created in the ‘70s.”
One of my favorite practices that I’ve seen in the legal and financial industry (and barely anywhere else) is this idea of adding a TL;DR, or quick answer, right after the post title and before launching into the article. CreditKarma and PolicyGenius both do this well.
Anytime you answer a query within your post, you should reiterate the question in the form of a statement in order to help that page rank for those long tail queries. If one of the subsections or subheaders on your post is “what is a featured snippet,” the text after that subheader should begin with, “A featured snippet is...”
One final note on featured snippets: Google has now stopped repeating results in the SERP that appear in the featured snippet. If you win the snippet, your URL is no longer in the SERP. So in your rank tracking, the featured snippet may now be what you consider the new #1 position, if it wasn’t already.
Get Smarter About Images
Images have several roles on a page. They should help break up the text so the page isn’t just a wall of words. But doing things like including alt text and naming images with descriptive wording can give Google context and help you appear on Google Image Search.
To continue with our Star Wars example, what this means is that if you have a picture of Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber, your image should be called “Luke-Skywalker-Green-Lightsaber.jpg” and not “Starwarspic1.jpg”.
As Google’s image recognition gets even smarter, one technique I’ve been testing but have not yet proven (though all signs point to it being effective thus far), is running your image back through Google’s Image Search to see what Google thinks your image is.
If I’m trying to rank for a specific bicycle — say, a Chameleon made by Santa Cruz Bicycles — I might use this technique to make sure Google knows that my image is of that specific model and not just a blue bicycle.
Images are also an area where sites can lose the user. Not only are they important for helping users understand a topic, but images are also important trust signals. Those free stock image sites like Pexels or Unsplash that you’ve been using to cut down costs? Guess who else is using them to cut down costs — everyone else. Suddenly, your site isn’t as unique.
Stay away from stock photos if you can. If you absolutely must use stock photos, you should be discerning in your photo choice and aim for a style that fits your brand.
Don’t Include Too Many Calls to Action
Driving blog traffic to your main site and getting it to convert is not a unique challenge. This is something every site struggles with. But there are ways to do it well and ways to do it that will hurt you.
The more intrusive you make a call-to-action, the more it will hurt you, both with the user and with Google. Blog posts — especially in the sidebar navigation — should never have something as aggressive as a form fill option. By including these, you run the risk of changing the whole intent of your page. Suddenly, it goes from being an informational post to one that is overtly commercial.
Imagine asking someone how to grill a steak, and instead of answering your question, they try to sell you their grill. They might sell one or two grills to the few people who are already in the market, but most people are going to exit that conversation pretty quickly. And if a majority of your users are bouncing right off the page, the long-term health of that page is in jeopardy.
There are ways to convert more subtly and without hurting the health of your page. Lead a user to another topically-related blog post. Build out a funnel so that they are being led to more mid-funnel topics before you ask them to buy.
If you want your user to fill out a form so you can get their email and phone number, direct them to a lead page to fill out a form with its own call-to-action button.
One of my favorite ways that I’ve seen blog conversion done really well is by including links on a blog to the products mentioned in the post. The cooking site Bon Appetit has a blog called Basically, which lists the equipment they talk about in their recipe and has links to each product.
Even publishers like the Washington Post have impressed me with their subtle and related post recommendations designed to keep users reading.
Why Do Sites Fall Into Bad Habits?
These types of site issues are almost never done with malicious intent. We don’t set out to make content that’s hard to understand or overly transactional. This usually happens simply because sites have conversion goals that they prioritize, and in the process they forget to solve for user goals as well.
But the more that Google penalizes sites that don’t solve for the user, the more these conversion goals get disrupted. You can’t convert if you can’t rank, and you can’t rank if people are leaving your site. By formatting your site for the user, you will naturally solve for search.
There are many resources available to help convince your shareholders, higher ups, bosses, managers, and anyone else you report to that solving for the user is in the whole company’s best interest. Pointing out your site’s flaws might not be enough. But if you can propose a solution and show comparative examples in the industry to prove your point, you’ll have a stronger case and a better chance of success.
If you’ve gotten the green light to start rolling out improvements, start on lower-traffic, lower-impact pages to prove the concept. Once you’ve had some success on smaller pages, roll your improvements out to larger ones.
Marie Haynes has been publishing extensive examinations of each of Google’s algorithm updates and is a great resource for understanding how to optimize your site’s Expertise, Authority, and Trust (E-A-T) signals. (Marie has also been mentioned by Google as a resource they think you should follow). Nielsen Norman Group also does amazing research into how users interact with websites.
Google’s own Webmasters blog also publishes details on each of their algorithm updates. But be careful not to read too much into these, as that’s how you wind up getting lost in the weeds. Focus on the main things; if you’re doing something on your site that is purely for search or conversion reasons, consider the implications for the user.
If something negatively affects the user, it will most likely come back to hurt you in the end. Remember, there is a way for SEO and user experience to play nicely together — and the sites that have figured out how to make that happen are the ones that are winning.