Sarah McDowell believes SEOs should invest in the power of putting people first in 2023 so that you are creating content and optimising your site for users rather than search engines.
Sarah says: “Whenever you’re creating or improving existing website pages and content, you need to be thinking about people first - the people who are actually reading content rather than search engines.”
Why is this so important?
“Traditionally, SEOs create and write for search engines first and think about people second. We’ve been taught to think about search engines. People are often an afterthought, and that doesn’t make much sense. Over the years, search engines like Google have become increasingly aware of this and want SEOs and website owners to prioritise people over them.
People are Google’s customers. The experience people have on website pages is important, especially if Google want to maintain the high market share they have over competitors like Bing, Yahoo, etc.
If you look at the SERPs you’ll notice a shift where Google is awarding sites that are people-first. There is a focus on the people who read the content rather than search engines. This is especially evident after Google’s helpful content algorithm update, which rewards sites that create people-first content.”
What does ‘people-first’ mean in practice? Does it mean that keywords don’t matter anymore, should you just think about the user and write whatever comes to mind?
“Firstly, a special shout out to Lilly Ray who works at MCF digital as Senior Director of SEO and Head of Organic Research. She wrote a blog about the helpful content update after analysing the SERPs following the rollout. One of the topics she covers is how to avoid a search engine-first approach to writing content. According to Lilly, Google says that if you answer ‘yes’ to any of the following questions, you probably have content that’s written for search engines and not humans.
Question 1: ‘Has the content been created to attract people from SERPs rather than made for humans?’
Question 2: ‘Are you covering lots of topics in the hope that something sticks and works?’
Question 3: ‘Do you have extensive automation in place to create content on many topics?’
Question 4: ‘Are you summarising what others have said rather than adding your own value?’
Question 5: ‘Are you writing about something because it’s trending when you wouldn’t normally bother?’
Question 6: ‘Does your content leave readers with more questions and do they have to go elsewhere to get an answer?’
Question 7: ‘Are you writing for a particular word count because you’ve heard Google has a preferred word count?’
Question 8: ‘Did you decide to write on a niche topic just because you thought you’d get traffic?’
Question 9: ‘Does your content promise to answer a question that actually has no answer?’ For example, a release date for a product when one hasn’t been confirmed.”
Is it still beneficial to do some keyword research then optimise the title, incorporate the keyword in the title, have some H tags, and tweak the content to incorporate the keyword phrase you’re targeting?
“Yes, as SEOs, we still need to optimise for keywords. We need to ensure we’re mentioning the terms that people are searching for on Google. Going forward, it will be more about questioning content before you write it. You’ll need to focus on writing to add more value to a topic rather than just rehashing something in the hope to rank. Be strategic and go after content where you have the expertise and can add a viewpoint. Target content you’ve got your own data on or where you have the expertise to cover what hasn’t quite been covered yet.
Also, you need to be researching People Also Ask to see what people are searching for there. Go a step further and use questions you get from customers too. You can also incorporate a ‘How did we do with the content?’ section at the bottom of a site. You can ask people what they did and didn’t like about the content. This will provide valuable insight because you can see what people like, what topics you didn’t get right, and what questions you didn’t answer. You can see where you haven’t quite answered a question and work out how you can improve it.”
How do search engines determine that a piece of content was written for humans and should be ranked higher than other pieces of content that weren’t written for humans?
“Google has a couple of things they can use to their advantage. They will consider dwell time, for example - how long someone is sticking on a page and reading content. If dwell time is low and people aren’t sticking around to read content, Google will know that piece of content isn’t helpful because the user experience hasn’t been great.
They can also use expertise, authoritativeness, and trust (EAT). Google is getting better at knowing what is authentic and expert content, not information that’s been regurgitated and doesn’t offer anything new. They’re getting better at analysing content, who wrote it, and who’s behind it. They’ll continue to get better at this.
Not only should we be asking those questions that we highlighted earlier and avoiding writing content for search engines, but we also need to think about how we can show Google that content has the expertise and authority to be trusted. You can include things like author bios, links to research you’ve done, and links to mentions. These are the types of things that will become more and more important to Google.”
If someone’s writing an article for you, is it essential to have an author bio or an author page, or at least be linking that article to the individual author you’re trying to build credibility for?
“100%. That’s really important, especially for industries where Google deems that money or life are involved - for example, medical websites. In these cases, it’s more important to reference the author because the claims you’re stating must be backed up. Who are you to say that? You need to show that the author behind what you’re writing knows what they’re talking about.
If it’s a piece by a serial podcaster who’s founded lots of different initiatives, they’ll have the expertise to write about all sorts of things. If it was something to do with SEO and podcasts specifically, it’d be essential to put an author bio in there to show their years of SEO experience and experience with multiple podcasts. You need to be showing Google the authors and who is behind the content. This will help Google to trust your content.”
Let’s say someone started to talk about Star Wars having never covered this before. Could Google start to think that the company is about Star Wars and associate some of that author’s previous knowledge with what they’re likely to be writing about in the future?
“Yes, that’s why relevancy is key. Why would a podcast host write about Star Wars? Would a podcast hosting platform who aren’t experts in Star Wars write relevant content?
When you’re thinking about the content you’re writing, you need to be thinking about EAT, but relevancy is also crucial. This goes back to the earlier point of whether you’re writing about a topic or putting a piece of content together just because you see a trend. Relevancy is definitely important, so the content you’re writing has to be relevant to you as a professional or what your website offers.”
Does Google get confused about understanding who the entity is and what its expertise is in?
“Unfortunately, this is always going to be the case. If a name has different personas or things like that, Google can only use intent to a certain level. For a generic search, just for a name, you might get confusing findings and other people popping up in your search results. However, if you search for a name alongside what they specialise in, Google should get better at understanding this. At the end of the day, they are a machine and will get things wrong. Google will continue to improve on this side of things.
This emphasises the importance of educating Google on what your entity is about, and what it represents. You can incorporate the phraseology there and describe the industry that you happen to be in at the same time.”
What shouldn’t SEOs be doing in 2023? What’s seductive in terms of time, but ultimately counterproductive?
“SEOs shouldn’t be getting too hung up on Google algorithm updates. Whenever there is an announcement that Google has rolled out, whether it’s a new algorithm update or a core algorithm, it always causes panic in the industry. It can be a scary time, especially if you end up having a decrease in traffic or rankings. However, know that Google is always going to be updating and improving its algorithm. They do something like 2,000 per day, so when one gets talked about it’s because it’s affected enough websites.
Consider website speed and think about your Cumulative Layout Shift. Prioritise people-first content, think about your EAT, your relevancy, and ultimately anything that you’re doing to your website.”
Sarah McDowell is SEO Manager at Captivate and you can find her at captivate.fm.
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