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SEO For Humans: How to Keep Focus on Your Audience Without Missing the Target (Keyword)

Your firm puts a great deal of focus on SEO in your content marketing efforts. After all, solid SEO leads to more site traffic and higher conversion rates. But are all of the SEO “best practices” actually serving the audience you’re writing to? It’s tempting to throw every strategy at every new article or page you publish, but this can often lead to uninteresting or downright unreadable content.

The almighty Google Algorithm and its guidelines are constantly shifting, upping the ante for what “good SEO” looks like. Keeping tabs on this ever-changing landscape takes a good bit of work. So it’s important to establish a baseline of where SEO is headed this year and beyond. For a lot of content marketers, that means eschewing those outdated practices we learned years ago.

Common SEO Mistakes and Outdated Practices

Trying to hit every single SEO best practice on every single piece of content is going to drive you insane. I’ve seen many a content production cadence grind to a halt because the optimization process never feels complete. There’s always more to optimize. As a result, your blog space hasn’t seen a new post in months, you haven’t uploaded any new gated assets to drive conversions, and you’re seeing waning audience engagement. Even worse — those articles that are published wind up overly optimized and hard to read.

SEO requires a good amount of strategy, trial and error, and, most importantly, a deep understanding of what your audience wants from your content. When you put Google ahead of your target audience, you’re potentially alienating the latter. Here are some of the SEO “best” practices that often go too far. All are done with the best of intentions, but can easily wind up doing more harm than good. 

1. Writing Articles for Google Instead of Your Audience

Are you optimizing your page for every SEO trick in the book while putting too little focus on the content itself? Other than site traffic, what are you trying to achieve through your latest article? Plenty of articles optimize around a certain keyword, but the actual verbiage is toothless and does nothing to demonstrate an organization’s value or come close to answering the question it claims to. 

You need to be intentional about the content you’re creating and ensure it reflects the topics and questions your readers actually care about. Keyword research and past performance will help inform this, but your article needs to add something new to the conversation. It needs to further your positioning and genuinely answer your audience’s questions. It’s outdated to think of Google and site visitors as two separate audiences. In fact, they’re  more intertwined than ever. 

That’s because Google is getting a lot better at interpreting User Intent. In other words, Google’s algorithm has reached a point where it’s reading your articles like an actual person would and can more intuitively assess whether or not your particular article answers the question the user meant to ask. All this to say, one of the best ways you can optimize your content for search engines is to write to your audience first. 

Not sure who your audience is? It might be time to revisit your buyer personas. Get a sense of who you’re trying to target in your content and write to them. Ask your past or current customers what they search for and what they’re interested in reading. As amazing as Google is, your audience knows how to find what they need, too. 

2. Going for SEO Quantity, Not Quality (Over-Optimizing)

I see a lot of firms try to hedge their SEO bets by throwing every tactic at the wall just to see what sticks. In reality, all you’ve done is create a cluttered and probably annoying article your reader will bounce right off of — regardless of how great your topic actually is. 

When you load up every article on your site with a bevy of outbound/internal links, images, GIFs, embedded videos, in line forms, content offers, chatbot pop-ups, and related content, you’re going to overwhelm your reader. Be judicious about the media, CTAs, and further content you’re promoting on your pages. Sure, Google puts a lot of stock into video content, but is the YouTube clip you’ve embedded actually relevant to the article topic? 

Here are some of the most common offenders we see. Remember, these are, on paper, SEO best practices. However, including any of them arbitrarily is not the best strategy.

Too Many (Irrelevant) Images

A long held truism of SEO is that it’s best practice to include an image every 200-500 words. In reality, Google’s stance is to use as many as you need. How do you like that for some noncommittal guidance?

What’s more important is to ensure the images you are including are optimized in their own right and propel the content you’re writing. More often, arbitrary images do nothing to further a reader’s understanding of your article. Adding superfluous images for the sake of hitting one every 500 words leads to a cluttered piece of content, can negatively impact your load time, and frankly, looks lazy.

Make sure your imagery is relevant. Charts and infographics are great ways to supplement the information you’re sharing. Stock photos from free services? Not so much. 

Embedded Videos, Slideshows, and Other Media

You’ve written a great article, but now it’s sandwiched between a YouTube video you expect readers to stop and watch, there’s a gif flashing in their peripheral vision, a media player with your latest podcast episode, and oh look! An embedded Prezi deck with your sales pitch for some reason? 

What’s your visitor’s incentive to keep reading your words? There are clearly other actions you want them to take. Give your readers a little credit. It’s easy to figure out when an organization is trying to pull a bait-and-switch. That may not be your intention, but content for content’s sake can definitely give off that impression. 

Who are you trying to attract and engage? Who’s going to actually convert on your site? Google or your target audience?

External and internal links serve a crucial purpose from both an SEO and UX perspective. But again, all things in moderation. Google’s stance on links is pretty straightforward: use as many as you need. Use your external links to bolster your claims and cite your sources. Internal links should help your audience discover more about your topics. 

External links demonstrate your willingness to engage with the larger online community and defer to other subject matter experts. That’s a big plus to Google. They don’t want your site to exist in a vacuum. Inbound links help direct your audience to more relevant and valuable content and show search engines a hierarchy of your site (which pages you prioritize).

But this isn’t an invitation to link to every conceivable page out there. Every time you add a hyperlink you’re conceivably upping the chances that someone is going to follow it and thus spend less time engaging with your content. Plus, when half of your copy is a different color, it’s jarring and looks downright messy.

So before you start adding everything but the kitchen sink to your articles, take a step back and make sure these extra components aren’t just good for SEO. They need to be relevant and support your articles. They need to enhance your writing, not distract from it. 

3. Chasing Keywords for All Your SEO Equity

In line with writing to Google instead of your audience, putting all of your SEO muscle into the perfect keyword won’t always do the trick. Using one of the ubiquitous keyword research tools, you’ve probably compiled a list of search terms around which you’d like to optimize your website’s content. Good start. Drop that keyword in your H1, SEO title, slug, and meta description. Pepper your phrase into the body of your article and subheaders (but not so much that you’re keyword stuffing, of course), and there you go.

Here’s the issue. This is a passive approach to SEO. Even with all the work you’ve put into your keyword research, relying on one specific phrase to drive traffic is a gamble. Sure, that keyword has performed well on SERPs, but is your article going to add anything new to the conversation? 

When you’re ideating new topics for articles, certainly consider your keyword research and previous successful search terms, but don’t build your entire article around one, verbatim phrase. Again, user intent is getting a lot more sophisticated. Instead, let the article inform what you’re trying to optimize for. There are 3.5 billion Google searches per day. That offers pretty good odds that your content will resonate with at least a few thousand people. 

After you’ve written your article, take a look at what themes or phrases make the most sense for which to optimize. You can throw this phrase in a keyword tool like Ubersuggest or Answer the Public to help refine the wording based on search volume. One little trick is to simply google the phrase and see what it returns. While not foolproof, this exercise helps determine what others are writing about and how they’re phrasing it — and what Google is prioritizing. 

4. Using Organic Traffic as Your Main KPI

You can drive all the traffic you want to your site, but if visitors aren’t taking any further action, what’s the point? Your organic site traffic is a vanity metric when not put into a greater context. Seeing a million visitors to your article isn’t worth much if they’re not doing anything else once they get there. Don’t put all of your time and resources into checking off every SEO box if it means you’re neglecting other, more meaningful aspects of inbound marketing such as conversion opportunities

Unless you’ve created the ideal piece of organic content, smashing that publish button on an article and calling it a day pretty much condemns your content to die on the vine. Sure, you’ll hopefully see that organic traffic start rolling in, but that might not be for weeks, even months. What’s your plan to actively get your content in front of your audience?

What’s your plan to promote the amazing content your team is creating? Whether it’s through email marketing, social media, or paid search, help your audience find your content and boost some of those other traffic sources. 

5. Not Leveraging the SEO Equity You Already Have

Content Marketing can often feel like a “what have you done for me lately” undertaking. We’re always moving onto the next article, the next conversion, the next lead. Just remember, your website is a living artifact. Chances are you’ve seen some organic success on a few pages. Take a look at some of the content that has consistently performed well for you — pages and articles that see good traffic, high time on page, and drive conversions. Use a tool like SEMrush to see what organic keywords these pages are ranking for. 

There are no rules about revisiting older pieces of content. In fact, Google loves to see sites consistently updating and improving. Once you’ve identified a few articles, consider making the following updates:

  • Ensure the information you’re presenting is still relevant to your audience and your positioning. 
  • Add a conversion opportunity if there isn’t one
  • Consider writing new articles on similar topics. Just remember that while your site builds domain authority over time, it’s still your individual pages that rank in search engines. Don’t optimize for the same keyword in new articles so you’re essentially competing against yourself
  • Search for and identify commonalities in your organic performers. Topics? Length? Authorship? Embedded videos? What’s resonating with your audience (and Google) across the board?

You can also use your higher-performing articles to help support your new posts. Go back to these articles and work in links to your newer articles or ones you think need a traffic boost. But as I mentioned earlier, just make sure you’re not overdoing it with the linking. 

Be Flexible With Your SEO Strategy

You should absolutely follow SEO best practices for your content. But do so in a way that makes the most sense for your audience. You can get all the organic traffic you want, but if the user experience and the actual knowledge you’re imparting doesn’t hold up, you’re not going to see an uptick in the metrics that actually move the needle for your marketing efforts. What’s it matter if a blog article sees 1,500 organic visitors but your time on page is 00:20 seconds and doesn’t lead to a single conversion? 

Try new things, let go of outdated strategies, and keep your ear to the ground to make sure what you know about SEO is still relevant. But most importantly, write to your audience, not to search engines. 

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