The last 30 years

As soon as the internet was created there were people determined to try and organise it. These Search Engines, came up with ingenious algorithms that ordered and ranked web pages, and tried to supply the user with the content they desired. Some 30 years later the same is still true, but now we have infinitely more websites to make sense of, and more ways in which people search than they did in the early 1990s.

All these search engines though had one concept in mind – someone types some words into a search bar and the web pages should then return. The returning order was the difficult bit, but the premise was simple – businesses write content, someone completes a search and if the words you used matched their search, you would appear in the ranking. I mentioned the order was the tricky bit, and that’s because for the last 30 years there have been people like me trying to make sure that their pages were high in that order. Trouble is, there is a lot to gain financially from being high in that order which means a lot of people have figured out ways to manipulate the order and reap the benefits. Search engines had to adapt and change their algorithm to react to these underhand tactics and now it’s much harder to play the system to your own benefit. Search Engines typically do a major update around once a year just to keep us Search Engine Optimisation professionals on our toes.

The good news is that the only thing you really need to think about is how good your content is.  Is it the best it can be and will it give the user all the information they need?  If the answer is ‘yes’, then everything else is relatively straightforward.

Make sure you’re using the right key words

One area you often hear about in the Web Editing world is ‘Keywords’; or ‘Keyword phrases’. These are the actual words and phrases you enter into search engines, and it’s these words or phrases that search engines are going to look for on your web pages. It’s also these words and phrases that people have been using to play the system since it first launched. I want to take you through the process of working out what words or phrases someone is using and how to ensure that you are using them correctly in your web content.

The first thing to note is that someone’s search intent falls into three crucial categories – Looking for something you are unsure of (general undirected browsing), Looking for something you have some concept of but want options (more refined search, direct browsing), and looking for something you know exactly what you want (direct search). When researching your keywords you want to look at words that cross those three spectrums.

The second thing to note is that there are different ways to search – Voice search for example. According to Social Media Today – Around 50% of users research their products via voice search and PwC has shown that 59% of 18-24 year olds use their voice activated technology daily (65% 25-49 year olds). Next time you ask Google, Siri, Alexa etc. a question, think about the way you did it. We all talk completely differently to how we type and that distinction is critical – even if on a basic level, there are words we can pronounce but not spell. Also, we tend to ramble a lot more when talking than we do when using a typed search engine. Voice search therefore and the way we write our pages to respond to it, is really vital, especially when you think about our main audience.

The third thing to note, are the words themselves. It’s easy to find a collection of words you think will be what you need but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are. You need to think about:

  • Tasks not names
  • Synonyms
  • Popularity and trends
  • Phrases and words

That’s because the words I use, may or may not be the words others use. For example, I know as a student, to select a module at Essex you need to go to ‘eNROL’, but as a new student I’m much more likely to search ‘Essex Uni Module selection’. If you put all your effort into the term ‘eNROL’ it’s likely to do little for you. You need to be really clear who your audience is, and what they are looking for therefore. Generally, that means focusing on your web pages solving a task or a question someone needs to complete, and making sure that your pages are optimised with those tasks in mind.

Then there’s synonyms. If we use a term that society is unfamiliar with, even if it is factually correct, we need to use a more familiar term instead, so we continue to rank highly- think ‘Great War’, ‘World War One’, ‘WW1’, ‘First World War’ – these terms will rank differently on search as some synonyms are more popular than others. This can often be an issue when writing from an academic point of view. If your piece is for peers in your discipline then certain language and terms will likely be fine. But, if you are trying to appeal to a mass market (which is exactly what the internet is, and what your content should really be trying to achieve) then you need to tailor your writing appropriately. Sometimes that means optimising a page with words that aren’t technically very academic or even accurate, but they will at least get you to rank more highly, meaning that more people will actually get to see your content.

Next, think – Popularity. Things change. What was popular yesterday may not be today. Keep abreast of the world, people’s interests, and what terms people use today as they may be different from what they were yesterday and you might be losing your ranking because of it. As an example, society cares much more these days about Social Change, or the Climate crisis than it might have done 5 or so years ago. If you have web content which might appeal to that audience, but it was written 5 years ago, consider updating and refreshing it to appeal to today’s generation. Remember, your goal is to be the expert in your field and your subject. If your web pages aren’t appealing to our audience and are talking about things they don’t care about then you are only being an expert for yourself, and not for them.

Finally, think Short and Long. Long-tail keyword phrases are when someone searches for a whole sentence or phrase. For example. “I want to work in marketing, what degree should I study?”. Short-tail, are therefore the shorter more direct searches “degree careers”. The long-tail is hard to rank for because with more words, there are more websites that could return, making it much more competitive for you. But, they are also the more valuable to rank well for. If your web page can answer that question then you are much more likely to get a conversion from the person viewing your page. I’ve said it before, but think of web content as answering questions.

So, how to you know what words to use?

Keyword research for SEO takes time – and that’s often time we haven’t got. But, you don’t need to spend months figuring out what words to use and testing them all, you just need to remember your audience and write for them.

Which is why, whenever I write new content I always start by working through the following plan:

  • Who is this content for? Demographics, age range, social perspective etc.
  • Who do I want to read it?
  • Who may read it?
  • What questions would someone use to find my content? (think about breaking this down by the three types of search)
  • What questions would I like my content to answer?
  • What search terms are people likely to use? (voice, written etc)
  • Can I order those words in priority?
  • What relates to my content in popular culture?

If you answer these questions honestly, you should already be on the way to some great content, and for the vast majority of web authors that should really be enough.  However if you want to take it to the next level, you can look into how those words might rank already and their popularity through Google Trends. Explaining Google Trends would need a whole blog in itself (luckily SEM Rush have already written one), but basically it can help you learn the popularity of your keywords over a regional basis or yearly basis or just show you what works and what doesn’t. If for example, you have a word in your list that no one is looking for then it might be worth thinking of a different word – or synonym.

If you want to find out more, please come and speak to the Web and Digital Media Team. We have access to a range of keyword research tools such as Moz Keyword Planner, or Google Adwords planner and can help point you in the right direction of what works and what doesn’t and more importantly, why. We can also help with keyword research overseas and help your pages to rank in countries that might use different search tools.

The bottom line with keyword research and writing any content is write for your audience, not for yourself. Think about what they might need and how you can give it to them and you won’t go too far wrong.