As the head of content for a digital marketing agency, I can spin a convincing argument on the importance of search engine optimization. And because I've been able to produce some pretty solid results—like those elusive featured snippets—it appears to clients that I have some kind of magic SEO formula.
What I do have is a background in journalism—which, it turns out, was the best 20th century training in the world if you want to appeal to 21st century search bots that didn't even exist back in the day.
So, although there may not exactly be a magic formula, there are steps you can take to write for humans that will also appeal to the Google bots that determine whether your content will ever see the search engine light of day—i.e., search engine results pages.
1. Stay true to your brand
Patagonia seems to embrace its "why" even at the risk of profit. In 2011, the company took out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times on Black Friday with one of its fleece zip-ups prominently displayed below the callout: Don't Buy This Jacket.
In an effort to speak to a customer base that believes in the company's products and its belief that "to lighten our environmental footprint, everyone needs to consume less," Patagonia urged consumers to buy fewer products, even if that meant taking a pass on its own brand for the season.
More recently, Nike faced a boycott of its products when it ran a controversial ad in 2018 featuring knee-taker Colin Kaepernick. The company could have capitulated, apologizing for the campaign. Instead, its bold stance sent a message: "This is who we are. If you don't like it, don't buy our products." After an initial dip, Nike's stock price soared, and its sales jumped.
How does this kind of action please an algorithm? Google considers trust, authority, and reputation when it ranks your site. The only way to hit all those marks is to remain true to your core principles as a brand. But first you need to know what they are.
2. Listen to your audience
You can't pitch to an audience if you don't know who that audience is. In the case of Patagonia and Nike, both brands knew their audiences well enough to understand their users would not abandon them—even if the brand took an out-of-box ad approach or a controversial stand on a hot-button issue.
But in the digital age, brands don't merely need to build out personas and target optimum demographics; they also need to use digital to listen to what users say about them. Sometimes that may mean standing aside. User-generated content is as authentic as it gets, and it often demonstrates that brand loyalists have their own view of the companies they support. In those cases, brands need to step aside and let passionate brand evangelists speak on their behalf. But that doesn't mean brands can't also leverage great user-generated content in their marketing efforts. And it certainly doesn't mean they can't encourage it.
Users embraced the "Share a Coke" campaign in more than 80 countries. Thousands of Starbucks loyalists got out their doodling pens for the #WhiteCupContest and #RedCupArt contests. And Disney's #ShareYourEars campaign didn't just boost the brand; it raised more than a million dollars for the Make a Wish Foundation.
How does all this social media user-generated content appeal to the Google algorithm? Google loves authenticity! And there's nothing more real than when real people boast about you brand on their own all over the Google-indexed Web.
3. Solve a problem
Some of the best wins we achieve for our clients and companies are when we're able to put ourselves in prospects' shoes and think: What would I want to know? By wins, I mean content that resonates, gets shared on social media, drives traffic.
That usually starts with empathy mapping, but it needs to follow through with a real sense of what people care about and the issues that matter to them most.
For brands, that means more than just understanding the connection between the products they sell and the problems they try to solve for their customers. To win online, brands also need a sense of the journey customers take to their products. It's rarely a search-click-buy scenario. It's more likely a "research, read reviews, think about it, think some more, do something else..." You get it. It's a circuitous path to say the least. Brands need to be beside their audience ever meandering step of the way.
Where does this fit with the algorithms of Google and other search engines? When users type a query, that's the whole point! They want something, they need something. Can you provide answers? Even if those answers have nothing to do with a purchase? Because if you can, when it comes time for a sale you'll be ahead of brands you're competing against.
4. Speak English, not Robot
When Google acknowledged its latest algorithmic update based on natural language processing, the company was saying once again that it's trying to resemble humans as much as possible.
That's why its bidirectional encoder representations from transformers formula, or BERT for those who've already been introduced, makes it harder than ever to "trick" the algorithm. However, it makes it great for good writers who research and write on topics that their users actually care about.
Connection to the algorithm? Crystal clear and straight from Journalism 101 and thank you Professor Kirtz: There are no boring stories, only boring writers. Translation: Don't write for the algorithm, write for humans.
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