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7 Steps to Create Search-Optimized Content

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7 Steps to Create Search-Optimized Content

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a lot more than just writing. However, you can’t have SEO without writing. It’s a crucial aspect that helps you show up in the search results.

But what is SEO writing? How do you write for search engines while still writing for the people who use them? Is there a process anyone can follow to be a better SEO writer?

In this guide, I’m going to answer all of these questions and give you a step-by-step approach to creating perfectly search-optimized content your readers (and Google) will love. 

What does it mean to “write for SEO”?

SEO writing is the process of writing content with the intent of ranking on the first page of a search engine, e.g., Google

To do so, you must focus on three things:

  1. Know what searchers need when they search your target keyword (i.e., search intent)
  2. Create the best possible answer to a given search query (i.e., research and knowledge)
  3. Present the answer in a way that’s easy to read and understand (i.e., have good writing skills)

Beyond that, you also need to understand the basics of on-page SEO elements, such as meta tags, image alt text, internal links, etc. But I’ll get to those later.

For now, let’s explore this question: “Why should you even care?” 

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Why is SEO writing important?

SEO writing is important because Google gets an estimated 3.5 billion searches per day. This means your customers are most certainly using Google to find information.

Additionally, once you rank on the first page of Google for your target keywords, you’re getting free, recurring, and highly relevant traffic to your website.

In other words, SEO = money in the bank.

As paid advertising costs rise and social media engagement becomes harder and harder to come by, organic traffic continues to dominate as one of the most important marketing channels any modern business can invest in.

So how do you get those coveted organic page #1 rankings?

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Seven steps to create search-optimized content

Luckily for you, the process I use is fairly simple and easy to follow. Once I finish my keyword research and know what keyword(s) I’m targeting, every article I publish on my blog goes through the following seven SEO writing steps:

1. Research the SERPs for your target keyword(s)

Remember I said writing for SEO involves understanding search intent?

Search intent is the intention a searcher has when they type in a query. For example, if someone searches for “best restaurants near me,” their intention is to find a good restaurant near their current location.

Sounds simple, but it can be surprisingly easy to get wrong. And if you get it wrong, you have no hope of ranking on page #1 of Google—no matter how great your content is.

How could you get it wrong, you ask?

Let’s say you’re targeting the keyword “RV storage ideas.” At first, you may think this keyword will return results with ideas on how to store your RV when you’re not using it.

But if that’s what you think, you’re wrong. At least, in Google’s eyes. Here are the actual results:

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Top search results for "rv storage ideas"

As you can see, the top results for this keyword are all guides on how to get more storage inside your RV, not RV storage locations.

That’s why it’s so important to check the search engine results page (SERP) before you even start writing anything. You can do this quickly and easily with Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer (as I did above) or by Googling the keyword.

Additionally, in the research stage, you’ll want to look for featured snippets. A featured snippet is a snippet of information Google takes from a ranking webpage and displays right in the search results:

Featured snippet example

You can optimize your content for featured snippets like the one above as a way of bypassing some of the competitiveness of a keyword and ranking for it quicker.

The best way to quickly and easily find featured snippets is with Keywords Explorer. Just enter the keywords you’re thinking about targeting, click the dropdown “SERP features,” check off Featured snippet, and click “Apply.”

Finding keywords with featured snippets in Keywords Explorer

Now you’ll only be shown keywords that have a featured snippet! Follow our guide to optimizing for featured snippets to learn more about how you can implement these in your writing.

Once you understand search intent, there’s one more step to take before you start writing.

2. Create an article outline

Creating a content outline is a crucial step in SEO writing. An outline makes the writing process faster and easier while ensuring a high level of quality control.

Part of the outline process is filling in crucial SEO details, such as common questions people ask when searching for a given keyword.

Another part of the process is determining the heading and subheadings, goals, and approach angle of your article. What makes your article different from or better than all the others out there?

Here’s an example of part of the outline I made for one of my other articles:

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Example outline for an article

I’ve already written a guide to creating content outlines here, so head to that article for the details of this step.

3. Write your draft

Nearly every great article begins with a rough draft.

Why?

Because the draft process helps you refine your ideas and get the research phase done. And it helps you flesh out the flow of your content. Also, you get the opportunity to easily change and revise things without feeling like you’re starting over after having a finished product.

I always write my drafts in Google Docs. This allows for easy communication between my editors, designers, etc., and me. In fact, here’s what this very section looks like in draft form:

Example of a draft in Google Docs

Your draft is the perfect time for free-flow writing without worrying too much about making the words perfect or formatting everything. Just get the meat of the content on the page.

4. Get feedback and revise the draft

While not always possible, getting feedback on your draft can be helpful. As writers, we often have trouble seeing the wood for the trees, so having a second pair of eyes never hurts.

If you have team members or employees, have them review the draft for you and give their thoughts. Better yet, if you have an audience, get their feedback as well.

A Facebook group or email list can be perfect for this. If you have a few trusted members, submit your draft to them to see what your actual customers think of your writing. They may offer feedback you didn’t think of. In fact, the feedback may contain information that isn’t even on Google yet.

Once you get the feedback, revise your writing accordingly. Then move on to step #5.

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5. Edit and format the draft into a proper article

This is your time to polish the article.

Investing in an editor, if you don’t already have one, can dramatically improve your content quality. But if you can’t afford one, you can edit the content yourself.

How do you do that?

When I create SEO content, my goal is simple: provide the best possible answer in the fewest possible words in an easy-to-skim format.

So as you’re editing, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Is this the best answer? 
  • Am I explaining it simply? 
  • Is this article easy for someone (with limited time) to skim and get what they need?

You can improve your writing by organizing your content better with headings and subheadings, using italics or bold to make key points stand out, and varying sentence length to keep things interesting. 

It’s also a good idea to avoid overly complex words, as these can make your point difficult to understand. Of course, it’s fine to use more technical words if there’s no simpler way to explain something.

Finally, it’s a good habit to use photos, videos, and bulleted lists to break up long stretches of text and show your points visually. Having media may also help with SEO.

As you’re editing, consider reading your content out loud to yourself. Reading it out loud shows you where the dry or boring parts are, highlights where things get overly complicated or unclear, and can make grammatical errors stand out.

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Speaking of grammar—Google Docs also automatically shows you where you misspelled something or made a grammatical error. This useful feature lets you focus on the quality of content rather than the technicalities when you’re editing.

Example of Google Docs highlighting a grammatical error

6. Set your SEO elements and publish your post

While having a great article is a big step to rank on Google, it takes a bit more than that to achieve those page #1 rankings.

I mentioned on-page SEO at the beginning of this article. This refers to the following:

  • Title tag
  • Meta description
  • Open graph tag
  • URL slug
  • Page or post categorization
  • Image alt text
  • And more

Every page on your site needs this optimization during the writing process. I personally use WordPress and have a plugin called SEOPress that allows me to set these things easily.

Optimizing titles and meta descriptions using the SEOPress WordPress plugin

However, most content management systems (CMSs) have a plugin or setting where you can upload this data. If they don’t, I highly suggest switching to one that does!

But this post isn’t about on-page SEO. Though, you can refer to this guide if you want to learn more.

7. Update internal links

After your post is published, you should always add internal links from other pages on your site to the new article to help search engines and users navigate to it.

Not only does this make your site user-friendly, but it also helps Google crawl your site and establish what your new page is about (via anchor text) to properly index it.

An easy way to quickly identify internal link opportunities is with the Google search operator, site:. You use it by typing “site:yoursitehere.com [related keyword here]” into Google.

For example, when looking for internal link opportunities to this “SEO writing” page, I searched “site:ahrefs.com SEO writing”, and it returned over 1,000 pages with relevant text on the page.

(Obviously, we write a lot about SEO.)

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Finding internal link opportunities with Google

Scroll through the results of relevant articles and choose a few to add internal links that point to your newly published post. 

If that search modifier doesn’t provide results that are relevant enough to find internal link opportunities, you can get even more hyper-relevant results with an exact-match search operator.

Sounds fancy. But all you have to do is put your keyword in quotes: site:ahrefs.com “SEO writing”.

Finding internal link opportunities with Google

I always aim to add at least three to five internal links to every new article. But this number depends on how many pages you currently have—you may want to add dozens or even hundreds of internal links if you have thousands or tens of thousands of pages.

Final thoughts

SEO writing boils down to creating the best possible answer to a given query presented in a way that’s easily understood and skimmable.

As long as you nail that and the basic on-page SEO best practices I mentioned, you’ve mastered the content side of SEO.

If you’re eager to learn more about writing and SEO, check out some of these other guides:

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SEO

When To Canonicalize, Noindex, Or Do Nothing With Similar Content

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When To Canonicalize, Noindex, Or Do Nothing With Similar Content

Picture your content as you do yourself. Are you carrying some baggage you could get rid of? Carrying something you want to keep but maybe want to repurpose or see differently?

This is no different when it comes to website content. We’ve all likely sat around as a group of minds thinking about the content we would like to slice off our website but realize there is still a need for it, whether it is for a specific prospect, internal team, etc.

While we look for ways to slim our websites as much as possible for content management purposes, we also want to do the same to appease crawling search engine bots.

We want their, hopefully, daily visit to our websites to be fast and succinct.

This hopefully shows them who we are, what we are about, and ultimately – if we have to have content that can’t be removed – how we are labeling it for them.

Luckily, search engine crawlers want to understand our content just as much as we want this of them. Given to us are chances to canonicalize content and noindex content.

However, beware, not doing this correctly could render important website content misunderstood by search engine crawlers or not read at all.

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Canonicalize?

Screenshot by author, July 2022

Canonical tags provide a great way of instructing search engines: “Yes, we know this content is not that unique or valuable, but we must have it.”

It can also be a great way to point value to content originating from another domain or vice versa.

Nonetheless, now is your time to show the crawling bots how you perceive website content.

To utilize, you must place this tag within the head section of the source code.

The canonical tag can be a great way to deal with content that you know is duplicate or similar, but it must exist for user needs on the site or a slow site maintenance team.

If you think this tag is an ideal fit for your website, review your website and address site sections that appear to have separate URLs but have similar content (e.g., copy, image, headings, title elements, etc.).

Website auditing tools such as Screaming Frog and the Semrush Site Audit section are a quick way to see content similarities.

If you think there might be some other similar content culprits out there, you can take a deeper look with tools such as Similar Page Checker and Siteliner, which will review your site for similar content.

Now that you have a good feel for cases of similarity, you need to understand if this lack of uniqueness is worthy of canonicalization. Here are a few examples and solutions:

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Example 1: Your website exists at both HTTP and HTTPS versions of site pages, or your website exists with both www. and non-www. page versions.

Solution: Place a canonical tag to the page version with the most significant amount of links, internal links, etc., until you can redirect all duplicating pages one-to-one. 

Example 2: You sell products that are highly similar where there is no unique copy on these pages but slight variations in the name, image, price, etc. Should you canonically point the specific product pages to the product parent page?

Solution: Here, my advice is to do nothing. These pages are unique enough to be indexed. They have unique names differentiating them, and this could help you for long-tail keyword instances.

Example 3: You sell t-shirts but have a page for every color and every shirt.

Solution: Canonical tag the color pages to reference the parent shirt page. Each page isn’t a particular product, just a very similar variation.

Use Case: Canonical Tagging Content That’s Unique Enough To Succeed

Similar to the example presented above, I wanted to explain that sometimes, slightly similar content can still be appropriate for indexation.

What if it was shirts with child pages for different shirt types like long sleeves, tank tops, etc.? This now becomes a different product, not just a variation. As also previously mentioned, this can serve successful for long-tail web searches.

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Here’s a great example: An automotive sales site that features pages for car makes, associated models, and variations of those models (2Dr, 4Dr, V8, V6, deluxe edition, etc.). The initial thought with this site is that all variations are simply near duplications of the model pages.

You may think, why would we want to annoy search engines with this near duplicative content when we can canonicalize these pages to point to the model page as the representative page?

We moved in this direction but still, the anxiety on whether these pages could succeed made us move to canonically tag each respective model page.

Suppose you canonically tag to the parent model page. Even if you show the content importance/hierarchy to search engines, they may still rank the canonicalized page if the search is relatively specific.

So, what did we see?

We found that organic traffic increased to both child and parent pages. It’s my opinion that when you give credit back to the child pages, the parent page looks to have more authority as it has many child pages which are now given back “credit.”

Monthly traffic to all these pages together grew five times.

Since September of this year, when we revised the canonical tags, there is now 5x monthly organic traffic to this site area, with 754 pages driving organic traffic compared to the 154 recognized earlier in the previous year.

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Monthly traffic to all these pages together grew five times.Screenshot by author with Semrush, July 2022

Don’t Make These Canonicalization Mistakes

  • Setting canonical tags that endure a redirect before resolving to the final page can do a great disservice. This will slow search engines as it forces them to try to understand content importance but are now jumping URLs.
  • Similarly, if you point canonical tags towards URL targets that are 404-ing error pages, then you essentially point them into a wall.
  • Canonical tagging to the wrong page version (i.e., www./non-www., HTTP/HTTPS). We discussed finding through website crawling tools that you may have unintentional website duplication. Don’t mistake pointing page importance to a weaker page version.

Noindex?

You can also utilize the meta robots noindex tag to exclude similar or duplicate content entirely.

Placing the noindex tag in the head section of your source code will stop search engines from indexing these pages.

Beware: While the meta robots noindex tag is a quick way to remove duplicate content from ranking consideration, it can be dangerous to your organic traffic if you fail to use it appropriately.

This tag has been used in the past to weed down large sites to present only search-critical site pages so that site crawl spend is as efficient as possible.

However, you want search engines to see all relevant site content to understand site taxonomy and the hierarchy of pages.

However, if this tag doesn’t scare you too much, you can use it to let search engines only crawl and index what you deem fresh, unique content.

Here are a couple of ways noindexing might be discussed as a solution:

Example 1: To aid your customers, you can provide documentation from the manufacturer, even though they already feature this on their website.

Solution: Continue providing documentation to aid your on-site customers but noindex these pages.

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They are already owned and indexed with the manufacturer, which likely has much more domain authority than you. In other words, you will not likely be the ranking website for this content.

Example 2: You offer several different but similar products. The only differentiation is color, size, count, etc. We don’t want to waste crawl spend.

Solution: Solve via the use of canonical tags. A long-tail search could drive qualified traffic because a given page would still be indexed and able to rank.

Example 3: You have a lot of old products that you don’t sell much of anymore and are no longer a primary focus.

Solution: This perfect scenario is likely found in a content or sales audit. If the products do little for the company, consider retirement.

Consider either canonically pointing these pages to relevant categorical pages or redirecting them to relevant categorical pages. These pages have age/trust, may have links, and may possess rankings.

Use Case: Don’t Sacrifice Rankings/Traffic For Crawl Spend Considerations

Regarding our website, we know we want to put our best foot forward for search engines.

We don’t want to waste their time when crawling, and we don’t want to create a perception that most of our content lacks uniqueness.

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In the example below, to reduce the bloat of somewhat similar product page content from search engine reviews, meta robots noindex tags were placed on child product variation pages during the time of a domain transition/relaunch.

The below graph shows the total keyword amounts which transitioned from one domain to another.

When the meta robots noindex tags were removed, the overall amount of ranking terms grew by 50%.

When the meta robots noindex tags were removed, the overall amount of ranking terms grew by 50%.Screenshot by author with Semrush, July 2022

Don’t Make These Meta Robots Noindex Mistakes

  • Don’t place a meta robots noindex tag on a page with an inbound link value. If so, you should permanently redirect the page in question to another relevant site page. Placing the tag will eliminate the valuable link equity that you have.
  • If you’re noindexing a page that is included in the main, footer, or supporting navigation, make sure that the directive isn’t “noindex, nofollow” but “noindex, follow” so search engines that are crawling the site can still pass through the links on the noindexed page.

Conclusion

Sometimes it is hard to part ways with website content.

The canonical and meta robots noindex tags are a great way to preserve website functionality for all users while also instructing search engines.

In the end, be careful how you tag! It’s easy to lose search presence if you do not fully understand the tagging process.

More Resources:


Featured Image: Jack Frog/Shutterstock

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