Writing for search engines: a beginner’s guide to keyword research

At Emphasis, we’re always highlighting the importance of keeping your reader at the front of your mind. In the past, that reader would always be human. Today, there’s a second audience to play to – and it’s just as important. Search engines such as Google and Bing crawl the web, weighing up your words and adding pages to their searchable databases.

Search engines act like time-pressed readers, scanning your pages for signals of relevance, quality and originality. To ensure your (human) readers find your content, you must write in a way search engines can understand, appreciate the key signals they use and incorporate them into your writing.

Make it new

The most important factor is originality. Content largely or entirely taken from other web pages rarely ranks well in search results. Of course, we’re not implying that you’d plagiarise others’ material, but it’s worth keeping in mind when reusing your own copy. A site with lots of original content is likely to rank better for a given term than one that contains duplicate content.

Find the right keywords

Confusingly, keywords are not always single words, but can also be phrases. They are the terms that people may use to search for your content. So if your article is on how to shuffle a pack of cards, your keywords might include ‘how to shuffle cards’, ‘best way to shuffle cards’ and ‘shuffle pack of cards’.

When you do your keyword research, thinking about the search terms people might use is a good place to start. But online tools make it easier and more precise. One of the best free services is the Google Ads keywords tool. It gives you estimated monthly searches for keywords, regionally and globally, and it can offer alternative suggestions.

Ask yourself what somebody using a given keyword might need. If you’re selling a product, think of the needs your product can fulfil. For example, a seller of designer headphones will probably target ‘buy designer headphones’ on one page, but they may also target ‘best gifts for music lovers’ on another.

Group related keywords together

Once you have your keywords, start thinking about how to group them. People search for only one thing at a time, and search engines give the most relevant pages for each query. For example, ‘how to shuffle cards’, ‘shuffle pack of cards’ and ‘best way to shuffle cards’ are very similar and can appear on the same page.

On the other hand, ‘how to play whist’, ‘how to play poker’ and ‘how to play rummy’ are about different games, so it would be better to put them on separate pages. These can be linked together by another page, which could itself be optimised for ‘how to play card games’ and ‘rules of card games’.

Put keywords in the right place

The title of the page appears in the top of your browser window. For example, the title of this article is ‘Writing for search engines: a beginner’s guide to keyword research’. Pages that have the most important keywords in the title are ranked higher by search engines.

Try a search for anything – how to make Earl Grey tea, Honda Civic spare parts, how tall is Patrick Stewart – almost all of the results will contain the terms ‘Earl Grey’, ‘Honda Civic’ and ‘Patrick Stewart’ in their title fields. (In fact, while researching this article, we found that two of those subjects are more closely related than we had previously realised – but we digress.)

Pages with keyword-heavy titles rank much better than those with more whimsical turns of phrase. It can be hard to resist the urge to make puns or be poetic, but to get the best search results, you must. Play it straight in the title and save your creative flourishes (though not too many) for the main text.

Placing keywords in headings, sub-headings and hyperlinks also makes them more visible to search engines, as does putting them near the beginning of a document. Make sure your first paragraph contains your most important keywords, but in a way that sounds natural.

Avoid ‘keyword stuffing’

Don’t make the mistake of cramming your writing full of keywords in an attempt to get search engines to rank your page higher in search results. It makes for ugly, faltering prose, and it looks old-fashioned and unprofessional. Also, Google has taken measures to combat it, so it’s not even very effective. Today, keyword stuffing may result in your page being penalised by search engines.

Keyword stuffing does nothing for readers, either. They are less likely to click on a search result that says ‘How to shuffle cards card shuffling learn to shuffle cards best way to shuffle’, than they are to click on an intelligible title such as ‘Learn how to shuffle cards’. Nobody wants to read text that is so saturated with keywords that it’s become unpleasant to read.

Finally: know what you can control

Google uses more than 200 signals when determining how to rank a page. Some, such as whether the content is linked to by high-quality external sources, may not be in your direct control. But there are things you can do to raise your profile and make others more likely to link to you – such as improving your social media presence, and actively presenting yourself as an approachable online citizen with valuable information to offer. To learn more about these external factors, try looking at the excellent resources available at SEOmoz.

However, good keyword research and placement will give each page the foundation it needs to do well in search engines, and boost the impact of your whole website.

Want to learn how to write effective web pages that give your visitors what they need? Have a look at our Writing for the web course for company teams or for individuals.

The definitive guide to transforming the writing of individuals and teams