The Complete Guide to Content Optimization In 2019

Content optimization is a daunting topic. In December 2018, over 136 million new blog posts were published on WordPress alone (source). With so much content out there, is it still worth taking the time to optimize your content? 

Source: WordPress.com

Add to that the challenges of keeping your existing content relevant: how do you decide between updating old pages and writing new articles?

And then there’s Google. Keeping the behemoth happy involves knowing which ranking factors and user signals matter. But are content marketers expected to be SEO gurus?

The truth is at the heart of every effective content marketing strategy lies a systematic approach to content optimization. And with 2019 set to be the most competitive year yet for content marketers, it is a must-have for successful content campaigns.

This guide to content optimization will help you overcome all these initial challenges and find a logical starting point. From there, we offer a 7-step strategy for optimizing any piece of content with no prior SEO knowledge required. 

(Tl;dr: By all means, skip right ahead to our 7-step content optimization guide, but you’ll miss some fun stuff.)

But before we talk strategy, let’s clear up a few things. 

What Is Content Optimization?

Content optimization can be defined as making online content as interesting to both users and search engines like Google as possible. 

For users, content optimization means consistently providing excellent quality content that perfectly matches their search intent. If they ask a question, then your article or page should provide the best available answer.

For search engines, content optimization involves using SEO (search engine optimization) and other techniques to make your content machine-readable, discoverable, and well-structured.

Why Do I Need a Content Optimization Strategy?

Still not convinced you need a content optimization strategy? A quick glance at the data may make you think otherwise:

Few would argue that content marketing forms the bedrock of most successful digital marketing strategies. In fact, a recent report found that 93% of successful B2B marketers remain very or extremely committed to content marketing in 2019. Yet the same report found that only 39% of B2B digital marketers actually have a documented content marketing strategy. This means  the door is wide open for strategic content marketers to prosper with optimized content.

The bottom line is that anyone regularly publishing content needs a solid content optimization strategy to stay ahead of the content curve in 2019. If you don’t have one, then make it your new year’s resolution. 

Research by Content Marketing Institute in 2018 shows how B2B content marketers are investing heavily in content creation.

What Are the Benefits of Content Optimization?

Here are some of the benefits of content optimization:

  • SEO: Well-optimized content has been proven to boost search engine rankings.
  • Traffic: Higher rankings mean more organic traffic.
  • Trust: Optimized content increases topic authority and trust, both with your users and Google. 
  • Efficiency: Updating and republishing existing content can save a lot of time.
  • Future-proof content: Regularly optimizing your content inline with best practices allows you to stay relevant.

What Are the Types of Content Optimization That Matter?

There are two main types of content optimization: 

1. Content Optimization Using SEO (also sometimes called technical or on-page optimization)

Some common SEO techniques for content optimization include strategically placing internal (inbound) and external (outbound) links; optimizing metadata and HTML tags; and backlink building.

These techniques affect where your page appears in the search engine results pages (SERPs) and how these results appear. They do not usually affect the quality of the content for the user.

We take a closer look at the most important SEO content optimization factors in the guide below. 

2. Non-Technical Content Optimization

Non-technical content optimization encompasses the overall quality of the content. This can include readability, article length, topic coverage, and use of images and videos. Each piece of content can be rated on a quality scale. Ultimately, users decide which piece of content best meets their needs.

Note: Some factors blur the boundaries. Article length and topic coverage are signals to search engines that your content is of high quality. However, content should always be created with the user in mind. Increasing word counts or topics mentioned just to boost rankings will result in bad user signals and drops in the ranking.

Combining Both Approaches:

Technical content optimization gets your content in front of readers. It ensures your content appears in search engine results pages. 

Non-technical content optimization i.e. the quality of the content is correlated to how your content performs over time. In general, the higher the content quality, the better it performs. 

A combination of both approaches is needed to optimize your content to maximum effect. The guide below will show you one approach to do this.

How Does Google Generate Organic Search Engine Results Pages (SERPS)?

Google is getting smarter all the time. Its main goal is to understand all types of search engine queries and provide the most relevant results to users. 

Google Search’s ability to differentiate between search queries is called semantic search. This is reflected in the Hummingbird and RankBrain updates. Both updates saw artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing (NLP) techniques applied to search engine results in order to understand user intent. 

What’s User Intent? 

Put simply, user intent is what a user wants to accomplish with their search query. For example, there are: transactional queries “buy Nike Flynit shoes,” navigational queries (“Gmail login,”) and informational queries (“How can I automate content optimization?”) 

Google matches these queries based on the predicted desire of the user – user intent – to what it considers the most relevant results.

Most content optimization efforts target informational queries. But how does Google decide which results are the most relevant?

Content Relevance: Who Has the Final Say?

So who actually judges whether content is relevant or not?

Google or your users? Both. 

If your site has a high domain authority, then Google is most likely going to rank your content above a site with lower domain authority. But it’s not quite that simple. Google is looking for authoritative content

For example, if someone queries “best content marketing strategies for WordPress,” Google will parse sites looking for related content such as general content strategies. If a site has a lot of authoritative content on closely related topics, then Google is more likely to feature an article that matches that specific query in the search results.

This means keyword optimization has become topic optimization. Search engines like Google now think in topic clusters.

Backlinko did a study to measure the importance of topic coverage. In it, they used MarketMuse to examine 1 million Google results and the correlation of their topical authority (i.e. thoroughness and depth of expertise) and rankings.

However, what determines rankings over time is how users react to your content: do they stay on your page (time on page)? How often is your result being clicked (click-through rate)? Does it satisfy their query? Is it being shared on social media? 

This is why content needs to be primarily human-readable and always serve user intent. The search engine rankings will come over time.

Overview of Key Google Trends: Google Is Learning to Read

Below is a brief summary of Google trends to bear in mind when optimizing your content:

  • Since the HummingBird and RankBrain updates Google thinks in topic clustersand connected information.
  •  Google is getting smarter all the time. AI and NLP allow Google to understand context and semantic meaning. 
  • Google now scans your whole website and is looking for authoritative content to assess the relevance of one article. To maximize relevance, content should be thought of in terms of topic clusters.

Other Key Google Search Engine Trends: Don’t Neglect Mobile Users

As well as acquiring reading skills through NLP, Google has started to ramp up efforts to favor mobile devices:

  • Mobile-friendly: If you only have a desktop version of a site make sure it is mobile friendly. A recent Google update has started checking whether your site is mobile-friendly as a ranking factor.
  • Mobile-first index: Google has begun rolling out a mobile-first index. This initially only targeted at users with mobile devices and affects mobile search engine results pages.
  • Fast page load times: Google has stated it may actively punish sites with slow loading times Site speed
  • The rise of voice search: The dawn of Google Assistant and Alexa has changed how users search. Voice search usually consists of a concise question and answer format
  • AMP project: Another key development is the Google AMP project. With a new kind of HTML markup (AMP HTML) Google can deliver your content to mobile devices from a cached content delivery network (CDN). This is aimed to counteract slow loading times for mobile users when using the mobile Internet (3G or 4G)

Why a Holistic Approach to Content Creation Is so Important in 2019

The primary reason for wanting to increase web traffic is to increase sales. But forcing users down a funnel of landing pages to try and make them convert is not going to go well in 2019. Users are more skeptical of sketchy content than ever before. Bounce rates are sky high. Tell users what they need to know and keep them on your site while educating about them about your product.

So, the challenge as a content marketer in 2019 is this: Write human content that keeps the SEO team happy.

The number one goal of every content marketer should be to create content provides a great user experience. Technical ranking factors should only be a secondary consideration.

7-Step Guide to Content Optimization in 2019

This seven-step approach to content optimization works for new and existing content of any kind. It’s aimed at content creators that want to produce high-quality content. You don’t need any SEO experience.

Ready to revamp your content marketing efforts?

1) Find the Pillar Page

This may seem an odd place to start. But before you do any research or writing, you need to map out the structure of your content. Let’s take an example. Say we want to create a content campaign around the topic social selling. 

Content is always connected to other content. We need to define pillar pages and cluster pages to optimally link between related content. 

A pillar page covers the main topic (short tail keywords). A cluster page goes into detail about each related subtopic (long tail keywords).

Topic cluster model for content marketing strategy

Back to the example. Is social selling a pillar or a cluster page? The answer is it depends.

If you own a website specializing in selling for social media, then this is an overarching theme. However,  if your site sells in general, then it would be a subcategory or cluster page.

A good pillar page should be a fundamental topic that is also closely linked to one of the core areas of your business.

2) Find the Cluster Pages

Cluster pages are pages that cover subtopics related to your pillar page. These are in-depth articles.

One technique to find perfect cluster pages is to open a new Frase document and query your pillar page. Frase’s research assistant will automatically show you what topics are mentioned by top-ranking competitors with the same pillar page.

The resulting topics are ordered by relevance and are a great starting point to find your cluster pages. Select topics that are high up the list and also closely related to your business or product.

You should now have: 

  • Pillar: Social Selling
  • Cluster topics: Social Selling for LinkedIn, Social Selling Techniques, Sales Navigator, LinkedIn Profile.

The beauty of this technique is Frase pulls in what is relevant today.

On the right panel Frase shows topics mentioned by top competitors for the “machine learning for social media” query

3) Competitor Analysis: How High Is the Bar?

Now you have a structure for your content cluster, it’s time to check out the competition.

Try a few search queries involving your content cluster. You are looking to evaluate content quality: word length, topic coverage, authority, clarity, number of problems solved. Try answering the following questions:

  • Who is currently top of the rankings? 
  • Why are those particular results at the top of the rankings? 
  • How do they address their user?.
  • How readable are the articles? 
  • How do users navigate around the site?

As well as checking relevant topics, the Frase research assistant can also give you the average word length of top results and links to the best articles with automated summaries– all in one place. You should aim to produce content that is better than your top competitors.

4) Republishing Existing Content 

To republish or not to republish, that is the question. What’s great about already having a content cluster is that you can see at a glance whether or not you have content you can re-use before content creation.

If you already have an article that is performing well and that fits into your topic cluster, it’s a perfect candidate for republishing. So now you know what topics you need to update and what you need to write from scratch. 

Research by Animalz shows evidence about the importance of refreshing your content (source)

5)  Topic Coverage: Identifying Gaps in Your Content 

Start with your existing content. The goal is to find “gaps” and fill them with meaningful, authoritative content. A gap is a topic that top results have included in a similar page, but you have not. 

Doing this manually is pretty tedious. Just like Google works with NLP to make sense of text, so does Frase: This handy guide shows you how to optimize content with Frase.  

What makes this technique so powerful is that it also works with creating new content. Frase automatically checks top competitors based on your title so you don’t miss any important topics. This drastically increases the chances that your content you produce will be more comprehensive and thus categorized as more relevant by search engines. 

6) Editing Tips

Once you’ve created your pillar and cluster pages, it’s time to edit.

Craft compelling titles

Tools like AnswerThePublic allow you to see how users are searching for topics. Try entering your cluster articles and check out the results. Often the types of questions usersask make great titles for your cluster pages: “How to use LinkedIn for Social Selling.”

Use your target audience’s language

Why? By imitating the words, phrases and questions of your users you can increases user engagement. It makes your content more compelling if it solves genuine problems.

Where do your users and potential customers hang out? Quora, Twitter, Facebook groups, Slack channels, webinars are all good places to find your audience. When a topic comes up, take notes on how your users talk about this topic. You can even include these questions in your articles. 

Use short sentences and paragraphs

Using concise sentences and short paragraphs aids readability. 

Use headings, bullet points and numbered lists

Readers skim online content, so make it as easy as possible to quickly understand the structure of your content.

Include visual content

Google cannot necessarily read how relevant images and videos are to readers; relevance is judged primarily on text relevance. However, images and videos undoubtedly make content more engaging. This can increase user metrics and social signals (time on site, or social shares) which can, in turn, be beneficial to your SEO efforts: it’s a  win-win.

7) Now the Technical Stuff

The following is a non-exhaustive list of some of the most common technical factors that should be considered when publishing online content.

 Lists of common tags and SEO terms and how to optimize them:

  • Internal and External Links: Start with your internal links. Make sure your cluster and pillar pages are linked where appropriate. External links should be used to help your reader access information that is not on your site. This includes checking a data source, a blog article published elsewhere, and downloadable data. Make the link textas descriptive as possible so the user knows what to expect when they click. Finally, ensure that all links are working, as broken links (404 errors) send negative signals to both users and search engines.

Meta tags:

Meta tags are snippets of HTML code that provide information about the properties of webpage, including the title and description of the page. They are located in between the <head></head> tags of your website.

  • Title tags (sometimes called meta title): Use the title tags to define the title search engine result pages and can differ from your article title. It should be as descriptive as possible as it plays a large role in whether users click on that result.
  • Meta descriptions: Meta descriptions, like title tags should be unique and descriptive. If Google parses your site and finds two meta descriptions are exactly the same, it can be an indication of duplicate content which can harm rankings. Meta descriptions should also include a call to action (“learn more”) if appropriate to encourage users to click.
  • Image tags (helps Google and accessibility readers): Add a descriptive alt tag to your images. Most CMS platforms including WordPress offer this option when you upload an image.
  • Structured markup/Structured Data: For certain types of content, Google has developed a special set of tags called structured data. These tags help Googleunderstand your content. They are used to display rich results including article carousels, rich snippets, featured snippets, carousels,  and answer boxes.
  • Open Graph: Open Graph enables your content to be recognized and shared across social media platforms like Facebook. Adding Open Graph tags means that when a user shares your content on social media, the result is turned into a rich objectand optimized for each platform. Open Graph markup includes information such as which title and image to display. Twitter has its own set of Open Graph markup which enables Twitter cards.
  • Bullet points, Lists & Headings (h1, h2, h3): These help structure content so search engines can determine the structure of the our content
  • Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI) keywords:  LSI keywords are keywords related to your topic. Put simply they are different ways of saying the. same things (black Nike shoes vs. Nike shoes black). 
  • Keyword density:  Keyword density is simply how common your target keywordappears in your text. In general, a better approach is to check your topic coveragerather than fixate on keyword density.

The Future of Content Optimization

As Google continues to make strides in AI and NLP, satisfying user intent will continue to be the most important factor in determining search engine rankings. The more Google is able to understand, the better the results will be. 

For content marketers this means disposing of traditional SEO approaches to content and thinking in terms of topic clusters and ordering information in a way that best meets the needs of their users. 

Key Takeaways

  • Use topic clusters to divide your content into pillar and cluster pages
  • Increase relevance of old content by increasing topic coverage
  • Optimize your content for topic coverage
  • Prioritize user experience and content quality over pure SEO

Useful resources for Content Optimization