How do I write successful SEO texts?

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Tips for effective SEO texts

The SEO ghost-writer and optimiser Evgenij Unker has put together the following essential recommendations for content optimization, which have been proven to work in practice — i.e. to raise a website’s ranking. At the end of the article, you’ll also find a short glossary explaining the key terminology.

This article is constantly extended and optimised. Suggestions for improvement are always welcome — either contact the author directly at info@unker.com, or add your comments at the bottom of the page.

Why write texts optimised for search engines?

Whether you’re promoting a business or immersing yourself in a hobby, the success of your website increasingly depends on its position in the search engine results. The professionals call this positioning the website’s ranking. There are over two hundred factors — that we know about — which affect the ranking, and there are probably others, not disclosed by the search engine operators. Furthermore, we are not sure as to how the individual factors are weighted.

This much is certain: one, and perhaps the most important, consideration influencing the ranking is the content of your blog, online shop or personal homepage. Then there are a few technical factors and some external variables that have a bearing on the results (such as the number of hyperlinks which reference your site).

This article concerns itself primarily with tips on content optimization, especially of text. This is known by the experts as ‘on-page optimization’. The opposite of this is ‘off-page optimization’, where you take PR measures that are outside your website, but of relevance to its performance in the searches.

Is the optimization aimed at one particular search engine?

According to Statista, the statistics portal, Google is unmistakably the market leader in Germany, with over 90 % of the market share in recent years (2014–2016). Bing comes second with 3–4 %. Yahoo’s market share hovers around 1 %. So it would seem to be a good idea to watch out above all for recommendations and favourable ratings by Google.

It’s also smart to keep an eye on the other search engines. In the Internet Age, power shifts can occur very quickly. At that point, it can be good to have your own web presence listed in search engines not currently enjoying widespread use. In addition, many users deliberately go for alternatives, whether for reasons of data protection, or simply in order to counteract Google’s virtual monopoly. Depending on the theme of your online promotion, this group can be a fascinating target for your SEO text.

Write for people, not machines

The top tip that search engine operators pass on to those of us who are webmasters is “Don’t write SEO texts — write good texts for your users. Do this without thinking about how the search engines may rank the website.”

This — thoroughly sensible and helpful — attitude probably alludes to something frequently experienced by website owners, which is that many changes to the web content don’t show up in the ranking until weeks or even months later. Sometimes the initial reaction is the exact opposite of what is to follow: first the rankings are worse, only to improve all the more quickly later, or vice versa.

Of course, the competition won’t remain idle either: new web promotions are always appearing, old ones are updated, Google etc. are working continuously on their algorithms. Some fluctuations are also normal and just part of the system. There are also good reasons for search engines, despite their well-publicised openness and speed, to hold back from allowing some changes in particular to be reflected in the search results, and to make it as hard as possible to track back to original sources.

Some years ago, many Internet users experienced what can happen if sufficient care is not taken. At that time, the webmaster could sometimes improve the ranking merely by inserting the appropriate keyword into the website content several times running. However, that was to the detriment of search result quality and user satisfaction. It’s only what is actually useful to the user that should be rewarded by moving up the search engine ranking — which happens over the long term. It’s also smart to keep thinking one step ahead of the opposition. One step at least.

Always consider the whole website

You probably aren’t writing in several texts on your website at once. And your readers won’t often be looking at several subpages simultaneously. The search engines, however, evaluate the relevance of individual subpages entirely on the basis of the context of the whole domain. Finally, “correction” will signify something totally different on a cosmetic surgery website from what it means in the context of editorial services.

It is therefore important for your text to fit with the web presence as a whole. The search engines will also give you bonus points for cross-referencing other subpages, and in general for mentioning relevant keywords on other subpages of the same domain.

The Right Domain and URL

The domain name counts as a major factor in ranking your website. By domain, we mainly understand that part of the URL to be found between www., https:// or https:// and the domain ending such as .co.uk, .de or .com. In our case, it would be unker. Unfortunately, it is hard to formulate universally applicable recommendations as to what would be a good domain name from an SEO standpoint.

The most important thing is to consider the brand-name psychology independently of the search machine evaluation. If a domain has a catchier name and a wider appeal to users, it will receive more visits and have more people linking to the site than one with a web address that is hard to understand or to retain. If in doubt, remember that shorter domains and URLs are better than longer ones.

In addition, the domain or URL should reflect the content as closely as possible. Finally, it is not just your browser (the programme for displaying web content) that reads the URL, and not just the search engine, but also the users. The URL is displayed on the search engine results page (SERP). And when users wish to save or share a link, they will also see the URL.

Some further points to consider:

  • Avoid meaningless URLs consisting purely of numbers or technical parameters, such as www.example.com/1423 or www.example.com/?id=432.
  • Be sure to avoid confusing, unclear, ambiguous or deliberately misleading URLs.
  • Avoid special characters. These are hard to memorise, and not every user can cope with inputting them.
  • Try not to use word with accented letters, such as those common in French or German. This will keep your blog entry or your product description accessible to those unfamiliar with typing these characters.
  • Avoid unnecessarily long URLs like www.example.com/a-few-tips-on-how-to-write-good-seo-texts instead of just www.example.com/tips-seo-texts.
  • Use hyphens judiciously. For search engines and for most users, hyphens in URLs serve to delineate each separate word. This extends the length of the URL, which can be an advantage where there are two key concepts to emphasise. On the other hand, too many hyphens can lead to unnecessarily long and complicated (and above all hard to memorise) web addresses.
  • Inside the URL, avoid keywords that are too broadly or too narrowly defined. If you want to talk about cars in general, the URL www.example.com/hotrod would be too narrow, whereas the web address www.example.com/transport would be too broad.
  • It can be hard to adhere to this recommendation when it’s a matter of choosing your main domain, and you can’t yet foresee how the website will develop. On the other hand, as a brand name evolves, it can continue to work very well without any thought being paid as to how the name originated. One has only to think of Shell, a multinational oil company long divorced from its origins in the seashell trade.

Only Create Unique Content

This tip appears to be stating the obvious, and yet you will still find a great many websites and subpages which, entirely or in part, reproduce word for word texts that already exist. The search engines assess repetitions of this kind as duplicate content and move them down the ranking. Why should a search engine rate a plagiarist higher than the original author?

As well as out of pure considerations of ranking, the contents should also be unique for at least two further reasons:

  • Taking material word for word from other sources without acknowledging the quotation is an infringement of copyright law. Violations may result in the copyright holder suing for damages in the civil court, and may even lead to a criminal charge being brought.
  • The reader prefers well-researched, well-produced first-hand information to extracts randomly copied and put together from other sources. By providing material which is distinctive in form and content, you affirm your authority in the eyes of the readers, increasing the likelihood that they will repeatedly visit your website and recommend the content to others.

Choice of Subject

For the reason just stated, the subject of your SEO text or of your website as a whole should be chosen with careful consideration. Here are some important questions to which you should work out your own answers:

  • Level of expertise: am I on top of my subject?
  • Competition: are there other places on the Net already offering much the same?
  • Unique Feature/Selling Point: Do I have particular knowledge and special experience to help me stand out from other sites offering relevant information?
  • Presentation: if I can’t point up a distinctive content feature, am I at least in a position to give the information a more appealing look than the competition?
  • Context: Does the subject fit in with the website as a whole?

Only if, in answer at least one of these questions, you come to the conclusion that you are in a position to compete, will it make sense from the SEO point of view to venture to go online with your chosen subject.

If you have other channels for promoting your web content besides the organic (unpaid) SEO search results, the evaluation can look quite different. Paid online advertising, social media, traditional methods of advertising (flyers, business cards etc.) and many other means of advertising can, of course, compensate for a possible unfavourable positioning in the organic search — indirectly, they can frequently even have a positive effect on your organic search results.

Choose the Right Keywords

After making a decision about the subject, next comes the choice of suitable keywords. When the user, seeking information on a specific subject online, enters these key words or combinations of words into the search box, the search engine will recognise them.

The choice of suitable keywords for the website creator therefore starts with researching the keywords. You can arrive at ideas for keywords by just thinking them up, or by searching and researching on any rival websites, by asking friends and colleagues, or for instance by using a thesaurus.

In choosing your keywords, think about how many actual search requests you will get. The most important tool for working out search query frequency is the Google Keyword Planner. The tool is now a part of Google AdWords. This is Google's advertising network, but you may use it without incurring costs.

Although we recommend that you bear in mind the number of requests for keywords, this does not mean you should opt for the term or combination of terms that generate the most search requests. In a highly competitive subject area, it can make more sense to pick a less popular synonym for which the competition is not as great. This is particularly true in the case of websites that are smaller, recently established, and/or not yet very well optimised.

It’s only advisable to opt for one keyword per subpage, or — even more effective where the competition is fierce — for just a single keyword combination. Additional keywords, preferably with links to correspondingly optimised subpages offering further information, can and should be incorporated. However, a meaningful optimization can usually only be effected on a single term or a single group of related terms.

Metadata

The term metadata denotes the information assigned to each individual webpage, which is not directly visible to the user, but is detected by the search engines and in certain cases also by users. From the SEO point of view, the most important metadata are:

  • Title: this is the page heading (max. 55–60 characters with spaces), displayed at the top in the browser window, but often also in the search engine results. This is where the most significant keywords should be named. Many website operators make poor use of what is a valuable position from the SEO standpoint, by just putting in their company name or uninformative filler words such as “Welcome”.
  • Description: a somewhat longer summary (description) of the essential contents of the website (max 156 characters with spaces). Again, you should make as meaningful use of the space as possible. Avoid accumulating unconnected keywords, or even repeating them. The text must always be helpful to the reader too, as it is often also displayed in the search engine’s search results.
  • Keywords: even if the majority of search engines, according to their own information, do not pick out meta-keywords or take them into account in their evaluation, it makes excellent sense to name 5–10 of the most important terms. Firstly, it helps you in the formulation of further text, and secondly, some link platforms use these data for the indexing. It’s perfectly possible for these data also to get displayed to the user from time to time.

It goes without saying that for every subpage, the metadata created should always be unique and individual.

Optimal Text Length

On length of text, there are no clear-cut recommendations. If in the search engine index there is absolutely no other site relating to your subject or concept, a few sentences are often enough to achieve very good ranking results.

In the case of highly competitive search terms, an informative text will include at least 300 words. In the case of more complex material, it is not unusual to find articles of 600, 800, and 1,000 or more words. Much longer texts should, however, be split up into several articles or subpages. This will help both users and search engines in finding their way around your blog, and will improve your firm’s online presence.

The longer the text, the greater the requirement to give it structure. It’s important for users to be able to find their way quickly even around long texts. Subheadings, emphasising in bold, and a table of contents at the start or the side are just some possibilities for making longer subpages easier to navigate.

The Structure of the Text

Both users and search engines appreciate well-thought out, well-structured texts. HTML, the Internet’s markup language for text, offers several possibilities for logical structuring:

  • Headings and subheadings. Your text needs one heading and one only. This will be delineated by the HTML tags <h1></h1>.
  • For the rest of the structuring, you use the heading level <h1>, <h2>, <h3> etc. HTML provides six heading levels altogether. From level <h4>, however, experience suggests that things becomes very confusing. If you’re certain that you need such a complex structure in order to present your subject, that's a sure sign that you should take several articles to put over your material.
  • Take maximum care over length and clarity — if in doubt, make your maxim: keep it short and use paragraphs. In HTML: <p></p>.
  • Emphasise important terms in your main message and help people find their way around the paragraphs and subchapters. The use of bold can be achieved with the tag <b></b> or even better, <strong></strong>. Italics (<i></i> or alternatively <em></em>) are usually harder to read on screen, and don’t stand out as strongly. They are therefore better suited for use in whole sentences. Avoid picking out longer passages or several terms inside one paragraph. With each further stress placed in the text, you diminish the effectiveness of the previous emphases in reinforcing the structure.
  • Use lists. Ordered lists are generated with the tag <ul></ul> and unordered lists with <ol></ol>. The individual list elements are denoted by the tag <li></li>.
  • Illustrate what you have put with tables, charts and diagrams. Don’t overdo it though. Less is often more.

The key principle of journalistic writing holds true here: the most important bit belongs at the beginning. Start by giving a short summary of what you wish to communicate to the reader. Ideally, readers should already know quite clearly by the end of the first two paragraphs what the rest will be about, and what the essence is of the text as a whole.

Don’t waste valuable space at the start of your text, let alone in the metadata, by employing pure marketing terms, or “marketing speak”. A user is hardly likely to type “qualified insurance broker” or “good lawyer” into the search box. “Independent broker” or “employment lawyer in Chicago” are much more promising search terms.

Keep Style Catchy and Spelling Correct

The Internet is a fast medium, made for today’s fast-paced existence. The majority of users are impatient, have several windows open in parallel, and know that other websites are just a few clicks away. With this in mind, keep your sentences short. If your text is easy to understand, your visitor will be more likely to stay on your site and read on than if it contains convoluted grammatical constructions.

You always have to match your style to the subject area and to your target group. If in doubt though, steer a middle course between informal and professional language. You need to be identified as their first choice of expert and available contact in this particular field. Overly informal language is unlikely to be taken seriously and gives the impression of a lack of respect for the reader. On the other hand, you shouldn’t overwhelm readers with unnecessary amounts of technical jargon, thereby frightening off the very people you are seeking to win over.

Explain technical terms. This will raise the informative value of your text, make it easier for your readers to understand, and enable you at the same time to include a few more synonyms and keywords. These are all important factors in raising the site’s “visibility” (another way of saying “ranking”, coined by the SEO company Sistrix).

Keep what you say as concrete as possible, and call things by their correct names. Metaphors and other literary devices may enhance your text, but they should never replace the naming of important keywords and pieces of information, just provide extra appeal. Instead of “great webcam”, you would do better to write “high-definition 1.3 megapixel webcam”. Greetings such as “Dear User”, “Hello Customer” or “Welcome to our website” are well meant, but counterproductive from the ranking point of view. For an <h1> or <h2> heading, choose your wording along the lines of: “Are you a farmer in the Norfolk area?” or the eminently sensible “Agricultural implements for farmers in and around Norfolk”.

The skilful and accurate use of language provides a more pleasant experience for the reader. An appropriate writing style and good spelling underline the seriousness of what you’re saying. They lend your words more authority and more credibility. It’s no coincidence that Google puts spelling as one of its numerous officially named Ranking Factors. If Tips on correcting your own texts don't get you any further, perhaps a colleague or a professional can help.

Consider the Layout and Design

These considerations also naturally apply to the visual impact of the text. In particular, if you are not the only person to be offering your information, services or products, it is important to connect with the user through an appealing look and an ergonomically designed website.

Take care to use an easily readable font in a suitable choice of colour. Black print on a white background is easiest to read. Loud colours, a lack of contrast between the background and the letters, or the excessive use of graphic embellishment cause confusion rather than helping people find their way around the text. The reader also tires faster if the colours are not well coordinated, or if something on your website is constantly flashing and moving. The so-called “bounce rate” increases.

An additional factor is usability on mobile devices: and not just on smartphones, but increasingly on tablets. Desktop computers, tablets and smartphones have different screen sizes and controls. You should therefore definitely test your website (or have it tested) for ease of use with different devices.

Responsive design has been establishing itself as the standard solution to this. This means that the website display will automatically adapt itself to the device on which it is displayed. An alternative is to have two or more website versions with different URLs depending on the device making the request. This solution has, apart from the additional administrative load, the extra disadvantage that the links coming in to your website direct themselves more or less at random to one or the other of the two versions, thus dividing the power of the link.

Maintain Consistency

Consistency is a major factor in competitiveness, and one that is unfortunately underestimated by most webmasters. Here are some reasons why consistency matters:

  • You present yourself as a serious provider of material that is carefully considered and coordinated.
  • Users can more quickly and easily find their way around your website or through your text.
  • You make yourself more memorable and a more convincing expert. Readers will recall you for longer, and as a result, you will be able to market your brand or product better. (The byword here is Corporate Identity.)

Consistency applies to both all the principal and the secondary components of the website and the text:

  • sentence length, paragraph length, chapter length
  • page set up, layout
  • navigation
  • graphic design
  • typography (font, paragraph formatting etc.)
  • spelling, style

Think about Usability

By usability, we mean the customer-friendliness of your website — how easy it is to handle. The term refers above all to the navigation and structure of your web presence, but also includes many other aspects. Here are just a few pointers to think about:

  • How long do users who are completely new to your site need in order to locate and call up a specific subpage that interests them?
  • How informative is your homepage? Does it contain a summary of the contents provided, the products or services, preferably with further links?
  • Is your website clearly and logically structured? Is the navigation easy to locate and to operate?
  • Can users immediately recognise what level and what subpage they currently are on? (The byword is the “breadcrumb trail”.)
  • Is there a (properly functioning!) search function? If the search function doesn’t work, it’s better not to have it at all.
  • On larger portals: is there a sitemap or a word register (an A–Z index)?
  • Does the browser’s print function work, or is there a built-in print function on your website, facilitating a “printer-friendly” version of the essential contents, which minimises the expenditure of paper and colour?
  • Are there social media buttons, making it easier to share the site with friends?
  • Are readily accessible, easy-to-use contact functions available (preferably on every subpage)?
  • Is the page load time appropriate? On mobile devices with limited data volumes in particular, this is a highly relevant factor. When seeking to access a site, virtually no users will want to wait longer than a second for it to load. Google already complains about a load time of more than 0.2 (!) seconds.

Don’t rely exclusively on your own answers to these questions. Get feedback from friends, relatives and colleagues who have taken no part in the creation of your website and your SEO text, and who can make impartial judgements about it, as far as possible without any foreknowledge.

Keep Updating

Return every so often to the texts that you put online some time ago, and read them through once more. With the benefit of time, you’ll be able to stand back from them more easily and spot typing errors faster. While you’re doing this, a better way of phrasing an idea may also occur to you here and there.

You should ask yourself this key question: are the contents still up to date, or has something new on this subject come up in the meantime? It could be that you’ve learned more about the relevant area yourself, or that knowledge in this field has improved in general. Update your texts as necessary. Both search engines and users place great value on the contents being current. Indicate the date of the update at the end of the article, so it will be clear to users that they’ve been presented with the latest information. (The search engines will note this automatically.)

Tools

There are one or two free tools that make a webmaster’s life easier:

  • Google’s Search Console: provides important information about indexing your domain, and on possible technical problems; gives tips on optimization.
  • Bing Webmaster Tools: a similar collection of tools for the second-placed search engine, also used by Yahoo.
  • Google Analytics: a very thorough evaluation instrument for the number of visitors and how they behave; helps in understanding the visitors better; assists in optimising the site accordingly and in measuring SEO successes.
  • Google’s Keyword Planner: the keyword tool from the market leader.
  • W3C Markup Validation Service: very helpful in checking the validity of HTML code. W3C develops and sets the standard for valid HTML code. This gives you a first-hand assessment.
  • W3C Link Checker: helps in checking the outgoing links on your web page. Links that are no longer current should be removed or updated.

Major Sources for Learning about Search Engines

The following portals should be consulted, from time to time at least, by every search engine optimiser and website administrator, in order to stay up to date with current developments in the SEO sphere:

  • Webmaster Central Blog: Google’s blog, and certainly the most important source for all issues and current developments concerning SEO.
  • Webmaster Guidelines by Google: a summary of the main principles. It really pays to keep to these rules. How Google Search Works, compiled by Google itself: again, this makes highly recommendable reading.
  • Google Webmasters: Google’s official YouTube channel for webmasters, containing large amounts of current information, plus many discussions and explanatory videos — another indispensable way to keep informed.

Short SEO Glossary

Bounce Rate: the percentage of users who leave a site they have accessed, without opening any more subpages. The way the user “bounced off” may be a matter of disappointment with the design or the contents of the website. A high bounce rate can, on the contrary, be an indicator of user satisfaction. It could be the case that the user has found all the required information on your website and needs to research the particular subject no further, either via your web presence or on rival platforms. The duration of the stay is therefore always another factor to be considered.

Content: the website content includes above all text, images, charts and tables, as well as the design. But the structure of the website and its navigation also belong within the content in its broader sense (see Usability). In terms of ranking factors, “Content is king!”.

Crawling: how search engines (referred to as internet bots) trawl through the website. Only after crawling through the site can the search engine analyse and index the content, which will then be taken into consideration in the search results.

CSS: short for Cascading Style Sheets. The World Wide Web’s standardised language for determining the outward appearance of markup languages. It is used on the Internet in combination with HTML. For example: while the HTML tag <strong></strong> makes it logically clear that the enclosed text requires emphasising, CSS determines how exactly this is to be done (e.g. through the use of bold type or a different font colour).

Indexing: adding websites to the search engine’s index. Only after indexing can the search engine take your website into consideration in the search results.

Keyword: a word which, in the view of the website’s creator encapsulates the content of the website or web page, and on which the search engine optimization will be based. The webmaster’s aim is to find the best possible search term, frequently also used in specific keyword combinations, to increase the volume of visits by users to the site, thus raising its ranking in the search engine results.

Off-Page Optimization: all SEO measures implemented off the website or web page. We are mainly talking here about building up links and social media activity.

On-Page Optimization: all SEO measures implemented directly on the website or web page itself. A further distinction may be made between content optimization and technical optimization.

Tag: the command to be analysed by the computer for the structuring of texts with the help of text markup languages. HTML is the central markup language for the structuring of websites. Here is an example of an HTML tag: <strong>Here is the text to be emphasised (mainly in bold).</strong>. The visual presentation of the logical structure is mostly achieved using CSS.

URL: short for Uniform Resource Locator. This refers to a website’s unique web address, such as: www.example.com/one-page.html.

Usability: this means the customer-friendly aspects of the website (structure, design, navigation etc.), constituting another major SEO factor.

Web page: the subpage of a website. The web page is (ideally) accessed under one distinct URL.

Website: the whole internet presence, to be accessed under one domain. It consists of several subpages (= web pages).

Evgenij Unker, 10 August 2016

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