Everyone wants to rank at the top in search results. If you’ve seen the data, you know why: according to research by Backlinko, the top 3 positions get about 75% of all clicks. If you’re not on the first page, you might as well not exist.
For most websites, clicks translate into revenue, whether it be through customers, leads, or advertising. So there is a huge incentive to figure out what it takes to get a page to rank well. As a result, SEO (search engine optimization) has become a key component of marketing. The web is flooded with articles and companies promising to give you the secrets to achieving success in this area.
Our view is that it is relatively simple: focus on creating the highest-quality content you can. Yes, there are a lot of other things that are helpful to keep in mind (and we’ll return to that), but nothing is as important as quality. And it is only going to matter more in the years ahead.
In this article, we are first going to give some background on SEO and explain why quality matters more now than ever. Then we’ll break down what quality means in practice so you know what you should be aiming for.
The Origins of SEO
In the earliest days of the internet, people began to see right away that a primary challenge was going to be how to organize the massive amounts of data being created and give people a way to access it.
The initial ideas sought to replicate systems of information storage and retrieval we were already using in the non-digital world. This gave us directories (like Yahoo) that attempted to treat the internet like a massive Yellow Pages.
One advantage of this approach is that a human had some input into which resources were most helpful and relevant under a particular heading. But the internet, even then, was just too big. We needed an automated and dynamic way to organize and access information.
Search engines responded to this need. A search engine combines two key activities. First, it organizes the content on the internet into a searchable index. Second, it returns results from that index in response to user queries.
Google proved to be one of the best at these two tasks and soon dominated search traffic. It remains the primary player in this space (with 92% market share) and when people think about optimizing their content for search engines they’re usually thinking about Google.
Once the use of search engines took off, so did efforts to figure out how to rank well in the results. The actual details of search engine algorithms are closely-guarded, for obvious reasons. So what followed was a process of trial and error, looking for the criteria the search engines were used to decide which web pages belonged at the top.
It should have been easy to predict what would happen next.
The Internet Gets Spammy
The environment established by Google (and other search engines) created a conflict of interests between the user and those who hoped to make money through this new medium.
How so? Think about what the user wants: to find the best, most useful information in response to a search. There were many unscrupulous creators of websites, however, who wanted users to find their sites in response to a query, regardless of whether or not the content was of benefit to the user. Their incentive was to rank well the easiest way possible.
When Google’s algorithm was new, it employed pretty crude methods of determining which pages were likely to be most useful to the user. It basically relied upon how often the search terms entered appeared on a page and how many times other sites linked to it.
People quickly figured out how to trick the algorithm by creating worthless pages stuffed with meaningless repetitions of the target keyword, sometimes even using invisible text so only the search engines could see it.
They also devised clever strategies to create links to their pages (called backlinks), for instance creating dozens of websites whose only purpose was to link back to their main site.
The result of these kinds of practices was lots of useless websites cluttering up search results and making it difficult for users to find what they wanted. Google clearly saw that it needed to do something to improve user experience or it would risk losing market share to other search engines who figured out how to give more useful results.
The Content Ranking Arms Race
Google’s response? Build a better algorithm. They needed to create software that could more accurately tell the difference between genuinely useful content and garbage.
One major, early update to their code came in 2003 and has been named the “Florida” update. This quickly downgraded lots of spammy sites in search results and rendered some of the standard tactics for ranking worthless.
People adjusted, however, and soon enough search results were once again peppered with junk websites. Google responded with more updates – some of the most important being Panda in 2011, Penguin in 2012, Hummingbird in 2013, and Rankbrain in 2015.
As a result of Google’s efforts, today search results have become much better than they used to be (as you’ve probably noticed). It has also become much more difficult to rank content that has no business being ranked.
One legacy of this history is that there is still a lot of focus within SEO on figuring out all the little tricks and techniques needed to rank well in search results. Plenty of software tools exist that plow through mounds of data looking for the keys that seem to give statistical advantages — like word count, number of headings, quantity of links, etc.
A screenshot from the website blogtyrant.com. A word count is obviously only loosely connected to quality.
But we know that this kind of effort is going to bear less and less fruit in the years to come.
Think about it: Google’s ultimate goal is to create an algorithm that does as good a job as a human would in selecting the content that is most useful to the user. (And it employs some of the smartest software engineers on the planet to reach this goal.)
A human judge isn’t going to select content based upon how many words it has or whether it contains x number of H2 tags. These criteria just don’t always correlate well with whether content is any good. What criteria would a human judge look for in content?
That’s the key question to answer since this is going to be increasingly the same thing Google’s algorithm is looking for. Create that kind of content now and you’re going to rank well today and also in the future. In contrast, depending upon SEO tricks means you’re writing content that is vulnerable to the next algorithm update.
A human judge, obviously, would be looking for quality. So let’s talk about what that means in concrete terms.
How to Create High Quality Content
What does quality look like? It helps to keep in mind Google’s goal: they want their search engine to return results that are most useful to you — the user. So what makes content useful? When you enter a search term, what are you hoping to find?
If you made a list, we think the following four things would be on it.
The first priority is that the page you visit is relevant to your search query. If you search for “Paris Hilton reservation,” you don’t want to end up on a page catching you up on the latest gossip about the famous socialite.
But the page shouldn’t just be generally on topic, but should give you everything you would naturally want to know in response to your query. It’s frustrating when a page kind of answers your question but leaves out important details for which you have to go hunting elsewhere. Ideally, it should be your first — and last — click.
Quality also has to do with how the information is presented. A well-written article will be clear, structured in a way that makes sense, and no longer than it needs to be to adequately cover the topic.
Style also comes into play here. This one is especially hard to precisely define, but we all know good writing when we see it. It is free from grammar and spelling mistakes and flows well with a pleasing cadence.
3. Good Design
The way material is presented visually matters. This includes things like typography; the font used, the size, and spacing between letters, words, and lines are all important. It also includes appropriate use of headings, bullets, paragraph breaks, and other ways of dividing the text to make reading and digesting it easier.
Like good writing, good design tends to disappear into the background, allowing you to focus on the ideas being presented. Poor design, on the other hand, is a distraction that makes it difficult to enjoy text that may be otherwise excellent.
4. Helpful Imagery
Even adults like pictures along with their text. The addition of images, charts, videos, etc. is a way to break up imposing blocks of text but also to illustrate and supplement it. This is especially important when presenting data-heavy content. Charts and graphics give the reader another way to make sense of the numbers and can greatly enhance understanding.
What Else Matters for SEO?
As we admitted earlier, there are many other points that you ought to pay attention to when creating content. We stand by our claim that quality is by far the most important thing, but getting some other details in order can help with rankings.
Some of these are behind the scenes, technical matters; others have to do with overall content strategy and the tactics of implementation.
Creating Your Content
Circling back to where we began, we all are interested in ranking well and we know creating content is the primary way to do it. We have argued here that the kind of content that will perform the best is content that places a premium on quality.
This is not only helpful now, but it will become increasingly more important in the future as Google’s algorithm gets better and better at identifying the content that is most useful to the user. If we wanted to Tweet it, we’d say: Write what you’d want to read.
We know that’s easier said than done, and you may have more important things to spend your time on. If you’d like to talk about how we can partner with you to create the kind of quality content that will serve as an asset for years to come, we’d love to talk.