On-page SEO: Optimizing for the Medium, Not the Engine

It’s time to change the way we look at on-page ranking factors. Search is a medium, like TV or print, and its audience has special needs.


Train tracks leading in opposite directions

Search engines have gotten to the point where they can read, understand, and evaluate a web page almost as well as humans (and in some ways better). So can we just stop optimizing content for search already? Isn’t being a good writer enough?

The answer depends on what you mean by “optimize for search." Yes, Google can probably understand what your blog post is about even if your keyword isn’t in the page title. But a search engine is more than a robot. It’s a medium, similar to TV or print. The difference is in how the audience interacts with it.

When a person watches TV, they’re in a mostly passive state, with the images and words washing over them. Content is scheduled and delivered with little to no input from the user.

On the other hand, somebody using a search engine is often in “git-r-done” mode. They’re seeking out content, like how to make a Grumpy Cat cake or where to find the best deals on flights to Hawaii. Google wants to serve up the best results available, specifically the most useful and relevant pages to their search query.

Logically, it would make sense then that Google would judge the content on a page the same way a human would. After all, that’s who Google's trying to impress. So, if you’re “optimizing for search,” isn’t it fair to say you’re really optimizing for the searcher? That’s who you're ultimately trying to impress too.

I’m not saying you should ignore the so-called on-page ranking factors. Instead, I think it’s time to start thinking about the motivation behind these “factors” and how they contribute to the experience of the user within the search medium.

Rethinking On-page SEO

The way content is presented in any medium is guided by a collection of best practices, which are determined largely by the needs of the audience and the limitations of the medium. The goal is to provide the audience with the best experience possible.

For example, newspapers are typically constructed in a way that makes scanning possible. Every story begins with a headline, which is typically concise and informative. A reader can simply scan the headlines to get a basic understanding of the day’s news. And if the reader wants to learn more, he or she can then read the first sentence, which generally includes the most important details of the story. Every paragraph following elaborates on the details of the story in a descending order of importance. This is called the inverted pyramid style of journalism and has been used by newspapers for over a hundred years.

If we think of search as just another medium with its own type of audience, then search engine optimization is really about providing the user with the best experience possible. That means we have to consider the route in which they’re finding our content and how they’re interacting with it.

By thinking this way, it’s easy to see the significance of some of the most common on-page SEO factors in a new light—

Page Title

The page title is the first interaction the user has with your content in the search medium. It may be helpful to think of the page title as a headline for search results.

The typical SEO will say you need to have your keyword in the page title, especially near the beginning of the title because Google will use this to determine how to rank the page. While that’s true, the reason Google does this is not arbitrary. It’s likely due to the way users scan search results.

In a 2006 eye tracking study conducted by the Nielsen Norman Group, the researchers found that the majority of users scan search engine result pages (SERPs) in an F-shape pattern. In other words, they would read most of the first result, a little less of the second, and even less of the following results until they were simply scanning the first couple words of the results in a vertical movement.

Why is this important? Unless you have the number one search result, users will most likely be making a snap judgment about the relevancy of your page by scanning the first couple words in your page title. Having your primary keyword at the beginning of the page title can aid in this process, making for a better search experience.

So when you’re writing your page title (i.e. your headline for search), it would make sense to construct it in a way that grabs the user’s attention, which is always the primary function of a headline in any medium.

Headline and Subheaders

Similar to the page title, the headline is meant to grab the attention of the user as they make a snap judgment about your content. And like a page title, your headline — and to a lesser extent, your subheaders — should include your keyword, so the typical SEO will say.

Again, true. But ask yourself, “Why would Google use this as a ranking factor?” It’s not some arbitrary test you have to pass. It has to do with how the typical user assesses your content. When they click on a search result and land on your site, the user wants to quickly figure out if they are in the right place. So they’ll generally look for their keyword in what should be the most prominent feature of the content — the headline.

The primary function of a headline in any medium is to capture the attention of the intended audience. A headline written for the search medium must also tell the user that they’re in the right place. And research shows that you have about a 20th of a second.

Body Text

Not surprisingly, Google reads the content on your page to judge its relevance to a search query. Which is why most SEOs will tell you to use your keyword and some common variations throughout the content to help the page rank for search. There was a time when repetition and keyword stuffing were recommended, but that was long ago.

Most writers would view this ranking factor as laughable because a well-written piece of content on any given topic will naturally include multiple references to the topic (i.e. the keyword) throughout. But it’s more complicated than that.

What classifies a piece of content as “well written” is different for search than for other media. Like the headline, body text that is well written for search must be ultra-specific and useful to the audience it’s intending to attract. If you’re an insurance agent who only sells policies in Texas, then your content needs to be ultra-specific and useful to people who live in Texas. If it’s generic with nothing useful about Texas, then there’s a good chance the user will bounce back to the search results.

It makes sense then that Google would use this as a ranking factor. If a page of content does not include references to the topic/keyword it’s trying to rank for, then it’s probably not very useful to the audience. To create content that enhances the searcher’s experience, you have to provide the complete answer to their search query plus answers to questions they haven’t asked. If it’s comprehensive and ultra-specific to the audience, it will naturally include keywords.

“Thou Shalt Respect Thine Audience”

Google can’t read and judge your page on how well the content is written. That's where links and social sharing come in. Instead they have to scan the page -- in the same way the typical user would -- to determine its relevancy to the search query. And where does the user look to determine if a search result is right for them? — the titles, the images, the body text. If they find what they’re looking for, they’re happy. Which means they’ll probably keep using Google. So Google’s happy too.

When writing anything, whether it’s a blog post or a movie script, remember the first commandment in Robert McKee’s famous screenplay writing seminar Story -- “Thou shalt respect thine audience.” Sound advice for any medium.

We need to stop thinking about on-page optimization as a series of arbitrary offerings we pay in honor to Google and, instead, as a benefit to the user in the search medium. Instead of focusing on what Google wants, think about what the user wants. By understanding how they interact with your content, and by critiquing it through their eyes, you can create an awesome experience for the user.

And the page will probably rank well too.

Written by Jackson Armstrong on October 23rd, 2014

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