In Canada and other bilingual countries, businesses are compelled (sometimes by law) to display signage with two sets of text: one in English and another in French. On the Internet, websites are faced with a similar challenge. But instead of catering to Anglo- and Francophones, businesses have to craft messages that speak to both humans and search engine robots. And it gets trickier than that.

Whereas stop signs in Canada can simply read both “Stop” and “ArrĂȘt” in bold white text, your web content must deliver the same meaning in two different languages but with one message.

Obviously, there are going to be issues with this. When web users read through content that clearly panders to search engines, they are immediately (and rightfully) turned off. It’s just as bad as seeing text with typos, racially insensitive language and other deficits in professional presentation. But on the other hand, if the search engine spiders don’t know what to make of your content because it’s not composed in a way that is easy for them to understand, those humans won’t likely get a chance to read your content at all, since your website will be buried on the 10th page of the search engine results.

The solution: write content that efficiently and seamlessly integrates the elements of style preferred by both humans and search engine robots. And to do that, it’s important to understand what those are.

Search Engine Optimized Content

The exact elements that search engine spiders use to determine relevancy and quality of web content is somewhat of an industry secret, but enough applied research has been conducted that we Internet marketers have a pretty good idea of what makes those Google (and Yahoo! and Bing) robots tick. A good deal of what a search engine spider looks at on a webpage is invisible to a typical human web user, but there is some overlap between what the robots see and what the people see. The most prominent and arguably most consequential of this dally visible material is the text.

The way search engine spiders read this text is a bit like the way a very rigid, “teach to the book” professor might grade an essay exam. They take careful note of whether the text is unique and original (i.e. not plagiarized or duplicated), whether certain key phrases are used and whether or not these key phrases are used in the right context. They couldn’t care less about whether or not the sentences that these words and phrases form sound cheesy, stilted or forced. What’s key to the search engine spider is that the text is composed with a vocabulary related to the search engine query entered by the user.

In order to write search engine optimized copy, writer’s must write text with a high keyword density (i.e. number of times a key phrase appears in the text compared to total word count). Having high keyword density suggests that the page is focused on the topic, instead of merely mentioning it in passing.

Additionally, these keywords must have a high search volume. For example, using the word “octogenarians” means essentially the same thing in an article about elderly care, but using “senior citizens” instead will get you more traffic.

The writer’s challenge: find a way to work in as many relevant, well-research keywords into the text without making it unreadable to humans. Which leads us to our next point….

Human-Friendly Content

Okay, by using the term “human-friendly,” we’re already starting to sound like Martians, which strikes immediately at the heart of the matter. Real, live people crave content that is:

  • Written in a natural, conversational tone
  • Logically and emotionally appealing
  • Executed with a novel or unexpected twist

This, of course, is nothing new. We’ve been reading and writing sales letters, essays, editorials and diatribes to each other for centuries. We know what moves us.

But what’s important to highlight here is the layer of subtext that is visible to us but invisible to the search engine spiders. Just like we don’t understand (or care) about the underlying code structure of a webpage, search engine algorithms have no sense of humor, irony or artistry. They can’t tell that The Onion is satirical (at least not from the copy) and they can’t tell if a self-proclaimed expert actually sounds like a sophomoric humbug. This would be abundantly clear to any human at an 8th grade reading level, however.

The writer’s challenge: craft copy that resonates with humans but is composed with the vocabulary and structure that search engine robots prefer.

Bringing it All TogetherElements of Content Preferred by Spiders and People

Creating readable content with robo-centric raw materials is tricky. It’s a bit like being asked to build a breathtaking sculpture out of nothing but semi-soft Italian cheeses. But this is precisely what artists, engineers and architects do everyday. They work within a rigid format or set of rules – iambic pentameter, EPA regulations or the laws of physics, for example – and they create something that works for people on an emotional, functional and logical level.

Luckily, there is significant overlap between the elements that make copy indexable and those that make it readable. This is no mistake. The ultimate goal of a search engine algorithm, after all, is to match the judgment calls of a rational, disinterested human as closely as possible. That being said, the technology is far from perfect. But there are still numerous intersections where the robot-tested standards meet the human-approved elements of style. Check out the table below for a rundown on a few such commonalities:

Element Why search engines like it: Why people like it:
Well-organized content (headings, lists and formatting) HTML tags provide valuable clues regarding what a webpage might be about – especially keyword rich headings and subheadings. Web users are notorious skimmers with a phobia of solid, uninterrupted blocks of text. Headings, lists, italics and bolded text make it easier to skip around to the most salient points.
Short, high impact articles and pages Lower overall word count typically means higher keyword density. Brevity is the soul of wit.
Plus, that back button’s just a click away if things get too boring. Web users prefer to consume information in small, bite-sized pieces.
Links to (and from) useful resources The origin, destination and anchor text of a link tells a search engine more than you can imagine about a website. (See our earlier post on backlinks.) Whether it’s a call to action or further reading, web users are always looking to take the next step after reading something compelling or inspiring.

At Firm Media, when we craft marketing pages, website copy and other search engine optimized content, we are always striving to hit this sweet spot where both search engines and potential customers give a thumbs up. We write content that prioritizes readability and conversion-friendliness but never loses sight of search engine best practices. In the end, we believe that it creates a better overall Web experience for businesses, customers and search engines alike.