The Content Corner: The Balance Between SEO and the User

I always think of SEO like the dentist—no one really likes it, but you need to do it. Yet, despite my lack of excitement for the topic, this will be at a minimum my second post (here’s the first about the relationship between creating good content and SEO practices.

Today I want to dive a little more into often overlooked aspects of the content creation process and overall content maintenance.

Attack of the Clones
Electronic data storing and hosting concept

It’s common for us in the rush to create content to overlook existing content that could simply be updated as opposed to creating completely new pages. This type of duplicate content (whether created on purpose or accident) has actually been found to harm your site’s overall rankings on Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs). This includes content that not only duplicates portions of content from other pages (and exact duplicates of content from other sites) but also pages that have the same title or description (more on that below).

Review your site content and look for areas where duplicate content might be able to be removed or pages that may need to be consolidated. For example, if your site has blogger bios or several pages where “About Us” information is reused, when possible, consider editing the duplicates to add more depth or provide unique information that may be of interest of the user. I’m not advocating just changing a word or two to make it “different” to a search engine, but if the content can be revised based on improving the user’s experience, then go for it. This is a good example of that balance between leveraging good SEO strategy and doing what’s best for the user.

If some of your content is older, you may even have leftovers from the “users don’t scroll” era, causing duplicate page titles, such as “Keeping Things Fresh Page 1”, “Keeping Things Fresh Page 2,” etc. A content audit should have cleaned that up, but most of us don’t have the time or resources to perform a full content audit unless it’s part of a huge redesign or WCMS (web content management system) project, and even then fixing page titles on five year old content may be the furthest thing from our minds.

You may also have unintentional duplicate URLs depending on how your WCMS generates them for your content. Two examples of how this can occur are:

  • Dynamic URLs generated based on a user’s session and possible search criteria, such as URLs with various query strings (www.example.gov/topic1?s=topics) or
  • Content that lives in multiple categories and your WCMS uses that category in the URL (www.example.gov/topic1/blogpost and www.example.gov/topic2/sameblogpost).

Google provides tips on using canonical URLs to help you address these issues. Using canonical URLs can also improve your analytics data and allows you to set preferred URLs that your users will see.

One last duplication issue that you may want to investigate and can be fixed using canonical URLs is the preferred domain for your site. Duplication can occur here if your site is configured to show the same content for both www.example.gov or https://example.gov. Google also provides some guidance on setting your preferred domain, if this problem is applicable to your agency. The required switch from http to https should have little or no impact on SEO, so no worries there as long as it is handled correctly.

Make Mine Meta
Flat search engine optimization design concept

We all know that metadata remains a vitally important piece in content production and promotion. However, let’s be honest with ourselves and admit that when you’re in a pinch metadata might be the one part of the content creation process that suffers. In the interest of full disclosure, I admit to leaving a description tag empty or doing a sloppy copy and paste in the heat of some significant content development (so glad to get that off my chest).

For our discussion, the two most important pieces of metadata are those that display on the SERP: title and description. For both of these tags, your first reference point should be user personas or thinking about your users’ needs. Based on your knowledge of your audience, how can you best inform them about what to expect in this piece of content? What should they expect to learn? Why should they click that link? Also keep in mind the page title should be no longer than 70 characters; 55 characters or less is optimal.

Descriptions are possibly even more critical. While the title may grab the user’s attention, a well-written description can help them finally decide to click or not. Since the character limit for this field is similar to Twitter’s current limit (around 160 characters), some of the succinct writing best practices for that platform can be useful here. However, the descriptions need to be properly written sentences, not acronyms and emoticons. You should leverage your knowledge of your users and weave known keywords into the sentence. Google displays a user’s search terms in bold when they appear in your description on a SERP. Just as with content in general, unique and original writing is favored over duplicate or boilerplate offerings.

Many of the practices shared here are just good SEO and good content creation guidelines. For example, quality metadata also helps your content’s accessibility and its appearance when shared via social media. SEO can also serve as a reminder to do regular content audits to look for outdated or duplicate content. Just remember that the user comes first when it comes to content creation, but if the user can’t find your content, then you’ve wasted your time. Find the appropriate balance between SEO best practices and making quality content and you should be golden.You’ve just finished reading the latest article from our Monday column, The Content Corner. This column focuses on helping solve the main content issues facing federal digital professionals, including producing enough content and making that content engaging.

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