Optimize for Humans
Build great content that gets Google traffic with this SEO checklist
Last week I was listening to a webinar of a copywriting expert. She is a real genius when it comes to writing great stories. But when someone asked her opinion on keyword research and optimization, the reply I heard made me feel sad.

People still believe that SEO optimization is about mentioning some words a certain number of times.

This is such a widely misunderstood topic, especially among bloggers. Which is frustrating: you build such an amazing creative content and adorable visuals, but fail to get readers to appreciate it.

This post is my attempt to fix the wide misconception. I will outline the process for proper keyword optimization, which has nothing to do with technical tricks and hacks.

The real secret to getting Google traffic is to optimize for humans...

Let's start.

Suppose you're writing or updating a blog post.

You took some time to research keywords, and found an attractive one that is searched often and has low competition (Gookey is a great tool for the job).

How do you build great content for the chosen keyword?

How do you properly "optimize" your post?

Follow the steps from this checklist to rise your chances for organic traffic and consistent growth.
Type the chosen keyword into Google
Search results for a keyword are the secret to building great content, consistently.

Paste your keyword into Google and look at the first page of search results. (We also call it "page 1" or "top 10").

95% of visitors only click on links from the first page of Google. These 10 links from all around the Web are your only competitors. You need to replace one of them to take a place in top 10 and start getting traffic.

Your goal is to build content that serves users better then at least 1 of these 10 pages (or rather 2 or 3 to make sure).

Let's see how.
I never heard of this pratice, should I really google every keyword?
This practice is so ubiquitous among SEO experts that it is not even mentioned in most guides. The best way to make friends with Google is to spend time understanding how it actually works.
I'm building unique and creative content, should I care about competitors?
Knowing your competitors does not prevent you from building unique and creative content. Instead, it allows you to understand the nuances of searchers' needs and build uniquely valuable content.
Check for the right user intent
Make sure you don't try to push your blog post to people who are buying stuff.

A googled keyword is a short expression of a specific immediate need a user had in mind. The need behind the keyword is called a user intent (or search intent). Top 10 search results represent the best answer to the need that Google could find.

Broadly, user intent can be:
  • informational - people want to learn something
  • commercial - people want to buy something
  • navigational - people want specific website/person/etc

Bloggers generally should only care about informational intent keywords.

Commercial intent keywords are mostly occupied by ecommerce or business sites. Navigational keywords mostly drive traffic to only one target website.

To understand the user intent of a keyword, look at search results: if you see ecommerce or business pages with commercial titles (buy/sale/order/etc) then it's a commercial intent. If you see the website of a specific company/person/event and links to their social profiles then it's a navigational keyword.

All the rest is informational intent, which is what you are looking for.
How does Google understand the user intent?
In addition to obvious cases when users are searching for "buy iphone", Google uses various ways to measure user satisfaction (long clicks, dwell time, repeated searches, pogo sticking, etc). Search results that do not solve searchers' problems are automatically adjusted to include different links until satisfaction scores raise. Content creators can then use search results for the keyword to understand the conclusions Google made about user intent.
What do I do if my keyword is not informational intent?
Look for another keyword. There is no way you can change the needs of keyword searchers, and no way to force Google to show your blog post to people who are buying stuff. No matter how attractive the keyword is, it makes no sense to focus on it when you just have no chances to rank high and get traffic.
What if I see a mix of ecommerce and info content in top 10?
There are many cases when you can see a mix of informational and business links in search results (like iphone). This generally means that there is no one prevailing user intent among searchers of the keyword, and Google decided to mix both types of content to improve average satisfaction scores. You should be cautious about such keywords as they have less space in top 10 for your informational content.
What about "review" keywords that people google before buying?
Keywords like "gillette fusion reviews" are generally informational intent keywords. Even though many pages in search results might come from ecommerce sites, it is the case when businesses are simply trying to capture people close to the purchase but still learning and choosing what to buy. This is the reason why reviews are a popular type of content among bloggers specializing on affiliate marketing.
Understand the details of user intent
Keyword might be dubious, make sure you understand what users want.

Now that you've verified the informational user intent, read through the descriptions of top 10 search results. Are you covering the same topic? Are you going to satisfy visitors with similar type of content?

Consider a keyword: house painting. What are users looking for? It could be:
  • to learn how to paint their house
  • to find house painting services
  • to find paintings of houses
  • to find a painting of a specific house

There is no way to know without reading through the top 10 search results. Google is able to understand what the majority of users want by analyzing user behavior for each keyword. Top 10 search results are the reflection of user needs.

If details of user intent are not clear from search result descriptions, click through all top 10 links. The content of your competitors will give you enough data to properly understand the user needs.
Does Google really understand the user needs so deeply?
Yes! Google's #1 goal is user satisfaction. It uses the data about searchers' behavior and data from Google Analytics to understand how well each page is performing when shown for relevant keywords. (Known factors include long clicks, dwell time, pogo sticking, etc). Google also constantly runs automatic experiments by placing new content in top 10 to see how it performs. This system allows search engine to be very selective about all the content that seems relevant, and only show links that result in highest user satisfaction scores. Top 10 search results then allow writers to figure out the conclusions Google made about the details of user intent.
Are people looking for collections, or single "things"?
Consider two keywords: chocolate cake recipes and 21 day fix recipe. Are people looking for one single good recipe, or collections of recipe ideas? The answer is: it's hard to guess without looking at search results!

Turns out, for chocolate cakes Google returns 10 links with individual recipes, which means people are looking for a single good recipe. With 21 day fix, you see 10 pages with collections of recipe ideas and even recipe category/tag pages. This analysis is critical to understanding which type of content has chances to satisfy searchers and get to top 10 for the keyword.
What if I see a mix of topics in top 10?
This means Google is either not sure about the user intent, or is sure that there are enough users with varying intents. In both cases there is probably less space in search results for your particular blog post, and it makes sense to reconsider how attractive the keyword is.
What if my content does not serve the same need?
Look for another keyword. Even if you think that Google is getting it wrong and your take on the topic might serve users better, chances to get to top 10 are still much lower. There probably is another keyword where searchers' needs are better aligned with what your content offers.
Top 10 all have videos, will my textual content work?
Any consistent pattern in top 10 search results for a keyword is a hint to what users want. If they want video, it's unlikely that your textual content will rank. If top 10 are all long comprehensive blog posts, your short topic overview might have hard time ranking.
Look for related user needs, questions or problems
Comprehensive content satisfies users, Google notices satisfied users and ranks you higher.

Your competitors for the keyword might not fully cover the needs of visitors. It makes total sense to look for the missing pieces and to answer them. Users will love your content, and so will Google.

Take notes on needs and questions related to the keyword by looking at:
  • list of related searches at the bottom of Google search results
  • questions at people also ask boxes at Google search results (if present)
  • questions in comments on your competitors' content

Use these notes to improve your content by covering more sub-topics, clarifying your message, adding examples or Q&A sections, etc.
I just want to write what's on my mind, be creative and not follow the crowd!
There is nothing wrong with writing whatever you have in mind. However, Google only serves existing user demand, and if your ideas are so new that no one is searching for anything similar, you will have little chances to get organic search traffic to this post.

Remember: there are still many other ways to get readers (like social networks), and you shouldn't be discouraged from being creative and expressing yourself. It just means this particular blog post is not a good fit for search traffic.
Optimize your content
Follow some best practices to make your content more attractive to visitors and Google.

Gone are the days when you had to mention your keyword a certain number of times to make it rank in Google. However, there are still several best practices that make your content more attractive to users, and to Google as a consequence.

Remember that visitors coming from search are most likely new to your site. They don't know or trust you, and you only have a couple of seconds to capture their attention.

Here is what search visitors value:
  • an attractive headline that includes the keyword - it makes your link worth clicking in search results, and provides a great first impression when your page loads
  • keyword mentioned in the first paragraph of your post - it introduces users to how you're planning to answer their need
  • keyword used as a permalink of your post - it reinforces the impression that your content is devoted to solving user's problem
  • well structured content with sub-sections and sub-headlines - it helps users navigate your comprehensive content and find answers to their sub-needs
  • alternative content formats, like images, podcasts or video - it is always a good idea to support your message with at least one image, and video or audio in addition to text let visitors choose the way to consume your content
  • check for errors in grammar and links - many users are annoyed by misspellings, and everyone hates links that return "Not found"
  • proper "alt" texts for all the images - this makes your images easier to find through Google and Pinterest
  • links to other trusted content that might be helpful - this suggests to people that you really did some research before clicking "publish", and lets them dive deeper into the topic
If you're using Yoast or similar plugin, some of the points above are measured and marked with red, yellow or green lights. You should not stress too much about getting all greens, and instead focus on optimizing for humans.
Does keyword density still matter?
No, it does not. First, modern Google operates concepts, not words, and you couldn't maintain specific "concept density" even if you wanted to. Second, every new comment will change the density (some old-school "experts" even suggest turning comments off and loosing this great way to connect with readers). Third, not a single modern study could claim a visible correlation between high rankings and specific densities. Don't rely on tools like Yoast that force you to specific number of keyword mentions, just optimize for humans.
Should I always use the keyword in it's exact form?
Definitely not, as focusing on exact-match usage of keywords will hinder your writing and seem awkward to visitors. Google these days is smart enough to understand that "best apples for pie", "best baking apples for pie" and "great apples for apple pie" mean the same thing. Think in terms of concepts, not specific word sequences.
Should I look for and use LSI keywords?
LSI keywords, which is a technical term for saying "closely related words and phrases", will naturally flow from your writing if you've followed this checklist, understand your niche and researched the keyword user intent. Tools that suggest LSI keywords are mostly useful for marketers or ghostwriters who might have a little less understanding of client's niche.
Should I "nofollow" affiliate or paid links?
Yes, you should mark all affiliate and sponsored links with "nofollow" attribute. This is one of a few cases when you have to use technical tricks to satisfy Google. This is a measure that helps search engines fight link spam and improve the quality of technical signals.
How much text works best for Google?
Lower limit is around 300 words, less text will not give Google enough context to understand what your post is about. The upper limit is only bounded by what satisfies users best. Competitors from top 10 for the keyword might serve a reference point here, as the amount of content they have seems to satisfy searchers for now.
Should I have comments allowed under my post?
Yes, high quality comments add value to your content. Comments provide additional points of view on the topic and make your content look more trustworthy to search visitors.
Should I invest in micro-data plugins (ratings, cook times, etc)?
Look at top 10 search results for the keywords you have recently been targeting. If existing competitors mostly had micro-data that was visible in search results (such as number of rating stars, cook times, calories, etc), then you should probably invest in the plugins too. If search results for your keywords show little or no micro-data then it makes sense to defer the investment.
Promote your content
Give your content initial boost of engagement to show new visitors how attractive your content is.

You should spend time promoting your content, as this seeds your new post with high quality engagement signals like social shares, comments or ratings. Visitors coming from search need such signals to quickly evaluate if your content is worth their time.

Promotion might even result in new backlinks to your site, which Google takes into account to calculate the authority of your content.

Here are some ways to promote your new or updated post:
  • send it to your email list - try to encourage your readers to engage with your new content with comments and social shares
  • share on social - use your own accounts, and look for ways to collaborate with peers who could also share it with their audiences
  • share on niche-specific aggregators - some niches have popular services that might drive traffic to your new content, like Yummly or Saveur in case of food blogs
  • share on niche communities - forums, Facebook groups, Quora answers, etc. are decent ways to get your post noticed by relevant audience
  • comment on other blogs - high-quality comments that add value might help you get new readers, acquire a backlink and build relationships with peers
  • use paid promotion - try experimenting with paid promotion on platforms like Facebook to get initial boost of traffic and social shares

Experienced bloggers are totally aware of all these ways to promote content, the emphasis here is that such promotion helps you build immediate trust with search visitors, which will be rewarded by Google.
How much time should I spend promoting my content?
A good idea is to spend as much time on promotion as you spent on building the content. Plus, if your blog is new, such promotion might be a primary source of traffic and becomes absolutely necessary to build trust signals for new search visitors.
Wait at least 3-4 weeks before checking how new post is ranking, fix issues if not in top 10.

First, accept that no amount of effort can ensure your post is in Google top 10. This checklist is about increasing your odds of success, and works best when applied systematically to all new content.

Second, it is not worth checking search results every single day after you publish your post, as Google needs time to evaluate new content. In some cases new stuff might appear on page one withing days or even hours from publishing, but ordinary blog posts might take 3-4 weeks before Google decides on a proper search ranking.

Third, it is assumed that you used a proper keyword tool (like Gookey) to choose a keyword with low competition (backlink metrics of competitors being comparable to yours). Usage of wrong competition metrics (like AdWords "competition", number of search results, QSR, etc.) will cause you to attack too competitive keywords, and will leave you no hope for consistently high rankings and long-term growth.

Now, if you notice your last post is not getting close to top 10 after you've followed this checklist, here is what you can try:
  • wait 2-3 days and re-check the top 10 - this ensures search results have actually stabilized
  • check if the post is actually available - ask a friend to open it from another computer and internet connection
  • open the post on your phone - verify that it is working as expected on mobile
  • check the speed if the post page - open Google PageSpeed and paste the address of the post, try fixing the listed issues if you see a red score
  • check for mobile friendly-ness - open Google Mobile-Friendly Test and paste the address of the post, try fixing the listed issues if you see a red score
  • check for broken links - these are easy to miss while editing the post
  • add internal links to the post - find related content on your site and update it to include links to this new post
  • promote the post one more time - use your email list and audience on social to get some more engagement

You shouldn't spend too much time and effort investigating a single unsuccessful post. After all, this checklist is not a magic and satisfying search visitors is not a precise matter.

However, if you published 4-5 times and none of your new posts are high in search results, there might be overall issues with your website:
  • check for errors in Google Webmaster Tools - look for issues in Messages, Crawl Errors, Blocked Resources and Security Issues reports
  • check if search traffic was consistently declining - go to Google Analytics, Acquisition->All Traffic->Channels, choose Organic Search, set date range of last 6 months, switch to weeks on the graph, if traffic dropped or was consistently declining then Google has concerns about your site
  • check if site speed was consistently declining - in Analytics, go to Behaviour->Site speed, set date range of last 6 months, switch to weeks on the graph, if Average Page Load Time recently skyrocketed or was consistently increasing then this might be the problem
  • check the number of indexed pages - in Webmaster Tools, go to Google Index->Index status. If number of indexed pages is significantly higher or lower than the number of blog posts on your site, it might be that you have issues with robots.txt or many pages with little content
The list above is a way to detect common issues with Google. If you are unsure how to fix the discovered problems, it is probably worth seeking advice from a trusted SEO expert.
Should I really track my Google rankings for every blog post?
No, you should not waste time on googling all your keywords every week. Start with reports on your search traffic. If organic traffic is growing then you're on the right track. If not, it makes sense to follow the steps above and work on some improvements.
Final notes.

The goal of search engines is to satisfy users.

Google has many ways to measure user satisfaction. It digs searchers' click history and Google Analytics data, and runs automatic experiments on live search results. Google also got a lot smarter with modern machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques.

Modern Google is focused on discovering the needs of searchers behind each keyword. It will then only show content that actually serves each individual user need (user intent).

Keep this in mind. Don't treat Google as some black box that needs technical tricks, hacks and hard-to-understand "optimizations".

If searchers get their job done with your content, Google will love you. The only long-term search engine optimization strategy you should remember and practice is this:

Optimize for humans.
Artur Brugeman
Founder of Gookey
Building SEO tools has been my passion for several years. This checklist was born after many discussions with multiple bloggers (including my lovely wife Natali) on the struggles they have with Google.
© 2017 Gookey by Artur Brugeman. SEO is boring, and blogging should be fun, right?
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