Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and content

Sarah Winters, , Opinion, Content design

Controversial opinion: Search Engine Optimisation is no longer A Thing. Let me explain why.

First of all, I am going to take SEO right back to the basics – stay with me here.

In the old days, the internet was a mass of weird publishing. We were all getting used to it and learning. Search engines were learning. We didn’t have the billions and billions of pages we have now. There were ways you could ‘game the system’ so that you could appear higher in the search results – whether you were relevant or not.

There were horrible practices like ‘keyword stuffing’. Keywords are words people were using to search for content – and keyword stuffing means putting them all over the page. And I mean all over. Some pages it was practically unreadable. Every other word was a keyword and sentences barely made sense.

Then there was putting white text on a white background so the search engine would read the words but humans couldn’t see them.

Links were important, so you had (and we still have) link farms – pages where a link to your site lived and that counted as a link so apparently you went up the search rankings.

There were a lot of horrible practices.

But you can’t get away with those now.

In every update, and Google (and as most people use Google, it’s the one worth paying the most attention to) is looking to serve relevant content. Better content. Good content. They are wise to the old shenanigans and they will now penalise you if you use them or try to game the system. By penalise, I mean they will de-list you. And if you are not on Google, how are people going to find you?

Let’s look at Google itself

There’s many a rumour about how many variables Google looks into for ranking a site. Most numbers mumble around 200 variables. But even that’s not actually known. My question to you is: are you going to try to game a system with (possibly) over 200 variables, when you don’t even know what they are?

Controversial opinion: SEO is no longer A Thing

Personally, I think we should stop thinking of it as Search Engine Optimised and more that it is human optimised content. I mean, that’s the whole point of SEO, isn’t it? To get to the human. It seems like a silly distinction to make but I find the way we talk - about what we are doing - influences how we are doing it.

If you think about what we are actually trying to do here: get to an audience, then I think we might be able to move away from the idea that some hold: that SEO is something you slap on at the end. It’s a trick that makes your page magically perform. It’s a layer that is added to your content after you have lovingly crafted it.

That’s just not it.

If you think about SEO purely being for the human searching for information, then you wouldn’t get ‘SEO pages’. You know the pages? You end up on a page that doesn’t match the description in search and the company site you are on doesn’t do anything you are interested in.

They’ve just taken a trend and published something to get you to their site. It adds to their traffic, certainly. Doesn’t do much else though and can be massively annoying for the user. Much better if you just had good content people liked.

A couple of things we know search likes

Unique content 

Google is looking for unique content, something it won’t find anywhere else. That’s why sites with blogs can do very well, because they have a lot of unique content, a lot of new text.

Content-relevant words 

Humans use words to find things, those words need to be on the page. In a heading or title is good but not blasted in every other sentence. See the ‘keyword stuffing’ above.


Google thinks if lots of places link to you then people like your content. If lots of people like your content it is because it is good. (However, see ‘link farm’ above and ‘domain trust’ below.)

Domain trust 

The more Google trusts your domain (your URL), the more Google juice you get. If you are GOV.UK or the BBC, you are laughing.

If you can get links from trusted domains, you are also doing well. If you are not a trusted domain, you need to become one. And you know how you do that? Good, accessible content. Which leads me to:


I could harp on about this for hours but happily I don’t need to as much any more.

If you are not accessible, you are going to move down the rankings. Simple as that. Quite right too. One word of warning: if you use a company like weebly or wix, watch the accessibility. If you use the wrong template, you won’t be accessible and it doesn’t matter how good your content is or how much marketing you do, you will not rank well in organic search.

An example approach to SEO

Let’s run an example and include information and content marketing. This is how I would approach SEO or rather, getting my content to my audience.

User journey

I’d map out my user’s journey both online and offline.

That’s where I would see if there were content opportunities. These are the ways for my audience to get to my core content, and content marketing opportunities: places where I might be able to get new audience members.

Get my audience vocabulary

At the very least I go to Google Trends or use Google Adwords, and get those words. (That’s what the SEO team will probably do anyway.)

Some of you will have other software that will also do this, but if you don’t have access to anything else, Google Trends is free and a good place to start. This will tell you the words your audience is using.

In our courses and in my book, I also use techniques like looking in forums and social media to find vocabulary.

The best way to get audience vocabulary and mental models is proper user research but a lot of us don’t have access to that. So, desk research like this is necessary. Or you can do it on the bus. There is literally no way anyone should say they don’t know what words their audience are using.

Structure content based on mental models

This is how your audience expects you to have that content. Is it chronological? Is it as a process? Is it a series of statements getting more and more outrageous whilst linked to pictures of cute kittens?

Whatever it is, your users will have an idea of what they expect. If you can find that and follow it, that will equal good content. That gets you links… that gets you more Google juice… you see where I am going with this.


Putting keywords in the headings adds more weight to that term for the page (apparently) and it can – with a bunch of other factors involved – help get you a higher search result.

But use those headings to lead people through a story. That’s what they want. To know what you are giving them. To do that you need good content… (off I go again…)

Reviews: like all advertising, word of mouth will almost always lead to better sales. Reviews on sites have exploded in the past few years because people use that as a gauge.

If you produce good content people will share it. The more it is shared, again, up the rankings you go – if you have all the other factors.

I think content people shouldn’t put one word on a page or a tweet or a blog post until they know their audience’s language and mental models. Part of that is what some call SEO but I think it is basic content design. It’s about knowing your audience.


There is a balance. You need consistent language in all your comms for your audience to be happy but you don’t want to repeat whole blocks of text all over the web. Google will think you are trying to scam the system.

If you are posting, say a quote, all over the web, that’s fine as long as there is bespoke content around it. Don’t fudge this. When Google delists you, it can take a long time to recover.

My top 3 tips to reach your audience

1. Unique content 

You can add all the metadata and SEO tricks in the book. If you don’t have unique content – forget it.

Google values content that is useful, interesting and not elsewhere. You’ll rank if you have content others have, but will you be as high? Much better to spend your energy on what your company can really offer.

2. Get good quality in-bound links 

Have new, interesting, user-centred content. That will sort out your links.

3. Make it accessible 

Not much else to say on this one. Being accessible is a basic necessity.

Good content design gives you great SEO

I speak to many people who are new to content and they think they can game the system. I’d say it is not worth your time. Write to your audience. Write to what they want from you in the language they use, using a structure that is intuitive for them and you’ll get SEO as a freebie without even trying.

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