Search engine optimization, or SEO, is incredibly important for marketers. When you optimize your web pages — including your blog posts — you're making your website more visible to people who are using search engines (like Google) to find your product or service.But does your blog content really help your business organically rank on search engines?
In this article, you’ll find the answer to this question and more. Get ready for an in-depth exploration into the world of blog SEO, the factors that affect it, and tips to start optimizing your blog site for the search engines.
Although it's clear blog content does contribute to your SEO, Google's many algorithm updates can make publishing the right kind of blog content tricky if you don’t know where to start. Some blog ranking factors have stood the test of time while others are considered "old-school." Here are a few of the top-ranking factors that can, directly and indirectly, affect blog SEO.
Pro tip: As a rule of thumb, take time to understand what each of these factors does, but don’t try to implement them all at once. They each serve a specific purpose and should be used to meet a specific SEO goal for your blog. Listen to HubSpot's Matt Barby and Victor Pan take on this topic in this podcast episode.
Factors That Affect Blog SEO
1. Dwell Time
Although dwell time is an indirect ranking factor for Google, it's a critical factor in the user experience — and we know that user experience is king when it comes to SEO. Dwell time is the length of a time a reader spends on a page on your blog site. From the moment a visitor clicks on your site in the SERP, to the moment they exit the page is considered dwell time. This metric indirectly tells search engines like Google how valuable your content is to the reader. It makes sense that the longer they spend on the page, the more relevant it is to them.
However, there’s a reason this metric is an indirect indicator for SEO — it’s completely subjective. The search engine algorithms don’t know your content strategy. Your blog could be focused on short-form content that takes just a minute or two to read. You might also include pertinent information at the beginning of your blog posts to give the best reader experience, which means less time spent on the page. So yes, dwell time can affect SEO, but don’t manipulate your content to change this metric if it doesn’t make sense for your content strategy.
2. Page Speed
We mentioned earlier that visual elements on your blog can affect page speed, but that isn’t the only thing that can move this needle. Unnecessary code and overuse of plugins can also contribute to a sluggish blog site. Removing junk code can help your pages load faster, thus improving page speed. If you’re not sure how to find and remove junk code, check out HTML-Cleaner. It’s an easy-to-use tool that doesn't require coding knowledge. It simply shows you the unnecessary code and lets you remove it with the click of a button.
I also recommend taking an inventory of your blog site plugins. Decide which ones you need to keep your blog running day-to-day and which ones were installed as a fix for a temporary issue. Plugins that affect the front-end of your site are a threat to page speed, and odds are, you can uninstall more of these plugins than you think to increase your overall site speed.
3. Mobile Responsiveness
More than half of Google’s search traffic in the United States comes from mobile devices. On an individual level, your blog site might follow that same trend. There’s no way around it — optimizing your blog site for mobile is a factor that will affect your SEO metrics. But what exactly does it mean to optimize a website for mobile? The industry rule-of-thumb is to keep things simple. Most pre-made site themes these days are already mobile-friendly, so all you’ll need to do is tweak a CTA button here and enlarge a font size there. Then, keep an eye on how your site is performing on mobile by taking a look at your Google Analytics dashboard and running a mobile site speed test regularly.
4. Index Date
Search engines aim to provide the most relevant and accurate information available. A factor search engines use when determining what’s relevant and accurate is the date a search engine indexes the content. Indexing means a search engine finds content and adds it to its index. Later, the page can be retrieved and displayed in the SERP when a user searches for keywords related to the indexed page.
You might be wondering: Is the date the content was indexed the same as the date it was published?
The answer: yes and no. If a blog post is published for the first time, it’s likely that say, a Google crawler, will index that post the same day you publish it. But content can be backdated for several legitimate reasons, too, like archiving information or updating a sentence or two.
One way to positively affect this SEO factor is to implement a historical optimization strategy. This strategy works well on blogs that have been established for a few years and have a fair amount of content already. By updating these older posts with new perspectives and data, you’ll be able to significantly impact your blog SEO without creating a lot of net new content. Site crawlers will reindex the page — taking into account the updated content — and give it another opportunity to compete in the SERP. It’s truly a win-win.
5. Recent Data
Recent data, another indirect ranking factor of SEO, should be included in blog posts. Recent data gives visitors relevant and accurate information which makes for a positive reader experience. When you include a link to a credible site that has original, up-to-date data, you’re telling the search engine that this site is helpful and relevant to your readers (which is a plus for that other site). You’re also telling the search engine that this type of data is in some way related to the content you publish. Over time, your readers will come to appreciate the content which can be confirmed using other metrics like increased time on page or lower bounce rate.
How to Optimize Blog Content for Search Engines
1. Identify the target audience for your blog.
No matter what industry your blog targets, you’ll want to identify and speak to the primary audience that will be reading your content. Understanding who your audience is and what you want them to do when they click on your article will help guide your blog strategy.
Buyer personas are an effective way to target readers using their buying behaviors, demographics, and psychographics. Without this insight, you could be producing grammatically correct and accurate content that few people will click on because it doesn’t speak to them on a personal level.
2. Conduct keyword research.
Now that you’ve selected your target audience and prepared a buyer persona, it’s time to find out what content your readers want to consume. Keyword research can be a heavy task to take on if you don’t begin with a strategy. Therefore, I recommend starting with the topics your blog will cover, then expand or contract your scope from there. For an in-depth tutorial, check out our how-to guide on keyword research.
3. Add visuals.
Search engines like Google value visuals for certain keywords. Images and videos are among the most common visual elements that appear on the search engine results page. In order to achieve a coveted spot in an image pack or a video snippet, you’ll want to design creative graphics, use original photos and videos, and add descriptive alt text to every visual element within your blog post.
Alt text is a major factor that determines whether or not your image or video appears in the SERP and how highly it appears. Alt text is also important for screen readers so that visually impaired individuals have a positive experience consuming content on your blog site.
4. Write a catchy title.
The title of your blog post is the first element a reader will see when they come across your article, and it heavily influences whether they’ll click or keep scrolling. A catchy title uses data, asks a question, or leads with curiosity to pique the reader’s interest.
According to Coscheduler’s Headline Analyzer, the elements of a catchy title include power, emotional, uncommon, and common words. In the right proportions, these types of words in a blog title will grab your readers’ attention and keep them on the page.
Here’s an example of a catchy title with a Coschedule Headline Analyzer Score of 87:
The Perfect Dress Has 3 Elements According to This Popular Fashion Expert
- Highlighted in yellow are common words. They’re familiar to the reader and don’t stray too far from other titles that may appear in the SERP.
- “Expert” is an emotional word, according to Coschedule. In this example, the word expert builds trust with the reader and tells them that this article has an authoritative point of view.
- Purple words are power words — this means they capture the readers’ attention and get them curious about the topic.
- Another element in this title is the number three. This signals to the reader that they’ll learn a specific amount of facts about the perfect dress.
5. Include an enticing CTA.
What’s a blog post without a call to action? The purpose of a CTA is to lead your reader to the next step in their journey through your blog. The key to a great CTA is that it’s relevant to the topic of your existing blog post and flows naturally with the rest of the content. Whether you’re selling a product, offering a newsletter subscription, or wanting the reader to consume more of your content, you’ll need an enticing CTA on every blog post you publish.
CTAs come in all types of formats, so get creative and experiment with them. Buttons, hyperlinks, and widgets are some of the most common CTAs, and they all have different purposes. For instance, you should add a bold, visible CTA like a button if you want the reader to make a purchase. On the other hand, you can easily get a reader to check out another blog post by providing a hyperlink to it in the conclusion of the current article.
6. Focus on the reader's experience.
Any great writer or SEO will tell you that the reader experience is the most important part of a blog post. The reader experience includes several factors like readability, formatting, and page speed. That means you’ll want to write content that’s clear, comprehensive of your topic, and accurate according to the latest data and trends. Organizing the content using headings and subheadings is important as well because it helps the reader scan the content quickly to find the information they need. Finally, on-page elements like images and videos have an impact on page speed. Keep image file sizes low (250 KB is a good starting point) and limit the number of videos you embed on a single page. By focusing on what the reader wants to know and organizing the post to achieve that goal, you’ll be on your way to publishing an article optimized for the search engine.
Now, let's take a look at these blog SEO tips that you can take advantage of to enhance your content's searchability.
Note: This list doesn't cover every SEO rule under the sun. Rather, the following tips are the on-page factors to get you started with an SEO strategy for your blog.
1. Use 1–2 long-tail keywords.
Optimizing your blog posts for keywords is not about incorporating as many keywords into your posts as possible. Nowadays, this actually hurts your SEO because search engines consider this keyword stuffing (i.e., including keywords as much as possible with the sole purpose of ranking highly in organic search).
It also doesn't make for a good reader experience — a ranking factor that search engines now prioritize to ensure you're answering the intent of your visitors. Therefore, you should use keywords in your content in a way that doesn't feel unnatural or forced.
A good rule of thumb is to focus on one or two long-tail keywords per blog post. While you can use more than one keyword in a single post, keep the focus of the post narrow enough to allow you to spend time optimizing for just one or two keywords.
You may be wondering: Why long-tail keywords?
These longer, often question-based keywords keep your post focused on the specific goals of your audience. For example, the long-tail keyword "how to write a blog post" is much more impactful in terms of SEO than the short keyword "blog post".
Website visitors searching long-tail keywords are more likely to read the whole post and then seek more information from you. In other words, they'll help you generate the right type of traffic — visitors who convert.
2. Use keywords strategically throughout the blog post.
Now that you've got one or two keywords, it's time to incorporate them in your blog post. But where is the best place to include these terms so you rank high in search results?
There are four essential places where you should try to include your keywords: title tag, headers & body, URL, and meta description.
The title (i.e., headline) of your blog post will be a search engine's and reader's first step in determining the relevancy of your content. So, including a keyword here is vital. Google calls this the "title tag" in a search result.
Be sure to include your keyword within the first 60 characters of your title, which is just about where Google cuts titles off on the SERP. Technically, Google measures by pixel width, not character count, and it recently increased the pixel width for organic search results from approximately 500 pixels to 600 pixels, which translates to around 60 characters.
Long title tag? When you have a lengthy headline, it's a good idea to get your keyword in the beginning since it might get cut off in SERPs toward the end, which can take a toll on your post's perceived relevance.
In the example below, we had a long title that went over 65 characters, so we placed the keyword near the front.
Headers & Body
Mention your keyword at a normal cadence throughout the body of your post and in the headers. That means including your keywords in your copy, but only in a natural, reader-friendly way. Don't go overboard at the risk of being penalized for keyword stuffing.
Before you start writing a new blog post, you'll probably think about how to incorporate your keywords into your post. That's a smart idea, but it shouldn't be your only focus, nor even your primary focus.
Whenever you create content, your primary focus should be on what matters to your audience, not how many times you can include a keyword or keyword phrase in that content. Focus on being helpful and answering whatever question your customer might've asked to arrive on your post. Do that, and you'll naturally optimize for important keywords, anyway.
Search engines also look at your URL to figure out what your post is about, and it's one of the first things it'll crawl on a page. You have a huge opportunity to optimize your URLs on every post you publish, as every post lives on its unique URL — so make sure you include your one to two keywords in it.
In the example below, we created the URL using the long-tail keyword for which we were trying to rank: "email marketing examples."
Your meta description is meant to give search engines and readers information about your blog post's content. Meaning, you must use your long-tail term so Google and your audience are clear on your post's content.
At the same time, keep in mind the copy matters a great deal for click-through rates because it satisfies certain readers' intent — the more engaging, the better.
3. Optimize for mobile devices.
We learned earlier that more people use search engines from their mobile phones than from a computer.
And for all those valuable queries being searched on mobile devices, Google displays the mobile-friendly results first. This is yet another example of Google heavily favoring mobile-friendly websites — which has been true ever since the company updated its Penguin algorithm in April 2015.
(HubSpot customers: Breathe easy. All content created on HubSpot's platform is automatically responsive to mobile devices.)
So, how do you make your blog mobile-friendly? By using responsive design. Websites that are responsive to mobile allow blog pages to have just one URL instead of two — one for desktop and one for mobile, respectively. This helps your post's SEO because any inbound links that come back to your site won't be divided between the separate URLs.
As a result, you'll centralize the SEO power you gain from these links, helping Google more easily recognize your post's value and rank it accordingly.
Pro tip: What search engines value is constantly changing. Be sure you're keeping on top of these changes by subscribing to Google's official blog.
4. Optimize the meta description.
To review, a meta description is additional text that appears in SERPs that lets readers know what the link is about. The meta description gives searchers the information they need to determine whether or not your content is what they're looking for and ultimately helps them decide if they'll click or not.
The maximum length of this meta description is greater than it once was — now around 300 characters — suggesting it wants to give readers more insight into what each result will give them.
So, in addition to being reader-friendly (compelling and relevant), your meta description should include the long-tail keyword for which you are trying to rank.
In the following example, I searched for "email newsletter examples."
The term is bolded in the meta description, helping readers make the connection between the intent of their search term and this result. You'll also see the term "E-Newsletter" bolded, indicating that Google knows there's a semantic connection between "email newsletter" and "E-Newsletter."
Note: Nowadays, it's not guaranteed that your meta description is always pulled into SERPs as it once was. As you can see in the above image, Google pulls in other parts of your blog post that includes the keywords searched, presumably to give searchers optimal context around how the result matches their specific query.
Let me show you another example. Below are two different search queries delivering two different snippets of text on Google SERPs. The first is a result of the query "no index no follow," and pulls in the original meta description:
The second is a result of the query "noindex nofollow," and pulls in the first instance of these specific keywords coming up in the body of the blog post:
While there's not much you can do to influence what text gets pulled in, you should continue to optimize this metadata, as well as your post, so search engines display the best content from the article. By creating reader-friendly content with natural keyword inclusion, you'll make it easier for Google to prove your post's relevancy in SERPs for you.
5. Include image alt text.
Blog posts shouldn't only contain text — they should also include images that help explain and support your content. However, search engines don't simply look for images. Rather, they look for images with image alt text.
You may be wondering why this is. Since search engines can't "see" images the same way humans can, an image's alt text tells the search engine what an image is about. This ultimately helps those images rank in the search engine's images results page.
Image alt text also makes for a better user experience (UX). It displays inside the image container when an image can't be found or displayed. Technically, alt text is an attribute that can be added to an image tag in HTML.
Here's what a complete image tag might look like:
When you incorporate image alt text, an image's name in your blog may go from something like, "IMG23940" to something accurate and descriptive such as "puppies playing in a basket."
Image alt text should be descriptive in a helpful way — meaning, it should provide the search engine with context to index the image if it's in a blog article related to a similar topic.
To provide more context, here's a list of things to be sure you keep in mind when creating alt text for your blog's images:
- Describe the image
- Leave out "image of... "— start with the image description instead
- Be specific in your description
- Keep it under 125 characters
- Use your keywords (but avoid keyword stuffing)
HubSpot customers: The SEO Panel will recognize whether or not you have optimized your images. Though these elements are not as important as some other optimizations, they're still necessary (not to mention, easy to add).
6. Limit topic tags.
Topic tags can help organize your blog content, but if you overuse them, they can actually be harmful. If you have too many similar tags, you may get penalized by search engines for having duplicate content.
Think of it this way, when you create a topic tag (which is simple if you're a HubSpot user, as seen here), you also create a new site page where the content from those topic tags will appear. If you use too many similar tags for the same content, it appears to search engines as if you're showing the content multiple times throughout your website. For example, topic tags like "blogging," "blog," and "blog posts" are too similar to one another to be used on the same post.
If you're worried that your current blog posts have too many similar tags, take some time to clean them up. Choose about 15–25 topic tags that you think are important to your blog and that aren't too similar to one another. Then only tag your posts with those keywords. That way, you won't have to worry about duplicate content.
Here at HubSpot, we use a Search Insights Report to map specific MSV-driven keyword ideas to a content topic each quarter. The process helps us target a handful of posts in a set number of topics throughout the year for a systematic approach to SEO and content creation.
7. Include user-friendly URL structures.
Before you publish your blog post, take a careful look at its URL structure. Is it long, filled with stop-words, or unrelated to the post’s topic? If so, you might want to rewrite it before it goes live.
The URL structure of your web pages (which are different from the specific URLs of your posts) should make it easy for your visitors to understand the structure of your website and the content they're about to see. Search engines favor web page URLs that make it easier for them and website visitors to understand the content on the page.
This differentiation is baked into the HubSpot blogs' respective URL structures. If I decided to go to the Marketing section from this main page, I would be taken to the URL http://blog.hubspot.com/marketing.
If we want to read the Sales section, all we have to do is change where it says "marketing" in the URL to "sales":
This URL structure helps me understand that "/marketing" and "/sales" are smaller sections — called subdirectories — within the larger blog.
What if there's a specific article we want to read, such as "How to Do Keyword Research: A Beginner's Guide"? Its URL structure — http://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/how-to-do-keyword-research-ht — denotes that it's an article from the Marketing section of the blog.
In this way, URL structure acts as a categorization system for readers, letting them know where they are on the website and how to access new site pages. Search engines appreciate this, as it makes it easier for them to identify exactly what information searchers will access on different parts of your blog or website.
Pro tip: Don’t change your blog post URL after it's been published — that’s the easiest way to press the metaphorical “reset” button on your SEO efforts for that post. If your URL is less descriptive than you’d like or it no longer follows your brand or style guidelines, your best bet is to leave it as is. Instead, change the title of the post using the guidelines we covered earlier.
8. Link to related blog posts.
You may have heard that backlinks influence how high your blog site can rank in the SERP, and that’s true — backlinks show how trustworthy your site is based on how many other relevant sites link back to yours. But backlinks aren’t the end-all-be-all to link building. Linking to and from your own blog posts can have a positive impact on how well your blog site ranks, too.
Inbound links to your content help show search engines the validity or relevancy of your content. The same goes for linking internally to other pages on your website. If you've written about a topic that's mentioned in your blog post on another blog post, ebook, or web page, it's a best practice to link to that page.
(You might've noticed that I've been doing that from time to time throughout this blog post when I think it's helpful for our readers.) Not only will internal linking help keep visitors on your website, but it also surfaces your other relevant and authoritative pages to search engines.
For example, if your blog is about fashion, you might cover fabrics as a topic. Adding a hyperlink from a blog post about cotton to a post about the proper way to mix fabrics can help both of those posts become more visible to readers who search these keywords. The search engines will also have one more entry point to the post about cotton when you hyperlink it in the post about mixing fabrics. This means the post about cotton fabric, and any updates you make to it will be recognized by site crawlers faster. It could even see a boost in the SERP as a result.
HubSpot customers: The SEO Panel automatically suggests linking to other internal resources on your website.
You can think of this as solving for your SEO while also helping your visitors get more information from your content.
9. Review metrics regularly.
Google's free Search Console contains a section called the Search Analytics Report. This report helps you analyze clicks from Google Search — it's useful to determine which keywords people are using to find your blog content. You can also learn how to use Google Search Console by reading this blog post written by my colleague Matthew Barby, and by checking out Google's official support page.
If you're interested in optimizing your best-performing older blog posts for traffic and leads like we've been doing since 2015, this tool can help identify low-hanging fruit.
Remember, many content marketers struggle with optimizing their blog posts for search. The truth is, your blog posts won't start ranking immediately. It takes time to build up search authority.
But, when you publish blog posts frequently and consistently optimize them for search while maintaining an intent-based reader experience, you'll reap the rewards in the form of traffic and leads long-term.
10. Organize by topic cluster.
The way most blogs are currently structured (including our own blogs, until very recently), bloggers and SEOs have worked to create individual blog posts that rank for specific keywords.
This makes things unorganized and difficult for blog visitors to find the exact information they need. It also results in your URLs competing against one another in search engine rankings when you produce multiple blog posts about similar topics.
Here's what our blog architecture used to look like using this old playbook:
Now, in order to rank in search and best answer the new types of queries searchers are submitting, the solution is the topic cluster model.
For this model to work, choose the broad topics for which you want to rank. Then, create content based on specific keywords related to that topic that all link to each other to establish broader search engine authority.
This is what our blog infrastructure looks like now, with the topic cluster model. Specific topics are surrounded by blog posts related to the greater topic, connected to other URLs in the cluster via hyperlinks:
This model uses a more deliberate site architecture to organize and link URLs together to help more pages on your site rank in Google — and to help searchers find information on your site more easily. This architecture consists of three components — pillar content, cluster content, and hyperlinks:
11. Publish evergreen content.
When planning and writing your blog articles, ensure it's evergreen content. Meaning, the content is about topics that will remain relevant and valuable over a long period of time (with only minor changes or updates). Let's look at a few reasons why evergreen content is so important:
- It'll help you rank over time, not just in the near future.
- It contributes to steady amounts of traffic coming to your blog (and website) long after it’s been published.
- It'll help you generate leads over time as a result of the traffic it continually generates.
All blog content — whether it's a long-form article, how-to guide, FAQ, tutorial, and so on — should be evergreen. Even the images you use in these posts should be evergreen. Check out this blog post for some examples of and ideas for evergreen content on your blog.
12. Update existing content.
To improve your SEO, you may assume you need to create new blog content. Although that's partially true, you should also focus a great deal of your time and energy on your existing blog content. Specifically, repurposing and updating your current content, as well as removing your outdated content.
This is because it takes a lot longer for a completely new piece of content to settle on the search engine results page (SERP) and gain authority, whereas you could update a piece of content and reap the benefits fairly immediately in comparison.
Not only will your updated content rank on the SERP faster, improving your number of visitors and leads, it also takes a lot less time and fewer resources to update an existing piece of content rather than create a brand new article.
Additionally, updating and repurposing some of your most successful pieces of content extends its lifespan so you can achieve the best results over a longer period of time (especially if it's evergreen content).
The final step entails removing your outdated content that's no longer relevant to your audience. Although your goal is to ensure your content is evergreen, some of it is bound to become outdated over time. This includes statistics, product information (if you have any listed in your blogs — as your products and business evolve), or information that changes across your industry over time.
Create Blog Content Your Readers (and Search Engines) Will Love
We don't expect you to incorporate each of these SEO best practices into your content strategy right away. But, as your website grows, so should your goals on search engines. Once you identify the goals and intent of your ideal readers, you'll be on track to deliver relevant content that will climb the ranks of the SERP.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in September 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.