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Search engine optimization has come a long way over the past 25 years. Long gone are the days of publishing high volumes of low-quality, wafer-thin content and expecting your search engine rankings to increase. Today, SEO is as much an art as it is a science. It requires content writers and digital marketers (now one and the same) to understand search engine ranking factors, prioritize searcher intent, and publish valuable, high-quality content that appeals users and Google’s algorithms.

1. Understand Search Engine Ranking Factors

Before you can outrank your competition, you need to understand the foundational signals that search engines look at when evaluating and ranking content. The four most important ranking factors are content, links, site structure, and HTML tags.


Ever since the 2011 Panda algorithm update, Google has prioritized content as its number one ranking factor. When you publish any piece of content—whether it be a blog, webpage, or pillar page—it should clearly cover a specific topic in-depth, be well-written, and above all else, provide value to the reader.

According to Search Engine Land’s Periodic Table of SEO Factors, the seven most heavily weighted content ranking factors are:

  1. Quality: Well-written and valuable
  2. Research: Demonstrates authority
  3. Keywords: Incorporates search terms appropriately
  4. Freshness: Is timely and relevant
  5. Multimedia: Contains images, video, or audio to enhance user experience
  6. Answers: Directly answers the search query
  7. Depth: Covers a topic thoroughly

Understanding what each of these factors means and how to apply them is the first step toward writing content that’s competitive.

Links, Site Structure, and HTML Tags

Aside from content, the second, third, and fourth most heavily weighted ranking factors are links, site architecture (how your site is built), and HTML tags.

When a search engine crawls and indexes your site, it also looks at non-content factors like inbound and outbound links, URL structure, page load speed, time on page, and keyword usage in tags to understand what your site is about and how to rank your pages.

Search engine algorithms are designed to deliver users the best content from the best websites. Implementing linking, site structure, and HTML best practices within your website content makes it easier for search engines to crawl and index your content. The quicker and more accurately a search engine crawls and indexes your content, the faster you can increase rankings and traffic.

2. Use the Right Keywords

Although there’s been debate in the digital marketing community as to whether or not keyword research is dead, keywords are still a crucial part of SEO.

Keyword research helps you:

  • Determine what topics people are talking about.
  • Identify search volumes for topics.
  • Understand how difficult it may be to rank for a topic.

Each piece of crawlable content you create should have a unique primary keyword target and also use Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI) keywords (natural variations of your primary keyword) throughout.

Before you start writing, brainstorm topics you know your buyer personas care about. Then, perform keyword research to identify the best ranking opportunity. The type of keyword you target will depend on the type of content you’re creating.

Blog posts should target mid- to low-volume, low-competition long-tail keywords, while comprehensive resources like pillar pages can go after shorter-tail seed keywords that have high volume and high competition. When creating blog posts, remember that longer-tail, lower competition keywords have higher conversion rates and are easier to rank for.

3. Identify and Capture Search Intent

Once you’ve found a viable primary keyword target, validate and decide how you will write about it by digging into searcher intent. Identify what the searcher is looking for when they type the query into a search bar, and then cover the topic in a way that directly meets their needs.

According to Google’s search evaluation quality guidelines, there are four categories of searcher intent:

  1. Know: The searcher wants to find information on a topic to answer a question.
  2. Do: The searcher wants to learn how to take a specific action.
  3. Website: The searcher wants to find a specific resource.
  4. Visit in person: The searcher wants to find a location to go to.

Before you start writing, identify which of these four categories your primary keyword target falls under. Then, validate the category by looking at the content currently ranking for the keyword. Are your competitors targeting the same type of search intent you’ve identified for the query? Look at how they’ve structured their content to satisfy searcher needs. Structure your content in a similar and better way.

Pro Tip: Use SERP Features to Satisfy Searcher Intent Better Than Your Competition

How do you satisfy searcher intent better than your competitors? Pinpoint the aspects of searcher intent that top-ranking articles are failing to satisfy.

Are there any important nuggets the competition is leaving out that your reader may want to know about? You can clue into what these gaps could be by looking at the “People also ask” and “Related searches” sections of the search engine results page (SERP). Include answers to the relevant queries in your content.

4. Optimize Content to Obtain Google Featured Snippets 

A relatively new search engine feature is the Google Featured Snippet. This SERP feature aims to answer a user’s question immediately. You can optimize your content in a way that increases your chances of obtaining this feature. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Use SEMrush or another SERP analysis tool to identify if a featured snippet exists for the keyword you’re targeting. Only 12.3 percent of queries have one.
  2. Identify how the featured snippet is structured. Is it a paragraph, list, or table?
  3. Ask the question the snippet answers in one of your blog post subheadings.
  4. Answer the question immediately after the subheading. Write a concise answer that’s better than the current one in the featured snippet. Be sure to use the same structure as the current snippet.

More Tips for Obtaining the Featured Snippet

There are several other tactics you can use to increase your chances of obtaining the featured snippet:

  • Optimize content you’re already ranking high for with a featured snippet answer; 99.58 percent of snippets come from pages already on page one of a SERP.
  • Use facts and figures in your answers.
  • Answer multiple “People also ask” questions within your content. Ahrefs found that most featured snippets are triggered by longer-tail keywords like those found in this section of the SERP.

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