If it weren’t for the Internal Revenue Service, I’d wager that no three-letter acronym is more disdained these days than SEO. I don’t believe such contempt is justified, but it’s easy to understand where it comes from: lingering associations with black hat techniques, suspicions that it’s just the latest snake oil in the marketplace and the naive belief that the all-knowing web crawlers will recognize good writing as they index it.
As much as any other writer, I wish the latter were the case. I’d like to think that all the qualities that make good writing appealing to the reader—clarity, rhythm, a certain depth of meaning, etc.—find their way into the very sequence of bytes committed to disk. But in the end, a bit is just a bit.
If you’re a writer, then chances are high you’re a reader, too. So you should be familiar with expectations that the general meaning of a book is recursively distilled at ever greater levels. For example, we expect the meaning of the book’s chapters somehow to be expressed in the chapters’ titles, whose meanings may be combined and expressed in section titles, which are once again condensed into the book’s singular and lapidary title.
Even if their algorithms forever remain as impenetrable as the Eleusinian Mysteries, search engines generally appear to share these expectations. While they may not yet be able to intuit good writing as humans do, they can definitely recognize well-formed documents and assign relative weight to words and phrases based on what we’ve marked as the equivalents of chapter content and chapter, section and book titles with p tag and h1 through h6 tags.
So if the meaning of this post were to be distilled into a single sentence, it would be this advice for writers responsible for the copy component of in-page optimization: Learn the fundamentals of semantic HTML, and spend more time giving your document an appropriate semantic structure than tarrying over every word.
If you’ve traditionally passed off your completed copy to someone else to mark up and place “on the page,” what you pass along should now include this basic markup, and you should insist that the designer or front-end developer respect the semantic structure and integrity you’ve given your portion of the document. They can achieve any style or functionality for which they are responsible with attributes and any other presentational elements they need to add.
This is just a small but important step towards improving your performance in search engine rankings. It may change your project workflow, but its ultimately a more collaborative process. A productive one, too, but I’ll save that for my next post.