Walk the Line: Creating SEO-Friendly Content That Readers Love

To truly appreciate the enormous changes that search engines and content marketing have undergone, we need to go back to the Wild West Days of SEO, which were as much fun as the similarly titled 1990s “western” with Will Smith.

The flavor of the day were 400-to-500 word articles where you used to cram as many keywords as humanly possible. The search engines were in their infancy, and brutal keyword-stuffing did the job. Some people even used to hide spammed keywords by making them invisible to the eye (white text on white background all over the page).

Next came purchasing super-low-quality links by the pound and spamming as many directories as (in)humanly possible.

All the while, people kept churning out immeasurable amounts of basically unreadable content that provided absolutely no value except for some SEO value.

It was just crazy.

And, despite an amused giggle here or there, it was lame.

Luckily, things have changed.


Change for the Better

As search engine algorithms have improved over the years, and as companies behind search engines grew larger and more vigilant, spamming keywords and low-quality backlinks became obsolete as SEO tactics.

This article from Search Engine Land does a good job of covering the most important Google algorithm updates over the years. As you can see, more than half of these major updates addressed content-related issues such as keyword stuffing and duplicate, thin, shallow, or poorly written content.

Giving more value to how visitors interact with the content (bounce rate, click-through rate, etc.) and the advances in NLP, semantic understanding and other AI-powered capabilities have resulted in search engines becoming increasingly focused on how readers actually consume your content.

This is why, nowadays, creating content has to be geared more towards the readers, but also keeping in mind how search engines evaluate it.

It’s a fine line, and the following advice will hopefully help you walk it.

Unique, Researched, Deep Content

At the core of all your content efforts will be the actual content. These days, you cannot expect to have any success with a mediocre 500-word article that others have done a dozen times before. Search engines will barely see such a post, let alone serve it at the top of search results.

Well-researched articles that cover a topic at length and rank well are usually long, but it’s not their length that makes them successful.

(Disclaimer: maybe you can get away with it for some truly low, low competition search terms no one looks for anyway.)

While some experts will harp on about the need for your content to be 2,000 or 3,000 words long (or even more), the actual length of an article or some other piece of content is not a strong indicator of its quality. Well-researched articles that cover a topic at length and rank well are usually long, but it’s not their length that makes them successful.

It is how well they cover a topic.

For example, take a look at this article about the difference between real estate agents and brokers. It takes a deep dive into something most people don’t know but often ask. The article covers not only the difference between agents and brokers but also the following topics:

  • What is needed to become a real estate broker
  • Where do realtors come in
  • Differences between listing/selling/dual agents
  • Broker’s additional responsibilities
  • Non-broker owners of real estate firms

Search engines take all of this into consideration, and they see a page that is more than capable of answering users’ inquiries about the difference between agents and brokers. They see a page that will answer the topic in more detail, touching upon other similar concepts.

They understand that this article is far more valuable than a short blurb that explains the difference in a single sentence or a 500-word abomination that simply recycles that same sentence over and over again.

Search engines value it simply because it is very, very likely to give the readers what they expect. Not because it has 1,500+ words.

When the occasion calls for it, it’s possible to answer a topic in a more concise way and still rank great.

An example would be this article on the legal status of retail arbitrage (it has to do with reselling stuff on Amazon). In under 350 words, this article answers the topic perfectly, providing additional tips and guiding readers to additional information on the subject. This short but timely and succinct article ranks first (after the featured snippet and “people also ask”) for the keyphrase “retail arbitrage illegal,” which has a monthly volume of 300 searches according to Ahrefs (and that’s without long-tail keywords).

example of page ranking for subject of retail arbitrageSource: ahrefs.com


All that matters is giving the readers what they expect and providing all the information that is relevant to them – even if it makes for a short-ish article.

Link Magnets

One of the best types of content that combines the best of both worlds (working for readers and search engines simultaneously) is the so-called link magnet content. You may have seen this also referred to as linkbait content.

Link magnet content is the type of content that is highly attractive to users because it provides them with greater value than an ordinary article while also being very “linkable.” In other words, this type of content simply invites to be linked to.

There are different types of link magnet content. For example, it can be a massive guide on how to do something. Ahrefs’ guide to keyword research comes to mind, with almost 2,000 domains linking to it.

Another way to invite links is a free tool of some kind. For example, Bankrate’s mortgage calculator has links from more than 3,500 unique domains (plus one since we linked to it). It doesn’t have to be anything spectacular, as you can see.

Original studies like this one on bedtime device use and sleep quality are also always a good idea for link magnet content, since people like to quote studies in their articles.

The idea is simple – give readers something useful, and before you know it, they will be linking to it without you having to lift a finger. It’s truly a