How to apply SEO rules to thought leadership

If you create thought leadership, you might alternately view SEO as either the expressway to your target audience or a thorn in your side and an extra box to check on your way to publication—particularly when you haven’t thought about it during the development process. “I just wrote a great article, and now I have to make sure it has the right keywords?”

Part of this confusion stems from how to apply SEO best practices. SEO is a vital tool to ensure that as many of the right eyeballs find your content as possible. But depending on the content format and the distribution strategy, it may not be the most important element. What follows are some common SEO guidelines, how to apply them to your thought leadership efforts, and a few other principles to keep in mind.

Interpreting SEO rules

The following six SEO guidelines can ensure your content ranks highly in Google searches. It’s important to learn and understand these SEO guidelines so that you can consciously break them when it makes sense. Below, I suggest how to interpret and apply this guidance in your content strategy.

Be longer in word count than other high-ranking articles—at least 1,000 words

Let’s agree to disagree. Content development should never be about filling out a certain number of pages or hitting a word count. The material should dictate an article’s length. If you can get your point across in 250 words and a well-chosen chart, there’s no need to stretch. But if a topic requires a more in-depth look to provide the proper context or to explain complex concepts, it may make sense to go longer. Thought leadership is not a college essay you’re trying to bullshit your way through to impress the professor.

Have all content in HTML format—that is, not in a PDF or video

File this under “Say what?” If companies followed this rule to the letter, they would be missing out on opportunities to bring their ideas to life in interesting ways. No more videos? Who wants to live in that world? Fortunately, there are ways to ensure visual-heavy formats can still be found by search engines. For infographics and interactives, bookend the visuals with a paragraph of text so that the search engines have something to crawl. With video, include a transcript so that it turns up in the search results and is inclusive and ADA compliant. And with landing pages, make sure you include a sufficient amount of text on the HTML page.

Be optimized for readability, not just keywords

After all, what are you paying your writers and editors for? This rule is really about the fundamentals of good writing and presentation. No one wins by having a poorly written article jammed to the gills with keywords at the top of search results. Readers can quickly recognize low quality in thought leadership; once they know a piece of content won’t be answering their questions, they’ll move on to another source.

Use (relatively) short sentences and paragraphs

I’d call this one a “yes, but not always” kind of rule. For some years, the trend has been toward punchier, more conversational writing. However, if you’re trying to explain a complex topic or make a logical argument, it’s much more difficult to do in a series of two-sentence paragraphs. Sometimes, the definition of a certain concept on its own can create a long sentence. Be aware of your target audience’s level of familiarity and understanding. For instance, if you’re explaining how blockchain works, that’s going to leave a mark; if you’re talking about the rise of dogecoin, go short and punchy. A meme probably wouldn’t hurt either.

Include several images or graphic design elements

Thought leadership shouldn’t be a government report, you dig? Search engines reward articles that have more than just text. For all images, try to include the target keyword in the title, and add image alt text. Our designers are sticklers for never including images or exhibits just for the sake of it; any design element should be included because it adds value—either by amplifying key insights or giving readers another way into the material.

Break up the content into several subheads and sub-subheads (Google loves a hierarchy)

It’s better than bread crumbs. This rule also tracks with best practices in writing for a business audience. Readers have less time to devote, so anything you can do to make articles easier to skim helps them find what they’re looking for faster. That said, subheads can sometimes run counter to the conversational tone favored for some channels, such as blogs. And opinion pieces typically don’t have subheads. In such cases, you should prioritize the format and conventions over SEO.

Going beyond the rules: Other SEO-related best practices

Companies can get in trouble when they view SEO as a collection of immutable rules rather than one of many factors to consider. Below are a few other important things to keep in mind when developing and promoting content.

Consider the traffic sources and promotion efforts

For many companies, thought leadership lives on their website. Organic search brings traffic, making SEO a vital tool in increasing traffic volumes and (hopefully) generating return visitors and qualified leads.

However, promoting content through social media channels is also a potent traffic driver—and can be more valuable than SEO, depending on the topic. And many companies generate a major chunk of their traffic from newsletters. So, depending on the topic, audience, and channel, the importance of SEO can vary considerably. If you’re creating an explainer video that will live on your website and be promoted through a newsletter, any additional traffic from SEO might be seen as gravy.

Optimize the high-level elements

The best thought leadership answers specific questions that businesses are grappling with. Those questions go right into the search engine, which ranks content by how closely aligned its elements are with the question. Companies can help themselves out immensely by prioritizing the high-level elements, such as the title, URL, title tags, and alt text on images or exhibits.

Discuss SEO early in the process

Just as it’s far more valuable to talk about PR strategy for a piece of content up front rather than when the cake is nearly baked, SEO should be discussed early in the development process as part of overall strategy. Trying to weave in the right keywords retroactively feels disruptive and at odds with creating high-quality thought leadership—because it is.

When addressed early on, the effort to adhere to SEO rules can be incremental. For example, this blog follows all six guidelines, and if you made it this far, you might have to admit that it also improved your experience.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of LEFF. He’s spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he’s had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of “lean content creation” as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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