Successful authors know that the first line of any writing has to be strong enough to capture the reader’s attention – otherwise they won’t continue reading.
…but Mark Twain, for example, didn’t have bounce rate to contend with. There’s no algorithm to penalize poor authors (they just don’t make any money). For any publisher hoping to acquire traffic via Google – and keep acquiring it – this just isn’t the case.
In addition to the Panda algorithm (see Ben Goodsell’s post for a great explanation of how Panda works), webmasters have to contend with manual actions designed to target thin content with little or no added value. Google isn’t forthcoming with exactly what that means, but we need to be aware that SEOs are competing for traffic with seasoned journalists.
Writing copy doesn’t always come naturally, but there are some basic principles of journalism we can apply to all the content we create to ensure that it’s adding as much value as possible to our users.
The Inverted Pyramid
Chip Scanlan explained the inverted pyramid on Poynter.org in 2003:
The inverted pyramid puts the most newsworthy information at the top, and then the remaining information follows in order of importance, with the least important at the bottom.
You have the area above the fold to capture a user’s attention…but not everything above the fold is created equal. Links higher up in HTML code “cast more powerful votes” because Googlebot, like users, goes from left to right, top to bottom. If the page you most want to rank is linked highest in the code, surely the information you most want readers to take in should be higher up, too.
In practical terms, how often do you continue reading an article that opens with “Content is king” or “Content marketing is a hot topic these days”? An opening gambit that does not explain what value the page is adding to the user is likely to result in a bounce.
This Is How Google Reads Copy
It has long been considered best practice to place the most important keywords at the beginning of a title tag when optimising a website. The reason for this is because Googlebot reads copy from left to right, exactly as a user would.
As part of a 2006 eye-tracking study Jakob Nielsen observed that users read in an F-shaped pattern, concluding that the most important information in any piece of content must be presented within the first two paragraphs.
This ties in with the reason many consider the best position for sharing buttons to be above the fold: below the title but above the body copy. As a call to action, a social share is low risk, with a reward attached (look how well read I am!) and with attention spans ever decreasing, many people find it easier to share a page than to make it all the way through reading it.
According to David Ogilvy, “On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”
We need to start thinking of titles in the same way as journalists think of headlines.
Google truncates title tags because users don’t have the patience to look much further than 512 pixels in the wrong direction. Giving your content a well-optimized title is massively useful for getting users to click through, but it also encourages retention once users are on the page. Title tags are a ranking factor for Google because they help to determine the relevance of the content below and the same is true of users on the page. If the title has lured a user in from search and the copy doesn’t deliver on that promise within a few lines, that user will bounce.
Bounce rate is a more significant metric than many webmasters realise. Page views, for example, aren’t tied in directly with rankings in Google, or a vulnerability next time the Panda algorithm is run, however bounce rate is a good indicator of a metric Google uses that is tied directly to search rankings.
Time to Long Click
A short click is when a searcher clicks on a result and returns to the SERP within a short period of time. The result clicked clearly wasn’t right for that user. Google considers a long click to be a positive signal – literally the user spends a longer period of time away from the search results before returning to perform the same search (if that happens at all).
Blind Five Year Old’s AJ Kohn is the ultimate authority on the long click. He explained the concept in 2009:
[Google is] not peeking at bounce rates. Instead Google is measuring pogosticking activity…long clicks are important to Google because it gives them a way to measure the satisfaction of the result based on downstream behavior. Sure, a result might get a lot of clicks but did it actually satisfy the query?
If a lot of search pogosticking occurs in relation to a certain site, that site won’t rank particularly well in the future. One piece of advice AJ gives is to link out to other sites with valuable information relevant to the audience you’re writing for. Citing your sources is one of the basic principles of journalism.
Journalists literally have to cite their sources to avoid legal action and claims of plagiarism. Google also has measures in place to combat “duplicate content,” so if you’re using newsjacking as a strategy it’s advisable to link through to the original source of the news. Of course this means that for your page to rank you will need to add value that readers couldn’t find in the original story.
Journalists write to satisfy people’s curiosity. SEOs should write to satisfy search queries. It’s easy to argue that getting your point across as quickly as possible is going to result in users leaving your site more quickly. That’s fine – as long as you’re not giving users a reason to go back to Google and search for the same thing again. Make it easy for users to find your point and Google will make it easier for users to find your content.
- Position the most important information in your content above the fold – ideally in the first line. Don’t expect users to wait until the bottom of a page for you to make your point. If they’re still interested, call to action!
- Your title tag and H1 tag are the biggest selling points on the page (except images) and it’s vital to ensure they are the correct length, include your keywords, and adequately describe what the copy is about.
- Link out to relevant information. The last thing Google wants is for your users to go back to the search engine because that means it hasn’t done its job.