How to optimize content for humans and robots.
Humans and robots have become the chicken and the egg of search engine optimization.
Who comes first in priority? The humans we hope to reach? Or the search engine crawlers that determine reach?
Of course, companies and brands are not looking to make customers out of bots. You still need a human to make a sale. But getting your content in front of humans is an uphill battle without the help of bots. So the question remains. Who comes first?
The answer is, well, both.
Creating SEO content is not unlike packing a carry-on bag for a flight. You could have the highest quality hand lotion known to humankind, but unless you pack it in a 3.4 oz travel size container, it will never make it through security onto the plane and instead will spend the rest of eternity in the bottom of a security line trash can.
Similarly, you could have the most engaging and well written piece of content–the tour de force of your portfolio–but without following SEO best practices, your words will never be graced by human eyes.
Creating effective SEO content is about balancing the needs, preferences, and limitations of both bots and humans. We have to consider what impacts each audience the most and cater to those elements without sabotaging the experience for the other.
Here are Township’s top 3 considerations for optimizing content for both humans and robots.
How you structure your content affects both humans and bots. Things like headings, subheadings, and other types of text styling can make your post easier to digest for both audiences.
For your human audience, the first thing you need to understand is how they read. The answer: they don’t.
Humans only read about 20% of the words on a webpage. A better description of what they’re doing is “seeking.”
71% of the time users are seeking multiple pieces of important information, i.e. Where to eat in Asheville, NC.
25% of the time users are seeking something specific, i.e. Does Wicked Weed serve food?
In other words, 96% of the time web visitors are looking for something specific, and if they don’t find it within seconds of visiting your page they aren’t going to read more closely to find it–they will leave and look elsewhere.
So if you can only hope for 20% of your content to be read by a human user, which 20% are they actually reading?
Conversion XL⤤ conducted a study with eye-tracking data to determine that:
97% read headlines (2.9 seconds, or 7 words)
98% scan subtitles (people spent 2.8 seconds to read 20+ words, suggesting that content is scanned vs. read)
91% read image captions
The study revealed that visitors spend the most time looking at:
Bots are also looking at these page elements, but unlike their human counterparts, bots look at every word and character on the page–both on the front and back end.
From a qualitative perspective, primary and supporting keywords for targeted queries should find their way in your headings and subheadings, as bots use that information to determine the context of your article and therefore its relevance to certain search queries. And, since these are the elements humans are paying closest attention to, it will also help assure them they’ve found what they’re looking for.
From a technical perspective, bots are counting on your back-end styling to determine message hierarchy. Do your subheadings have an “H3” tag or did you just bold the text in your text editor? If you’ve gone through the trouble of organizing your content with visual styling and section titles and subtitles, make sure you get bot-credit for it by tagging your text properly on the back-end.
Similar to structure, visual elements also impact both audiences. As we explained above, your human audience values efficiency and visuals can help convey complex or even multiple ideas more effectively than a written description. Here are some of the most engaging media formats:
Infographics, statistics, and graphs
Styled call-outs (i.e. expert quotes with a headshot)
But don’t make the mistake of thinking visuals don’t require copy; a picture may be worth a thousand words but it certainly doesn’t replace them. A high-quality image or well-designed infographic is nothing without thoughtful alt text and descriptive metadata.
Optimizing Alt Text
Alt text, or alternative text, describes the appearance or function of a visual asset on a page. Alt text is important for human users because (1) it enables screen readers to read the information about on-page visuals for someone with visual impairments or is otherwise unable to view the visuals and (2) it displays a description in place of a visual if the file cannot load. These two things touch on web accessibility and user experience, both of which have a major impact on SEO.
Alt text is important for bots because it helps index and rank a visual asset and provides contextual information about the page’s content. It’s also important to note that even though search engine image recognition technology has come leaps and bounds over the years, search crawlers still can’t “see” the images like humans do–at least not yet. If bots don’t understand, or get it wrong, it’s possible you could either rank for unintended keywords or miss out on ranking altogether.
Here’s an example.
Google bots could very well assess the below image and be able to decipher that it depicts a man wearing a sweater, holding a menorah and candy cane.
But if you’re trying to rank for “Seth Cohen Chrismukkah outfit,” you’re going to have to drop Google a few hints.
Metadata is essentially background info on a file. For images and visual assets, two elements of metadata that are important to consider are image filename and image URL path.
Image filenames can have a similar SEO benefit as slugs for web pages. Single-word keywords can easily make a file name, such as “chrismukkah.jpg” for the example image above. However, if you are looking to optimize for a phrase with multiple words, the words need to be delimited by a whitespace character, like a dash (“-”), period (“.”), tilde(“~”), or an HTML escape code for a space (%20). Avoid underscores (“_”) as these are treated differently from spaces and will reduce exact-match evaluation when compared with search queries.
Image URL paths are also used by Google to evaluate and understand images. If you have a site with hefty amounts of image content, it pays to store them in categorized and subcategorized directories on your server so that the keyword relevancy of the filename really shines: example.com/iconic-series/the-oc/seth-cohen-chrismukkah-outfit.jpg
Given how ubiquitous the internet has become, it's easy to forget how new it really is. In a relatively short amount of time, the internet and its byproducts have infiltrated the creative processes that are closest to us as humans: language and art. Our content strategies are now informed–even dictated–by bots and we’re relying more and more on Ai tools to help reach more customers, viewers, followers, and fans.
Have robots really become a better authority on human interest than humans ourselves?
This brings us to Township’s third top consideration for digital content: human perspective. While the advantage of implementing SEO best practices–including optimizing content for search engine robots–is undeniable, there is still a place on the internet for humans to share their perspective.
At Township, we’re not interested in adding content to the digital landscape for the mere objective of ranking for a keyword. We want to share content that communicates a human perspective we think is worth sharing, regardless of rank and reach.
For us, human perspective requires…
A bold and compelling point of view. When you have a bold and compelling point of view, you’re inevitably going to be polarizing for some users. This isn’t always a bad thing. Holding firm to beliefs and values becomes your line in the sand that clearly states who your work is for and who it is not for. Sometimes it is worth trading quantity for quality.
A distinct voice. Keywords and tags aside, sometimes you need to exercise a little faith that your audience is out there. There are readers that will get your humor and they’ll appreciate the wordplay–don’t eliminate these from your craft just because it doesn’t have a direct impact on SERP position. We are a team that believes in a people-first mentality and that includes amplifying a person’s voice.
Responsible critical thinking. While bots are not discriminatory, that doesn’t mean they are impartial. Bots and other AI tools inherit the biases of their programmers, which is then compounded by the biases of the billions of users they assess. Sometimes, search results can be optimized to spread prejudice rather than accurate information. The pursuit of optimization should never come at the expense of human decency.