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A Guide to Better Content Engagement (and Search Rankings)

By Kathryn Hawkins. SEO
Boys engaged in reading outside
Victoria Borodinova via Pexels

User engagement is now a key factor in determining a site’s position in the SERPs. Focus on these best practices for creating more engaging SEO-friendly content.

As you may have gathered, Google’s pretty smart.

Back in the old days, you could rank on page 1 of Google’s search results just by pumping out as many content pages as humanly possible and stuffing them with keywords, even if the wording made no sense at all. But once Google’s search robots realized that the so-called “content farms” produced little more than manure, those sites’ rankings tanked.

That led to an effort to focus more heavily on content quality—but even so, plenty of marketers still focus their attention on backlinks. It’s essentially a math equation: If you get backlinks from a few sites with high domain authority (DA), you’ll gain some additional DA yourself. That will make your site more likely to rank highly in Google for relevant search terms, giving you all the juicy SERP love.

Engagement > Backlinks

Except that’s not exactly how it works anymore.

Strong backlinks can help, for sure—but these days, Google is watching not only who links to you, but how your visitors interact with your site.

Through their opt-in Analytics dashboard, Google can collect data from millions of websites regarding how users interact with their content, and can establish benchmarks to measure high or low engagement levels.

While Google will “test” sites with good backlinks first, the pages that remain in the SERPs are the ones that drive the highest engagement with users—even if they don’t have nearly as much link juice as the big players in the industry. As Julian Shapiro at TechCrunch found, this enables sites with much lower traffic to climb the Google rankings with winning content. Here’s his screenshot by way of illustration, showcasing how a top-ten list on health benefits of wine beat out big players like WebMD:

With that said, how do you ensure that your content can maximize user engagement and keep its top spot on the SERPs?

What is content engagement?

First, what does content engagement truly mean, and how can it be measured?

In short, is your site offering the visitor enough value to stick around? Engagement is measured by a number of metrics, including these ones:

  • Time spent on site
    Does a visitor leave after just a second or two, or spend several minutes scrolling a single page? Your Analytics will aggregate average time spent on site among all users.

  • Pages visited per session
    Do visitors tend to visit a single page, or click through to multiple pages on the site?

  • Page scroll depth
    When your visitors land on an article, do they lose interest after the first paragraph or scroll all the way through to the conclusion?

  • New v. returning visitors
    How many people enjoy your content so much that they actually come back again for more?

  • Conversion rate
    What percent of your visitors complete a desired action, such as downloading an ebook, purchasing a product, or signing up for a mailing list?

If you want to get into the weeds on this topic, I recommend this article from Search Engine Journal, which offers even more metrics to follow and gives you the scoop on how to track them.

How can you build engaging content?

So now we know what defines engaging content—next, how do you make sure that your content delivers?

There’s a lot of design thinking that goes into building an overall engaging website or mobile experience, but here, we’ll focus exclusively on content marketing, looking at assets such as blog content, infographics, and video content. Here are some industry best practices to consider:

  • Get interactive
    Developing an interactive quiz or “choose your own adventure” type of content piece will keep your audience clicking and eager to explore what’s next. Interactive content is immensely difficult to step away from: A remarkable 97% of people who start Buzzfeed sponsor quizzes complete them. For B2B brands, such quizzes can have an industry bent: Consider, for example, Outgrow’s “How does your SEO knowledge stack up?” quiz.

  • Add some visuals
    Content with visual elements, such as in-line graphics, animations, and even the occasional Office meme, tend to be more engaging than long blocks of text. In fact, content with visuals gets 94% more views than content without.

  • Break it up
    Bullets and lists make your content more digestible and easier to read. For particularly long pieces, it can be useful to add a linked table of contents at the start, so that readers can instantly click to scroll down to a particular section that jumps out at them.

  • Go deep
    Short, superficial blog posts don’t tell the reader anything they don’t know, and they’re likely to bounce away without a second thought. When you’re writing an article, focus on digging deep into the subject. Look for opportunities to add legitimate outside research, quotes from subject matter experts, and plenty of examples. And it’s OK to add external links—yes, your reader may go explore the outside content, but if what you’re saying is compelling enough for them to follow your links, they’re likely to come back and finish reading your post.
    Embrace the “cornerstone” content model: When discussing a subject, aim to create a truly useful resource that can serve as a foundation piece. The current top Google result for the term “cornerstone content” comes from the SEO Wordpress plugin, Yoast, and provides a good case in point: The article is over 1,500 words long, includes multiple subheadings, and includes plenty of screenshots to illustrate its points. With more than 100 reader comments, it’s clearly successful in driving engagement.

  • Invest in high-quality content
    Anyone can write a blog post. But not anyone can write a blog post that people will genuinely enjoy reading. When you’re focusing on not just getting readers to your site, but keeping them there, you need to make sure that you’re bringing the big guns out. Consider using a journalism-driven content team that can develop a clear narrative backed by external research or SME interviews, and build out an editorial process that includes editing and proofreading so you know you’re putting your best work out there.

And hey, when all else fails, there are always memes…

via GIPHY

Conclusion

More than anything, your focus should be on crafting an exceptional user experience in everything you do. That means thinking beyond the content itself to everything that surrounds it, including site design and loading time. By building a user experience with fast-loading content that’s easy to read and navigate through, you’ll be able to encourage visitors to dive in deep and explore your offerings. Optimize for a great user experience, and high rankings will follow.

Kathryn Hawkins

Kathryn Hawkins

Kathryn Hawkins is principal and chief content strategist of Eucalypt Media. She has worked as a freelance journalist for media publications and managed inbound marketing and content strategy for corporate and nonprofit clients for more than a decade.

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