SEO, trust and the visitor mindset

Search engine optimisation increasingly reflects editorial best practice, says Jason Sumner

SEO, a discipline often thought of in terms of sales and marketing, is getting more attention from corporate communications teams. Companies want their message – articles, stories, thought leadership – to have the widest possible audience, and one key part of the corporate content strategy is to rank highly in search engine results.

In our annual survey of corporate digital communicators earlier this year, SEO was one of their top priorities, after receiving relatively little attention in the same survey in 2019. The new spotlight coincides with an ongoing push from big companies to ‘explain themselves’ in the face of public scepticism – who they are, what they do, and what their values are.

Last week we ran a virtual Bowen Craggs Club meeting on SEO, in which guest expert Sara Clifton of Search Integration explained how Google’s search algorithms are changing and what the changes mean for optimising corporate content. There are a number of technical elements to consider including download speed, but it is striking how many SEO developments are qualitative, and coincide with good editorial practices (which are rooted in effective journalistic techniques). It’s not just about keywords anymore.

Trust signals in editorial

In an era of fake news and cynicism, ‘trust’ is becoming more important for all digital material, including corporate websites. Search engine designers want ‘authenticity’ to rank highly, and they measure authentic content through a number of signals – uniqueness, relevance, links from trusted sites, and connections to real people with social media profiles.

Over time, the artificial intelligence of search engines is catching up with ‘trust signals’ that human beings have always looked for – consciously or subconsciously – in material they read, watch or listen to.

On corporate websites, this means stories that are based on someone’s real experience; articles that relate believable, verifiable facts placed in appropriate context. One specific area where this is becoming more important is the reporting of sustainability data – as investors take more of an interest and want a standard set of reporting figures that can be compared across companies and sectors.

Acknowledging views in the world outside the corporation is an important part of trust. The parallel with SEO is in the importance of external links in your website content. We are seeing more companies use third-party verification from trusted sources to endorse corporate claims. See, for example, Vodafone using a quote from the World Health Organization to support its message about the safety of mobile phone masts.

Another journalistic technique that works well for SEO and visitor trust: bylines by a real author, which is connected to their social media profile. Social media profile links for executives, and media and investor contacts, are also useful for visitors, show transparency and help with search engine rankings.

Answering questions and the visitor mindset

Google and other search engines are also prioritising content that answers actual questions; in other words, adopting a visitor mindset when creating editorial material.

One of the most common barriers to adopting the visitor’s mindset in corporate digital communications is using internal language – jargon, technical language, acronyms and slogans – which alienates external audiences.

Corporate slogans about ‘purpose’ are a current example. Visitors are unlikely to know your corporate slogan, and unlikely even to care very much that you have a ‘purpose’. They are however, interested in the specific actions the company may or may not be taking which illustrate how the purpose turns into results – for example, customer benefits, employee wellbeing, more returns for investors and real commitment to environmental conservation.

Conclusion – poor usability harms SEO

Just as Google’s algorithms are moving towards a more human-centred view of what makes an article or source trustworthy; a logical structure governing corporate digital channels is crucial too.

Changes to algorithms in recent years mean that search engines seek out structured and consistent navigation, accurate menu headings, breadcrumb trails and digital channels that complement each other (in other words, lots of microsites harm SEO). Flawed construction is bad for many different reasons – visitors get lost or can’t find relevant material; resources are duplicated; and corporate messages get muddled (for example, three different ‘about us’ sections on the main site, investor site and careers site).

It turns out, poor construction is also bad for search rankings. This is a powerful message that might just cut through with your colleagues the next time you are trying to kill off the latest idea for a microsite.

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First published 15 July, 2020
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