Optimizing your very large site for search — Part 4

Everyone knows great content is fundamental to the success of your site. It is the reason people are looking for your site and it is why they will stay. In the previous three posts from this series, we have discussed how large sites need to expose fewer URLs, how you can help search engines crawl more efficiently, and how not to unintentionally hide your content from crawlers. The common thread here is that we, the search engines, want to have better access to the content that matters on your site.

The reason for this? Content goes a long way in establishing the value of your website for each visitor and for us as a search engine. There is one important truth: search engines like content. For a large site, generating content is not an issue. The issue is ensuring that the most relevant content gets into the index. The solution is creating a content strategy.

Content strategy defined

A content strategy covers the type of content that will best enable you to communicate to your audience and achieve the goals of your site. A content strategy should account for four basic activities:

  1. Identification of content relevant to your site goals
  2. Organization of that content on your site for user accessibility and discoverability
  3. Management of the content as your site grows, including reorganizing and retiring content when necessary
  4. Planning for future site growth with continued additions of new content

A content strategy should help you produce remarkable, attention-grabbing content. Content strategy is a big area, but there are some steps that every large site should be doing to ensure success in the SERP and success with your audience.

Three steps to developing a search friendly content strategy

 

1. Plan for your audience

It is important to remember that you don't create sites for search engines—you create sites for people. For many large sites, it can be unclear what the goal or goals are. Knowing the goal you would like to achieve is central to developing a content strategy that works for people, and consequently, for search. Are you trying to sell a product? Educate your customers? Attract readers to breaking news stories?

Begin by assessing your audience and how they will interact with your site:

  • Who uses your content?
  • How do they use your content?
  • When do they use your content?

Formulating what content meets these goals and others can be a great way to reduce unnecessary content and highlight the best content for your audience. This will help ensure that you are exposing the best content to the search engine.

2. Bring together similar content about the same topic in one area

Too many large sites have an old collection of "dangling" content that either lives alone or is lumped together with other "miscellaneous" assets on one page while most of the content related to it is accessible on another page. It's the classic kitchen junk drawer syndrome. You have nowhere else to put it, so you toss it there. But before you know it, you develop a collection of related content, and you finally create a new page on your site, but you forget to move the junk drawer items to this new place. This all too common situation is typically due to rapid, unmanaged growth of the site's content collection. Users should be able to find all relevant content easily.

Collect related content in one area or at least make it accessible through one access point on your site. Then regularly reassess your content organization as your content collection grows to prevent the number of these blind alleys and orphaned pieces from getting out of hand. From the user's perspective, good content is often lost this way. Organization of the content within the pages of your site should make sense to the way users actually think about the content.

The best way to do this is to create a content inventory that helps you understand the potential scope of the content you need to manage and determine how to best organize it. With a lot of available content, the reality is that users may have to visit different subsections of your site to view all of the relevant content they wish to see. In that case, the content organization itself should make it easy for users to understand how different areas are related and categorized.

This practice is common among Information Architects. More companies looking to optimize large sites are making it central to their practice. For more on these practices, read Adam Audette's article SEO guide to information architecture.

3. Trim around the edges

One thing that surprises me with big sites is how often many URLs lead to outdated content, or worse, a 404 page where content used to exist. Any content strategy should ensure that that all content mentioned or linked to exists. Leading your users and the search crawler to a 404 Page Not Found or an "Under Construction" sign is not a plan for success.

Along with content not found, there really isn't anything more frustrating than browsing to a site and finding that the page is out of date, a desired product is no longer available, a knowledge base is for an expired version or the news is not current. Lots of content should have an expiration date, and a solid content strategy will review the relevance of pages on a regular basis. That is a good way to ensure that you website provides users with information that is always valid.

Such simple mistakes with content can hurt your credibility with your users and maintains URLs for the crawler to consume that add no value.

To counter this you must create a plan for managing URLs. This plan should include how you will manage reorganizing content and how you will handle the removal of content. A URL plan should include how you plan to:

  • Handle deprecated content
  • Redirect to new versions
  • Deal with error pages

Having a URL plan will help you managing the referrers that link to your content and ensure that your audience can link with confidence to your pages during the months and years ahead. Be sure your plan leverages 301 redirects to reorganized pages to ensure that the URL validity (and thus its search engine value) sticks.

Wrapping it all up

A solid content management strategy is the kind of key deliverable that can keep bringing users to your site and ensure that it is meeting all of your site goals. Consciously and strategically thinking about how your content is put together is a good way to ensure your website is positioned for success. For more information on content strategy, you should read:

Jeremiah Andrick, Product Manager, Live Search Webmaster Center

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