18 February 2020
I have some good news - it’s easy to improve your SEO for science communication. And you don’t need to know too much about the spiderbots that search engines use to determine your ranking. The bad news is, those spiderbots are real, and you will have to change how you write, just a little, to please them.
But first, what is SEO? SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation - a clunky phrase that obscures how important it is. I won't lie, there's a lot about SEO that is unknown, and some of what we know is sinister (I'm looking at you, racist algorithms). But in essence SEO is a way of cataloguing information so people - via search engines - can find it.
So why should science communicators care about SEO?
The internet is full of bad people saying bad things - and science is being co-opted for some awful agendas. There’s even evidence that science misinformation spreads quicker than good science. Bad people are thinking about SEO, so we need to do it too.
Mastering SEO is great for the CV of any communicator. Even better, it makes you look pretty cool if you can fling out sentences like: "well we can do that, Mark, but we’ll neg our SEO". Don’t you want to put Mark in his place?
Science communicators come from a variety of fields, from postdocs to university administrators and everything in between. But they often receive little specific training. And it seems like every day there is a new app to master.
Worse, the people in an organisation who know about SEO tend not to talk to the people who make content. Website developers like to stick to the ‘backend’ (yes, the bit of a website you don’t see is called the backend, and yes this is funny).
But there’s lots you can do as a writer to improve SEO for science communication. And most of it is easy, once you know how. You don’t need to understand algorithms and you certainly don’t need to pay an SEO content creator.
So now we know why we want to do some SEO - but how do we do some SEO?
Search engines look at your writing to see how readable it is. And they judge harshly for long words & sentences, passive voice, and disconnected sentences.
Unfortunately, you’re up against it when trying to improve your SEO for science communication. Because there will inevitably be lots of long science words and complicated scientific ideas you have to include. So the rest of your text must be as readable as possible. Think less Tolkien, and more Raymond Chandler.
In the olden times, people would try and rank (be high up in search results) for individual words. And they would stuff their content with those words. These days, it's all about phrases and no one is stuffing them anywhere. But they are absolutely still key for SEO.
What is the unique bit of information you’re explaining? And what would someone google to find it? Write that down in about 5 words. Congratulations - you’ve found your keyphrase. Luckily for you, scicomm is often about explaining the specific and new. Imagine if you worked in sales and had to do this for trousers. How often are there new discoveries about trousers?
But don’t stop there: research your keyphrase. Stick your idea into a search engine and see what comes up. Is the first page filled with massive organisations you can’t hope to compete with? If it is, try another phrase.
Lastly, use your keyphrase well. This is Goldilocks territory: too many, and search engines will punish you for keyword stuffing; too few, and they won't notice you. Use your keyphrase in your title, a subheading, the first paragraph and at least once more. Ideally you want your keyphrase in your url as well.
For example, when writing up an interview with an air pollution experts, I tried to score for ‘air pollution’ and got nowhere. After some research, I went with ‘green barrier reduce air pollution’. And I got the top spot on on Google.
There are also lots of apps and websites that help you research keywords. And there really is something for everyone. Want a hipster to stare at you as you work on your keyphrases?
Or maybe you like an old fashioned ugly website that ‘s**ts’ Google searches at you? It’s all out there. Personally, I find it useful just to play around in Google to see what my competition is.
Search engines like subheadings, it lets them know you care about people who skim before they read. And people on the internet do this a lot. It also shows you have structure, which suggests to the spiderbots that you have good information.
Connecting words are also good for structure. You’ve probably been told each paragraph should link to the ones around it, that each sentence should lead onto the next. Words like: perhaps, because, but, for example and however all demonstrate these links.
Passive voice is the bane of scicomm. People are taught to write as if science is just happens of its own accord and no one is doing anything to make it so. Search engines are not scientists, they are gossipy, and they want you to tell them who is doing what to whom.
You should learn all the different ways that passive voice can creep into your writing and exterminate it. This is a good resource to help you identify passive voice.
Finally, use links. They help your SEO - especially internal links (to other pages on your website). But space them out (think of people trying to click on a phone) and do not link to content that exactly matches your own. The spiderbots do not reward friendly behaviour.