For businesses today, SEO optimization is one of the most important aspects of their marketing strategy. But it’s also become a bit of a minefield as firms are inundated by SEO specialists promising to boost traffic through data tricks. However, while a keyword strategy that meets Google users right where they’re looking is a critical part of content development, the best way to rank high and capture leads is more straightforward: produce great content that shares your expert point of view. And you don’t have to just take it from me — Chris Hawkins, the senior SEO consultant who runs Authentic Labs out of Vancouver, B.C., says the same thing.

“The most important thing for your SEO is to focus on knowing what Google wants as a business,” says Hawkins. “They want to serve high-quality content to users who are searching.” This may seem obvious, but it’s an approach that’s overlooked by many business owners and the SEO consultants they hire. While manipulating Google can be enticing — industry insiders call this “black hat SEO” — history has shown that the high traffic that results from it is always nixed as Google improves its algorithms to get back to fulfilling its purpose of serving up that high-quality content.

According to Hawkins, a lot of what ends up being good SEO is exactly equivalent to what is good writing. A natural writer, for instance, never uses the same word or term too many times within a paragraph, or even within a whole article. Webmasters used to ignore this principle in order to raise rankings by keyword stuffing, but Google eradicated that advantage back in 2003 as part of its first major algorithm update — called the Google Florida Update — to combat black hat SEO. Only a couple years ago, Google made strides to reward those who use a wider vocabulary by employing RankBrain, an artificial intelligence system that interprets synonyms and which is learning as it goes.

Another hallmark of good writing that ultimately leads to great SEO is sticking to one topic and only writing as much as you know about it. Google has scripts that can assess this, says Hawkins, explaining that they refer back to your headers and meta-descriptions to see if you’re talking about what you said you were going to. So while he suggests your minimum length should always be 250 words — Google’s Panda update in 2011 penalized those who created tons of very short articles — how much more you write should be decided solely on how long it takes to make your point. “The deeper you go into an article, the more you show you’re an authority, and Google likes that,” says Hawkins. “But it only works if you can really go that long and be useful to your readers.”

Speaking of readers: writing to the right target audience is perhaps the most crucial thing for both SEO optimization and just plain old communication. It’s true that you may be able to rank highly for a commonly searched keyword if you try hard enough — Hawkins once had someone ask him to corner the market on “blue” — but that strategy ultimately backfires when you consider conversion. “Ten million people may come to your site, but what happens if you’re selling blue oyster paint? Most will leave,” explains Hawkins. The first thing he does with new clients is ask them to think deeply about their audience: what they want, who they are trying to impress, what keeps them awake at night, what pains them and what brings them relief. Content that strikes a chord deeply with your audience, says Hawkins, is more likely to be shared and linked to, both of which are key factors in search engine rankings.

A third of Google searchers click on the first result, and by the time you get to the second page of results, that rate goes down to one per cent or less. So, yes, it’s important to do your research into the best keywords for your business to use. But ultimately, if you’re playing the long game and want to connect with people who are the most likely to hire you, you need the kind of content that’s succeeded with readers forever. But don’t take it from me. “The most important thing for content writers is to keep educating themselves on high-quality writing, and orienting it to your readers,” says Hawkins. “Thinking about the search engine is the icing on the cake.”