How to structure an article for humans and machines

Shannon Ford


Ever put your heart and soul into a piece of content, only to hear it was viewed just a handful of times? And that handful of readers only stuck around for a few seconds? Gutting.

 But it doesn’t have to be that way; the key is to structure content carefully, creating something that’s both fit for humans (the all-important reader) and optimised for machines (search engines). The result? Content that ranks well and will be read.


Why structure content for readers?

People don’t have time to plough through a heap of hard-to-read text when looking for information – especially when they can easily find it somewhere else. That’s why good user experience is crucial to keeping your audience engaged.

Naturally, if you’re more of an SEO guru than a wordsmith, it can be easy to overlook one of the key elements of great content: readability. Make sure you get to the point quickly, keep your tone reflective of your audience and their level of understanding, and craft copy so it’s easy to digest.


Why structure content for search engines?

Sophisticated as they are, search engines will struggle to know what an article’s about unless you tell them. Competition for the top search engine results pages (SERPs) is fierce, so content needs to be structured and optimised for the platforms if that investment is to pay off in visibility and traffic.

For content that gets results, follow these five structural steps to success…

1. Keep copy digestible

This part’s pretty simple – it needs to be easy for people to read your article, so they don’t get distracted or confused and bounce off the page.

How? Use the active voice and avoid long sentences. If you’ve used multiple clauses in a sentence, it may be best to break it up – you’ll notice it reads better that way. Keep your paragraphs short, avoid unnecessary waffle and never underestimate the impact of bullet points.

This will all, in turn, help SEO performance; like humans, search engines have a short attention span and will find it much easier to crawl digestible content. And, if your reader’s engaged, they’re more likely to interact with and share it across social.

2. Use subheads

Use headings as signposts to your content. Many people will skim down the page until they land on what they’re looking for, and these headings break your piece down into nice digestible chunks. They’ll also help the author stay focused on the topic and highlight key messages, so plan these before you start writing. 

And if headings help the reader understand your content, they’ll help Google get it too. 

For SEO success, and to increase your chance of getting in the answer box, use heading hierarchy (H1, H2 and H3). Don’t upload content yourself? Make it clear for the CMS manager by labelling each heading accordingly. Don’t just go <strong> and resize. Here’s the structure of this piece as an example… 

H1: How to structure an article for humans and machines

          H2: Why structure content for readers?

          H2: Why structure content for search engines?

                     H3: 1. Keep copy digestible

                     H3: 2. Use subheads

                     H3: 3. Keep paragraphs logical

                     H3: 4. Think about format

                     H3: 5. Aim for the answer box

3. Keep paragraphs logical

Mapped out your headings? Time to make them mean something. Each paragraph needs to be relevant to its subhead – this might involve elaborating on a point, like I’m doing here, or answering a direct question (a real bonus for appearing as a featured snippet too – more on this below).

Paragraphs also need to follow a straight-forward, chronological structure with the most relevant information first, and be optimised for relevant terms without keyword stuffing. It’ll be obvious to the reader if you’ve added keywords unnaturally, so make sure there’s no repetition and your sentences flow when you read them out loud.

And a solid introduction is key. Make it immediately clear what the article’s about and what the reader can expect when they scroll down the page.

4. Think about format

There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to formatting.

Look at the type of content that performs well for your chosen topic to help you understand the formats that readers engage with and search engines favour. Do content competitors use lists? Or numbered steps?

A piece that answers a ‘how to’ query will often use a clear step-by-step format, for example. This can do well on SERPs and can increase the chance of your content appearing in a featured snippet.

But don’t just rely on a competitor audit – use your common sense too. Think about how to keep readers engaged for the length of a long-form article. Support content with relevant imagery, GIFs or infographics that visualise complex ideas to grab (and hold) readers’ attention.

5. Aim for the answer box

The answer box, or featured snippet, is the bit at the top of SERPs that Google deems the best answer to a search query. To get there, content needs to be relevant and well-optimised. Want a few tips?

  • Follow the heading hierarchy

  • Use lists and bullet points to break down text

  • Offer direct answers to queries based on keyword research

  • Use relevant imagery

  • Add alt text

Find out more on how to compete for this sought-after snippet spot in our SERP features guide.

Put these tips into play and you’ll get in the good books of search engines as well as your readers. And most importantly, you’ll start seeing results from your content.

Need help with your writing or content strategy? Contact results@icrossing.co.uk.



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