SEO 101: The Blank Sheet Of Paper Test

SEO Rule Number One: Fully describe your content.

Heck, that’s not just SEO. That’s copywriting rule number one.

Everything that describes content should pass the blank sheet of paper test:

“Will this, written on a blank sheet of paper, make sense to a stranger?”

Breaking Down The Blank Sheet Of Paper Rule

“This” means any bite-sized chunk of information used to describe other content. Links, title tags, and image captions, for example.

“Written on a blank sheet of paper” means that this content might appear out of context. Title tags show up in feed readers and search results. Image ALT text appears when the image doesn’t.

“Make sense” means this content fully explains the information it describes. A title tag describes the page. A link describes the target. An image caption describes the image.

“A stranger” is the appropriate audience. If your page describes Dungeons & Dragons to a beginner, the title tag must make sense to that beginner, not a veteran player. If an image shows the cross-section of a human finger (no idea where I got that) in a medical article, the caption has to make sense to doctors.

I try to apply the blank sheet of paper test—aka the BSOPT hashtag #bsopt ©2020 Ian Lurie—to the following:

Title Tags (always)

(If you don’t know what a title tag is, read the Moz title tag explainer.)

Your title tag should, in 60 characters or less (Google’s current limit), fully describe a page. It should describe it well enough that a human being with the attention span of a caffeinated chihuahua fully understands what they’ll see if they keep reading, watch the video, listen to the podcast, or whatever.

Here’s an example: Your page sells socks for cyclists. You know people search for “cycling socks.” The data shows cyclists call them “cycling socks.”

You go for the SEO jackpot and write

Pearl Izumi Cycling Socks Mens Large Biking Road Mountain

Admit it. You know you’ve tried it. This flunks the BSOPT because it’s awful. It will confuse a stranger.

Or you get lazy, and use one title tag for an entire brand:

Pearl Izumi Cycling Footwear

Not good. That title does’t fully describe the content, which is about socks./p>

Or, you can try to pass the blank sheet of paper test and write

Pearl Izumi Cycling Socks For Road & Mountain Biking – Men’s & Women’s

Write that on a blank sheet of paper, and it will make sense to a stranger. Other good things happen:

It includes all your keywords, so it’s great for SEO.

It’s also future-proof. Google’s getting better at separating sentences from gibberish. At some point, they’re going to crack down on keyword-stuffed tags. Count on it.

And, it boosts clickthru. When someone reads your title in a search result, their frontal lobe will purr happily. They’re more likely to click.

Image ALT Attributes (always)

(If you don’t know what an ALT attribute is, read Moz’s Alt text post.)

Googlers consistently talk about the ALT attribute. Even in the absence of data, you can assume it’s a ranking factor.

Say you sell capybara food, and you have this image on your site:

Image: A capybara lounges amidst the flowers

You decide to apply 2004 SEO tactics and write this:

Capybara food for large rodents vegetables and watercress sandwiches for capy meals

Trust me: Google knows what you’re doing. Plus, next time an SEO checks the ALT attributes on your page, they’re going to scoff. I’m doing it now: Scoff! Scoff!

Make the smarter choice. Write an ALT attribute that passes the BSOPT and fully describes the image:

Image: A capybara lounges admist the flowers

Note: Adding “Image” isn’t an SEO thing. I want to make sure screen readers and assistive devices know this is an image, no matter what goes wrong. I don’t know if it’s still necessary these days, but it can’t hurt.

Links (Whenever Possible)

As often as possible, link text should explain what I’ll see. Fully-descriptive link text is a nice hint to Google and the reader.

Be flexible. “Click Here” and “Read More” may be OK for lists of content (like a blog home/category page). But a mid-sentence link should be a little more illuminating.

I don’t know what I’ll get if I click this:

Capy Kingdom has a great article about Capybara dietary requirements. Click here.

I prefer this:

Capy Kingdom has a great article about Capybara dietary requirements.

It passes the BSOPT: If I walk up to a stranger in Pike Place Market and yell “Article about Capybara dietary requirements,” they’ll know what I mean.

It’s better UX. It also tells Google a bit more about the target page.

Other BSOPT Stuff

I like these to pass the blank sheet of paper test, too:

  • Image captions. Because it’s tidy, and a caption that reads “Graph” is punishable by caning
  • Navigation. You don’t sell “products.” You sell “apparel” or “grommets” or “grommits” (if you’re an animation fan)
  • Article titles. History abounds with hilarious headline fails. Don’t become a statistic

I Obsess

You can take the BSOPT too far. Don’t drive yourself nuts trying to get every link and ALT attribute to perfectly describe target content. Do:

  • Make sure every title tag on your site passes the test
  • Whenever possible, use fully-describe ALT attributes
  • Everywhere else, do your best to create clear hints regarding target content

Insert pithy conclusion here.

Note: I did a whole training about The Blank Sheet Of Paper Test. Check it out over here. No, that link does not pass the test. I hang my head in shame.

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