It takes a delicate hand to write good SEO-friendly content these days. The smart digital writer must be aware of the sometimes-contradictory demands of the two masters their writing must serve: the readers, and the search engines. Veer too strongly towards favoring one and you might just earn rejection from both. It’s enough to make many people choose to give up and settle for Instagram updates.
But writing content that ticks the SEO boxes doesn’t have to be that bad. To that end, I’m going to take you through 6 things you should keep in mind while you write. Let’s get to it.
1: You need to sound natural
If you’ve spent much time reading content on the web, then you’ll have seen a wide range of quality levels. How much of what you’ve read sounded natural? Like you were actually reading regular words from a real person instead of a strange, stilted, predictable robot? A lot of content fails to meet this standard, which is really odd because it isn’t a high bar to reach — and deliberately missing it is more a tactic of black-hat SEO practitioners.
I think it’s a matter of fear. Fear of failing to be understood by search engines, and fear of coming across as unprofessional by showing some kind of personality. Not knowing what to do, people resort to a paint-by-numbers method that always produces the same kind of thing. These days, though, Google is pretty good at parsing semantic connections.
Remember, then: always sound natural, and the easiest way to achieve that is by being natural. Write in your own voice and no one else’s. Use keywords you think will make things clearer for the reader, sprinkle in some links to help people understand what you’re talking about, and it’ll work out fine — it certainly won’t hurt your rankings.
2: Subheadings are your friends
When you’re writing for fun, you get to indulge your creative preferences. If that means paragraphs that drag on for ten lines, then so be it. But when you’re trying to rank, you need to keep everything digestible. The idea is that the cohesive whole of a piece of content can be split into chunks but still make sense and prove useful.
Take the format of this post, for instance. If you were pressed for time (or just awkward), you could read the title and the intro and then skip directly to this section, completely ignoring the first section, and things would still make sense. Because the parameters of the numbered list were established in the title, you don’t need to follow a thread to get here.
And the key to this in most cases? Yes, you guessed it: subheadings. By clearly delineating the distinct parts of a post, they not only make content a lot more scannable but also make it so much easier for search engines to figure out. And as an extra bonus, they’ll keep you focused while writing, helping you avoid getting off-topic and steer towards a conclusion.
3: The Q&A format is always strong
People head to Google because they have actions they want to take or questions they want answered, and you’ll never go wrong by targeting the latter. Whenever you get stuck and can’t figure out where to go next in your copy, try to anticipate the questions of your intended audience. What might they be wondering at that point of the piece? For example, if you’ve introduced any terms they might not understand, they’d likely appreciate you explaining them.
Tying into what we just covered about subheadings, anticipated questions are perfect subheading fare when you suffer writer’s block. Cover the basic questions. What are you writing about? Why does it matter? What can people do? There’s always going to be something useful you can say, and it’s going to be great content for attracting traffic. Ensure that you frame that content correctly using Schema.org markup, and it’ll boost your SERP performance.
This format is particularly great for ecommerce sellers trying to rank highly for generic products. If you can fill up a product page with answered questions, which should be doable with the right extension to your CMS.
4: Copywriting isn’t always top priority
Almost every part of the online world requires copywriting of some kind, but it isn’t always top priority — well, it’s almost always required, but in many cases it doesn’t have a high ceiling. There are statistically-inevitable averages, of course, but there’s no universal sweet spot for copy length. If you take a look around the internet, you’ll see guides that stretch into tens of thousands of words, as well as ecommerce stores that maybe stretch into a few hundred words.
What big brands understand is that it isn’t necessarily all that important how good their website copy is, whether for humans or for crawlers, as long as it’s functionally sufficient — this certainly goes for homepages that can be strongly minimalistic. Often, their rhetorical power stems from their visuals and their UX. The better the overall experience, the better the on-page factors tracked by search engines (time on site, etc.), and the better the rankings.
I certainly don’t mean to undermine the rest of this piece by suggesting that you shouldn’t care about the quality of your copywriting, because you should. More than anything else, I’m saying that it’s vital to properly apportion your time and effort, because you don’t want to throw away time that would be better spent on perfecting product page copy or writing a niche blog post.
5: You mustn’t overlook metadata
Many writers don’t pay much attention to metadata, assuming that it’s of trivial importance. Others assume that their website systems can do it all for them — they just need to write their posts, put them live, and see all the minor details click into place automatically. This isn’t true: and while you’re unlikely to win rankings with a good page title, you could easily lose them.
What do I mean by this? Well, any given page or website (whether it’s a store, a blog post, a resource, or something else entirely) has a central topic and some kind of purpose that needs to be clear to anyone glancing at the title. Since they’ll have searched for something in order to be served that link as a result (searcher intent is a massive concern for anyone trying to master SEO), the title itself is unlikely to exceed their expectations, but it can completely evade them — which would cause a lot of confusion.
If you mess up your title, Google is less likely to serve it as a result for suitable searches — even if it’s convinced that the page content is relevant — because the title is your opportunity to step in and insist “This is what the page is for”. If you mess it up, you can only blame yourself.
6: It’s the reader’s vocabulary that matters
I’m as guilty as anyone of getting a little indulgent with my phrasing on occasion. Writers like writing, unsurprisingly! But you have to look past your own preferences and think about the reader, not only from a readability standpoint but also from a searchability one. For any given topic, there’s likely to be numerous ways in which you can reference it, using the simplest terminology or the most complicated. You need to match your audience’s level (following your extensive keyword research, you must find a way to write in your style while making concessions to the reader’s requirements — it’s tricky, but entirely possible).
As I touched upon when talking about the Q&A format, you can make the mistake of aiming too low, but you can also aim far too high. This tends to happen with people from hard science or engineering backgrounds. Because they’re used to being very dry and accurate with their language, their instinct is to run with that when they start writing digital copy, and this results in dry, dreary, almost-incomprehensible work.
Forget your ego, think carefully about what kind of language your readers would use (and what they would be searching for) and tweak your approach accordingly. If you’re writing for a young audience, throw in some emojis. If you’re writing for a regional audience, ease things along with some local references. What you think of the piece once you’ve finished writing it is essentially immaterial — you can be very fond of a total failure, or loathe your biggest success.
Phew, well, there we go! 6 things you should keep in mind while you work on your digital copy in order to keep your rankings moving in the right direction. Copywriting is an art, but it’s also a science, and there are general rules that hold true. Give these ideas a try and see how your work advances.