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Why copywriters hate SEO (and why they really shouldn’t).

A basic guide for anyone new to the idea of Search Engine Optimisation.

I wasn’t sure about SEO when it became a ‘thing’ in my last job. The team’s aim had always been to produce content for an audience who were existing stakeholders, already engaged. Now we were required to push beyond the narrow thinking of our inward bubble.

We realised we had to evolve, and consider a potential audience unfamiliar with our services. Those who might find our articles online by stumbling across them on Google. Our content was pitched to an already invested and niche crowd who already knew what we offered, so the casual passing reader might not realise what exactly we could do for them. We needed to address that.

And there was specific language we could be using to increase that engagement. It was a change in editorial approach, and it made absolute sense in principle. But SEO? It was all a bit technical for me.

There’s nothing disingenuous about adapting the language in your articles to what your potential readers are already using. … they are looking for your content, make it easy for them.

I knew others who were doubtful too. It seemed a vague concept, like most ‘techy’ things – beyond my understanding. Mostly, SEO gave me the impression of being a bit contrived and at odds with good writing. Planning our content strategy to capture new audiences? I got that. But change the language just to get more hits? To be honest, it seemed really salesy.

That sounds silly when you write content for a corporate entity. But copywriters, wherever they work, take pride in their craft and feel protective of it. Nobody can deny that they want more readers, but at the time I remember thinking that it would ruin a good piece of writing. Or worse, that it might be disingenuous (here’s where anyone who knows better starts to fall about laughing).

It was difficult to find practical advice for non-tech people. “It’s about using ‘keywords’.” I knew that, but really, is that all? It sounded far too simple.

It’s definitely more complicated than that. But none of it is hard. To paraphrase a good friend: “SEO is one of the most overblown techniques in the industry, anyone can do it, just most of the advice makes it sound more clever than it is.” (Phew).

This is not meant to demean SEO experts: you can go really deep into it if you wish. But most copywriters just need a few pointers to get them started.

The point is there’s really no need to dislike SEO. There’s nothing insincere about adapting the language in your articles to what your potential readers are already using. They are looking for your content, so make it easy for them.

It might seem like a hurdle at first, but start small, and build up. Don’t think of it as ‘techy’ or ‘salesy’. Think about it in terms of format. You are now writing within a particular framework and like all good writers, you are learning to adapt. Your writing shouldn’t change, there are just a few extra things to bear in mind.

So here are my top tips.

1. Write for people not machines

This is a writing principle, not an SEO one. Write first, optimise later.

Persuasive copy that is enjoyable to read is the ultimate aim, just as it always has been. You must write compelling content that solves a particular problem – why would someone would want to read the article otherwise? Think of those discovering your content through a search engine: the headline and first paragraph may have the right words, but if it’s not written in a compelling way, then that doesn’t help you. Good, tight headlines (under 55 characters), subheadings and introductions are a must.

The most important information always goes at the top in any article, cascading down by order of importance. This principle works exactly the same for your keywords. More on that later.

It doesn’t matter what the subject is, you must write in a way that engages and entertains – would you enjoy reading your piece? If not, rework it.

2. Implementing your keywords

As above, the most important keywords should be in your heading and subheading, with the rest flowing down by order of priority.

Think about the format. Writing website content is different to writing a blog, though some principles overlap.

The main difference is that on a website you can’t just use a short list of keywords and apply them across every page on the site. This will affect your rankings negatively (I know, right?). Google is clever, and will detect it as spam, ranking you lower than it might have. Instead, define keywords that are relevant to each page. Differentiate between the high level terms on your industry and what you do as a company (home page content), to your actual services and products, which belong on their own pages respectively. SEO is also about how your keywords appear in context with others related to it. Once in the right place is enough.

Where blogs and websites are the same: get your main key words into the copy high up in the headings and in the first paragraph. This not only helps search engines when trawling your site to see what you do, but when the results come up, it will help users quickly determine if your content is what they are looking for.

3. Identifying your keywords

Not sure what your keywords should be? Start with identifying your services first – what do you offer? Test the terms in search engines. Do the words you use rank highly for companies with a similar offering?

Look at the language of your competitors. How highly are the terms they use for their services getting them ranked? There are keyword research tools, and some of them are free. Soovle.com will give you related keyword and term suggestions from different sources based around your chosen term, which can help you identify other popular searches close to your own, so you can capture some you might not have thought of.

The last exercise will not only expand your potential keywords, but could also help you identify other problems that potential customers are looking to solve, meaning you can segment and position your offering to those too.

4. Do you need to put your keywords in meta tags?

This is the bit of SEO optimisation that’s possibly the more intimidating. Meta tags sound more complicated and techy than they are. They don’t appear on the page itself for users to see, just in the page’s html code. The point of them originally was so search engines could quickly ‘read’ the content of the page and rank them accordingly, but they’ve become somewhat redundant.

Do you ever see irrelevant hashtags on Twitter and Instagram by people who are just trying to get likes? You know, when someone writes #humpday or some other nonsense on a post that is nothing to do with Wednesday? Well, too many people were stuffing irrelevant keywords into meta tags on their websites just to rank higher in search results, which was scuppering the relevance. So Google and other search engines started to create more intelligent crawlers for a better user experience. Now crawlers actually scan copy instead.

Bottom line: you don’t need to worry about specifically putting keywords in meta tags any longer. So why have I bothered telling you this? Because if I don’t, somebody is going to ask if you if you do this as a matter of course, and like any non-tech creative person would, you are going to doubt yourself.

For anyone who doesn’t believe me, it was announced nine years ago that keyword meta tags are no longer recognised by Google. Now there is evidence that you might even be penalised by Bing for actually using them.

5. You should use meta description tags though

This is the bit that appears in a search engine results introducing your website or article and it may appear in social media too. If you’re using WordPress, you’ll have a meta tag description.

If not, the HTML code is:

<head>
<meta name=”description” content=”Here’s a concise description of your masterpiece in no less than 156 characters.”>
</head>

Do these descriptions help you rank better? Apparently not, but a good informative meta description will increase your chances of a click from an interested reader, so bear it in mind (writing for humans).

6. Formatting is actually important (who knew?)

This might sound superfluous, but it’s not.

SEO aside, it jars the reader when styles aren’t implemented properly. Be easy on the eyes. Use headings neatly and consistently. Don’t be jazzy and mix them up unnecessarily, and don’t use bold and italics excessively. Styles and formatting are as much about making an article easy to read as making it look interesting. Keep your style guide to hand when writing, and if you don’t have one, write one. If you aren’t sure where to start, for inspiration see what the broadsheets are doing.

From an SEO perspective, when Google scans your copy and shows it in the results, an article that is well formatted with consistent headings will be presented as a list (you’ve seen it, I know you have), and will help the user quickly scan the piece for relevance. Using ‘bold’ across the piece will not have that affect. This is particularly important for listicle style pieces.

7. Link building

That sounds horrible doesn’t it? It’s just the practice of making sure you use your keywords to link to relevant articles and content within your site. Google will recognise you as an authority on that particular subject.

The saying, “it isn’t all about you”, rings true here. Link building as a practice stands for external content too. It makes you appear more authoritative to reference material and sources other than yourself, and the bots will deem you to be more trustworthy.

8. Keep going

Technology changes constantly and sometimes it changes things overnight. SEO is no exception.

Marketing professionals are trained in SEO – it is afterall a marketing discipline – a technique designed to work with how the web works. Many copywriters and web editors come from creative backgrounds and move into marketing. They don’t always have the same basis in knowledge, and there’s no need to feel silly for that. An ability to write is the primary skill needed, and SEO can be learned.

So now you’ve got the basics, implement them into your writing, and don’t stop there. The more you know, the better. Once you understand SEO, your whole content strategy will be revitalised.

For the copywriters who hate marketing – that just translates to more readers. Everybody wins.

Picture © Victoria Heath

Jade Zienkiewicz, Content Director at PhlashwebWritten by Jade Zienkiewicz

Jade is a copywriter and communications professional with a background in the creative industries, focussing on newsletter publication, social media and web development.

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