Learning to live with the Google SEO content writing handcuffs.
Attracting eyeballs is the reason SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is so important. To achieve high Google rankings, you must write stellar content that is optimized for Google.
Here I complied with one of the tenets of optimizing website content: have the first part of your content tell the reader exactly what you are going to tell the reader. Now that the obligatory boring but informative summary has been dispensed with, I can begin my story.
I have been writing about computer technology since June 4th, 1984, more than a year before Microsoft Windows launched. This was also before the Internet was fully formed, meaning blogs and SEO were only a twinkle in writers’ and technologists’ eyes.
Back then we had actual magazines that you mailed to subscribers, and in 1985 I was at the ComputerWorld newspaper covering Microsoft and other microcomputer vendors—that's what we called PC's back in those days.
Marketers wanted to get the attention of the press which they did through public relations and the attention of customers through advertising such as newspapers, magazines, radio, television, the yellow pages and flyers. And of course, there was the endlessly annoying and tree-killing direct mail.
The Internet changed publishing and content writing as much as it did marketing. Google, without creating a single stitch of content, came to dominate advertising and pushed print publications such as the ones I worked for, ComputerWorld, InfoWorld, NetworkWorld, Network Computing, and Redmond magazine right out of the print business.
The new reality (well, it's not all that new) is reaching customers through the internet—which means attracting them to your website.
The field of content marketing was invented as a way to attract customers with credible information that they trust. Therefore, you get credibility and can have a deeper conversation with them about why your products or services might make sense. But for this content (whether it's blogs, white papers, landing pages, product pages or solution pages) to reach customers it must rank on Google. As cool as Bing is, Google is what matters.
Google is a rather strange and interesting company. Its algorithms are responsible for determining whether your website’s content is successful, but they're not exactly transparent about these algorithms or up front about changes they make to them. It is all a bit of a black box, though there are some guidelines settled on over years of trial and error (and of course lots of tracking). As websites and content marketing evolved, its ties to sophisticated SEO have likewise evolved. Today's bloggers must be very much aware of SEO when writing or modifying their content.
It can get writers’ goat when Google algorithms define the content. To please the search giant, we must repeat the keyword of the key phrase again and again to rank—and repeating the entire key phrase rather than using an acronym is best for SEO. That is not exactly best for the reader who must slog through full phrases rather than a few letters to get the point.
We are also told that we must write long—well over 1,000 words perhaps even over 2,000 words if we want to get on to the front page of the Google rankings.
As a writer, I know that this is ideal for what we used to call feature stories, and the perfect length for white papers and eBooks. But writers know that blogs should be far shorter, only as long as it takes to make the point. Readers simply don't have the time to slog through a long blog.
And because marketers usually put the call to action (CTA) at the end of the blog, long blogs make it so that very few readers ever actually make it to that precious CTA. Therefore, nobody clicks on the resource that turns the reader into a lead. So, you may well rank better on Google but get far fewer what we call conversions. So, which is better, ranking high or creating leads by drawing readers to richer, often gated content?
Let's say we want to own the term digital experience platform (DXP). Google tells us to repeat that phrase over and over again. It should be in the headline and then as often as possible afterwards.
The introduction is the most important part of a piece for the writer—and Google. Unfortunately, the two have very different views. You see, Google will often take the first two sentences and display them in the search engine results.
So, if you have what we call an anecdotal lead where you're telling a story, one of the most inviting ways to begin an article, a feature story, or a blog, then you have a story that nobody can really understand the purpose of through Google or HubSpot. Google wants you to get to the point right away, which isn't always the best content writing in the world.
So, what do you do with an anecdotal lead when you're trying to tell a story or give an example? That anecdote has to come somewhere after the introduction which defeats the whole purpose of an anecdotal lead.
One of the little tricks you can do there is yes, put in the very, very top everything that explains what the topic is and how you're covering it, and then tell a little story once you've got the person reading. It's not ideal for a writer, but the writer gets to tell a story and you get the ranking.
Analytics and the drive to optimize website content have built guardrails around what a writer can do, and these guardrails have become tighter and stronger. Yes, as a writer it is harder to create without total freedom. We prefer to think about entertaining and engaging the reader and informing them in a loose, active style.
But writers also want an audience, and if my blog doesn't attract an audience than I am not successful. One bit of advice for writers is to think about SEO, optimize for SEO, and at the same time work even harder to make your content shine even within the limits SEO involves.
Perhaps more importantly, writers should not just understand SEO themselves but have deep conversations with the true SEO gurus.
Essentially, SEO gurus want your website’s content to be as long as possible. For the reader, you want the blog to be as tight as possible because readers don't have a lot of time to read it. That's different than what Google wants. So how do you accommodate?
One of the problems with a long blog is that the call to action is often at the bottom of the blog. Say you want to get the reader to a gated asset where they're going to give you their contact information. If the blog is too long, if they never get to that and you never turn them into a lead. And in fact, you have people not reading your full content.
One trick is having calls to action higher up in your website’s content, so you don't require a person to get all the way down to the bottom of a blog.
My personal SEO guru (we should all have one) and I recently talked about blog length, and while the guru agrees that longer blogs generally rank higher it is often because they cover a subject completely and thus have more value. But that doesn't mean a great writer can't impart the same information in a much shorter form. Think about the way Ernest Hemingway wrote versus the style of something like War and Peace. By having these conversations with an SEO guru who groks what the writer is trying to accomplish, the writer understands how they need to bend a bit to accommodate great SEO. The goal is to write website content with as much freedom and panache as you can while keeping your content SEO so you can entertain AND convert even more sets of eyeballs.
Here is an example of how Google and social media have gotten so clever through researching this very blog. Suddenly on my Facebook, I kept getting hit with all these ads for AI-driven website content. Just have a bot write all your content, and it's going to be SEO enabled and should be great content and you don't have to worry about it. That may be ultimately where we go, but as a company, you want to tell a story and you want to have some personality. You want to have your own voice. And if you have a bot doing that for you how are they going to get the voice that you're trying to accomplish? How are they going to inject the personality that you want into the content?
Don't write strictly for the rules rather than the reader. You absolutely want to understand what the rules are, and you want to accommodate them as much as possible, but you don't want to just write the rules and have the writing become secondary because then you don't have really good content.
Here are some rules from an SEO guru I respect—and am fortunate to work with:
Great writing is better for SEO than lousy writing. Paying attention to writing makes sense whether you're the writer or whether you're hiring or managing writers. Make sure that the writing is good because not only is it better for SEO, but it reflects your company. If the writing is full of grammatical errors and it's confusing, it puts the reader off. They’re not going to think you're such a cool company if you're not a cool writer.
Also, if you're just writing for SEO, maybe you're not thinking about what the problem is that the reader is trying to solve. What is the need that they have? Why are they searching on that term in the first place. Take digital experience platform. They obviously want to build a killer website and do some cool new things. So, you want to figure out what their problem is, what they need, and then tell them how they can deal with that issue, solve their problem, and meet their needs.
You want to be trusted, useful, informative and authentic. Sales stuff doesn't work on the web. People don't want to be sold to.
SEO Guru Zach Stone and I did a webinar with MarketingProfs on “Optimizing Your Site: How to Write for Google and the Reader” if you’re interested in taking a deeper dive into the subject.
Doug Barney was the founding editor of Redmond Magazine, Redmond Channel Partner, Redmond Developer News and Virtualization Review. Doug also served as Executive Editor of Network World, Editor in Chief of AmigaWorld, and Editor in Chief of Network Computing.
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