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August 26, 2010

Please Don’t Go No. 2 on SEO Copywriting

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I’m at the grocery store the other day and the cashier asks me what I do for a living. I tell him I’m a writer.

Him: “Oh, really? What genre?”
(Looks like he just met a celebrity. I chuckle.)
Me: “Not that kind.”

Then I thought to myself, Why should I laugh? Copywriting is certainly an art, and when you add SEO copywriting into the mix, I might as well be Pablo Neruda (a little overboard?).

Not only do you have to be a good writer to be an SEO copywriter (Rule No. 1: understand the English language), but then you also have to infuse your copy with marketing/advertising savvy and write with your audiences/personas in mind to live up to the title, “copywriter.”

Then comes the SEO part, and it goes something like this: Align your copy with that of your top online competition (grade level) and strategically place sometimes the most awkward strains of keyword phrases into just the right places (keyword distribution) with just enough instances (keyword density), and then surround those phrases with clarification language (tilde words) and identify which words to use in your anchor text links based on siloing, all the while trying to form sentences that are cohesive and compelling. (Phew, I’m sweating just thinking about it.) And don’t even get me started on Meta data.

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People Who Think SEO Copywriting is Valuable a Toilet

Years back when I worked in-house marketing, we decided to outsource our SEO for one project, just to test their methods and results. I sat down with the SEO consultant, who shall remain nameless, one day to get a “lesson” in SEO copywriting.

At that point, I had very little exposure to on-page optimization, but I certainly knew how to form a proper English sentence. I distinctly remember him giving me some God-awful keyword phrase and telling me to plop it here and there and there. In the end, it didn’t even form a grammatically correct sentence. And this was the home page we’re talking about.

Of course, I told him that’s not how we worked around there. I had standards, after all. Then, the words that came out of his mouth next made me cringe (and people still say it to this day and actually believe it). He said:

“It’s fine, nobody reads the words on a Web page anyway.”

Now I was no SEO copywriting expert, but as a writer, that offended me. Did he understand the research, planning and thought that went into Web writing? And to come and crap all over it with his mediocre SEO copywriting tactics. Now that was just … wrong.

Sadly, there are still people out there who call randomly dumping keywords onto a page “SEO copywriting.” And many companies have experienced the disappointment that comes with second-rate on-page optimization and writing.

But it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault. It just seems SEO copywriting isn’t developed enough to be considered its own certifiable craft yet. Not enough people are taking the time to learn and develop best practices for SEO copywriting to set standards.

Seems like it’s due to SEOs and business owners tasking themselves with the job of SEO copywriter because they believe it’s not important enough to hire an expert – or maybe they don’t have the funds to hire someone.

See, the thing people forget is: you must write for the search engines and the humans. Always. You need to position yourself as an expert to the bots as well as their human counterpart. Sure, it takes a very special person to read every word on a Web page, but if and when you do get that type of persona on your site, you risk losing all credibility if you don’t have proper and persuasive language.

Give Bad SEO Copywriting the Royal Flush

Everything I needed to know about SEO copywriting best practices I learned from Bruce Clay, Inc. I added that to my arsenal long after I became a writer. The key here, folks, is this: you must, must, must have a foundation as a marketing/Web copywriter first, and then move into on-page optimization as an added specialization to achieve the best results.

If you’re a business looking for SEO copywriters, check credentials first. Find out whether they are truly writers or just SEOs. Now, I’m not saying all SEOs are bad writers, but try before you buy. Check out their portfolios, have them mock up a sample Web page for you, do whatever it takes to ensure they understand the technicalities of English and copywriting as well as on-page optimization. The best way to understand if they know what they’re doing is to educate yourself on the subject, too.

If you run a company that does SEO and you don’t already have a writer on staff, please consider it. The worth you can add to client projects is invaluable.

And for those of you who are entertaining the idea of outsourcing your SEO copywriting to another country, don’t even get me started …

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16 responses to “Please Don’t Go No. 2 on SEO Copywriting”

  1. Adam Lefever writes:

    I would add as a credential that they have experience not just in writing, but writing for marketing. IMO folks who jump into SEO without any marketing writing experience are just going to write badly for pretty much anything. Period. It’s easier to train a skilled writer to do SEO than to train someone who understands SEO how to write well.

    “It’s fine, nobody reads the words on a Web page anyway.”

    Yes, it’s a slap in the face to your labor of love. But to this point, people online have the attention span of a gnat. It’s mostly the headlines and links that attract… everything else is fluff for most users. This isn’t to say not to write well. Good, professional writing and hacked together articles are night-and-day. Online, your headlines must do the trick to attract them to read the rest, and most people are probably going to skim it so they can move onto something else.

    If it’s truly good writing on a good topic, people will read it, and the Search Engines will follow suit. Good writing will always speak the language of the target audience, not abuse keyword densities, and the links come naturally…

    Basically, the less you pay attention to all of the minute technical details of your writing, the more superb writing you can produce & the more time you can spend building relevant links.

    And this is good SEO!

  2. Kevin writes:

    Something tells me you’d like to rank for ‘SEO copywriting’ :)

  3. Jessica Lee writes:

    Hi, Adam! Thanks for that thoughtful comment. I agree with all your points.

    The only thing I would add is that just because people have the attention spans of gnats, doesn’t mean writing standards should go down the toilet (and I don’t think that’s what you were saying, but I do want to drive that idea home).

    When you talk about personas, there are those types that do read every detail on a page, so you must keep them in mind, too.

    Even though most people will skim, some truly value and give credibility to websites that are written well. For me, I can easily write off a business with a poorly written site.

    But the idea here is that it’s not just about being able to write well; it’s about writing well and then knowing how to optimize well on top of it. It really is a craft.

  4. Jessica Lee writes:

    Hi, Kevin. Very funny. We were just discussing it in the writing room and wondering if we should have used code words when talking SEO copywriting … perhaps, “magical bunnies” instead?

  5. Marc Elison writes:

    Or maybe Pablo Neruda, are you Ted Mosby’s doppleganger ?

  6. Andy @ FirstFound writes:

    Well, reading your anecdote made me cringe. I’ve been in that situation too. “People don’t read the words on a website” – yeah. That’s why really great copywriters can charge thousands, and why clever businesses are willing to pay for them.

  7. Stephen Palkot writes:

    “See, the thing people forget is: you must write for the search engines and the humans. Always. You need to position yourself as an expert to the bots as well as their human counterpart.”

    To that, I say bravo. As much as I hear the same worn mantra about people not reading web pages, I also hear trite and condescending advice to write for humans and not search engines. Please. My clients don’t pay my company to write newspaper inserts or billboards or radio ads. (And maybe I find the advice condescending because I come from a non-SEO background, and um, I always write “for humans.”)

  8. Jessica Lee writes:

    Well said, Andy! Have a great weekend. :)

  9. Connor Bringas writes:

    This is a great post. Being an seo copywriter is not easy by any means. People dont understand how hard it is to constantly come up with new content daily. Have you ever run out of things to write about?

  10. Brent Rangen writes:

    I think the human writing is the best too. Those humans sure are complicated though!

    Hopefully more people start utilizing sites like Facebook so that they can really write to an audience — rather than write for a ranking!

  11. Zunaira Karim writes:

    Here, here! I’ve mentioned the ‘balance’ between writing for SEO and writing for people a hundred times to my clients. It astonishes me how some people think it’s one way or the other. Kudos to Adam’s comment – it’s definitely easier to train a good writer for SEO as opposed to an SEO to write well. Great article Jessica!

  12. Jessica Lee writes:

    Thank you, Stephen. It’s good to know there are people out there who are upholding the integrity of SEO copywriting.

  13. Jessica Lee writes:

    Hi, Connor! Yes, being a writer is a constant battle of putting ideas into words. But I find that clients have really good concepts when you ask the right questions. Let me know if you ever need ideas for ways to develop content!

  14. Jessica Lee writes:

    Hi, Brent! Yes, writing for the bots seems a little more straightforward, eh? Thanks for your continued support.

  15. Jessica Lee writes:

    Hi, Zunaira! Thanks for your comment. We need more people like you to generate awareness about the craft of SEO copywriting. Keep it up. Thanks for reading!

  16. Sydney Shore writes:

    I concur! There should be a manner for measuring quality of SEO posted work in the net. It shouldn’t just be about numbers, as it’s pretty evident that most people don’t read those billions of similarly written copies in the web.



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