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September 20, 2010

Search, Soul, Shape and Seasonality – Copywriting for SEO

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When I was a little girl I would often come home from school and cry to mum that so-and-so had better something-or-others, or prettier thing-a-me-bobs, or cooler what’s-a-ma-doodles. And that I wanted to get some too! As with all school aged girls I was desperate just to fit in. A point of difference was a point of punishment, and school girls’ are an authority on condemnation. But mum used to say “you can’t be so-and-so, they are taken. You can only be you” and so eventually (after many tough school years) I learnt that there is beauty in individuality.

Google now estimates 1 trillion URLs on the big wide web. That’s a lot of content, and if you are doing SEO your job is to compete against that mountain of mark-up. The search engine algorithms have the ability to filter duplicate content, so if you want your content to rank you have to be individual – and with that, mums words of wisdom prevail. But on the other hand there is that critical factor of being normal; search engines need to see your pages as “normal” for the population.  Too short and you’re not informative enough, too long and you may look like you’re trying to spam the system. Are you starting to see the paradox?

So what makes a winning page of written content? Recently, in a client meeting, we were discussing the content for a new website, the manager mentioned how some of the articles are going to be more search orientated and some are going to be more soul orientated.

Some topics are only relevant at certain times of the year – and so was born seasonality.

When faced with one big block of text (the barcode effect) a user can be put off, so the shape of your article, yes just like your hips, can catch a user’s eye (or cause them to glaze over). So what are we talking about here?

May I present the critical copywriting concept: The “S” Factors. Let’s get into a bit more detail…

Search

Of course I don’t need to blab on for hours at the value of SEOing your copy, if you didn’t believe in search engine optimisation you wouldn’t be reading this newsletter – correct? Getting the right keywords, and then getting them into your copy is critical if you ever want that page to appear in search engines for anything other than your brand. So what are the most important search factors to keep in mind when writing copy?

  • Keywords: there are lots of tools online that can tell you what keywords are popular, but no one has managed to automate relevance (yet). Having a ranked keyword list is a good start, but when you pick your primary keyword for your article page make sure you go with something that you would want to read about and something relevant and complementary to your existing content.
  • Densities: keyword density is something that SEOs have argued over for decades (ok, years). The optimum keyword density has been estimated at 2%, or 6% or even 8% depending on which SEO forum you happen to be browsing. The truth about densities is that it depends on the keyword. For example the term “incontinence” is going to need a lower keyword density to rank, because (and let’s face it) no one wants to mention the real issue at hand. It’s bad enough you suffer from this, never mind having it spat back in your face by every website out there! For some keywords subtlety is stylish – so check your population before assuming your keyword density.
  • Linear Distribution: sometimes it is not just the number of times you include the main keyword in your copy, but how well spaced the keyword is amongst your paragraphs and the page as a whole. Once you have worked out your magic keyword density number then it is time to place that keyword strategically throughout the copy from start to gripping conclusion.
  • LSI: AKA Latent Semantic Indexing is the process by which search engines figure out what the hell you’re on about. They use the surrounding text to give your keyword context. So they can figure out if your article about “labour” is referring to the process of giving birth, or the mess the Australian Government is in at the moment.

Soul

The last thing you want after drafting up your article is to be able to put that article through a spinner and get something just as good.  True copywriting needs soul, that’s right sister!  So what do we mean by soulful copy?

  • Catchy headlines: If you want to get someone’s attention then a snappy headline is a must. Balancing this with the core requirement to include your search keywords in your H1 tag can be a challenge. “Killer Wave” really needs to be called “Destructive Tsunami” but it’s far less dramatic. You can tell a great writer from a good writer by the way they marry snappy with keyword and pull it off.
  • Show don’t tell: This is one of the oldest rules of creative writing. If you want to write for effect then make sure you show someone what is happening rather than telling them. The challenge with this is keeping your writing tight. Grabbing your mag and heading into the bathroom leaves room for flowery language, you might need the flowery part, but you might have worked out just how much text your webpage template allows, so you’re squeezing (excuse the pun…) all the content in to a 200 by 400 px area.
  • Setting the scene: Everyone likes to get a feel for what is about to be discussed. Giving the article context helps a user get empathetic with the content. The problem with setting the scene is that search engines often consider the first 200 words to be the most important for ranking, so getting your keywords into your introduction is a must. As a good writer you don’t want to give away every point from the get go, so be crafty with your keyword usage.
  • Humour: Whether its parody or wit, an aside or an anecdote; humour comes in many forms. Some are born funny, and others will strive for hilarity their whole lives (and never even get a giggle). Don’t push it, if you’re not naturally gifted with satirical substance then stick to the facts. The type of humour you employ should be relevant to the platform you are writing for – is it a blog or a website, is it a blue chip or a quirky start up. And finally, puns are funny for people, but a search engine won’t give you any points for it!

Seasonality

The big question when it comes to seasonality is what to do with all those Christmas decorations for the rest of the year? Store it. Just like those baubles and tinsel, your Christmas content should be stashed somewhere in your site so that it can dusted off and linked to from your home page come November. Holiday content is best not created entirely from scratch each year, the legacy that you accrue on your holiday content pages comes in handy when you try to rank for those ‘gift ideas’ terms next time round.

  • Holidays: what holidays do you need to keep track of for your brand?
    • Are you a products site? Try Christmas Day or Easter.
    • April Fool’s Day and Halloween (even though we don’t get time off work) are big deals for shopaholics.
    • Want to break into the US market? Then consider Thanksgiving.
    • Are you an events site? Try New Years Eve, Boxing Day BBQ, Australia Day Weekend, Good Friday, ANZAC Day, The Queen’s Birthday or Labour Day. Get the picture?

  • Regular events: Then there are the hallmark holidays; these are days of the year specifically designed with consumerism in mind (sorry, I am a cynic). I refer to Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. There are also religious ceremonies you might want to target such as Bar Mitzvahs, christenings or a confirmation. And last but absolutely not least on the search activity scorecard: weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. Never underestimate a man’s inability to think for himself when it comes to gifts.
  • Ranking when you need to: These topics don’t necessarily warrant an entire silo all year round. Pick the seasonal peak and get your ranking machine into action around 6 weeks prior. You want to know that by the time people are searching your page will be ranking, but if that page drops a few places for the rest of the year then it’s not worth going grey over.
  • Getting in touch with your user: with the changing search landscape behavioural targeting is now more important than ever. Researching your website user demographics will give you an idea of who is using your site. Set up personas and go through the milestones that user is facing – then make sure you have got each life stage covered. This will also help with Google’s ability to refine search engine results based on prior searches. So if someone found your site for “baby shower” earlier on, you may also be ranking well for “signs of labour” later during that same session.

Shape:

  • Creating a focus: recently at SES San Francisco there was a presentation on Eye Tracking studies by the exclaimed Shari Thurrow. Shari explained that if you want users to read you have to create a focus for them. With three trillion other options available, once you get that users click don’t waste time getting them into action!
  • Paragraphs verses dot points: while you might read every word of your latest Tim Winton novel, when you’re online checking whether the Amazon Kindle beats the Borders Kobo you can bet you are in scanning mode. High level content with descriptive headings and short snappy dot points are the way to go. Keep users interested by getting your important points across first, and you may just get them to scroll down your page.
  • Bolding or colour: I have never been one to match my shoes to my bag, but when it comes to colour online you can really make an impact. Just like designing your page template, you should design the way your content sits within that page template. Break it up; nice space results in a relaxed reader.
  • Engagement Objects: Finally, you have done your hair, your dress is on, your shoes and your clutch are shimmering together and now it’s just that minor detail of the date you need to take with you. Every page of awesome content needs an eye catching engagement object to walk down the red carpet with. Engagement objects are things like videos, images, maps, info graphics, social buttons, charts, tables or any number of other visual that can help reinforce the main message of your page. Stay away from stock photography, tests show that users want to see real people, not Getty models. Often the copywriter will have to employ the assistance of the designer, the best strategy I have found for this is cupcakes… designers love pretty cupcakes so have some on hand when you go to them with your notebook full of doodles.

Content writing is core to any SEO strategy, but now with the development of the search engines to prioritise sites that factor in universal search and behavioural search a block of content with your keyword in it is not going to do the job any more. Content is cheap, you can outsource content writing very inexpensively to all parts of the world (got to love globalisation). But, not all content is created equal, and you tend to get what you pay unless you are a self made word wizard. If you want your site to stand out from the trillions of others, get your creative hat on and ask yourself does my article have search, shape, seasonality and soul?

Stay tuned for Part 2 in this series: “Blogs verses websites”, how to get personable copy into the site that is going to let it rank.





One response to “Search, Soul, Shape and Seasonality – Copywriting for SEO”

  1. Bob writes:

    Thank you for this article, Kate.

    I thought if the density was above 6 percent that Google would discount it.

    When writing SEO copy I am for between 3 to 5 percent keyword density.

    I look forward to part 2.



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