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March 27, 2012

The SEO Copywriting Checklist

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A lot of people have a lot of ideas on how to best optimize Web content. And that’s OK, because there are many approaches that work — methodologies aren’t set in stone, but for many, tried and true practices developed over the years have created lists like the one I’m about to share with you. Best practices for SEO copywriting, like any other “best practice,” should be viewed as a baseline — the foundational starting point that’s flexible enough to grow and change on a case-by-case (page-by-page, site-by-site) basis.


In this post, you’ll find a guideline for optimizing Web content; most of these guidelines are for optimizing for the Google search engine specifically (and of course, the end user).

Keep in mind that while this SEO copywriting checklist is a helpful starting point, you’ll also want to use data discovered through your search marketing tools plus your own wisdom to figure out how to best optimize the pages given each individual scenario.

For example, if you use a tool like Bruce Clay, Inc.’s Multipage Analyzer, you can see what the top-ranked competition for your keyword set is up to with their optimization efforts. Bruce teaches in his SEO training course that if the top-ranked competition has patterns within their optimization, they might be on to something and you might want to think about doing something similar. This is where data + wisdom is the sweet spot for on-page optimization.

You also want to keep the end user in mind. Keep it natural. Keep it engaging. SEO copywriting is about providing clarity to the search engines on what that content is about, and helping content be found. But it goes without saying that optimizing your content is the icing on the cake. Make sure the content can stand on its own, and that it would be something your readers want to take the time to read and share.

So without further adieu, here is an SEO copywriting checklist to help you cross those “t”s and dot your “i”s when optimizing content. If you have any tips to add, please do not hesitate to leave a comment below. We’d love to hear from you.

Prior to Optimizing Your Content

  • Find out which keywords are primary and secondary: If you’re not the SEM analyst on the project, that person should arrange those keywords for you according to importance/weight. You’ll give more priority to the primary keywords when optimizing.
  • Identify keyword distribution: Keywords should be distributed throughout the content evenly – showing up at top, in middle and towards the end of copy. Map out visually on the page where they should go (ensuring they fit naturally into the content). We just added a new layer to our SEOToolSet® that can help you see where your keywords on the page might be lacking (click on image to see a larger view in Flickr).

Tools Screenshot

  • Identify the keyword density: Each keyword should have a minimum/maximum usage for the content as identified by the SEM analyst. If you’re not the person deciding this, work with the appropriate teams to get this data.
  • Identify the word count of the page: Each page should have a minimum and/or target word count. You should always say as much as you need to on the topic to be thorough and provide something of quality, but there is typically a minimum word count. I always like to think of 450 words as the least amount of copy you want to write on a topic. The SEM analyst can tell you what their recommendations are on the minimum word count for that keyword set.
  • Identify the tilde (clarification) words. Tilde words are those words most commonly used surrounding certain topics. These words can help clarify to the search engine if you are talking about a fruit or a computer when your content is about “apples,” for example. Tilde words will then be in proximity in the body copy to your keyword phrases. This is discovered through a ~ search in Google (search with the symbol: ~ plus the keyword; here’s an example of ~SEO). Tilde words will be in bold in the search engine results pages (SERPs).

Meta Data Checklist: The Head Section

A lot of people may not realize that the Head section not only presents an opportunity to tell the search engine what the page is about, but also an opportunity for conversions. The content you write in the Head section renders as your title and description in the SERPs.

So there’s not only some science to it, but it’s also a marketing tool. Make sure you’re making the best use of that real estate on the results page to pull your potential visitors into the page. I wrote an article on the ins and outs of Meta data once, check it out for more detail on how to tackle the Head section.

  • Meta data – Title tag: Length six to 12 words, not including stop words such as “a,” “and,” “but,” “for” and so on. Remember, Google cuts off the title in the SERP at approximately 70 characters including spaces. If a company has a strong brand, consider putting the brand name at the front of the Title tag. This could increase click-throughs by associating trust with the brand over other results in the SERP. If the brand is not yet built up, consider putting the brand name (or brand name domain) at the end of the Title tag.
  • Meta data – Description tag: Best practices is to ensure the important keywords show up in the first 156 characters of the description tag so when the description renders in Google SERPs, those important keywords are showing. Google cuts off the description in the SERP at about 160 characters including spaces.
  • Meta data – Keywords tag: Even though Google has said it does not consider the Keywords tag in its Web search, we include it as a “nice to have.” This is because signals have pointed to it as serving a purpose in optimization with regards to relevance. The methodology at BCI is to put the keyword phrases in the tag in order of word length and to use title case on each word. Include the brand’s name in the Keywords tag as well in the appropriate place within the tag based on how many words it contains.
  • Meta data tips: Symbols like the ampersand (&) actually add more characters than using an “and” instead. Usually, the goal is to minimize the character count in order to fit important keywords in before the character cutoff in the SERP.

During Optimization: The Body Section

First things first, the body content must fulfill the promise of what you have told both users and the search engines what the page is about in the Head section. Aside from providing solid, quality content on the topic, adding keywords throughout further clarifies the topic of the page. Here’s some tips for optimizing the body content:

  • Primary keywords placement: Place the primary keyword or phrase in the header (the H1 Heading tag) and first sentence of body copy. This is among the first content on the page the search engine and the user encounters (aside from the information in the Head section) and further gives clarity as to what the page is about.
  • First 200 words: Place all the keyword phrases for the page and all the tilde words for that page in the first 200 words of body copy (and then linearly distributed throughout). This is assuming you have a fairly targeted list of keywords for that page. You wouldn’t want to try and stuff a ton of keyword phrases upfront if it’s going to feel spammy. Remember, there is a fine balance between providing information and being natural.
  • Tilde words distribution: As with keywords, tilde words should be linearly distributed in proximity to the keyword phrase throughout the page.
  • Keyword phrase composition: Unless otherwise noted, try not to break up keyword phrases with excessive amounts of words in between (stop words don’t count, for example, “but,” “and,” “to” and so on, as those are automatically stripped by the search engine when it reads the page.). No words in between is preferable unless it’s an awkward string of words; in that case, it would be unnatural sounding to not use it in conversation style.
  • Links: Typically, we wouldn’t link to other pages until after the first 200 words. Since we think of the first 200 words as being the most important to conveying to the search engine what the page is about, linking out to another site is something you can do a little later in the copy. When the time is right to link out to other pages in your site, a good SEO practice is to make sure the anchor text of the link contains the primary keyword phrase of the page it’s linking to.
  • Images: Make sure any images on the page have descriptive ALT attributes that explain what the image is and contain keywords appropriate to the image. If the keywords are both appropriate to the image and the content on the page, that’s a bonus.
Need some help with SEO-informed website copywriting? Talk to us about our Content Development services!
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12 responses to “The SEO Copywriting Checklist”

  1. Mike Robinson writes:

    A useful set of suggestions for online copy – decent blog.

  2. Jessica Lee writes:

    Thanks, Mike!

  3. Nick Stamoulis writes:

    I always recommend writing for visitors first, then the search engines. After all, it’s the human visitors that are going to buy, fill out a lead form, or convert in some other way. You don’t want to write something that is obviously geared towards the search engines because it will lead to a bad user experience.

  4. Christina Cruz writes:

    Thank you for these great suggestions for online copy and SEO.

  5. Jessica Lee writes:

    You are most welcome — thanks for commenting, Christina!

  6. Henry Sim writes:

    On Page Optimization 101. I love SEOPressor plugin for wordpress sites. It does cover most of the key points that you listed in this post. What would be a good keyword tool to research thematic keywords into primary/secondary groupings?

  7. Jessica Lee writes:

    @Nick — not sure how I missed your comment before, but thanks for weighing in. And I couldn’t agree more!

  8. Jessica Lee writes:

    Hey Henry, thanks for your comment. I’ve not tried that plugin you mentioned, but thanks for sharing with our readers! We hear great things about Yoast’s plugin, too.

    On your keyword tool question, don’t know of any tools that actually do the work for you. It’s a lot of manual work to identify things like that. But, there have been some helpful articles both on Search Engine Land and Search Engine Watch in recent days on keyword research:

    How to Develop a Keyword Plan:

    Tips for Growing Keyword Seeds:

    Zenya Introduces Keyword Repository Categorized by Searcher Intent:

    Hope that helps!

  9. Kristinn writes:

    Many other SEO bloggers that I have read recommend avoiding the meta keywords tag as either useless or damaging (if used for keyword stuffing). I don’t use them but sometimes think I maybe should in case is a change in how the search engines work. If that is the case, shouldn’t meta keywords be used sparingly or not at all?
    Thanks for the post. It is good to see how other writers approach content marketing and SEO.

  10. Roger Hicks writes:

    Even though I have take SEO courses, I had never heard of some of these rules. However, they make sense. We are redesigning our website and I will use this as my guide. Thanks.

  11. Jessica Lee writes:

    @Kristinn: Thanks for your comment. I definitely think there’s potential to be spammy when optimizing content. The delicate balance lies within presenting just enough information to the search engines in an acceptable manner so they know what the page is about. This helps a page be found in the results when someone who is interested in that information searches for it. You never want to over do it thoguh. Especially with the new updates to the Google algorithm like the Penguin update, targeting over-optimization.

  12. Jessica Lee writes:

    @Roger: Different SEOs do it differently. These guidelines were formulated over many years by Bruce Clay, Inc., and I threw in a couple of my own that I’ve found are helpful. You’ll find a rhythm that works for you and your site, but this is a starting point. Thanks for your comment!

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