The SEO Copywriting Checklist
You want your site to work smarter for you.
You know that SEO (search engine optimization) is what you do to get your blog or site to show up when your audience uses Google to find you.
You might be doing your own SEO. Or you may be a copywriter looking to boost your content with the competitive advantage of higher search rankings, better click-through rates and improved like- and share-ability.
Get started with SEO for copywriting using a standard series of steps to optimize your content, as we call it in the SEO biz.
What Is SEO Copywriting?
SEO for copywriting is about helping content be found by searchers by providing the search engines with clarity on what content is about.
It’s worth saying that optimizing your content for a search engine is a layer in making the best content for your reader. 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.
You want to keep your visitor in mind. Use language naturally. Make your content engaging.
SEO is part of promoting and positioning your content. 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 shared here with you.
Best practices for SEO copywriting, like any other best practice, should be viewed as a foundational starting point that’s flexible enough to grow and change on a case-by-case (page-by-page, site-by-site) basis.
Keep in mind that while this SEO copywriting checklist is a helpful starting point, you’ll need 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 the Multi Page Analyzer in the SEOToolSet™, you can see what the top-ranked competition for your keyword set is up to with their optimization efforts.
Bruce Clay teaches in our SEO training course that if you can find trends in the optimization patterns of top-ranked competition, you can think about doing something similar. This is how from data + wisdom we find the sweet spot for search marketing optimization.
Using the SEO Checklist
The printable, downloadable, shareable resource that is Bruce Clay’s SEO copywriting checklist is meant to act as just that — a checklist. It’s a to-the-point reminder of everything with SEO impact that you can check your content against.
The SEO copywriting checklist answers the question of what to do. What follows expands on why you do it.
We’ve divided the SEO tasks for copywriters into three categories, which you can jump to with these links:
During the Research and Writing Process
- Know your target audience, aka persona, for the page. Identify the likely audience for this page. Speak to them and address their needs through the content of the page.
- Research and identify which keywords are primary and secondary. First off, someone needs to assign keywords to content. It might be an SEO analyst, or it might be you. The end goal is knowing what keywords to optimize on the page, and the importance and weight of each of those keywords. You’ll give priority to the primary keywords when optimizing. Typically we pick no more than two primary keywords, followed by secondary keywords.
- Identify clarification and related keywords. Clarification 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. Clarification words should be located near keyword phrases in the body copy.
- Have a call to action (CTA) in mind for the page. All content should be written in a way to support the goals of the business. Know what the end goal is for the content and tell your reader what you want them to do next.
- Identify the word count of the page. Each page should have a target word count. To get a more precise word count target for your page, get a word count of the pages you’re competing against in the search engine results page (SERP). Set a target word count in range of the top-ranking pages. You should always say as much as you need to thoroughly cover a topic and provide something of value. There is typically a minimum word count around 450 words.
- Identify needed links. Hyperlinks are one of the most important search ranking factors, so as a writer, you should think of what links should be included on the page to support the themes of the website. Every site has best-ranking pages for its main themes; these are the SEO landing pages. In the new content, include a link to the main SEO landing page on the theme you’re writing. A good SEO practice is to link to a high-value SEO page with anchor text that contains the primary keyword phrase of the page being linked to. One more thing about link placement. The first 200 words of text are the most important in conveying to the search engine what the page is about; a link contained in the first 200 words will have additional weight compared to links later in the copy. Therefore, be mindful of where you include anchor text links within body copy. You may want to hold off on linking to external sites in the first 200 words of copy.
- Craft the H1 heading tag like a strategic headline. Use the top-level heading tag (the H1 tag) as the headline of the page. Include target keywords in the H1 heading because search engines consider this tag to be an important signal of relevance. In a content management system (CMS) like WordPress, the H1 tag is the post title. In this case, you can also think about crafting this tag in a way that interests the reader and compels them to click to read.
- Enhance scanability using short paragraphs and bullet points. People consumer more and more content from mobile devices. Expect mobile browsing to become the primary user experience soon. Cater to those reading on their mobile device by using paragraphs between one and three sentences. Use bullet points and subheadings to help readers scan the text.
- Use a mobile-friendly writing style. Voice search is surging along with the rise of mobile web browsing. As SEO copywriters, we adjust our understanding of our reader. Our reader is doing more voice-activated searches, which are often full sentences or questions rather than a string of keywords. So instead of the query “Eiffel Tower height,” a voice search might be the phrase “how tall is the Eiffel Tower?” spoken to a search engine or smart home device. Use a tool like Answer the Public to research the questions people are asking about a topic. Then ask and answer those questions in your content.
- Identify the target keyword density of a page. Each keyword should have a minimum and maximum usage for a page as illuminated by competitive research. If you use the SEOToolSet, fire up the Multi Page Analyzer, plug in a keyword and the top ranking pages, and you’ll get the keyword densities and number of uses of a keyword on the top pages. It’s up to you to pick a target keyword density in the range of top-ranking pages. Tip: Keyword density is a bit of a controversial point in SEO, so rather than thinking of keyword density in strict terms, let it be a guide to the normal range and to help you avoid keyword overuse (aka keyword stuffing).
- Understand 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 are used in a natural distribution throughout content. Use the Single Page Analyzer in the SEOToolSet™ to visually see where keywords are on a page. These are some of the keyword distribution results of the very page you’re reading:
Before You Hit Publish
Optimizing the URL
If you can, optimize a page URL. A carefully crafted URL has SEO benefits and is more attractive to human readers who may see the full URL of a page in some situations.
The best practices for URLs are:
- Be descriptive of the page topic.
- Shorter is better.
- Separate words with hyphens in place of spaces.
- Use all lowercase letters.
Optimizing a Page’s Head Section with Meta Data
As far as the head section of a page goes, a copywriter should pay attention to a few tags:
- Title tag
- Meta description tag
- Meta keywords tag
- Social meta tags
These tags not only help to tell the search engine what the page is about, but they are also an opportunity to boost clicks from a search engine results page (SERP) or social site.
The content you write in the head section renders as your title and description in the SERPs. The content in the social meta tags render as the headline, description and image in a social share. The social image will appear in a Google result if the page is pulled as an answer box.
Quick Definition: What Is an Answer Box?
Answer box, featured snippet, quick answer, direct answer, position 0 … these are all different words to refer to the same thing — a boxed search result at the top of a search results page that highlights an answer to the searcher’s query right on the SERP rather than requiring the searcher to click through to a results page.
Now back to meta data optimization …
Make sure you’re making the best use of meta tag real estate to pull your potential visitors into the page. For more details on how to optimize the head section of a page, check out The Ins and Outs of Meta Data. For more on how to optimize social meta data, read What Are Social Meta Tags?
Here are some rules of thumb for crafting meta tags.
- Title tag: The title tag in a Google search result is around 600 pixels, which is approximately 70 characters including spaces. Make sure the most important information and top keywords are included in those first 70 characters. If a company has a strong brand, consider putting the brand name at the front of the title tag. This could increase click-through-rate to your site 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 description tag: Best practices is to ensure the important keywords and descriptive information show up in the first 156 characters of the description tag so when the description renders in Google SERPs, those important keywords are showing. The description tag displayed in a Google SERP result is approximately 24 words or 156 characters including spaces.
- Meta keywords tag: Even though Google has said it does not consider the keywords tag in ranking its search results, we use the meta keywords tag as a reminder to the writer and the webmaster of the primary keyword targets for the page. 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. You may use the keywords tag to include the brand name within a page’s meta data.
- 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.
- Social meta tags: There are no standard length guidelines for Open Graph title and description tags because Facebook shows a different number of characters depending on where content is displayed. That said, Facebook displays a maximum of 300 characters in a description so that gives you a ceiling. Use the preview and debugger tools for Twitter Cards and Open Graph tags to see what your URL will look like if pasted into either of these social sites. More on controlling how your content looks in social media shares here.
Optimizing the Content of a Page’s 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 in the first 200 words of body copy and then evenly 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.
- Clarifying keyword distribution: As with primary keywords, clarifying keywords words should be distributed evenly and in proximity to the keyword phrases throughout the page.
- Images: Use images on your pages for a number of reasons. Images offer visual interest, which means a more engaged reader. Images break up text allowing the eye to scan content more easily. A single strong image on a page is correlated with higher search rankings.
- Image alt text: It’s a federal requirement in the U.S. that websites use descriptive alt text with images. Make sure any images on the page have descriptive alt attributes that explain what the image is and include keywords appropriate to the image within the alt text. The ideal situation is that the alt text will contain target or clarifying keywords and describe the image appropriately.
When the Page Is Live
Once you’re working with live HTML, you can run a few tests to make sure the page is ready for its close up.
- Check for broken links. Use a tool like the free Check My Links to find out if any of the hyperlinks on the page were accidentally malformed, leading to a 404 page not found.
- Check the readability of the content. A tool like the Single Page Analyzer will give you a grade-level score of the text. Did you know that the average newspaper is written at the seventh grade reading level? Adjust the text if you find a readability score too far above or below your target reader.
- Test the page speed. Search engines factor page speed into ranking calculations. A faster page is a better optimized page. Enter the URL in the free Pingdom test to see if you can make any adjustments on the page to help it load faster.
This SEO copywriting checklist helps you cross those “T”s and dot your “I”s when optimizing content. If you have any tips to add, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below. We’d love to hear from you.
This article was originally published in 2012 by Jessica Lee and most recently updated in 2017 by Bruce Clay, Inc. staff.
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