“Write for the readers first, search engines second.”
That’s been the mantra of SEO copywriting for years. Only in practice, it was more like “write for the search engines, but try to make it sound like you’re not.”
This process involved working chosen keywords (and variations) into the copy a specific number of times but making it “read naturally” or “flow well.” It wasn’t keyword stuffing in the old “get the best dog grooming in Wichita from the best Wichita groomer for your dog” sense. (No joke, I saw that on a site once.)
This copy sounded good if you did it well. But did it make for the best possible content?
Now, search engine algorithms have advanced. They’re smarter. A lot smarter. They look at your site content cumulatively and holistically, not at how many times each keyword appeared and where.
I’m not going to go quite as far as some SEOs who say keywords are dead. Using keywords and phrases in your…
- meta title
- URL (if it makes sense)
- subheaders/subheadlines (H2, H3s, etc), and
- image tags
…still sends a clear message to search engines AND readers what your page is about.
But obsessing over keyword density scores and getting so many variations in? Yeah, that can go away.
I’d like to propose a new mantra for SEO copywriting: “Write for your readers, and the search engines will figure it out.”
In other words, just write good stuff. Here’s how.
1. Write something people want to read
At first blush, this one sounds obvious. Why write something people wouldn’t want to read? But content creators do this all the time, when writing something for the sole purpose of ranking for a specific keyword or keyphrase. It used to be SOP.
Here’s why it doesn’t work like it used to.
Modern search engines are adept at figuring out which content is written solely for SEO rankings, and which offers good information people can use.
Google’s algorithms consider…
- the time spent on the page
- actions taken
- whether or not people engage with the content
- authority (sourcing, authorship, links to and from authoritative sites)
…as well as many other factors. The more engaging and authoritative the content, the more valuable Google deems it, and the more likely it is to rank high in the search results.
Still, let’s say a clearly-written-for-the-rankings page gets a top spot. (It happens.) How much good does that top ranking do if no one reads, shares, responds, takes action or remembers the content? If the website visitor takes one look at the content and bounces?
Not much. There’s some value in your brand being seen in the rankings, like an impression for an ad. But your content can do so much more for you than that!
Always ask: What’s in it for the reader?
Does the content do at least one of these things?
- Provide valuable information readers can use
- Address a specific need or want
- Solve a problem
- Entertain (don’t underestimate the value of this one for building rapport!)
- Answer a question
The last is important because people increasingly search by typing or speaking a full question. Provide the best answer, and you could nab a coveted Google Featured Snippet or even a voice search result.
Don’t make it all about you
Here’s the hard truth: no one wants to read about how great your product/service/brand/idea is unless there’s some value in it for them.
Sounds harsh I know. But look at it from their perspective.
Think of the last time you met someone new and all they did was talk about themselves constantly. They didn’t ask you about yourself or seem to take any interest in you personally. You might as well have been a wall for them to talk at. In no time you were turned off and tuned out. We’ve all been there.
It’s the same with content.
When writing about your product/service/brand/idea, always do it from a perspective of how it helps your reader.
- Does it address a pain point they have?
- Does it better their life or business?
- Does it make something difficult easier?
- Help them make a decision: why your product instead of another?
- What will be the positive outcome?
- How will they feel interacting with your brand or product?
Okay, how do I find good stuff to write about?
My best advice: ask your audience!
Call your clients and ask them about the challenges they face, the questions they have. Send out a survey (email, social media, Google Survey) to customers and see what they’re curious about. Chat with your salespeople and customer service reps and find out the FAQs they get. If it applies to your current audience, chances are it applies to your prospects, too.
There are also online tools that let you research topic trends:
And find the questions people ask:
- Answer the Public
- Predictive searches in Google (start typing a question: “how do I…”, “when should…”, “why does…”)
- Recommended searches (“People also search for…”) in Google results
2. Make your content easy to read
This doesn’t mean your content must be simplistic or “light reading.” It also doesn’t mean it has to be short. Long-form content is back “in” (huzzah!) and the best-performing content averages around 800-1200+ words.
It does mean you should format your content in a way that’s easy to read in an online format, especially mobile.
Check the reading level
The Hemingway App is a free tool that lets you instantly check the reading level of your content. (It does not, despite the name, require you to download an app.)
Most journalistic writing is written for a Grade 6 reading level. That’s a good target to shoot for. If you’re writing a technical, medical, legal or other type of article with complex terminology, the reading level may naturally be higher. (This article is a Grade 5 reading level.)
The Hemingway App also points out instances of passive voice, wimpy adverbs, overlong sentences, and places where you could use a simpler word alternative. This helps make your writing more concise, which is a good thing no matter the subject.
Make your content “scannable”
Ever notice that a paragraph that looks short in your Word or Google Doc looks ginormous on mobile? That’s where your readers are, so format your content in a way that avoids these Great Walls O’ Text. People also tend to skim online rather than read word-for-word.
Make your content “scannable” to guide the eye through the content:
- Use images and infographics
- Short paragraphs (1-3 sentences)
- Use subheadlines to break the content into smaller sections (example: this article!)
- Use bulleted/numbered lists
- Use bold text (sparingly!) to call out key sentences
3. Get to the point
In school, you’re taught to write papers with an Introduction, Body and Conclusion. In most online writing, you don’t need the intro. Instead, get right to the point. If the title of your blog or article is a question, answer it in the first paragraph if you can, then go into detail after.
The old SEO rule about having the keyword in the first sentence (or at least the first paragraph) still has some value, because it reminds you to get to the point quickly. It signals to the reader that they’re in the right place for the information they want.
Always keep the promise you made to your reader in your title.
4. Style is everything, dahlings
When I first started online copywriting an (*cough, cough*) undisclosed number of years ago, the Internet was still new to many. Content creators wrote in the style they’d been taught in academic writing. A formal tone made you sound credible in a medium that wasn’t yet considered credible.
Those days are long gone, but some writers still hold onto that older style.
If that formal style is you, or it’s appropriate for your audience, go for it. But if it’s not, know that conversational writing is not only acceptable online, but is valued for its authenticity.
Don’t be afraid to let your personality shine! Be bold and raise some eyebrows! In a world of information, what sets your content apart is usually not what you say, but how you say it. Even if someone else can give the same information, no one else can say it quite like you.
If you’d like me or one of my RSM copywriters-in-crime to take a look at your content, put together a content marketing plan, or heck, write that landing page, white paper, article, website or blog that you’ve been putting off, give us a ring at 316.977.9600.