It was a meeting I’ll never forget.
I was sitting in an ultra-modern (probably designer) chair across the table from the Creative Director of a local marketing agency. At the time, I was still working as the lead SEO of a digital marketing firm.
Our meeting was about the content for a website the agency was producing. We’d been sourced to provide SEO services; they were handling copywriting and design. The air was thick with tension from the moment I stepped in the room. I could just sense it –
This guy wanted to hate me.
We got to talking about the keywords and phrases we’d be targeting on each page of the site. As I explained our proposed strategy, I made mention of the fact that I knew creatives often took issue with recommendations regarding SEO, but before I could explain my intent to play nice with his writing team, he leapt to chime in (obviously waiting for the right moment) –
“Oh, you mean the death of the English language?”
His words were absolutely drenched with disdain. I felt like I’d just told the guy I was a part-time puppy kidnapper.
SEO and content have had a tumultuous relationship over the years, starting with the first time someone figured out that keywords were important to search engines. This discovery sent the art of writing back to the dark ages.
The era of so-called “SEO Copywriting” was born.
There were new rules to be followed, like:
- Make sure you use your keywords “X” number of times within the content of a page for an ideal “keyword density”
- Use exactly the keyword you’re trying to target – readability be damned!
- Use your keywords in every possible header you can imagine.
- Pages need to be at least “Y” number of words, or Google won’t know what your content is about.
- Try to use your keywords within the first few sentences of a page, so Google’s robots won’t get tired while searching them and have to take a nap.
- Have a page of content for every different phrase you’re targeting. (Some went as far as to make pages for every single variant of that keyword too! E.g. a page for “Calgary pet store”, another for “Calgary pet shop”, and so on.)
These rules came out of good intentions the desire to become fabulously rich by ranking well in search results.
As you might expect, they led to some horrific copy. Instead of talking about voice, tone and the utility of the content on a page, businesses began obsessing over whether or not they’d reached the optimal keyword density (barf) and if the content was “long enough” for search engines. Websites started to read like tragic madlibs accidents:
“PetWorld pet stores are the best pet shops in Calgary, Alberta. If you are looking for pet toys, pet supplies or even pet equipment, stop by one of our friendly pet shop locations.”
But for that time period, all this verbal hideousness was a means to an end.
The rules worked for rankings, so copywriters and the brands they worked for begrudgingly followed them.
As early as 2005, Google started to use “Latent Semantic Indexing”, a fancy phrase that boils down to the idea that Google began to be able to understand the relationships between words. Google can parse out the importance of proximity and meaning in the language used on a page in ways they didn’t even five years ago.
But while natural language processing has continued to evolve and improve, attitudes towards copywriting for the web have lagged behind. Sentiments are shifting to “Write for humans first”, but I still get people asking me about keyword density and wanting to enforce the old school rules of SEO copywriting to a T.
I think “SEO Copywriting” has overstayed its welcome.
Everything about that moniker feels wrong. It gives priority to the wrong things.
Do rankings still matter? Of course.
Do I still keep search engines in mind when I write for the web? You bet.
But copywriting with SEO as the sole focus will always be a misguided endeavour. While you’re trying to please Google, Google is trying to please people. You’re worshiping the machine. Your reliance on rankings is a crutch that keeps you from being a brand worth caring about.
What about conversions? Being memorable? What about evoking emotion and persuading a reader to do what you want them to?
Wouldn’t you rather be a brand than a list of keywords and some filler text?
Don’t miss the forest for the trees.
SEO is only one consideration, and “SEO copywriting” has been reduced to a subset of basic principles that any smart writer can learn (and learn to hate) in under an hour. It’s time to grow out of the label, loosen up on those tired rules and get a little lax about so-called “best practices” that really aren’t.
I’d like to propose some new guidelines for the modern copywriter as they approach writing for the web:
- DO try to use textual content on your site’s pages as appropriate. Google is still a machine, not a mind reader.
- DON’T write filler content to hit a word count because “Google likes long content”. Say what you need to get the job done, then shut up and get out of your own way.
- DON’T create any piece of content for the sake of targeting a keyword. Create content for the sake of targeting a person. There’s a huge difference.
- DON’T write a single line of copy that isn’t actually useful to the people visiting your site – buried footer text and tabbed-boxes included.
- DO map keywords to pages and use them where natural – but treat them like themes to iterate upon instead of phrases to plug in.
- DO strive for a balance between clever and clear. It’s great to get imaginative with your words, but remember that people still want things explained in plain English.
- DO make use of synonyms and variations instead of harping on the same tired phrase in attempts to reach an ideal keyword density.
- DO write as though someone’s purchase decision depends on you sounding like a human being and not a malfunctioning Speak and Spell – because it does.
- DON’T deny headers their true power for the sake of SEO. Use whatever header is best at drawing attention, defining the content that follows and helping readers skim.
- DO place a monetary value on creativity in your branding and messaging. There are more ways to win online (and in business) than SEO.
The sooner we drop “SEO Copywriting” down a deep, dark well it can’t ever climb out of, the sooner that becomes a reality.