Writers love to hate Search Engine Optimization – that practice of inserting Google keywords or phrases in online text so the search bots can find and rank it. Even digi-savvy writers and editors complain that working in those keywords warps their copy and puts artificial demands on the story.
But the truth is that SEO, done correctly, can be a blog post or online article’s invisible best friend. SEO is the best way to connect meaningfully with readers who care about what you’ve written. I know, because I’ve seen SEO done well (our organic search rates rise by over 20% every month) and I’ve seen it be a disaster.
Old School SEO Sucks
I’ve been doing SEO writing for about 10 years for various types of companies publishing blogs, white papers and other online articles. Here’s how it usually works:
Editor comes up with awkward long-tail keyword term that relates to a business product or service, like “employee long term care insurance.”
Editor hands keyword to writer and says to write a story about it.
Editor charges writer with following “SEO best practices” like including the keyword in the headline, subheds and at least 3% density in the story copy.
Writer hands in awkward, hard to read story that keeps repeating “employee long term care insurance.”
Editor runs story and hopes that companies in market for long term care insurance search on the phrase, find the story, read it, and buy this to add to their employee benefits.
Readers who do find the story can’t slog through it and bail quickly.
If you are being forced to follow these SEO guidelines, I don’t blame you for hating it. I actually quit a great writing job a year ago for a well-known online outlet because they handed down these old school SEO rules. Even then I knew this process was dead.
Today’s SEO Reaches Eager Readers
When I started in magazine journalism, we fought each other on the newsstands. The cover image and headlines were our key weapons in dragging readers away from our competitors. The readers took a risk on our gorgeous covers, buying the magazine and hoping to find relevant stories inside.
Fortunately, that newsstand war game is also dead. Today’s SEO is the delivery channel that helps a writer’s brilliantly crafted story reach exactly the right people who want to read it. Readers don’t have to take a chance on buying an entire magazine (unless they want to) if they only want one important story.
Here’s how SEO works as a best practice:
Editor uses SEMRush or Answer the Public to find out what questions and phrases readers are typing in to get information about donating household items, and comes up with a general story idea about how to keep donated clothes out of landfills.
Editor assigns story (without keywords) to writer.
Writer hands in great story with good research.
Editor then uses Google AdWords keyword tool to come up with a long-tail keyword, “clothes to donate,” that best matches the story.
Editor keywords the story, without forcing too much keyword density or artificial headlines and subheds.
Editor publishes story, and everyone who searches on the keyword finds it and reads it.
Google rewards the great user experience by showing the story to more searching readers.
In other words, we assign interesting stories our readers want to know about, and we keyword them after they come in. We don’t stuff the piece full of fake-sounding phrases. People who find the story enjoy a great read, not a mouthful of keywords. And they often click on other recommended stories afterwards.
Don’t Try to Game Google
One thing we’ve learned about modern keywording is that Google isn’t all that hung up on the exact keyword phrase. If you get most of the words of a long-tail term in the story a few times, in more or less the same order, Google will find you.
The other reality is that while you may keyword a story intentionally with a specific phrase, Google may decide to present your story to readers based on an entirely different keyword set that it has organically decided upon (bots – there’s no controlling them).
My advice? Don’t try to game the bots, and don’t overthink SEO. Google’s algorithm keeps changing to reward the user experience, and it will outsmart anyone who tries to play only to the numbers. Instead, search engines want us to create strong writing that engages readers.
As an editor, I use SEO combined with digital tracking to see who is reading what, how much time they spent on the page, where they come from and where else they go. Armed with that information, I can build a better reader experience and forge a stronger connection. SEO gets me to a lot more readers, who are a lot more interested, than the newsstand ever did. That’s something that even old-school non-digital journalists strive for.