When I teach writing, people always ask me “What about SEO?” (That’s “search engine optimization”). If you’re thinking about SEO, please stop, because you should be out to maximize readers, not traffic. Don’t even think about SEO until your writing is nearly done.
What is SEO? According to the experts at Search Engine Land:
SEO stands for “search engine optimization.” It is the process of getting traffic from the “free,” “organic,” “editorial” or “natural” search results on search engines.
SEO is an incredibly complex topic. At the heart of it is the idea that if you use the right words on a site, especially in page and blog titles, then people who search for those words will find your page, blog post, or document high in their organic search results on those words. Then they’ll visit your page and read what you wrote.
When you’re writing, don’t think about SEO. The reason is simple: if you subvert your writing to capture traffic, it won’t communicate as effectively as it can.
The Iron Imperative says that you must treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own. You must also treat the reader’s time as more valuable than Google’s. Cramming lots of keywords into your titles and text does not enhance readability. Put simply:
If you spend more effort attracting Google than serving readers, your readers are less likely to read the page when they arrive. That may boost your traffic, but it won’t boost your effectiveness.
[tweetthis]Write for readers, not for Google. Attracting searchers to unreadable prose is pointless.[/tweetthis]
So, should you throw SEO out the window? No! You still want traffic (but not at the expense of meaning). Here’s how to serve both masters effectively.
- Write for meaning first. That means creating descriptive titles, front-loading content into the first few sentences, writing short, and avoiding jargon. I don’t compromise a single word of my writing advice to serve SEO; you shouldn’t either.
- Architect for search. Your Web developers need mastery of SEO. They should build your site for it and tweak it to optimize traffic — so long as what they create also optimizes readability and visitor experience.
- Avoid obscure jargon. Terms that most people don’t know make writing impenetrable; your cloud-optimized omnichannel commerce-enabling platform will skitter off reader’s brain without penetrating. Nobody’s searching for this, and even if they find it, they won’t understand it. Explain in plain language instead.
- Use standard terms. If you use a different term from the rest of the world, they won’t find your content. That’s why it’s not such a good idea to write a piece about “Google attractiveness” if everyone else calls it “SEO.” Standard terminology is both more familiar to readers and more attractive to search engines. But . . .
- If you must coin new phrases, define them with standard terms. Do you want to invent terminology? Then pick a single term (as I did with “Iron Imperative”) and define it using well-known words and terms that all your readers understand. This is a long-shot technique for SEO, but in cases where your term catches on, Google will direct searchers to your site — where they’ll find the term clearly defined using words they already know.
- Use links and subheads. While SEO strategies are always shifting to match Google’s evolving algorithms, it’s clear that links to external sites and subheads enhance your search position. They also enhance readability. So get in the habit of using them to serve both readers and search rank.
- At the end of the process, tweak titles and openers. In the last draft or two, go ahead and adjust your title and opening sentences to mention searchable terms. If your piece is about Donald Trump, include his name in the title. If it’s about vacations in Aruba, use the words “vacations” and “Aruba.” Make these adjustments only if they enhance — or at least don’t subvert — the meaning and readability of your title and opener.
If you’ve described something useful and interesting, people will share it. This will make your site popular, which will make it rank higher in search. Using the right SEO words can make that popularity advance a little faster. But never undermine meaning in pursuit of traffic. Readers matter more than search bots.