Why SEO should be an afterthought

seoWhen 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.

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  1. Lots of inbound marketing copy starts with SEO research for selecting topics. This involves lots of word /phrase searching, and building content around chosen terms. Might you approach that kind of writing differently?

    1. Adam, I’m really glad you brought this up. There are lots of ways to choose topics — including “whatever the boss required me to write” — but one legitimate way to choose topics is by doing SEO research. But I still wouldn’t build writing around chosen terms, but around chosen *topics*. So if the market wants to hear about fixing your overbite, write about fixing your overbite (and use the word “overbite”).

      To address this, I guess I’d change my title to something like “SEO should be a forethought or an afterthought, but no so much a during-thought.”

  2. Another way to research is to look at the pages Google is currently ranking on the first page for your given topic, then ask: What’s missing? The idea is that your content needs to be 10 times better than what’s there to gain ranking and stand out from the crowd.

    Rand Fishkin at Moz introduced this “10x content” concept a while back, and more recently followed it up with a “how-to” post — https://moz.com/blog/how-to-create-10x-content-whiteboard-friday

  3. Writing skills are a must no matter how good as an SEO specialist someone is! But then, after you write good, to reach the maximum result you should optimize your content to the searching machines too. Excellent post!

    1. 110% agreement!!

      A good deal of SEO is skillfully re-writing client provided copy. Also, how to make researched “search string phraseology” make sense in on-page copy can be very challenging. In the end, SEO is manipulated linguistics.

  4. Saying SEO is bullshit is like saying going to court with an attorney is bullshit. Someone who understands all the variables of what can help or hurt performance and protocol in searches ALWAYS has a big edge over those that do not.

    This statement – “SEO Is Bullshit” 100% always made by WordPress designers who don’t understand the tech. The single reason for choosing CMS systems (WordPress, Wix, Bootstrap, etc) for web design is a lack of motivation to learn the tech that drives the web. So it’s not singularly the choice of the WordPress medium for SEO failure, but the tech avoiding person running it. If you went to an auto mechanic and saw a book on his desk – “Be A Mechanic Without Knowing a Thing About Motors” – would you hire him?

    WordPress, etc will always be at a disadvantage compared to a well SEO’d conventional site. So failures in performance can’t be blamed on the concept of SEO – Yoast can only do so much for a challenged platform.

    There’s more to SEO than “keywords”, there’s server settings, DNS settings, code error correction, meta-tag protocol, and lots more. I have found that many, if not most, claiming to be SEO professionals, are less than qualified.

    Effective SEO is NEVER an afterthought. Just like a Space Shuttle launch, a successful site is the product of great planning and research – AND KNOWING YOUR DESTINATION!

    1. I definitely agree that SEO isn’t bullshit, but I think a lot of things that are sold as “SEO services” definitely are. Or at the very least, the promises they make are bullshit.

      They’re fairly easy to avoid though – if someone is offering to “rank you #1 in the Google” for $20, just ask yourself – why would they waste their time doing something supposedly so valuable for $20 when they could do it on their own sites and make thousands?