Neglecting to consider SEO copywriting on your mobile, web or responsive site can go something like this:

A writer has written a book. It’s going to be the book of our times: he’s sure of it. He hastily self-publishes the book, not bothering with agents or editors, because he knows it will find its own way to Oprah’s book club. He hires an entertainment lawyer in anticipation of movie rights. He spends hours planning out his wardrobe for press photos. Guess where this story ends? Pretty much right there.

Many copywriters, editors, and even some content strategists are resistant to SEO copywriting because they feel like the author in that analogy. They’re so excited about the copy they’ve written they forget to consider how readers will find it. I felt that way. It took me a while to make peace with what I thought of as “those annoying SEO people who mess up my writing.”

Once I realized that:

1) writing that nobody reads is just an ego exercise,
2) SEO, when it’s done right, is actually a user experience strategy, and
3) SEO strategies won’t ruin my writing,

then I became a convert.

Knowing what my reader thinks changed the way I think.

1. Think of Google as your homepage.

 Because I was raised in the suburbs, I am conditioned to wander around The Mall. The mall is home. I enter the door and follow.

Normal, sane people only go to the mall when they have to. That is, when they’re headed to specific stores. If they could, they would bypass the rest of the mall altogether.

Because your readers find you through specific searches and topical links on social platforms, they are going straight to what they want, and your homepage itself is not always the destination.

Your readers’ first exposure to your brand may be a Tweet-length snippet on a page of search engine results. What are you putting there?


Traditional Site Map

2. Write your own meta descriptions.

I first learned the word “meta” in a literary criticism class, where I also picked up other practical, real-world wisdom. (Choose to read sarcasm into that statement if you would like.) I took it to mean “something that is about a thing but not the actual thing.” When I started writing for the online world, I mistakenly applied the same definition of meta to meta descriptions, assuming they were descriptions nobody reads, so I didn’t have to worry about them. So wrong.

When you type something into Google and then hit “Enter” or tap “Go,” you get a page full of snippets. It’s called a search engine results page (SERP).

You should assume these 150-character snippets are some people’s first exposure to your brand. You are the writer! Don’t leave this vital copy to someone else.


Better Version of a Site Map

3. Keywords are a necessary not-so-evil.

If someone tells you exactly how keywords make your site show up in search results, don’t listen to them. The magic algorithm Google uses for this is closely guarded. What we do know is, keywords are one of the ways search engines can assess what your content is about, and you need to include some carefully researched keywords within your content. If you write a blog post called “5 ways coffee makes life livable” and don’t mention “coffee” once in the article, that’s a red flag to search engines that your content isn’t adequately covering the subject.

At the minimum, you can think about keywords like punctuation. Punctuation is something you can’t avoid using, but as a writer, you can also use to your advantage.

I’d argue keywords are more than a necessary evil. When you write effectively on a topic, you reinforce ideas. Reinforcing ideas using recognizable language that your readers’ share (keywords) is just good writing.


Mall zombies seeking brains (Dawn of the Dead, ’78)

4. Keywords come from users, not SEO consultants.

I used to think keywords were manipulative tools cooked up by marketing people who had little regard for my beautiful copy.

What I didn’t realize was, keywords are the things my readers were actually typing into Google. By not using keywords, I am ignoring my audience’s needs and disregarding the way they think. This doesn’t seem like good writing to me.

It’s true, my job as a copywriter isn’t to regurgitate people’s private monologue, and I get to use discretion about which SEO keywords are going to fit smoothly into my copy.

(For example: I discovered “coffee that starts with g” is something people actually search on. Even if my coffee does start with g, I would refuse to use that long-tail keyword in my copy, no matter how many people were looking for it.)

My job is a combination of salesmanship and user experience. The real beauty of language is its ability to bridge those two masters.

5. Don’t worry, Google won’t let you write bad copy.

Many writers complain when asked to incorporate SEO practices into their writing. Most of them assume they’re being expected to “keyword stuff,” an obnoxious practice that is no longer respected by the marketing world and is rejected by most readers. Google doesn’t like it either, and supposedly penalizes it with poor search rankings.

Here’s an example of keyword stuffing from Google’s Quality Guidelines:

We sell custom cigar humidors. Our custom cigar humidors are handmade. If you’re thinking of buying a custom cigar humidor, please contact our custom cigar humidor specialists at custom.cigar.humidors@example.com.

There is debate over how many keywords you should use, and I haven’t found a great answer. Self-styled search guru Neil Patel, like many others, suggests content that flows naturally while acknowledging keywords is the right way to go. Don’t stuff your content with SEO keywords. At the same time, don’t omit them. Just make sure you use them naturally while focusing on creating valuable content.

6. You owe it to yourself, and your readers, to make your content visible.

 My SEO conversion experience happened a number of years ago. I was paired up with some talented SEO consultants as part of a collaborative UX team. They showed me just how many thousands of people were looking for information on topics I was writing about, and showed me the actual words they were typing into search engines to look for this stuff. I’m embarrassed to admit that, before then, I’d just grudgingly accepted lists of whatever keywords were handed to me, never asking where they came from. Suddenly it occurred to me as a UX person that if I ignored those keywords, I was ignoring the way my readers thought. And as a marketing copywriter, it occurred to me I was also ignoring thousands of opportunities to get customers in front of my client.

This post seems to have become a lot about keywords. In fact, the keywords you put in your body copy are only one of many SEO tactics used to help readers find content creators. What these tactics have in common is that they are all about words.

As a word person, I owe it to my clients, my readers and myself to use language in a way that works for everybody.

– Eric