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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?
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.
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.
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 email@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.
I’m not qualified to speak on behalf of all Buddhism, an ancient and worldwide system with innumerable regional and cultural variations. However, if I was forced to generalize, it would be safe to say that most schools of Buddhism are decidedly apolitical. That’s because most are based on a belief in the human potential to experience life without evaluations, mental categorizations and judgments. This kind of perspective frees up the opportunity for compassion.
I would argue that compassion is not a state but an active effort, at the center of which is a striving to understand other people, many of whom use different evaluations, mental categorizations and judgments than you. Therefore a Buddhist approach to the inauguration might have something to do with letting go of the fear and anger characterizing both sides of the deeply disturbing rift in our national consciousness, and to see what kinds of solutions may arise from that open space between our thoughts.
Very much in the spirit of these principals, the Shambhala tradition, founded by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, talks about an “enlightened society” founded on the radical idea that people are basically good. An enlightened society might sound sort of political. Really, it is just a collection of people striving to live their lives free from passion, aggression and ignorance (or “apathy”), those inevitable human mental states that cause us to chase after this or that thing at the expense of the present; to push away uncomfortable ideas, missing an opportunity to grow courage and learn from them; and to ignore the deeper reality of human suffering. All of these mental states are rooted in a fear that what we need or value will be taken away from us.
Letting go of fear is even more terrifying than the original fear. Fear and anger are hardwired into the armored tactical survival suit that is our human body. We feel afraid that if we take off our armor and stop fighting, the “other side” will win, or those suffering under the causes we care about will be left to suffer. But there must be some way to continue acting on our beliefs without making ourselves miserable and potentially harming our own cause. This is where the principal of non-violence becomes paramount. Personally I look at this in two ways. First, I draw on my love of Kung Fu movies. Second, I think about kittens.
In the famous “be as water” quote, Bruce Lee suggests that yielding and flexibility are the roots of strength. This means calming our minds. It means allowing our clear thinking to see the naturally-occurring, strategic opportunities to redirect whatever it is we are trying to stop. I encourage each of us to think about ways we have been defeating ourselves and our causes by missing obvious and auspicious opportunities. When we keep quiet in a potentially contentious argument, for example, we inspire respect, and we portray a confidence in what we believe that may give our would-be opponent pause. We allow him or her to feel listened to. Sometimes when you allow someone to see their thoughts through to the end, you and they both realize there is something you can agree on. Enter the second perspective, kittens.
Few Republicans or Democrats would stomp on a kitten or run down an old lady in the street. Personally, I’ve had to remind myself of this throughout the past year. If you won’t stomp on a kitten, you and I have something to work with, no matter how awful, naive, misguided or hateful I think your other beliefs may be.
I love this quote from Shepherd Book, one of my favorite characters in one of my favorite science fiction movies, Serenity:
“I don’t care what you believe in, just believe in it.”
The kind of belief he’s talking about is not a belief in gravity (or something else it would be difficult for anyone to argue against). It’s a belief that there is something greater than ourselves more important than our individual whims. I believe that if, from a calm state, we examine our minds and our beliefs and follow them to their roots, we will discover the first terrifying but eventually liberating experience of emptiness. Of formlessness. Formlessness doesn’t mean non-existence. It means that even our most closely-held values are just thoughts. How much are my values, some of which I might kill and die for, rooted in my own attempt to slice and dice reality into digestible chunks—categorizations—that in fact don’t really “exist” anywhere?
As I like to say, the stars and planets don’t give a crap what you believe in. Carl Sagan said it a lot better in his deservedly famous excerpt from Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.” This snippet doesn’t capture the majesty and wisdom of the full quotation. Please, promise you will read it!
I’m reading what I’ve written so far and it seems trite, except for the part about the survival suit. Taking that thing off, and, as some Tibetan Buddhists say “leaning into the sharp edges” of the things that terrify us, takes tremendous courage. That fundamental terror—based on vulnerability—is shared by everyone from fascists to saints. Segue to another quote from a great film, one inadvertently containing some great Buddhist wisdom, The Big Lebowski:
Donny: “They were Nazis Dude?”
Walter: “Oh come on Donny they were threatening castration! Are we going to split hairs here?”
Walter: “Am I wrong?”
Dude: “Man, they were nihilists, man! They kept saying they believe in nothing.”
Walter: “Nihilists! F*** me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”
In the film, Walter says this even though he is a very enthusiastic and vocal convert to Judaism (“I don’t roll on Shabbos!”).
I don’t know how I got here, but let’s get away from the subject of Nazism, fast. Suffice it to say I’m more afraid of someone who operates without a code than someone whose code condones even the most deplorable act of hate. With a code, at least there is a fundamental belief in the value of belief. With analysis and self-examination, there may be some hope for the opportunity to believe in something else.
For what it’s worth, here’s what I believe:
Even my most cherished and undeniably unassailable values—for example, don’t stomp on kittens in the street—are still ultimately just choices. The sun and the planets and the stardust and carbon know nothing from right and wrong, and that is the stuff I am also made of and whose laws I am completely subject to. However, everything I have read, from Taoist scripture to the Bible to Buddhist dharma, suggests that life is more satisfying when we try to think about other people. That’s why I started meditating and studying Buddhism. Not because I’m a nice guy. But because I was looking for a way out this essential “askewedness,” often mistranslated as “suffering,” that Siddhartha Gotama discovered first on the marathon meditation that led to his enlightenment. It’s called the First Noble Truth, and it basically says that human life is effed up. Among other things, we are still wired to run from tigers and club the guy stealing our food even though we spend most of our time in temperature-controlled buildings pulling the food we need out of a magic box.
Any time you find yourself baffled over the stupid crap we do, you are experiencing the First Noble Truth.
I called this post “a” Buddhist approach to the inauguration and not “the” approach, because, again, I can’t speak on behalf of something much bigger than me, that I have profound respect for, that isn’t really an “ism” to begin with. But here’s how I would summarize Buddhism, if asked:
Slow down, pay attention, and be nice.
Truth be told I am going to fight, and fight hard, for the things I believe in, harder than before. But I’m pledging to do that without sharing Memes of Despair and Gloating on the internet (pledging to. I won’t always succeed). I’m pledging not to accuse people who voted differently than me of being terrible people (again, I will sometimes fail).
Like The Dude, I plan to abide.
– Eric Hayward
(Pictures courtesy of Polygram Filmed Entertainment, Pups are Fun Enterprises, Universal Studios and Carl Sagan).