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Writing for Search Engines and People

As with all aspects of creating a successful website, thinking the content writing process through will likely lead to a richer website and more traffic. Professional copywritting should consist of the following for stages: research, thought, planning and execution. When you are writing content for non-commercial purposes (such as a how-to article) it maybe not important to go to great lengths to create content. However, it is important to invest the time in getting content for commercial pages right, as it is your content that converts traffic into customers or enquires.

Research

If you have been involved in an industry for a number of years the chances are you are going to be able to write reams of content for the various aspects of the industry. However, writing content with the aim of garnering search engine traffic without researching the search landscape will leave you creating content without goals and direction. Researching your content is imperative to creating content for search engine optimisation (SEO) purposes.

Keyword Research

Keyword research is the cornerstone of not just content creation, but also search engine optimisation as a whole. Any SEO campaign that doesn't incorporate at least moderate keyword research can not be considered a serious campaign.

The objective with keyword research is to thoroughly explore the search landscape for a given web page; with the aim of finding as many search terms as possible that the page can rank for. There are always obvious keywords. For example, a page about web design would benefit by ranking in search engines for [web design]. However, for such a page there could be hundreds or even thousands of related (for example [website design]) or longtail (for example [web design agency UK]) keywords that could also be targeted. As well as related and longtail terms, there are often terms that are unobvious and thus hard to come across. Keeping on the subject of web design, such an unobvious term might be [how do I get a website], which has decent traffic and extremely low competition; hence it could be a term with a good return on investment (ROI) - ideal for SEO on a tight budget.

Keyword research will provide ballpark figures of how much traffic a term is likely to bring in. You can also determine how lucrative it may be by both common sense, SEO experience and certain metrics. A good SEO consultant will also be able to determine how competitive keywords are and make judgements on what are the best keywords to target based on: your budget, the competition and how suitable your product and service is to the terms.

In short, keyword research consists of finding the best keywords for you and your budget. It will often incorporate short and long-term keywords to target.

Once a list of keywords has been researched for a given page, any keywords that are not relevant to the product or service being should be discarded. Keyword research may also uncover ideas for new pages if the terms uncovered are too broad or if there are too many terms to optimise one page for. Even if the keyword research contains terms which it is not feasible to rank for, they should still be incorporated into the text where possible. This is because the majority of search queries are what are called longtails - derivatives of broader terms. Incorporating a large number of searched terms into your page will mean it will more likely benefit from longtail search.

Natural Language

Before discussing in more detail what natural language has to do with creating content for SEO, it should first be established exactly what is meant by longtail. Take for example, the term [search engine optimisation]. This is know as a head term. A head term is a root term describing a broad topic. In SEO, a longtail is a derivative of a head term. For example, [search engine optimisation content] is a longtail of [search engine optimisation]. There are also super-longtail terms, for example [best search engine optimisation content UK]. Around 25% of search queries are super-longtail and the vast majority of them are difficult to uncover without exhaustive keyword research (takes at least one month and cash investment).

This super-longtail search is often very uncompetitive - easy to rank for. If you have a page that ranks well for a broad term, e.g. [SEO] it will be easy to get that page to rank for the large amount of super-longtail search by just adding the words to your page. You may think it is not worthwhile targeting such obscure terms, but:

  • These terms will be the easiest to rank for
  • Longtail keywords give the best conversion in most cases
  • A number of longtails can bring in the same traffic as one head term
  • Longtail search results are less prone to change (more stable)

These super-longtail terms don't need to be added to the page as an exact string. For example, if you have a page about [search engine optimisation] and your super-longtail is [best search engine optimisation company UK]. It is possible that you would be able to rank well for this term by adding the terms 'best', 'company' and 'UK' sparsely throughout the page.

There are two ways you can find out what super-longtails there are for your terms. The best way is to use pay per click (PPC) platforms like AdSense too mine out broad search terms. This is a lengthy process, which may not be possible for smaller SEO campaigns - at least initially. The alternative approach is to simply compile a list yourself. You can even use the new words you have shortlisted to look for more possible niche terms you didn't discover during initial keyword research.

One way in which you can find such natural language is to analyse web pages of competitors.

Similar Content

Finally, you can find keyword and content ideas by looking at sites with similar content. If you are based outside the US, it can be a good idea to look at US sites too as search engine-oriented copywriting is a lot more prevalent there.

Professional Research

Although it is possible for an outsider to web development and SEO to research and produce good content, the stage they are most likely to fall short on is the research stage. For this reason, it is quite common for an SEO to research the site and also make recommendation to the layout of the text, leaving the content itself to be produced in-house.

Thought

Once you have carried out your research, you don't just jump straight in and write it. The purpose of writing content for search engines is ultimately to get humans to the site. Before going any further it is a good idea to think which perceivable groups of humans you would like to try and cater for.

Aims

Before writing anything, the first aspect that needs to be considered are the aims of the content. Having no aims online is a killer. Imagine turning up for a professional football match without preparation or studying the opposition. You know that you want to get the ball in the back of the net, but that is it. That is how so many SEO campaign go. Without well thought out aims you're never going to know where you are going. If you ask any leading professional how they got where they are, the common answer is drive and determination, .i.e. they had intent. It's the same online. You need intent to move forward in a cohesive manner.

So ask yourself - How do you want your organisation to come across on this page? Do you want to be seen as another commercial company that allegedly loves nothing more than offering its customers the cheapest prices? Or do you want to be perceived as reputable professionals?

Who are you targeting? Do you want the page to appeal to Joe Q. Public or John D. Rockefeller? Remember that each person is different and you can't appeal to everyone with the same content. So, choose the direction that you feel best suits your target audience.

This is particularly important when it comes to service sites; particularly for bespoke services. If you are offering bespoke service, you probably don't want to appeal to people who have less than £1,000 a month. On the other hand if you are selling discount electronics, you will want to drive in every enquiry you can.

It may seem obvious, but unless you consciously think about these things before you write your text , it's not going to be targeted.

Brainstorming

Once you know your intent for the page, start compiling draft sentences and brief notes in any manner. This is where looking at other good content is useful if you are no good with words. Get your ideas down as soon as you think of them, as once the ideas flow it is quite easy to forget great points.

Plan

Once a brief outline to the content has been formed its time to decide how it will be organised and what media (if any) will be used to make the copy richer.

Organisation

Organisation simply consists of organising your brainstormed ideas into a cohesive format. If you have a lot of text, it may be a good idea to sort the content under headings and sub-headings.

Communication

Next, you need to decide how you are going to communicate to your target audience. It is important to remember that your page is intended to be visited by people via search results who may have never heard of your organisation before. Communicating to them as quickly as possible what the page is about is essential. This may sound basic, but if not considered or if pages are just being rushed out, it is easy to create pages that are not going to hold visitors from search results.

The easiest way to quickly communicate with people are photographs or iconography, combined with large bold headings and followed by a smaller opening paragraph.

Imagery is a common problem - using irrelevant and unobvious images, placing too much imagery above the fold, using generic stock imagery and so on. There are limitless avenues of possibility when it comes to creating imagery for your pages. Consult your aims and again consider your target audience to think of what might be the best imagery to grab their attention.

Having re-assured your visitor that the page is probably relevant to what they are looking for via imagery, you are going to need some text to inform and direct them to take a certain course of action. This can be achieved though the use of a heading followed by text that is inviting to read or bullet points.

Choosing the right text and imagery is not a simple matter. You can make decisions on what to use based on common-sense. However, you have no idea whether your content is what your target audience really wants unless you test it in a process known as multivariate testing. Multivariate testing involves using multiple variations of a page and testing which one gets you the best results. Carrying out this sort of analysis may not be viable or even warranted in all cases, which is why you should spend some time considering options from the outset.

As an example, if a web agency were setting up a page for link building for the high-end of the market, they might opt for the following:

An image of * followed by the headline '9 out of 10 of our clients triple their traffic with our link development services', followed by a quick paragraph briefly detailing their high-end link building process and capped with copy detailing the process in more detail.

Alternatively, they might consider what their favourite clients discussed with them during their initial meetings to try and target the audience that best suits them. Try and place yourself in the boots of the people you want to convert, what do they want to see and hear?

Finalise

Once you have all your ideas down, review them questioning the validity of each aspect and asking yourself questions like, "Is this what people want to see?" and "Is this human-friendly?" Getting a second opinion can also be good, but remember to tell them your goals for the page before you ask.

If you are developing a page with a rich user-interface, it is a good idea to make a wire-frame layout of it to help your designer know exactly what you want.

Execute

With the content outlined, the next stage is to write the text. Take all of your ideas and put them into sentences and expand to paragraphs where applicable. When writing, it is likely that more ideas will spring to mind; write these down before you forget them.

Image

Content reflects on your organisation. If you are outsourcing your content to India for a penny a word or stealing content from other websites, think, what does it say about you? - It says you are unprofessional and can't be bothered. On the other hand, if you have invested in producing quality content this is going to be evident to anyone taking the time to read through your site. It is the people who will take the time to digest your site who will often become best the best leads or customers. On top of that, good content can help build links (even to purely commercial pages) and also respect. Links and respect will help to generate more traffic and more enquires. Poor content will only generate clicks on the back button. Content is particularly important if you don't have a large budget to promote your site. As good content will be more likely to convert what traffic you do get.

If you neglect your content, you are neglecting your organisation. Either completely outsource it to someone who is going to take the time to do a good job or get it done in-house with the help of an SEO consultant. The first website I ever made for a client - many moons ago - still to this day has a page reading, 'Content coming soon.' People are often under the impression that operating on the web grants access to a magical money spout that will start spurting once you have pushed a few pennies to a web developer or SEO consultant. If it was that easy, web developers and consultants would all be at it themselves. The web is all about investment. If you don't put in, you won't get out and content is the incumbent monarch of the web.

Length

There are numerous philosophies when it comes to content length, which may vary based on the aims of the page. Some people like to keep their pages short and try and direct people to take action with minimal information. Others, like myself, work on the basis of producing long, informative content to appeal to connoisseurs - people who are looking for an expert rather than those who are looking for the bargain bin. What approach would work best for your audience would have to go down to multivariate testing, but using common sense and thinking your content though should point you in the right direction.

Your content needs to needs to account for the fact that a lot of people don't read much text on the web. They scan the pages, picking out fragments of information that stick out. If you want to try to appeal to this audience, you are obviously going to have to make the page short and sharp. Too long and uninteresting and you may loose them. Too brief and you may loose people who are looking for in-depth information. The obvious compromise is to start your page with easy to digest information for the scanners, followed by a call to action if applicable, more in-depth information and then a call to action.

It is worth considering that people who are just scanning your pages tend to be the lowest quality prospects. If you are offering products or services at a fixed price that is probably not an issue. However, if you are offering bespoke services you are probably more interested in not having to deal with these time-wasters in the first place.

My first serious website had 8 A4 pages of text on the homepage. The site monitored how long people spent on it and when a quote was made it included the length of time the visitor had spent on the site. We knew that if someone had spent the 30 minutes it took to read the content that it would a serious enquiry. Whereas enquires that had been submitted by people who had been on the site for about a minute were obviously from people who were just looking from the cheapest quote - not what we wanted. These are the kind of factors that need to be considered in the earlier stages of the content creation process.

As briefly mentioned above, informative content can help to build natural links from real sites. Quick scrawls and content that has been driveled out by someone who is making a penny a word is probably not going to.

Linking

One consideration to take when writing content is internal and external linking. This is not an issue when writing informative article - add links when they are merited. However, when it comes to writing text for commercial content; it is advisable to keep linking to a minimum. Typically, your aim with content is to guide people from the top to the bottom of a page and then give a call to action. Only link when you think it is merited. Some people have a habit of linking to their pages religiously with keyword-rich link text in their site copy. For example:

SEM Labs is a small SEO Consultancy based on the Welsh border.

Their aim is to boost their search engine rankings by linking to another page with words they would like it to rank for. In the above example, the link is not really merited and thus it looks a little spammy. The search engine value of doing that is so low that it is not really worth it. As a rule of thumb, only link to pages if you would have done if search engines didn't use link text to as a ranking factor. In other words, don't link internally purely for SEO purposes.

Appearance

Once you have your expertly researched and written text completed, it is time to format it in HTML. If you want it to look the best it can, that means hand-coding it all, using bold and italics where they are warranted etc. Text dropped into a website from a word processor tends not to look that great.

The aim is to make your text inviting and easy to read. That means using a decent font size, spacing between the lines. If you have little or no skill in HTML and CSS, you are either going to have to make do with what you have got or outsource the formatting of your content. For those who produce content on a regular basis, learning basic HTML and CSS would be advisable.

Once into the meat of your copy (if it has any) don't place or minimise on any distractions like banners, advertising etc. When someone is reading your content, the last thing you want to do is ship them off to another site for a few pennies.

Refinement

Naturally, you should read your text once you have completed it. There are a number of people who are extremely particular when it comes to spelling and grammar. Writing 'company's' instead of 'companies' or any number of other common blunders will be all that is needed to have such people clicking away. Having others check through it is a good idea, as they are more likely to spot errors.

Another way you can improve your first draft copy is by trimming the fat or waffle. If you can reduce your text by 50% but still get across the same point, do it. In particular trim waffle from your opening headline and paragraph.

Content for Search Engines vs. Content for People

This is where most SEOs will say, "Make sure your content is for people, not for search engines." Although I would agree with the statement, it is unbalanced and a regurgitated statement.

The term 'content for search engines' refers to content that is geared to rank in search engines at the probable expense of the fluidity and sense of the content. An advocate of stuffing keywords into text as much as possible would argue that the more keywords you can stuff, the more traffic it is going to get. For the most part this is true. For example if one of the terms you wanted to target was [cheap pink mouse mats UK], that would mean stuffing that term into the text as an exact string (as is).

On the other hand, the term 'content for humans' refers to content that is geared to humans at the possible expanse of search engine traffic. An advocate of human-oriented web copy would argue that keyword stuffing pages will make them look like spam and hence drive people (who are your ultimate goal) away. For example, if one of the terms you wanted to target was [cheap pink mouse mats UK], that would mean writing something like:

Welcome to Mouse Mats 'n Things, the UK's premier retailer of mouse mats. We have all kinds of mouse mats including pink and blue ones. We are the biggest mouse mat retailer in the UK, so you can be assured of the cheapest prices.

Content that is stuffed with keywords is likely to generate more traffic from search engines. However, you may convert fewer of those landing on your page because the page is a bit spammy. It is also worth considering that the human-oriented page may generate more traffic in the long-run because it has attracted links. Another point worth considering is even though a keyword stuffed page may turn more visitors off, that the actual traffic it brings in may outweigh the loss. However, if you are serious about your site, making it into a keyword-stuffed spam-fest is not going to do much for your image. If you are going base everything you do online on search engines, be prepared to suffer. Because search engines are prone to change and allegedly are trying to improve the quality of results. More keyword-stuffed pages are not the order of the day as far as search engines are concerned.

In my opinion, the best course is to find a middle ground. That is to base your content on what is being searched for, but never compromise it for the sake of trying to get a term in that is not warranted.

Outsource vs. In-house

Producing your content in-house will generally be the best solution, unless your in-house written skills leave much to be desired. Outsourcing your content means that it will be written by someone who probably knows nothing about your organisation or what you do. How long has it taken you to know what you know about your field? And how much do you think a content writer can learn about your field in the time you are paying them to? How much do you need to pay someone for them to get them to care about what they are doing? - Pay by the hour. Fixed fee means they will only care about what they are doing so long as they are making what they would be happy to work for an hour. As soon as you start pushing them below minimum wage (which is not uncommon in web work) they are going to botch out your text as quickly as they can. Also consider how interested they are in the topics they will be writing about. The end-product will always be best when the content is produced by a professional who loves what are writing about. If their writing skills are not great, the content can always be improved by someone with good written skills. Another aspect to consider is that all content writers are not the same. Some content writers will be experienced in editing books for publication and other will be experience in writing text to convert as many visitors as possible. If you are going to outsource your content, you will need to provide them with rough ideas to get good results.

Tweaking Content

Once your content is online, that is not necessarily the end of the process. As any experienced SEO will tell you - you may be surprised how high and how low a page may rank for given terms. After your content has been indexed by search engines, you may find a term you didn't target is converting well and you would like to edit the page to make it rank higher for that term. Or vice-versa. You may also want to run split or multivariate testing to try and increase the conversion of traffic.

SEO Content is King?

It is important to understand that content is not king. It only gets its crown once it gets traffic. No matter how good your content is, if no one knows about your site its not going to get any traffic or links. Content is but one ingredient of moving forward online. An SEO consultant is not the answer, content is not the answer, links are not the answer. A strategy that combined the above and more is.

Conclusion

Hopefully this shows anyone who is currently engaged in SEO and those who are considering it why they should take not only content, but all aspects of their online operations seriously; and why cheap content is just that.

Look at the number of steps and the attention to detail outlined in the steps above and consider how much investment would be needed to produce content that you can be proud of. The internet is full of drivel, thin copy and content by people who can't be bothered. Producing good content is probably one of the easiest tasks that can be undertaken and thus is an easy way to make you stand out.

This hasn't been a mammoth effort as this is a non-commercial page, but it should give you an idea of what you need to invest into the content of your site. By taking a bit of initiative and a bit more time, I have produced a page that I think is:

  • Going to bring in search traffic
  • Appeal to my commercial target audience - people who are looking for someone who pays attention to detail in their work
  • Becoming a useful resource for people interested in the topic
  • Help build reputation
  • Build natural links from real sites
  • Generate enquires from people who are looking thoroughly into SEO services

If I had not taken the time to look into things, the article may have been disjointed. Because I planned out the content, I already knew roughly what I wanted to write and didn't have to think on my feet. Much the same as writing a book, good content needs to be planned to some degree. The level to which you are going to plan is up to you.

Finally, I have tried to write this as neutrally as possible - separating opinion and reality, which is something you don't often get in the search arena. However, it is always important when reading SEO-related material that there are no right and wrong ways of carrying SEO out - there are no definite answers to some questions. Different situation require different approaches. You cannot accept one person's word as gospel.

Comments

Sire Replied at 2:50 AM on 27 Aug 2009

David, this has to be one of the most in depth article I've seen on SEO for a long while. I've stumbled it because I think that those who are really serious about getting their site noticed should have a read.

Oh, your mouse mat example, it would have turned me away for sure.

Personally, while I know that I should be doing a lot of this stuff, I just don't have the time and it would take all the fun out of blogging, and for me, if I wasn't getting any enjoyment out of blogging I reckon I would chuck the whole thing in.

dave Replied at 1:16 PM on 5 Nov 2009

This is the first time I visit your blog, I'm blown away by how comprehensive and useful this post is.

We currently have around 50 sites and I usually aim at writing content for our visitors, but including our specific keywords at the same time.

David Replied at 3:54 PM on 28 Aug 2009

Thanks Sire :)

Personally, I don't think you need to take such care with your writing as your sites are all blogs as far as I know. This is more aimed at people who want to create serrious sites selling something for the long-term.

Sire Replied at 1:42 AM on 7 Sep 2009

Oh, I actually have two websites, very amateurish, but since I've taken up blogging I haven't spent too much time updating them.

Rich Dansereau Replied at 9:42 AM on 23 Sep 2009

It does seem that many novice bloggers and business people approach using the net without a well thought out plan, sometimes no plan at all. To me this is reminiscent of buying obscure traditional media ad space without thought for its placement or audience. I think your SEO Content Is King? portion is right on target as you can have a content rich site that is not supported with any type of actual plan to draw in visitors initially and it is akin to hanging a Picasso in the closet. And I greatly appreciate your info on super longtail keywords.

David Replied at 4:20 PM on 23 Sep 2009

Thanks for your comment, Rich.

It is refreshing to see someone with such a level-headed approach to working online. My days are often filled with people who expect the moon on a stick for a few pennies. If it was that easy, I would be doing it myself as opposed to offering web services. Strategy is all important. Although I don't have much of one for this site, I do my best with my limited resources.

Good analogy of hanging a Picaso in a closet.

If you're really interested interested in running a high-end SEO campaign, super longtails are a good thing to work in; although most people can't budget for the research and work involved. It also depends what niche you are in how effective it will be. For example, I have found SEO terms have very little variety and the few narrow terms are often competitive. There is a good post by Hamlet Batista that goes into a bit more detail on the subject. The post doesn't go into how you can mine the terms by monitoring the impression though.

Rich Dansereau Replied at 9:06 AM on 24 Sep 2009
445

Thanks for the link to Hamlet Batista's article; it is a great read. His article makes a persuasive argument for researching longtail keywords. I think it looses a bit of its force however when you realize that many of these longtail queries are unique or seldom searched for. Pursuing these longtail keywords can be a benefit I agree but it seems like the effort can also be quite time consuming. This is one arena where time management, cost vs. benefit, is of supreme importance. It could be quite easy to get pulled endlessly into this pursuit.

David Replied at 7:22 PM on 29 Sep 2009

Yeah. In general, it's best not to spend too long on this. I would do it by just adding the words to a page in a way that is good for humans. I'd not spend time making sure every term was in the top couple of results. By doing that, particularly if the page ranks well for a broad term should be where to start. Then on review of the page, you may find that you have a really well converting term but it is at the bottom of page one; and look at improving that term.

Also, by finding the invisible longtails, you will be possibly able to rank for a broad variety of term. For example, if you had a page about 'link building' and you found a term [cheap link building firm UK]. By adding the words 'cheap', 'firm' and 'UK' to your page, you might be able to rank for all sorts of terms relating to them. Whereas these terms may be unique, they tend to be variations of each other. So by targeting one, you may be able to get traffic for numerous terms.

Eoin Redmond Replied at 3:59 PM on 20 Oct 2009

David, thanks for the comprehensive article. Picking up on the section Content for Search Engines vs. Content for People - we work with mainly small businesses who simply want high rankings on Google and don't actually care much about this text. I've had companies tell me to write the entire text for the website and then not want even to review it!. I think I'll refer future clients to your article to help them understand the balance between creating good SE-text and stuff potential customers might want to read.

Thanks

Eoin

Leone Parette Replied at 8:20 PM on 23 May 2010

The tips you offer here are 100% right on.

It is obvious to me that you follow your own advice. The material is presented logically, and therefore, serves as a great teaching tool for those who read it.

In addition to the writing and research itself, the idea of seeing what others in the community in your niche are doing is also excellent. That is one of the first things successful advertisers do is canvas what is going on, so that they won't be trying to invent a wheel that has already been made for them.

Anyone following what you have here, and then practising their writing often, will surely be a successful communicator.

Mark Attwood Replied at 10:31 AM on 6 Aug 2010

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Kendall Replied at 2:06 AM on 24 Feb 2011

David,

Brilliant, you may not say much but you're one hell of a writer.

Kendall.

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