Adventures in Search Engine Optimization (SEO): First in a Series on Content Writing

Editor’s note:  Unless you live in a yurt or on Antarctica (or both) content writing is in many of our futures. Because of the marriage between traditional journalism and copywriting—strange bedfellows indeed—content writing can be a slippery slope. Many the same rules of solid writing seem to apply… except when they don’t. So along with this periodic series on SEO, Google Analytics and metadata, this is also a call for ASJA members who are seasoned content writers to share your expertise with ASJA Confidential. Please email me or with your ideas, tips and teachable moments. Along with yours truly, you’ll have the undying gratitude of the 8,000-some readers of ASJA Weekly and Confidential!

When one of my favorite clients asked me to write 2000-word article on preventing snake bites in dogs for a pest control website, I was thrilled. Not only did it offer a welcome break from much of the technical writing that pays the bills, but the site was fun to write for, especially because it provided a fascinating glimpse into various aspects of four, six, eight and, in this instance, no-legged animal life in Australia.

When the client mentioned SEO and keywords in his instructional note, I kind of blew it off, so absorbed was I in sinking my fangs into the various aspects of snake control, bite prevention, treatment, and so on. Confident and cheerful, I turned the article in. A day or so later, however, the client sent me an exasperated note mentioning the missing SEO and keywords. Ruh roh. I had stepped on a viper.

But I knew it was fixable. Before tackling the revision, though, I did some research on effective SEO/keyword insertion. While seemingly simple, SEO or Search Engine Optimization is the process of getting traffic from the so-called “free” (read: unadvertised) results on search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo. Each of these search engines shows and ranks web pages and other content based on what the search engine considers most relevant to users. So when you plug in a term like “snake bites in dogs,” my goal would be to have my article appear as close as possible to the top of the Holy Grail of SEO, the Search Engine Results Page (SERP). The finer points of SEO quickly get more complicated. Paid SEO ads are a different animal, with their own set of rules and definitions.

Writing and inserting SEO, I discovered, requires finesse. In this case, I had three or four secondary keywords and phrases that needed to be used and knew they should sound natural in terms of the story itself. So with the keywords/phrases in mind, I went over the story with a fine-toothed comb, inserting them where appropriate and highlighting the insertions to make sure they were varied and not too repetitive. And while I had to kill a few of my babies (ie remove terms that made the writing more colorful), that was more of a style preference. It was OK for me to switch the phrases around and occasionally use words like “canine” and “best friend,” but synonyms that were a little more out there, like “serpent” and “pooch” were frowned upon, a situation I’d encountered when writing for some other websites as well.

I also learned that “snake bites in dogs” needed to appear in the first 100 words of the story and that the secondary keywords, which involved brown snakes, should also show up in the second paragraph. Key phrases need to be inserted as close to the top of the story as possible so Google or whatever search engine can easily pick them up.

While certain types of SEO writing, such as what is produced for content mills, might justifiably get a bad rap and dilute solid journalism and immensely drag down rates, many clients understand the need for and require well-researched and original copy—and these clients pay accordingly. But as the writing world becomes more digital, there are new and still-evolving rules of engagement. I, for one, plan on staying on the grid, with no yurt in my future.

Among many other things, learn more about ace content writing at Navigate. Motivate. Captivate., ASJA’s annual New York conference on May 18-19. Discounts are still available until Saturday, April 7! For more information on the schedule, keynotes, and hotel, please click here.