Think Like Google: Secrets of SEO

Through use of effective Search Engine Optimization (SEO), ASJA member Tom Gerencer built traffic for a money site from 0 to 600,000 readers a month in 18 months and, along with a team of writers, helped boost a career site from 1M to 3.5M readers a month. A regular contributor to Boys’ Life and Scouting who has also been published in Better Homes & Gardens and Costco Connection, his most recent undertaking is his ebook Think Like Google: How to Rank, Convert, and Profit No Matter How Much They Change the Rules, which can be preordered.

Why is Search Engine Optimization (SEO) so intimidating to writers?

Tom Gerencer: The general impression is that SEO is a complicated mathematical formula involving antiseptic algorithms. While that is true to some extent, SEO is also intuitive to—and actually augments—what we do as journalists.

I was thrown into SEO when I was hired as a head writer for a personal finance website. Along with reading all I could about the subject from experts, I also learned what worked and what didn’t. And I quickly saw that stuffing articles with keywords to get higher Google placement was what you should not do. What I did find is that what works with SEO is what has always worked in journalism… an innate grasp of what readers want to learn about and the information they are looking for.

Hmm…that doesn’t sound so difficult. Yet Google keeps changing the rules regarding top search results. How do you deal with that?

TG: SEO rankings are kind of like a political election, in that Google lets the readers decide what should rank high and what should fall off the radar. Google may tweak the algorithm from time to time, but its goal is to help the searcher. For instance, most SEO experts suspect that if readers stay with an article for 15 minutes, then Google records this fact and it reflects in higher rankings. If users click through and stay with the article for, say, only three seconds, then Google knows this as well and lowers the ranking.

The bottom line is, you get more votes by serving readers better. And [SEO] has become less and less about putting in or “placing”  keywords and more about writing the article to best meet readers’ needs.

What can writers do to increase their rankings on Google?

TG: Keyword research does help but not the way most people think. Instead of stuffing your work with keywords, research the keywords that surround your topic to get a better idea of why people are searching for it. Then craft your article around what you discover. There are several sites that can help with keyword research, including and Although the lists of words and statistics generated by these sites can seem daunting at first, they’re simply measures of how many readers click onto which keywords and can provide all kinds of insights and new ideas. For example, say you’re doing a story on accountant resumés and find dozens of results—accounts-receivable resumés, finance resumés and so forth. After looking at the list, you’ll see that X number of readers were searching for this keyword, while Y, a much lower figure, put in a different keyword. This gives you a clear idea of what readers are looking for and will help you craft the article to meet their greatest concerns and interests. This empathy will show up naturally, Google will notice and rank it higher and as a result, even more people will access it.

How else can you use SEO to your advantage?

TG:  Another tool is competitive analysis, which is basically taking the top 10 articles ranked for a particular keyword and looking closely at their structure. Why are they engaging? How are they organized? In what way do they present information? You also might be able to improve upon what’s already out there. For example, I did a competitive analysis for an article on the annual salary of an NFL referee. The figure $75,000 kept popping up; I did a little more digging and found a single source that didn’t seem particularly reliable. So I researched the topic even more and located an NFL document that mentioned bonuses and other perks, the total of which turned out to be closer to $500,000 a year. Such information can be turned into an exciting article with accurate information and clearly cited sources.

Still another tool is social media, specifically Reddit and Quora [Editor’s note:  Reddit, which bills itself as “the front page of the internet” is a kind of free-for-all where millions of people go everyday to vent and discuss whatever is on their minds, while Quora is more of question-and-answer site for in-depth explanations and brainstorming on information not readily available from a basic Google search.]. Reddit discussion groups, for example, can bring up all kinds of issues and ideas you might otherwise never consider. If you’re doing an article on how aspiring fashion models can build up their portfolios, you can get insight and leads from actual fashion models who are working in the industry every day. Not only can they be great sources of interviews, but you’ll get the scoop on what concerns them the most, the phrases they use and other insider details.

Any final thoughts?

If I could provide one piece of advice, it’s this: Every bit of SEO work you do, be it keyword research, competitive analysis, or social media analysis, it should be focused on building empathy for the reader.

Want more insider information on how to “Think like Google and Amazon”? Then check out the session with Tom and Miral Sattar, founder/CEO, BiblioCrunch and LearnSelfPublishingFast at the 48th annual ASJA conference in NYC, May 5 and 6. Register now to learn about these and many other cutting-edge topics!