Why writing Skills make you an SEO wizard
Chris Gillespie, Founder of Find A Way Media
One Writer’s Quest For Domain Authority
SEO, to most of us moderns, seems like wizardry. It’s so complicated, my toes curl when I think about venturing into the depths of Google Analytics to see how my site ranks – or doesn’t, rather.
But I’ve realized there’s a great big catch. Read a history of Google search’s algorithmic updates over the past two decades and you get the sense that the venerable search provider has matured. When Google was young, it was clever and tried to predict users’ interests with complex protocols. Now it’s old and wise, and simply watches whether they stay to read.
This has a massive implication for writers. If online readers want to find the right information in the least amount of time – and to enjoy it – SEO is increasingly a reflection of good old-fashioned writing quality.
So that copy of The Elements of Style on your shelf? That’s basically a book of spells. Here are three ways to apply your technique.
1. Increase your search conversions
Let’s get meta. Meta tags – those succinct summaries that appear in Google search results – were once a strategic battlefield. SEO wizards flooded meta text with juicy jargon to boost results. But Google caught on and nixed that. Meta tag text no longer influences search rankings. Sort of.
“Meta tags still matter," says Neil Patel, co-founder of Kissmetrics, “but the reason isn’t incredibly technical. While Google does take into account your portrayal of your site’s pages, the real marker they look for is user behavior.” [Emphasis my own.]
That is, Google cares first and foremost about whether real people click. So keyword-heavy phrases like “Need nutritional weight-loss smoothies? Get nutritional weight-loss smoothies here!,” which were never intended for human consumption, no longer cut it.
To earn clicks from real people, your meta tags must be concise and intriguing. Think of them as an ad in organic search results. They must distill your entire value proposition – or at least, that of the page – into one pithy sentence. Here’s an example from Warby Parker:
That’s a lot of information in just 161 characters. Yes, there are keywords, but Warby Parker conveys its entire business model and price point in the first five words. Here’s another from the survey software firm Typeform:
Typeform’s value statement fits in the first three words: Its forms are interactive experiences, not the spammy-feeling “Tell us how we’re doing” surveys you get from other form providers. It conveys the benefit – getting more responses – and addresses two chief objections: No, it doesn’t cost anything to try, and you needn’t know how to code.
To improve your meta tags and, by extension, your SEO, write your tags like they’re ads:
Omit needless words: Never use three words where one will do, and choose shorter words if it doesn’t change the meaning.
Front-load keywords: Say the most important thing first.
Use evocative words: Replace “earn” with “boost,” “surprised” with “shocked,” and so on.
2. Rank higher in searches
There are nearly unlimited combinations of dials you can turn to adjust your technical SEO. You can shave milliseconds off your page speed, optimize for mobile, or address any number of the more than two hundred Google ranking signals. You can and should pay an expert to do all that.
But you should also listen to Google when it writes things such as “users are often the best judges of relevance” in its patents. Again, the new Google likes what people like. And people like useful things written clearly.
Clarity begins with the title of your page or article. “Your title remains the strongest relevance signal,” says Search Engine Land. It’s the biggest reason people decide to click the link to your article, whether in search, email, or social.
Some pundits recommend spending at least half of your time sculpting the title, often called the 50/50 rule. In 2006, Brian Clark, founder of Copyblogger, committed the ultimate meta act to prove this point: He advised marketers to “downright obsess over your post title,” which he did with an article he named Writing Headlines That Get Results that is still among the top results for that topic over a decade later.
The best titles are often intriguing and offer valuable information while leaving some important nugget up to the imagination. This is known as the empty-suitcase method: Describe the suitcase, allude to its importance, but whatever you do, don’t tell readers what’s in it. For example, write “Seven ways social media can hurt your career” without telling what those ways are.
Tantalizing headlines are a double-edged sword, however: If you promise, you must deliver. Lure readers with a line like “you’ll never believe what happened next!” one too many times and they’ll quickly learn not to click.
For intriguing titles, do:
Use evocative verbs
Employ the empty suitcase method
Use trodden clichés such as “game-changing” or “low-hanging fruit”
Be cloying or manipulative
Make promises you can’t keep
Next is your lede. That’s your intro or hook – the first few sentences of your page or article. It really has to sizzle for readers not to bounce, and you can follow the same rules as headlines, though the lede must relate directly and obviously to the headline and the meta tag so readers know they’ve landed in the right place.
It takes very little effort to improve the average lede. Many business ledes are boring and ineffective because they:
Philosophize needlessly. E.g. “In a world of unparalleled automation …”
Are written in passive voice. E.g. “A new strategy was undertaken by the CMO ...”
Are buzzword or jargon-dense. E.g.“Intelligent automation depends on synergy …”
Bad ledes are among the top reasons readers bounce. Ann Handley, Founder of MarketingProfs and author of Everybody Writes, offers several ideas for making them better: cite a statistic, share a personal anecdote, or insert readers into the article by telling a relatable story.
And then there’s your body. You want visitors to read your piece completely, so end some of your paragraphs with cliffhangers, or what the late writing legend William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, called “snappers.” These are intriguing half-thoughts that propel readers to the next paragraph, such as “But suddenly all of that changed.” But be careful – they can be risky.
Snappers often contradict the prior paragraph and force authors into a more dramatic portrayal of their story. If the story has substance, snappers make it un-put-downable. If the story has fluff, snappers can backfire and make it sound self-indulgent.
To keep readers exploring the rest of your site after they read, use what’s known as suggestive linking: Recommend articles the reader might like and link to pages on your site with relevant keywords. A good example of this can be found on the blog by analytics platform Mixpanel, where, rather than linking randomly, they share tantalizing statistics from customer case studies and then offer a link to the full study.
How should you end your articles? Abruptly. Attention is a finite resource and if readers sense that you’re misusing their time, they’ll bounce anyway. Once you’ve made your point, drop the curtain, permit readers the satisfaction of completing the article, and offer an intriguing link to the next one.
3. Become an authority on your topic
When your copy is precise, concise, and evocative, it gives readers the information they want – fast. Your website feels helpful and trains visitors to think of you as a wellspring of answers. They’re more likely to tell friends and return, and your SEO writing efforts will congeal into something all SEO aspirants dream of: Authority.
Now, there’s a debate raging in the search world about what exactly “authority” means. Google flatly denies keeping a strict 1-100 score for ranking websites like “domain authority,” a term and tool developed by SEO firm Moz for approximating search rankings. Google does maintain an algorithm called PageRank, which measures the rank and quality of a particular page’s backlinks, but Google has reduced PageRank’s influence on search rankings as of late to thwart SEO hucksters.
This much is clear: Age of the site matters some. Number and quality of backlinks probably make a difference. But what matters now more than anything is whether visitors treat your site as an authority on a topic. As Roger Montti, staff writer for Search Engine Journal put it, “What counts today is relevance to the user.” It’s about the user experience, as companies such as Mixpanel have learned.
"When we started creating SEO content last year, we followed the rules and focused on keywords,” Katie Lazarus, Website Marketing Manager at Mixpanel, explained in an interview. “But what we realized is that while all that was good, we had also invested in high-quality writing and our articles were actually helping people. News outlets gave us coverage and backlinks and that’s what’s really helped us promote our site.”
What Google wants
Google is interested in what people are interested in. Google loves clear and intriguing writing. If you’re a marketer who, like your author, quails at the thought of trying to stay ahead of Google’s 665 or so algorithm updates every year, consider that your time might be equally well-spent studying creative writing and learning to pen pieces people are thrilled to read.
Post script: This article wouldn’t be complete without a note on how we’re using these techniques here at Find A Way Media. We’re ranking for keywords in a few areas that matter to us and you can track our progress. See if you can find us on the first page of Google search for “how to write thought leadership,” “what is cross-promotion?,” and (it’s a long shot, but hey) “what is content marketing?"