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October 30, 2020

Position Strength

Improve your Search Engine Rankings

SEO vs Traditional Writing Principles: Achieve a Winning Combo

10 min read

I’ve worked in SEO for nearly 8 years and my greatest passion is still writing. This is pretty handy too, given the importance of great content to successful SEO.

Reflecting back, I wanted to help others considering the move into content for SEO – and provide some reminders of important writing principles to those already in the space. 

Whilst the SEO landscape has changed an awful lot since I arrived on the scene as a much fresher-faced journalism graduate, SEO and content have actually become so closely linked it’s become harder and harder to separate the two disciplines .

If your role in digital marketing operates at the crossover of SEO and content writing, how easily you’re able to adapt to marry the two will ultimately define how successful you are with your implementation. 

For those who’ve trained as more traditional writers, those sacrifices may at times be difficult to take, but if they help you and your clients generate more business, you’re going to have to play the game. Equally, SEOs who’ve arrived into content roles via training outside of the content space can learn plenty from traditional writing principles to improve their delivery.

I’ve written this primarily for those starting out in content roles, but there’s some valuable reminders to be had beyond that too.

Demand Quality

First and foremost, never let your writing standards slip in terms of the quality of content you demand from yourself and others. Without sound grammatical principles, the content you produce will turn off potential customers – whether it’s ‘for SEO’ or not. 

  • Always proofread your copy. It’s incredibly obvious when it hasn’t been done and the mistakes you make through not proofing will stick out like a sore thumb
  • Demand the time the copy justifies. You can’t rush quality writing, just like you can’t rush design, technical SEO or development. Copy for SEO is just as valuable as a skill as any of those areas

Copywriters, creative writers and journalists moving into SEO should all find this pretty easy to stick to.

If you’ve come into an SEO content role from a different route though , don’t neglect your writing standards. Readability is priceless for engagement. 2017 Zazzle Media research found that 60% of those producing content for marketing can’t do it consistently well, so if you can nail this, you’ll already be leaping ahead of the competition.

Be Willing to Break up Your Content

How you break up your content in the world of SEO is likely to look a little different to what you may be used to if you’ve trained in journalism or creative writing. According to a 2017 HubSpot study, 73% of people admit to skimming blog posts, with only 27% consuming them thoroughly. 

When you’re crafting a longer piece of journalism for example, you’re telling a story and creating a narrative that might not always sit within a rigid structure. Sure, you might lean on the inverted pyramid, or the 5 Ws, but your pieces are likely to be pretty fluid.

Certain SEO copy will often command different constraints though, such as:

  • Including more headers within your content 
  • Using much shorters pars to aid with the relationship between readability and search engine crawlers 
  • Writing much shorter sentences – a product page doesn’t need a narrative in the same way as a story does. Short sentences will maintain interest
  • Writing content that doesn’t always follow a traditional structure, that is purely designed to aid the conversion journey. This could include using bullet point lists to secure featured snippets

Thankfully, over the past 8 years or so, Google has become far more intuitive in their search for natural content, so there’s far less you need to do to ‘engineer’ your content. Providing you bear the SEO goals in mind, the copy should still flow quite easily. 

Copywriters moving into SEO will be fairly accustomed to this, as it’s likely they’ll have had to write with SEO in mind for many years. The process is likely to be more difficult for creative writers and journalists, who are more accustomed to building narratives and telling stories.

If you’re a more traditional SEO moving into content, don’t focus purely on breaking up your paragraphs and ensuring your sentences are short. You need to make sure that your copy flows through the page as well. Learning how to effectively tie pars together will improve how engaging your copy is. 

Accept the Copy Won’t Always Take Centre Stage

According to Backlinko research, Google is currently using around 200 factors in their algorithm to rank websites. 

As writers, we’d all love for our copy to be appreciated as the star of the show. In the world of digital marketing though, it’s unlikely that the words will ever be front and centre in the same way they are in the media, or in creative writing work. 

The thing is though, that’s totally fine. The words are actually only one part of the marketing puzzle, so it’s natural they’ll at times have to make way for the wider SEO benefit.

Regardless of the writing background you hold, we all have a little bit of an ego in that we want our words to take pride and place. When you’ve poured your heart into the work, that’s totally understandable. If you can balance that passion with the practicalities of SEO though, you’ll go further in the space than someone who can’t.  

It is also worth mentioning that if you’ve been in SEO for a while, don’t let this go so far that your copy is being pushed too far out of the picture.

Typewriter

Get Accurate Quotes & Sources Where They Fit

Whilst this won’t extend to all writing for SEO purposes (product pages for example), quotes and sources are still an absolute must when it comes to creating lots of other content that could bring organic benefits. 

Examples could be company interviews, studies you’ve commissioned, news stories offering expertise and more. With all of those, quotes and well-sourced information will add legitimacy to the content, humanising and quantifying what could otherwise easily become a collection of statements.

This, by nature, will make your content more engaging – and you need to retain those users; to drive them down the funnel or engage them with your brand. Think about the bigger picture and you’ll see the role your quotes and sources can play. 

Demand quotes from your bosses, peers and clients as much as you need them – and dedicate time towards properly sourcing information to add weight to your content. 

Journalists moving into SEO should already have this ingrained in their writing make-up and should actively look to bring those skills over to SEO. Copywriters and creative writers may need to develop the skill a little to recognise what makes a great quote. 

For those who’ve not trained in writing, research where and when you should use quotes and ensure that you’re always including them in relevant work. Make sure your quotes are authentic, rather than writing them and getting the person to approve them.

Conversational vs Serious: Be Willing to Adapt Style 

Journalism, certainly in the harder news fields, will tend to be delivered through a much more serious style of writing than an SEO blog, for example. This is totally understandable and it’s entirely negated by the format in question.

What this does mean though is that when you’re writing for SEO purposes, you’ll sometimes need to inspire engagement in a very different way. That could be through:

  • Creative product page copy designed to retain users and encourage leads
  • Conversational tutorial pieces for your company or client blog, that are designed to drive organic traffic 
  • Etc.

Initially, I found this quite jarring, having spent several years producing hard news writing. Reflecting though, it wasn’t really that hard to adjust the tone of voice for the different format. It’s not really any different to the process of researching your audience and positioning your writing to appeal to them.

Copywriters, journalists and creative writers should all be relatively accustomed to adapting their tone of voice to suit the medium. For the SEO field, it will perhaps come most naturally to copywriters, but those with roots in the other two disciplines should also have no real difficulties adapting here. 

On the flipside, for the non-traditional writers, it’s always worth investigating how well you’re achieving the desired tone of voice in your SEO copy. The better you know your clients, the better you’ll be able to sound like them. 

Write a Strong Intro

Almost every type of copy online requires what is effectively a strong intro. Product pages, digital PR pieces, blog content, service page copy – whatever it is, you’ll need to grip people from the off or risk losing their interest. 

This is actually pretty similar to the age-old journalistic principles of sticking the ‘Who? What? Where? When? Why?’ elements into the first paragraph of your stories. 

Whilst the actual content you’re putting into the start of certain SEO copy might require different fundamental elements, the principle of putting enough of the important information in, early enough on, remains the same. 

Journalists will find this incredibly easy to do, whilst copywriters are likely to have been doing it already anyway. Creative writers are most likely to need to adapt their style for the SEO medium here. 

For anyone working in SEO, improving your ability to write great intros is highly recommended. Test the starts of your outreach pitches, blogs and more to impact incremental change over time.

Embrace the Sale

Journalism has certainly evolved considerably in recent years, with many top media outlets recognising the potential of SEO and the need to take it seriously. That said, the underlying principles of writing for SEO and the media are generally pretty different – and in creative writing it wouldn’t have been applicable at all.  

Whilst you’ll sometimes be using your words to tell a story in SEO, like you would in journalism, SEO copy is generally going to be centred somewhere around the marketing funnel. 

Whether it’s to build your brand, drive people towards getting in contact or to compel a purchase, you’re going to have to learn to sell to and engage users, rather than writing simply for your words to be digested as interesting information alone. 

Learn to write great calls-to-action and think about how the psychology behind your words can elicit action from users in a very different way than they would when reading the news. 

Copywriters are going to take most naturally to this side of SEO, but it’ll be more jarring to those with backgrounds in creative writing or journalism. Ultimately, how well you adapt will go a long way to telling you whether the move into SEO is the right one for you. 

All this considered, never be too sales-led in your approach. For SEOs that have been in the profession for some time, or for those moving into content roles, it can be good to evaluate how well your narrative around your CTAs is working.

Properly Research Your Audience

According to the Elderman Trust Barometer, consumer trust has declined from 2019 to 2020. This is vital to bear in mind if you’re writing for SEO, because if you don’t know your audience, how can you expect them to trust you enough to buy from you. 

It doesn’t matter what medium, publication or platform you’re writing for, make sure your writing fits for the audience. Without proper research, you’ll churn out copy lacking in engagement that ultimately tanks the SEO investment you’re working with. 

Regardless of the writing background you’ve trained within, the fact you’re moving to SEO shouldn’t matter one bit here. If you’re not writing for a specific audience across any medium, then you’re likely to be failing. I’m struggling to think of one single example where writing doesn’t require a very strong grasp of this.

If you’re already within SEO, then you also need to constantly remind yourself of the importance of audience engagement when writing content.

You May Have to Take One Side

This is perhaps the toughest point for consideration. Those that have trained as journalists should hopefully have a strong sense of the importance of impartiality.

With SEO though, you can sometimes present one side of a picture without another, since the goals are very different. For example, giving prevalence to a competitor product in your clients’ copy wouldn’t generally makes sense considering it’s your clients’ products you want to sell. 

Ultimately, you have to side with the business you’re creating content for. They’re paying you to make them money and if you don’t deliver that you’re failing them. With Statista showing 1.6 billion people shop online each year, you’re going to have to sell well to get noticed!

One important caveat here is that if you’re pushing out an original study to the media designed for backlinks, that treads on an important news subject, then you should still be considering the ethics of impartiality.

Ultimately, you’re going to need some common sense around what factors do and don’t come into play here. 

Journalist trainees will be far more accustomed to fair balance in their writing. This means they may find this point trickier than those from a copywriting or creative writing background.

I came from the journalism side and whilst it took some time to get used to it, you can very easily adapt in time. You can sell a product without selling your soul!

For those coming into content from alternative routes, it’s worth exploring impartiality within work such as digital PR. It may help you earn more respect from journalists, who will appreciate content that isn’t too sales-led.

Closing

Ultimately, I believe that those from all writing backgrounds can excel in the world of content for SEO. If you’ve trained as a writer across any discipline, you’ll already have many of the skills you need to create organic content of the highest quality.

For SEOs already producing copy in the space, you can always improve your written skills and there are plenty of great principles to be borrowed from other writing disciplines that can improve your SEO. 

If you’re willing to be adaptable, you can still retain the core principles of great writing and excel within SEO at the same time!

Post from Sean Potter

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