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How to Write for Search Engine Optimization When You Hate It

“How to Write for Search Engine Optimization When You Hate It” is part of a series. Other installments include Social Media Posts, Email Newsletters, Blogs and About Me pages. 

Hands clenched in frustration over a laptop keyboard as they try to write for search engine optimization..

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If you’re old enough, you may remember a time when “search engine optimization” meant websites hiding lists of keywords in invisible font on their sites. Or creating worthless pages light on actual information and heavy on key phrases repeated until they lost all meaning.

How man SEO experts does it take to change a light bulb, lightbulb, light, bulb, lamp, lighting, switch?

GREAT news – it’s not like that anymore. The robo-intelligence is learning. AI has gotten sophisticated. (We’re a hair’s breadth away from the singularity! Pray for us…) Search engines have gotten much better at figuring out what people actually want to see, and ranking that higher. In fact, I bet you’re better at SEO than you think–because some of the deciding factors are how helpful your information is, how conversational your writing is, and how clearly you answer commonly searched questions.

So here are some tips to help you slay the SEO demon:

1. For better search engine optimization, write how you talk.

Picture yourself explaining something to someone who really, really wants to know about your topic. How would you talk to them? Now write it just like that.

Okay, that might be over-simplifying things, but a lot of people sit down to write and pull out some kind of Mr. Hyde dual personality who sounds like a stuffy old professor. “To optimize text for search engines, one must first be cognizant of one’s expert subject matter.” Look, it’s okay. I forgive you. I hope you can forgive yourself. We do it because for many of us, the last time we had to do any extensive writing was in school. We do it because we can still picture Mrs. Wilson’s red pen scrawled across our essays with notes (criticisms) about areas of improvement (ways we fucked up).

She’s not here. Promise.

Search engines prioritize conversational writing for a few reasons.

  • One, because it performs better. People don’t engage with formal, stuffy writing as much as they do with fun, energetic, awesome writing full of swears detailed information.
  • Two, because people are searching in conversational language too, so it’s easier to match up a query with a result.
  • Three, because it’s more accessible to people of varying reading levels. Collegiate-level writing requires a collegiate-level reading comprehension. But grade-school level writing means people of a wider range of abilities can access your information.

If it helps, picture yourself writing about your topic as an answer to a Reddit thread that begins, “Explain like I’m 5…” It will help keep your writing clear, accessible and easy for search engines to understand.

2. Search engines want you to answer a question.

You know when you search something on Google, there’s a section of dropdown answers that shows up immediately? They’re called rich snippets, and their goal is to give you top-level information as quickly as possible.

Another google search showing more rich snippet results.

It used to be impossible to find a good search result if you typed in a question. Search engines didn’t know what to do with you, so you’d have to type in a bunch of random-ass keywords like “watercolor paint brand best performance” and hope one of those words brought up what you were looking for. Now you can just type, “What’s the best watercolor paint brand?” and Google knows to serve you the page with text on it that starts, “The best watercolor paints are…”

What questions do people have about your services or products? What do they want to know about your industry in general? Write to answer those questions– “The best way to do X is…” – and you’re well on your way.

3. Keep your sentences short for better search engine ranking and readability.

This goes along with the grade-level reading tip from #1 above. Keeping your sentences short helps people understand your information better. It’s easier to follow a series of short, concise sentences than one long, rambling one. And the more time people spend reading your content, the better your rankings will be.

Think like Hemingway and keep things brief. One of my favorite quotes from him about the act of writing is,

"Write hard and clear about what hurts."

You may not be writing about things that hurt, but look how much wisdom is packed into that sentence. In seven words, he’s given you a whole philosophy. And it’s memorable because if it.

4. Be specific.

You and I, we’re never going to rank for top-level keywords. We just can’t compete. If someone searches for “marketing” (a terrible search imo), I’ll never make it to the front page of results. Did you know that up to 92% of users never look beyond the first page of search results? It’s not even close. Second page results only get 6% of all website clicks in a search. SIX!

That means your best bet is going to be to drill down on your keywords and give detailed answers to specific topics. You may not be able to rank for “juggling,” but you’ve got a shot at “how to learn juggling,” “the best beginner balls for juggling” or “tips to learn how to juggle.” (We’re going to make your online clown college the best damn clown college the world has ever seen.)

Related: this is also why people push you so hard to define your business niche. People need to know how to find you, and that means you need to know who you want your customer to be. They’re two sides of your trick clown coin. If your ideal customer is “everyone,” how will people find you? What specific keywords will set you apart? But if your specific customer is “college-aged theater kids who want to learn clowning for side-income,” you’ve just unlocked a ton of specific keywords to help drive your audience to you.

5. Optimize for search engines with a plug-in or a service.

Contrary to weirdly Puritanical, American hustle culture, you do not have to do it all yourself. You are allowed to take shortcuts. And one of the best shortcuts I can offer you is a plug-in that gives you an SEO score as you’re writing. WordPress offers Yoast integration seamlessly, as well as many others. SquareSpace doesn’t do plug-ins, but you can use this free tool to rank your site or blogs. Wix and Weebly have built-in SEO tools. No matter where you’ve built your site, there are third party SEO-checking services that can help.

So what do you think? Have my suggestions helped, or are you going to let SEO keep pushing you around? (You know the best way to deal with a bully is to fight back, right?) Let me know in the comments if these tips helped you. 

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Hi, I'm Lana.

I’ve spent 16 years in advertising, and now I’m using that knowledge to help creatives grow their own small businesses. Will that include you this year? 

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