Hamlet Batista, president and CEO of NEMedia, wants to change your content. He wants to change it so much that he can’t wait to get his search team cracking on it. It’s his bread and butter. And like any SEO outfit, he claims he can get your site optimized and ranking rapidly. But he also has a passion for words. He wants to respect your content – the carefully crafted articles, summaries and reviews you painstakingly labor over. “You have to write the content for the user,” he says. “If they don’t like it, they are going to leave.”
His mantra seems to echo throughout the Internet recently, especially as Google and other search engines keep refining how they rank your site. That means publishers have to keep toying with their optimization. There’s just no way around that, but it also means that some site owners will sacrifice the uniqueness of their content to get the rankings. So, the big question becomes, does doing good SEO cancel out the ability to have compelling content?
Batista points out that about 20 percent of queries people type every day are new keywords. He calls this the “invisible longtail” where there is always a set of new keywords publishers have to optimize for. He calls it a new opportunity. For some sites, just following the SEO 101 rules about using keywords in content and getting your tags and titles in order dilutes the single exclusive thing that makes a site unique – its tone of voice.
Taking a Tone
Attitude is often ignored as more search marketers chase the most recent algorithm changes in Google. But adjusting a site and content accordingly is always going to have only a short-term effect.” It’s important to understand the fundamental nature of how information retrieval works to really be able to get the most out of an optimization project,” LeeOdden, CEO of search and public relations consultancy TopRank Online Marketing, says. However, he adds that, “I often hear content purists confuse attempts at understanding how search engines work with gaming them and it’s just not the same thing. It’s the old debate about whether great content or great links gets you better rankings.”
Odden likens the question to debating which is most important, air or water. “Links and content are both necessary for competitive search marketing efforts. Emphasizing one over the other depends on the situation. Excelling at both is the ideal,” he says.
While understanding all that goes into making search engines tick – in terms of algorithms, methodologies and the importance of link building – is helpful to an overall optimization plan, Odden says that content is equally important.
NEMedia’s Batista goes one better and says that “Content producers don’t use the same words as a content consumer. “He says that users will write in terms of problems, not in keywords. If you’ve been robbed and you search for an alarm system, Batista says that most people will present the problem (“They broke into my house and stole my laptop.”) and not the solution (“I need an alarm for my 4 bedroom house.”). He likens it to the symptoms you relate to a doctor. Most people do not go into a doctor’s office and state, “I have a liver condition; I need Lipitor.”
That’s why some search professionals are advocating more natural language in content whether selling shoes or promoting CRM software. Write content naturally at first and do not worry about the page, suggests Batista, then go through it for keywords, adjusting tags, titles and link building along the way. Don’t get too focused on rankings for all the keywords on the page and neglect a sense of narrative. Batista says a lot of SEO people get too caught up in the technical side of optimization and ignore common sense. Lisa Barone, a senior writer at search consultancy, Bruce Clay, writes that content itself is changing. “It used to be that you go to a page, you open it, you parse it and you index it. Now, Web pages are increasingly based on AJAX. It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. It’s all little fragments of XTML. Crawling it is a hard thing to think about.”
“Sadly,” says SEO and marketing consultant, Anthony Gregory, “a lot of SEO copywriting is not very charming for humans to read.” He says to “remember that the goal of effective SEO writing is not only to improve your searchability and search engine rankings but also to lure customers to your site.”
Keyword stuffing – the practice of repeating the keywords in content copy until it looks like a gorilla wrote it – is a rejected method these days. He says the search engines have become too smart and can recognize this pretty easily. A site could be labeled as a spam site and create a big headache when trying to get it ranked again. He says that a site full of badly written SEO articles makes the site owner “look greedy and desperate for business.” A talent for writing for the user and the search engines is a rare one, and not one that necessarily comes when hiring an SEO professional.
A Balancing Act
There are some things that an SEO consultant may know that a publisher doesn’t. SEO consultant J. Walker says some search engine algorithms prefer pages with higher word counts. The highest ranking pages in Yahoo averaged 1,300 words per page while Google’s high rankers averaged 900 or so. Not that word count alone will propel your site to number one. She says that unless a publisher is able to pour money into paid ad campaigns, they should hire a copywriter or learn the SEO techniques for themselves.
Some writers struggle with striking the balance and do all they can to help keep a piece of copy optimized – even through adversity. Shailey Motial, a writer for content provider Chillibreeze.com questioned herself when assigned to write copy incorporating the phrase “statistics of home schooled in kindergarten” a minimum of four times in a 500 word article.”Was I corrupting my art?” she asked. “Am I guilty of diluting the form of writing by inserting predetermined keywords? I toiled through my first piece, a little unhappy, and a little lost about what to do. I grumbled, as is natural for all of us faced with change. However, pragmatism soon took over and I realized that my writing was of no use, if it did not get any readers. It had to be noticed and hence using the selected keywords would distinguish my work from the clutter,” she says.
Motial adds that the task involves pleasing a human as well as an algorithm – a unique mandate, perhaps impossible to realize completely. But while she says that links can come and go and be dead tomorrow, good, useful content will never be stale. That’s also why firms test their pages as best they can, testing being another revenue source for SEO companies.
Robert Bergquist, CEO of testing and optimization company WideMile, says that with conversion rates currently at .5 percent to 2 percent, sites can’t afford to not test thoroughly. “What they haven’t learned is what to do once they come into the site,” he says. Batista explains that’s why he puts an emphasis on thorough keyword research and link building.
Beyond that, paying for syndicated copy to post on a site has proven popular for many, especially site owners with product-specific sites that can benefit from articles on their niche or theme. Outfits such as uclick.com, Content Infusion, and YellowBrix which bought out syndicated content pioneer iSyndicate, specialize in selling copy from cartoons to political columns to news of the day. Copyblogger.com also offers a handy list of tips to make you a better copywriter.
SEO and online marketing blogger Andrew Girdwood goes so far as to classify a distinction between SEO and “ethical SEO.” Simply put, ethical SEO is about allowing a search engine to see what your website is about as clearly as possible without any”black” arts like keyword stuffing, confusing URLs, or dubious link building. He quotes Google’s “evangelist” Adam Lasnik, who has said that “our algorithms want to see something that’s a happy medium cleanly between: Extreme A — Not listing relevant terms at all on the page. ExtremeB — Focusing on increasing keyword density to the point that your English/Writing teacher would thwap you with a wooden ruler. Hard. Repeatedly.”
That advice speaks to the difficulty of saying once and for all what is the right balance. Girdwood says some believe all you have to do is reach a certain percentage of keywords per page to rank well – anything over that gets labeled as spam. Lasnik has also said you can’t believe that. “There is nomagic number,” he says. Odden adds that “a combination of content as well as social networking, link networking, public relations and gaining editorial visibility as well as viral and individual link solicitations will all work together synergistically.”
Many believe that while good, natural writing is key, finding good writers is a dilemma. Affiliate marketer Kim Rowley finds good writing in family. She employs her two aunts to help her write fresh copy for her many websites and she keeps a pen and paper by her bed to jot down new content ideas. She keeps her blogs personal because it goes well with the kinds of sites she has on baby clothes, florists, coffee, pregnancy and coupons. She adds that some of the best content she’s received is by asking visitors to submit posts. This way, she says,”the content is true and unbiased.” She also builds content based on traffic stats and can write more for a particular site if there is a traffic spike.
Creating Compelling Copy
There is little consensus on how to write truly engaging copy while hitting all the SEO marks, but some of the key elements include:
- Write naturally and try to add SEO elements later.
- Use unique ideas for content instead of relying on cookie-cutter advice from SEO books.
- Use consistent title and tag information – make it straight forward but descriptive.
- Narrow keywords to the most strategic ones. Don’t over-stuff with keywords tangential to your topic or theme.
- Think of the descriptive tag as a story and not just a spot to place keywords.
- Make sure keywords match what people are looking for.
Matt Cutts, Google’s search guru, weighs in on his blog about content as well, warning that “if you put in time and research to produce or to synthesize original content, think hard about what niches to target.”
Cutts advises not to begin with broad articles about “porn/pills/casinos/mortgages” but with a smaller niche. “Look for a progression of niches so that you start out small or very specific, but you can build your way up to a big, important area over time. There are a lot of niches that just take sweat equity. You could be the SEO that does interviews” Or the SEO that makes funny lists. Or the SEO company that provides WebMasterRadio. Or the SEO that makes podcasting easy.”
The right balance may be yours to define. J. Walker says that “SEO methods are specifically designed to increase traffic to your website. Marketing techniques are designed to keep that traffic on your website, and encourage visitors to make a purchase. Your challenge is to find the delicate balance between them.”