Friends Don't Let Friends Write SEO Copy

I’ve never been a big fan of the word “copy”. It sounds so cold and clinical, like something that gets churned out by a computer at a hundred thousand words per minute, or like some drab off-white paint you buy in buckets and roll over blank spots on a wall. But my biggest problem with the word “copy” is that it subtly implies some less than noble intent, as opposed to, say, just “writing”.

That’s because these days copy is so often reduced to being a tool in the SEO arsenal. It’s less about warmly guiding the user through your web site and more about boosting your rankings. What’s the keyword theme of your page? Is the copy optimized to broadcast appropriate authority signals to the search engines? Will the copy help your site rank highly in the SERPs? SEO first, user experience second. That’s the attitude.

Let’s be real—we’ve all had to write SEO copy before, and we’ll probably have to do it again. But it’s definitely something we should be working to extinguish for good. A copywriter’s job is to protect the integrity of the writing and, ultimately, the reader. Let the SEOs worry about search engine rankings. Let the designers design. We want to challenge agencies everywhere to stop filling websites with SEO copy and start filling them with great writing.

Not sure what the differences are between SEO copy and great writing (that also happens to be optimized for search)? No problem. Here’s what to look for:

Great Writing Has a Purpose


SEO copy starts with a keyword theme, targeted keyword phrases, and a set of SEO goals, then builds from there. It goes beyond an acceptable tweaking of terminology (Women’s Garments vs Women’s Clothes) and often ventures perilously close to full-blown keyword stuffing (women’s garments, womans garments, cheap women’s garments, inexpensive women’s garments).

Real writing begins with a purpose—a desired impact in the reader, not the search engines—and, in fact, can’t exist without one. Each word serves the higher goal of the writing and not an unseen search engine algorithm.

Great Writing Has Context


Great writing is a real, tangible thing. It’s something you can look at and then determine whether it’s a product description, a headline, a blog entry, an image caption, a call to action, or something else. SEO copy isn’t anything. It’s a paragraph that can just as easily be placed at the top of the page or at the bottom, in the same color font as the page background and partially obscured by an image. It doesn’t matter where it is, because it doesn’t matter if anyone reads it, because it doesn’t say anything.

Great Writing Is about Ideas


SEO copywriting is about the words—which ones are you using, how often are you using them, and how do they fit together? Can the text be crawled by Google without setting off any alarms? The truth is, anyone can write SEO copy. Doing so takes no particular insight or set of skills beyond an ability to string words together coherently.

Real writing is about communicating a thought or feeling to an audience. Great writing isn’t about the words on the page but about the ideas behind them and how effectively they resonate with your readers.

Great Writing Is Hard


SEO copy is a checklist. Have you used the approved keywords enough times? Do the sentences make sense? Is the text “organic”? Done and done. Easy.

Great writing is not a checklist. In order to fulfill its higher goals (to persuade, entertain, inform, etc.), the quality of the writing itself—and the meaning behind it—must be top notch. It’s not enough for it to simply make sense. Writing “compelling copy” isn’t just something you do, it’s a skill like any other that must be learned, honed, and mastered over a period of time.

I know people hate things that are difficult to quantify. Everyone wants 5 Easy Steps to Better SEO Copy, not 5 Agonizing Years To Become a Slightly Better Writer, but that’s the reality of the trade. Deal with it!

The Hidden Cost


Okay, so how bad is it really if you have some SEO copy tucked away at the bottom of your page? If it’s not prominently displayed, maybe people won’t really read it and the copy will quietly do its job without offending anyone.

Or maybe it won’t.

Yes, it’s important to tell the search engines what your page is about, and you should, but what do you really stand to gain from two or three extra mentions of a keyword? It sounds harmless to swap out pronouns like “it”, “they”, and “them” with one of your targeted phrases, but I believe there’s a hidden price to pay.

Great writing inspires trust in the reader, no matter the medium, and that holds true online. Nothing turns me away from a website faster than typos or spelling errors, but even something as simple as stiff language or a lack of warmth in the prose can send me running. One of the fundamental elements of great writing is varied sentence structure and word choice, which is why seeing the same keyword again and again comes across as robotic and sucks you out of the reading experience.

SEO copy feels sales-y and inauthentic, and it can crush the goodwill you’ve established with quality design and other content. How will it ultimately affect your conversion rate and other core metrics? It’s hard to say. In the end, if you’re lucky, maybe it won’t.

But I do know that you should be able to say that you’re proud of every pixel on your site, every piece of imagery, every word of copy. It’s up to you to find the balance between copy that is effective at communicating with search engines and great writing that people will want to read. If you strike the sweet spot, you’ll do well. And if you read the stuff you write—I mean really read it—you’ll know when you’ve got it right.

Written by Evan Porter on March 20, 2013


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Evan Porter