Never Write Content for SEO Purposes
Published: September 1, 2015
Author: Harrison DeSantis
Before you start reading, ask yourself something: Why do you create content? Whenever you publish an article or product description, what are you hoping to achieve? If your answer is anything like “to get more visitors” or “to rank higher in Google,” then you’re doing it all wrong.
Online content falls into one of two categories: those that serve user intent and those that don’t. Writers who make content for the above-mentioned “SEO purposes” are likely not serving user intent. SEO isn’t a numbers game. You will not be rewarded by publishing mass amounts of articles just because they’re well-written and feature keywords. Content creation has potential to be your most profitable tool or your biggest waste of time with the least amount of return. This all depends on whether you write with a goal, if that goal is useful to the reader, and how well you communicate it.
Content for Readers, Not Search Engines
So how can you tell when your content is actually serving a purpose? Let’s take a look at a few articles and compare the clarity of their messages and how well they line up with my query.
Example 1: “How to Hire a Caregiver for the Elderly”
A very specific inquiry, but you know exactly what I’m looking for. I need information about hiring home care services for a senior citizen. So what’s the first result I get in the SERP? Do I get a generic article about “home care services” targeted to the 33,000+ visitors per month searching for that term? Or do I get an article directly addressing my less-common, more-focused inquiry?
What have we here? An article giving me exactly what I’m looking for? Let’s take a look and see how well this Care.com article aligned with what I wanted (which, again, was information about how to hire a caregiver for a senior citizen).
Wow. This is perfect. The Care.com article starts with a story about a family member who ended up needing a caregiver (sharing an anecdote that is likely relatable for someone reading this article) and leads smoothly into all the steps necessary to hiring an in-home caregiver. It covers the pros/cons of using an agency, hiring an independent private worker, and all the precautionary measures you need to take before hiring a caregiver (legal/formal requirements as well as general considerations for your elder’s well-being).
Now, did users find this information useful? Well, it has 15 Facebook shares, 15 comments, and 8 tweets (not visible on this screenshot). For an inquiry that doesn’t even get 10 searches per month, I’d say it got some decent attention. Rather than throwing a loose net around a high-volume term, this article stayed true to its purpose and gave a small handful of people exactly what they were looking for.
When searching for that broad “home care services” term, Care.com (a caregiver job forum site) doesn’t even show up on the first page. At this point, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Well, what good is that article strategy if it’s not getting me to the front page for higher-volume searches?” But what’s the point of that high-volume search? “Home care services” is just so broad. Are you trying to hire home care services? Trying to work in home care services? Obtain a license to qualify for home care service employment? Just looking for general information on what home care services entails? That inquiry could mean hundreds of different things. In addition, it’s a more competitive term, so trying to break into that first page is a grueling task that may not even pay off. However, “how to hire a caregiver for the elderly” is up for zero interpretation. We know exactly what these users want. This article sought to answer one question thoroughly and was rewarded with in the SERP for doing so.
And how many times did this article use my search query verbatim? Zero. User satisfaction carried this article to the top. The keywords did not.
Example 2: “Why Should I Hire a Real Estate Agent?”
This next example goes to show how structuring content around terms is also a bad foundation for online writing. You need to make sure that you’re actually answering the user’s question. Here’s an example of how not to do that with a 9th-page result for the query, “Why should I hire a real estate agent?” Again, very few interpretive lines need to be drawn. I’m looking for information on why I need to hire a real estate agent for all my home-buying needs.
Oh my. First of all, keyword stuff much? The overuse of the term “real estate agent” or “hire a real estate agent” is plaguing the flow of this content. Secondly, this article told me nothing. When first addressing why you need to hire a real estate agent, this site claims there are “numerous reasons.” Gee, thanks. Why not offer some more valuable information? Tell me the benefits. Give me situations that I might run into if I don’t go this route. Get into examples of why the “years of training and professional experience” are valuable to me as a prospective home-buyer. Show me something unique, beneficial, and convincing. No one has time for anything else.
Tips for Writing to User Interest
It’s easy to fall into SEO content creation traps. Many online writers are still learning how to do away with that old mode of thinking. If you find yourself in that same rut, here are some tips on how to write content that users will find valuable.
Write to People, Not Machines
When writing online content, we tend to get consumed by keyword strategy and formula. Some back-end content management systems even offer plugins that judge your content’s SEO worth by measuring keyword density, external links, image tags, etc. This is bad. You are not writing to please a machine. When you limit your writing to hit all of these “SEO checkmarks,” you almost always end up with content that’s robotic, unnatural, and probably at-risk for Google penalization. When users see content that appears written specifically for the Internet, they’re not going for it. Write content as if it’s not going online. Instead, pretend that you will be reading it out loud to one person verbatim. If anything sounds bad when spoken, it will also sound bad when written. If your words are truly effective and on-topic, then they should naturally align with your keyword strategy.
Focus on the Benefits
David Ogilvy used to say, “When you advertise fire-extinguishers, open with fire.” Substance over style is always a virtue, especially online. Just because you’re a skilled writer doesn’t mean you’re an effective one. Whenever you start an article or product description, know the pains, interests, and goals of your reader. Know what they’re looking for and how you can make their lives easier. Establish what end this content is supposed to achieve beforehand. You should be able to sum it up in one sentence, like “sell these fire-extinguishers.” Once you know the goal, make sure that every word is dedicated to achieving it. Keep your focus on information that benefits the user. When reading online content, your readers should never ask, “so what?” Make the benefits obvious.
In Robert Bly’s The Copywriter’s Handbook, he makes the point (several times) that entertaining copy is a waste of time and money, and that you relinquish your artistic side when writing for a business. While I agree that you should never let your writer’s ego get in the way of your content’s overall message, I wouldn’t say that it’s bad to be entertaining. Online content is a constant battle for attention.
Even if you write well and make the benefits known, a lack of personality is always off-putting. Online readers are the most fickle kind that have ever existed. Unlike real life, where we might feel guilty about bolting out of the room while someone is speaking, there is no shame or moral battle when bouncing from a page. It’s instinctual to exit when bored and you need to make sure that doesn’t happen. I believe that keeping people interested is an art that several writers fail at. Always find the appropriate voice and personality for your online content. Let your readers know that there’s a person behind the message. While your facts and information might be helpful to the user, the writer needs to ignite imagination and bring the subject to life.
Dictate the User’s Next Move
Earlier in the article, we established how you need to know the content’s purpose before creating it. If a reader gets to the end of your content and asks, “What now?”, then you have failed to serve that purpose. Always have a next course of action mapped out for the reader so the content can actually accomplish its goal. Whether you want to acquire emails, sell a product, or get users to a different page on your website, make that path clear for your reader.
Nothing about this advice is new or profound. Different iterations of these tips have been circulating for ages and serving as the backbone for many successful writer and copywriter careers. But in the age of SEO and online content, we’ve panicked and allowed search engines to mutate our methods. As Google’s algorithm continues to evolve and users have decreasing patience for poor content, we’ve got to leave behind any writing strategy that compromises the human reading experience. Therefore, writing empty content for the sole sake of ranking is an idea that must go extinct as well.