There are a few common Search Engine Optimization (SEO) myths amongst content writers. One is the belief that optimizing articles for search hinders the reading experience and makes the writing sound formulaic or boring. Another is that combining SEO best practices and reader-friendly content writing is too hard.
Neither could be further from the truth. What makes the difference is understanding SEO’s importance in your content strategy, and learning how to insert SEO into the creative process. You’ll leave this article with the knowledge and action steps for both.
Don't settle for SEO lite
Across industries, content writers often settle for or default to SEO lite. SEO lite is when you insert the keyword phrase you’re looking to rank for into the article title, add it 2-3 times into the post, include it in the meta description and URL, write as relevant a piece as possible, then publish and cross your fingers that the article ranks. This is the predominant advice amongst content writers who know the value of ranking in search results, yet are weary of going all-in because there’s so much formulaic, robotic, bad content that’s “made for SEO.”
Current tools on the market are also built for and encourage the SEO lite approach.
The interesting thing is that the motivation behind SEO lite’s isn’t wrong. Google has made it clear:
“Our goal is simple: to give people the most relevant answers to their queries as quickly as possible.” - Google
But the reason SEO lite doesn’t get the job done is that relevance goes beyond including the keyword phrase a few times. True relevance anticipates the searcher’s needs and addresses them beyond mentioning the initial query.
For example, if you write an article targeting the keyword phrase “best credit cards,” you can’t repeat “best credit cards” in the article and leave it at that. You need to talk about annual fees, balance transfers, reward points, foreign transaction fees, required credit score ranges, and annual percentage rates. That’s true relevance in action.
SEO is about relevance
Google’s main goal is to give people the most relevant answers to their search queries as quickly as possible, so your focus should be exactly the same.
For example, imagine a person searches for “SEO tips” in Google. They click on the number one ranking article because the title, description, and URL indicate that it’s fresh content that’ll solve their problem. Once the person arrives on the page, they see a heading that grabs their attention, but then they start scrolling and discover that the content is a long way from quality SEO tips. They press the back button and leave in less than five seconds.
In this scenario, the article could’ve had hundreds of backlinks and pristine technical optimization, but since the content didn’t meet the needs of the searcher, it’s on the fast track to decreased rankings.
Relevant content is the biggest factor
Relevant, high-quality, great content answers a searcher’s query by understanding their intent through proper research and including the key topics that will signal to Google that this is a perfect match for a person’s search results. When considering the weight of different ranking factors, again, good content is the only one that truly matters.
For you as a content writer or editor, relevant content is the top SEO element you can make the biggest impact in, and that’s also closest to why you probably started as a content person in the first place — your knack for working with words.
The other SEO elements you’ve probably heard about, like link building and technical optimization, are supporting actors to the star of the show. Here’s how.
Technical optimization helps Google crawl your content
Google’s crawler bot is a machine. Technical optimization is about making your website easy for the machine to read so it can evaluate what your piece is about, then display it to the right searchers.
Put another way, technical optimization is like the oil on a bowling lane that helps the ball, and the bot, travel faster. This doesn’t boost rankings, it’s just bad if Google can’t crawl your site. No crawling equals no search results equals no organic traffic.
It’s important to note that Google is getting better over time at crawling sites with technical issues, but you still want to dot your i’s and cross your t’s with these few fixes.
Fix broken links with a tool like Screaming Frog
Set up “301 redirects” from old pages to new pages using a WordPress plugin (it’s like mail forwarding but with web pages)
Make sure there’s no duplicate content on different pages of your website
Fix anchor text (the text you link with) to include relevant keywords of the page you’re linking to and from
Review where your internal links point to, and prioritize your most important pages
You may need developer help for these other technical SEO elements.
Improving site speed (use Google’s Page Speed Tool)
Implement schema markup which tells search engines that you have reviews, star ratings, etc.
Ensure your pages are mobile-friendly with Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test or consider implementing Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP)
Create an XML sitemap and submit to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools
Make a Robots.txt file and submit it to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools
Again, technical SEO can’t boost rankings but if Google can’t crawl your pages, you need to fix it. Start with what you can knock out. Work with a developer to handle the rest. Then get back to writing relevant content.
Link building is about appearing authoritative
Link building, the practice of increasing the number of links back to your website, is where SEO gets it’s spammy snake-oil reputation from. In the early days of search, internet marketers would set up websites with lots of shady backlinks or stuff their content with repeating keywords to game the search engines. No writing skills were required. This approach added zero value, enticed marketers away from relevant content creation, and left searchers with articles that only showed up because they had the most links. Fortunately, Google improved their algorithm over time to squash these “black hat” tactics.
Even with that shady history, backlinks are still a factor that impacts what shows up in search engine results. Think of backlinks as a vote. Every time a person links to your article or website, it’s like they’re saying “I trust this website about this topic.” The logic is the more backlinks you have, the more credible you are. This is where the concept of PageRank comes into play. Further, if a high-PageRank site links to your site, that’s an even better vote of confidence in Google’s eyes.
It’s important to note that backlinks will not save you if your content is irrelevant. Backlinks are an amplifier, not the end-all-be-all. Don’t trust a marketer that tells you otherwise. Google is willing to pay more attention to a page with a ton of backlinks to see what all the fuss is about, but the algorithm is smart enough to find out if what’s there is solid web content or simply a backlink scam.
SEO in a nutshell
To recap, relevant content is the core of SEO followed by technical optimization and link building as supporting actors. If you focus 90% of your efforts on creating great content in response to specific queries while handling the fundamentals of the rest, then you’re headed in the right direction.
Inserting SEO into your content writing process
Since relevant content is the most important factor in good SEO, how do you move past the SEO lite approach and create a more robust, search-friendly content writing process? Follow these steps.
Choose the right topics at the start
Before you write any article, it’s important to consider your audience, and even if there is an audience for what you want to cover in the first place. How many of us have written a piece we thought had an audience but actually didn’t? Too many. It happens to the best of us.
Say you’re a content editor for a lifestyle media company and a contributor pitches you an article about “homemade beehives”. How do you find out if there’s existing demand in the first place to decide if you should give the go ahead to write the article?
Keyword research is the way to gauge if there’s an audience searching for a topic. If your goal is to drive organic traffic, a keyword’s volume is a big indicator of whether something is worth writing about or not. If you’re looking for a keyword research tool, use Clearscope to hit the ground running.
Understand what's important to cover about your topic
Once you pick a keyword phrase with good volume, figure out what topics within the topic to cover. The typical practice for a content writer to do this is to hop over to Google, type the keyword in, open all the top articles in a dozen tabs, and skim them to see what’s covered. The problem is that this practice is based on human observation which is prone to error, and also just takes too damn long.
This is where modern SEO tools like Clearscope come in handy. For any keyword, the tool analyzes top-performing organic content and gives you a breakdown of all the relevant terms in order of importance.
Use the relevant terms not as an afterthought, but as the go-to source that shapes your article outline from the start. This approach replaces the “eyeball the top competitors” step in the content writing process. For example, if you’re writing the “best credit cards” article we mentioned earlier, just by running a Clearscope report you can get a clear sense that annual fee, account opening, partners, and bonus points are topics you need to dig into. In other words, you can’t hope to satisfy searchers who are looking for the best credit cards without writing about these relevant concepts.
Unlike SEO lite which only focuses on the main keyword phrase, this process accounts for every supporting term you need to include to reverse engineer what’s already ranking on Google. Like a compass, it’ll show you the direction your article should go.
Write your draft, then make sure you covered all your bases
When you’re done writing the first draft, put what you wrote into Clearscope’s real-time text editor to see your “content grade” that tells you how relevant and comprehensive your article is. You’ll quickly see if you’ve included enough useful information about your topic.
If your content isn’t an A+ yet, you can make the necessary edits to take it there. It’s important to highlight that an A+ content grade doesn’t automatically translate to “will rank number one on Google.” But there is a data-backed trend.
According to 30,000 reports created on Clearscope by organizations like Dropbox, eBay, and Wellness Mama, the more relevant a piece as measured by content grade, the better the Google position. In other words, a good content grade reflects how useful the piece will be to end searchers, measures how much Google will like it, and weighs the scales in your favor to rank higher.
Raise the bar above what's ranking
Including relevant terms and concepts in your article based on what’s already ranking can feel like copying, downright stealing even. But it all comes down to what you write. By addressing what topics are already being covered, you cast a wide net to appeal to many searchers and increase your chances of capturing search intent.
Plus, you can bring your own angle to the fundamentals, then raise the bar with your expertise and insights that’ll move the thinking on the topic forward.
Wrap it up with the right elements
As the final bow on your writing process, optimize these elements.
The title tag is the link in search results that says what your article is about. People will click the title tag if it speaks to them. For example, if a person types in “restaurants in san francisco” then a title tag that anticipates their needs would be “The 21 Best San Francisco Restaurants to Try in 2022: Reviews and Photos”
The headline is what you name your article on your website. Like how the headline of this article is “How to Bring Content Writing & SEO Together”. This is usually the same as title tag but it doesn't have to be since it's not subject to the same length restrictions.
Subheadings or subheadlines are what you name the sections of your article. Perhaps you should include relevant terms in subheadlines that you discovered through Clearscope?
The URL is the web address of your article. Consider including your target keyword but don’t expect a huge uptick from the addition.
The meta description is the blurb underneath the title tag in a search engine result. Google doesn’t count meta description as a ranking factor, instead, it exists to inform and entice the search to click through.
These elements help Google understand structure and hierarchy, and give readers a sense of what to expect. None guarantee relevance so spend the brunt of your time writing relevant body content.
The step-by-step process
For easy access, here’s how to insert SEO into your content writing process, step-by-step.
Step 1: Pick a target keyword with an existing audience
Step 2: Create a report in Clearscope on the keyword
Step 3: Create an outline based on Clearscope’s relevant terms list
Step 4: Do good research (eg. interviewing experts, finding solid supporting data, reading about the subject matter)
Step 5: Write the first draft
Step 6: Put your first draft into Clearscope, and ensure you’ve covered all relevant topics and terms
Step 7: Insert the completed draft into Grammarly or Hemingway, and self-edit
Step 8: Write a keyword-optimized, engaging, honest heading
Step 9: Fine tune your title tag, URL, and meta description
Step 10: Publish!
That’s how you insert SEO into your content writing process.
The end result is long-term organic growth
Over 2.7 million blog posts are published every day on WordPress alone. Whether you’re an editor at online publisher, a content manager at a software business, or an SEO at a marketing agency, the competition to stand out online is fierce.
Moving from SEO lite to SEO informed is a way to zoom past other content writers settling for less. Moreover, inserting search engine optimization best practices into your content writing process, with modern tools like Clearscope, increases your chances of ranking on Google. The end result is organic traffic for your target keywords and ultimately long-term value for your business.
In summary, SEO’s past, present, and future is about forever raising the bar with higher-quality content that’s a win for Google, searchers, and content writers themselves. It starts with the simple act of inserting SEO into your content writing process, putting in the work, and closing the gap once and for all between search-optimized and reader-friendly.