SEO Copywriters are Stuck in the Past

By James Mawson, October 2016

Too many so-called “SEO copywriters” have no idea how to write content that will get good search traffic. To these guys, all that matters in SEO copywriting is writing regular copy that uses keywords in the right places.

Half a decade ago, this worked well. I mean, sure.. a really keyword dense piece of text might have made you throw up a little bit into your mouth so that you had to force every scrap of willpower towards keeping your facial expression neutral while you discretely swallowed the spew back down your throat so that nobody could tell that your choice of reading matter made you vomit a little bit in your mouth.. but it could still get some search traffic.

Once Upon a Time

Half a decade ago, search engine optimisation could rely on mass linkbuilding techniques. This meant spammy links automated by software or farmed out to cheap workers in low wage countries. These link networks weren't the most charming part of the internet. Their job had little to do with pleasing readers. They were popular though as an easy and affordable to direct huge numbers of keyword optimised links to nearly any commercial website.

Terrible website? No problem! Enough backlinks and you could still rank it. I mean, it was nice if your website wasn't putrid, but hardly essential.

To do this kind of SEO you needed a lot of content to publish on other people's websites. This text didn't have to be any good, but it had to be unique and you needed mountains of it.

There are two main ways to get bulk content written as cheaply as possible. One is to use writers from low wage countries who make up for their poor English with a willingness to work incredibly cheaply. The other is to use article spinning software to turn one bad article into a hundred horrendous articles. These two methods could always be combined.

None of this writing was going to give Oscar Wilde a run for his money. This didn't matter when it was written to go on 1000 websites to build links back to yours. It might have been barely readable but that was okay. Who really reads blog farms and article directories anyway? Only kooks and SEO guys. I might be repeating myself there.

Could you use these same methods to write the copy for the client's website? If you really wanted to I guess. If you didn't really care what the customers are going to see.. except you probably should care about what your customers see. It's too important for sweatshops or robots.

Enter the SEO copywriter. This guy could some keyword-optimised copy that customers could read without the client dying of embarrassment. This guy might know a few things about how to hold a reader's attention or persuade them towards buying something, but if he didn't then that was no big deal. The main thing was to write copy plausible enough that the client could read it without hyperventilating into a panic attack over the thousands they were throwing at this SEO campaign. That was really where the bar was set. Often this guy might work at a digital agency where all the incentives and pressure were to get things to the minimum acceptable standard as quickly as possible. Still, their work could rank.

Suddenly Everything Changed

The kind of SEO campaign I just described - built from heaps of cheap text blasted over blog farms and web 2.0 sites - doesn't work anymore. The big problem with any kind of SEO that awful websites can use is that over time, more and more awful websites will use it.

Search engines don't like terrible websites getting onto page 1 for high traffic search terms. It stinks the place up. Search engines make their money from showing ads to users, and users only keep using something as long as it works well for them. For this reason, search engines constantly adjust their methods to smack down SEO techniques that ruin their results.

Search engines don't hate all SEO, but they absolutely hate SEO that takes a dump on their business. So looking back, it was inevitable that these mass linkbuilding methods would be read their last rites.

And so in the past five years we've seen Google release wave after wave of major changes to their algorithm. The penguin, panda, and other updates have been covered well and in reasonable detail by others. If you've got the time and the interest, it's worth reading up on it.

The shorter version of how Google killed these mass linkbuilding strategies is this:

Google has become much more fussy about backlinks. You still need other websites to link to yours to compete for valuable search terms. It's just that now the only links that really matter are the good ones: links that real people might actually click on, from topically relevant pages that real people might actually visit. The concept behind this - that the weighting the algorithm gives to backlinks should be based on a model of real surfing behaviour - has been part of Google's thinking since the start.

Some people might tell you that there are still gaps in Google's algorithm for sneaky black hat link schemes. They're right. Google isn't perfect at working out which links are the ones that real people might click on. They're just a lot better than they used to be, and improving all the time.

Building a whole lot of low quality links is useless for SEO now. It's worse than just a waste of time, energy and resources. The introduction of the Penguin penalty means that it might also get your butt kicked.

Google cares a lot more about user experience metrics. User experience metrics are things like dwell time, short clicks, long clicks, bounce rates, pageviews and so on. These are technical measures of whether people like your website.

It makes sense for Google to care about these metrics. They are very difficult to artificially manipulate, and they provide a direct measure of whether searchers are happy with a particular result.

Google has become better at on-site measures of content quality. Google has become a lot better at working out whether or not a page is any good just by reading that page: things like word count, spelling, grammar, purpose, expertise and originality all contribute to a content quality score for every page they index.

They also employ content quality scorers to provide a human measure of content quality. It might be impractical to have paid workers review every page they index, but they hardly have to. Just looking at some of them gives them plenty of scope to identify and correct weaknesses in their content quality score algorithm.

The advent of the Panda penalty means site owners have to worry about content quality across their whole website. This spells death for most mass linkbuilding schemes. Websites that care about their search performance - and that's most of the good ones - aren't willing to publish crap anymore.

Wait, Hang on a Minute, Wasn't This Meant to be about SEO Copywriters?

OK, so I've made my point. SEO changed a lot in five years. What's this got to do with SEO Copywriters?

Well, most of them do their work like it's still the old days. I mean, sure, they'll pay lip service to the massive changes in search engines in recent years. But when they get down to performing the work, they follow the same procedures as they did in 2010.

This blows.

Most of these guys don't seem to even realise that the huge changes in the algorithms have big implications for their work. Their attitude is to let the technical SEO guys worry about the algorithm and they'll just get on with content. They've never got it into their heads that new rules for SEO mean new rules for SEO content.

What Should You Seek from an SEO Copywriter?

Would more customers from your website make a difference to your business? I've no idea why you'd be here if it wouldn't. Look for an SEO copywriter who really gets these points:

Linkable assets

Sometimes it's hard not be a snob. Industry buzzwords, for instance. Yuck!

But I happily make an exception for the phrase “linkable asset”. Not only is it a useful way to describe an important idea, it kinda sounds a bit lewd too; that entertains me.

To be clear though, these linkable assets are nobody's anatomy. We're talking about web content that websites with real readers will be happy to link to. SEO now relies on getting great links from websites that real people read. SEO content simply must be written with a view to getting these links.

In the old days it was definitely nice to have content that good sites would see reason to link to. But it was hardly necessary. If your content met a minimal level of readable English, you could build as many links as you wanted from blog farms and web 2.0 sites. With enough of these, the content could rank.

Now, links that matter come from websites that exercise editorial control. They have real readers to worry about. They don't want to link out to just anything.

Being linkable means having something worth saying. Huge amounts of professionally produced website copy is just rewritten from wikipedia articles, competitor websites and the client's existing marketing materials. Why would anyone link to rehashed pieces like this?

Look for someone who is looking for that extra edge to say the things nobody else has covered properly. Look for someone who sees copywriting as a collaborative process. If your SEO copywriter goes straight to work as soon as he gets the brief, worry. You want the guy with a squillion questions. Being a business owner gives you unique insights into your business, industry and customers. These are simply too valuable not to make it into the copy.

But a linkable asset is more than just interesting and well worded content. It's work that great sites can link to in a way that's natural and gives readers a good experience. This means writing content with regard to how it will be promoted and what sort of sites it will be promoted to.

Do you give interviews to journalists, bloggers? If yes, then it's a great idea for your SEO content to elaborate on some interesting points you might touch on during an interview. You can then send those URLs to the interviewer. If they feel like including them in the interview will improve it then they probably will.

Do you write guest posts or provide syndicated content for other publishers? Here's a great chance to get great links back to your piece. Ideally your guest posting will link back to content on your site that covers a different but closely related topic in a way that doesn't seem forced or artificial. Let's be clear: no decent website wants to publish spammy links that make their content worse. If you can link to great content on your site in a way that makes your guest post better.. well.. that's a whole other ball game.

Do you promote your content to a social media following? You want shareable content. Get shared enough on twitter and facebook and you can find your content linked to from blogs, internet forums, and other places besides.

Have you no clear idea at all how you will promote your SEO content? Then stop calling it SEO content; you might be doing something but it's not SEO.

User experience and content quality metrics

Google looks at how many of the visitors they send stick around, and how many hit the back button straight away. So keep them interested! Good SEO copywriting means caring a lot about what's going on in the searcher's mind when they're typing the phrase you're targeting.

Google also gives every page a content quality score. You want a good one. The best way to handle this is to write stuff that doesn't suck. It's helpful as well though to have some knowledge of what Google specifically looks at to judge content quality.

Ask your SEO copywriter whether or not they've ever read Google's content quality scorer guidelines. If they pay any level of attention to how Google thinks about content quality then they will be familiar with this document. A lot of guys might be unwilling to give you a direct answer if they haven't read it, so if you sense any funny business then move on to someone else right away.

Keywords still matter

Yes, SEO copywriting is still a little bit about putting the right keyword phrases in the right places. This is a much more trivial achievement than being linkable and interesting. Still, it matters. You want your main keyword and some various semantically related phrases to occur in the title tag, in the H1 tag, and a few times through the content. Most SEO copywriters do okay at this.

What's at Stake Here?

What would it mean for your business to be right in front of the customers right at the precise moment they're searching for the thing you sell? What difference would this make to your day-to-day life, your stress levels and anxieties, your family and loved ones, your plans for the future?

If this matters to you at all, you need to care about whether your SEO copywriter is up to date with SEO. It's all well and good to follow a few guidelines about how to rank in 2010.. so long as you have a time machine. For everyone else, there's nothing for it but to do the job properly.

If you're looking for an SEO copywriter in Melbourne who really gets how stuff works right this very minute, give me a yell. No promises, but I might be available. Please send me a message. It would be great to hear from you.

Call me on +61 421 551 080 or email me using the contact form.

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