“I don’t write for search engines,” blogs the social media cool kid. Presumably, he writes for “people”. Yeah, right.
If you read no further than this sentence, I’ll be content if you let just one concept sink in: Writing for search engines is writing for people.
The Case for SEO Writing
There are at least two types of writing for search engines. The type that understandably inspires contempt from writers of reputation is keyword article writing. Keyword articles are designed expressly to capture search traffic, and their quality is usually marginal, reflecting the pittance (by Western standards) paid to the writer ($3-10 per article). They’re often written in non-idiomatic English, stuffed with keywords (the terms that people put into search engines), and uninformative. A keyword article found on a search for “auto accident clam”, will feature fluff sentences like, “Auto accidents are something that everyone wants to avoid. Some only cause minor car damage, but others can be fatal. If you’re involved in an accident, you should file an auto accident claim”. This is the kind of content that gives SEO a bad rap.
The type of search optimized writing that I advocate is what might be termed SEO conscious writing, which can be applied to copy of any quality level. The writer’s goal isn’t to maximize keyword density or indiscriminately fill whitespace, but to maximize the content’s lifetime value through search discoverability. What does that mean?
Let’s look at a blog post title that sounds juicy, but is actually terrible for search engines: “10 Ways to Make Enemies on Twitter”. No doubt, it’s great linkbait, and provocative enough to stoke a flurry of pageviews. But what happens afterwards? After a few subsequent posts, this one falls off the front page and into the blog’s archive. A few dedicated readers will read past the first page, but for practical intents and purposes, the post no longer exists. Only those who were impressed enough by the post the first time to read it again will search to find it.
So why is this title bad for search engines, and why does it matter? No one searches for information on how to “make enemies on Twitter”. If that isn’t already obvious, put that phrase in the Google Keyword Tool and see if it shows more than zero searches a month. On the other hand, the keyword “how to use twitter” gets 8100 searches a month worldwide on average. This means that around 270 more people each day search for “how to use Twitter” than “make enemies on Twitter”. If your blog’s “How to Use Twitter” post ranked #1 in Google, it would receive 42% of the Google’s total search traffic (the statistical norm for the top search result): around 113 visits a day. The post, “How to Make Enemies on Twitter”, regardless of its ranking in Google, would receive close to zero search traffic.
How Would You Find Your Stuff?
The point of the last example is this: once a post falls into an archive, the only real exposure it has to the world is vis-a-vis Google and other search engines. Yes, people could find your post through a link on another blog, but that post would probably have been archived as well.
Reference books have more long term value than magazines. Book publishers can go for years between updates on dictionaries, while magazine publishing is a constant grind. If you feel that it’s necessary to blog every day without fail to keep up your pageviews, consider adopting the mindset of evergreen reference content over expiring periodical content. If 100 people are searching for a something nontopical today, it’s likely that another 100 will be searching for it tomorrow.
While there are a few technical best practices to search optimize your content, which we’ll get to, the reference content approach really is a mindset issue. If you’re ever wondering if the post you’ve written is evergreen or expiring content, ask yourself the question, “How would I find my post if I didn’t know about it?” Would it ever occur to a total stranger to think, “I wonder how I can make enemies on Twitter”? Probably not. Would it occur to someone to think, “How do I use Twitter?” Of course. And you didn’t even have to you the Google Keyword Tool to figure that out. So give your post a title that people who aren’t your regular readers would search for—an approach which leads us to . . .
The Title Tag
From now on, adopt it as practical fiction that people only see your title in a search engine, not on your own site. This will change the way you craft titles. While backlinks are the main driver of SEO, the most important on-page factor of any post is having an exact match keyword in your title tag.
The title tag is the HTML version of your post’s title. So
<title>SEO Writing Tip #1: Optimize Your Title Tag</title> would be the title tag of this post. In most cases, the title you create in the Title field of the WordPress editor will be the title tag, but not always. Many blogs are configured to have the site name or a tagline before or after the post title. You don’t see this on the post page. You see it at the top of your browser and, more importantly, in Google (or another search engine) as the blue highlighted title you click on to get to the post.
How to Optimize Your Title Tag
Use the exact keyword in your post. How do you find the best keyword? See my keyword research post. Once you’ve determined the primary keyword you want your post to rank for, make sure it appears in your post unaltered. If more people search for “Parkinsons Disease” than “Parkinson’s Disease”, then use the former. If the keyword you’re targeting is the plural version, use the plural version. If the keyword is comprised of several words, avoid inserting additional words or punctuations between them whenever possible. What you put before or after the keyword matters less. For instance, the title, “Parkinsons Disease: The 4 Most Common Symptoms”, still contains an exact match for “Parkinsons Disease”, even though the colon is placed immediately after it.
Use a maximum of 65 characters. This includes any spaces or punctuations. You know those titles you see in Google that cut off with ellipses, sometimes right in the middle of a word? That’s a title that exceeds the visible 65-character limit (Google allows for up to 80 characters, but only the first 65 will be displayed). These titles often appear incomplete to the reader, and studies have shown that truncated titles result in as much as a 20% lower clickthrough rate. For the record, other SEOs have argued that the ellipses actually increase CTR, based on the notion that the reader is compelled to click through to finish the phrase. Unless you’re exceptional at SEO copywriting, and know how to build suspense in a title word by word, stick with the 65-character limit.
Use a title tag editor plugin. For WordPress, the most popular title tag editor is the All-In-One SEO Pack. Some custom WordPress themes, like Thesis, have a similar editor built-in. The title and meta description fields feature a live word count, so you immediately see when you’re overstepping 65 characters. In the options configuration panel, set the Post Title Format to
%post_title% and delete any other options in this field, such as
%blog_title%, so that only the post title is displayed.
Some SEOs disagree with this advice on “branding” grounds, which is a valid argument for business and ecommerce sites (except for their blog sections), but most blogs already rank in Google for their blog title, so there’s no need to optimize for it by leaving it in the title tag. When people scan search results, they’re more inclined to click on titles that aren’t diluted by domain names or verbiage that’s not specific to the keyword, and the same keyword dilution can affect the way the title gets index. The title “How to Use Twitter” would get a higher clickthrough rate than “WorkAwesome.com | How to Use Twitter”.
A title tag editor also gives you the freedom to use a different title for search engines than what appears on you blog post. For instance, I’m going to edit the title tag of this post to exclude the column name, “The Netsetter”, which isn’t relevant to the search result and would look awkward followed by a series title and subtitle. On FreelanceSwitch, I use this technique for any polls we run. So a hypothetical post like “Poll: Have You Ever Fired a Difficult Client?” would appear in Google as “Have You Ever Fired a Difficult Client?” Why? Because by the time the post would make the first page of Google, the poll would probably have been closed, but the information in the poll results would still be relevant to readers.
Avoid figurative language. This can’t be stressed enough. Catchphrases, slang, and metaphors easily understood by humans are almost never entered into search engines by those same humans. Today on FreelanceSwitch, I edited a submitted post with the title, “Get Past a Motivational Brick Wall”. There’s nothing wrong with the title from a semantic perspective, but ask yourself: How many people are likely to enter “motivational brick wall” into Google each month? Not many. So I put some prospective keywords into the Google Keyword Tool like “motivational problems” and “low motivation” to generate a list of alternatives. One result that got some traffic was “get motivated”, so I appended it to the existing title, resulting in, “Get Motivated: 6 Ways to Get Past a Motivational Brick Wall”.
Notice in this example that it didn’t require sacrificing the integrity of the article to make the content search-friendly. It just required the willingness to align the theme of the article with a popular keyword congruent with that theme.
Use keyword splicing. The keywords “gluten-free diet” and “diet tips” can be spliced together to target both in the same title: “Gluten-free Diet Tips”. Use the Keyword Tool, sorting by “Relevance”, to find a “cousin keyword” to your primary keyword; then see if you can elegantly combine them. If “gluten-free diet” get X searches a month, and “diet tips” gets Y search a month, a single title can capture traffic from two search vectors, so spending an extra 60 seconds to work in an additional keyword is worth the trouble. The keywords don’t always need to overlap. The title of the post you’re reading now contains “seo writing” and “title tag” at the beginning and end respectively. I’ll sometimes manage to get three keywords in the same title.
That’s all for now. Hopefully, you’ve seen how much leverage the title of your post can have to getting search traffic. In the next installment, I’ll give you some tips on using the All-In-One SEO Pack to optimize your meta description tag.
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