Writing for Your Audience Means Including Search Engines

writing I realized the other day that I’ve been making a mistake when giving Web writing advice. For quite a while now, I’ve been saying, “Write for your audience, not search engines.” In fact, I’m not the only one saying that. That statement is only half right. The fact is, you should be writing for your audience and the search engines. It’s not that I believed you shouldn’t take search engines into account at all when writing. Quite the opposite. I fully believe incorporating SEO best practices into content creation is essential to creating effective Web content. I just wasn’t fully considering what it meant to write for search engines. That is, until last week when, during a casual chat about SEO, Bill Slawski said something really interesting—that search engines are meant to emulate people. I’d honestly never thought of it that way before. Isn’t it weird how sometimes you can know something, and basically understand how it works, but still not fully make the connection about that thing’s relationship with something else? That’s what I was doing with search engines and audience. I know you need to write using natural language, not only for your audience, but especially in light of Google Hummingbird. I know search engines help people find what they’re looking for. I just never considered this: Search engines are also part of your audience.

Web Copy Without SEO is Just Copy

I was surprised a few months ago to discover there’s apparently a faction of copywriters who not only don’t believe SEO works, but are vehemently opposed to it. Their feeling is that incorporating any kind of SEO best practices or elements ruins their beautiful copy, and they’re just not having any of it. I find this baffling. On the one hand, I can understand the resistance to anything you feel is compromising your art. I get it. I’m a writer too. But here’s the thing—there’s a big difference between writing poetry or a novel and writing sales copy. If something exists that can help your sales copy be even more effective, why wouldn’t you want to use it?! In addition, any kind of writing has certain rules to follow, many of which have to do with the prevalent medium. A novel is broken into chapters. Instructions are usually brief and often numbered. Poems have stanzas. So if you’re writing for the Web, shouldn’t you be taking that into account and making it easier for search engines to find and read your copy as well as your potential buyers? The thing is, if you’re writing Web copy, you are writing for search engines, whether you think you are or not, and whether you want to or not. Turning your nose up at SEO when you write doesn’t keep the bots’ cute little mitts off your copy.

The Pendulum Swings Both Ways

I completely understand why people—including me—have been saying “write for people, not search engines.” The true intention behind it is this: Don’t write for search engines in a way that tries to manipulate how they rank your page. But I realize now that saying, “Don’t write for search engines” is an overreaction. “Holy cow, we tried tactics like keyword stuffing, and they worked for a little while, but then Google got smart and changed and came out with algorithm updates like Panda, and sent some of our sites to the back of the line! So now we can’t ever write for search engines, ever ever EVER!” It’s like getting stung by a bee once, so you just never go outside. Anytime you create Web content, you should be taking the search engines into consideration. This includes, but is not limited to: I’m not going to delve too deeply into what “linking appropriately” means, or the many facets of keywords. Those topics warrant posts of their own, and are frequently and widely covered. What I will say is this: Everything I just listed should be incorporated into a larger strategy. Where you’ll run into trouble is when you try to use one or more as a tactic to bring in more traffic, increase your visibility or, in other words, manipulate the search engines. It may work for a while, but will most likely eventually come back to bite you right in the rankings.

Search Engines as People

Whoa, there. I haven’t gone off my rocker and begun saying search engines are actually people. That would be like, oh, I don’t know, saying corporations are people with thoughts and feelings, and that’s just crazy talk. Who does that? No, I’m just getting back to what Bill Slawski said—that search engines are meant to emulate people. And to what it made me realize—that they’re part of your audience. The ideal way to create Web content is to consider both search engines and readers/viewers/site visitors from ideation to strategy to execution. While I do believe content can be optimized after it’s been created, if it’s done with too heavy a hand or too SEO-inexperienced an editor, it can come off poorly. Poorly optimizing content is sort of like telling a joke, and just when you’re about to reveal the punchline, you realize you forgot to mention an important factor upon which the punchline hinges. Go back to add it in now, and the joke falls flat. Leave it out, and the joke is ruined. The whole thing would have been much better if you’d taken everything into account and incorporated it from the beginning. Consider your audience—your whole audience—from the get-go, implement a comprehensive strategy rather than just a few tactics, and you’ll create much better content that does everything it’s supposed to do.
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