Writing for search engine optimization has a bad reputation. When most people think of SEO—if they even bother to—they imagine soulless, utilitarian sentences cobbled together by SEO agencies in the business of stuffing clunky keywords into headlines and body copy. Or worse, they think optimized copy is assembled by SEO tools that merely tick the boxes of an SEO checklist and care more about ranking factors than engaging with a real human audience.
But SEO writing can actually connect with people. It can inform, entertain, and still be good writing, even when it includes a ton of keywords.
What is SEO content and why does it matter?
Like adding chocolate chips to a cookie, SEO content is created by including certain keywords in your website or blog copy (or in the back end of your site to describe images) to attract the attention of search engines like Google. Those keyword lists are the work of strategy professionals (and the platforms they use) that analyze search volume, social media, and search engine activity to determine what words an SEO article should include. Articles can be about anything from SEO itself to baking bread, but regardless of the topic, it starts by investigating what people are typing into search bars. People are asking the Internet about something, and you’re trying to answer those questions.
Writing for SEO means that you’re writing for Google. (And Bing, if you really want to cover your bases.) This means you have to write copy that includes numerous keywords and search terms—and often bends over backward to include the type of sentences that one would only ever write in a search bar.
SEO severely impacts what words you can and can’t put in a title, subtitle, headline, or secondary headline (H2). Online articles have a very “what you see on the tin” quality for this reason. You need SEO keywords in your headline that disincentivize clever titles. You wouldn’t call your article War and Peace, you’d call the SEO version of Tolstoy’s literary brick Three Russian Nobles Who Have Feelings, and Also Napoleon Is There, assuming terms like “Russian noble” and “Napoleon” were keywords during the 1800s.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. SEO keywords are just the ingredients in a recipe. SEO copy can be good, just like combining eggs and spaghetti becomes spaghetti carbonara. And I can prove it.
All this copy you just read? Yep, it’s search engine optimized.
The opening paragraphs where you were (I hope) nodding along with me about how SEO copy can be inhumane or robotic? They were SEO copy. You likely didn’t notice, but everything you just read is SEO optimized.
Before I started writing this article I asked Thesis’s resident SEO expert to furnish me with a list of keywords related to search engine optimization. Here’s the start of it. You might recognize a few terms from earlier:
And the list goes on:
These images are also improving this article’s SEO. Image search is a major way that users find information. And images are more likely to show up in a search if they’re surrounded by text that puts them in context and given appropriate captions and alt text, the words you see when you hover over the image. Each image has a caption and alt text that reads “an SEO checklist generated by SEO tools.” Also, that last sentence just gave me an opportunity to repeat the keywords “SEO checklist” and “SEO tools” again.
You get the idea. It takes a lot to work in all these terms, but you can still make SEO content that’s actually readable, informative, and even enjoyable. Keywords are just ingredients that, when used in the proper amounts, enhance a recipe without overpowering it. It’s not just a pile of semi-satisfying, semi-sweet chocolate chips, it’s a damn good cookie.
How to write SEO copy that’s actually good.
Provide real value.
Attracting customers, standing out from the crowd, and using your resources to do so is nothing new. In the decades before SEO, businesses would pull stunts like appending “AA” or “A1” or “AAA” to their business name so they’d show up first in the phone book. But these days, a nonsensical alphanumeric name doesn’t improve your user experience. Good SEO, however, can actually make someone’s life better.
I joked about how War and Peace would have been titled Three Russian Nobles Who Have Feelings, and Also Napoleon Is There if Tolstoy had been trying to grab page views with his epic. The words war and peace do not tell you what the book is about, but are they evocative and interesting? Yes, and that is good for literature.
However, the vast majority of the Internet is more informational than literary. If you’re writing an article about how to use an app or service, for instance, you don’t want to be lyrical or evocative at the expense of efficiently giving people information. Being direct is effective, and writing for SEO can be a good incentive to get to the point. Use common terms most people know, and make your titles plain and easy to understand. It’s marketing that both attracts the customer and actually informs them.
You don’t have to use every keyword.
As a copywriter, I do my best to use keywords in as natural and normal a way as possible. However, there are some keywords that just don’t fit. For instance, I’ve got “whats SEO” with no apostrophe on my list of terms. I can’t put a grammatical error into this copy, even if people regularly type it into search bars.
There’s always something on your list of keywords or SEO checklist that you won’t be able to use. That’s okay. Most recipes don’t require you to use every ingredient in your fridge either. You don’t have to use absolutely everything—you just have to use enough keywords to get Google’s attention.
Don’t let SEO dictate your voice.
Keywords tell you what to say, but you can still choose how you say it. My first H2 was a keyword grab. “What is SEO” is a highly ranked keyword phrase and I wanted to work it into a prominent headline. That was SEO. It was also conversational and didn’t sound robotic. I was able to use keywords while still sounding like a normal person.
You can write for SEO and still be yourself. People work hard to develop their voice. Marketing departments put a lot of energy into deciding how their brand is going to sound online. Communication matters, and projecting a certain kind of attitude is important. Writing for SEO does not have to subsume that attitude. You can be yourself, and you can be optimized. It’s hard and takes effort, but it’s still possible. And, when you’re able to do it, it’s fun. Fitting in keywords becomes less of a chore and more of a word game where you try to use them in clever ways. Be yourself with SEO. I just did it for the duration of this article. And you can do the same in your own writing.