The art of writing copy for people and search engines

Writing for humans and search engines can be a tall order; however, I've developed a method that helps me tremendously in the process. See how it works for you!
Written by Stephen Chapman, Contributor

Today, I'm going to discuss a topic that is met with a number of opinions throughout the SEO industry: Creating content for both people and search engines. On one hand, you have the camp of individuals who think you should appeal completely to search engines if your goal is to rank. On the other hand, you have those who think you should strictly write for people and the rankings will follow. Personally, I'm smack-dab in the center of those views and I selectively lean a little more to one side or the other depending on the situation I'm presented with.

To give you an idea of how I approach most situations when writing SEO-minded copy for myself or for clients, here is my personal flow for attaining approachability with both people and search engines:

1 - Write for people: Start by writing your piece 100% as though it's to be read by people. Pay no mind to SEO, keyword lists, search engines, etc. Just go to town writing, so to speak.

2 - Read as a person: This is a proofreading phase. Read your piece as though you are a stranger. Be objective about your piece, get a feel for the flow of it and fix all grammatical errors. By the end of this step, your piece should be at a satisfactory point to be placed in front of eyeballs and achieve your objective whether it's to convert, help, lure, describe, etc.

3 - Read as a search engine: Instead of reinventing the wheel here, I'm going to ask that you read this introduction to how search engines operate to get a better understanding of how search engine spiders "read" copy. The goal here is to identify opportunities where you can optimize your content for search. Read that last sentence again. In other words, look for things like gaps in coverage or synonyms where you can potentially place keywords. This is where you have to be delicate, because it's EXTREMELY easy to make a piece sound robotic and intentionally-optimized. Last of note, I recommend you watch the video in the article "How it works: What happens when you search Google."

4 - Keyword replacement: You remember that list of opportunities you came up with in step 3? Well, this is where you select the appropriate keywords (always keep your copy as laser-targeted as possible and focus on as few keywords as you can per-piece/page) from the list you were provided with -- or that you researched for yourself or a client -- and place them in your copy such that they don't break the flow or natural readability of your piece.

5 - Finalizing your piece: Now that everything has been written and your keywords have been populated, it's time to give it one last read. Pay mind to grammar, flow, and approachability: What will people think if they read this? What will search engine spiders "see" when they crawl this piece? Are you missing any opportunities to convert, affect, or rank? Shore up any loose ends, make all adjustments necessary, and put the finishing touch on a piece well-crafted!

Alright. Now that you have an idea about my framework for crafting SEO-minded copy, I want to discuss something that confuses a lot of people who are new to crafting content with search engines in mind: How often should your keyword appear in your article?

The Myth of Keyword Density: Put simply, keyword density is the percentage of how often your keyword appears in an article/page. So, if someone recommends a 2% keyword density, that means your keyword should show up twice for every 100 words written. While some people swear by keyword density, the only ones I see swearing by it are those who either have something to sell or are just getting their feet wet in the SEO industry.

In reality, there exists plenty of anecdotal and data-driven evidence to show it's a myth. By all means, get your keyword on the page as many times as you can such that it still reads naturally (avoid keyword-stuffing), but don't worry about hitting some sort of percentage or per-word quota because you read an article where some shady SEO says you have to or else. Also, don't get caught up in feeling like you have to hammer a search engine spider with the same word over-and-over to see results. It places unnecessary weight on you as a writer and is unnecessary to pull rank.

Stay on topic, be synonymous with your keyword focus, and get your keyword as close to the top of the page as you can. Put it first in the title if you can and make sure your title is encompassed by an h1 tag. Place your keyword at the very beginning of your first paragraph if you can. Search engines read top-to-bottom, left-to-right and currently place more emphasis on what they "see" at the top of a page than at the bottom. Avoid redundancy and refrain from sounding robotic (repeating your keyword(s) over-and-over, etc.).

Conversions/impact happens at various levels, so don't shortchange yourself by leaning so far one way or the other that you alienate. In other words, don't write content that fails to include keywords you want to rank for and don't over-optimize content to the point that it alienates actual readers. There's a fine line to walk here, but this is where being objective and honest with yourself can help you see your final product for what it actually is -- not just what you hope it will be. If you have to spend more than 2-3 seconds deciding if something sounds robotic or over-optimized, chances are, it probably does.

This may seem like an arduous process -- and it can be at times -- but once you get into a flow like what I've written above, the process becomes a little bit quicker for you with each piece you write. And as with many facets in life, there are certainly exceptions to the process. Sometimes, if you know for a fact you won't have eyeballs on a Web page or article, then have at it where writing for search engines is concerned. However, if you're writing something for a printed publication, I would still keep search engines in mind. What if you luck out and someone decides to quote a passage from your article and links to you using your actual keyword as anchor text? That may be an opportunity missed if you just assume something that gets printed simply won't find its way to the Internet.

And with that, I'll wrap things up here. Do you have any tips you would like to offer? I would certainly love to hear other peoples' processes, so please feel free to contribute your thoughts in the comments section below! Thanks for reading and happy content-crafting!

-Stephen Chapman SEO Whistleblower


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