A basic understanding of search engine optimization will help you promote yourself and your work—and it may even make you a better writer.
To many writers, search engine optimization is something their editors will take care of. To some, SEO is the enemy of good writing—a practice that demands keywords be stuffed into your carefully crafted sentences and paragraphs. Both are wrong.
Search engine optimization is the practice of presenting your online work in a way that shows search engines like Google and Yahoo that it is valuable to readers, thereby positioning it high in search results. It is a practice that applies to every website on the Internet, from huge media outlets to your personal website.
I’ve been working with SEO since I got my MFA in Writing at California College of the Arts in 2013. What I’ve learned has helped me to write stronger, more compelling pieces for my editorial and content marketing clients and manipulate the backend of the content management systems I work with to ensure that my articles have a striking image and click-worthy title when shared on social media—added value for my editors.
Competition is fierce for a spot “above the fold” on the first page of a Google search result. The content of an article and the frequency of certain keywords are only two factors that can either encourage or discourage a high search ranking. There’s also the number, size, and quality of images present, the length of the title and how it’s constructed, and the meta description—a short phrase shown in search results describing what the article or web page is about.
“I’ve seen incredible content that got zero to no views, and I’ve seen mediocre content that’s gotten an incredible amount of views. So quality of content does not explain the difference. It has everything to do with tweaking your content so that search engines can find it,” said SEO expert Dirk Ypenburg.
I met Dirk when he was working with Launch Brigade, a San Francisco Bay Area web design and development company I contracted on behalf European Cabinets & Design Studios, one of my content marketing clients.
The good news about SEO for writers is that search algorithms have been getting a lot smarter, and now rank pages for quality over the number of times a keyword appears on the page.
“Quality relates to the average time spent on the page per session and the number of events that take place, which can be as simple as a click to the next page. Quality content builds trust with users, and as a result, they see you have more to offer. If you create thin content that has nothing to do with a human being, you’re not going to get far,” Dirk explained.
In layman’s terms, don’t write for the search engine, write for your reader, but often it’s one in the same: “If you make spelling mistakes in the meta description, that is an indication to users that they should stay away from that content,” said Dirk. Focus on writing rich, clean copy; just include a few key terms to further boost engagement and encourage the search engines to index your work sooner and higher.
The strength of the domain is a critical factor in search results. If you write for The New York Times, there’s a lot less you need to do to rank in search results because the domain has already been deemed credible and trustworthy by Google and other search engines. On the other hand, if you don’t write for The New York Times, then you’re competing with them for search ranking.
Search engine algorithms are changing all the time, even every day. There’s no way you can keep up with all of the details unless that’s your primary focus, but I feel very strongly that every writer should have a basic understanding of SEO to better promote themselves and their work. It may even make you a better writer by helping you to write succinct copy and click-worthy titles.
If you’re a fiction writer, SEO will help you to market your book. If you’re a journalist or blogger, SEO will help to get more eyeballs on your work. Even if you’re primarily an offline journalist—most printed media outlets also publish articles online—understanding SEO can help you construct your work so that it’s ready to be re-published online.
No matter what your goals are with your writing, here are the basic steps to SEO that every writer should know:
1. Keyword research
“The first step of SEO is keyword research, which basically means finding the words people use to find your services or your products. Then you translate that into a message that adds value for people,” explains Dirk. He recommends Soovle and Keywordshitter as two good sources for keyword research.
To a writer, keyword research may be as simple as googling a couple of phrases related to your article topic to see where the conversation is and what’s already been said. If the topic already has a ton of coverage, ask yourself, “How will my article add to the conversation?” Use the answer to that question to come up with a few phrases you expect people to search to find your article. Check those phrases in Google Trends to see how they’re trending and get ideas for similar phrases that might be more popular.
“The keywords you use online should be used just as seamlessly as in print. Think of a lede in a newspaper—if written correctly, it will answer the 5W questions in just 26 words. The lede should also naturally contain your keyword(s)—perhaps the exception to this would be a delayed lede,” said Tiffany Stronghart, Content Manager for Engineering Professional Development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She works with content that appears both online and in print and said learning SEO has been a huge part of her job.
The keyword that is the most relevant to your topic and is getting the most search traffic is your target keyword. It should be in the page title, used at least once in the body of your article and as many times as is natural to the flow of your writing. It should also appear in a subtitle for your article, and if you’re the one posting it on the web, it should be in the URL of the piece and be used as part of image titles and image alt text. “But based on my experience, the URL has the most impact on search ranking,” said Dirk.
2. The title(s)
When it comes to SEO, the rich indeed do get richer: The more visitors you have on your website (and the more time they spend there) is an indication to Google of website quality. A title that is enticing and relevant is paramount to every good piece of writing.
An online article, blog, and web page don’t have one title—they have at least two. There’s the title the user sees at the top of the page or post, the SEO title, which appears in the tab at the top of the browser and in search results, and the social title, which may or may not be the same as the first two.
“Your keyword should always appear in the title—and a secondary keyword in a subtitle—just like online copy. I think what often happens with newspapers and print material is that you have a word count for headlines and subheads, so sometimes good headlines have to be trimmed down to fit a small space. When you write online, you’re encouraged to keep your headline around 40 characters—but you can go beyond this because you do not have print constraints,” said Tiffany.
If you use WordPress, now is the time to install the Yoast SEO plugin. I work with a lot of WordPress sites, and this plugin is invaluable because it makes following the steps listed in this post so easy. It also automatically takes care of a bunch of technical stuff that’s important to search ranking. There’s a free version and a paid version. For your personal site, the free version is enough. If you have a commercial website, the paid version offers a few additional tools you may find valuable.
Now that you’ve got the plugin installed, you are free to write all the title variations you need. I like to let my working page title, that is, the one my readers will see, be the most reader-friendly, even if it doesn’t contain my exact target keyword phrase. But, I make sure that my target keyword phrase appears in the URL of my article and in the SEO title. I also like to write a title variation for social media that is a little more provocative to encourage clicks (on the page, I tend to prefer pragmatic informational titles).
3. Meta description
The meta description of a web page is the snippet of text that appears in a search result. If you don’t specify a meta description, Google will pull the first lines of text from the page, which may be something from your page header or an image caption, and don’t succinctly describe your topic or give a potential reader enough information to compel them to click the link.
If you are working with WordPress, the Yoast SEO Plugin will allow you to write custom meta descriptions for every page and post on your website. Meta descriptions should be no longer than 160 characters including spaces and should include the keyword phrase the page is being optimized for and as much other relevant information that you can fit into that space. I usually start with the subtitle and expand or edit as much as I need to get to 160 characters.
4. Subtitles, section titles & SEO
Writing subtitles and section titles is nothing new to a seasoned writer, but how they’re presented and used online is a little bit different than with print publications.
When possible, work your target keyword or a variation of it into your subtitle and a section title. If you are designing your own website, make sure to use the Heading 2 (H2) style for subtitles and the Heading 3 (H3) style for section titles. (Your page title should be set to use the Heading 1 style.)
It is important to know that this isn’t just a design concern; heading tags form an outline of the page, which can help search engines to understand quicker what your article is about, much in the same way that people scan a page before reading deeply.
Don’t be frivolous with your use of H styles either. One common mistake made is using the H1 style to call out the phone number or a pull quote—this might be visually appealing on the page but will confuse search engines. Instead, use the H4 or blockquote style for these or similar purposes.
Have you ever requested an interview with someone only to have them ask if your publication will provide a link to their website before they agree? I get that question all the time, especially when I interview social media experts (for example, this blog for NCR Silver’s Small Business Smarts about optimizing your Pinterest board for sales). That’s because the quality of the links to and from your website are essential to SEO.
Over the years, there has been a lot of link spamming, also known as black hat link building, and Google has gotten a lot better at identifying bad links. Of course, getting good links is a lot harder than giving them.
“For an article of 500 words, I’d always try to include a couple of links that really add value for the reader, linking the blog into the greater conversation. Google likes it when you link out to a site with a high trust rating,” said Dirk.
High trust rating sites include .edu, .gov, and .org sites, as well as other large institutions and companies. It is also important to add the link to relevant anchor text so that it will make sense for the reader when they click on it. For example, if you’re linking to a research paper with supporting information or another news outlet to credit your source.
You should always use an image when publishing an article online, not least because images make your content more attractive when shared on social media. The images you choose, how you format them, and how you upload them can have a big impact on page ranking.
Image size: Page load speed is an important factor in search ranking relating to the quality of the website. If you are uploading huge image files to your website, it will load slower. Before uploading an image, be sure to resize it to be no more than the maximum number of pixels it will be displayed on the desktop version of your website, and save it using the lowest jpg compression you can without loosing visual quality.
Tip: If you want to know if your website loads fast enough for Google, try the PageSpeed Insights tool.
Image titles and alt text: Before you upload an image, change the filename to something relevant to your article and the contents of the image. This is especially important if you’re using Squarespace, because it automatically generates image alt text, which tells search engines what your image is about, from the file name. If you are using WordPress, you’ll need to add in the image alt text manually.
Captions: The third element in the image optimization trifecta is the image caption. Captions are a good way to work in additional information about your topic and catch your readers’ attention. According to a 2012 KissMetric study, captions are read 300% more than the body copy. The information in the caption is also searchable by Google.
Much of the information in this article should sound obvious and intuitive but start looking around the web and at your own work, and you may realize how often these simple page elements are missed. SEO is a continuous process; it’s not something you do once. There’s no guarantee of overnight results, but over time, you should see a steady increase in traffic.
Dirk concluded, “By applying SEO best practices, you’re basically starting to speak the language used by search engines, and you are using the words that people are most often searching for to provide them exactly what they want.”