It’s a freelance writer’s nightmare. Your client assigns you a series of web articles – and includes a mile-long list of required SEO keywords to use in your content.
Writing concise, quality web content is difficult enough without being handed a list of mandatory keywords. You’re trying to write for people, not robots, and shoehorning someone else’s words into your writing can seem an impossible task.
Your clients have good intentions: They want to make sure that searchers can find, read and appreciate your work. They’re assuming that if they feed Google certain clues (i.e. keywords), Google will get a clear sense of what your content is about and what it aims to accomplish.
Unfortunately, people too often get hung up on playing to search algorithms that they forget that they’re writing for humans.
Assuming that rising to the top of Google rankings is as simple as feeding it a plethora of optimized keyphrases is a gross oversimplification of one of the most sophisticated tech companies on the planet.
Worse, it makes for bad writing.
Writing for people, not robots
Let’s say 50,000 people search for writing contests in any given month. The Writer happens to have a writing contest database on our website. So as long as we pepper our Contests page on writermag.com with variations of the phrase “writing contests,” Google will know what we’re all about, right?
Let’s say we write this type of copy:
The Writer magazine maintains an extensive list of writing contests. These best writing contests serve as the best contests for writers. We hope you like these good writing contests for writers. Come back for more writing contests updates!
Google is going to penalize us for keyword stuffing. Google knows that no one naturally uses the same exact phrase four times in four sentences.
But more important, no one’s going to want to read our site. And that sends a stronger message to the search engines than a few keywords ever will.
How Google works
Search engines have one focus: Help the user find what he or she is looking for. They’re like dating sites, matching searchers to the content that bests meets their needs, and they use multiple factors to accomplish this.
⇒Relevant content. Google is sophisticated enough now to recognize synonyms and related content. If you say “Boston-based freelance writer” or “writer working mainly in Boston,” Google lists your website for a search for “Boston freelance writer” or “freelance writer in Boston,” even if you don’t use those exact phrases.
⇒Links. Links from other websites and social media users are a bit like votes in the Internet popularity contest. The more reputable sites that link to your website, the more Google has reason to trust your content as relevant and authoritative.
⇒Bounce rate. If searchers click on your site and immediately click the back button (or “bounces”), they obviously didn’t find what they were searching for. This tells Google your article isn’t the best possible answer to a searcher’s question.
These are just some of the multiple factors Google considers when ranking sites in search engine result pages – SERPs. In other words, it ain’t just about keywords anymore.
The real value of keywords
The real value in keyword research lies in finding out what interests your readers. If so many people are searching for writing contests, as a magazine, we can deliver quality, valuable content about writing contests. Not because we want to rise to the top of the SERPs, but because that’s a proven subject that our readers want to know about. Researching popular keywords shouldn’t be a game to beat Google. It should be about giving readers what they want.
So go back to your list of keywords. Think about the question the searcher is really asking when he or she types that keyphrase into Google.com. Then set your list of keywords aside, and write valuable, meaningful content that you think answers that question.
Your client hired you to write content for people, not search engines. Write for them first. The robots will follow.
—Nicki Porter served as the editor of The Writer from 2016 to 2022; she previously served as its associate editor. Before helming The Writer, she worked as a food editor for Madavor Media and America’s Test Kitchen. She’s also written for a number of publications and spoken at writing conferences across the country. Learn more at nickiporter.com.