It’s not all about the robots.
Original content writing is the cornerstone of any SEO strategy worth its salt, but if you write only to please web crawlers, you’re going to lose sight of the most important audience: your clients’ customers. People who actually need the information you’re trying to present.
The key is to strike a balance between content that sticks to our industry’s best practices and copy that will answer the questions of a flesh and blood consumer.
With that in mind…
Here are 6 content writing tips for companies and writers struggling to bridge the gap between man and machine.
Write Content that Can Be Skimmed
The first rule of writing on the web is people don’t read your content—they skim it.
That’s what the Nielson Norman Group, the authority on web interface and usability since 1998, has been telling us for the past 20 years. If you search your feelings, you know it to be true.
Think about what happens when you Google something. You type in your question or the name of the thing you want to know more about, you click on one of the first three results, and then you rapidly scan the page you land on, hunting for the information you need.
It’s crucial to keep this in mind when creating content for your clients because it will influence how you structure the page, right down to the placement of your words in individual sentences.
Before moving on, let me emphasise the difference between legibility and readability.
Legibility is a design decision. It’s affected by everything from font type and size to page layout, and that’s something to consider when choosing a blog theme or designing a landing page.
Readability is the topic of this post, and this comes down to word choice and sentence structure. You need to lead the reader to the information they seek and make it easy for them to get there. To start…
Create Informative Headings and Subheadings
Good signposting is key to drawing the eyes of a reader toward information you want them to see, and it starts at the top of the page.
Eyetracking studies have shown that we scan web pages in an F-shaped pattern. Starting with the title, our gaze shifts down the page looking at the first line of a paragraph and then the first words on each line. You can use this pattern to your advantage.
More recently we’ve seen what I think of as the rise of the H2. You see more and more pages laid out with bold subheadings. These can divide up the topics on the page or signal a progression of steps.
You should be prepared for someone to read only these subheadings when they land on your page. Make them informative as possible. A strategy I like using is to restate the reader’s question. That way they know the answer they want is in the following section.
If the average person is only taking the time to read 28% of the words on a given page, you want to point them directly to the words that are more likely to lead to a conversion. Writing strong headings is the best place to start.
As for your H1s? If those aren’t strong, the reader probably didn’t land on your site in the first place.
Use Keywords Effectively—Without Stuffing
Keyword stuffing is a cardinal sin of content writing. In its quality guidelines, Google defines the practice as “loading a webpage with keywords or numbers in an attempt to manipulate a site’s ranking in Google search results.” Examples can range from the blatant, where a single keyword is used at an unnatural rate, to the more strategic, where a list of words are grouped together without the proper context.
The home page of auto dealer websites used to be littered with this sort of thing. Long lists of model names, geos, and other services were crammed together and hidden down in the footer. For some of you or your clients, this might still be the case. Most of these instances of keyword stuffing are leftovers from when it was considered an actual strategy. There are few better indications of how far the field of SEO has come.
If you put keyword stuffed content on your site now, expect to be smacked down off the front page in no time, especially if it’s paired with duplicate content. Google’s algorithm punishes that sort of behavior, and customers will too.
Ranking for a desired keyword requires you to put more thought into how you’re implementing it in your content. You can’t use the same exact phrase in every clause of a web page and expect someone to want to read any further.
Instead, you should make sure that your focus keyword is included near the top of the page and in other essential locations like your meta title, URL, and headings. Then back off and start varying your use. Think of synonyms and related phrases that someone is likely to pair your keyword with when doing a search.
If you expand your keyword vocabulary prior to drafting, you’ll find that these words show up in your content writing at a natural rate.
Bend Grammar Rules to Improve Skimmability
Content writers, you didn’t land this job by leaving out apostrophes, misspelling words, or letting your sentences run on. That’s not what I’m asking you to do here either. That would just be sloppy.
You can be less strict with some of the rules that you were taught are hard and fast.
Remember that readers are looking to scan your page for the information they need, so make it easier for them to do that. Use numerals instead of writing out numbers if you want to catch someone’s eye with a statistic or a price point. Sentence fragments are forgivable, especially if you’re writing a product description or a promotion. And short paragraphs can make more of an impact, so don’t stretch yourself thin trying to tack on a fourth or fifth sentence when three will do. Even a one sentence paragraph can be effective if you sell it right.
Don’t let your grammar get in the way of your point.
Inform Readers Without Trying to Impress Them
Resist the urge to be clever. Some writers might have a harder time with this one than others. I studied creative writing, so for me it’s tough. I couldn’t even resist the urge to quote Star Wars in the first section of this post.
— Jon Winokur (@AdviceToWriters) February 4, 2016
There’s a time and a place, though, and more often than not, your clients’ content is not the place for flowery prose or funny wordplay.
Before you include an anecdote or a pet phrase in a piece of content, ask yourself “Does this answer the reader’s question?” Before you use an SAT word, think about if the average person would have to Google its definition.
Simple speech is the best for getting to the point, and it makes everything I’ve talked about easier. Using plain text will make your content more skimmable. It gives your subheadings more purpose. Best of all, if you cut the fluff out of your writing, you can improve your keyword density just by getting rid of the words you don’t need.
You don’t want to overthink your content when all you need to do is answer the question and deliver on someone’s search.
Study the Numbers, Then Reevaluate
We say it on a daily basis here: data beats intuition. The content writing process doesn’t end after you publish your work.
After a few weeks, sit down with your team and look at the analytics data. Take a close look at the Bounce Rate and Session Duration for what you’ve put up, then compare the best performances with the worst to identify what needs work. Maybe you could have signposted that landing page better, or maybe that blog post should be more concise. You only stand to benefit from making tweaks and improvements.
You don’t have the advantage of asking everyone who visits your website if your content was easy to read and informative, but looking at the right numbers can give you a glimpse of the average customer’s behavior. Good SEO and Content Marketing are a team effort, so if you don’t have all the answers, don’t be afraid to ask.