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January 25, 2011


SEO Copywriting: Who do you write for now?

by Anthony Verre

Content Farm DocumentsThe Background

It’s not that this question hasn’t been relevant, but Matt Cutts’ defense of Google’s Search Results brought content and copy to the forefront of the argument. That is to say, if you weren’t thinking about content and copy prior to the “content farm” bomb, you are now. Eric Ward made mention of it in his post at Adgooroo, and was so nonchalantly tucked in Matt’s post, it may have been overlooked by many:

To respond to that challenge, we recently launched a redesigned document-level classifier that makes it harder for spammy on-page content to rank highly. The new classifier is better at detecting spam on individual web pages, e.g., repeated spammy words—the sort of phrases you tend to see in junky, automated, self-promoting blog comments.

The gravity of the situation has changed. Based on the quick digging I’ve done, Bill Slawski of SEO by the Sea, wrote about the Google Patent on Web Spam, Doorway Pages, and Manipulative Articles back in 2007. It seems Matt might be hinting/referring to using these methods, as well as others, in their new “content farm” fighting methods. Definitely worth reading. Bill and David Harry are really the authority on patents, so they’ll have to set me straight if this is the right place to be looking.

The Problem for You

Admittedly, Matt’s description of hunting down content farms is most vaguely descriptive thing you’ll ever read. It’s says all the right things and provides none the real detail anyone who writes website copy for client sites wants to hear. And, now, the question remains: do I have to change my site content so I’m not classified as “spam”?

It’s a great question. Answer: probably not. Unless of course, your content is spam/spammy. And, let’s be honest, you know if your content is spam (i.e. a deluge of your “target” keyword littered throughout (a real, verifiable overuse), unnatural usage of your target keyword so it’s “stuffed” in there, and in general reads like shit, etc).

What if I’m Not a Writer?

If you’re not a writer, be one or find one. Sorry, there are no easier or simpler answers to that. Fact is, anyone can write and learn to write prose fluidly, structured, and well, but there’s a steep learning curve (let’s call it a lifetime of standard deviations). At some level, you have it in your blood or you don’t.

Writing is like SEO. It’s a blend of science and creativity. It’s back-end research and testing (reading a variety of authors and writing styles) and forging new ground by blending styles to create unique, fresh language and style. Writing for the web is no different, save the exception that the story you’re telling is about a product or service.

Who Do You Write for Now?

There was a post last week that suggest you write for search engines and not people. My general rule has always beenDo you write for search engine spiders or people? that you write for people and not search engines. AJ Kohn, author of Blind Five Year Old, makes some really great points backed up by some big names (Steve Krug and Jakob Nielsen); I’d encourage everyone to read that post.

Still, the argument remains: who do you write for? With enhanced, document-level spam-hunting getting underway, I’m hesitant to advise anyone to write for engines solely. I’m also not going advise anyone to write just for consumers/humans either. Neither extreme is helpful, and neither is likely to get you the results you want. It’s in the middle.

When you’re writing for people on the web, it’s about getting them large chunks of important information in sight-byte chunks. When you’re writing for engines, it’s about being keyword-obvious so the spiders know what you’re page is all about. And, the secret is finding a middle ground between those two poles. Making content rich and full without putting your instant-gratification users to sleep.

Simple Things to find the Middle Ground

If you’re an experienced SEO that’s written your fair share of site content/copy, then this is old hat for you. If not, then welcome to the middle ground.

  • Break up your content with keyword-driven headings. Structure your content with appropriate use of [H] tags
  • Use bulleted lists when you’ve got lists. Whether these lists are benefits or qualities or whatever, there’s nothing worse than reading a comma delineated list in paragraph form. NOTE: try use a bulleted list once. Nothing reads worse and looks worse than multiple bulleted lists slammed together
  • Mix your pronouns and keywords in the content. If you never use your keyword(s) in the content don’t expect the engines to know what you’re writing about. And if you never use pronouns, nothing reads worse than: “XYZ is a an amazing product because XYZ can do it all. Countless customers have told of XYZ’s greatness, XYZ will make a believer of you too.” Really, you can substitute an “XYZ” for “it” every now then folks

The answer: you write for both. It’s not easy, but neither is good SEO’d content. Let the Google Web Spam team decide where you fit in. If you do it right, you CAN have both. I’ve done it. Countless other SEOs have done it too. You don’t have to bend the rules, break the rules, to rank. You just have to play the game better: work for long-lasting results, work for solid (from the inside/out) websites, and work to make your competitor’s websites look like amateurs.

  1. Jan 25 2011

    Spot on Tony!!

    You’ve made an excellent outline of how to write for both search engines and humans. While some may argue that H1 tags and the like are not important they do work very well in serving both ‘bots & human readers. The visual break up helps people scan the page and if you are consistent in using your keywords in them you should see a slight advantage. Heck, I’ve seen some of our clients purposely set up their CMS so the Title tags are automatically implemented as the first H1 tag. Hasn’t seemed to hurt them and can’t imagine Google and Bing will penalize for this sort of strategy in the future. Now if they will give it the same weight….that’s another thing to debate.

  2. Jan 25 2011

    I’m going to disagree with one thing Tony –

    And, now, the question remains: do I have to change my site content so I’m not classified as “spam”?

    It’s a great question. Answer: probably not.

    Here’s the reality – one of the biggest issues I find when doing audits is lack of depth of content. Site owners have so much going on these days in sidebars, call-out boxes, extended dropdown or pop-out navigation, footer nav… As a result, the entire weight of most pages where those elements are common to every other page far outweighs the unique content on any individual page.

    That is, to most people’s surprise, a classic indicator of a spammy site. People think – “but it’s unique content, and it’s not intended to be spam…” Well here’s where most people will now need to pay the price for auto-generated spam sites becoming ubiquitous. It’s the pattern that would trigger red flags in an algorithm based review – that’s what counts the most. Intent by itself is no longer good enough.

    And it’s why I’ve been laughing at all those people who say “it’s all about links”. Because Google is taking direct aim at those people now.

    • Jan 25 2011


      That’s a superb point. With all the “action” going on on-site, often content is bare-bones. Realistically, you’re right on this. Every single site should re-examine everything to make sure it’s as stout as possible. That they’ve got some verifiable unique content. Thanks for the excellent addition!

      Intent by itself is no longer good enough.

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