I’ve been in so many rooms of writers, editors, and journalists who roll their eyes at the mention of search engine optimization (SEO). As a lot, we tend to be appalled that we must deign to taint our creations with keywords to appease the “Almighty Algorithm.”
We seem to believe there’s good writing … and then there’s SEO writing. That’s probably because most advice on writing for SEO is about numbers and algorithms. It makes you assume search engines only like boring, robotic, and even awkward writing. That’s not true (anymore).
Good writers should love SEO. Not just out of obligation, but because it helps you make better content—and it’s not as complicated as it seems.
Why We Write for SEO
You (or the organization you work for) probably write for SEO because someone said you have to. Search traffic, clicks to your site from Google, is free, and readers don’t have to already know who you are to find your content through a search.
Free traffic is an important reason to want your content to rank—appear on the first page of search results. But it’s not the only one. Here’s why I, as a writer, love writing for SEO:
- Search traffic is “prequalified”: Readers who find your site through search are interested in the topic you’re covering. That’s a big hurdle to overcome, and it likely means readers are more engaged with your site.
- SEO puts the audience first: Every world-shattering change Google unleashes attempts to improve the search engine’s ability to surface content that best answers a reader’s questions. Stop thinking of SEO tips as ways to game the algorithm, and think of them as ways to better understand what readers want.
Good SEO writing comes down to a single rule that is also, conveniently, the foundation of any good nonfiction writing: Write for the audience first.
Which Comes First: The Writing or the SEO?
Some SEO specialists insist on planning every article SEO-first. Someone does extensive keyword research and creates an optimized outline you can’t stray from. That can feel restrictive for writers, so some prefer to write first, then add keywords where they fit.
Content creators have seen success both ways; it depends on your target audience and the purpose of your content. I recommend choosing your approach based on the kind of piece you want to create:
- Informational guide: Consider SEO first. It lets you consider the reader’s questions first and plan an article that comprehensively informs them about a topic.
- Thought leadership or personal stories: If you’re writing something more subjective, like sharing your experience or ideas on a subject, write first, then see where you can make tweaks in the editing stage to optimize for relevant search terms.
Below, I’ll show you an easy way to do SEO planning that’s best for informational pieces. Use the tips related to keywords to tweak your more subjective pieces.
SERP Analysis, i.e., SEO Planning You Won’t Hate
Tons of costly SEO tools exist to crunch numbers and help you optimize your site for search algorithms. But you can get pretty far for free doing something you already know how to do:
The first page of a Google search, called the SERP for “search engine results page,” tells you most of what you need to know to write valuable content. Use the content on this page to develop a blueprint for what readers consider good answers to the questions your piece wants to answer.
In your analysis, note these elements:
- Featured snippet
- Related searches
- People also ask
- Ranking articles
The featured snippet is that box of information Google often displays at the top of search results. It’s either a paragraph or a list—bulleted or numbered. It’s a coveted spot, because it gets a lot of clicks; it’s also a gold mine of information for content creators.
The snippet is what Google considers the best response to a query—the question or phrase typed into the search bar—so it’s likely the key information readers want to see.
Related searches are listed at the bottom of search results under “Searches related to [your query]” and sometimes a “related searches” box. These are great fodder for sections in your article or spin-off ideas for articles you could link to from this one to help readers learn more.
People Also Ask
The list of People also ask questions shows up in the middle of the SERP, and drop-down arrows reveal additional snippets. They show you questions people ask related to your query.
Use relevant questions to shape your article; they’re often the specific pieces of the puzzle readers want to know about the thing your article covers.
This is where you get into the nitty-gritty. Read the top-ranking articles (minus the ads) for your query to get an idea of what’s working. Google considers these the best content for the query for both algorithmic and subjective reasons:
- Searchers consistently click on these articles in search results, because the headline and excerpt promise an answer to their question.
- Readers tend to stay on the page—read the article—after clicking, indicating they found what they wanted.
- Other reputable sites have linked to this article, recommending it as an authority on the topic.
- Quality Raters, actual humans who work with Google, have read the article and deemed it a good response to the query.
- Quality Raters have reviewed the site and its authors and determined them qualified to speak on the topic.
- The content contained keywords and phrases, especially in the headline and subheads, that the algorithm and human raters deem relevant to the main query.
The beast that is Google gets much more complicated than this, but these elements are the gist of what makes an article rank (at this point in history). That’s great news for writers, because all these things—relevance, usefulness, authority, expertise—also make good content that serves readers!
How do competitors cover the topic?
Peruse the ranking articles, your competition, to learn what’s apparently working for readers. Consider:
- Angle: How do competitors approach a topic? Is “how to write a book” an essay, quotes from successful authors, or a step-by-step article? Does it include how to write both fiction and nonfiction, or are those separate articles?
- Outline: Skim the subheaders. These are important because of the keywords they contain, but also, on a more human level, because they are the scannable elements by which readers first judge an article. It’s a good bet readers find what they’re looking for when scanning the subheaders in top-ranking articles and decide to stick around for the details.
- What’s missing? What do competitors leave out that you can add? Going way off-track—writing a profile when competitors wrote numbered lists—might make your article irrelevant for searchers. Adding a unique spin or additional information around what searchers already find useful could give your content an edge.
Keep these elements in mind to guide you in writing a piece that answers the reader’s questions.
Keywords are the words or phrases someone types into a search bar. All your SEO efforts are meant to tell Google your article is the best response to a query that contains certain keywords.
Your SERP analysis will probably reveal the best keywords related to your article’s topic. For example, if you search “steps to write a book,” a lot of ranking articles include “how to write a book” in the title. That’s a good sign “how to write a book” is a common keyword for the topic.
A keyword tool, such as Ubersuggest (which is free) or Ahrefs (which costs $99 to $399 per month), will take the guessing out of that decision. They show you how often readers search for keywords, so you can see which ones to include in your article.
The primary keyword is the main search term you want your article to rank for. Put that in your headline and include it a couple of times throughout the article to tell Google your article is perfect for queries that contain it.
A good primary keyword is super-relevant to your article’s topic and one that readers search for a lot. For example, Ubersuggest shows “steps to write a book” gets 1,600 searches per month, while “how to write a book” gets 40,500. They’re equally relevant to a post about writing a book, so optimize for the higher-volume keywords.
Don’t optimize for high-volume keywords if they’re not relevant, though. “Kindle books” gets 60,500 searches per month. But a reader who searches for that and finds an article on how to write a book will likely be disappointed. They’ll leave your site as soon as they get there, or they’ll never click on your headline from the SERP—both signals to Google that your article is a poor choice for the “Kindle books” query, regardless of how many times the phrase shows up in the article.
Use your other analysis to determine secondary keywords, phrases that can attract interested readers who don’t type exactly your primary keyword. Include these in subheaders (formatted H2, H3, H4, etc.) and paragraph copy to bolster your article’s SEO.
A keyword tool should list related queries you can include as secondary keywords. These are usually different ways of phrasing the primary keyword, like “steps to write a book” or “writing a book,” instead of “how to write a book.”
Your list of related searches and “people also ask” phrases also make good secondary keywords. They include related topics, not just alternative ways to phrase the same topic. Google is basically telling you exactly what searchers want to learn about the topic.
For example, a search for “how to write a book” says people also ask:
- “How do you begin to write a book?”—This isn’t a good fit as your primary keyword, because it’s narrower than the main topic. But it would be smart to include a section in your article that answers this question readers have about how to write a book.
- “How much money does an author make per book?”—This is tangential to writing a book, so it’s probably not a fit in this article. But now that you know people interested in “how to write a book” are also interested in this topic, you could plan a related article about author earnings to make your site more valuable to readers.
- “How do you submit a book to a publisher?”—This is also more specific than “how to write a book” and could be a section in this article. Or, if that’s too much information for one piece, make it a spin-off article you can link to from this one to provide value for readers on the next step of the journey.
Outlining and Writing for SEO
To create your search-optimized article, assemble the pieces you collected above into an outline, then write. Here are a few tips:
- Hit the points your competition covers, plus anything else you think is necessary to answer the reader’s questions about the topic, including related searches and “people also ask” topics.
- Aim for the “featured snippet” spot by formatting your article accordingly and including the most relevant information early in the piece.
- Include your primary keyword in the headline, in one or more subheaders, and throughout the article.
- Include your secondary keywords in some subheaders and throughout the article.
- Include the most important keywords in the biggest subheaders. Google considers increasingly smaller headers increasingly less indicative of the article’s main topic.
- Put yourself in the reader’s shoes, and review the article. If you searched for the primary keyword, would this article answer your questions?
These simple steps will help you write the article readers are looking for, plus keep Google happy—without writing for robots.
Good SEO = Audience-First Content
Writing for SEO is no longer about the keyword stuffing of yore. Nor does it require dull, robotic writing for computers instead of humans. Instead, it’s about working with Google toward a common goal: to give readers the most valuable content for their query.
To write well for SEO is to write well for your audience. Pay attention to the tactics that optimize your articles for search, because the same things help you understand what readers want and how to deliver it.