Walking the Tightrope between Great Content and SEO

Mar 4, 2020

It may not quite be Lincoln and Douglas, or even great taste/less filling. But the debate about which is more important to a brand’s online presence great content or search engine optimization (SEO) continues to rage on.

On one side you have the writers. Especially the “old school” writers (like me) who launched their careers long before Al Gore invented the Internet.

When I started writing we used typewriters electric ones. I’m not that old. The total focus was on the quality of the content. Clever, attention-grabbing headlines that led into powerful, motivating body copy that carried the message in an interesting way was “all” that was required.

Then came the Internet, and with it the omnipotent search engines. No longer was it enough for headlines and copy to be creative and interesting. The data wonks said it also had to include certain keywords that would tell the search engines a particular page or document was relevant to the search the user was conducting.

In other words, if the user is searching on the term “crazy bunnies” it was important for those keywords to appear in the headline, and in the little words that came after. Especially the first paragraph.

While that makes sense from a data point of view, it definitely created a dilemma for writers. Having a brilliant headline was no longer enough, because you weren’t just trying to capture the attention of humans. You also had to capture the attention of the machines.

That situation set up a sort of chicken-and-egg dilemma. You could write the best website, or article, or other content in the world, but if no one could find it in a marketing world that increasingly relied on search what was the point?

On the other hand, if your document was easy to find due to liberal use of keywords but not very interesting or engaging, again what was the point? You’d lose the audience you’d worked so hard to capture.

It also led to practices such as keyword stuffing (including keywords out of context for the sole purpose of raising searching rankings) and a host of other tricks such as putting keywords on a page in the same color as the background so they couldn’t be seen by humans but would be read by web crawlers. Didn’t take long for the search engines to figure that one out.

Keeping the balance

Fortunately, Google (and other search engines no one really cares about) have continually updated their algorithms to go beyond simple keywords. They are getting better and better at determining the context of the content to ensure it’s actually relevant.

Still, keywords are important to success. So how do you reconcile the desire to write content that reaches people on a deep, human level with the need to tell the machines yes, this is the information they’ve been looking for?

Here is a process I’ve found to be effective.

  1. Start by knowing which keywords are ranking for the topic you want to promote. If you don’t already have a list, you can use Google AdWords, a free service, to plug in some terms that are relevant to your product/service. Then see which ones have relatively high search volumes with low competition. That will tell you what terms your audience is likely to be searching on, and how difficult it will be to rank high for them. The goal, of course, is page one above the fold. Be sure to check Google’s suggested substitutions too. There may be a more effective word or phrase lurking in there somewhere. Of course, if you have an agency (such as, oh, I dunno, Amendola Communications) you can hand that work off to them.
  2. Once you have your list, set it aside. Then develop the content in a way that is the most interesting and speaks to your audience(s). Don’t worry about keywords right now. Just make sure you’re telling a good story that demonstrates your knowledge and/or experience and convinces your target audience that you would be the best choice. In other words, write as though the Internet doesn’t exist.
  3. After you have great content, go back and look for places to plug in your keywords. Start with the headline and the first paragraph. Is there a way to work in your most important keyword? Then sprinkle in others throughout the rest of the content. In some cases it may require a bit of rewriting, but often you’ll be surprised at how easily a keyword can be substituted for another word or phrase. Writing in this fashion, rather than trying to write to the keywords initially, will help the keywords fit more organically, and will keep you from writing dull and, well, robotic content.
  4. Finally, when you think it’s ready to go have someone who hasn’t been involved in the process read it to ensure those keywords are fitting in as well as you think they are. Taking this extra step doesn’t just help with human readers, by the way. With the sophisticated machine learning many search engines are applying these days it will also help minimize any appearance that you’re trying to “game” the system. Instead, your keywords will fit in the context of your content, and you will be rewarded by Google, the Great and Powerful.

Walk the line

Great content and SEO don’t have to be treated as opposing forces. In fact, they can (and should) work very well together.

By focusing first on what you want to say, and then bringing in the flags that will help that great content get seen, you can bring customers and prospects to your website and make sure they’re delighted once they get there.

Ken Krause

An award-winning writer for his work in advertising, marketing and public relations, Ken Krause has a diverse background that includes more than 30 years of combined agency- and client-side experience. Ken has in-depth experience in technology products and services, healthcare, supply chain, consumer electronics and other vertical markets. He previously served as Vice President of Content Services at Tech Image, where he spent 14 years. Ken also served as Marketing Communications Manager at ASAP Software (now a part of Dell). His earlier career includes stints as an Account Manager at Marketing Support, Inc. and McKee Advertising and as a Senior Copywriter for Meyer/Fredericks.