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Down The Rabbit Hole: A Journalist’s Transition To Writing For SEO
When I first entered the world of SEO as a classically-trained writer with a Journalism degree from SDSU, I knew I “wasn’t in Kansas anymore”. This writing gig wasn’t going to be just about spelling, grammar, and punctuation; there was going to be a science to it as well – a science I knew almost nothing about. (We’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Moz… SEOmoz, that is!)
Sure, we all know what Google and other similar search engines do for us – but do we ever sit back and think about how Google comes up with the list of responses to our queries… or do we just take it for granted? And what determines the order in which the responses are listed? That, my friends, is where SEO comes to play.
Most people have never even heard of SEO or SEM and, when asked “What is SEO?”, they haven’t a clue. (I was among that majority when I was hired at Thunder SEO.) SEO means search engine optimization, which is pretty self-explanatory really, and SEM refers to search engine marketing, which is the act of marketing a website via search engines. What we aim to do at Thunder SEO is optimize the content on a particular website so that Google pulls it up on the first page of responses for a particular query. One of my co-workers simply says: “I work with Google”, when he is asked what he does for a living, which is just a bit of a stretch. I still have not been able to come up with a way to explain this so that my Grandma can understand, unfortunately.
Writing fresh and creative content that people will actually want to read is a big enough task on its own – but what about writing content that Google will recognize and rank higher than other similar sites? This is the real challenge. When I heard my co-workers talking about “organic searches”, “click-through rates”, “SEO and SEM”, and “link bait”, it seemed like they were speaking another language at first, but, luckily, I caught on.
An “organic search” simply refers to search results in a search engine that are not paid advertisements. I never knew what it meant when I did a Google search and there was a shaded box with a few listings at the top, and then a list of non-boxed responses too. Well, those “non-boxed” responses are as organic as those carrots you’re munching on; no one paid for them to get listed at the top… unless they paid an SEO specialist to beef up their site. The responses in the shaded box, however, did pay to get placed there.
“Click-through rates” refer to how many people click on your site and then continue to click through the pages based on what they see. If you write compelling and keyword-rich content, visitors to your site are much more likely to continue to peruse your site and raise your click-through rate greatly. What do I mean by “keyword-rich content”? If your site is about cupcake-decorating ideas, simply use relevant and similar terms throughout the content in your site, rather than repeating “cupcake-decorating ideas” over and over. This generates more relevant terms for Google to “crawl” through when someone is searching the Internet and your site will appear as extremely relevant and get ranked much higher.
One of the most important aspects to writing – whether you are writing for SEO or not – is your headline or title. If your headline isn’t compelling and catchy, visitors to your site are not going to be enticed to click through and read your blog, or any other information on your site for that matter. And headlines are doubly important for SEO purposes. If you are writing about a specific city or region, be sure to include that in your title: “7 SEO Tips For San Diegans”. Adding the region helps to make your post extremely relevant to location-based searches. Another tip? Lists ALWAYS work in the blogosphere. Using a headline that lists a number of reasons, secrets, types, or ways, etc, will work because of the specific promise you make to the reader of what’s in store for them. Lists are also a great way to entice someone to link to your site, which will help raise traffic on your site as well. Check out CopyBlogger’s awesome tips and techniques for writing “magnetic headlines”.
How you conduct your research is also extremely important. I live in San Diego and yet I must constantly blog about events and attractions on the East Coast or other areas that I’m not very familiar with. So, what do I do? Ask my boss to send me on trips to “get to know” New York City? I wish! Until then, I have to do my homework and find out what the locals know by browsing blogs and sites written by the locals. I don’t want to write about the Statue of Liberty or Times Square – everyone knows about those places. Instead, I want to find out where the locals go – restaurants, shows, bars, parks, etc, that are off of the beaten path. Sometimes, an event is so big, it makes sense to blog about it – but other times, I try to write about events or places that might be happening right around the corner from one of my readers – and across an entire country from me.
Google Insights is a valuable tool that can be used to compare search volume patterns based on specific regions, categories, time frames, and properties. This tool gives you graphs and tables to monitor how certain search terms go up or down in relevancy over time, You can not only keep track of the top search terms, but you can also watch the rising searches to see what is up and coming and what people are getting more interested in. This gives you the opportunity to be one of the first bloggers to write about the next hot or trending topics, which makes it an invaluable tool.
Another awesome tool that will cut your research time down dramatically is a content strategy generator from SEO Gadget. This little gem is similar to Google Insight, but gives you responses in real time to questions like “what’s trending?” and “what types of content is attracting social shares, mentions, etc?”. It is formatted as a Google Doc, which organizes all the info into a super easy to read spreadsheet. After analyzing the data on this spreadsheet, you will automatically know what types of content are working for your particular topic or niche. Rather than browsing through what feels like the entire Internet database, why not give this tool a try? I promise, you’ll thank me later. (And yes, you’re welcome.)
But, how do you get your readers to trust you? It’s simple: don’t make mistakes! I know, we’re all human, but there are a few simple things you can do like make sure all your links work and include fun images and even maps to back up your posts. Give your reader all of the necessary info they need to find the event or place you are blogging about so they don’t have to click around the Internet looking for it themselves. By you doing the research for them, they will learn to check back to your site regularly for tips and info. And if you want to entice someone to link to your site, link to their site first and tell them about it! If you found a cool tip from a blogger in Long Island, credit them, link to their page, and send them a message to tell them you did so.
All in all, writing for both traditional journalism and SEO have a lot of similarities. Though I felt pretty lost at first, content writing for SEO can be pretty simple if you do your homework and stay creative. The research aspect may be more extensive than you are used to, and you will need to back your writing up with a ton of links, but I find writing for SEO to be highly rewarding. Working in a field that is constantly adapting to keep up with the newest technologies and Internet techniques proves to be a constant learning experience for me with never a dull moment. I get to travel to the hippest bars in New York City, be a guest at the hottest runway show of the season in Milan, learn about the newest iPod accessories on the market, and explore the real estate world of Northern California all without ever leaving my desk in San Diego.