Working as a digital writer and editor has some unique challenges – but if these challenges are met, your reward is unprecedented access to a potentially huge audience.
SEO optimisation is an important part of getting more eyes on your written content. Approximately 50% of all search traffic goes to the top two results on Google, with the number one spot taking the lion’s share of that traffic.
By the time you get to position number seven, you’re looking at a measly 3.5% of all clicks. If your post is languishing on page two of the search results, you can realistically abandon any hopes of getting someone who’s not a blood relative onto your page.
Over the years, the aim of my posts for various companies and websites was to rank around the top of the search results – for the most part, successfully. Throughout this post, I’ll analyse how I researched, wrote, and optimised one of these posts for SEO success. In this case, the post ended up appearing at the very top of the Google results, beating all other competitors.
How? Put on your best detective hat, and let’s investigate.
Step 1: Do solid keyword research
Before you start writing, do your keyword research. How to do that could be an entire post in itself, but let’s stick to the basics. You want a search term with low keyword difficulty, high search volume, and preferably a lack of strong competition.
There are plenty of tools to use for this; I like Mangools’ Keyword Finder because it’s intuitive and hassle-free. If you don’t want to pay for a subscription, Moz gives you a limited amount of free searches a month, which is pretty great.
How you do your research will depend on your situation. In this particular case I was looking for interesting things to write about, specifically related to local culture in Amsterdam. It also had to be useful – was there something that I wish existed? Something that I’d quite like to read more about?
My original thought was ‘urban nature in Amsterdam’; unexpected locations for flora and fauna around the city. It had decent search volume, but some (or most) of that might have actually been for a local interior design brand named Urban Nature. It was also slightly vague, not quite specific enough – I had to drill down one layer deeper and find a niche, to avoid the post becoming convoluted. How about focusing only on one type of local wildlife, birds?
The search volume was quite good – 2,600 searches a month – and the difficulty (at 21 out of 100) was low enough to rank for. Looking at the competing pages that ranked for this search term, there were some decent posts, but overall the potential competitors weren’t especially strong. It was mostly hobbyist posts about birds, some photos, and personal blogs. There was a definite opportunity to join the top results for ‘birds in Amsterdam’.
Step 2: Structure your post in a way that directly answers the search intent
When someone searches for something on Google, they’re looking for specific information. Search intent is the term used to describe the purpose of the user’s search; the answer to their question. Structuring your post in a way that makes sense for the search intent can help get you better results, both in terms of ranking for SEO and in terms of giving your users a better overall experience.
How you do this will depend on your own preferences and workflow. I like to start by creating a skeleton template/outline of what the post will look like. It creates a clearer image of where the post is going, and provides some guidance on how to approach individual sections. Sometimes this structure changes as the post develops, but I like operating with an outline that gradually takes shape as the post progresses. It’s also a good motivator, as you can actively see the progress you’re making.
When deciding on your structure, it’s worth keeping in mind the potential of getting a featured snippet on Google, as well as the overall quality of the user experience. A 4,000-word post with no subheadings or clear divisions will be unreadable. People generally like to skim a page before committing to reading it fully (if they do so at all).
For the aforementioned post about birds, a standard list format worked well. Web users typing in “Birds in Amsterdam” – with the exception of British lads doing some Red Light District research – are most likely looking for a list of common and interesting birds found in the city. To address their intent I used a clear subheading per bird, a good image, then a description of the bird in question. This also had a clear SEO benefit: a list format can easily be turned into a featured snippet, as seen below.
The list structure allowed Google to easily pull sub-headings into this featured snippet, displayed at the very top of the search results. One of the competing pages actually ranked with a featured snippet as well, but by creating a more detailed post with a stronger focus on a specific keyword, this blog post superseded the previous one. It listed more birds, contained more comprehensive information on the birds in question, and had an easy-to-understand structure (complete with Dutch translation of the birds’ names). In other words, more relevant content.
Another SEO-friendly and user-friendly writing structure is the Q&A format, providing a clear answer to a user question. Check out the below example of another post that received a featured snippet:
In this case, Google understood that when people searched for ‘Japan cherry blossom season 2020’, they were actually looking to find out the specific dates of the cherry blossom season, likely to help plan a trip. For the search results, Google decided to cherry-pick (sorry, no editor on this blog to remove my lame jokes) the relevant information from my blog post and display it as a featured snippet to immediately answer the user’s question.
In other words, Google is built to prioritise results that give the user a clear answer to their search intent, whether that’s “What birds can I see in Amsterdam?” or “When does the cherry blossom season start?”.
Step 3: Keep in mind that Google rewards quality content
By all means, you should follow SEO best practices when writing your original and informative articles or blog posts. Create a structure that lends itself to a featured snippet, and do your best to target a good keyword in an organic way, but above all: make sure that the page you’re creating is actually useful to searchers. You can add keywords all you like, and create listicles to your heart’s content, but optimising a useless and uninformative page is the digital equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig.
What I wanted to create was the internet’s most comprehensive introduction to winged wildlife in the Dutch capital. The idea was that anyone looking for this information would find this to be a useful, appealing, and potentially even entertaining read. While optimising for SEO success was in the back of my mind, the forefront was still very much occupied by questions like “Does this make sense to read?”, “Did I miss any important birds?”, and “Is this joke funny, stupid, or both?”.
It should go without saying that the content you put out should be based on the idea of creating something purposeful and relevant for users. Remember that there are no guarantees in the world of SEO; while following best practices is likely to lead to better results, there is a chance that your best efforts will prove no match for the whims of a secret algorithm. At the end of the day, if the search results didn’t go your way, is it better to have created something good, or something valueless designed just to get clicks?
Step 4: Incorporate your keyword(s) in a natural and creative way
Once you’ve done your keyword research and thought of a good structure for the post, you still have to make sure you implement your keyword strategy correctly. The age of spamming is over. Using your keywords naturally takes a great deal of creativity, and is preferably done by somebody with good writing skills. You can know all you want about SEO, but if you can’t write, people won’t read your post.
Poorly written but heavily SEO-optimised content is painful to read, and even casual readers will generally understand that they have landed on what is essentially a spam page. Once Google understands that your page doesn’t serve your users (reflected by a tiny amount of time spent on the page and a high bounce rate), you’ll soon find yourself plummeting down the rankings. However, when people read and engage with your content, it’s an indication that it is directly relevant to what users are looking for – which is ultimately what Google wants to prioritise.
If you’re trying to reach the top of the search results, keep in mind the following tips when writing your content:
Make sure your title is SEO-optimised. Giving your post a witty or clever title is great… but Google might not really understand what it’s about. Be sure to combine your creativity with something that’s functional.
The below example is a blog post about paintings at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. I wanted to have “Show me the Monet!” as the title, but adding “Musée d’Orsay Paintings” at the start (for maximum SEO effect) gave search engines a much clearer understanding of the content’s topic. This post currently ranks at #4 in the search results for this keyword, behind two variations of the museum’s official website and a better-established arts and culture blog.
For the post about birds in Amsterdam, it was a little simpler: “Birds in Amsterdam: A Local Guide” used the primary keyword I was targeting (‘Birds in Amsterdam’) in a direct and straight-forward way. Whether that’s because I’m a consummate professional or just couldn’t think of a snappy bird-related title is unrelated.
Again, you’ll notice the keyword is at the start of the title. Does it make a difference? Maybe a small one, but it doesn’t hurt to place it near the start. What this title does is give Google a very clear indication of what the post is about; it serves as a word-for-word replication of the search term the user placed into the search engine.
Use your primary keyword in the introduction. Now that we’ve figured out a great title, it’s time to really get into the content of the post and set up the framework for what it’s all about. In this case, the post was specifically aimed at getting traffic for “Birds in Amsterdam”, so the opening paragraph also features this term – but in a naturally occurring and largely inconspicuous way.
The key is to keep things readable. Don’t start spamming your keyword just for the sake of it. Whenever you see an opportunity, think about using it. If you’re not sure, come back to it later once you have a clearer and more complete vision of what your post looks like.
Continue using your keyword throughout the text. When you’re writing a post with a clear purpose and with a relevant primary keyword, there will be plenty of opportunities that present themselves. Don’t force it. In this case, I tried to incorporate it throughout the post as part of a flowing narrative, instead of basing the narrative around the specific search term.
Most individual sections of this post mention the keyword at some point – but some don’t. In these latter ones, it just didn’t feel right; it felt forced, spammy, and didn’t fit into the content in a natural way.
In the end, this particular blog post was around 2,300 words. The term “Birds in Amsterdam” appeared ten times throughout the text, providing a very clear indication to Google on what the post is about without becoming overly aggressive.
To avoid annoying and unnatural-sounding repetition, I decided to go with a secondary keyword as well. In this case “Amsterdam birds”, mentioned a total of four times throughout the text. The pay-off? Another featured snippet for this secondary search term.
Step 5: Take the time to do the small things properly
Lastly, there are a few basic optimisations you can do to really drive your SEO home. Make sure that your meta-title and meta-description are optimised – these are the fields that appear in the search results, and let users as well as search engines know what your post is about. It’s a great way to incorporate your primary keyword, which should be easy enough if you picked a relevant one.
Where possible, you should also link back to your new page from other places, which makes Google understand the relevance and importance of the posts. Basically, the search engine will think “Oh, this might be good if other pages are linking to it”. None of these things will independently send your post to the top of the search results, but cumulatively they can have a big impact on your ranking potential.
So how do you rank well on Google?
Follow these five SEO copywriting tips:
1) Do your keyword research to determine a specific topic and keyword.
2) Structure your post in a way that directly answers the search intent.
3) Focus on creating quality content that serves a purpose.
4) Incorporate your keyword(s) in a natural and creative manner.
5) Remember that small optimisations can add up in a big way.
Although there’s a wide range of additional factors influencing your position (your domain authority, your link profile, page loading speed, and the capricious nature of search engines among them), by following these SEO writing basics you’ll be significantly improving your chances of getting more people to actually come across your content.