There’s a whole science (some of it is pseudo-science, some of it is pure superstition or voodoo, and the rest of it is actually based in facts) behind Search Engine Optimization (SEO). The gist of it is that you should write/structure your web content so that it plays nicely with the bots at Google and other search engines. The goal is to push your site to the top of the rankings. Some people spend obscene amounts of time (and pay money to questionable people who can “help”) working on their SEO, but I’m going to tell you something slightly subversive. Your best bet is to shun SEO altogether. Just don’t sweat it.
Why should you shun SEO? If everyone else is chasing it, it must be great, right? Sort of. It does tend to work well if you’re selling a product. If you’re a plumber, for example, there is a benefit to having your name come up first when people search for plumbers in your location. Or if you’re selling widgets that address a certain issue, you want your product to come up first when people search for “Widgets that solve issue X.”
For writers, however, SEO is of dubious value. If people already read your work and know your name, they’re going to Google your name. That will put you at least near the top of the list, depending on how many other people share your name. If your name isn’t known, people may find you by searching the titles of your books, articles you’ve written, or publications you’ve worked for. Otherwise, for most freelance work, referrals are going to come from your network, not random web searches. It’s rare for anyone to search, “Freelance writer in Atlanta, GA,” for example. It may happen, but not often enough to matter.
But the larger problem is that chasing SEO harms your work in important ways. This was something I’d long suspected, but a piece from a former Google employee cemented my opinion. Granted this piece is older, but the advice still stands.
The first problem is that chasing SEO is time consuming. That time would be better spent on actual writing. If you really want to go all out with your SEO, you’re going to need either plugin(s) for your website, or coding knowledge to implement some things yourself. You’ll spend time keeping up with the latest algorithm changes and driving yourself bonkers every time Google or another site changes something that wrecks your work. It’s an endless war that you cannot win. Trying to keep up will just wear you out and waste your time. You’re better off just trying to produce quality content and let things evolve organically from that.
Second, chasing SEO can backfire. Some sites are deemed by Google, et. al. to be “over optimized.” That is, the algorithm thinks you’re working too hard on SEO so you must be trying to game the algorithm. The site will “punish” you by lowering your ranking. It sucks to put in all of that work only to be punished for it. Of course, you have no idea where the algorithm draws the line, so you’re shooting in the dark as to how much is too much.
Also, while you’re busy chasing algorithms, it’s worth noting that you’re also chasing trends rather than setting them. Algorithms are based on what has happened/worked in the past. They are not future-predictive. If you want to be noticed, it’s far better to be the trend-setter rather than the trend-chaser. Write what you are passionate about in a way that engages readers and you’re more likely to start a new trend. That’s the way to success.
Third, you’re going against what a writer does naturally. Much of SEO revolves around inserting relevant keywords into your work so that the search engines will pick them up and move that piece higher on the list of articles containing that word. The problem is, good writers don’t work that way.
Good writers write content that is interesting, relevant to their readers, and high quality. They write with a passion and enthusiasm for their topic that engages readers. They don’t try to figure out how to jam certain words and phrases into every sentence. Trying to do this ruins the work. Why do you think so many of those articles on content mills read like they were written by a fourth grader with a caffeine addiction? They often make no sense because the author is trying to cram in certain words, rather than writing a quality piece.
Quality should always be the focus of your writing, not specific words or phrases. High quality work will usually find an audience organically. If your work is appealing, well-written, timely, useful, and interesting to your readers, it will find an audience. People respond to writers who show enthusiasm and insider knowledge. Those things are hard to convey when you’re stuffing keywords into an article. Creativity gets stifled, too. It’s harder to take risks with your work when you’re adhering to a framework imposed by an algorithm. Readers would rather read creative content than something that reads like every other piece on the same subject.
Finally, writers always have to write what their readers want/need. You have to know your audience. Writing to satisfy an algorithm may not satisfy your audience. When that happens, they’re going to go elsewhere. No amount of SEO will save you at that point. When you write what your audience wants to read, however, they will stick with you and pass the word to their friends.
And that’s really what you’re after. Word of mouth is still more powerful than SEO, at least for writers. So shun SEO and direct your time toward producing more quality work. That will eventually gain you the eyeballs you’re seeking, and mark you as an expert in your field. Writing things people want to read and deem useful always trumps chasing an artificial algorithm.
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