Some can create engaging content. Others can create SEO-friendly content.
Few can do both.
For true digital success, all content – from service pages to blog posts to guests pieces on third-party publications – must engage and appeal to search engines.
When engagement and SEO are aligned, both build upon each other’s mission.
That’s the simple secret of digital marketing.
For this alignment to flourish, technical SEO is crucial. But the most energy is absorbed by the copywriters. Sadly, most companies hire the cheapest copywriters possible to save a dollar here or there.
This is wrong in every way; a content writer carries more clout than most in the endless world of digital marketing.
I continually stress the importance of hiring strong copywriters to my agency’s clients – even if that client has already been with me for years.
One successful route that makes sense to those who don’t understand the importance of engaging and SEO-friendly content is my explanation of what I call the “online engagement ladder.”
Searchers begin at the lower rung and work their way up (read ascending from 1-4):
4. Content engages audience.
3. Title attracts an interest; meta description builds upon this interest.
2. Content ranks high for search query and keywords through strong SEO.
1. A search query is entered into a search engine with various keywords.
The end result of a business that follows the simple online engagement ladder?
Searchers quickly transform from prospects to customers/clients/readers (based on the proverbial Holy Grail of online industries: products/services/news).
Once these customers/clients/readers are exposed to engaging content on a consistent basis, they will soon become loyal to your brand. Without getting too deep, loyalty allows easy up-selling, and by nature this equates to higher ROI.
After more than two decades of creating content for both traditional and digital platforms, I’ve learned a few things about designing content strategies that feed the engagement/SEO-friendly machine.
Following are 17 essential tactics that I use when training my agency’s writers.
These are chronologically ordered for maximum impact. Notice the added energy that’s needed toward the revision stages of creating engaging and SEO-friendly content.
1. Keyword Research
For digital marketers, these four syllables are cliche. But for some reason loads of content is continually created without proper keyword research and a clear keyword strategy that includes optimizing each page or post for target keyword(s).
Search Engine Journal has dozens of articles on keyword research if you don’t know this foundation for content marketing success.
With proper research, you’ll know what type of keyword volume and trends are out there, and you can optimize your post or page to capitalize on that research.
Main service/product/category pages – especially “parent” ones – can chase the higher volume keywords. All other lower “child” pages and, especially blogs/education articles, can chase the long-tail, lower-volume keywords that are typically endless in any industry.
Note: Optimized website hierarchy and keyword mapping are paramount for success. If your agency refuses to mention this before creating content, run.
2. Related Keyword List
During your keyword research you’ll also discover related keywords – ones that when properly implemented will show relevancy to the post/page’s target keyword(s) and theme.
Spend time creating this list of related keywords. It will be vital to your overall strategy – especially after some other things are done that cater more to the writing side versus the SEO side.
3. Engaging & Optimized Title Tags (Headlines) Supersede Everything
You can have the best piece of content in the world, but if the title tag/headline is not engaging, not many people will notice. Genius copywriters like Ray Edwards say that you have a mere two seconds to garner attention with your headline.
First, for SEO purposes, you must use the target keyword(s) – as close to the front as possible. And keep that title around 60 characters.
Next, the title must do one or all of the following:
- Explain how to do something.
- Establish credibility.
- Create curiosity.
- Command a benefit of a product/service/news headline.
- Engage the conversation within the reader’s head.
- Explain the idea of the “WHY” of your brand (read Simon Sinek).
Also, two things that are statistically said to attract attention from a psychological stance are:
- Brackets or parentheses
- Odd numbers
Put the effort into creating title tags/headlines that drive clicks. Also, A/B testing of a few title tags will result in much higher results.
4. Now Forget About the Keyword Research
Now that the keyword research is complete, and you’ve created your headline, it’s time to focus on creating the content.
Put SEO out of your mind. Focus on creating the content itself.
Mentally make a note of the related keywords, and most importantly the theme of your title, but clear your mind of any thoughts of SEO. Just focus on the writing for now.
5. Enhance the Mindset
For some it takes music. For others pressure from deadlines. For others, booze or whatever other type of thing settles the soul, whether a run, a talk to a psych, or a simple hike with the dog into the woods.
Regardless of what it is, do it, and get focused on creative writing vs. SEO.
6. Now Write
Began writing the first draft with one mission: explain the topic to your readers in simplest form. The quickest way to achieve simplicity and organization (which is explained below) is to begin with a simple outline.
Draft the most important thoughts and create your subheads (if using numbers, don’t insert them yet – #6 above was once #9). All thoughts will likely change, but for now just get the main ideas down that support the overall title.
The ideas may start slow, but once the mood sets in – which occurs quicker when you practice this technique often – words will flow.
Don’t worry about sloppiness or correcting facts; let the mind go, and brainstorm on the screen or by handwriting with a non-stop flow (I’d say stream of consciousness, but that’s also cliche for literature types. Plus, we want short paragraphs that will help us in the revising phases).
Handwriting may sound like some archaic process, but for some, this process just works. It works for me with certain articles like this, which was outlined in a tub while taking a break from client work.
Remember – even in the first-draft phase — don’t write thick paragraphs.
This will help save time in future revisions, and with practice will help press the ideas of short paragraphs and white space between words. (Again – we’re writing for a smooth transition of ideas to the reader. The easier we make it, the faster these transitions will happen.)
7. Writer’s Block is B.S.
Many may stop and wonder what to do if “writer’s block” happens. Well, I once suffered from this, but soon realized it’s just B.S. – an excuse to not write.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with delaying the entire process of writing. I sometimes wait until moments before the deadline to begin a project.
But it isn’t writer’s block; rather, it’s a personal process to force creativity. This happens for only certain writings. But when I sit down to write every day for multiple clients, I never suffer from writer’s block.
If ideas won’t begin, simply start by writing words. Just the physical process of writing can get the mind flowing.
A few tips to start the act of writing are:
- Rewrite the title in paragraph form.
- Write a few URL structures.
- Retype your related keyword list.
- Brainstorm bullet points of what you want to say to someone as if you were talking to them.
The latter is my favorite. I imagine talking to the reader, and explaining all the main themes of my article, saying the words out in my head as I type or write each bullet point.
Sometimes I compose 100 bullets; other times 10. Regardless, they get the mind in unison with the fingers to write.
8. Time for Organization
Now, even if you have 1,000 words or 100 bullet points or 10 subheads, it’s time to organize your writing. Organized writing equates to organized thoughts, and this organization appeals to a reader’s emotions (equates to quicker sales).
Always organize with an end in mind:
- What do you want to achieve here?
- What is your overall mission?
- Why would you waste time writing if there was no ending in mind (remember, we’re talking digital content that’s set to quickly engage…not fiction!)?
As for the actual writing process, some focus on creating the beginning and ending before the middle, and others the vice versa. Find what works for you. Experiment with both back-to-back, and find your way.
9. Drafting Begins
This is where the real work begins – drafting.
I use the 80/20 rule for all business practices, making sure 20 percent of my efforts achieve 80 percent of the results. This principle quickly comes into play when you begin drafting.
Your first draft may have 80 percent of its efforts in 20 percent of the ideas that need to be explained. Cut useless ideas and words aggressively.
Don’t be afraid – it’s only your first draft. Think about your first moments at anything – driving a car, starting an agency or business, love, music, whatever. Most would likely never repeat what happened first. The same thought process goes for your first round of edits:
- Think 80/20.
- Repeat process
I’ll sometimes begin with 2,500 words for a “simple” blog item, cut it to 800 words, rebuild, and cut again. Rebuild until it achieves everything you want to say.
10. Now Walk Away
Regardless of how much writers think they can control all at once, fogginess will set in.
You can continue writing the first draft until your head explodes because that’s what that process is all about. But when drafting begins, fogginess will set in. Embrace it, but realize you must refresh the mind.
This is when it’s time to walk away.
Contingent on the size of the content, this period away may take a few hours, days, weeks, months, or years.
In regards to the latter, I’ve been away from the final draft of my debut fiction novel for nearly six years. Between I drafted another three, but I’m simply not ready to finish that first one.
But then again, that novel is for my relaxation – not client work that needs finishing under tight deadlines.
11. Repeat Steps 9 and 10, then Return to SEO Thinking
Repeat steps 9 and 10 for as long as it takes. Once satisfied, it’s time to return to the SEO thought process.
Start by revisiting your keyword research, and reread your related keywords.
Now that the tough writing is done, and thoughts/themes are explored, some related keywords will make more sense than others.
Again, think like the reader. Place as many of these related keywords into your article in a natural flow.
12. Organize. Again.
Now that you’re satisfied with the implementation of the related keywords, it’s time again get into the reader’s mindset and out of your own.
First walk away, then come back and read the latest draft out loud, making sure not to skip the subheads.
A trick I use is having my Facetime app open on my Mac so I can see myself while reading. I guess this replaces reading in the mirror, which never worked for me.
When seeing yourself as most see you in the digital world, you quickly realize how dumb you sound – and look – when your content is unclear.
Clean up the draft once again before returning to SEO.
13. Meta Descriptions Need as Much Energy as Revisions
Once you have your best possible draft (don’t be married to it just yet; if you are not the final editor, things are bound to change), it’s time to write the meta description.
Though Google says it has zero ranking factor, it can have a significant impact on who clicks through to your website.
The title tag is the main driver of openings in search results, but the meta description can help strengthen that title tag, or weaken it.
Don’t spend all the time writing and revising just to let a meta description pass by.
Also, use target and top-volume related keywords in it when possible. If in a search query, these keywords are bold in the meta description, which naturally attracts the eye, enhancing openings and user experience (UX).
Once your meta description is complete, the layout warrants it, write a “deck head,” which is basically the original subheading that supports the main title. The deck (as it is known in traditional journalism) is used to create curiosity around the title tag.
14. Optimize, Thinking from the Top Page & Down
Think from the top of the page down, and make sure you have optimized the following with keywords in mind:
- URL structure.
- Title (you centered your writing around it, but sometimes that title changes).
- Sub-heading/header tags (make sure you not only optimize for keywords, but make them H2, H3, etc. tags).
- Image alt text/captions/titles (fit as many keywords as possible here).
15. Optimize Linking
We could have simply made this a bullet point above, but many forget the importance of optimizing your internal/external linking for the actual post/page content that you create (read: not footers, menus, sidebars).
What happens within your text or images can do much for UX – or destroy a reader’s focus.
- Optimize internal linking. Find the most optimal keyword or keyword phrase, and hyperlink it to an internal page of significance. One look through this article and you’ll quickly understand how much effort goes into internal linking.
- Optimize for external links. Especially if you’re in a news-related industry where content depends on exposure of possible advertisers. A simple followed link in the text can create a strong relationship with that prospective advertiser.
Just make sure all internal/external links flow with the theme of your article.
Many readers will stall if they click on a link about content creation like this one, and that link brings them to a page about the importance of collagen and fingernail growth. Yeah, it sounds disgusting and will kill your audience’s intent – the thing search engines prioritize for top results.
16. Before Publishing, Revise Yet Again
Can I stress revising enough?
Many of these latter SEO elements will occur when a story is uploaded – especially the internal linking, and most on-site SEO elements such as making headline tags actual headline tags, and optimizing the meta descritpions and URL structures.
But once all is done, it’s time for one more revision. And this happens within a live screen. A great CMS like WordPress will allow you to preview your post before publishing.
This is once again psychological, and you will point out mistakes in a preview that even the best editor couldn’t find on your Word document. It’s just part of the process. Stick to it.
Also, it’ll show you how the article flows (is there enough white space?) and allows you to review/check all internal SEO elements, such as optimized header tags and internal/external links (you don’t want any 404s ever!).
17. Final Step: Get Social Early & Often
Socialize it through every online means you have, with a focus on Twitter and Facebook.
Social networks like these two have more than proven their worth regardless of pressure from the financial analysis and luddites that ironically cover the streams of social feeds today.
It doesn’t matter; the conversation needs amplification, and social is the truest means there.
Embrace social. Grow social.
Amplify your brand across every social channel that makes sense.
Don’t overthink the most basic elements of content creation:
- Searchers must find the content.
- The content must engage.
For long-term success, one element can’t go on without the other. When correctly implemented, both combine to create the strongest digital content possible – the optimal solution for ROI.
And this ROI compounds because strong organic content gets stronger with each free click, whereas even the best PPC ad needs continuous investment for success.
The step-by-step tactics above are the proverbial roadmap for creating successful content in any business, regardless if it’s product or service based, or a news organization that thrives on quality traffic for advertising dollars.
Engaging and SEO-friendly content is proven; don’t skimp on it.
More Content Marketing Resources:
- An Up-to-Date Guide on Good SEO Content vs. Bad SEO Content
- How to Evaluate the SEO Value of a Piece of Content
- 5 Ways to Easily Set Up an SEO Content Strategy