The Surprising Secret of Successful SEOs

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The Surprising Secret of Successful SEOs | SEJ

I’ve always been curious about what makes a “good SEO.” I’ve seen a lot of highly competent SEOs. They know their stuff inside and out. Some of them are deep and highly specialized in a narrow niche. Others are broad, able to create far-reaching strategies for search success.

There is one salient characteristic, however, that I’ve observed in many successful SEOs. I’ve come to see this feature as a mark of some of the most creative and forward-thinking SEOs.

If an SEO works on improving in this one area, I think that he or she can dramatically improve his or her skill as an SEO.

What is the Surprising Secret of Successful SEOs?

Answer: They know great content.

The sign of a high-quality SEO is one who understands and possesses a knack for great content writing.

Think about it. Much of SEO revolves around content. For this reason, SEOs immerse themselves in a world of content.

SEO is all about the content.

Consider each of these elements:

  • Keywords – All of SEO goes back to keywords. Without keywords, there’s no such thing as SEO.
  • Queries – Queries, unlike keywords, are what users use to find websites and content. Every single user search involves words, spoken or typed, and they drive the entire world of search.
  • Titles – The single most important on-page SEO element is this: Titles. And from what are titles formed? Words. Copy.
  • URLs – URLs have come a long way from their garbled code-like origins. Today’s best URLs are clean, simple, and made out of words.
  • Headings – One of SEO’s most notable powerhouses are the page headings. Far from being mere stylistic panache, those H1s, H2s, and H3s are what make for highly optimized pages.
  • Meta Descriptions – Even though they allegedly have no algorithmic value, meta descriptions nonetheless possess incredible value for the kind of search that truly matters — users reading copy. Yes, metas matter to SEO.
  • Links – Inbound links are what turn nice websites into traffic-deluged sites. Never underestimate the power of a link. What are most links formed out of? They are formed out of words — one set of words pointing to another set of words, joined by a URL (made out of words).
  • Anchor Text – Anchor text is a significant part of what makes a good (or bad) link. What’s the core of an anchor text? It’s text — words.
  • Quality Content – It is widely known that Google judges websites based on their content quality. Quality is all about the writing.
  • Copy – Last but definitely not least, we have copy. What are websites made out of? Yes, there is underlying source code. Yes, there is a development genius. Yes, there is graphic design power. But what do users see? What do their minds interact with? It’s copy — words, sentences, paragraphs, articles, stories, information.

Since SEO is largely built upon the foundation of content, it logically follows that a great SEO will be familiar with great content.

Many SEOs Grew From the Field of Content Writing

I used to wonder where all SEOs came from. What industries were they involved in before becoming SEOs? What skills were they trained in?

I soon found out that many SEOs came from the marketing field. More specifically, many of them were born of copywriting positions. Some were freelance copywriters. Others created ad copy. Some were hired to write articles. Others simply had a knack for writing great stuff.

Many of them had writing skills. Others who merged into the SEO field from, say, development or programming, also possessed a penchant for writing and interacting with content.

SEOs Don’t Have to be Great Writers. But They at Least Know Great Writing.

I want to introduce a disclaimer at this point.

You can probably think of many exceptions. You probably know an SEO who can’t create a sentence to save their life. Or maybe, you’re aware of an SEO who never touches content. Instead, they only work on the technical side of things, jiggering robots.txt, configuring schema markup, and validating HTML codes.

I get that.

It’s true that there are legions of exceptions to the SEO-as-writer rule. By and large, however, a good SEO will at least know the value of good writing. For example, I work with skilled SEOs who are not fluent in the language of the sites they are optimizing. Still, however, the principle holds true — great SEOs know great content.

That’s the benchmark — knowledge of good content, not necessarily the practice of writing great content. Honestly, most of the really top-notch SEOs can push out some pretty sweet content, but such a skill is not requisite for the trade.

Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz, is one of the world’s most well-known SEOs.


Rand sharpened his teeth by posting copiously on SEO forums. He went on to write books and dozens of articles. The guy knows content. And SEO.

Another notable SEO is Danny Sullivan. Sullivan messed around with graphic design, but his real skill was in content. He worked as a reporter for the L.A. Times and Orange County Register. Along the way, he was developing as one of the most knowledgeable SEOs in the world. Not surprisingly, he’s also an amazing writer. Sullivan is the founder of Search Engine Land and regularly writes for the site. “Writer” or “editor” is all over his resume. Plus, the guy regularly posts uber-readable content on his personal blog.

Many SEOs know the name “Barry Schwartz,” and drink from the daily fountain of Search Engine Land and Search Engine Roundtable. Barry is the guy behind it all. Undoubtedly, he knows his SEO, and he produces highly read content.


The most well-known SEOs — the ones whom you read, follow, and retweet — are great writers.

But perhaps some of the world’s best SEOs are those you’ve never heard of. They’re working in agencies, pounding out awesome work for the world’s highest-ranked websites. Or, they own their own companies, and are unleashing their SEO wizardry, probably outranking everyone else.

The chances are pretty good that they know content. They optimize their titles. They create content. They do content marketing.

SEO and Writers Have a Lot in Common

When you think about it, SEO and writing have quite a bit of overlap.

  • SEO is about reading subtle signals and cues. Writers know how to intuit signals and cues in people and contexts.
  • SEO requires keeping up with changes and updates. Writers are constant learners.
  • SEO is largely about user experience. A writer is focused on shaping that user experience.
  • SEO requires adherence to rules and standards. Writers are skilled in following rules and standards.
  • SEO requires creativity. Writers are creative thinkers.

Exceptions abound, but many of the greats in SEO have the companion skill of being good at content — writing it, critiquing it, producing it, analyzing it, and consuming it.

Four Ways to Become a Better SEO and Copywriter

I’m convinced that if you improve your writing skills, you will also improve your SEO skills. Why? Because the two go hand-in-hand. Here are some suggestions for growing your writing ability.

1. Read More

Read what the best SEOs have to say. Read the best quality sites on SEO and content marketing.

When you read good stuff, you gradually learn how to write good stuff. At the very least, you can recognize good stuff when you see it.

There is a definite difference between poor-quality content and high-quality content that goes beyond mere spelling and grammatical issues. When you can discern the good from the bad, you will grow your own ability to put the best of best on your own or clients’ sites.

2. Write Headlines

Headlines are the perfect training ground for developing one’s writing ability. Headlines are the hook that compel readers to engage with your content.

A headline isn’t long — ten to thirty words at most. That’s why it’s a great approach for improving your content ability. It doesn’t take long to write, but it has a major impact on your search performance.

3. Make Recommendations

Use your SEO knowledge to make content recommendations. When you see the integral connection between content and SEO, you begin to sharpen your strategic insights.

For example, you’ll be able to make recommendations regarding:

  • Homepage copy length
  • Meta descriptions
  • Headlines
  • Title tags
  • Anchor text
  • Keyword presence in articles

And so much more. Simply knowing content makes you a better SEO.

4. Keep a Blog

One of the most powerful things you can do as an SEO is to keep your own blog. In addition to the advantages of personal branding, you’ll evolve as a great writer.

If you don’t have a personal blog, that’s not a huge problem. It’s easy to start one, or you can develop a circuit of guest-posting on other notable industry blogs.


We are in the age of the content marketing SEO. Today’s SEOs have to be invested in content in order to be truly successful.

It’s hard not to use your content skills. When you are in possession of content writing ability, you can write sizzling hot copy, unleash powerful content marketing campaigns, produce viral articles, weave together perfect organic longtail pages, and make your business successful. It simply requires a passionate excitement about content plus SEO.

SEOs may not be doing all the writing themselves, but they recognize its value, maximize its potential, and prove its worth.

What do you think? Is knowledge of content a mark of successful SEOs?


Featured Image: Rawpixel via Shutterstock

Neil Patel
Neil Patel is the co-founder of KISSmetrics, an analytics provider that helps companies make better business decisions. Neil also blogs about marketing and entrepreneurship at Quick Sprout.
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  • Nisha Kumar

    Hey Neil even I wonder sometimes what all qualities a good seo person should have. Thank you so much for such a informative blog. Really useful 🙂

  • R.Rogerson

    I’ve rewritten this several times, and I just cannot get it to sound right. So this is about as good as it’s going to get 😀

    Content Marketing.
    I predicted over 2 years ago that Content Marketing would become the next wave, replacing the buzz of Inbound Marketers (and the lesser wave of SEO 2.0).
    More and more people realise that the label “SEO” has more than a little tarnish to it,
    and that the skill sets, knowledge and experience indicated by one differs to the other.
    Content Marketing sounds so much cleaner than Link Spammer 😀
    (No, I know, many SEO’s are good, and follow guidelines (mostly) – they don’t all deserve that tarred brush … but there’s still plenty out their dirtying the name of SEO – so why not jump ship and move on to a cleaner, leaner ship?)

    SEO Backgrounds.
    Now, wouldn’t that be an interesting research piece? Seeing where SEOs actually come from.
    From experience – many come from either related fields (such as Web Design or Digital Advertising), or from the IT industry in general (developers, coders and such).
    The next group I would say are from the marketing and advertising industries, and shifted to digital (if they didn’t come in from PPC etc.).
    Then of course you have the large number of icandoits, who saw a few articles, and saw the golden light to earning millions by optimising other peoples sites 😀

    At the other end of the pool, in the deeper and far less populated waters – you have a different species or two.
    What sets them apart is not their skills or professional backgrounds. It’s actually that many of them have been around for some time, and know each other. They may not have known each other at the very start, but on their journey, they met in places like Cre8asite.
    That’s right, many of the bigger names have known each other for years on end.
    Another key feature that many (though far from all) have is the ability to blow trumpets.
    Be it their own, or a colleagues, telling others how good, smart, insightful, tactical etc. works wonders. Lets face it, you aren’t told how good someone is, you wouldn’t know, would you (it’s no different than testimonials, ratings or links :D).

    The true mark of a successful SEO – ignoring things like fame, notoriety etc.?
    Well, it would have to be the ability to consistently achieve rankings that lead to conversions, with no/low risk of punishment.
    You don’t have to touch a piece of code, markup, write a single sentence yourself.
    But being able to see an opportunity, take it, make the page(s)/site(s) rank for the targeted terms that get traffic which increase the revenue … that is what counts.

    Content is important.
    It always has been important.
    It’s still not going to get you ranking at the top of Google though 🙁
    That requires more than the ability to generate content that is worth looking at. It requires Promotion as well, and Optimisation kind of goes with it too.
    If you are missing a piece of the triflex, you are far less likely to rank.

  • Sadanand

    Thanks for your reminder. I am expecting new techniques.

  • Zach Carmichael

    Really interesting stuff Neil. I completely agree that the best SEOs must know how to recognize or write great content.

  • Cedric Markwatson

    Neil, believe or not, but the truth is that I am a big fan of your creative thinking. Your all posts are worth for me and help to grow my business. As usual this stuff is also awesome and give me a clear massage what should we do in SEO and also help to improve our skill.

    There are a tone of articles on the internet, but your way of writing different to all of them. In this stuff you have discussed all small and big points that are essential part of SEO. Thanks Neil for sharing your thoughts with us.

  • Edwin

    Universities should promote a degree in journalism as a foundation for a future career in SEO and web based strategies.

    • Kyla Becker

      I absolutely agree.

      Written communication today is largely digital, and when published in public forums such as blogs, there is a very specific way of writing that must occur to cater to short attention spans. Journalistic writing instruction helps to develop this type of writing skill, with shorter paragraph structures and citation styles, bulletins of information for quick digestion, etc.

      I think this article hits on a lot of great information and observations of what it takes to be good in this industry. However, I would add that without the technical side of SEO, the greatest content in the world can still go undiscovered. To me, a true and deep understanding of the technical aspects of SEO is the mark of a great SEO.

  • Soumya Roy

    Again another great piece of article from Neil Patel and Search Engine Journal.
    I can’t agree more on each of the points, Neil specified here in this post. Good SEO and content writing can’t be separated and the fundamentals of search engine optimization will never change. Keywords, title, headers, clean URLs, site structure, speed, quality inbound links are all still very important to get ranking and traffic. Content and a good design help sites to convert visitors into real time paying customers.
    I am not at all a good writer or not even I love writing but I always read lots of great articles like this and try to gather knowledge which helped me a lot till date.
    Thanks Neil and thanks Search Engine Journal.

    Soumya Roy

  • Rizwan

    Really great stuff, Neil! (y)

    Being in the SEO industry for 5 years, I even wonder a lot of SEOs have a background in content writing industry but writing is not my thing and I don’t really enjoy writing blog posts and so on.
    However, I always read great & informative stuff like this and try to implement as many factors possible to boost the marketing campaign 🙂

  • Bromley

    For a second there I saw myself fade away, until I reached the exceptions part. Writing isn’t my virtue. In the past I’ve tried numerous times, but I don’t excel at it. That’s why I leave the writing to people that are more capable than me. It proves to be more difficult with writers, regarding keyword placement, copy/article voice, however after some time working together we reach consensus.

    • Steve Calamuso

      When you can blend the two, magic happens! If you have your writers produce the content and then you “punch it up,” it turns awesome.

  • Angelos Savvaidis

    One thing I noticed over the course of … lets say almost 10 years is that people tend to write much more than they should.

    SEO guys are awesome at writing articles at sites. They are absolutely amazing to write a article about 10 Top tips for doing this and 10 top tips for doing that. But when you start talking about real technical SEO there are VERY few people on the world wide web that can actually write about it.

    And NO i am not talking about adding meta tags in a site. This is not a technical thing at all if you are for example using a plugin is it now…

    For me this is what makes a good SEO. Instead of writing articles all day long, someone could write something useful that could probably “break the internet”.


    • R.Rogerson

      I see two problems there Angelos.

      The first problem is “technical”. Most of the “SEO Pro” crowd are little more than pimped up link-builders. Of the remain SEOs, most have some skills, but few have any real technical knowledge or skills.
      Things like tweaking servers for speed performance, setting up internal monitoring for traffic tracking, analysing internal searches for opportunities etc.
      There are still plenty of SEO’s that don’t understand the difference of 301 vs 302, or the numerous reasons why redirect chains are bad, or how/why alternative, associated or complimentary words/phrases are important.
      Remember, it’s only been the last 3 years that you’ve really seen “marketing” and “content” get focused on … whilst CRO is still being looked at with scrunched up eyes and a tongue sticking out the corner of their mouths.
      Most SEOs wouldn’t know technically if you tied it to a stick and slapped them with it 😀

      The second problem is … how many SEOs actually develop new ideas, create their own tests or produce truly original work etc.?
      If you look at what is out there, an awful lot of it is rehashed, spun, rewritten or plain old stolen.
      It’s amazing fun watching someone post something, and then watching the cascade/ripple as 5 others, then 20 others, then 100 others start writing about the same thing. The shame is, hardly any of the 125 after the original add anything “new” 🙁

      Doesn’t matter how great a writer you are, if what you are writing about is old-hat and done to death.
      (actually, that’s not true – rehashing with style, producing long composite posts covering multiple pieces/angles etc. is fairly good and works well, as does moving the content to a different format (such as article->video, or article->infographic etc.)
      And you shouldn’t write about tings you don’t really know or understand (though that doesn’t stop some people 🙁 ).

      I’m with you, I’d like to see some real SEO pieces – but that’s just not likely to happen that much.
      So treasure the ones you do find 😀

  • Sachin

    Thanks for the useful blog Neil.

  • Steve Calamuso

    Nice to see an article like this.

    Write turned copywriter turned SEO. Really, SEO is all of those things.

    It’s funny to me that on a daily basis, every one of my clients receives, through their contact forms, the form letters from “SEO” firms. Always the same crap, always poorly written, always promoting thins that worked 10 years ago.

    It can be hard to convince clients in some industries (especially contractors) that content is the way to get sales/leads/etc.. Especially with spammers out there trying to sell a 3 month package then disappear. But, the results speak for themselves.

    Great article.

  • Leo

    I agree that good content is very important for successful SEO, however there was no mentioning of backlinks and their importance. What do you think about it? Is it as important as content?

  • David

    You know something I recently read another article on SEJ that suggested that content is actually not crucial for ranking because you can rank with very little content if you have tons of user-generated content through review platforms like Yelp. I’m not abandoning content at all, but I’m really starting to pay attention to optimizing those review sites for my clients.

    • R.Rogerson

      Go for it David.
      What you are looking at is an area many completely miss.
      Optimising external references and 3rd party content (that is stable) is worth doing. Not only may you see a cascade effect returning to the primary real estate (their website), it goes a long way to helping with reputation based searches and branding (not to mention being a good preventative measure for bad-press).

      If you can invest the time, see if you can become to “move” from the external platform to either an on-site one … such as testimonials or reviews (or case studies etc.), or encourage them to post elsewhere.

      Obviously, you need to be careful so as not to appear to be forming link-chains, or incentivising positive reviews, as many review platforms dislike that practice … but the is no harm in monitoring channels, noting names and sending a thank you (or updating their account with a little credit if you see them say lovely warm and fluffy things ;))

  • Saviour

    Thanks for the education. I still don’t understand what a website copy is. Can someone help me out please?

  • Sunny

    Thanks Neil for sharing this knowledgeable information with us. I will follow these secret steps for my business.As per your opinion quality content is the powerful step for better SEO.

    Keep sharing

  • Matt Calik

    Thank you Neil. These are just basic, but they are something that people usually forget.

  • Brandon Prettyman

    The hardest and perhaps the most important part of becoming a ‘great writer’ is developing your own voice. Witty, sarcastic, charming, or perhaps somewhere in between…this is what really counts. I have read blogs with great information but I am half expecting ‘Bueller, Bueller…’ to be called out halfway through. Make sure you have the industry down low that needs to be shared but also learn how to share it.

    ***On the flip-side if you are a great writer don’t bother writing unless you have something worth sharing. Damn you click-bait articles!

  • michael Ng

    A successful SEO will not be only link building or technical on page optimization.
    A successful SEO is about being able to communicate your message effectively and persuasively to your target market or niche.
    I definitely agree with what you just said, “SEOs Don’t Have to be Great Writers. But They at Least Know Great Writing.” Simply put, if you are not adding value, there is no point creating a website. I would say SEO should be able to continue to ad value and help businesses reach out to their niche.

    Thank you sharing this.