Why SEO is NOT the Secret Ingredient of Effective Content

If you’ve stumbled onto this post because you were looking for content marketing tips for SEO, you may be wondering right now if I’ve been drinking too much Wednesday Punch (which is delicious, by the way… champagne and raspberries and yum!) but I promise I’m dead serious.

SEO doesn’t really matter.

Or rather, it matters to someone, but that someone shouldn’t be you. Not when you are writing content.

But wait a sec! Aren’t SEO and keyword optimization the whole reason we’re writing content in the first place? After all, 93% of online experiences begin with a search engine, right?

Well, yes. And also no.

Showing up in search is the outcome you want. But SEO is one case where aiming directly at the target will make you miss it, every time. You know how job search experts tell you if you really want to find a job you have to not really need one? Or how dating experts say you’ll only meet the person of your dreams when you aren’t looking? (So annoying, by the way.) SEO is sort of like that.

If you write your content while cribbing off a list of keywords—even if you’re the best acrostics champ in the world—you’re only going to get mediocre copy at best. This goes double if the dark art of SEO makes you nervous or uncomfortable (which is common for writers).

The secret ingredient to effective copy and great organic traffic is substance.

Hopefully, that isn’t too surprising to hear. It’s fairly well-established wisdom.

But it’s actually sort of shocking how much ‘content-free ‘content there still is out there—even now, after years of experts telling us that great content is king. (Or queen, if you prefer.)  It’s still sadly possible to read a blog post and walk away feeling like you learned nothing at all. (Hopefully you won’t think that about this post!) And some of that is the fault of too aggressively pursuing SEO.

As a writer, you need to get out of your head and just focus on creating a post that will inform, aid, or entertain your audience. If they love it, they will read and share it, and SEO will kick in and do its black magic.

Here are seven quick tips for writing amazing, substantive copy.

  1. Find an angle and write small.
    Content writers should think like journalists. At the end of the day, you are often writing over and over and over (and over and over and over) about the same thing, with the same calls to action. It is important to find very specific points of view in each post you write. Don’t try to tell your whole brand story at once. Don’t aim for the center of the target. Instead, pick some small aspect of your topic and unpack that. Chip away at the edges and you’ll always have more to say in your next post.
  2. Tell a story.
    I promise, even if you’re writing about widgets or arcane IT infrastructure, there is a story there. You just have to find it. It’s usually a human story, with some kind of emotional journey in it. Maybe it’s about being frustrated and finding a solution. Maybe it is about fear, or aspiration, or success. Your content should begin in one place, and end somewhere else. Readers are used to storytelling, and they will respond to content that has emotional weight.
  3. Write to one person.
    Years ago I worked in radio, and they used to tell us: “Don’t speak on air like you’re talking to an arena of people. Just speak to one person.” I have found this is also great advice for writing substantive content. It helps to have a picture in your mind of a real human being who has just asked you a question. Your post, guide, video, article etc.is your answer. They are counting on you. Don’t waste their time.
  4. Write something actionable.
    People want to walk away from a content with one of two outcomes. They want to be entertained, or they want to learn something.  The very best content gives them both, but it’s a lot easier to write something that informs than to go after the brass ring of something viral, so start there. Before you begin, jot down a quick outline of what you want people to walk away with. Use it as a map for writing.
  5. Take a risk.
    A friend of mine was reading a book on the beach this summer about talent management, and he texted me, “You’re not gonna believe this, but the book I’m reading just referenced a blog post you wrote.” It was a tongue-in-cheek post about famous people throughout history who’d been disengaged employees… Benedict Arnold, Brutus, etc. It was a post I almost hadn’t written because it felt “out there”.  It is also probably the most successful post I’ve ever written, in terms of shares and organic traffic. It helps to cast around at the edges of the target sometimes and try something offbeat. That’s where the real SEO potential is.
  6. Don’t bore yourself.
    If you’re bored by what you’ve written, chances are everyone else will be too. All the keywords in the world won’t help you if you’re writing snooze-worthy copy. Best to delete the post and try again, without the keywords.
  7. Revisit keywords after you are finished.
    Okay, okay. SEO keywords DO eventually factor in. But save this step till the last, and don’t sacrifice your content on its altar. Once you have a post you love, if you CAN, weave a few juicy keywords from your research into your header, subheader or opening paragraphs .Don’t overdo it, or you’ll end up with word salad. (Don’t bother doing this with downloadable pieces, by the way–they don’t factor into SEO and you can always make the landing pages SEO friendly.)

At the end of the day, all of the most successful blog posts and content pieces I’ve written or seen—the ones that have gone most viral—have been centered not around SEO but around a great idea that no one else had written about in quite the same way.

If you write substantive, interesting, relevant  stuff, the SEO will find you. I promise.

Now I’m off to find some of that Wednesday Punch.

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