Chris H. is a a graduate student in the final stages of his PhD at the Department of Science & Technology Studies at Cornell University. He is working on a project studying how search engine optimizers and related professionals like copywriters achieve success on Google’s search rankings. He interviewed me, Susan Greene, an SEO copywriter with 25+ years of experience, as part of his research. Below is a brief summary.
From the time I first learned to read, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I loved books, made trips to the library almost every week. My father, also an avid reader, encouraged me to read and write.
He even pretended he knew a publisher who would pay me to write. So from about age 7 to 9, I would write stories and poems, give them to my father to pass along to “The Publisher.” A few days later I would get a nice typed note back praising the work and a dollar or two as payment.
My dad’s little ruse worked well until I told a friend, who decided she’d start writing for The Publisher too. My dad paid for her work as well in the interest of keeping the game going, but it wasn’t long before my friend’s mother asked where her daughter was getting money.
That mom quickly figured out what was going on and told her daughter, “There is no publisher. It’s just Susan’s dad.” Of course, my friend immediately told me, and the gig was up. I was furious with my father for fooling me (kinda like finding out your parents are Santa) but it didn’t foil my desire to keep writing.
My first “big break” — I say that facetiously — came when I was 9-years-old and learned a poem I submitted had won a small cash prize and would be published in a comic book. When the comic with my poem came out, it had not only my full name but also my full address, something that surely wouldn’t happen today.
The comic books were widely distributed, and I soon began receiving dozens of requests from other Archie comic readers around the world who wanted an American penpal. Being published didn’t have as much of an effect on my career choice as did my correspondence with many of these penpals for several years. Drafting all those letters helped me to realize how much I enjoyed writing. You can read more about this story in my post, “A Comic Book Launched My Copywriting Career.”
I went to Syracuse University in Syracuse, NY. Got a BS in Journalism. I would later get my MBA going to night school at New Hampshire College (now Southern New Hampshire University) while working days.
My first real job out of college was at an advertising agency in New Hampshire, where I was hired as an Account Coordinator. I helped the Account Executives service their clients, doing everything from drafting memos to proofreading copy and making deliveries to clients (such as their printed brochures).
It took me about 2 years to get promoted to Account Executive, which finally afforded me the opportunity to do some copywriting, but by then I’d already started freelance writing on the side. I wrote articles for local magazines and weekly newspapers, and also brochures for some small, startup businesses in my area.
I soon left the agency to go full-time with my own copywriting business. Never looked back. If you’re interested, I provide more details about my experience at the ad agency and how I transitioned to self-employment in my post, “From Account Coordinator to Copywriter – How to Make the Leap.”
First you need to figure out what keywords to prioritize. You have to try to put yourself in the shoes of the searcher. What are they seeking? What words are they using?
Then you have to come up with content that utilizes those keywords but in a way that isn’t awkward or stiff. These days too, because SEO has become so competitive, you need to write longer pages. Two hundred words on a topic is not enough to get ranking. You need to shoot for 1,000-1,500 words to see results. Sometimes it’s hard to get clients to understand they need that much copy.
Another challenge is that sometimes clients who think they understand SEO push you to over-optimize the copy. Their theory is that they’ll rank higher for their chosen keywords if the keywords appear in the copy say 20 times instead of 10. That’s not necessarily true, and it can result in your copy sounding contrived. And if you really overdo it, Google catches on and penalizes your site.
In the early days of Google and SEO, many people tried to game the system. They would use what today are called black hat techniques.
For example, they’d use hidden text. They’d write their keywords hundreds of times in white ink, which the search engines could see but visitors could not.
Or they’d stuff the keywords multiple times into their meta-data. The page would rank high because it had the keywords mentioned so many times. Eventually, Google caught on and developed methods for catching that trick.
Because having inbound links helps with ranking, another black hat technique that used to be common was buying links or exchanging links, as opposed to obtaining links organically because your content is high quality.
Often the site giving you the link had no relevance to your subject matter or was a sub-standard site set up strictly for link exchanges. Google has figured this out too and now penalizes sites (or at least doesn’t reward them) for questionable links.
My approach to SEO has always been to create quality content, and lots of it. I create well-researched, carefully-crafted web pages and meta-data, and Google has rewarded me well. It worked back in the early days of Google, and it still works now, although I’m no longer one of the few who knows that. The level of competition has increased substantially.
One major change comes to mind. In the early days of Google, I could get 2-4 listings on page 1 in the search results for the keywords I was targeting. In other words, if I was marketing say “Orlando condos,” I could write several different pages on the subject and have them all rank. I could totally dominate the page so that I was almost certain to drive a big chunk of the traffic to my website.
It used to piss off my competitors that I grabbed most of the spots on page 1 and they often couldn’t get a single spot for their site. My copy was better. Some of them would actually call me and tell me what I was doing wasn’t fair. I would explain that I don’t control Google’s results. They would need to contact Google with their complaint, and I’d think to myself, “Good luck with that!”
Nowadays, Google doesn’t let you have more than 1 or 2 listings for a single site appear in search results for a specific keyword.
I have. It used to be you needed an exact match. So, for example, someone searching for “dog shampoos” would only see results that included sites with those exact keywords – “dog shampoos.” And if I were writing copy to rank for those keywords, I’d be sure to use them repeatedly in that exact form.
Fortunately, Google has gotten smarter. It now uses latent semantic indexing, which studies and compares relationships between different terms and concepts. These keywords can be used to improve SEO traffic and create more visibility and higher rankings in search results. In other words, you don’t have to keep saying “dog shampoos” over and over to rank for dog shampoos.
Let’s look at another example. If you’re trying to rank for the keyword “yoga,” you want to write copy that includes related terms such as meditation, relaxation, stretching and downward dog.
I think being able to use related terms adds color and interest to your copy, and it means you don’t have to say “yoga” 30 times to get ranked because those related terms are also scoring you SEO points.
Another big change is that it’s much harder to rank for broad general terms. So, for example, if you want to promote an antique shop, you can’t just target “antiques” and think you’re going to get placement on page 1 of the results. You need to narrow your focus. You have a better chance of ranking for say, “antique Black Forest furniture” or “antique sewing machines made by Singer in the 1920s.”
As I said, my approach has consistently been to focus on quality content. I never bothered with tricks or the trend-of-the-month. I just keep creating good content.
I will say, however, that my definition of good content has evolved. My pages these days, as opposed to the early days of Google, are longer, better researched with more supporting data and authorities quoted, and more photos with relevant captions.
I am continually trying to improve my copywriting and my knowledge of SEO, and I’m sure that’s reflected in the work I produce. I certainly hope I keep getting better at my craft. And as Google makes changes to its algorithms, I’ll continue to adapt.
I’ve alluded to it in my previous answers. The goal when writing web copy is to provide answers to the searcher’s questions. You want to offer the information they’re seeking. It should be well-organized, well-supported with research and well-presented.
Ideally, you want to include some relevant visuals, be they photos, illustrations, charts, graphs or videos. You also want to make it clear to Google and the visitor that you’re an expert on the subject by offering a wealth of information on the topic and related topics.
You have a certain responsibility when writing health content. Your information must be accurate and truthful. You need to consider that visitors to the site may make health-related decisions based on what they read, so it’s only ethical to provide good information.
Additionally, medical information can be complicated. You want to consider who your target visitor is – a potential patient, a physician, an insurer, etc. – and write to their level.
Also, I want to make a distinction between marketing copy and web content. Marketing copy is promoting a business, whether it’s a physician’s practice, a hospital or a company selling a particular medical treatment. Web content should be less about selling and more about informing.
So, for example, if I were seeking a doctor in my area, I would be searching for marketing information about the various doctors’ practices in my city. If, however, I had a sprained ankle, I might be searching for suggested treatments. That would be web content.
The best websites offer both types of content. So, using the sprained ankle example, perhaps I find good information about how to heal on a local orthopedist’s website. If I decide, after reading the information, that I probably should see a doctor, there’s a good chance I’ll consider that orthopedist, as he’s already provided me with some information that lets me know he’s an expert and knows how to treat this ailment.
My own copywriting website uses this technique of offering both types of content. I have my main marketing pages that tell about my services and capabilities.
But then I also have on my site, my blog, which has about 250 articles about how to write copy. What often happens is someone Googles a task, such as “How to Write an About Us Page for My Website.” Try Googling that phrase. My blog post on this topic should come up on page one.
So assume the searcher clicks on my link and lands on my post that tells them how to write their about us page. I give them lots of good suggestions, but if they’re not a professional writer, they may feel overwhelmed or they may at least have an appreciation for how much goes into a quality About Us page and realize it’s not a job for an amateur. And that’s why at the end of the post, there’s also a blurb that reads:
Does your website have an effective About Us page? If not, you need to get busy. Your About Us page could be the tipping point in converting more visitors into customers. Need help writing your About Us page? Contact Susan Greene & her team today!
Now multiply that by my 250 blog posts about specific copywriting subjects, and that’s how I get a lot of my business. And the beauty of that is that even if my competitors know that’s how I’m getting my business, they don’t have the time, desire or ability to write that many blog posts to compete with me. Plus I’m continually adding posts. My silent motto, my motivation, the sentence I say only to myself is, “Nobody is going to out-write me.”