How Human is Your Site? Balancing Good Writing with SEO

Dear Copy Bitch: How do you balance SEO needs with good writing?

–Laura M., Rome

A: The answer is going to seem overly simple, but here it is: write for humans first, search engines second. Honestly, the most important thing you can do for your website or blog is provide great content. Great content trumps every SEO trick. How do we know this? Think about things that go viral in a matter of days or even hours (the YouTube video of the wedding party dancing down the aisle to Chris Brown’s song “Forever” comes to mind). It went viral because people thought it was great, interesting, intriguing, funny, innovative, and a whole bunch of other adjectives. Great content won’t be denied.

The best business websites and blogs go above and beyond the typical and expected descriptions of products and services. They go above and beyond showing benefits. I’m not suggesting you lose your service list, your product descriptions, or the benefits you provide customers. And I’m not suggesting you ignore good SEO practices, like having keyword-rich and relevant-to-the-page title tags. But your site needs to do more. It needs personality. Make it human. Make it real. Tell stories. Be bold. Be honest. Be blunt. Is this easy to do? No, not even for us professionals. But your site needs to be as human as you are. So the question is, how human is yours?

Why I Hate Writing Websites

This might sound weird coming from a copywriter, especially since I have a whole page devoted to my website copywriting clients. Especially since I’m knowledgeable about SEO copywriting (not all copywriters are). Especially since website writing tends to bring in the big bucks.

The reason why I hate doing them is because the projects are seldom done right. Let me explain.

Please know that this isn’t ego talking, but an SEO copywriter should be involved in the project from the very start. Yeah, even before you find a web developer. Why?

Simple.

Many web designers and developers don’t know the ins and outs of SEO. Designers are focused on creating engaging designs. Developers are often excellent programmers and coders. Both probably know something about SEO (it’s hard not to, at least today). But do either stop and think deeply about marketing? About messaging? About who the audiences are? About the keyword phrases people will use to get to the site? A good SEO copywriter will likely have strong marketing chops and think about these things and talk about these things first. And guess what? The answers to the messaging and audience questions will affect both design and site architecture (if you want the site developed correctly, that is).

Most of my website clients come to me as an afterthought. They think, “Oh, we need a website, so let’s find a web developer.” It’s usually the web developer who makes the referral to me, but by then, too much has happened. While it might seem logical to start with the web developer, it’s not an effective strategy.

If you’re building a new site, start with an SEO copywriter first.

Buy her expertise for 2-3 hours and have her work as a consultant. She’ll pick your brain on marketing messages, goals, expectations, competitors, keyword phrases, audiences–in other words, ALL the things you need to know before you can really do anything else.

Once all this info has been researched and digested, you should hire someone to do the keyword phrase research based on your keyword seed list (some SEO copywriters do this; others will refer you to search engine optimizers). Your keyword phrases will influence site architecture, the site map, and the design. At the same time this research is being conducted, you can begin talks with web designer/developers.

There are many good SEO copywriters out there. One of the best is Karon Thackston of Marketing Words.

If you’re re-launching or revising your existing site, start with an SEO copywriter or SEO first.

Same thing. Buy the copywriter’s expertise or the SEO’s expertise FIRST. In fact, I’d say you should start with the SEO first, in this situation, even before turning to the writer (SEOs will review technical stuff; not all writers–even the good ones–are well-versed in that).

There are some great SEOs out there who do affordable web assessments. Jill Whalen of High Rankings comes to mind. She’ll review your existing site from an SEO standpoint and point out the good, the bad, and the ugly. You can take her assessment and work with your copywriter and developer to make changes, fixes, and tweaks. But you need to start with the SEO or and SEO copywriter first.

Note: there are web developers who really know SEO and tout this as one of their offerings. Still, most of these will involve a writer from the start, or close to it. There are also developers who say they know SEO, but it’s more cursory knowledge (which isn’t necessarily bad or misleading…after all, they’re developers, not SEOs). And there are a lot of indy developers who rely on writers and SEOs for the optimization part. Do your homework. Good developers will welcome working with writers from the get-go and/or respect the fact you’ve started your website project with a writer. Beware of the ones who don’t “get” this.

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