When we talk about getting our work seen online, most writers talk about advertising, networking, and collaboration. All of these are good tactics and important to making sure your things are seen, but they aren't the only ways to make sure readers are actually being exposed to your work. In fact, one great way to make sure readers can find you doesn't have to involve another person or ad copy at all.
SEO is a marketing term that's thrown around a lot by companies, but it's a great tool for writers who want to give their content an advantage from the second it goes live online. The best part? You don't need to be an expert marketer or copywriter to use this tactic!
Here's what you need to know about how to use SEO as a writer when you're just getting started.
What is SEO?
SEO stands for search engine optimization, which is the process of making sure that your web content - whether that's sales copy, journalistic articles, blog posts, or something else - is easy for search engines like Google and Bing to read and designed in such a way that those search engines will recommend your content to the people who use them to find new information.
This process includes a wide range of different aspects but generally revolves around specific keywords, which are the words searchers are using to find things via search engines, and formatting, which should be easy for both machines and people to read.
Why does SEO matter?
SEO really only matters if you're trying to make professional progress online, as either an individual or a business. Having well-optimized content means that your work is more likely to be discovered by new people who may become either a returning audience or paying customers.
How to optimize your content
Now obviously, I can't explain every aspect of SEO for writers in one blog post; I've been studying and working in SEO for three years now and I'm still learning new things about it every day. That being said, I can offer a basic process for making sure your writing is easy to scan and easy to read without coming across as sales-y or boring.
Figure out your keywords
As mentioned, a keyword is a word or phrase that a searcher types into a search engine to find information. The search engine then crawls through the internet and returns pages including those keywords in their search results.
When choosing keywords to aim for, you'll want to consider a few things.
How specific the keyword is. "Dogs" is a more general keyword than "German Shepards," meaning it's going to appeal to a wider audience at the expense of being less directly relevant.
Relevance to your content. Speaking of, your keywords should be directly relevant to the content you're making. If you're writing about cat food, you don't want to aim for the keyword "dogs" or even something as general as "pets."
The search volume of the keyword. How many people are searching for these keywords? The more people are searching, the more chance there is of getting traffic, but the steeper the competition is going to be to rank well. "Dogs" will have a much higher search volume than "German Shepard" but again it'll be more competitive.
The variations of the keyword that you can include. If you're writing about dog food, your main keyword might be "dogs" and your variations might include "dog food," "nutrition for dogs," or "how to feed a dog."
You can research your keywords using online tools - I personally use Moz's keyword explorer tool.
Scope out the competition
A major part of SEO is making sure that your content is relevant to the needs of the people who are searching for it, and there's a relatively simple way to check and see how you can do that: look at your competition's content. Think of this as trying to do what they've done, but better and more completely.
Search for your keyword on Google. Click through to the first few pages that appear in the organic search section (ignore any sponsored listings for now) and note what they talk about, how they're structured (including the headings they use and the questions they answer), and what the metadata for their content looks like. This can give you a framework and set of points to address in your own piece.
You can definitely do this by hand, and if you're writing for a personal blog, that might be all you need to do. That being said, if you're writing a lot of content at once or you have a budget you can dedicate to your writing, you might choose to use an SEO analysis tool to help you compare and structure your pieces more automatically. My favorites are Clearscope and SurferSEO.
Draft for people, then for machines
Once you've determined what your keywords and topics are going to be, it's time to draft. Contrary to popular belief, SEO writing doesn't mean stuffing as many keywords into your work as humanly possible - that's actually a good way to get blacklisted and never shown to anyone. No, the best thing you can do is write high-quality content that happens to cover your most important keywords.
I like to think of it this way: if you write a piece that's appealing to a person, it's going to appeal to a machine, but if you write a piece that's appalling to a machine, it might not appeal to a person. Considering readers are what you're going for when it comes to content, you should usually abide by the rule of writing for people first, then machines. This means following a few rules:
Make sure your piece makes logical sense. Does the structure flow in a way that your readers will understand? Does anything look out of place or random?
Make sure your piece is relevant. People finding your work in a search result are looking for a specific topic; are you covering that topic or just using the name to get clicks?
Make sure your piece serves a purpose. Are you informing, persuading, or entertaining your reader? What's the point of your writing? Is that point obvious? And to that end...
Make sure you aren't just hocking products. No one wants to read a piece of content that says nothing but "BUY ME." That's boring and the fastest way to get someone to click away, which means you're not getting the time on the page you need for search engines to start recommending you.
Of course, you'll also want to follow standard grammar conventions and etiquette.
Edit and polish
Now that you've got a basic draft, you're going to do what every writer hates doing: read your own work and edit it. Remember, not only are search engines looking for keywords, they're also looking for quality of writing - i.e., how long people are actually staying on your page to read and whether or not they choose to read something else of yours afterward. By polishing your writing to a shine, you can keep people around longer and get them interested in your other work.
You might want to do your edits in a few rounds.
Read over the whole piece to make sure it all makes sense. Is the tone consistent? Is it ordered in a way that feels natural? Fix any glaring issues.
Read over the whole piece to make sure it's accurate. Are your facts correct? Are they appropriately sourced? Fix any problems there.
Read over the whole piece for grammar. Do you have any spelling mistakes? Too many commas? Run-on sentences? Fragments that aren't stylistic? Fix these. Tools like Grammarly and the Hemingway editor are great here.
Once the writing itself looks good, you'll want to add the extra shine. Make sure that your piece is broken into short, skimmable sections with descriptive headings that people can use to skip to the parts they want if they're looking for something specific. If you haven't yet, finish up your intro and your conclusion, tying the body sections together into a cohesive overarching idea.
As the last step in my editing process, I like to add a nice feature image. This is the landscape-orientation image that appears at the top of your content to catch your reader's eye and get them interested in checking out your headline. This image should be clearly related to the piece. For example, the feature image for this blog post is a picture of a phone displaying a Google search, which matches the subject of search engine optimization. It should also be high-resolution so it doesn't blur out on large displays.
A few places you can find great feature images that you can use royalty-free (meaning without paying for them) and without accidentally (I hope) stealing someone else's pictures:
Always remember to add an alt text description to your images as well. Not only is this good for SEO, but it's also an accessibility feature that tells people who use screen readers and those who cannot load images what they would be looking at and what value the image adds to the piece. Keep your descriptions accurate and relevant.
Just before your content goes live, you'll want to add in a few finishing details.
Your metadata - the title and description of your piece - should be clear, detailed, and include at least your main keyword in them.
If you can control it, make sure your URL slug (the bit that comes after ".com/") is readable to humans and relevant to your piece.
Check what your piece will look like when you share it on other platforms. If your metadata is good and you have a featured image, you should be fine here.
From there, the best way to improve your SEO is to share the piece widely and get people talking about it. Invite readers to ask questions or reply with their thoughts. The more people talk about your work, the more search engines will see it as a valuable piece.
Like I said, you don't have to be an expert marketer to use SEO best practices. It's all about proving that your work is valuable to your readers. While the content itself is still the star of the show and should take the majority of your time, spending a little while focusing on the details and behind-the-scenes work of your content can help more people see it and get use from it. In my opinion, that makes the effort worthwhile.