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How not to write for search engine optimization

A guide to the dos and don’ts of SEO.

Jeff Cardello
February 1, 2018
Web design

Let’s face it — SEO can be tricky. There’s a variety of missteps that can be taken on the road to organic reach. Here are some things you shouldn't do as you embark on a hero’s journey of optimizing your content for search.

Avoid research

Hey — you’re smart! You can write compelling content on any topic with your charm and wit alone. Content writing for you is like jazz, so why not improvise? Be-bop-ba-dee-bop — here’s some landing page copy.

If only good writing were that easy.

No one is doubting your level of intelligence, friend. But if you don’t do any research, your content will suffer.

Your beautifully-designed site is A+, but is your content informative? After all, your content is the reason people come to your page — to learn something or to take action. Like giving you money in exchange for a product or service. Don’t let bad content get in the way!

Whether you have a lawn care business or you build boutique guitar amplifiers, the writing on your site needs to be well-written and helpful. Bad content, typos, or worse — unreliable information — will erode trust in your brand.

Informative content is rich with words and phrases commonly used in your industry or niche. This helps web crawlers sort content so people can find what they’re looking for.

So, do your research. Know your subject. Check out competitor sites to see how they talk about your industry.

Info page from Surly bike shop site describing their Steamroller bicycle.
Surly, a bike manufacturer, combines technical terms with humor. The result is content that’s both informative and engaging.

Ignore your audience

2 spotlight shining on a microphone in its stand on an empty stage.

Let’s say you had to prepare two presentations: one for an audience of distinguished socialites and the other for a crowd of science-fiction fans. You wouldn’t use the same tone or language for both presentations — your Klingon joke would slay one audience and fall flat with the other.

If you’re unfamiliar with who you’re writing for, check out competitor content. Watch YouTube videos and seek out other niche media. Get familiar with your audience and the language they use. Look out for common questions people have about your topic.

Think about it: when people use search, they generally type in a question. Create rich content that ranks well by using words and terms that answer those questions. Take the time to understand your audience and what they want and need before you write a single word.

Keep headlines cryptic

A man sitting on a stool in a coffee shop reading the newspaper. He has a look of concentration.
‍Dude. What do these headlines even mean?

If you've skipped putting primary keywords in your headlines, you're missing an important part of SEO.

When Google's web crawlers scan through a website's content, they use H1, H2, and H3s to decide what your the content is about. And when humans scan your page (as they do), descriptive headings help them find what they're looking for.

Keywords need to be spread throughout your site, both in headlines and body content. Don't force it, but use them contextually — where it makes sense. Read your content out loud. If it sounds like a spambot wrote it, tweak it to sound human. Then ask someone else to read it.

And remember: the common practice for using H1 tags is only one per page (typically the page title), so make it count.

The homepage of Halo Top Ice Cream featuring copy about their healthy product.
Halo Top's “HEALTHY ICE CREAM” is a concise H1 and is a huge part of their brand identity.

Skip the metadata

You've written the content — now relax. Let the designer worry about the titles, descriptions, alt tags, urls, and headings. Happy hour, anyone?

Sorry, friends — there’s still work to be done.

You are the content expert. This makes you the best person to make sure metadata isn’t a hasty afterthought.

Meta titles tell visitors and search engines what any given page is about. In search engines results, meta titles appear as the linked text. If someone is excited enough to share your stuff on social media, the meta title pops up as the first line of text. Meta titles should be concise, informative, accurate. They need to capture people’s attention. Google will display the first 50 to 60 characters of a title — so get to the point!

And that meta description? It’s a short snippet summarizing what’s on the page. It’s considered less important as far as search ranking goes, but it should give someone a reason to click on your content. It appears below the meta title in a search result. In 320 characters or less, it should tell someone why they should click on the content.

Google search results for "organic cat food." Petsmart is the first listing.
‍PetSmart uses meta titles and meta descriptions to stand out from the competition when they show up in the Google search results for organic cat food.

Make sure your keywords show up in:

  • H1, H2, and other header tags
  • The url for each page
  • Meta titles and descriptions
  • Alt tags on images

Stuff content with keywords

You know the subject, you know the audience, and you know the keywords they want to hear. So make sure they hear them — over and over and over and over.

Okay, keyword stuffing not only makes your content sound tedious and forced, but search engines will ding you for being obnoxious. Want to be on the safe side? Use the find function to highlight different keywords. If your content lights up like a skyscraper at night, there’s a good chance you overdid it.

Good SEO means a diversity of keywords and phrases in context. Don’t be afraid to use synonyms. This all ties back to research — if you know your subject, you’ll know how to use words and terms to explain the topic, without being spammy. Google Adwords Keywords Planner is a great way to find alternative words and phrases.

Let’s say we’re writing content for an HVAC company.

Keyword stuffing for a client might sound like this:

“For all of your air conditioning, ac repair, hvac system, ac unit or other air conditioning repairs we’re your local ac repair place for all of your air conditioning and ac repair needs.”

Sure, this sentence makes use of appropriate keywords, but it’s stilted and difficult to read. Weave your keywords in authentically. Subtly.

Overlook long-tail keywords

If you’re only using single keywords, your content is being lost amongst hundreds of other pages talking about the same thing. If you’re point is to be invisible — great job!

But we know it's not. (Unless we're talking superpowers.)

For a more focused approach to SEO, use long-tail keywords to target specific users.

Long-tail keywords are short phrases — three or more words. They allow for a more precise targeting of your audience. Long-tail keywords are effective when you’re trying to bring local users to your site, people actively looking for your specific content.

Let’s say you’re an organic coffee roaster in the sunny city of Phoenix, AZ. Some long-tail keywords could include:

  • Fair-trade coffee in Phoenix
  • Coffee bean roasters in Phoenix
  • Organic coffee in Phoenix
  • Wholesale coffee beans in Phoenix

So don’t cast a wide net, but use specific search-engine-optimized terms to reel in a particular audience.

Google adword planner results for organic coffee.
‍Google Adwords Keyword Planner will give you ideas for long tail keywords.

SEO is a science

A closeup of a pile of empty, overturned testtubes on a flat surface.

Like any science, you need to do your research and follow protocol. Chemists know the right amounts and types of substances to combine to get desired results. You should have the same approach with the right measures and combinations of keywords to avoid an SEO disaster.

We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Jeff Cardello

Writer, improviser, and reformed music snob. Check me out @JCardello.

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