SEO is part art, part science. These days, freelance writers and bloggers can take their pick of books, conferences and online classes to learn all about it.
But you don’t need to take a class to get the basics. For those, I turned to Jason Lancaster, founder of Spork Marketing, a Denver Internet marketing agency that builds websites for small businesses. Lancaster is also a sponsor of the 2010 WordCount Blogathon.
Lancaster may understand better than most Internet marketers the importance of SEO for writers because he’s married to one. His wife is Sara Lancaster, the proprietor of No. 2 Pen, a marketing communications company with a specialty in writing website content. (She’s also a Blogathon participant for the second year in a row – go Sara!)
Here are Lancaster’s suggestions for 7 simple steps writers can take to make their work more SEO friendly:
1. Pick an SEO-friendly title. Freelancers who grew up in newspapers or magazines may know how to write clever headlines, but clever doesn’t cut it online. Headlines, or titles, need to include keywords that describe what a story or post is about. Such explicitness is necessary so when people are doing Google searches when the title shows up in search engine results, people can scan it and quickly decide whether to click over and read the story, Jason Lancaster says. “It doesn’t have to be robotic, but if it’s clever but vague, SEO won’t reward you.” Keep titles short and to the point. Search engines don’t like long titles – after a certain character count they stop paying attention – just like readers. Think of it this way, Lancaster says: if your title is worth $10 and you split it up among 10 words, each word is worth $1. But if you use 3 or 4 words, each one is worth more. “It’s not fun or creative, but the best policy is to be a little boring,” he says.
2. Use subheads, bullets and bold type. There was a time in the early days of search engines when packing keywords into a story was popular, all the better to get a story to show up high in search results – thus the origin of the phrase “keyword stuffing.” Search engines have wised up since then. Today, search engines looks at typical editorial elements such as subheads, bullets and bold or italic type as clues to what an article is about. The added bonus: the same elements that help a story from an SEO standpoint make it look good to readers too. According to Lancaster, the best subheads describe the information that follows. For example, if the post you’re writing has a couple paragraphs on the background of the subject you’re writing about, use the subhead, “Background,” he says.
3. Include pictures or other graphics. Photos, illustrations, maps, graphics, video – in the eyes of Google, any kind of visual element is a plus. For starters, visuals separate what you write from spam or junk content because spammers don’t go to the time and expense of adding graphics to their work, Lancaster says. Also, people routinely use Google to search for images. If you include images and label them properly, it will help your post or story appear higher in search rankings. I can vouch for that: some of the most popular posts on WordCount get the traffic they do because people have done an image search using keywords I used as tags on a photo that I’d put with a post and they landed on my site as a result. If you add a graphical element to a post, Lancaster recommends labeling it with a caption and keywords, both elements that show up in search-engine searches. He also recommends giving the image an alt tag, a text description of several words or a phrase, so if someone is blind or set their browser not to show pictures they’ll know what image is there.
4. Pay special attention to the beginning and end. Search engines pay special attention to the first and last 50 words of a post or story, so you should too. You don’t need to stuff those sections with keywords, but it helps if keywords show up in the first and last sentences, Lancaster says.
5. Look before you link. Links are only as good as the words you use to describe them. In the Web world, those words are called anchor text, the words or phrase you put inside a link, such as what I did in step No. 1 above with “clever headlines,” which leads to a post I did about writing headlines. According to Lancaster, links are yet another way to add emphasis to a post or story that search engines pick up on. Because of that, anchor text should relates to what the story is about instead of including a phrase that doesn’t mean much of anything, such as “Click here,” which he calls a “dumb call to action.” Instead, create a compelling sentence, include a keyword in it, and that that your link, he says.
6. Limit categories and tags. Stick to labeling a post with one category – Google likes it better that way. Blogging platforms like WordPress and TypePage organize posts multiple different ways already, including by date, author and tags. If you put a post in three categories, when Google crawls your site it’ll find multiple copies of the same post, and search engines don’t like duplicate copy. “It dilutes whatever ranking you have,” Lancaster says. When it comes to tags, Lancaster recommends using three to five. If you’re using an SEO plug-in, such as the All in One SEO Pack for WordPress, a lot of this work is done for you.
7. Don’t get too caught up in how search engines work. SEO specialists geek out over what Google, Bing and other search engines put in their search algorithms, but that doesn’t mean you have to. Don’t worry about things like keyword density or Flesch–Kincaid readability tests, Lancaster says. Instead, focus on creating well-written blog posts or stories, use keywords, subheads, categories and tags correctly, and forget about “all the little nuances.” Make visiting an enjoyable experience for readers. “We all want to give our readers credit for reading every word of what we write, but the fact is they scan and when they find something they’re interested in they read every word. That’s the real SEO tip,” Lancaster says. “Make your content scannable, and Google will crawl it very well.”
Here are other posts I’ve done on SEO for writers: