If you write it, they will come. Maybe. If they can find it.
Reporters and bloggers want people to read the stories and posts they write, but first those people have to find the stories and posts. And while you may have hundreds or thousands of Twitter followers, that’s peanuts when you consider that people ask Google’s search engine more than one billion questions every day. So now I’m going to mention a term that makes (most) writers cringe: search engine optimization (SEO).
I know virtually nothing about SEO, but I do know that it’s important. So I started asking people I respect to tell me the smartest people they know in the SEO business. One of the names that cropped up is Wil Reynolds, the founder of SEER Interactive.
I wanted to know why SEO matters to writers, how writers can actually do something about SEO – and whether it’s possible to incorporate SEO into your work without sacrificing the quality of the writing.
Communication Breakdown: First things first, how would you define search engine optimization?
Wil Reynolds: SEO, if I had to define it, is the process of understanding how search engines choose to prioritize or rank content, then combining the right amounts of technical recommendations to minimize friction between how pages/sites are served to search engines and how they prefer to receive them. The second part is “smart marketing” which is the other part of the ranking equation – how do you show search engines that your content is valuable? It needs to be popular, get shared, links, etc.
CB: What is the value of SEO to science reporters, bloggers and public information officers?
Reynolds: As a reporter or blogger, one thing I know is that when you invest time in writing, you want people to see your work. Ignoring SEO means that your great work will result in fewer people reading it. Search engines are smart, but the concept of “if you build it they will come” has never been true. So reporters should know how to research rising trends, how to determine what other words people search for when searching on a topic and how their content gets shared to maximize visibility.
CB: I’ve always lived by the mantra that “content is king” – meaning that if I write interesting and informative content, it will find an audience. Is that still useful advice?
Reynolds: Findable, valuable content is king. See, it’s kind of like what I was saying before. If you write great content and no one can find it, then is it really king? The Internet is littered with people who write low quality content but know how to optimize it, causing it to outrank quality content. So I think every reporter should know the basics, so their content doesn’t get copied by lower quality sites and end up outranking the original.
CB: How should writers go about developing an SEO strategy for their content? And how does that translate into tactics that they’d actually implement?
Reynolds: The first step is research. Take an honest look at your content, what is the topic it is covering? With that, start typing words into Google and hit the space bar and see what other words people are searching for along with that core keyword. You might be amazed at what you find. There is also a tool called Ubersuggest that will help you get more ideas for the content you are writing.
I also like using Google Trends – make sure you set the timeframe to the last 3, 6 or 12 months. It will help you see the other types of words people are searching for. Don’t forget to click on “rising” as well, as that will show you what’s getting hot recently, so your work will be timelier.
CB: I confess that one reason I’ve shied away from SEO is because I have clung to some sort of romantic notion that I should just write the best copy I can. I guess I’m afraid that incorporating SEO into my writing would somehow make the writing less valid, or maybe just less well-written. Is that a common concern? How can writers balance the craft of writing with the strategy of SEO?
Reynolds: This is a very valid concern. See, “SEO” has become a word that many people dislike, and it’s in large part because the craft has been hijacked by people who call what they do SEO when it is actually just spam. As a writer, I would say never put words where they don’t belong just for SEO. I would recommend that if you want the largest audience to read your material, you should use the tools above (and others) to understand how your audience searches, as that will help the best stuff rise to the top.
CB: Because search engines are constantly revising their algorithms, SEO is constantly changing. Are there any aspects of SEO that have remained relatively constant over the past five years (and are likely to remain important for at least the next five months)?
Reynolds: Great question. I would say not much. Search engines have a history of saying something is wrong, but they allow people to do it and rank well, which is a slap in the face. I would say this, and I have been saying this for some time: we know that search engines want to rank the “best” information form quality, trusted sources. So the thing you should always work on is being a quality, trusted source. Even if the search engines never catch up to rewarding it, I can name several businesses that are successful not just because they do SEO, but because they are trusted and they create a quality experience for their users.
CB: What are the two or three things that any writer could – or should – do to make their content more visible on search engines?
Reynolds: I would beg to only do one: don’t hit enter on Google. Start getting used to typing in part of a phrase, for instance “why does my wife,” into Google and seeing what people are looking for. This approach will lead you into new ways, new ideas of things to write. As a science writer, just take a look at questions like “why does the moon” or “when will the sun” and just don’t hit enter. You’ll get insights into what people are searching for, and I think that will spark ideas.
CB: Given that SEO is a constantly changing landscape, are there any websites or blogs that you recommend for keeping tabs on how SEO is evolving?