The Trick to Writing for SEO

Writing can be difficult for a lot of people. Even those of us gifted with a passion for wordsmithing can often find ourselves hitting walls when it comes to creating the right copy for the right occasions. This perhaps happens most often in the world of SEO copy.

For many, SEO copy is a difficult beast to wrangle. Not only does it involve checking off all the boxes of any other writing (easy to read, good grammar, economy of words, etc.) but it also needs to include the kind of content that will catch the favor of search engines. A lot of writers tend to get hung up on that last part, sacrificing their normally stellar writing styles for a difficult-to-read, keyword-stuffed tome that could only be enjoyed by search bots.

The one thing that a lot of people don’t realize about creating search engine optimized copy is that it doesn’t need to be approached much differently than one would normally approach their copy. With a few small tweaks and a solid plan, you can easily strike a balance between engaging content and SEO-friendly content.

Here are a few ways to create great SEO copy that will be loved by spiders and humans alike.

Keyword Research

As with many SEO-related tasks, you’ll want to start with a solid keyword research plan. There are a lot of ways you can do keyword research. Using SEMrush or Ahrefs are good options, but they costs money. If you’re coin purse is feeling a little light (especially if a certain coronavirus has crushed your business and budget), try Keywords Everywhere (which is mostly free) or Keyword Keg, which offers some free options and some very affordable paid options.

Once you have a list of optimal keywords, it’s time to brainstorm. Pick a handful of the most relevant and highly-searched keywords and jot them down. Next, begin thinking of synonyms and related terms. Feel free to use a thesaurus, if you like, or a free online tool like or the Google Keyword Planner. Once you have some related terms, put them aside—we’ll come back to those in a minute.

Organize Your Thoughts

You likely already have a pretty strong idea of what you want to write about. And while jumping head first into writing may seem like the next best step, consider making an outline first.

An outline not only helps you stay focused during the writing process, but it also allows an opportunity to contextually organize what you want to say. Why is this important? Because search engines, Google in particular, are all about context and relationships these days. Just like a human would, spiders often figure out the purpose of a page by comparing its content against itself and against the content on the rest of the site.

For instance: Before smart phones really took off, people used to search with single words or concepts. For instance, someone looking for a local pizza joint might type something like “pizza place” or “pizza place in Philly.” But because mobile searches and voice searches have gotten so popular, the average person has evolved to the point of asking Google questions instead, such as “What’s the best pizza place in Philly?” or “Which pizza places in Philly sell beer?”

To take advantage of this, you need to anticipate potential questions a reader may have and fashion your content towards that. This can be difficult, however, a quick brainstorming session can go a long way.

Don’t be afraid to go long

It’s no secret that Google tends to rank longer-form content a bit better than shorter content. This isn’t because Google is “rewarding” higher word counts, but usually because those longer pieces are more comprehensive and answer more potential questions for users.

So, when creating your copy, consider writing something a bit more long-form that covers all the possible topics that could relate to your theme. By doing this, you’re essentially casting out a larger net and may end up ranking for more relevant searches than you might with a shorter piece of content.

That said, you don’t want to add words to a document just for the sake of it. Adding fluff doesn’t help readers, so it likely won’t help in Google’s eyes, either. Always practice “quality over quantity.”

Don’t use too many keywords (or use certain keywords too often)

You have your keywords, you have your outline, you have all the topics you want to cover—you’re ready to write. But unfortunately, this is the part where a lot of people get hung up. The reason? Keywords.

As mentioned earlier, the right keywords are essential to a successful SEO campaign, however, sometimes we put a little too much emphasis on them. When this happens, we often end up with hard-to-read, keyword-stuffed content that borders on nonsense. Not only does this suck for readers, but it sucks for search engines, too—and they’ll show you how much it sucks with lower rankings.

The best way to combat this? Be yourself! Put the keywords aside and start off by writing as you normally would, using the verbiage you normally would. Once you get a draft committed to paper, go back and think about places where keywords could organically fit into the copy without affecting readability. By being yourself and not thinking about keywords, you may find that you’ve already done this naturally!

The trick here is to be careful not to use a keyword too much. Instead, bring out those synonyms we discussed earlier. Part of Google’s charge toward understanding context included understanding the relationships between words (for instance, Google likely knows that a hoagie, a sub, and a grinder are all the same thing). Take advantage of this by using some of those synonyms you found earlier in your copy. This could potentially help the content rank for a wider range of searches as it could potentially answer a wider range of queries.

Layout matters

To varying degrees, search engines take readability and usability into account when ranking a page. To take advantage of this, you’ll want to make sure your post isn’t just a giant block of text but is instead broken up in a way that makes it easier for a reader to consume.

One of the easiest ways to do this is by breaking up your content into sections—similar to how you did earlier with the outline. Make sure each section is designated with its own subhead line, and that said subhead line is contextually relevant to the section it’s introducing (also make sure you’re judiciously using keywords to create it).

Also try to take advantage of numbered and bulleted lists, if it makes sense for your copy. Not only does this make it easier for users to process the copy, but Google tends to favor these as well.

Final Thoughts

There’s a lot to process in the above steps, but if I can impart one primary lesson it’s this: Stay true to your writing! While it’s tempting to write copy for rankings, what’s most important is the message you’re trying to convey and doing it in a way that resonates with readers. If you write great content, great rankings are likely to follow!

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For most marketers, email outreach involves prospecting for journalists and thought leaders who might be interested in their content and politely asking them to share it among their network. For a lot of people, outreach feels like an invasive shout into the darkness, one that simultaneously disrupts the sanctity of another person’s inbox while still not getting their attention.

It doesn’t have to be though. Outreach can be a valuable and—dare I say it?—fun experience, but it’s all about how you approach it.

The Art of Outreach

Writing an outreach letter is one of those things that is both an art and a science. It not only requires creativity, but it also requires data, analysis and some traditional research. Because of this, everyone has their own way to approach email outreach, their own success stories and their own flubbing failures. I like to equate it to making pizza, in that there is really no definitive right or wrong way to go about it as long as it tastes good (although I’ll be damned if you try telling me eggplant belongs on a pizza).

With that in mind let’s examine some of the consistencies I’ve found that often lead to valuable links, new sources for qualified leads and—best of all—budding relationships with the kind of people who can put great content in front of the right people.

Be Short

For the most part, long emails suck. Unless it’s an update from an old friend, nobody wants to spend five minutes (or longer) reading one email when there are likely thousands of others waiting desperately for a click.

Typically, shorter outreach letters tend to get more love and attention than the longer ones. My personal rule of thumb is to keep the letter to 150 – 200 words (though, if possible, I try to go even shorter).

In my experience, I find the following structure works best:

  • The Intro: Start with one or two sentences explaining who you are, how you found this person and why you’re emailing them.
  • The Pitch: Follow up with three or four sentences expanding on the content you’re pitching. Focus a sentence or two on why it’s worth their attention and then a sentence or two on why you’re the best person or organization to create such content.
  • The Close: Finally, end with two or three sentences that bring it all home. This is when you offer to help in anyway possible while thanking them for their attention and being explicit about what you want them to do (your CTA).

As you can tell, this pattern doesn’t waste much time with a long intro or middling details. In fact, it doesn’t waste much time with anything. It spits the point right at the reader so they can scan it and move on with their life (which hopefully includes spreading the word about your content).

Be Honest

Of course, it’s not just enough to have a snappy, easy-to-scan outreach letter; the words you use will mean more than the word count any day of the week. Because that word count is limited, however, you want to make each word powerful, resonate and, most importantly, honest.

Honesty—or rather a lack thereof—is one of the leading causes for outreach letter deletion, in my experience.

In my days as a journalist, most emails I received from marketers began with some variation of “I’m a big fan of your work, in particular your piece titled <ultra specific headline>,” and I would always respond by clicking “Mark as Spam.”

Now, maybe all those marketers reaching out to me really were fans of the specific articles I wrote, but you and I both know that the only reason they brought it up was to try and butter up my ego before they made their pitch. And that’s the inherent flaw in this approach. Most journalists and thought leaders are savvy enough to know that you’re a marketer pitching them on something, so why hide behind forced pleasantries and fluffed-up small talk?

Instead, get straight to the point. Let them know your pitch, let them know your contacting them because they’re uniquely qualified to spread your content and, finally, let them know that you want them to share it. There’s nothing wrong with using total and utter honesty in your outreach letters—the people you’re approaching feel this way, so should you!

Be Enticing

Finally, the last point to consider is probably the most obvious but also the most difficult to pull off: Make your outreach letter (and the pitch within it) so enticing that the reader will have little or no ability to say no.

Yes, this gets to be even more difficult when you consider the different personalities and tastes each of your outreach prospects may have. Despite that, though, there are a few things to consider when creating an outreach letter enticing enough to make them forget about the “delete” button.

Speak Their Language

You wouldn’t necessarily write to an editor at Scientific American as you would to an editor at Sports Illustrated, right? Each of these editors work in a field that has it’s own language, personality and jargon, and if you want any of them to take your outreach seriously, you’ll learn to craft a letter that speaks to them on their terms.

Note I said “learn” to speak that language and not “pretend”—this goes back to that whole “being honest” thing. If you’re going to speak the same language as your prospects, make sure you put in some time researching their industry so you actually know what you’re talking about.

Speak to their Needs

Let’s talk brass tacks: if someone does pick up your pitch, it’s most likely for one of two reasons: Either they legitimately love your content, or they’re looking for some quality content to post before their fast-approaching deadline.

Because the latter is a very common need among journalist and bloggers, take advantage of it. There’s nothing wrong with checking out an editorial calendar before making a pitch or flat out asking a prospect what kind of content they’re looking for and when they’ll need it. In fact, doing so could save both you and your prospect some time – something both of you can appreciate.

Make Their Life Easier

The best way to entice a journalist into using your content is to make it as easy as possible for them to share it. With that in mind, it’s always good to send along as many additional materials as possible. Not only should you send along the content, but also pass over any embed codes, press releases, images or other materials that will make their life easier. The less they have to do to share your content, the more likely they are to do it!

No matter what combination of these tactics you use in outreach, it’s imperative that each step be rooted in research. Don’t send the pitch if the recipient isn’t targeted and in an industry that’s highly relevant to the content. Being succint, honest and enticing all boil down to not wasting their time. When dealing with deadline-driven journalists and publishers, transparency and brevity can go a long way and should always govern your correspondence with them.

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There’s nothing wrong with a little friendly competition. But, what if that competition is kicking your butt all over the Internet with highly shareable content? We have all been there and thought to ourselves: “What is it about the stuff on their site that makes them so special? How can I make my content stick like theirs?” This competitive content audit will show you how.

What goes into a Competitive Content Audit?

Know thy enemy. This is the underlying basis for a competitive content audit. Put simply, this audit takes stock of the content your competition is using, how they’re using it, and why it’s making such an impact with their target audience. More importantly, it can give you valuable intelligence to leverage when making your own content better – even better than the competition’s.

Warning: It’s possible to spend hours upon hours auditing the competition’s content, depending on how big they are. You don’t have the time for that, though.

Fortunately, you can gain a strong understanding of the competition in a few short hours with this quick n’ dirty competitive content audit that evaluates two primary factors:

  1. What content the competitor has published
  2. How well their content is doing

By evaluating these factors, you can get a much stronger understanding of the kind of content dominates your market.

Evaluating the Competition

To begin a competitive content audit, you’ll need to understand the kind of content they have. This includes looking for and understanding how the competition is using the following types of content:

  • Articles
  • Guest posts
  • Images & Infographics
  • Videos
  • Surveys

You could do this the old-fashioned way: by combing through their site and social media accounts and reading/evaluating all of their content. Fortunately, there are some tools to help you save time, as this can be the most time-consuming part of the audit process. All of these tools below have a free trial and paid version.

  • You can use Screaming Frog to crawl their entire site and give you a snapshot at what the pages looks like and how well they have been optimized.
  • BuzzSumo gives a snapshot of your competitor’s main content pages and how well they’re performing socially (which we’ll cover more in a bit).


Buzzsumo Competitive content audit


  • Rival IQ enables you to look across multiple competitors at one time and view the top engaging content across six social networks, so you can see immediately what’s working for them.


Competitive Content Audit Facebook

When viewing your competitor’s content, take the following into account:

  • What kind of content is most prevalent on their site? Do they use mostly text-based content? Do they focus heavily on video?
  • Does their content strictly fall in line with their main product/services, or do they go for more of a mission marketing approach?
  • What themes or concepts tie all their content together, if any?

Evaluating How Their Content is Performing

While gaining an understanding of what the competition’s content can be an education in itself, you can learn even more by understanding how their content is performing throughout the web. With that in mind, check the following metrics:

1. Backlinks

The kind of backlinks a site has can be a clear indication of it’s strongest content. By using a tool like Open Site Explorer, you can export the backlinks for your competitor’s entire site. By evaluating these backlinks, you can see not only which high-authority sites are linking to your competitor, but you can also see which pages those high-authority sites are linking to most often. This can give you a good idea of what content on your competitor’s site is getting the most attention from other sites.


2. Social Relevance

Like backlinks, social shares are also a signal of your content’s strength. By evaluating how well a piece of content has been shared socially, you can gain how well said content resonated with the target audience. As mentioned earlier, BuzzSumo can show how often a piece of content has been shared, however, tools like Rival IQ, can offer a more detailed breakdown on not just how often a piece of content has been shared, but also how successful your competition’s social presence has faired overall.

3. Search Rankings: 

You can use SEM Rush or Rival IQ to check how your competition is ranking organically for various keywords. This can be invaluable when it comes to seeing how well, and for what terms, their content is ranking in search. More importantly, this data can give you an understanding of the terms for which your competition is not ranking (and maybe you are NOT), providing a better idea of what may be missing from their content strategy and where you could potentially swoop in for the win.

Tying it All Together

After following the above steps, you should not only be well-informed about the kind of content your competition is creating, but you should also understand which of their content is hitting the mark with your target audience.

With that knowledge, ask yourself:

  • What kind of content (articles, video, etc.) gets the most links and social shares with your target audience?
  • Does your target audience prefer more on-the-nose content that relates directly to the products/service you offer, or do they prefer something else?
  • How (and how often) does your target audience consume/share this content?

Now that you understand their content and how well it resonates, you can create your own content that blows theirs out of the water! You might also follow this great advice on conducting a competitive communication audit, which ensures your positioning and messaging is both relevant and differentiated in the market!

Let me start by getting personal for a moment: I love content. I love it so much, in fact, that I kind of hate calling it “content,” as I think the term makes it too easy to generalize and commoditize the amazing work that comes from the writers, artists and developers of the marketing community. Make no mistake about it: content has (or at least should have) its roots deep within the creative arts.

Because content is such a creative, artistic endeavor, it’s so easy to screw it up. Yes, content should be a creative venture. But it should still be a profitable venture, too. Sometimes, that can make for a tough balancing act during the content creation process—something I’ve learned from experience over the past few years.

Leaning too far to one side of the creation/profit camp or the other, you (and by extension, your team and clients) open yourself to a host of issues that could very easily derail your entire content creation process—which could in turn derail your entire content strategy, and maybe even your marketing goals as a whole.

The following is a list of some of those derailing factors that I’ve encountered in my content creation experience, as well as the lesson I’ve learned from said derailments. Some of these may be no-brainers, some of them may not be—either way, I’ve learned from the challenges these experiences have brought upon me, and I’m hoping you can as well.

Setting An Unrealistic Timeline

Like I mentioned, content is often a creative venture and any creative venture worth doing requires time to breathe and bloom. Because of that, it’s important to make sure you have the time needed to properly dedicate you and your team to a project. By time, I mean not only billable hours, but literally the calendar time needed to properly build and execute content.

Like everyone else in the marketing world, I’ve tried my hand at using infographics as the backbone of a content strategy. On the surface, infographics seem easy: you have some facts and copy laid out over some pretty graphics. You have a copywriter and designer on your team—this should be done in a day or two, right?

Wrong. Surprisingly, a lot goes into an infographic. For one, you don’t just need copy; you need interestingcopy—often in the form of facts or statistics. Facts and statistics require research, which requires time. Know what else requires time? Building a dozen unique vector images to accompany each point laid out in the infographic.

Lesson Learned:

No matter how simplistic a content piece may be, it’s going to take time to do it in a way that stands out above the competition. Communicate with your team to get a better idea of just how much time each player needs to create their absolute best work. Once you have that time estimation, increase it by 25 percent to cover any incidents or revisions that will inevitably occur.

Not Setting Up Regular Milestones & Meetings

I listed these first two derailments next to each other for a reason: setting adequate time for a project is the first half of the equation, while setting up milestones and meetings within that timeframe is what makes it work.

I’m a firm believer that the creative mind works best when it’s unhindered by the realities surrounding it. That’s my flowery way of saying that if you want a creative to hand in their best work, you need to leave them alone and let them do what they do best.

That said, one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made was following this philosophy to a fault. By not keeping up with copywriters and designers, it’s not only easy to lose track of the project’s progress, it’s also nearly impossible to catch any errors that may occur during the content creation process. Next thing you know, the project deadline is a day away and you have 10 pages of copy on the wrong topic because the copywriter misunderstood an aspect of the project.

Lesson Learned:

In a perfect world, creative minds would get to work in the kind of vacuums they need to develop the best possible work. But it’s not a perfect world and mistakes happen—in fact, they happen all the time. To prevent that, build frequent milestones and meetings into your timeframe.

This is sort of a no-brainer, but most people hate meetings, which make them easy to shrug off in a crunch. By planning milestones and scheduling meetings to discuss said milestones, you ensure that a project is still on track while there’s still time to handle any problems that may crop up.

Biting Off More Than You Can Chew

By and large, ambition is one of the best things about working in the creative space. It’s a potent, volatile fuel that burns hot within the creative mind and forces it to push out the kind of work that transcends simple “content” and pushes it closer to being a piece of art.

Unfortunately, ambition can be every bit as dangerous as it is advantageous. I was recently reminded of this when tasked with creating—what else?—an infographic. Where others saw the opportunity to create a by-the-numbers infographic, I found the opportunity to go bigger by creating an animated infographic that would truly express the content while stimulating the imagination of its viewers.

Had I ever created an animated infographic before this? Nope! Was I going to let that stop me? Of course not! I’ve created regular infographics before; How hard could an animated one be?

So, I promised the client an animated infographic in a relatively short amount of time. What could go wrong? Spoiler alert: Everything.

Aside from taking way longer than I should have to establish a workflow and research the information needed for the copy, I also burned through an embarrassing amount of time while trying to master the basic mechanics of the animation. Even after figuring out the process, the actual implementation caused me to push back the deadline repeatedly (something that could have been avoided if I had been mindful of the first derailment).

Lesson Learned:

There is no shame in having limits. In fact, recognizing and appreciating your limits—whether they’re creative or something else—is the first step to surpassing them.

With that said, it’s not really a good idea to test your limits on the client’s dime. It’s not fair to them and it puts you in a terrible position, especially if you fail. If you’re going to push yourself (and your creative team) past your limits, make sure it’s something reasonable and attainable.

Losing Track Of Goals/KPIs

By now, it’s pretty obvious just how much I view content as a creative endeavor. Marketing, of course, is a natural fit for those of us in the creative field, as it provides a lucrative way to do what we love for a living. Unfortunately, that love can sometimes cause projects to derail, especially when creativity runs out of hand and leaves the original goals and KPIs in the dust.

The fact of the matter is, the whole reason a content piece is being created in the first place is to reach some sort of goal and, ultimately, profit from reaching said goal. It may be link building, it may be opening up a new traffic channel, it may be getting more contact forms filled out—whatever the goal is, it’s the sole reason for creating a content piece.

As much as we creative types believe it’s about making artistic and stunning content, the fact remains that it’s ultimately going to be used as a marketing tool. It’s when that fact is forgotten that problems arise such as missed milestones, missed deadlines or delivering a final product that looks much different than originally planned.

Lesson Learned:

Don’t let creativity run out of control. While it may be more enjoyable to let creativity reign supreme over any content creation project, it offers more opportunity to stray from the original, metric-based goal of the content in the first place. Finding that happy place between creative harmony and marketing success is really the key to any successful content marketing strategy, and striking a balance between the two is paramount.

Not Holding Your Clients Accountable

A lot of people feel that the content creation process goes like this: A client hires you to do something and you do it for them. That process is very true to a degree, however, pedantically following that rationale is going to leave both you and the client holding a half-assed piece of content that may never perform to its full potential.

This fact bit me hard a while back. After creating what was a great content piece to use as linkbait, we handed it back to the client as planned. In order for this content to build links as it was intended to, the client needed to be involved in various promotional tactics such as posting it on their site, sharing it through their social networks, creating press releases and more. Instead, they sat on their hands (and the content) and didn’t do much of anything with it.

The content went largely unseen and the client never saw a return on the time and money spent creating it. In retrospect, this all could have been avoided if we had held the client more accountable. When a client hires you to create content, they’re entering into a partnership with you. That partnership should be dedicated to creating the best possible content and making sure it drives in the best possible results. If they’re not holding up their end of the deal, the success of the campaign could suffer for it.

Lesson Learned

The fact of the matter is, nobody knows the audience the content is meant to reach better than your client. Because of this, they can not only offer great insight on the project, but can also elevate its success in the marketplace.

Just because they’re paying you doesn’t mean they should be hands off on the project. Keep them in the loop as much as possible—from conception to execution—and make sure they’re held accountable for their milestones just as you are.

Looking Forward (And Backward)

Whether you’re an independent contractor, working within an agency or part of an in-house team, there’s a lot that can go wrong in the content creation process. Ideally, most creative teams would have processes and practices in place to prevent the sort of issues listed above, but even if they do, it’s still possible to derail the content creation process by overlooking the tiniest of issues.

How do you avoid that? Once a project is done, take time to reflect on it before moving to the next one. Spend an hour brainstorming and writing down whatever thoughts about the project fill your head. Do it as a team if that helps. By taking a minute to breathe and look at the project after it’s complete, you can learn from past mistakes while preventing new ones from occurring in the future.

SEO Writing Tips for Beginners

The Trick to Writing for SEO

Content Creation, Content Marketing, SEO

Writing can be difficult for a lot of people. Even those of us gifted with a passion for wordsmithing…

“Some of the best things in life are free.”

Usually people only say that to help them forget that…

I have an enterprise client that retains me as a consultant. In a nutshell, I help them anytime they…

For most marketers, email outreach involves prospecting for journalists and thought leaders who might be interested in their content…

There’s nothing wrong with a little friendly competition. But, what if that competition is kicking your butt all…

Thanks to rapid-fire news feeds, constantly changing user interfaces and shifting promotional policies, social media sites are constantly…

How To Derail Content Creation Without Even Trying

Content Creation, Content Marketing

Let me start by getting personal for a moment: I love content. I love it so much, in fact…

A rising number of people are enabling ad blockers and it’s the end of the free Internet as…