The conflict between SEO strategy and human-centric content creation is like a game of chess: One player makes a move and the other counters, and on it goes, with no real winner ever calling checkmate (apart from the Google algorithm, of course). And during this game, creativity looks on aghast, wondering where it fits in these days.
OK, so maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but the dominance of search as a distribution tactic does sometimes leave us wondering whether there is still room for a great story in modern content marketing. How can you weave a lovely narrative if you need to insert a long-tail keyword in the first hundred words, or ditch the pithy headline in favor of a search-driven marker of intent?
This is the fundamental dichotomy: content must be creative, yet content must be found. The biggest driver of the latter is, of course, SEO strategy. The buyer journey is nothing more than a series of questions to be answered, we are told; ensure you have content covering the things your audience searches for to ensure the Google algorithm suggests your answer.
Surely, though, we should be writing for people, not Google algorithms? Or can we satisfy both masters—especially when “quality content” is such an SEO driver?
Image attribution: Vlad Sargu
Those two words—quality content—are the common cry when a writer asks how to optimize their work for SEO. The days of gaming the system through keyword stuffing are long gone, but keywords are still essential to both SEO and content strategy.
“I’m just pleased that SEO is becoming far more transparent than it’s ever been,” says Jo O’Connell of Jellyrock PR. “It used to be about smoke and mirrors, a mysterious dark art that only true techie people could understand. Now it’s all about writing good quality content which is wonderful for PR and for writers. It’s down to being far more valuable than just stuffing a keyword in copy 30 times.”
Frustrated with an apparent move by some content creators towards pushing link-building for SEO, Jo recently ranted about contributors selling links to SEO consultants. “Try to game the market and it sinks,” she wrote. “Subprime mortgages led to a phenomenal worldwide financial crash. Email spam and poor marketing tactics by charities led to GDPR legislation. Gaming Google just leads to a new algorithm [. . .] SEO and content marketing CANNOT be about gaming Google and finding short-cuts. It’s short-term thinking and only lasts until Google changes the rules.”
Focusing on gaming Google algorithms is dangerous and short-termism at its best, she says. And that’s the sort of thing that gives SEO a bad name among creators.
“Marketing is a bit like politics—you can never make long-term policies because you might not be there in five years. More astute marketers take the client or customer on their journey and show they are thinking about things in the long term. Someone might come along and want to know about insurance for their first car, but if the content marketer is doing it well, they will follow that customer journey to their first house, to a remortgage—they will think about that customer flow throughout the years. That takes creativity and planning.”
O’Connell believes that finding that niche, writing what others aren’t writing about rather than writing for keywords, takes creativity; rather than killing creativity, the demands of SEO strategy drive more creativity. And most of the writers and SEO consultants we spoke to for this article agree with her.
“To be honest, I think if anything, creative content does better now than non-creative content,” says digital media consultant Paul Sutton. “Google’s algorithm has moved away from the simple measures like keywords, and towards more broad user signals. It’s things like how long people spend on a website, how many pages do they visit, what’s the bounce rate like. And in order to get good user signals, you’ve got to have good content, otherwise people will visit and bounce straight off, not look around your site.”
Sutton believes SEO demands and creativity “can and should coexist.” They’re different skills, he says, but put them together and you have a killer piece of content.
“The whole thing of writing for people not algorithms is making sure you write something that is interesting, informative, that has an opinion,” he says. “The way I talk to people about optimizing their written content is to write your content first and then retrofit the keyword into it. The problem with trying to write content that is extremely highly optimized is you end up with stuff that just doesn’t read that well to the human eye. It can lack flow, it can lack the personality that people like. If you do write for people, the likelihood is people are more likely to spend time and to share, so you end up with a whole bunch of signals that this is valuable content.”
So it’s about coexistence: no barriers, no battles, just plenty of peace talks. Right?
“SEO should be considered the science, the method, if you like, behind creating content,” says Emily Isaac, a freelance writer and SEO consultant. “You want people to actually find your content on the internet? You need to consider optimizing it so search engine crawlers can find it too. Use SEO in the research phase of your content creation, have an interest in what people are actually searching around the topic or industry you are looking to write about. Don’t create content that purely aims to tick the SEO box—there is a balance. The art is knowing where the balance will lie and that depends on each unique piece of content created.”
Image attribution: Sarah Cervantes
Isaac reminds us that Google algorithm updates are made, more often than not, to improve the user experience with content. “You should never sacrifice quality content for click-throughs; the creativity lies in making it good enough content for users to want to read and for search engines to deem good enough to directly answer a particular query,” she says.
Creativity, in fact, is essential to ensure SEO-optimized work not only answers the user’s questions but is actually readable. It’s the creativity that adds personality, engagement, and shareability to your content.
“I’ve seen SEO companies working with businesses and you just don’t want to read it,” laments Mark Masters, managing director of the ID Group and author of The Content Revolution. “We’re all sounding the same. There’s no point of view. No voice. No angle of attack. Yet SEO doesn’t hamper creativity—it teaches us to understand the industry and how relevant we are to our audience.”
There’s that word again: relevance.
“It’s important to understand who we are creating for,” says Masters. “We’re flippant with all this human-to-human stuff now, but we do want people to stick around. We want them to stay with us. If someone finds us via organic search, my next goal is to lead them to sign up to my weekly email. The challenge is how can we be of interest to them so they want to stick with us. That’s when we have to look at different ways to create calls to action—how can I convert people to leave their email so I can have a deeper conversation.
“Understanding the people we create for, the things we believe in, enables others to understand our point of view and make a deeper level of connectivity. That’s the challenge.”
Content strategy shouldn’t be about getting a click on a search engine link and then starting to push sales messages, says Masters. “We use these keywords to get people into our places, but there is a glut of expertise out there. We just have to go deeper rather than wider. We need to be a lot more focused within the things we believe in, and that’s where SEO works; the creativity comes into it in how we form sentences.”
It’s about having the right people come to your site, and the best way to do that? SEO strategy. Keyword research. Find out what your target audience is searching for, and use your creativity to create content and tell stories that fit that bill.
“I’d argue that SEO can enhance creativity,” says Marc Nashaat, an SEO and digital PR consultant. “There’s no doubt that SEO is very data-driven but, for content creators, this means knowledge; knowledge about the content we’re creating, the users who consume it and their motivations for doing so. Tapping into that pulse enables us to explore our content from multiple angles and draw from the thoughts and ideas that exist outside of our preconceptions. For me SEO is ammunition for creativity.
“While modern day SEO is far more conducive to creativity, metadata, technical optimization and external citations are still extremely beneficial. But ultimately, if your content is satisfying a user’s search intent then it is likely to be discovered and rewarded by search engines. So, get creative.”
There are ultimately seven factors that determine quality content:
As content creators, we can only influence half of those. It’s our creativity that serves E-A-T and length; it’s our skill as writers that ensure content is well-crafted; and it’s our research skills that ensure what we create matches user intent.
In this way, SEO and creativity are not mutually exclusive but rather are “symbiotic,” says Sally Jones, editorial director of digital at Trusted Media Brands, publisher of household-name titles like Reader’s Digest and Taste of Home. The former publishes up to 900 pieces of content every month, and every single article is SEO optimized—but only around 25 percent of stories are actually assigned with a target keyword in mind. Editors are trained in using SEO discovery sites to see what competitors are doing with a topic, helping them see how to take an article to the next level.
“Most writers will tell you that having some constraints makes them more creative,” says Jones. “If that is just taking a keyword as a topic and building from there, you can still come up with a really great story. If anything, our monthly batch of keywords spark pitch ideas.
“The thing I think all digital editors need to understand is that algorithms are here to stay. We love Google because it sends us lots of good organic traffic—there’s a fire hose of traffic from partners but Google loves our natural remedies and humor content, and sends us traffic every day. Anything we write in those realms immediately indexes because we have domain authority. We don’t think of Google algorithms as a bad thing necessarily. What Google is trying to do is give people the results they’re looking for.”
Jones points out that getting into the SERP is only the first half of the challenge; once you’re there, your headline has to stand out. Again, that’s where SEO and creativity must play nicely together. And they must be written for humans, or humans won’t click.
“We think of ourselves as writers and editors first, and SEO is sort of a prism that we look at our content through,” says Jones. “First thing we’re doing is writing an article for an audience—our own audience, a partner, social, Google. When we’re thinking of our audience, the first thing we have in mind is we want to delight our audience or we want to inform them, so we’re steered by that when choosing topics. In our editorial training one of the first things we discuss is what emotion do we want the audience to feel while reading this article. Emotions are at the forefront of writing—we consider transformation very powerful.”
Yes, the human-to-human connection remains key, despite the algorithm used to find it or the SEO tools used to identify the right keyword to get there.
Image attribution: Terrah Holly
“Some people write only for themselves. However, if you’re writing for a living, you want people to read your work,” says freelance content and PR consultant Claire Murray. “We no longer have the luxury of a captive audience buying our work in a publication, and most of what we write will be for online. Therefore, if we want to be successful, writers have to use SEO to get their work in front of readers. It’s not a case of if the two can coexist—it’s how the industry, as a whole, makes that happen.”
Like everyone has mentioned thus far, Murray uses SEO tools to research topics for content: “Instead of just writing what I want to write, I have to look into what people are searching for related to that topic. Sometimes, related keywords will throw up things that I hadn’t considered, forcing me to consider what really needs to be included in the piece, and how it will eventually relate to my audience.”
Even a technical SEO bod agrees with that one: “Everything we do should be for people,” says Emile Rossouw of SEO agency Digital Score. “Ultimately, Google is working for people, providing them information, so if we focus on the same thing while using some data and insight, we should be successful as we will have common goals.
“SEO is ultimately about understanding how a machine interprets human behavior. Human beings respond to a number of things—emotional and intellectual stimuli—and when content hits those stimuli, humans respond by taking an action the machine can track. It has a powerful impact.”
Ultimately, content marketing and SEO are not separate and distinct marketing tactics; they must coexist peacefully for a digital ecosystem to be relevant to users. There is the technical SEO side of things—the backlinks, the metadata, the page structures and layouts, and so on—but that’s for the technical people to worry about. For us, as creators, SEO shouldn’t be seen as killing creativity. Think of your keyword as an umbrella, a content theme for you to write about. Everything else should and does fall naturally from there.
And sure, you might need to retrofit your dominant keyword into the first hundred words after you’re done writing your lovely narrative. But isn’t that a small price to pay for helping your audience find, enjoy, and share what you have to say? Go forth and answer the public. Be creative. Your audience (and the Google algorithm) will thank you.
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Featured image attribution: Crown Agency