The next time you step outside on a quiet night, look up. You can probably point out a star or even identify a constellation. In fact, from solar flares to the notion of the millions of other galaxies and planets that exist, it’s not too hard for you to conceptualize the high-level concepts of astronomy that you’ve picked up over the years.
But the science of space gets a little hazy beyond that for the average person—for example, it’s just plain hard to explain degeneracy pressure and the forces behind it. And if you’re really anything like me, when you reach the limit of your scientific knowledge you just start referring people to XKCD.
That’s totally fair. After all, understanding the surface-level theories of any science is far easier than grasping the practical applications behind them. Even astronomers, I’m sure, find themselves stumped from time to time.
Similarly, SEO is a science whose applications can be difficult to truly understand, even if you’re someone who’s actively involved with a content strategy on a regular basis. If you’re a marketing leader who’s up-to-date on the latest content strategy news, there’s a good chance you’re wondering how to revamp your keyword strategy. And if you’re a freelance writer, you might be struggling to understand why you need to incorporate long, awkward keywords into your writing at all.
I agree: Content optimization is a tricky science to master. To get a better idea of the challenges SEO strategists and freelance writers regularly face when creating content, I spoke with a couple of SEO supernovas—Steve Armenti, Skyword’s director of content services, and Erin Ollila, digital strategist. What surprised me most about our conversations was that challenges marketing leaders and freelancers face truly informed each other. After all, for a freelancer who’s developing personal brand, understanding how to find the keywords that inform stories is crucial. And for marketers, crafting keywords that can be used organically is hugely beneficial when you’re trying to connect with readers.
With that in mind, I’ve included both sides of the story in this post. In part one, you’ll find Armenti’s suggestions for developing a balanced keyword strategy. In part two, which informs the freelance side of things, you’ll learn Ollila’s content creation insights, which you can use to inform your storytelling.
Let’s start by getting back to the basics.
Okay, maybe not that basic. But fast-forward to 13.82 billion years after the universe’s inception and consider your two keyword options: shorter, frequently searched, high-competition, head keywords—”water rocket,” for example—and long-tail, low-competition keywords that are less frequently searched but help you more accurately reach your audience. (“How to make a water rocket,” for instance.)
When you first started developing a keyword strategy, it might have made sense to rely on the former as a way to enhance content discovery. But as your strategy evolves, one of the best SEO tips to follow is to incorporate long-tail keywords. According to Steve Armenti, “Long-tail keywords are best used to address the needs of your audience. Given the constant, sometimes unknown updates to Google’s search algorithm, it’s imperative to answer the needs of your audience rather than purely creating content to fulfill keyword demand.”
So how do you ensure your content is being amplified to everyone while prioritizing the needs of those to whom it’s most important? A balanced keyword strategy.
“A balanced keyword strategy is really a balanced SEO strategy for all of your content efforts,” Armenti says. “It’s more than long-tail vs short-tail; it’s the interconnectivity between the optimization of your entire online presence and the needs of your audience. Your website’s keyword strategy should optimize for conversion while your content is optimized to answer the needs of your audience.”
Okay, so you know why a balanced strategy is important. But what about implementation? How do you develop a balanced keyword strategy and work it into each piece of content to really make your content constellation stand out?
According to Armenti, the answer starts with understanding your overall SEO strategy and the keywords your website is optimized for, and supporting them with your content keyword strategy. “Personally, I like to test and react,” Armenti says. “Publish a sampling of articles (50-100) with a variety of keywords—shorter tail, long tail, really long tail, low volume, high volume, low competition, high competition. Let that content live for 30-60 days in market, then analyze it. What are the key learnings? Did you find that keyword phrases between three and four words in length perform better when they are low volume? Or do short-tail high volume keywords perform best? Keep in mind every other marketer in the world is looking at the same keywords you are, so you need to analyze your own data in order to find a true SEO strategy.”
Take a lesson from the cosmos: The biggest, hottest stars are at risk of becoming black holes. Similarly, even the best keyword strategies, if left on their own too long, risk becoming outdated or losing relevance. What’s a strategist to do?
“There is a time and a place to think about keywords, when you’re trying to generate search traffic or optimize a website through content,” says Armenti. “But for true publishing quality, think about your audience and what they really care about—then let those topics influence your keyword selection.”
And when the time does come to think about keywords, search strategically. “Don’t go directly to Google Keyword Planner for keywords,” suggests Armenti. “Look at social media, perform Google searches on related terms to see how others are talking about your topic, then look at the Keyword Planner. And don’t put all your eggs in one of those baskets to find the right keywords—use those sources to influence the keyword you end up with. At the end of the day, your keyword should perfectly describe the intent of your audience and what the content is about.”
For brands, balanced keyword strategies are key to content discovery. But as you know, it takes talented storytellers to really make content worth reading. That means freelance writers need to understand keywords too, and incorporate them in an organic and engaging way.
As a freelancer, you’ve no doubt seen them before: ugly, awkward, long-tail keywords. Much like in the arcade game Asteroids, you might feel inclined to blast these, breaking them up into smaller phrases that are easier to use, easier to read, and altogether much less obtrusive. And if you haven’t run into one yet, there’s a good chance you will.
Why? Consider your own Google-searching habits. Or, if you’re a conscientious Googler, consider mine: Whether I’m in a rush because my cat just ate a piece of onion or I’m lazily trying to find showtimes for a local theater, I’m definitely not using form words, or really anything grammatically sound, to round out my query. “My cat ate a piece of onion, will he be okay?” quickly becomes “cat ate onion.” I know I’m not alone in this either: According to Erin Ollila, a digital strategist, that search behavior is par for the course.
“Sometimes, the most optimal [long-tail] keywords will be a string of words that almost makes sense, but slightly misses the grammar curve,” she says. “Other times, they’ll come from questions that people ask Google. As someone who has turned from encyclopedias to Google’s search bar for answers, I can see why questions do so well—but it can be difficult to incorporate questions naturally into content.”
But while long-tail keywords often make for great, targeted content, they’re not catch-all solutions. “There’s no point in using awkward long-tail keywords if they aren’t going to add value to your topic,” Ollila says. “There’s no reason to sacrifice quality content for rankings, because if your post ranked well with poor writing, it will likely have a higher bounce rate, in turn damaging your site’s credibility in Google’s eyes.”
According to The Atlantic, there are approximately 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the observable universe, with 400 billion in the Milky Way alone. That’s a lot, right? Like, you probably couldn’t pick out one star that you really loved and, without a lot of effort and sky-mapping equipment, come back to it every night to confidently say “That’s the one!”
Likewise, according to this infographic, there are 571 new websites created every minute of every day of the year—which means that, this year alone, 300,117,600 websites will be created. That says nothing about the pieces of content created for each website. Once you do all the math out, doesn’t it seem just as impossible that you could discover a particular star as it does that you could discover a piece of content?
The numbers are dizzying. But by following the right SEO tips, your odds increase—and your content or website could become as beloved that star that people name and gift to their significant others.
To Ollila, every properly optimized blog post is an opportunity to attract new followers—who she says are just the people you want. “If you’re writing a pet-centric blog for a company that sells pet products, you want readers who are ready to purchase your goods. They might not know your company exists, but if they find you because of searching for a dog-related topic, there’s a good chance you’ll gain a new customer.”
The benefits of a good keyword strategy extend far beyond one piece of content attracting a customer, too. The better you target your keywords, the more likely you are to gain higher page rankings. And the better your rank, the more likely you are to be found. “It’s a cycle: Write strong, optimized content, and you’ll rank better,” says Ollila. “The more optimized content you write, the more people who will find you. If you’re publishing quality, evergreen posts, your words will continue to work hard for you for years to come.”
As a writer, you find your work to be creatively fulfilling. Whether you’re writing about an area of passion, or you’re writing about something new you’ve learned just because you love to write, yours is not the sort of career that people pursue because it’s easy. A bit like NASA discovering the “hand of God” formation in space, you find moments of passion and beauty in your career—that is, of course, buried amidst sourcing struggles, the challenge of making mundane topics exciting, and all the other difficult business dealings you face each day. Oh, right, and awkward keywords.
If you’re struggling to find motivation in your work, even the most awkward of keywords can actually serve as motivating forces to help you shape engaging stories. In fact, according to Ollila, the use of keywords has changed her entire approach to writing.
“I spend a significant amount of time researching keywords before writing. I’ll choose whichever keyword is the best optimized—either by amount of searches or competition—and then I’ll start to outline my posts. Because keywords in headings and subheads can influence search engines, I’ll start there, though I must admit, sometimes these get changed as the writing develops. Then I’ll fill in my content, including the keyword just enough times to fully saturate the piece, but not too many times to overwhelm it.”
For other writers who aren’t choosing their own keywords, there’s an opportunity to get into the mind of your readers and use keywords as writing prompts. The next time you’re faced with something that seems unusual or just plain tough to use, start by considering the story of one of the many people who is searching it. Let’s say you’re tasked with incorporating a keyword such as “dry dog nose.” There might not seem to be a lot of backstory there, but for a first-time pet owner who has adopted a retired greyhound and has rushed to the Internet for advice about his health, relevant content is everything. A bit of imagination can go a long way, helping you craft a piece that’s empathetic, a bit humorous, and, most importantly, trustworthy. Not only can that approach help you tell an engaging story, but it will keep that reader coming back for more. And if he shares your piece via social media, both your personal brand and your client’s brand benefit.
So the next time you’re approaching content, whether it’s through an overarching strategy or a single story you’re hoping to tell, remember to embrace keywords. After all, why settle for a place among a septillion like-sized stars when your content could be as iconic as a sun?
Ready to make your SEO strategy even stronger and improve your content discovery rate? Check out this article, SEO Tips to Reach the Modern Searcher.