Why Every Writer Should Learn Basic SEO Principles
When I was a kid, I begged my parents for a skateboard because I wanted to be like the kids on Rocket Power. For an anxious, nerdy kid like me, the idea of learning to skateboard with candy-dyed hair and running with a crew of cool dudes sounded like paradise.
Once I got it, though, all I really did was clumsily scoot back and forth on our driveway. On summer afternoons, I watched neighborhood kids mess around on their boards, laughing when they had to bail on a trick gone wrong. Didn’t they care that they looked stupid? It occurs to me now that I could have asked those kids for advice, but the idea of not mastering skateboarding immediately embarrassed me. So I gave up.
I’m reminded of this logical fallacy when I talk to fellow writers about SEO. We all hate traffic quotas, sure, but it’s astounding to me how many of us resent having to use technology at all. I wrote at Newsweek alongside veteran investigative reporters who struggled to take Google traffic as seriously as magazine subscribers, but this resistance isn’t just limited to older generations. If a writer hasn’t bothered to study basic SEO principles by now, they’re refusing to do so for one of two reasons: They either fancy themselves above it or they fear looking stupid.
If you’re publishing anything online, figuring out what Google wants will only help your craft. Despite how daunting it can feel, here are four reasons to teach yourself some basic SEO.
To improve your pitches
The sooner you prove yourself as a guaranteed source of traffic, the more likely your editor is to let you off the leash once in a while.
One way to get there is to focus on long-tail keywords, which refers to niche and less competitive search terms. These do much more for a writer than generate clicks. With a long-tail mindset, you’ll develop a level of expertise that generalists can’t match when they answer random questions for a wide audience.
When I worked at Inverse, for example, I covered the animated series Rick and Morty, and that show presents a unique problem to content creators. People constantly google “Rick and Morty” and “Rick and Morty Season 4,” so I knew that muscling my way onto that first SERP (Search Engine Results Page) was going to be arduous. However, because I’m obsessed with Rick and Morty, I knew the search terms that fanatics like me wanted to read about.
Instead of updating the same old “When is Rick and Morty coming back?” post each week, I wrote or assigned down articles about Rick and Birdperson’s experiences in the war against the Galactic Federation and whether Rick is an existentialist or a nihilist. Because those articles got long-tail love, my team wasn’t asked to write things like “Rick and Morty Co-Creator Tweets…Whatever.”
To plan all my pitches, I put all my long-tail search terms in a Google Doc and came up with multiple story ideas from each one. Inverse was already high on Google results for robotics, innovation, and AI, so I pitched or assigned out multiple stories on the intersection of Rick and Morty and technology.
Had I just fixated on Google Trends every day, I would have bored myself to tears. Content that only answers simple questions (“When does this season premiere?”) will drive down engagement time on your site. Posts like that may get clicks the first day, but they won’t help SEO over time. They also burn out writers and breed discontent in a newsroom.
To avoid harmful SEO ‘tricks’
In my experience, engineers and audience development folks are more than happy to explain what they do. You just have to show up to their internal tutorial sessions. If I had breezed through those meetings at prior jobs or blown them off altogether, I wouldn’t have understood what data my employers were gathering.
It didn’t take long to learn that our CMS included useful fields I had been ignoring, ones that could bump my writing up in search rankings. The team told me not to stuff my nut graf with keywords for Google’s sake, but to review related keywords and choose a couple relevant ones to expand on.
When I moved to a much larger outlet, the first thing I did was introduce myself to the social media manager and sign up for all the SEO trainings. Any traffic I got from SEO strategies struck some colleagues as dark magic. I knew, for instance, that Newsweek’s brand awareness would push my articles about geek media high into Google’s results, so I took the opportunity to report on Rick and Morty, B-grade horror films and anime from their arts desk, adding Newsweek’s name in the Google news carousel alongside smaller, less-trusted outlets. As I built my body of work, I back-linked to my explainers and interviews, encouraging readers who entered the site from Google to stick around and engage with me for long periods of time.
After I made those professional allies, my stories were often moved to the top of the pile for paid promotion. My fellow journalists who fought every mention of SEO were perceived as petulant by our colleagues. And rightfully so! What, are you too good for more readers?
To know your audience
When I ran the superhero vertical at Inverse, detailed talks with our audience development manager revealed that our returning readers were far more likely to engage with positive, hopeful content. Readers didn’t want to hear another critic tearing down Batman v Superman. But they stayed on the page and eventually shared articles that suggested constructive changes to their favorite films, especially if those fixes were based on comics lore.
The next step was figuring out the audience loved spending time within the vertical. If I could get them to read two posts about superhero news, they would keep scrolling and digest more. I even let that data affect my work in a granular sense; I stopped writing stand-alone articles about movies or TV and added a line about upcoming franchise developments at the end of my news posts, encouraging readers to stick around. The search data made me think about my contribution to the full user experience we wanted readers to have on our site.
SEO can help you in a pinch too. After several years of covering genre film from an optimistic prospective, I knew that Netflix’s Bright was about to get lambasted by critics when I saw a press preview. I also knew I could cover it from my point of view, as a geek who loves anything related to orcs. SEO had taught me that Netflix’s new releases receive a flurry of short-tail search queries for several days after their opening date, but if I found a way to put a positive spin on the film, my article would stand out among all the gleefully negative coverage. I pitched my niche take on the film to my editor, citing my SEO strategy from earlier works, and when she approved my review, it raked in readers who stayed on the page for far longer than our average time.
To inoculate yourself against misinformation
If you teach yourself basic SEO, you’ll become a formidable voice in the newsroom whenever an editor suggests something grayhat (or worse, blackhat). An SEO expert once told me that too many content creators think of Google as an evil robot to trick or manipulate. Regardless of whether you think Google is evil, it’s silly to try to outsmart the algorithm.
Instead, let search algorithm constrictions propel your work. According to SEO best practices, sites that keep readers engaged and on-site, enjoying content and returning habitually, rise to the top of SERPs. So any editor who asks you for clickbait isn’t thinking long-term. Their strategies, which are actually pretty pessimistic and insulting to both writer and reader, will eventually get your company in trouble.
That said, it’ll be much easier to push back against an editor if you have the SEO facts and fluency backing you up. It also helps if you follow that up with SEO-friendly pitches, which you can’t produce until you start your education.Image by Jeff Cadestin for Unsplash