Keyword-Based SEO Is Poetry, Not Trickery
Search Engine Optimization Does Not Have to Suck
Online writers often complain about the dirty tricks of black hat -- or, more often, incompetent -- SEO. Clumsy search engine optimization reads like student poetry. The meaning of words and their effect on the reader are forgotten: the unskilled poet is just trying to fill out the line with exactly seven syllables, or use words from a required vocabulary list, or find a word that rhymes with "unglued." Limitations like meter or keywords can serve as an armature, but to the novice they are an obstacle.
In keyword SEO, the novice's flailings manifest in keyword repetition, in mistaking keywords (phrases people use to search the web) for tags (custom labels used to organize a single site's content), and in dropping links containing their keywords on guestbooks, social media sites and forums until they are banned or ostracized.
No wonder many writers decry search optimization and set up a false dichotomy between "Team Write" and "Team SEO." They have missed the fact that "Team Write" can spew unreadable prose just as easily as "Team SEO." In fact, writing with a specific set of keywords in mind is no more a recipe for poor writing than is writing a sestina, a poetic form with a strict meter and repetition of certain words throughout the poem. The problem is simply that keyword writing, like writing a sestina, is more difficult than free verse.
Tim Berners-Lee on His Creation
Tim Berners-Lee really did invent the web (sorry, Al Gore), and his take on its history and its future is both fascinating and self-effacing.
A Web of Words, Not Links
In the early 90s, we searched the internet by browsing folders on the mainframes of various university computers. Then Tim Berners-Lee's grand idea of the web caught on: a standard way of finding and linking to documents stored on any computer server hooked to the internet. Early search engines used links as the sole way to index the web, making algorithms easy to manipulate: the page with the most links got the top listing. Then search algorithms became more sophisticated. They learned analyze the text on our page, interpreting which words and phrases were most likely to be significant: the key words.
For years, search engines did this mechanically: they put extra weight on tags (until people gamed the system) and repeated words (until people gamed the system) and exact-phrase-match URLs (until... oh, you get the picture). Every time people figured out what signals search engines were using, clumsy SEOafs would overuse them, until search engines jettisoned that signal from algorithms and found a better one. Some pundits predicted that one day, SEO would die.
They missed the profound and powerful shift that had happened right under our noses. Once search engines began to use more signals than simply hard-coded links, they were no longer dependent on humans to tell them which pages or concepts linked to what. They were now making connections all by themselves, based on words, discovering connections we might never discover. In other words, our words have become organic links, and search engines are building the synapses of a world-wide artificial intelligence based on that verbal web. This is exciting!
How to Nurture the Web of Words
Like any brain, there's a heck of a lot of junk and filler: that's the keyword spam littered by incompetent and ham-fisted SEOs. However, search engines are growing better and better at filtering that out -- sometimes with our help, using our Tweets and Likes and Google +1 to monitor what we think of as spam.
Also, not all kinds of writing are suited to web searches. People search the web for specific things: answers, gifts, directions, favorite persons/shows/books/sports/etc. They do not tend to use search engines to look up opinions, observations, abstract discussions, creative writing or entertainment. Instead, they find those things through word of mouth, personal recommendation, social media: a Facebook share by a friend, or an interesting-looking Tweet. People who write on those kinds of topics (or write articles like this one) cannot usually get much search engine traffic; they need to master the art of social promotion instead.
The web of words I'm talking about is the vast body of information that search engines help us access: what gift to buy for mother's day, or how to get rid of ants in the house without poisoning the cat, or Navneet Panda, the Google engineer "Panda" was named for. These are single-topic, concrete, specific pieces of information.
You would not turn in a proposal on rocket science in limerick form and expect to get a good peer review. In the same way, if you want to post an article in the web of words and get it seen by lots of search engine traffic, you need to write in a format using the sort of specific, concrete vocabulary that people type into search engines. More importantly, you need to suffer yourself to do keyword research not to discover the most popularly-searched topics and write on them, but to find the words and language that web users tend to use for your topic. Then, apply poetry, alchemy, and eloquence to work them into your prose like a poet fitting thoughts to meter-- or rather, fitting meter to thoughts. How?
Poetic Keyword Research
There's numerous tutorials out there designed to find the right keywords. The basic principle is to brainstorm your topic (note: YOUR topic; you must have something to say) using a tool like Google's keywords tool to discover what people are searching for that's related to your topic. This is a time to be creative and playful. Brainstorm. Play with language. It's an interaction between you, with your own words and terms and ideas, and other people's words and terms and ideas.
Break out of the keyword research mold by ditching your favorite tool of choice (Market Samurai, Google's free keywords tool, wordtracker, seoMOZ) and searching the web for your topic. What words do YOU use? What pages do you find? Plug the URLs of some of the good ones into Google's keyword tool page and see what words and phrases Google thinks are key on those pages. Compile a list of the ones that ring true, ones that fit the poem, er, page you are writing, and also seem to resonate with others.
Alas, at this step it's best to use a spreadsheet, because you'll need some quantifiable way to keep track of your word list. It's just a tool. Here's what you need to record:
[word or phrase] [global search popularity]
Make a healthy list. Another way to break out of the tyranny of normal keyword research is to go back to Google.com itself, search for a keyword, and notice what related phrases and synonyms come up in search results or at the bottom of the search page. Google and many search engines are growing sophisticated enough to understand that a page with the phrase "bald eagle" repeated fifty times may be written by a spammer, whereas a page with the related terms "bald eagle," "raptor" "H. leucocephalus" "breeding season" and a list of related or similar "birds of prey" is probably a better-written article.
Your goal is not to find the words that match the most popular search engine searches. You don't want 20,000 people who aren't actually that interested in your subject. You want the 2,000 people that are interested in exactly what you are writing about. Your job is to find the subset of the web of words that is a shared vocabulary, a common tongue, the slang and the lingo and the jargon that "your" tribe speaks and cares about. Then and only then, after you have found excellent words to express yourself, do you hedge your bets by pruning that list to meaningful keywords that also have less competition.
Here is the pragmatic and un-poetic side of keyword optimization: if there are 200,000 pages already ranking in search results for your primary keyword, your page will probably never appear in Google search results for that keyword...but you never know. You should still use it, especially if it's the real focus of your article; just include some of the lower-competition, highly-searched words from the list as well.
To check competition, you can buy software or use the poor man's method: Google allintitle: keyword phrase and/or allinurl: keyword phrase to see how many other webpages are optimized for each phrase. Note title and url competition in two more columns beside the first two for each item on your keyword research spreadsheet. You might also note a plus or minus, a subjective estimate, glancing quickly at the first 10 results that come up in Google to see if they look like good, strong webpages with real content, or whether they're just forum discussions or lousy pages that good content should outrank.
When you're all done, you'll have a list of meaningful keywords, their search popularity, the amount of competition, and a note to yourself about how good that competition is.
Many professional SEOs try to go at this very scientifically, arriving at a "keyword efficiency index" (KEI) with the formula KEI = search popularity ^2 / amount of competition. Obviously, this is a very rough way of doing it: some competition is easy to beat, as you noted above, and a KEI score of 100 is still not great if the number of competing webpages you have to outrank is 5,000+.
So use your judgment. There is always some tension between selecting the words that will help people interested in your topic find it, and selecting the words that express what you mean the best. Ideally, as you ponder this tension, it will help you refine what you are trying to say.
Writing the Keyword Poem
Once you've got one or two main keyword phrases and a list of related terms, it's time for the real poetry to begin. You are writing keyword-based prose, as opposed to rhymed epic, or a sestina, or a grant proposal. This means certain constraints: you need to use those keywords in some (probably not all) key places on your page to help search engines identify your topic, but your primary audience, your human readers, should not find the keywords any more intrusive than the rhyme or meter of a poem.
Key places on the page are: title, url, headers, image file-names, image alt-names, the clickable text of links, the introductory paragraph, and don't forget in the ordinary body text. (It would look fishy to search engines if you use multiple signals to tell them you're trying to write for X, when the meat of the article is only talking about Y). The clickable text in links from other pages to your page can also strengthen your keyword signals.
Use a light touch. Use your main word or phrase where it fits. Keep the related terms in mind, and work them in where they naturally fall in context. At this stage, you are no longer to think about search popularity: your goal is to write well, write for your audience, and use the common language, the shared terms between you and your audience that you discovered earlier. Remember, they are words: like colors in a painting, or sounds in a poem, their job is to convey meaning and communicate with your readers.
In one way, though, be considerate of search engines: Be specific, be concrete, and stay on topic. Repetition may help emphasize your main topic, and may even help your readers stay focused, but be careful not to overdo it.
Be lavish with concrete nouns and sparing of pronouns: search engines don't know what they refer to. Spell out relationships between things, where it makes sense: "William" conveys nothing, but "William and Catherine Middleton" immediately tells a search engine whom and what you're discussing. Don't force language until it sounds stilted, but the more you can use specific words and proper nouns in context with each other, the more you weave a mini web of words that helps search engines -- and people -- place what you're talking about. Just be careful to use lively language to keep your heavy nouns from deadening the page.
As I said above, not all articles can or should be written this way. But if you are writing about a particular topic, product, news item or interest, use poetic keyword optimization to attract the attention of search engines, then reward the attention of readers.
Continuing the Conversation
The initial composition of a webpage is the first draft. It must be polished, and it must address a need, but it shouldn't be static. Install Google Analytics and/or monitor Hubpages' well-hidden keywords tool, so that when guests start arriving, you know what search phrases have bought them to your door. Many novice SEOs use this user data to add commonly-searched terms to their page titles or vocabulary on the page. That can sharpen your page's relevance for those phrases, but it's actually not the most powerful way to utilize the gift you're being given by your visitors: an evolving list of words and phrases they're searching for.
The more important use of this data, which far too many SEO pundits overlook, is that you can improve your content based on what people who are interested in your article want to know. Treat their searches as questions. Did you address their queries? Is there any information you could add which might be useful to others interested in that aspect of your topic? Or perhaps a query suggests a new prompt, a new topic that deserves its own article to address fully! Or, just as important, are search engines sending you significant traffic for words and phrases that are not very pertinent to your topic? Then you need to remove or rephrase them, to make sure search engines are sending you the kind of visitors who will find your page useful, informative, and/or entertaining.
Books I Use on SEO / CRO
Some of this doesn't apply to Hubbers and article marketers who are not in control of site design. Some of the SEO advice is elementary. However, the book is worth its price because of the chapter on the "six persuaders," a discussion of writing approaches that seal the deal with readers, turning them into customers, followers, or consumers of your content.
The Poetry of SEO Beyond Keywords
Keyword optimization is just one of countless ways to get traffic.
There is social promotion on Twitter, Facebook, et alia. There is article marketing and building up a niche. There are infographics, press releases, and yes, backlinking (on which entirely too much emphasis is placed -- my keyword-optimized articles on other sites get plenty of traffic without more backlinks than are supplied by tags and categories.)
Just like the student forcing words to fit rhyme or meter, it's possible to do a half-assed job at any of these forms of promotion. It is also possible to engage in a community like Twitter with enough attentiveness to learn its strengths, weaknesses, and customs. You can follow the rules and gain a following, or spam and run and leave only mild irritation in your wake. Use the rules and limitations of social media as armature not obstacle. Be careful. Be mindful. Contribute to the community; don't just exploit it.
But No One Will Read Your Poetry Unless...
It still has to be good. Google's Panda update and future search engine updates are all moving in the direction of will users be satisfied with this result? User behavior is being monitored to see which pages they like, which pages they actively dislike or find lacking. Recent Google updates, including Panda, are taking into account user behavior, feedback and satisfaction; this feedback will become ever more important as search engines learn to read us more accurately. Nor is excellent writing enough. An article must satisfy a visitor's needs, not just aesthetics. A poorly-written article providing vital, useful content can beat out a beautifully-worded masterpiece. The most successful page of all will be informative, well-written, useful to readers, and optimized to help its target audience find it.