Ellen has been an online writer for over twelve years. Her articles focus on everything from gardening to engineering.
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.
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 to analyze the text on our page, interpreting which words and phrases were most likely to be significant: the keywords.
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, MOZ) 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, 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
The Poetry of SEO Beyond Keywords
Keyword optimization is just one of countless ways to get traffic.
There is social promotion on Twitter, Facebook, etc. 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 an armature, not an 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.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
poetryman6969 on February 05, 2015:
An interesting take on the care and use of keywords.
Malds Menzon from Manila, Philippines on January 20, 2013:
Wow, this is an amazing hub. i don't know why I only found it now lol.
Ellen (author) from California on October 01, 2012:
Great! Poets know the power of metaphors; we just don't always recognize the edge that gives us in online writing, the ability to find words and analogies that our readers readily understand. :)
Linda Cassini from Las Vegas NV on September 30, 2012:
Being a Poetess I appreciated the explanation and the choice of..thanks :) for helping
Ellen (author) from California on July 29, 2012:
Thakn you very much! i hope it's useful.
Audrey Selig from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on July 28, 2012:
Best article on SEO I ever read. Congrats on your 100 score today. You made this subject sound so easy with an explanation beyond words. You were right about your fascination with SEO. It intrigues me, but I know so little. Your writing voice is excellent along with organizational skills. I will reread this article and maybe take notes and hope to capitalize on your knowledge. Best of luck in your endeavors. I will be reading some of your other hubs.
Ellen (author) from California on May 27, 2012:
Gracious, thanks for the morning ego boost! :) As an academic, I was mediocre, but as someone who's been puttering on the web for 20+ years, I've got a little experience to share. Thanks!
Chris Hugh on May 26, 2012:
Why are you so awesome? I keep reading excellent articles here and thinking, "I better follow this person," and looking up and seeing your picture!
I love this line: You would not turn in a proposal on rocket science in limerick form and expect to get a good peer review.
Thanks for the great hub.
traslochimilano from USA on May 23, 2012:
Very informative and helpful hub for all seo's. Thanks for sharing it and this is also help to me because presently working in a seo firm.
Horatio Plot from Bedfordshire, England. on May 03, 2012:
Ah, the poetry and the trickery. How will the Internet evolve? Will it become the true instrument of beauty and stripped back information we so desire? Or a large wobbling mass of crap that one day will either explode or simply disappear up its own arsehole?
I fear the latter GG, but your hub brings me hope.
God bless AdSense, that brilliant schizophrenic child of capitalism.
Ellen (author) from California on May 03, 2012:
I'm allergic to keyword stuffing myself -- it's not poetry, and it doesn't read well, nor has it worked in many years -- but I'm surprised Google would put a particular percentage on what qualifies as keyword stuffing. It can be less than 4% if someone puts the keyword at the start of each subheader. Do you have a source on Google that actually listed a particular density? I'd use it at a hammer against those who still *promote* a particular keyword density -- I refuse to play that game -- but it just doesn't sound like Google to give an arbitrary number (since everyone would immediately make pointless tools helping them to create exactly 3.9% stuffage; that seems to be the way some minds work).
Brian Slater from England on May 03, 2012:
I missed this little gem when it came out so must apologise. I would agree with what's been said here, which is in iself is quite remarkable after all the talk since Panda and Penguin. On new sites like Wizzley you don't need tags, there's no place to add them. Which supports what's been said. The only thing I would add is about keyword stuffing. Google now looks unfavourably at anything over 4% which inc. photo's, links and videos. Other than that this is one of the best hubs I've seen written on this topic by a hubber. Voted up :)
buckleupdorothy from Istanbul, Turkey on April 12, 2012:
Fantastic, and so helpful. This article does a lot to tear down the false dichotomy between, as you say, "Team Writers" and "Team SEO". Voted up and shared - and I only wish we could still bookmark within site!
Melis Ann from Mom On A Health Hunt on March 31, 2012:
I appreciate the information here on a strategy to use keywords. I want to focus on content and usefulness of my information which means maximizing my understanding of keywords and minimizing wasted time doing things that may or may not help such as backlinking. I find that the backlinks come over time anyway and are perfectly placed for the target audience. Thanks for your poetic insight on keywords!
hazelwood4 from Owensboro, Kentucky on March 28, 2012:
I really enjoyed your article on Search Engine Optimization. As the search engines become smarter, we as online writers must learn to write smarter. Thank you so much for sharing! I am giving this a thumbs up, and I am also sharing this one with my followers too.
Ellen (author) from California on March 22, 2012:
I'm sorry, I'm having a little trouble understanding your question. What you're looking for are:
1) words and terms that fit your topic well (MOST important)
2) search phrases for which there are LOTS of searches (check the search popularity using the adwords tool) but NOT too much competition (check by Googling that phrase and seeing how many other good websites rank for them... use the allinurl and allintitle tests I explained above).
Lots of searches is great, as LONG as there's not a ton of pages competing with yours for page 1 of Google. On the other hand, low competition -- getting to page 1 of Google -- is worthless for a keyword phrase that not many people are searching for.
jiro from India on March 19, 2012:
how i select keywords from adwords,I think the low number suited to my subject is good? before reading this hub I always selecting the max number of general subjects
Kate Swanson from Sydney on January 22, 2012:
I don't have time to study this right now but I will be coming back to read it more thoroughly. Gold dust for online writers!
dkm27 on December 23, 2011:
You are an excellent teacher. Your hub has provided valuable guidance. Thank you.
wanzulfikri from Malaysia on November 10, 2011:
You've been a great help especially with such a poetic style. Thanks for the hub
2uesday on October 07, 2011:
Useful article, interesting to read. Since I started writing here I have been reading posts and articles about SEO, some I have understood others -less so.
You write about this topic here and in the forums in a way I can understand and I can also relate what you are saying to the way I write. Thank you.
Ellen (author) from California on October 02, 2011:
Well, sir, I am humbly impressed. I understand all that you've done, but my own experience is very modest compared to yours: I've been dabbling my toes in the wading end of the pool(s) where you have been swimming.
My main professional work was on the Perseus Project working on the same sorts of things you were but at a more informal level, bug hunting and telling the programmers, "This is a great tool, but you need to change it thus and so to make it intuitive for Jane Q. User." Cleaning up navigation, page clutter and interface were hobby horses, but I wasn't doing it systematically. I moved to the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, but struggled; editing and proofreading reams of ancient Greek is not the best job for a right-brained character like myself. I wound up being shuttled off to teach instead, which I enjoyed.
After switching to mythological studies and starting over in a second graduate program, my languages have atrophied due to lack of use. I've forgotten most of French and German, and alas, my Greek is slipping away as well. I learned Latin in middle school, so it's fixed. (Mon-Khmer? That sounds fascinating!)
Your life experiences are rich, fascinating, and impressive. The web is an interesting adventure, but I hope my generation and the ones after me will get out and explore the real world as you have.
Howard S. from Dallas, Texas, and Asia on October 02, 2011:
Our interests may be more similar than I first realized. I mistook your specialization in classics to mean literature rather than ancient languages.
Something similar happens to me all the time. When I tell people I'm a linguist, they ask, "How many languages do you speak?" There are polyglots, and then there are language technicians. I may have studied dozens of languages briefly, but am only fluent in two besides English.
My most recent stint was in Corporate Communications, where, besides writing publicity pieces, I approved content and navigation of a couple dozen websites, especially any new ones. I know little of (modern) code, but can thoroughly poke every button in almost any order that a user might try.
My previous assignment was with the Language Software Development Department, where I was the only non-programmer on a team of a couple dozen developing a tool to compile a dictionary, analyze texts, etc. in any previously unstudied language. I helped with GUI design, algorithm heuristics, and lots of bug-chasing.
Latin, oh yeah. Back when I went to high school, that was the only foreign language offered, and two years were required. I paid little attention and got poor grades, but cognates and spelling patterns stick, as do the concepts of declensions and conjugations. Similarly with two years of college German and a semester each of Greek, French, and a Mon-Khmer language. Although I bombed out of an undergraduate physics major because I couldn't handle the math, I discovered in grad school that applied linguistics was science without the math.
Ellen (author) from California on October 02, 2011:
Howard: thank you very much! My "search engine keywords vs. tags" is a spiel I've given often, because it applies to many sites besides Hubpages.You're right, I should boil it down to a hub. I can rewrite it, however; no point in deleting content.
There's actually a good reason for the classics SEO connection, and I'm not the only one who does both. Michael Martinez of SEO-theory was a classics major, for example. Latin and Greek taught us to pay attention to word usage, language structure, textual and lexical analysis. Inflected endings taught us that parts of words may be functional rather than semantic. Oratory taught us that words may used as tools, not just as carriers of meaning. All that word geekery put in a good position to notice the non-semantic uses of words on the web.
More importantly, from the 70s through the 90s, there was a tremendous push to digitize ancient texts, because the field of classics reinvented itself with the ability to do word searches and statistical analysis of word patterns. The tedious job of digitizing, editing and proofreading texts for accuracy fell to graduate students. Many classics majors from that time period are therefore extremely familiar with how word search tools work, their features and limitations. Some of our projects converted easily to web format, so classics e-text repositories (Perseus, TLG) were some of the first websites.
Howard S. from Dallas, Texas, and Asia on September 30, 2011:
I think the Greek could interest me if it was here, but the geek interests me more at this point. Geeks are normally neither verbose nor articulate. I would never have thought a classics major to have such an accurate grasp of SEO. What drew my attention was the forum thread on tags. Everyone else confused it with keywords until you straightened them out magnificently. It was long, but actually well-structured and concise. Please make it into a hub. (To avoid a dup, you'll need to ask the HP staff to delete the forum post.) You rarely post, but when you do, I want to read it.
techmagnate11 from Delhi on September 18, 2011:
Beautiful hub!selecting right keywords is very important in the seo,this has great impact on the site.
Bible Studies from PA on May 12, 2011:
Thank you very much for coming out of your hubernation to write this. You write beautifully, and taught me more in on hub about SEO than the the many other places or courses I tried.
I will have to come back and re-read this until it really sinks in. You are right. Without the SEO, the people will not find you. Without the good writing the people will not stay or come back.
Please keep writing.
Krys W from Abertawe, Cymru on May 07, 2011:
Love this! Your analogies with poetry suddenly made this whole topic immensely more palatable for me. Well, palatable in terms of theory; I'll probably still make a mess of the practice. I will bookmark this hub and hope some of what it recommends penetrates into my consciousness (or perhaps, better still, my unconscious).