According to Internet Live Stats, Google processes over 60,000 searches per second. That means its sending tons traffic to websites all around the world. As a result, it’s unsurprising that 61% of marketers say improving search engine optimization is their top marketing priority.
It also means the competition is fierce. To make matters worse, it’s often tough to know whether your current tactics are effective.
One thing is for sure, though: successful SEO starts with effective content.
So, does that mean if you write great stuff, your pages and blog posts will rank?
Not exactly. That content needs to be written to appeal to both search engines and humans, so Google (and others) can send traffic to the best possible sources. And this means understanding both search engine optimization and copywriting in equal measure.
At this point, you probably have some questions. Fortunately, you’re about to find answers. Read on to find the answers and master SEO copywriting, once and for all.
Table of Contents:
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Recommended SEO and Copywriting Tools
Here are some tools and gadgets to keep at your disposal:
- Grammarly: This is a life-saving spelling and grammar-checking tool.
- Hemingway: Improve your writing and make your content easier to understand.
- Yoast: If you use WordPress, this plugin is essential for editing title tags and meta descriptions. Plus, it packs tons of additional power, too.
- Ahrefs: This is the SEO tool of choice at CoSchedule for keyword research, rank tracking, and more.
- Can I Rank: Analyze content and keywords to understand exactly what your copy needs to do, in order to rank.
- Spotibo SERP Preview Checker: See what your title tags and meta descriptions will look like in search results.
What Is SEO Copywriting, Exactly?
In simplest terms, it’s the practice of writing content that aligns content with search queries. This involves writing copy that connects content with search intent and solves your audience's problems. Ultimately, that's what powers the top-performing content on Google.
Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it isn’t quite that easy.
Sometimes, incorporating keywords can mean rephrasing your wording (even if you'd prefer another choice of words). Or, you might even feel tempted to give into spammy old-school tactics like keyword stuffing (cramming keywords everywhere possible—a quick way to turn off readers and get slapped with a penalty from Google).
What’s an aspiring SEO copywriting wizard to do? Keep these points in mind:
- Your goal is not simply to rank in search engines. Rankings are important. They drive traffic, which help drive conversions, after all. They’re not your end goal, though.
- Your goal is to connect the dots between your audience’s problems and the solutions your content provides. Ensuring your content ranks is a means to this end. That means understanding the search intent behind targeted keywords and creating stuff that delivers an “aha!” moment for your reader. That’s what’s going to lead to more conversions and sales.
- Put your audience first. It’s blatantly obvious when marketers don’t do this, and the results are never as good as catering to your reader’s needs first.
Why Should Writers Pay Attention to Search Engines, Anyway?
Your business needs new customers to keep the lights on. Search engines are one of the best ways to attract them.
Now, you may have heard that SEO is unnecessary because Google has gotten better at understanding content without using keywords. It's true that search engines are better at understanding topics and context without heavy-handed optimization than they once were. However, they still need help understanding what your content is about, and getting this right is key to maximizing organic search traffic.
That’s where your SEO copywriting skills come into play. By understanding how to write for humans and optimize for search engines, you can make sure your content ranks for the right search terms to reach the right audience. Do it well, and you’ll drive tons of high-converting traffic to your content and bring in more customers.
How Does SEO Work?
It's useful to have a working knowledge of SEO before moving forward. Unfortunately, well-meaning marketers often make this more confusing than it needs to be, causing writers to overthink what they're being asked to do. This post will attempt to make the essentials easily digestible.
In their legendary SEO beginner's guide, software provider Moz says:
Search engines have two major functions: crawling and building an index, and providing search users with a ranked list of the websites they've determined are the most relevant.
Understanding Links and Their Impact on SEO
The way search engines build indexes relies on links. Links between pages help the search engines understand the relationships between sites across the Web. To quote Moz once again:
Imagine the World Wide Web as a network of stops in a big city subway system. Each stop is a unique document (usually a web page, but sometimes a PDF, JPG, or other file). The search engines need a way to “crawl” the entire city and find all the stops along the way, so they use the best path available—links.
How do Google (and other search engines) understand what's on each stop? That part relies on the content of each web page, or other document or file in its index. Webmasters might link content that is related on their own sites, or link out to relevant content on other sites. This creates the necessary pathways search engine bots need to crawl through the web and understand how the web is constructed.
In order to create content people want to link to, and that search engines can understand, it needs to be relevant to topics people search for. It also needs to be well-written, structured in a way that's easy to read, and include on-page elements that tell search engines, "This content is relevant to this topic."
It's okay if this doesn't quite make sense yet. Give it time, and it'll start to click.
Understanding How On-Page Factors Influence SEO
When it comes to SEO, it's important to understand the big picture. There are tons of different ranking factors that can impact your performance. This infographic from Backlinko illustrates some of the most important elements a copywriter or content creator should know:
Copywriting 101: Get a Grip on the Basics
Copywriting is a timeless art, whether you're concerned with SEO or not. Without a strong foundation in fundamental sales writing techniques, your efforts will struggle. This section will walk through basic techniques for effective copywriting, from audience research to formulas you can follow for success.
What Is Copywriting?
Copywriting all about writing that converts readers into customers. This video from Kopywriting Kourse offers a succinct explanation:
Start By Understanding Your Audience
If your copy is going to stick, you need to know exactly who you’re writing for. With some simple audience research (and maybe a persona or two on hand), you can make targeting your message to the right customer much easier. The best copy addresses a problem, at the intersection of your product's purpose and audience's needs. This forms your "content core."
Next, Understand Your Customer's Problems and Pain Points
Your product or service helps solve a problem. Your copy needs to communicate what makes your product the best option. To do this, you need to have a clear understanding of your target customers’ pain points. Here are a few places to start:
- Talk to your sales team. They interact with customers directly and have great insight.
- Ask customers on social media. They'll tell you what they think. Good, or bad.
- Lean on customer and audience surveys. This is another way to get direct feedback.
Then, Consider Developing Some Basic Customer Personas
You may not have the time or resources to build personas. But, if you can, they're helpful for understanding your audience.
Personas are like character descriptions of customers. At a minimum, a persona should tell you a few basic things:
- Who is your target consumer? Be specific.
- What are their interests and concerns? This could include things outside your industry.
- What are their primary pain points? You need to know what they need help with before your content can provide useful answers.
This is a (very) short list of everything a good persona should tell you. For a more detailed guide on developing user personas, check out this post here.
Know How the Marketing Funnel Works
Marketing funnels map intent to different stages of the purchasing process. They typically include at least three stages:
- Top of Funnel (TOFU): At this stage, customers are unaware of your brand or product.
- Middle of the Funnel (MOFU): The customer knows they need a product or solution. However, they may or may not be considering your brand.
- Bottom of the Funnel: Now, the customer is ready to make a purchase.
Some marketing funnel visualizations add more stages. Here is an example:
As a copywriter, it's important to understand which stage you're targeting. A lot of content written for SEO purposes targets the top of the funnel. However, you may also need to write copy targeting the bottom of the funnel, too. This could include writing landing pages or product descriptions.
Understand Basic Copywriting Formulas
Even when you’re taking search into consideration, the basics principles of the craft still apply. Use these simple formulas to craft content that connects with your audience and motivates your desired action.
PAS (Problem / Agitate / Solve)
This classic formula has been kicking around for decades. Here’s how it works:
- Identify a problem. Since you spent time researching your audience, you should know common problems they face.
- Agitate anxiety around that problem. What makes this problem particularly pressing?
- Offer a solution. How can your product or service make your audience’s life better?
Let’s say you’re selling rain repellant auto-glass coatings. Here’s how this formula breaks down:
- Problem: Driving in rain can be difficult when your car’s windshield doesn’t deflect moisture.
- Agitation: This problem is made even worse when driving through storms at night.
- Solution: Spraying coating on your windshield can decrease your chances of getting in a wreck due to poor visibility.
AIDA (Attention / Interest / Desire / Action)
This formula follows four phases:
- Capture your reader’s attention. This often starts with writing headlines and title tags people can’t help but click.
- Stoke interest. Follow through on your headline with interesting information that keeps them reading through to your call-to-action.
- Inspire desire. Show your reader how life could be better with your product or service.
- Drive action. Roll out your call-to-action and tell them how they can learn more or make a purchase.
Using our auto-glass coating example from before, let's create a hypothetical example of this formula in action:
- Attention: You've never seen through a windshield this clear (even on the darkest, stormiest, nights).
- Interest: It's made possible with a secret solution no one else has.
- Desire: And it can be yours for one low price at your nearest retailer.
This isn't a fantastic example, but you understand how it works.
The Four Cs (Clear / Concise / Compelling / Credible)
This formula aims to achieve everything authoritative content should be. For that reason, it’s perfect for crafting search-optimized content that convert.
- Clear. Make your point plain as day.
- Concise. Cut anything from your content that doesn’t directly help your reader.
- Compelling. Make it interesting. Work in stats and other data points that are accurate but hard to believe.
- Credible. Back up your claims with reputable sources.
Let's go back to our auto-glass coating example one more time:
- Clear: Nothing maintains windshield visibility like this auto-glass coating.
- Concise: How? With a patented tri-chemical compound.
- Compelling: Nothing else cleans windshields better ...
- Credible: ... and it's backed by a five-star review in Motor Trend.
Again, this isn't a wildly creative example. But, you can see how this formula's individual components work.
Getting Started With SEO: Keyword Research
Keywords are your guiding light for SEO copywriting success. They offer insight into what your audience needs from your content and which problems they’re looking to solve. So, how do you find which keywords your content should target?
First, identify topics your audience is interested in. If you completed the customer research steps in the previous section, you should have some ideas around general topical areas.
- Adwords Keyword Planner: Sure, it’s more of a PPC tool than an SEO one. It’s also free and still provides valuable keyword insights to incorporate into your strategy.
- Moz Keyword Explorer: If you have a paid Moz account, you’re probably familiar with its built-in Keyword Explorer tool. It’s robust and feature-rich, providing tons of information around keyword volume, difficulty, related terms, and more.
- Ahrefs Keywords Explorer: This option from Ahrefs is similar to the Moz tool above. One cool feature it adds is the ability to identify the parent topic of a given keyword. Pretty cool. Again, this is a paid-only tool.
- LSI Graph: This free web-based tool finds terms related to a core keyword.
- Ubersuggest: This classic tool rounds up autocomplete results for keywords, helping you turn one keyword into tons of potential ideas.
The way these tools work on a fundamental level is simple: you enter a keyword, and it either provides you with relevant metrics, related ideas, or both.
For example, a company that makes electric cars may want their homepage to rank for "electric cars." So, they could use Ahrefs to see if people search for this keyword:
It turns out lots of people search for this term, which isn't surprising. But, what does all this information mean?
- Keyword Difficulty: This measures how difficult it is to rank on a keyword. The higher the number, the more challenging it will be.
- Search Volume: This is the estimated number of times the keyword gets searched in Google.
- Parent Topic: This is the broader topic this keyword falls under (it turns out "electric cars" is the parent). Sometimes, keywords are actually sub-topics of a parent topic.
- Traffic Potential: This is how much traffic a site could potentially get from this keyword. It takes total search volume, and the number of searches that result in a click, into account.
Different tools offer different metrics you can analyze. No matter which tool you’re using though, difficulty and volume are key. The most valuable keywords show high volume and low difficulty. They’re rare, but worth considering targeting when you do uncover them.
Understanding Search Intent
It isn’t enough to find keywords you can rank for and move on. You also need to understand what people are really looking for when they’re searching for a particular term. This is especially true for search terms that are similar in spelling or phrasing, or words with multiple meanings.
Let’s take the search term “football scores” for example. Even though I’m in the United States, here’s what I see:
Now, most of the world calls soccer “football.” However, here in the US, it's more likely I wanted American football scores from the NFL. If I were in Canada, I might have wanted scores from the CFL, too. Someone in Australia might have been looking for Australian Rules Football updates. In Ireland, a searcher could want Gaelic football scores.
That’s a lot of different possibilities for one keyword phrase (and a lot of different types of football).
There are a few reasons why I probably got the results I did:
- There was a major soccer (or football) tournament happening. Since Google processes searches for relevancy, it made a guess that’s what I was looking for.
- The NFL is out of season. But, maybe I wanted to find historical scores from season’s past. I’m a sponge for useless football trivia.
- It wasn't a specific enough search query. If I wanted NFL scores, I could have adjusted my search to be more narrowly targeted.
The takeaway here is you need to know exactly what your audience is looking for. There are no room for assumptions here. If your selected keyword is off-target, your content will be, too.
Segmenting And Mapping Keywords By User Intent
So, how can you better understand search intent?
First, understand that keywords typically fall into three different categories:
- Navigational: Someone is trying to find a particular website.
- Informational: Someone is trying to gather information on a topic.
- Transactional: Someone is looking to buy a product or service.
Segmenting keywords into each bucket is easy enough. Odds are, you’ll likely focus on the second two categories (informational and transactional).
Now, it’s important to understand where in the sales funnel each of these types of keywords aligns with. Here’s another look at what a typical marketing funnel looks like:
How Can You Tell Exactly What People Are Looking For?
Once you have a keyword selected, it’s time to figure out exactly what people want when they search that specific term.
Start with a simple Google search and review the results. Then, ask yourself a couple questions:
- Are there any common themes in the SERPs? If every result appears to cover a similar topic, that’s a sign the search intent is clear.
- Do the search results appear mixed? Or, if results look like a mixed bag of different specific topics, it could be that search engines can’t quite determine exactly what someone might want with that given phrase. In this case, it might be better to choose a more specific term.
Then, ask whether your given keyword is navigational, informational, or transactional. You can determine this by whether the term is intended to provide a basis for research or to actually get the credit card out and make a purchase.
Understand Secondary Keywords and How to Target an Entire Topic
Understanding secondary keywords is a powerful skill for any SEO copywriter. If your parent topic is your primary keyword, then secondary keywords are related terms that should be included in your content. Here are a few easy ways to find these terms:
- Use a high-powered keyword research tool like Moz or Ahrefs Keyword Explorer. These platforms make it easy to compile lists of related terms.
- Check out related searches in Google. Google (and Bing) often displays related searches at the bottom of search results. This can give you ideas for other content you can create, or terms to include in your piece.
- Use LSI Graph. This aforementioned tool makes it easy to spin off tons of LSI terms from one seed term. Just visit the website, enter a keyword, and let ‘er rip.
Or, you can use the new LSI Graph WordPress plugin (if you’re using WordPress for your CMS).
Put It All Together: How to Write SEO-Optimized Content
“Only after I’ve published do I actually think about tweaking it so search engines can understand my post better. I like to write for humans first and search engines second.”
This piece of advice came from the founder of an SEO tool, no less. So, what does that tell you? When it comes to SEO copywriting, people are your priority.
On-Page Keyword Placement
Once upon a time, SEOs would jam keywords wherever possible. This routinely resulted in terrible copy that ranked well because search engines were less effective at filtering out crap.
Fortunately, things have long since changed.
Generally speaking, you need to think people first and search engines second if you want to succeed. But, it’s still Search engines need some guidance to understand what your content is about. So, strategic keyword placement is still an important part of any search-optimized content strategy, and that isn’t likely to change in the immediate future.
Let’s dig into the where and why of on-page keyword placement.
- URL: The slug should include your primary keyword phrase.
- H1: The headline should be in an H1 tag and should include your primary keyword phrase.
- H2 and H3 subheadings: These are great places to include secondary and related keyword phrases (if and where appropriate).
- Introduction: If your keyword truly is the topic of your content, it shouldn’t be hard to reference it somewhere in your introduction.
- Throughout your content: Odds are, your primary keyword (and related phrases) are going to show up naturally throughout your content as you write. If not, consider rereading your content after you’ve finished a draft to make sure it’s present.
- Image file name: Include the primary keyword in one image file name.
Write an Optimized Headline
Headlines are extremely important for any copywriter. Advertising visionary David Ogilvy once famously said:
“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”
The CoSchedule Headline Analyzer is a free tool for optimizing headlines before you publish. Plus, it's also built into CoSchedule:
When writing headlines for search engine optimization purposes, remember the following:
- Include your primary keyword. It doesn't need to be an exact match. But, your headline should be closely relevant to your core keyword.
- Place the headline in an H1 tag. This post will explain what this means later on. Make sure your CMS uses only one H1 tag per page.
- Incorporate an action verb and a benefit. That's headline writing 101.
Look at this headline example from the Moz Blog. Dominic wrote this post about "technical SEO problems." Therefore, he included this phrase in the headline, sending a strong signal to search engines about this content's topic.
Insert Your Primary Keyword in the Webpage URL
Search engines use keywords in page URLs to help them understand its content. Follow these guidelines:
- Write clean URLs: Keep them punchy and concise.
- Use - and not _ :
- Incorporate your keyword phrase: Again, it doesn't necessarily need to be an exact match. However, it should be close.
Here is the URL from the previous Moz Blog example:
Notice how it includes the primary keyword. Plus, it also includes the term "checklist," which will help this page rank for searchers looking for one to solve this problem.
Write Strong Title Tags and Meta Descriptions
Your primary keyword should always be in your title tag and meta description. If you’re unfamiliar with what these are, they’re the blue links and informational snippets you see in search engine results:
Search engines give the most weight to keywords placed closest to the left. But, make sure your title tags are easy for people to read. This should be your priority.
While meta descriptions aren’t used to determine page ranking, they encourage users to click. Since your keyword is what users are looking for, including it in your meta description reinforces the relevance of your content.
To make sure both look good in search results, follow these character counts:
- Title Tags: 70 characters or fewer.
- Meta Descriptions: 156 characters max.
You can test your title tags and meta descriptions before publishing using the Spotibo Google Search Results Preview Tool:
Nail Your Introduction
It's important to write great introductions that hook readers. But, did you know it's also crucial to include keywords and phrases in your intro, too? Make sure your primary keyword, or a close variation, is included somewhere within the first few hundred words of text. This should be easy to do naturally.
Once again, take a look at the example from the Moz Blog:
The primary keyword is included in the second paragraph. The author also included "checklist" in the third paragraph. This clearly communicates what the page is about to both readers and search engines.
Incorporate Secondary Keywords Into Your Subheadings
HTML uses six levels of header tags to structure content. Including keywords in subheads sends the message that they're important. Here is what they look like in the WordPress editor:
Subheads should target secondary points about your topic. The example post from Moz uses an H2 tag here:
This achieves two goals:
- It tells the search engine this section is important. People on this post want the checklist.
- Readers can easily tell this is the checklist they're looking for. Rather than searching through the content to find it, this subhead makes it obvious this is where it's at.
Infusing Secondary Keywords Into Your Copy
While we touched on this topic briefly before, now it’s time to actually apply it to your writing. For a brief recap on why this is important, consider the following two points:
- Search engines have gotten better at connecting different words that mean the same thing. For example, a piece of content about “red sneakers” might also rank for “red tennis shoes”. That’s because Google (or Bing or Yahoo) can understand that “sneakers” and “tennis shoes” mean nearly the same thing.
- Search engines reward content that targets an entire topic, rather than just one keyword. When someone enters a keyword phrase, the search engine’s job is to return results that answer the query thoroughly. This leads to content that answers a question completely and comprehensively outperforming content that's thin.
Your content needs to include not only one targeted primary keyword, but other terms and information related to the core topic your content is about.
Go back to the Moz Blog example. It uses terms that are related to "technical SEO problems" from start to finish. Look at this paragraph:
"Invalid HTML" is a technical SEO problem, right? By touching on tons of different examples like this, the author sends the message that this is a comprehensive piece of content, that addresses a broad topic in deep detail.
Include Links to Other Pages on Your Site
This post previously explained the importance of links. That includes links to your page from other sites, and links between pages on your own domain. These help search engines understand which pages are most important.
If you link to a page more frequently, it sends the message that its a useful page. However, be careful not to overdo it. Include links when they're helpful for readers.
Look at this example from Musicians Friend. The article is all about Fender Telecaster guitars, so its links to a page where shoppers can find and buy this model:
Include Links to Useful Resources On Other Sites
Links to quality sources show that your content is well-researched. They also help readers by directing them toward other relevant content. It also shows search engines that you're associated with strong sites that people want to visit.
Here is some example text from a post on the Raven Tools blog:
Since this post is about building a checklist for a new website launch, it links to content that helps readers get this job done. Note the blue text link that goes to an official support doc from Google:
That's certainly a quality source, and it helps the reader accomplish their goal. This should always be your aim.
How to Measure SEO Success
You've now put in tons of work. How do you know if it has been worth it? The answer: invest in a quality SEO platform that can track performance.
What Should You Measure?
Here are some metrics to monitor:
- Rankings: Well-written content, with proper keyword targeting, should rank well.
- Traffic: How many readers is your content attracting?
- Conversions: Are readers taking your desired action?
- Backlinks: If your content is good enough, other sites should link to it.
How Should You Measure These Performance Indicators?
You will need the right tools to measure success. Here are some recommended options:
- Ahrefs: This is CoSchedule's preferred tool. You can measure rankings, traffic, backlinks, and more.
- Moz: May be the most popular option on the market. It's similar to Ahrefs.
- Google Analytics: Indispensable for measuring site traffic and conversions.
What to Do When Your Content Fails
If you put in tons of work and do everything right, you should succeed.
What happens if you don't, though?
Start diagnosing the issue. Then, correct your course of action.
Check Your Site Speed
People don't like waiting for pages to load. So, Google rewards pages that load more quickly. To check your site speed, use Pingdom's webspeed tester. It's a free tool that detects how fast a web page loads:
Show your results to a web developer. Then, ask them to work on improving your site speed.
Google Page Speed Insights is another tool you can use to provide detailed recommendations on where your site can be improved:
Compress Images With WP Smush
If you use WordPress, the plugin WP Smush can help compress images. This can help pages load faster, since images are a common culprit behind slow loading times.
Rewrite Your Calls to Action
If your page is getting lots of traffic, but conversions are low, your calls-to-action could need work. Follow this guide and make them more compelling.
Make Sure Your Page Matches the Keyword Search Intent
It's also possible that lots of people are finding your page ... only to learn it's not what they thought it was. Remember the example about how many different kinds of football exist in the world? If someone is searching for a word that means multiple things, it's important that your content makes it clear exactly what the page is about. Yoast created an excellent guide that explains how search intent works.
You are not churning out content for the sake of ranking on specific keywords. Rather, the keywords you choose should be relevant to your business, and the content you create should be relevant to the needs of the person using those keywords. This point cannot be stressed enough.
Never Resort to Keyword Stuffing
It’s almost hard to believe this still needs to be discussed in 2017. For the uninitiated though, consider this a warning: don’t try to fool search engines by unnaturally stuffing full of keywords.
Keyword stuffing involves awkwardly and repeatedly cramming a specific keyword phrase into your text. Here’s an example of what it might look like:
Dave’s Shoe Shop is the best shoe store in Dallas, Texas. If you’re shopping for shoes in Dallas or Fort Worth, Dave’s is the footwear outlet for you. No one carries more casual or athletic footwear in the region.
In this hypothetical example, it’s obvious the writer is targeting shoe shoppers in the Dallas area. So, they shoved terms related to “shoes” and “Dallas” as many different ways as they could into three sentences. This kind of content doesn’t rank well, though. Worse, it certainly isn’t compelling anyone to buy shoes from poor old Dave.
Now Start Writing Better Search-Optimized Copy
The information in this post is applicable to almost any kind of content you might write. Whether you’re writing product copy for an ecommerce site or search-optimized blog posts to generate leads, you’re now equipped with the knowledge you need to write copy that’s the easy to find and drives conversions.
This post was originally published on Aug. 10, 2017. It was updated with new information on July 11, 2018.