Why writing SEO-friendly websites doesn’t necessarily suck: Finding the sweet spot between good storytelling and good onsite search relevance

Obama Google Search.jpg

Did you know that a meaty debate on the complexities of search engine optimization is one of former US president Barack Obama’s favorite pastimes? You probably didn’t. That’s because it’s a complete lie.

Despite the fact that most of Barack Obama’s speeches were probably carefully tweaked SEO masterpieces, brimming with the right alert words and studded with emotional triggers when needed, Obama himself was not a web writer.

You and I are. If you come from a fiction background like me, adding words to anything you’ve written simply because people are searching for them is probably one of the most alien concepts you could imagine. Almost as weird as Barack Obama, the SEO fanatic.

But it’s a fact. If you’re writing websites or blog content for other people or companies, your writing needs to be targeted and aware. This doesn’t mean you can’t still go to town as a storyteller. It just means you probably won’t win a Pulitzer for your SEO-friendly content. But you will help your clients build their brands, and stay employed.

If you’re a creative content writer and any of the points I’ve mentioned so far are making your New Yorker-reading ears ring, don’t fear. Here are five pretty simple, not very invasive, things you can do to write branded, SEO-friendly content that won’t horrify your neighborhood literary mag.

1. Do an industry or subject keyword analysis of the region you’re targeting

This will tell you what people are looking for when they search for the services, products or subjects you’re writing about. Handpick the most relevant hits and find a way to integrate those words or phrases into your writing. I guarantee it won’t kill your style or disrupt the flow of your story. It will just make your writing more relevant.

To do this effectively, you’re going to either need to work with an expert or get to learn some tools in Google’s arsenal. Subscription-based apps like Mangools are another option.

2. Give descriptive url slugs that mean something, not just internal references

Url slugs won’t make or break your SEO, but it’s an easy thing for writers to do. So, if you want to sneak in a few more hot words that will help your client get found, instead of writing, say, hackerbrothers.com/meet-the-team, which will help the Hacker Brothers organize their pages in their CMS better, try something like hackerbrothers.com/professional-hackers, which will help potential users find the Hacker Brothers more easily.

3. Write your own SEO page titles and descriptions

If you’re working on a platform like Squarespace, like I do, you have the option of writing your SEO page titles and descriptions yourself. Fill those SEO fields in with keywords based on the url slugs you wrote and what’s onsite. This is the content that will show up in browser search results. Making it as precise as possible will make sure that this valuable virtual real estate doesn’t get crammed with irrelevant placeholder text.

4. Invest in your headlines

The weirdest words draw users to websites and blog titles may be the culprits. Man in the Hole. This was a really popular one for us, and we traced it back to an article I wrote a while back on Kurt Vonnegut’s story shapes. If your clients are getting hits for the wrong stuff, start designing titles that will lead people to the right stuff. A little keyword analysis and a modest budget can go a long way. If you’re having trouble coming up with killer headlines that work for SEO, or you’re not sure where to begin, try Sharethrough.

5. Hack your way out of a single h1 tag

The jury is still out about whether browsers are penalizing websites for pages with multiple h1 tags, but I recently tested a homepage with multiple h1 tags in MozBar and MozBar wasn’t happy. The good news is, if you’re a writer, you don’t have to take that risk. If you like your headlines big or are writing a scrolling homepage that needs more than one eye-grabber, just create a pseudo h1 class to prevent browsers from getting confused. If you know a little CSS, it’s a piece of cake. If you’re working with a designer or developer, just tell them what you need.

For those of you who aren’t working with CSS, see you next week. If you do design websites too, here’s what I mean.

Here’s your h1. This is the size you want.

We turn great ideas into great writing.

Here's your CSS.

@media only screen and (min-width:480px) {h1 {font-size:30px!important}}
@media only screen and (min-width:481px) and (max-width:768px) {h1 {font-size:34px!important}}
@media only screen and (min-width:769px) {h1 {font-size:36px!important}}

Here’s your h2. You don’t want to use this.

We turn great ideas into great writing.

Here’s what you do. Notice that this h2 span class is a duplicate of the h1 class style.

/*h2 span or pseudo h1 class*/
@media only screen and (max-width:480px) {h2 span {font-size:30px!important}}
@media only screen and (min-width:481px) and (max-width:768px) {h2 span {font-size:34px!important}}
@media only screen and (min-width:769px) {h2 span {font-size:36px!important}}
/*h2 span or pseudo h1 class*/

Here’s how it would look in your markdown:

<div><h2><span><strong>We turn great ideas into great stories.</strong></span></h2></div>

Here’s what it looks like on the page:

We turn great ideas into great stories.

The result is a big enough headline that will give you cleaner header tags and the look you're after. It may not be at the top of the list of Google's Best Practices, but it's an SEO hack even Barack Obama would appreciate.