Search-engine-optimized copy is a dubious thing.
Yes, we all want visibility. Yes, we want lower bounce rates. Yes, we want website conversions, leads, and newsletter subscribers.
But at what cost?
This passage from a Search Engine Land article on writing for SEO, meant to be helpful, outlines the problem for creative writers.
“Writing incredible, optimized content requires some understanding of how search engines work and what they are looking for. The writer should always start out focusing on the visitor. Meet their needs first and foremost. But they can’t neglect the preferences of the search engines. The content should be created to serve both simultaneously.”
Some writing-for-web rules have sheer sensical value. Bold headlines — absolutely. Maximum paragraph length — that’s fine. Focus keywords — no brainer.
But then, it gets nit-picky, à la these paraphrased, data-backed content writing rules from my favorite Yoast SEO plug-in:
- Avoid words with more than three syllables
- Keep sentences under 20 words
- Write a minimum of 300 words per page
- Add one image per 75–100 words
- Aim for keyword density above “1%”
- Use the focus keyword at the beginning of the title
- Don’t use the same focus keyword for more than one web page
- Keep your title between 35 and 65 characters
- Repeat your focus keyword in your subheadings
- Use a high percentage of transition words
These are beginner SEO and readability rules. Advanced SEO experts can spit out a formula for exactly which words to use where, when, and in what quantity, until your article is packaged to perfection, marked with the green check of the Yoast plug-in, void of any anthropomorphic fluff.
Of course, there is a method to this madness, as these rules make content accessible and digestible — a copywriter’s goal. But with so much structure, we lead toward a web where every idea is presented in the same way with the same words, and inventiveness in writing is kaput.
Mind you, this critique is from someone who studied predictive data analytics. I love data and rules. Rules are safe: as long as we input X variables, we can expect Y outcomes. As long as we follow these SEO rules, we can expect to rank in the top 10 search results.
But rules diminish the appeal of risk-taking, and risk-taking is vital to art. According to the Yoast bible, Hemingway would have never made it as a blogger.
Creative thinkers will work around these writing statutes to devise clever ways to demonstrate originality and still rank high on Google, yet the rules nonetheless govern how we express ourselves through the greatest communication medium ever.
So as writers, we must work harder to preserve our creative liberties while riding the SEO wave to make sure people can find our content. How can you present your focus keyword in a way no one else has? What 20 words will you use to create a melodic, unforgettable statement? SEO, in the end, warrants for more creativity in writing than ever before — so the challenge, and opportunity, is ours.