Old Dogs, New Tricks, and SEO

I received my university education in journalism, public relations, and English during Ronald Reagan’s first term as President, so it’s safe to say that everything relating to the Internet — and even to computers — was new to me at some point after I started my professional writing career.

Did I always embrace these new things with enthusiasm? Not precisely. Not when I was in my early twenties and staring at the first IBM® PC I’d ever seen like it was the devil incarnate.

And not a couple of years ago, when I was invited to meet with a consultant who’d been retained to teach JP Enterprises employees all about search engine optimization (SEO). I was nervous, mainly because I had only the vaguest notion of what writing for SEO meant.

“Am I going to have to write about Justin Bieber?” I asked her right off. “Because I don’t know anything about him, and I really don’t feel comfortable trying to trick people.”

She assured me that SEO didn’t mean I had to write about Justin Bieber, and it absolutely wasn’t about deceiving people, as I had feared. Tricking people is the last thing you want to do for SEO. If you lure someone to a website by promising them the latest gossip on Justin Bieber, and then they get there to find you’re trying to sell them flow meters instead, they’ll leave immediately, of course. That gives you a high bounce rate, which hurts your SEO ranking.

Further, she allayed my next great fear, which was that SEO required bad writing.

Remember when you were in elementary school, and your teacher made you write sentences using your spelling words? The whole sentence would be written in the normal vocabulary of a ten-year-old kid, except for that one word, so you’d end up with something like, “Mom said to quit playing in the dirt with Billy and come wash up for dinner expeditiously.”  (You always had to underline the word, as if it didn’t already stick out like a sore thumb on its own.)

With SEO, I imagined keywords working the same way (except for the underlining, of course), so you’d end up stringing together a bunch of awful, clunky sentences that just didn’t flow and really didn’t say much of substance.  That wasn’t true, either.

You do need to use a few well-chosen keywords in strategic locations, but they should be a natural byproduct of your subject matter, so you can work them in gracefully and transparently. It helps me to think of them as a breadcrumb trail that enables people who want and need the information I’m providing to find it among all the other information that’s out there on the web.

To my great relief, I learned that copywriting for SEO requires, first and foremost, the same thing I’ve been striving to deliver since before I ever touched my first computer — good writing that sells products, services, or ideas.

Whew. I can do that and enjoy it. Just like I learned to love that first IBM PC once I worked up the nerve to try it.

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