How to Copywrite for Users and Search Engines

It’s a truism that’s oft-repeated in the design world, and in a digital universe of increasingly simple, minimalist, and image-based user interfaces, it’s one that most digital designers could stand to revisit.

The truth is, whether we’re talking about a mobile app or a traditional website, copy is a design element – even if most designers don’t think of it that way. The words on a page affect that page’s usability just as much as button size and layout. Maybe that’s why Fast Company says that writing is design’s new “unicorn skill.”

Copywriting, however, is not as simple as it seems. Writing with clarity and precision is hard – and even worse, most online copy needs to serve multiple audiences. And I’m not just talking about different customer demographics: when it comes to web copy, you’re writing for robots as much as you’re writing for humans.

The best icon is a text label.

– Thomas Byttebier

The Crawlers Are Coming

While users should always be your primary audience, copy is still one of the most fundamental elements of search engine optimization, or SEO. That means that in addition to writing copy that makes sense to website visitors, you’ll need to write copy that makes your website easily intelligible to search engine crawlers like Googlebot. To see why, we need to better understand how search engines go about delivering search results to users.

Googlebot is Google’s web crawling bot, often called a crawler or “spider.” Every search engine has these spiders, and they spend their days endlessly meandering through the Internet, visiting web page after web page and indexing what they find their. When a spider visits a web page, it scans the data on that page – including things like metadata, images and image metadata, flash and other elements, hyperlinks, and finally, the copy on that page. In effect, the spider takes a “picture” of that web page and adds it to the search engine’s repository. Spiders crawl through the internet constantly, visiting page after page to keep the repository as up-to-date as possible. Normally, spiders tend to hit a given web page every 6 weeks or so to check for updates.

When users use a search engine to “search the web,” the truth is that they aren’t searching the web itself: they’re searching that search engine’s repository of indexed web pages. And while search engines use a remarkably complex array assortment of factors to determine the relevancy of a website to a search term and thereby it’s position on the search engine results page (SERP), copy is still one of the most important and fundamental search factors. Without SEO-focused copy, your website will have a hard time ranking for relevant keywords, which will severely limit your traffic and the revenue of your company.

So how do you balance writing copy that works for users while improving your SEO? Here are a few key strategies.

Write for Your Users First

Search engine optimized-copy is important, but ultimately, your visitors, users, and customers should be your primary audience. Always write for humans first and foremost, making sure that the copy reads well and sounds natural before worrying about whether or not it’s optimized for search engines.

At all costs, avoid grey-hat practices like keyword stuffing: adding an unnatural amount of keywords to your copy to try to ‘game’ the system and rank higher in search results. Google administers serious penalties for keyword stuffing and practices like it.

One of the simplest, most effective strategies for making sure your copy serves humans is to read it aloud to yourself. Speaking the words will help you better understand if they flow naturally and catch awkward-sounding patches of copy. Once you have the copy to a place where it feels natural, then go back and sprinkle in keywords where appropriate to improve SEO.

Use Research-Based Keywords

In order to write copy geared towards search engine optimization, you’ll need to know what searches you’re optimizing for – and that means doing keyword research. The first step is to simply come up with a list of relevant keywords and keyword phrases off the top of your head. For this article, we might optimize for the following keywords:

  • Search engine optimization
  • Copywriting
  • SEO copywriting

After coming up with a few keywords, you can use your browser’s auto-suggestion tool to plan even more. In the search bar, try typing in each of your original keywords and see what pops up in the suggestions box:

Copywrite for Users and Search Engines

This tells us that the keywords “seo copywriting definition,” “seo copywriting 2018,” and “seo copywriting basics” would all be worth including in our content. You can use the same exercise with any keyword as a simple, free way to generate more keywords to target. If you’re looking to go more in-depth in your keyword research, though, Google offers a dedicated Keyword Planner tool for this specific purpose, and there are plenty of alternatives from third parties across the Internet.

Write Out Full-Form Questions

One effective SEO copywriting strategy that many people neglect is to include complete, quoted questions in your writing. For example, this post covers copywriting for SEO. People searching for content on this topic will likely ask questions like “How do you write for SEO?” To hit this search term, we could include a sentence like this in the text of the article:

If you’re a website owner, you may be wondering: “How do you write for SEO?” Here are a few simple strategies.

While it may seem relatively basic, if done naturally, this is a simple way to cast a wider net with your search terms and attract traffic from question-based searches. You can also combine this with the previous strategy to generate extra question-based keyword phrases, like this:

Copywrite for Users and Search Engines

Break It Up

For both users and SEO, how you structure your copy matters. Long blocks of text without line breaks or headers are hard on the eyes, and they make it harder for Googlebot to figure out what the page is about. Instead, use H2 and H3 headers to break up the copy and delineate different sections in the text, include bullet-point lists where appropriate, and keep paragraphs relatively short. You want your copy to be “scannable.”

If you want to take this a step further, try writing in short, 1-2 sentence paragraphs, effectively putting a line break after almost every sentence. Like this.

This may run counter to what your 6th grade teacher told you about writing, but the reality is that these ultra-short paragraphs are easier to read on a small phone screen.

That helps optimize your copy for mobile.

And with 40% of all web traffic happening on phone screens, that’s an important thing to keep in mind.

Keep Every Audience in Mind

While getting the hang of writing user-friendly content that’s also optimized for SEO can be tricky, it’s a vital part of creating any successful website. And ultimately, it stems from an even more fundamental concept: designing (and writing copy) for all of your target users.

Writing for SEO is, at its core, a process of user experience optimization. The only difference is that the “user” you’re optimizing for is a search engine crawler instead of a person or demographic. But the process of learning what that target user wants and designing your product to serve those needs is the same.

In the end, you should repeat this same process for every type of user that will visit your site or read your copy. If your website serves seniors, you should write copy in a way that’s easy to read and understand and choose larger, cleaner fonts. If your website serves millennials, you might lean towards a more informal, colloquial tone and include pop culture references to keep things relatable. If your site serves both, you’ll need to find a happy medium that makes both parties happy.

Writing copy for SEO just means including Googlebot as one of your target user demographics – and considering that the crawlers will visit your site continuously over its lifetime, that’s a critical part of the copywriting process.

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  1. Thanks for sharing the article. It will be very helpful for writing new blogs for me.

  2. Nice article,
    I also want to grow traffic, i hope these steps helpfull,
    Thanks for sharing.

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