Note from Bill: This guest blog is from Gena Maselli, a terrific author, one of my WriterCon colleagues—and one of the few people I know who could make this all-important topic easy to understand. She also likes board games, so she’s obviously a good person. Enjoy.
Search Engine Optimization. The words just roll of the tongue, don’t they? SEO is the kind of term that has writers running for their laptops like children running to stockings filled with candy on Christmas morning. Wait—what? That’s not how you feel? You don’t want to do backflips at the thought of learning about SEO? Well, neither did I. But then a remarkable thing happened. My clients got excited about it.
As more of our world is online, the need for writers to learn SEO has increased. For the online writer, learning SEO is nearly as important as learning how to type, use Word or construct a sentence that doesn’t make our college English professor cringe. It is yet one of the most powerful tools in the writer’s toolbox.
In this blog, I want to share what SEO is, why SEO is important for writers and simple tips for incorporating SEO into your writing.
What is Search Engine Optimization?
SEO is a process of making a website more attractive to search engines so you can increase the number of visits to a website. It includes strategies for the design, function and usefulness of a website. It relies on the ability of search engines like Google, Bing, YouTube, About.com, Yahoo and others to match a website to a search. Our goal, as writers, is to write our copy with the greatest likelihood of connecting our pieces to the people who would most benefit from them.
So, for instance, if someone in Billings, Montana, searches for “how do I paint my dog’s nails?” and we write for a company in Long Beach, California, that produces pet-friendly nail polish with how-to instructions, the two can find one another.
Since that search yields more than 3 million results, including webpages, videos and shopping pages, getting our page to rank high in the results takes effort.
It takes SEO.
How Does SEO Relate to Me as a Writer?
SEO is part of our world, but it goes beyond some fictitious client. Here are kinds of writers who can benefit from learning SEO:
Freelance writers who write online articles and/or blog posts
Bloggers who want to bring people to their site
Authors needing to promote their books
Pastors, ministers and speakers looking to introduce new people to their messages
New writers looking to build writing credentials.
It’s not enough to publish a blog or a website and hope that someone stumbles across it. To see how difficult it is to get noticed, take this challenge:
Conduct a search for something related to your writing—your book’s title, your area of expertise, your church’s name, your favorite genre, anything. Notice how many results return. With more than 1.3 billion websites and 152 million blogs in existence, we must do all we can to deliver ours to the right people. It’s our job, as writers, to draw people to our sites, or to the sites of our clients, and make it clear that what we have to offer is valuable to them. Search Engine Optimization is how to make that happen.
Locate Powerful Keywords
Keywords are at the heart of SEO. These are words and phrases that online users search for in their browser. Search engines want to find the best results for their users, so they scan online content. In the last few years, search engines have become much more intuitive. We no longer have to conduct complicated searches on keyword generators to find specific keywords and decipher those searches to come up with a winning keyword. The fact that this has become a simpler process is a good thing—a very good thing. In the immortal words of Kimberly “Sweet Brown” Wilkins, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”
With a single search, you can now zero in on the keywords that relate to you blog, article or page. For example, if you’re writing an article on “buying gifts for your husband,” you could begin typing that phrase into Google and see what related searches come up.
The list of related searches could help you outline your article because now you know what people are searching for. Or you could decide to write a series of articles, one on each of those related searches. That one search may have helped fill your blog schedule for the next month.
Another place to find related searches is at the bottom of your search results. After hitting enter on the above search, scroll to the bottom of the page and find this list of nuggets suggested to you by Google.
Once again, you’re presented with ideas for the direction of this article as well as future ones. Even if you have already written a piece, you can use this to edit it in a more targeted, relevant direction.
Write a Clear Title
Make your title as clear as possible and when you post it on your website, be sure to list it as H1 (Heading 1). In WordPress, the “Title” of your article is automatically H1. Your natural inclination may be to pique your readers’ interest with a mysterious title, but search engines need things spelled out. If I were titling my article on buying gifts for husbands, I’d want to steer away from something like “The Joy of the Season” or “Buying for the Impossible.” Instead, I’d want to stick to titles like “Buying a Gift Your Husband Will Love” or “Top 10 Gifts for Husbands at Christmas.” Those titles may not be as charming, but search engines—and readers—will know exactly what to expect.
Include Subheads in Your Posts
If you’re a magazine writer, you probably consider subheads old news, but for book writers who are used to working with chapters, this may be new. The bottom line is that long prose isn’t Web-friendly. So instead, break up long prose with subheads and format them as H2 (Heading 2). Think of them as mini-titles throughout your piece. Like titles, they aren’t vague, throw-away lines only meant to visually break up copy. Search engines use them to better understand what your blog, article or webpage is about.
Using the above gift-buying example, I might decide to write a section on buying hubby gifts for anniversaries. It would be better to state plainly what the section is—”Anniversary Gifts for Your Husband”—and avoid unclear titles like “Make Him Swoon.”
Keep Your Sections and Paragraphs Short
I’ve already touched on trying to avoid long sections of copy. This goes for sections and paragraphs too. Optimal section length is 300 words. If you have a section that goes over 300 words, you may want to break it up into two sections. Paragraphs need to be on the shorter side too. You may break these guidelines occasionally, but if it is a common occurrence, it’s time to rethink it.
Vary Your Sentences
Search engines use programs to judge whether your blog, article or website is written well. There’s no one behind a desk making those decisions, so the artificial intelligence scans for content that meets certain criteria. It looks for sentences that vary in length and structure. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever use long sentences or three sentences in a row that begin with the same words (Vive la répétition!), but you want this to be the exception instead of the rule.
Include Images and Videos in Your Post
If you are writing a post for your own blog or page for your website, include images and videos as well as alternate text (alt text) for each throughout your piece. This alternate text will appear when the image or video is unable to load. Include a featured image at the top of your page too. This not only makes an appealing graphic in social shares, but it also increases your appeal to search engines.
Include Inbound and Outbound links
The more benefits you provide in your blog post, article or webpage the better. Inbound and outbound links help with that.
Inbound links are links that take people to other pages on your site. If you reference a blog that you wrote before, you could create an inbound link to that blog. Or maybe you link to your About section or your sales page, if you’re selling your book.
Outbound links direct people to pages outside of yours. Now, you may be wondering why you would direct someone away from your site. First, links are all about adding value to your readers, and to the Internet at large. By providing outbound links, you are providing more information and, therefore, more value. Second, when you create a link, you have the option of telling the link to open in a new, separate window, so readers won’t automatically leave your site. This allows you to add value and protect the time people spend on your page.
What kind of outbound links could you include? Let’s go back to our above example about buying gifts for husbands. If I quoted a study that found married couples who exchange gifts are happier, I could link to the study or the organization. Or if I recommend a particular gift item, I could link to that item on Amazon, maybe even with an affiliate link. And if I recommend an outdoor adventure, I could link to a company that provides that adventure.
SEO Baby Steps
If you are reading this list and thinking, There’s so much to remember!—take heart! The first few times you implement SEO, you’ll experience all the frustrations and fumbles of learning something new, but with practice, it’ll become second nature.
SEO is not a perfect science, but with these tips, you’ll make good strides. And for those with WordPress sites, the free Yoast SEO plugin looks at your post and suggests these and other tips for making each post stronger. It even rates your post for readability and SEO.
So give Search Engine Optimization a try. Pull up an old blog post, article or webpage and evaluate it. Look for ways you can strengthen its SEO appeal, and remember that every change, every improvement you make is a step in the right direction!