3 ways SEO can ruin content

Last December, Lee Odden from Online Marketing Blog wrote a post called,“Content Strategy and the Dirty Lie About SEO.” At the end of the post, he posed the question – the question that’s been debated ever since “writing for search engines” has existed:

Do you think SEO ruins content?

I had to think about that, as my first reaction is not just “No” but “Hell no – SEO doesn’t ruin the content.”‘

But the more that I thought about it, the more I thought, “Well, sometimes it does…under very certain circumstances.” Here’s when that is:

  • When the content was written by an inexperienced SEO copywriter. Most “keyphrase-stuffed” content I read comes from folks who think that SEO copywriting really is a bunch of keywords separated by commas. Their clients tell them that they need a 500 word article, and the keyword needs to be in the copy at least 30 times…so that’s exactly what the writer provides. In this case, the writer doesn’t know enough to educate the client about best practices – and they end up writing keyphrase-stuffed drivel. Writing generated from content mills often falls into this category.
  • When the article/blog post/FAQ was only written for search engines, and the site owner/SEO doesn’t care if anyone really reads the article. I’ll see this technique used by companies who want to position for a competitive term, so they write tightly-focused articles around one keyphrase. Unlike the article written by an inexperienced SEO copywriter that attempts to make sense, these articles are stuffed with grammatical errors and are darn near incoherant (sometimes this is because the site owner had non-English speakers create the copy.) You’ve seen these types of articles all over the Web…but you’ve probably never read one. Why would you? There’s nothing of substance to read.
  • When the company hosting the article decides to bold every keyword, include a long list of “related keywords” at the end of every post. The various (and random) bold and italicized keywords renders the page impossible to read.

So, what’s perhaps more accurate to say is: Smart SEO doesn’t ruin good content. It enhances it, in fact – making it easier to be found in search engines and shared via social media. If you’ve mastered the art of online writing for both engines and people, you have a very valuable skill set.

On the flip side, yes, stupid SEO will ruin content. And your conversions, too. As my father used to say, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” – and repeating a keyword incessantly will not suddenly transform the page into “quality content.”

It reminds me of what some folks say about sales copy being too “sales-y.” There’s a way to include a call-to-action that gently leads someone to the next action step. And there’s a (wrong) way to do it that beats them over the head with hyped language, bold and italics (Hmm. now that I think about it, what IS it about bolded and italicized text?).

What do you think? Is SEO the death of good writing?

14 replies
  1. Marjorie S.
    Marjorie S. says:

    “Hell no!” is exactly my response too! I think this kind of sentiment only demonstrates how little SEO copywriting is understood – even by the internet marketing community. Yes, the kind of “bad SEO” that ruins content exists, but it’s not best practice – creating engaging, quality content (that just happens to have optimized headlines and an undetectable keyword density) is best practice. People don’t think of the kind of content they find on theoatmeal.com to be SEO – because they’re too busy enjoying themselves to notice how well the site is optimized. As it should be.

    I’m anxious for the internet marketing community to fully recognize the difference between blackhat and whitehat SEO – so us whitehat SEO copywriters can finally get our props!

    As always, thanks for championing the SEO copywriter’s cause, Heather!!

    • Heather
      Heather says:

      @Marjorie – you’re welcome! You’re exactly right – I’ve discussed before how the SEO community needs to step and define *good* content (rather than allowing dreadful keyphrase-stuffed drivel.) At the same time, copywriters need to educate themselves on best practices, too – if we want to help our clients, we need to know what we’re doing. 🙂

      Many reports say that 2011 is the year of content marketing. I’d like to say that it’s also the year of the SEO copywriter. Let the education begin! 🙂

  2. Melanie Phung
    Melanie Phung says:

    I think the examples you cite above do happen, but I consider those to be instances of really bad copywriting, not search engine optimization.

    The definition of “optimize” is to make something as good as it possibly can be. If your efforts made something suckier than it was before, you did not optimize it.

    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Melanie, hi!

      I agree. The examples do show really bad copywriting. At the same time, many firms charge a lot of money for “SEO optimized copy” that sounds exactly like that. In their opinion, keyphrase stuffing is optimizing it – it’s making it as “good as it can be” for the search engines (and typically unreadable…) And sadly, their clients don’t know the difference – they think it has to sound that way for the search engines. 🙁

  3. Matthew Pattinson
    Matthew Pattinson says:

    Is SEO the death of good writing is similar to asking does the Pope like biscuits? The answer is clearly no – well let’s make that a hell no!

    SEO copywriting is a technical form of writing and, in a sense, it’s also an art. As you rightly say, inexperienced SEO copywriters are like the ice-hockey player who forget his skates – that guy was all over the place.

    Obviously if you keyword stuff, you risk taking the reader out of the process as well as upsetting Mr Google. The technical side, then, is getting the keyword research right in the first place. The artsy bit takes the form of seamlessly parachuting allotted phrases into your web copy.

    In fact, it’s my belief that rigorous keyword research not only ensures good phrases bubble to the surface, but also keywords / phrases capable of enhancing brand, of alerting the reader to the fact that they are in the right place.

    Really great post thanks – hop on over to my blog for a different take on SEO and all things copywriting


    I’ll be back – Matt

  4. Amy Teeple
    Amy Teeple says:

    What makes me sad (and a bit mad) is the fact that there are “SEO firms” out there who still sell “SEO web pages” that focus not on the client’s USP (unique selling proposition) but on stuffing keywords into boring copy that could be any business.

  5. Colleen Schamm
    Colleen Schamm says:

    Great article, I think it’s really despicable when I come across websites with garbage content stuffed with keywords.

    Recently I came across one that takes the take with tens of pages for all keyword variations including spelling errors! Looks as though they took their Google Adwords keywords and wrote pages for each.

    Is there any way I can report websites to Google who make use of unethical SEO such as fake/orphan SEO pages and hidden text?

  6. Darren Katz
    Darren Katz says:

    Great article! I do agree with the second point: The article/blog post/FAQ was only written for search engines, and the site owner/SEO doesn’t care if anyone really reads the article. That is a common misunderstanding among new beginners. We should remember that content attracts visitors.

  7. Ros Phillips
    Ros Phillips says:

    My pet peeve is the page with the list of terms at the bottom such as we sell…. and then lists all the products or places for which they want to rank.

    I find that while onsite accurate and quality writing is vital for the reader, it also servers many purposes for SEO including attracting quality backlinks…

  8. craig wright
    craig wright says:

    Looking back at this now, it seems clear that good writing will kill SEO content. I’m seeing improvements in results by doing less SEO – just the key term in headings and sub headings if appropriate and once or twice in the text. Everything else written natural, using synonyms. Links out to any relevant content/resources.


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