[Updated] 27-Point Checklist: How to Write for Google

Are you writing your SEO copy based on the latest information?

Are you sure?

I originally wrote this SEO copywriting checklist in 2012. My, how things have changed. Today, there’s a new Google algorithm in town (Hummingbird,) and new rules around content optimization. I’ve updated the list to reflect these changes and provide additional information. I’ve also included two additional tips.

As a side note, I would argue that there’s no such thing anymore as “writing for Google.” Yes, there are certain things you should do to make the Google gods happy. However, your most important goal should be writing clear, compelling, standout copy that tells a story. I’m keeping the old headline in the hopes that I can convert some of the “write for Google” people to do things the right way.

Whether you’re an in-house SEO content writer, a DIY business owner or a freelance SEO copywriter, this 27-point checklist will help you write engaging, Google-happy content. Every time.

Items to review before you start writing:

– Do you have enough information about your target reader?

Your copy will be much more powerful if you can picture your target reader. Ask your client or supervisor for a customer/reader persona document outlining your target readers’ specific characteristics. If the client doesn’t have a customer persona document, be prepared to spend at least 30 minutes – 1 hour asking some detailed questions. Here’s more information on customer personas.

– Writing a sales page? Did you interview the client?

It’s important to interview new clients and learn more about their company, their USP and their competition. Not sure what questions to ask to get the copywriting ball rolling? Here’s a list of 31 questions you can start with today.

– Does the topic resonate with your readers?

When you’re blogging, it’s tempting to write about whatever strikes your fancy. The challenge is, what interests you may not interest your readers. If you want to make sure you’re writing must-read content, sites like Quora, LinkedIn, Google Trends and BuzzSumo can help spark some ideas.

– Did you conduct keyphrase research?

Some people mistakenly believe that keyphrase research is no longer necessary. Keyphrase research (and content optimization) is still incredibly important. If you don’t give Google some keyphrase “cues,” your page probably won’t position the way you want.

– What is your per-page keyphrase focus?

Most writers focus on 2-3 keyphrases per page. New to keyword mapping? Check out how easy it is to develop your own per-page keyphrase strategy.

– Did you expand your keyphrase research to include synonyms and close variants?

No longer are writers stuck with using exact match keyphrases in their copy. In today’s world, including synonyms and related words is a good thing. Here’s some more information on close variants (plus some advanced SEO tips.)

Items to review when the page is complete:

– Did you edit your content?

Resist the urge to upload your content as soon as you write it. Put it away and come back to it after a few hours (or even the next day.) Discover why editing your Web writing is so very important.

 – Did you edit it again?

Once is never enough. Review your content at least one more time. It’s amazing what you can find to edit the second (or third) time around!

– Does your content answer your readers’ questions?

Consider what questions your readers may have about your topic and make sure you answer them in your copy. Remember, people aren’t typing in [keyword], [keyword], [keyword]. They’re typically asking Google a question (especially if they’re using voice search.) Writing content that answers your readers’ questions will help it position for question-oriented queries. Here’s more information about “conversational search.”

– Is the “voice” of the page appropriate?

Yes, it’s OK if your copy has a little personality! Here’s more information about working with your page’s tone and feel and how to avoid the “yawn response.”

– Are your sentences too long?

Vary your sentence structure so you have a combination of longer and shorter sentences. If you find your sentences creeping over 30 or so words, it may be time to edit them down.

– Are your paragraphs too long?

Long paragraphs without much white space are hard to read off a computer monitor – and even harder to read on a smartphone. Split up your long paragraphs into shorter ones. Please.

– Are you forcing your reader into a “dead end” page?

“Dead end” pages (pages that don’t link out to related pages) can stop your readers dead in their tracks. Want to avoid this? Read more about “dead end” Web pages.

– Does the content provide the reader valuable information?

Google’s Panda update spanked sites with “thin,” low-quality content that was poorly written. Before you upload your page, ask yourself if the content answers your reader’s questions and is informative. If you find that you’re focusing more on the keyphrase usage than the actual content, rewrite the page.

– Did you use bullet points where appropriate?

If you find yourself writing a list-like sentence, use bullet points instead. Your readers will thank you and the items will be much easier to read.

– Did you use “too many” keyphrases?

Remember, there is no such thing as keyword density. If your content sounds “keyphrase-heavy” and stilted, reduce the keyphrase usage and focus more on your readers’ experience. Learn more about the myth of keyword density. Also, here’s a great article by Ian Lurie that discusses TD-IDF and why keyword stuffing doesn’t work.

– Does your headline include a keyphrase?

Searchers are following the “search scent” from the search engine results page. When they reach the landing page, they are quick-scanning for their search term (or a variation)–so including a keyphrase in your headline is important. Adding your keyphrase to your H1 headline is also an excellent way to reinforce keyphrase relevancy.

– Writing a blog post? Does your headline work for SEO, social and your readers?

Yes, you want your headline to be compelling, but you also want it to be keyphrase rich. Always include your main page keyphrase in your Title and work in other keyphrases if they “fit.” Here’s some great information on how to write headlines that get noticed (and are good for Google.).

– Did you include keyphrase-rich subheadlines?

Subheadlines are an excellent way to visually break up your text, making it easy for readers to quick-scan your benefits and information. Additionally, just like with the H1 headline, adding a keyphrase to your subheadlines can help reinforce keyphrase relevancy. You may not be able to add a keyphrase every time, but make sure you give it a try.

– Is your Title “clickable” and compelling?

Remember that the search engine results page is your first opportunity for conversion. Consider how you can create an enticing Title that “gets the click” over the other search result listings. Remember, you have about 59 characters (with spaces) to work with, so it’s important to write tight. Here are some additional Title-writing tips.

– Does the meta description fit the intent of the page?

Yes, meta descriptions are still important (here’s a great article by Neil Patel that explains why.) And yes, every page should have its own meta description.

– Is the main CTA (call to action) clear–and is it easy to take action?

What action do you want your readers to take? Do you want them to contact you? Is your main goal to entice your reader into making a purchase? Make sure you tell reader what you want them to do and make it easy for them to take action.

– Do you have a secondary CTA (such as a newsletter signup or downloading a white paper?).

Do you want readers to sign up for your newsletter or learn about related products? Consider ways to make the secondary call to action stand out.

– Does the page include too many choices?

It’s important to keep your reader focused on your primary and secondary CTA’s. If your page lists too many choices (for example a large, scrolling page of products) consider eliminating all “unnecessary” choices that don’t support your main calls to action. Too many choices may force your readers into not taking any action at all.

– Writing a sales page? Did you include benefit statements?

People make purchase decisions based on what’s in it for them. What does this mean to you? You need to put the benefits front and center. Make sure that you tell your reader how your product/service will make their lives better and satisfy a need. And for heaven’s sake–don’t bury your benefit statements!

– Do you have vertical-specific testimonials?

Testimonials are fantastic–they offer third-party proof that your product or service is superior. Whenever possible, include vertical-specific testimonials (for instance, a real estate agent testimonial on a real estate landing page.) This will help increase your conversion rates. Learn more about writing sales copy with testimonials.

And finally…the most important question…

– Does your content stand out and truly deserve a top position?

SEO writing is more than shoving keyphrases into content. If you want to be rewarded by Google (and your readers) your content must stand out. That means knowing what your competitors are writing and coming up with a new angle, writing something in-depth and truly educating your readers. Making your site a must-read resource will take time. But the positions (and conversions) are well worth it.

What additional tips would you add to the checklist?

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29 replies
  1. Craig Wright
    Craig Wright says:

    Another useful article, with great info, thanks. However, I’d dispute the 30 word sentences guideline. 30 words is too much. Early 20s should be the maximum in my opinion and never two many sentences of that length together. For optimum readability, something like a paragraph of 16-20, followed by another 16-20 and then a short paragraph. (Obviously that’s a bit contrived, but that sort of structure helps the flow).

    One of the companies I work for has 20 as the absolute maximum in their style guide, but I think it is a little tight in some instances.

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Hey Craig!

      I hear what you’re saying about the sentence length. I actually checked this before I posted, and saw some 30 word sentences flowing just fine (granted, depending on the writer.) At the same time, you’re completely right about not stringing a bunch of ’em together. That would be way too overwhelming.

      One style guide had a 20 words maximum? Wow. Then again, smart writers know how to “write tight,” so….

      Thanks so much!
      🙂

      Reply
  2. Craig Wright
    Craig Wright says:

    I’ve seen 30 word sentences that are fine too. Hell, I’ve written plenty (and some that aren’t fine, but we won’t dwell on those).

    The best thing about the 20 word maximum statement in the style guide is that the guide itself is riddled with long sentences! Physician, heal thyself 🙂

    Reply
  3. Katie
    Katie says:

    Thanks for the refresher. It’s easy to forget these lessons writing copy day-in, day-out. I particularly appreciate you pointing out how difficult it is to read large chunks of text on a mobile (which is where this is all heading I’m told)…

    Reply
  4. charl hoffman
    charl hoffman says:

    Nice article guys, simple to the point and for clients that have a bit of SEO and copy writing understanding this underpins the process quite nicely. Will def forward to clients to read! Main thing I find is client being too lengthy and flowery which in some cases “might” be good for SEO but mostly bores the reader! I like to use the Feature-advantage-benefit sales acronym when explaining to client what and how to read.

    charl

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Ah yes, the flowery client content. 🙂 That’s about the time that I take out my red pen and start editing. I had one (wonderful) client ask me to edit a sales page for her. She wrote 900 words. I knocked it down to a super-tight 450. MUCH better! 🙂

      Thanks for your comment!

      Reply
  5. Irfan
    Irfan says:

    Most of the time I read on others blog that one should write for people and not for search engine. Here I’m reading on to write for Google, interesting.

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Irfan, writing for people (rather than bots) is incredibly important. At the same time, there are certain things you need to do if you want the page to position. Hence the list. 🙂

      Thanks for your comment!

      Reply
  6. Katherine Andes
    Katherine Andes says:

    I agree with everything except for ALWAYS researching the keywords first. For information articles like blog posts, I never research in advance. I write the article then examine the article for potential keywords. I insert those into a keyword tool. Often the tool gives me a better keyword than what I had. Yes, occasionally a post comes out that won’t have a high organic readership, but that’s rare.

    Sometimes for very technical pieces, I first write for understanding. Then I research the keywords.

    It does vary. For a large project, I usually do a lot of keyword research in advance and then I have a keyword bible ready to go for whatever I write. But I find keyword research never really ends … does it?

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Hey, Katherine!

      Thanks for your feedback. Unless you’re a highly experienced SEO copywriter who intimately understands the overarching keyphrase strategy, I would always recommend researching the keyphrases first. Not everyone has the knowledge to examine an article for potential keyphrases – and a “newbie” or intermediate-level copywriter would probably miss some keyphrase opportunities. Plus, you can use the keyphrase data to figure out what to write. 🙂

      You’re right – the keyphrase research never really ends. It’s like the Energizer Bunny of SEO…it keeps going and going and going… 🙂

      Reply
  7. Melissa Breau
    Melissa Breau says:

    Hi Heather,

    Great piece and lots of great tips. However you write:
    “always hyperlink the keyphrase rather than linking words like ‘click here’ or ‘learn more.'”

    And while I agree that for SEO using a keyphrase instead of linking words is important, there was a study recently that showed that despite this, including “Click here” actually increases click throughs on a given link (because it’s a CTA).

    As a result, i try to use both (click here for more on ….) whenever possible.

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Melissa-

      Thanks for your comment. Do you have the link to the study? I would think that you can have the best of both worlds. That is, you can still say “click here” but you hyperlink the actual keyphrase…

      Thanks!
      🙂

      Reply
  8. Nick Stamoulis
    Nick Stamoulis says:

    Writing for Google is important, but what’s even more important is writing for your readers. After all, they are the ones that are going to convert. I recommend not thinking about SEO at first, writing something beneficial, and then going back and optimizing for search by making small tweaks.

    Reply
  9. Ben Lloyd
    Ben Lloyd says:

    Great post Heather – I even evernoted it so I can find it again. 🙂 These days – I find I’m very interested in that secondary call to action and the type of content. For example – social media sharing (like your twitter button on this article). Wholly appropriate for blog posts / articles / resource content as it supports content marketing – but not so much for sales & marketing content. So – I find my copywriting/SEO checklists changing depending on the type of content.

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Wow, Ben. Thank you for the Evernoting! 🙂 You made my evening!

      You’re right about the social media buttons on sales pages. I’ve often wondered, “Um, who is going to share a sales page…really?” I guess it could happen, but it’s certainly not the same thing as sharing a cool blog post or article.

      Thanks! 🙂

      Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Good SEO copywriting has always meant writing for readers – it still is. But people always want to know “how to write for Google.” Hopefully, the checklist emphasizes that “writing for Google” and “writing for readers” is the same thing. 🙂

      Thanks! 🙂

      Reply
  10. James Burke
    James Burke says:

    Great advice. There’s an art to writing effective advertising copy and web copy (which suffers in many image-rich ad campaigns) and must be learned. Try to get hold of this book which I use constantly: The craft of copywriting by Alastair Crompton. Thanks, James Burke

    Reply

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  1. […] is imperative, but what does that entail beyond being a bunch of buzzwords? Heather Lloyd-Martin updates her post from 2012 in the wake of Hummingbird (and Pigeon) and offers this excellent piece of advice up […]

  2. […] copywriting. It’s time to abandon those dirty, manipulative tricks up your sleeve and focus on Google-friendly SEO copywriting strategies that enable you to rank higher in search engine results without upsetting the vigilant […]

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