SEO copywriting is dead. Long live SEO content marketing

crown-pictureI’ve been reading the latest “Is SEO copywriting dead” debate by Glenn Murray and Brian Clark. Considering that I’ve been talking about SEO copywriting for over 11 years – and I’m considered by some as the pioneer of SEO copywriting – reading the headline “Is SEO copywriting dead” is a little like hearing that your baby is ugly.  My first response was not just “No,” but “Hell no.” SEO copywriting is alive and well.

But then I got to thinking. You know what? I’m going to agree with them. Maybe, as it’s currently defined, SEO copywriting should be dead. And here’s why.

SEO copywriting “techniques” – as they are commonly understood today – represent a bastardized version of copywriting that’s not good for customers, not good for users and serves up pure schlock.  I am tired of seeing top-Tweeted posts that say you should “include your keyword at least 15 times in your copy,” or “put all the keywords at the top of the page so the search engines can see them.”  I am beyond miffed when I hear prospects say, “I want you to write a bunch of pages for the search engines. I don’t want people to actually read them.” The amount of misinformation out there is enormous. Sadly, most people never talk about the second half of the SEO copywriting equation – the half that’s even more important than keywords. And that’s writing compelling, interesting and persuasive content designed to communicate with your customers.

SEO copywriting was never – ever – about keyword density.  It was never just about, as Brian Clark calls it ” Inserting targeted key words in certain places (like titles), and in frequencies and densities designed to satisfy a particular search engine algorithm.”

It’s always been about conversion. It’s always been about communicating with your customer. It’s always been around good, quality content. Jill Whalen and I wrote about it in the RankWrite newsletter (which Jill spun into the High Rankings Advisor) back in 1999.

What’s sad is that quite a few people refused to listen. Instead, they focused on shoving keywords by the handfuls into the copy. And as a result, to many people, SEO copywriting became a low-value skill set. Bob Bly talks about how one SEO copywriting ad reaches a new low for the copywriting profession.  And you know what? He’s right.  Talented, smart, awesome copywriters are asking me how they can compete against “SEO copywriters” charging $10 a page.  These are copywriters that get paid over $1,500 a page in print media.  But these same folks seem overpriced in the Web market – even though their writing is proven to bring in thousands more dollars than what their clients paid. That’s how undervalued quality SEO copywriting skills are.

What’s sad is that people are accustomed to keyword-stuffed, overoptimized copy as “normal” SEO copywriting. They don’t know that good copywriting is seamless and benefit-driven. That savvy SEO copywriting, in the brilliant words of Lisa Barone, is supposed to entice, entertain, engage and educate. Instead, they take their $10/page copy, upload it, and figure that’s the best they can get. They don’t like it, but they don’t want to change it for fear that they’ll lose their search engine rankings. Unfortunately, people have become victims to their own mediocrity. But I’m sorry. If you pay $10/page and expect brilliance, you deserve what you get.

Don’t get me wrong – there are are clients, SEO firms and SEO copywriters who “get it.” I read Lisa Barone’s writing and adore every word. Karon Thackston has done an excellent job writing copy and educating the community. Jill Whalen has always said that good SEO means good content. I applaud not only their willingness to debunk SEO copywriting myths, but also their talents. And there are a host of other SEO copywriters just like them.

But then I read SEO copywriting articles like one I saw today that read – and I am not making this up – “The copy should be written in simple language so that everyone can easily understand and get the focus of the write-up without putting too much brain.”

And at the end of the day, if  the main perception of SEO copywriting is that it’s more about the algorithm than the customer, well, I have to wonder if the term “SEO copywriting” is really, truly accurate anymore.

And I’m thinking, no. No, it’s not. SEO copywriting was never supposed to be this. Perhaps it’s time to let this bastardized version of direct response copywriting die…and reinvent it into something else.

So, please, let me put the term “SEO copywriting” out of its misery. You’ve come a long way, baby.

Instead, why don’t we, as marketing professionals, embrace the term “SEO content marketing.” The term “content marketing” implies an ongoing process – not a one-off Web page written for high rankings. “Content marketing” implies that there is a strategy behind the process. And it’s also more encompassing. “Copywriting” often elicited thoughts of “sales-oriented writing” – while “content marketing” could mean blog posts, articles, press releases – even Twitter posts.

It’s about time that people see SEO content marketing for what it is – a proven way to communicate with your customers that just happens to gain top search engine rankings. It’s more than a $10 blog post or an optimized page. It’s a well thought-out SEO and customer communication strategy paired with some kick ass writing.

SEO copywriting is dead. Long live SEO content marketing.

It’s about time.

41 replies
  1. Dean Rodgers
    Dean Rodgers says:

    Preach on, sister. I’m reminded of two sayings from the tattoo world:

    1) Good tattoos are not cheap and cheap tattoos are not good

    2) Everyone deserves the tattoo they get

    The first is self-explanatory. The second simply says that those who take the time to figure out what they want, where they want it and who should put it there usually wind up with the killer ink.

    Clients that truly value their brand will choose great writers to craft the copy for their sites — and that copy will have the appropriate SEO value. Those that “offshore” something as important as web copy will look like the cheapskate also-ran competitors that they probably are.

    Everyone deserves the SEO copywriting they get.

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Wonderfully said, Dean. Thank you! I’ve never understood why clients would put their brand at risk for low-value writing. Yes, everyone does deserve the SEO copywriting they get. :)

      Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      And thank YOU, Dan. As one of the “first-generation” SEO experts, you’ve certainly seen the evolution (and, some may say, the devolution) of SEO copywriting – and you know what it was always supposed to be. Thanks for your comment and your support.

      Reply
  2. bob tripathi
    bob tripathi says:

    Heather, Good content is always at the core and good copywriting makes the content better. The so called $10 seo writers have diluted this art and it has gone the link building way. I think folks like can make a difference by helping people realize the difference and bring some sanity. After all, it is not about keyword stuffing.

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Bob, you are so right. It’s not about keyword stuffing, or writing bad, linkbait content. But darn, it’s hard to educate and bring sanity. After all, in this time of tight budgets, it’s scary how many companies think, “There’s no WAY I’d pay $X/page.” They aren’t thinking of ROI. They aren’t thinking of branding – or more accurately, how bad content hurts their brand. They are thinking of a budgetary bottom line. And in the case of SEO copywriting, you get what you pay for….

      Reply
  3. Kevin Alvarez
    Kevin Alvarez says:

    Brilliant!

    I have been having this internal debate for sometime. Who cares if a page is ranked #1 in Google and get’s 1000 visits a day if the copy sucks and is never read? The goal is to inspire action, right? There is only one thing the $10/page “copywriters” have ever inspired me to do – NOT hire them!

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Exactly! It’s so weird how companies get into this mindset of “If we only pay X, we’ll make SO MUCH MORE MONEY!” When, in reality, their keyword-stuffed copy is actually hurting them. I adore people like you who value good content and will defend why conversion-oriented SEO copywriting is important. Thank you!

      Reply
  4. Karon Thackston
    Karon Thackston says:

    You go girl! I had my pom poms out cheering you as I read. I often wonder if too much damage has been done to the reputation of SEO copywriting for it to recover under its current name. Perhaps it is time for a little rebranding :)

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Hello! Thanks for the pom poms! I know that you’ve been fighting the SEO copywriting misconceptions out there just as much as I have, and it’s tiring. Too many people are focusing on the wrong things – and have been for a long time.

      ::Sigh::

      So great to hear from you! Thank you!

      Reply
  5. Glenn Murray
    Glenn Murray says:

    Hi Heather. Nice post! And thanks for citing mine!

    I like the idea of retiring the NAME “SEO copywriting”, but I’m not sure “SEO content marketing” is really any better. It still focuses too much on the SEO. It’s the “copywriting” part of “SEO copywriting” that’s valuable, and the “SEO” part that’s all but redundant. I’m gonna go out on a limb a bit and suggest we call it something really obscure – like “copywriting”… 😉

    Let’s leave the SEO to the brilliant geeks who do the competition analysis, keyword research, link bait strategy, social media marketing, coding, page theming, link building, and trial-and-error signal testing. People like David Harry, Bill Slawski, Rand and his team, CJ Jenkins, Lucas Ng, Dan Thies, and co.

    PS. On Twitter the other day, we were discussing a ScriptLance job the other day, paying a whopping $1 per 500 word article. I’ll race you to that one…!

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Hey, Glenn-

      First, no fair on finding the $1 per 500 word article gig before me! Darn it. It sounds like such a good opportunity, too. :)

      To your point, I agree that writers should focus on the “copywriting” part more than “SEO.” At the same time, the best SEO content marketers (ooh, using that term is getting easier) are also pretty skilled SEO’s themselves. For instance, keyword research is often part of SEO copywriting duties – or at least, in conjunction with the SEO. After all, the SEO is focused on the back end – but the SEO content marketer is looking at how the words flow within the copy. Most times, those two goals dovetail. Other times, as I’m sure you’ve experienced personally, the SEO provides keyphrases that just won’t work.

      Additionally, what you call “link bait strategy” I would call “content marketing strategy.” After all, keyphrase research typically uncovers a host of “research/consideration” keywords reaching people at an earlier phase of the buy cycle. A smart SEO content marketer will see these opportunities – not the SEO. And, when written well, that kind of content drives some fantastic links.

      Additionally, a SEO content strategy is also part of social media marketing…and I’ve often worked with clients on the IT side to help them create page templates/dynamically generated Titles that are good for the content. It all overlaps. It’s all related. Where one ends, the other begins.

      The thing with just using “copywriting” – and I’m echoing a point made by Lisa Barone – is not everyone knows how to seamlessly work keyphrases into the content. They don’t know that what works for print won’t work for online (at least, it typically won’t get rankings.) Their writing isn’t literal enough. Case in point: catalog companies that don’t alter their catalog copy for the Web. I think it’s important to nod to the importance that keyphrases do play and to differentiate it from other forms of copywriting – hence the SEO part. But at the end of the day, you’re right. It’s all about the content.

      Thanks again for your post. And hey, I’ll keep you posted about the $1 per 500 word article “opportunities” that come my way. 😉

      Reply
  6. Louise Desmarais
    Louise Desmarais says:

    Thank you for this Heather. I just seethe when I see SEO companies offering SEO writing for peanuts, and even worse, organizations posting jobs for SEO writers that want them for a song. These companies have done a little research on the web, and figure that’s what our expertise is worth. SEO copywriting is a nurtured skill. I’ve invested considerable time and money into what I do, and I expect to be recognized for that by being paid a fair dollar.

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      EXACTLY!!!!!

      The entire industry is suffering from the “SEO copywriting is just keywords” mentality. Clients don’t know any better, and good writers are being forced out of the online marketplace and back into print – where (and I feel SO odd typing this) their skills are actually recognized.

      Makes me want to start some sort of SEO copywriting organization. :) Who’s with me?

      Reply
  7. Michelle O'Hagan
    Michelle O'Hagan says:

    On the money.

    SEO “content marketing” implies a strategic, holistic process for writing and distributing the most compelling, engaging content (perhaps not even copy at all!). If this means we have to spend some time educating clients and prospects, so be it.

    Reply
  8. Keith Wiegold
    Keith Wiegold says:

    Heather! I loved reading this — your passion, your creativity, your voice…all the things a search engine simply cannot recognize but that a potential customer can. I like to remind myself that SEO is simply an element of SEM, which is comprised of a wider variety of activities meant to market by playing the game of spiders…and by their ‘rules.’ The very best and most pure way of optimizing search results is as you’ve done: great content marketing. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      That would be nice…and would (hopefully) help prevent badly-written, keyphrase-stuffed content from getting top positions.

      Thanks for the link – great article!

      Reply
  9. Roy Hunter
    Roy Hunter says:

    I read the article and I followed a couple links, the first link was to Karon Thackstons site… I like the before and after examples. What is funny is the before example would actually rank higher in search results for that consultants services. Karon’s after example would have him ranking well in the laundry hamper results. That is a very poor example of web copywriting at best. There are 3 types of copywriting for marketing, there is ad copy, there is web copy, and there is seo copy. Each are very distinct types of writing. Web copy is in the middle. What makes a powerful web writer? Someone that can get an audience emotionally involved (without wanting to ball your eyes out)using words they can understand (which is why you have to dumb down your copy) and create a structure within that writing(keyword placement and relationships) that search engines will reward you for by indexing you high within search results.

    Another myth I would like to bust, Google does not use the time spent on a page as a factor in determining relevancy of a page by how long someone spends on it because if you do not have Google’s little code hidden in your HTML they can not track your activity. I have some websites that do not have a tracking code and Google has no information on those sites other than links to them. I see so much tail chasing in the SEO world it is astonishing. If Google starts using time spent on a page and you want sticky content, then make it X rated and you will rank #1.

    People give Google way to much credit. If you look at search results they are FILLED with useless content. If they had this figured out, that content would not be there. Why is it there? It is there because of keywords and links. If links were not so effective you would not have all the “hey great article” posts in blogs. All these comments are is people dropping links for the sake of SEO…

    SEO copywriting is not dead. It is essential to being found in results and that is what it purpose is. If you want to profit from being found you need something more. That is when you mix a little ad copy in with your seo copy and hopefully you come up with the right mix that leads to conversions.

    You need to remember, a lot of people just scan websites, they dont read them. Karon’s example in the after column makes me think, ok get to the point… I dont have time for that over-done emotional fluff.

    I am on the site because of keywords. You have 20 seconds to “tell” me what I want to hear and why I need to buy your product or I am gone.

    How are you going to do that? you have 50 words to engage me or I am out of here. Karon’s page did not work, I did not buy a book.

    You need to be really good at writing SEO copy to be found… and you need to be really good at mixing ad copy with it… If you provide a service be it lawn mowing or copy writing there is only so much you can say that people want to hear. I hate to say it, but content does NOT sell, it bores people that have better things to do. Blogs were invented to add content to web sites so you have a way of competing for search placement. That is why you do it, and that is why people reply to it.

    When it comes to selling…

    When a woman sees an awesome pair of shoes on a web page all she cares about is how much they cost, are they on sale, and wouldn’t they look cute with this outfit… They don’t care if they are made out of pigs, cows, snakes or spandex. They look great, she thinks they will look great on her, boom you have a sale.

    A guy wants to hear in 50 words or less that this new wrench will not only fix everything on the car, it also has a flashlight, a radio, a gps, and you can find it in the dark. Boom you have a sale.

    You are not going to have a sale if you can not be found in search results. Save the art of writing for novels, get people to your site with SEO copywriting, toss in a little ad copy to get the sale. Save the content for a blog so you can pad your site with links to help your placement in search results.

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Wow, what a great post. Thank you!

      I totally agree about all the “tail chasing” with SEO – and that’s been around since SEO has been in existence. It’s like people who want to lose weight will sometimes look at everything *outside* of diet and exercise to make it happen. The “fad diet chasing” seems more worthwhile and sexier than doing what we know works…

      Adding keywords to content makes a huge difference – you’re right. But to your point, the writing has to be good to grab someone’s attention. It’s not enough to write “women’s shoes, women’s shoes, women’s shoes.” You have to *sell* those shoes. And that “sales” aspect – the art of communicating with the customer – is unfortunately absent on many sites.

      Thanks again for your post! It’s nice to hear that someone else believes that SEO copywriting is not dead – and writing *good* copy is important.

      Reply
  10. Michael
    Michael says:

    woohooo! amen sister! This is still true today. Less “keyword stuffing” and More “Content Stuffing” ! In the long run, what’s good for the end customer will be good for the Search Engines too.

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Yes, exactly! Fortunately, it seems like more and more folks are starting to “get it.” I gave a talk at SMXWest, and the audience seemed to really understand the value of good content – not just content for content’s sake. Great news! :)

      Thanks for your post, Michael! :)

      Reply
  11. Celina Tinsley
    Celina Tinsley says:

    I am one of those $10/page copywriters you are referring to…and I hate it. I am trying to freelance on my own and establish myself so that I can be one of those individuals who makes $1500 a page. So I do research, educate myself and, until I can master the craft, continue earing a paltry $.02 a word even though I try to write good content and seamlessly blend the keyword density require of me. (BTW, the site said writers ranked at level 2 should move up within about 2 months. I’ve been on the site for 4 months and have not yet been promoted…)

    I despise selling my services so cheaply and know that doing so reduces the value of the good quality work of professionals…but what can you do when you are just starting out? I look forward to earning what I am worth, but right now I just stuff keywords and look to the future. Good post.

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Thanks, Celina!

      I feel your pain. Starting out is hard work – and you’re often working for little or no pay. That’s hard. :(

      You may consider trying to find a copywriting “niche” and marketing yourself to end clients. For instance, a small business may have slightly more money to spend – and could provide ongoing work. From there, you can gather testimonials and clips and target larger customers. It takes some time to get there, but you will get there – the key is figuring out “your perfect client” and how to target them. :)

      Thanks!

      Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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  5. […] SEO Copywriting | SEO copywriting is dead. Long live SEO content marketing I’ve been reading the latest “Is SEO copywriting dead” debate by Glenn Murray and Brian Clark. Considering that I’ve been talking about SEO copywriting for over 11 years – and I’m considered by some as the pioneer of SEO copywriting – reading the headline “Is SEO copywriting dead” is a little like hearing that your baby is ugly. My first response was not just “No,” but “Hell no.” SEO copywriting is alive and well. […]

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