3 Ways SEO Can Ruin Content

Do you think keyphrase usage destroys well-written content?

Well, you’re right. Up to a point.

Way back in 2011, Lee Odden wrote “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” started:

Do you think SEO ruins content?

My first reaction was, “Of course not. Good SEO writing is good writing — period.”

I still feel the same way.

But…the haters have a point.

Six years later, there’s still a bunch of SEO writing B.S. floating around:

  • Focus on one keyphrase per page, and repeat it at least X times.
  • Focus on X keyword density (why won’t keyword density die?)
  • Include a keyword every X words.
  • Exact-match your keyphrase at least X times in your copy.

Maybe you believe some of this B.S., too (it’s OK. This is a judgement-free zone.)

This B.S. is why some SEO copy is horrible.  Is it any wonder why some folks think SEO ruins everything?

So, here’s the real deal:

Yes, SEO can completely decimate content — if you’re doing it wrong.

Here’s how:

When the content is written/optimized by someone who has no idea what they’re doing

Most keyphrase-stuffed content I read comes from folks operating on incorrect information.

They do what their clients tell them (for instance, focus on one keyphrase per page) without knowing it’s wrong. These writers don’t know there’s a better way, so they keep doing the same (incorrect) things. Over and over and over.

The result is stuffed, stilted-sounding content that has no conversion flow. The page doesn’t position. The page doesn’t convert. It’s sad.


Sadly, many writers think ALL SEO writing is poorly-written content. So, here’s a news flash:

Folks, if you ever think, “This post sounds bad. I had to work hard to add all those keyphrases,” you’re doing it wrong.

When the content is written “for Google,” without readers in mind

Raise your hand if you’ve been asked to write “1,000 words for Google.”

Yeah, me too.

SEO writing isn't "writing for Google"

Sadly, some folks believe that following a strict writing formula will help them magically position. These folks don’t care about the content’s readability. They only care about the keyphrase usage.

They may even come right out and say, “I don’t care if anyone reads this. I just want the page to position.”


This magical SEO copywriting formula may include things like:

  • Specific word counts because “all posts should be X words for Google.”
  • Exact matching a nonsensical long-tail keyphrase multiple times (for instance, [portland relocation real estate oregon].
  • Bolding or italicizing words that shouldn’t be bolded or italicized.
  • Repeating all keyphrases X times in the first paragraph.

If you find yourself following a weird writing formula that makes the content read like gibberish, know it’s not true SEO writing. What’s more, following a writing formula won’t help you position. The best bet is to learn the right way to do things and throw those useless old rules out the window.

Don’t believe me? Check out Google’s Quality Raters Guidelines and see how Google defines low-quality content.

When the Titles are filled with keyphrases, with no conversion focus

This is a pet peeve of mine.

Get rid of Title pipes

I’ve discussed before how overly-optimized Titles are an inefficient branding method. The search results page is your first conversion opportunity. A Title that’s chock-full of keyphrases isn’t as persuasive as one that’s benefit-rich:

Which listing would get YOUR click?

GEICO’s “you could save $500+” is a fantastic benefit statement, and blow’s Progressive’s keyword-focused Title out of the water. Esurance is a runner-up since they include the benefit “fast” — but the Title could still be better.

Need more “good” and “bad” Title examples? Here’s a great post from Search Engine Watch.

SEO doesn’t ruin content. It’s “stupid” SEO that messes things up

Smart SEO doesn’t ruin good content. It enhances it – 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?

24 replies
  1. 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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.

    • Marcin Kordowski says:

      The second point is exactly true if we write only for spider it is wrong way. Content should be in first for people and only optimize for Search Engines.

  7. 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 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.

  9. Andre SEO says:

    I think a lot has changed over the years, where now google is not looking for that keyword rich, high density keyword content it once rewarded. Therefore i think we dont see as many cases of content damaged by ‘SEO’ just like craig mentioned earlier its all about being natural.
    – Andre

    • Heather Lloyd-Martin says:

      Yes! It’s important to write natural-sounding content — but folks still need to be strategic! Sadly, I still see SEO-damaged content, too. It’s amazing how many SEO writing myths are still alive and well… :P

      Thanks for your comment!

      • Andre SEO says:

        no problem, at all.
        looking at your services i like the idea of the ‘consultation interview’ you offer
        may need that towards the end of the year, so ill be in contact
        Thanks Heather

  10. Richard Henry says:

    Omg, I’m doing stupid SEO :( Really thank you for sharing this. I found your blog on alltop and I will follow it from now


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