Why some SEO firms don’t employ copywriters

Last week, I heard from a very frustrated prospect.

This nice man had been working with a SEO firm for a few months. The firm had been doing all the back-end stuff that needed to be done: Cleaning the code, creating new Titles, building links and generally sprucing up the site. In general, the company did an OK job making the site more visible to search engines.

But here’s the thing: The prospect comes from a marketing background. He knew his existing copy didn’t “pop.” And he knew that better writing would equate into higher conversion rates.

When he expressed his concern to the SEO firm, they handed him a list of “SEO copywriting best practice guidelines” and told him that they “didn’t do SEO copywriting – he’d have to write the copy himself.”

His question to me was: “Shouldn’t all SEO firms employ SEO copywriters? Isn’t it such an important part of SEO that they’d want to have that part covered?”

Well, yes and no. It depends on the SEO.

Many SEO firms are technically focused, meaning that they are masters at untangling the most ugly bits of code, making it easy (or easier) for search engines to access the site. A savvy technical SEO shop can work wonders with a site – and a few technical changes can unlock the positioning floodgates.

However, technical SEO firms aren’t filled with marketers. Their job isn’t to help your copy convert better. Their job is to make your site better for the search engines.

There’s a difference.

Other SEO firms work with copywriters, but the copywriters mostly add keyphrases into copy and create new Titles. Granted, keyphrase editing (or what some firms call “on-page optimization”) is very valuable to the SEO process. But the focus again is to make the existing copy “better for search engines.” They aren’t addressing the conversion aspects of the page. That’s not their job.

This is a challenge for clients who really need writing help. After all, if your copy wasn’t converting before it included keyphrases, adding keyphrases without changing the copy won’t magically help. It won’t make your writing “pop” to the user and entice them to read more (or buy more.) It’s just that the page is better for search engine positioning.

This is where asking the right questions before you sign with a SEO firm comes in…

If you know that your conversion rates are low (or maybe you’re not sure – but you know that your copy is dirt-dull boring,) ask the SEO firm about their approach to SEO copywriting. They may say that they don’t handle the copywriting. Or that they “edit” copy – but they don’t rewrite it. In that’s the case, you have some options:

1. Handle the writing in-house, and give the new copy to the SEO firm. If you have smart in-house copywriters, they can learn how to create top-converting and keyphrase-rich copy. There are also resources such as (shameless plug) the SEO Copywriting Certificate Program that will teach you the ropes.

2. Find a technical SEO firm that does employ SEO copywriters. They are out there – you just have to be very specific about what you need (content marketing services.) If you do go this route, it’s important to gain writing samples from the writer who will be handling your account. That way, you can request another writer if the original writer’s work doesn’t “speak to you” (and don’t worry – the original writer won’t take it personally. Different writers “click” with different clients, so it’s OK to be picky.)

3. Work with your “technical SEO” and hire a SEO copywriting and content marketing agency for your content creation. This may seem clunky at first, but it’s actually very workable. The technical SEO worries about your site architecture and links – and the SEO copywriter focuses on your customer persona and your conversions. Since good SEO copywriters are also SEOs in their own right, they can easily work with other SEO providers. Plus, both firms get to focus on what they do best.

Whatever option you choose, you can easily have the best of both worlds – a technically-savvy site and top-ranking copy that converts like crazy. Once your copy and site are top-notch, you’ll truly enjoy the power of “good SEO” – and you can start building on that success.

Why some large companies suck at content marketing

Recently, Junta42 released their 2010 content marketing survey (if you haven’t read it, do it now – it’s good reading.)

One of the oft-reported stats is that smaller companies (those with less than 99 employees) are spending two times more on content marketing than their big-brand counterparts (40 percent versus 18 percent.)

To those of us in the content marketing trenches, this is not surprising. And here’s my theory on why.

Small companies have a distinct advantage in the content marketing game: They “just do it” (to borrow from an old Nike ad.) They may start Tweeting because it’s free, granted -  but quickly realize that Twitter is a powerful marketing tool and stick with it (I have seen many smaller companies pay someone to Tweet for them because the campaign is so successful.)  Small businesses may start a blog for SEO purposes – but they they learn that their blog helps them interact with readers in a new, fun (and profitable) way.  Spending money for a Web-page rewrite may be daunting, but they do it to help drive new business. (for an example, check out the Studio Blue Pilates case study.) It’s certainly not that they have more money than their corporate counterparts. It’s that they’ve focused their spending on what’s worked: Content marketing.

Large brands…not so much.

I don’t know how many times I’ve worked with a big brand on a content marketing initiative, only to have it shelved, delayed or in a constant state of “We’ll finalize this during our next meeting.” One big-brand client who was thisclose to signing pulled out at the last minute because “legal would need to approve all the content, and they didn’t have time to do so.” Another client wanted to conduct market research on what, exactly, they should blog about. That was a year ago. And believe it or not, the market research is still ongoing (after being shelved a few times over 2009.) Yet another client feared Twitter because, “What if people Tweeted something negative about their company? How would we deal with it internally?”

Large brands don’t choose to have that “just do it” freedom, and that’s sad (I say “choose to have that freedom” as policies and procedures can be changed…assuming there’s an internal push to change them.) How many times have you seen a big-brand client discontinue a content marketing campaign because the project kept going on hold and the results were spotty? Or seen an ecommerce company directly uploading their print catalog copy for their Website and then say that “SEO content marketing doesn’t work” because the copy doesn’t position (uh, yeah…because there are no keyphrases in the copy.) Or refuse to build a blog – that market research proves that their customers would embrace – because “if an external consultant blogs for us, they may say something wrong. And we can’t handle it in-house. So we won’t do it.”

Instead, the budget that would have been (possibly) earmarked for content marketing flows other places. Large brands focus on being #1 in PPC results, purchasing display ads and doing other things that may gain exposure, yes. But it may also be a very expensive way to gain customers…especially since the experience is totally one-sided (buy from us) rather than interactive (tell us what’s important to you.)

That is sad as well.

So, consider this a call to action for large businesses to embrace content marketing. It could be setting up a dedicated Twitter-guru who monitors and responds to Tweets (like @alaskaair and @starbucks.) It could mean working with a consultant to uncover content marketing opportunities. It could mean making internal changes so getting one blog post approved doesn’t take a month every time. If Zappos can do it (heck, if Starbucks can do it) other large companies can do it too.

If they want to.

In short, it means that large businesses need to look at their content marketing assets differently. They need to get out of their own way and view their content as an interactive stepping-stone – not a reputation management threat.  And large businesses need to learn to carry through on campaigns that help them communicate with their customers and prospects, rather than pushing all their spend to PPC “because it’s easier.”

When that happens, it will be a good day for those big-brand companies. Their customers – and their bottom line – will thank them.

What to do right now: Planning ongoing SEO content

Add more SEO content to your siteSo, what new articles are you adding to your site this month?

I know, I know. Content development and adding additional Website content seems like “too much work” when time is already short and your nerves are feeling frazzled. You can’t ask your marketing department to do it — they’re already maxed out. Fighting for freelance budget seems too overwhelming. And heaven forbid that you add something new to your plate.

Sound familiar?

I am just as guilty as other site owners and marketing departments. Part of my marketing midlife recovery means more and better writing — blog writing, writing for other sites and, yes, writing for my own SEO copywriting site.

Easier said than done.

The thing is, writing ongoing content is more than just a SEO trick. Sure, the engines love new content, and adding ongoing content is one of the ways they measure how “fresh” a site is. Sites without new, ongoing content tend to slowly drop out of rankings sight, despite their age and history. It’s just like Hollywood, baby — if not you’re coming out with new stuff, it’s easy to forget all about you.

Of course, I always hear the kickback — “Why should I add new content? It’s a pain to do. “Yes, it is. But here are the advantages of fresh content:

  • It builds trust. When people search under various keyterms, they notice companies that continually position in the top 10. My favorite example of this is a company called Amsterdam Escape. Their site positions for main keyterms such as “vacations in Amsterdam” as well as long-tail keywords like “places to stay Amsterdam Newmarket.”
  • New content overcomes objections. You can’t assume that prospects will contact you for more information. If your content doesn’t answer their questions immediately, they’ll find another site that does.
  • New content can sell your product or service. This is the most obvious reason — good (or improved) content translates into better conversions.
  • New content gains search engine positions. ‘Nuff said.

Make a commitment to your company to upload at least one new article per month on your Website. That may mean hiring a firm who can help you with an editorial calendar or topic ideas. That may mean asking your internal team to step up and start writing. Either way, ongoing content will keep those search engine rankings (and conversions) flowing.