[Updated for 2021] 27-Point Checklist: How to Write for Google
Are you writing your SEO content based on the latest best practice tips?
I originally wrote this SEO copywriting checklist in 2012—my, how things have changed. Today, Google stresses quality content even more than before, conversational copy is critical, and there are revised SEO writing “rules.”
I’ve updated the list to reflect these changes and to provide additional information.
As a side note, I would argue that there’s no such thing 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, hoping I can convert some of the “write for Google” people to do things correctly.
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 your SEO writing project
– Do you have enough information about your target reader?
Your copy will pack a powerful one-two punch if your content is laser-focused on 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 an hour or more asking detailed questions.
Here’s more information on customer personas.
– Writing a sales page? Did you interview the client?
Interviewing new clients and learning more about their company, USP, and competition is essential. Don’t forget to ask about industry buzzwords that should appear in the content.
Not sure what questions to ask to get the copywriting ball rolling? Here’s a list of 64 questions you can start with today.
– Writing a blog post? Get topic ideas from smart sources
When you’re blogging, writing about whatever strikes your fancy is tempting. The challenge is what interests you may not interest your readers. If you want to ensure you’re writing must-read content, sites like Reddit, LinkedIn, Google Trends, and BuzzSumo can help spark some ideas.
– Did you use Google for competitive intelligence ideas?
Check out the sites positioning top-10 and look for common characteristics. How long are competing articles? Do the articles link out to authoritative sources? Are there videos or infographics? Do the articles include quotes from industry experts? Your job is to answer the searcher’s query in a way that’s better than what’s already positioning — so let the competition be your guide.
– Did you conduct keyphrase research?
Yes, keyphrase research (and content optimization) is still a crucial SEO step. If you don’t give Google some keyphrase “cues,” your page probably won’t position the way you want.
Use a keyphrase research tool and find possible keyphrases for your page or post. As a hint: if you are tightly focusing on a topic, long-tail keyphrases are your best bet. Here’s more information about why long-tail keyphrases are so important.
If you are researching B2B keyphrases, know that the “traditional” keyphrase research steps may not apply. Here’s more information about what to do if B2B keyphrase research doesn’t work.
– What is your per-page keyphrase focus?
Writers are no longer forced to include the exact-match keyphrase over and over again. (Hurray!) Today, we can focus on a keyphrase theme that matches the search intent and weave in multiple related keyphrases.
– Did you expand your keyphrase research to include synonyms and close variants?
Don’t be afraid to include keyphrase synonyms and close variants on your page. Doing so opens up your positioning opportunities and makes your copy better (and easier) to write!
Are you wondering if you should include your keyphrases as you write the copy — or edit them in later? It’s up to you! Here are the pros and cons of both processes.
— Do your keyphrases match the search intent?
Remember that Google is “the decider” when it comes to search intent. If you’re writing a sales page — and your desired keyphrase pulls up informational blog posts in Google – your sales page probably won’t position.
— Writing a blog post? Does your Title/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 (or a close variant) in your Title and work in other keyphrases if they “fit.”
Here’s some excellent information on how to write headlines that get noticed (and are good for Google.) You can also use headline-analyzing tools to double-check your work.
– 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 (slightly) help reinforce keyphrase relevancy.
As a hint, sometimes, you can write a question-oriented subheadline and slip the keyphrase in more easily. Here’s more information about why answering questions is a powerful SEO content play.
– Is your Title “clickable” and compelling?
Remember, the search engine results page is your first opportunity for conversion. Focusing too much on what you think Google “wants” may remove your Title’s conversion power.
Consider how you can create an enticing Title that “gets the click” over the other search result listings. You have about 59 characters (with spaces) to work with, so writing tight is essential.
– Does the meta description fit the intent of the page?
Yes, writers should create a meta description for every page. Why? Because they tell the reader what the landing page is about and help increase SERP conversions. Try experimenting with different calls-to-actions at the end, such as “learn more” or “apply now.” You never know what will entice your readers to click!
– Is your content written in a conversational style?
With voice search gaining prominence, copy written in a conversational style is even more critical.
Read your copy out loud and hear how it sounds. Does it flow? Or does it sound too formal? If you’re writing for a regulated industry, such as finance, legal, or healthcare, you may not be able to push the conversational envelope too much. Otherwise, write like you talk.
Here’s how to explain why conversational content is so important.
–Is your copy laser-focused on your audience?
A big mistake some writers make is creating copy that appeals to “everyone” rather than their specific target reader. Writing sales and blog pages that are laser-focused on your audience will boost your conversions and keep readers checking out your copy longer. Here’s how one company does it.
Plus, you don’t receive special “Google points” for writing long content. Even short copy can position if it fully answers the searcher’s query. Your readers don’t want to wade through 1,500 words to find something that can be explained in 300 words.
Items to review after you’ve written the page
– 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. Your page doesn’t receive bonus points for exact matching your keyphrase multiple times. If your page sounds keyphrase stuffed when you read it out loud, dial back your keyphrase usage.
– Did you edit your content?
Resist the urge to upload your content as soon as you write it. Put it away and return to it after a few hours (or even the next day.) Discover why editing your writing is so critical. Also, don’t think adding typos will help your page position. They won’t.
– Is the content interesting to read?
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.” Plus, know that even FAQ pages can help with conversions — and yes, even position.
– Are your sentences and paragraphs easy to read?
Vary your sentence structure so you combine longer and shorter sentences. If you find your sentences creeping over 30 words, edit them and make them punchier. Your writing will have more impact if you do.
Plus, 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 onto a “dead end” page?
“Dead-end” pages (pages that don’t link out to related pages) can stop your readers dead in their tracks and hurt your conversion goals.
Want to avoid this? Read more about “dead-end” Web pages.
– Does the content provide the reader with valuable information?
Google warns against sites with “thin,” low-quality content that’s poorly written. In fact, according to Google, spelling errors are a bigger boo-boo than broken HTML. Make sure your final draft is typo-free, written well, and thoroughly answers the searcher’s query.
Want to know what Google considers quality content — directly from Google? Here are Google’s Quality Raters guidelines for more information.
– 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.
Plus, you can write your bullet points in a way that makes your benefit statements pop up front and center. Here’s how Nike does it.
– Is the primary 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? Buy something? Sign up for your newsletter. Make sure you’re telling your reader what you want them to do, and make taking action easy. If you force people to answer multiple questions just to fill out a “contact us” form, you run the risk of people bailing out.
Here’s a list of seven CTA techniques that work.
– 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? Don’t bury your “sign up for our newsletter” button in the footer text. Instead, test different CTA locations (for instance, try including a newsletter signup link at the bottom of every blog post) and see where you get the most conversions.
– Does the page include too many choices?
It’s important to keep your reader focused on your primary and secondary CTAs. If your page lists too many choices (for example, a significant, scrolling page of products), consider eliminating all “unnecessary” options that don’t support your primary call to action. Too many choices may force your readers into not taking any action at all.
– Did you include benefit statements?
People make purchase decisions based on what’s in it for them (yes, even your B2B buyers.) Highly specific benefit statements will help your page convert like crazy. Don’t forget to include a benefit statement in your Title (whenever possible), like “free shipping” or “sale.” Seeing this on the search results page will catch your readers’ eyes, tempting them to click the link and check out your site.
– Do you have vertical-specific testimonials?
It’s incredible how many great sales pages are testimonial-free. Testimonials are a must for any site, as they offer third-party proof that your product or service is superior. Plus, your testimonials can help you write better, more benefit-driven sales pages and fantastic comparison-review pages.
Here’s a way to make your testimonials more powerful.
And finally — the most important question:
– Does your content stand out and genuinely deserve a top position?
SEO writing is more than shoving keyphrases into the content. If you want to be rewarded by Google (and your readers), your content must stand out — not be a carbon copy of the current top-10 results. Take a hard look at your content and compare it against what’s currently positioning. Have you fully answered the searcher’s query? Did you weave in other value-added resources, such as expert quotes, links to external and internal resources (such as FAQ pages), videos, and graphics?
If so, congratulations! You’ve done your job.
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.
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!
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 :)
Ha! I don’t dwell on my bad sentences either. Denial is a wonderful thing… :)
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)…
Thanks, Katie! Glad that you liked the post!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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?
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… :)
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.
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…
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.
Great topic, thanks for taking such good care of this website!
Thanks for all the great information!
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.
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.
Great article. Unusual to read how to write for google rather than readers.
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. :)
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