[Updated for 2018] 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, Google stresses quality content even more than before, conversational copy is key, and there are new SEO writing “rules.” I’ve updated the list to reflect these changes and 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 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 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 an hour or more asking 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. 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 52 questions you can start with today.

– Writing a blog post? Get topic ideas from smart sources

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.

– Use Google for competitive intelligence ideas

It’s time to research your article idea! Check out the sites positioning in the top-10 and look for common characteristics. How long are competing articles? Do the articles link out to authoritative sources? Is there video? Do the articles include quotes from industry experts? Your job is to write an article that’s better that what’s already appearing in the top-10 — 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.

– What is your per-page keyphrase focus?

Writers are no longer forced to include the same, exact-match keyphrase over and over again (hurray!). Today, we can focus on a keyphrase theme, 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, makes your copy better (and is much easier to write!).

Here’s some more information on close variants (plus some advanced SEO tips.)

– 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 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 (slightly) help reinforce keyphrase relevancy.

As a hint, sometimes you can write a question-oriented subheadline and slip the keyphrase in more easily.

– Is your Title “clickable” and compelling?

Remember, 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. 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, writers should create the meta description (they’re like marketing statements, after all!). And yes, every page should have a unique meta description. Google expanded the meta description character count to approximately 330 characters (with spaces.) Now, we have more room than ever to describe the page and encourage a click-through.

Here’s more information about how to do it.

– Is your content written in a conversational style?

With voice search gaining prominence, copy that’s written in a conversational style is even more important (check out this post for more information about Google’s guidelines.) 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.

Items to review when the page is complete:

– 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. Again, I recommend reading your copy out loud and hearing it it sounds.

Here’s a great article by Ian Lurie that discusses TD-IDF and why keyword stuffing doesn’t work.

– 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!

– 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.”

– 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, edit them down and make them punchier. Your writing will have more impact if you do.

– 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 and hurt your conversion goals.

Want to avoid this? Read more about “dead end” Web pages.

– Does the content provide the reader valuable information?

Google spanks sites with “thin,” low-quality content that’s poorly written. Before you upload your page, ask yourself if the content answers your reader’s questions. 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.

– 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 your 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.

– 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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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