Write for people first, Google second

Copywriters and SEOers (search engine optimisation experts) have argued the pros and cons of ‘how to’ write and ‘who for’ since optimisation was even a thing. What matters most, keywords and metadata or style and engagement? As a writer, my view might surprise you. It is a sad fact of life that smart marketing will always sell more than simply being good at what you do. But it is a fact. And to win in the commercial world means living in the real world and abiding by its rules. And in the online world, Google rules the airwaves – so it cannot be ignored.

But things are changing…

The basis for my previous opinion is purely down to the numbers. A highly optimised, poorly written piece of copy that attracts 10,000 hits might gain 1% response (simply because it get seen). Compare that to the skilfully-penned post, brimming with valuable content and the answer to the searcher’s needs – which gets ignored by Google – and that 1% represents a significant win. For the past few decades, that has been the state of play, saturating the internet with copy-fodder, plagiarised prose and line after line of keyword-driven drivel.

But Google is getting smarter. Don’t get me wrong here, I am not going to explain how – that is way beyond this humble storyteller’s brain. Nor am I suggesting that the brilliant minds behind Google’s algorithmic mastery of search-lore were ever anything less than smart. (They take that word to cyber-sonic levels.) But, from what I understand, its bots and spiders can now spot the difference between good and bad copy. Google is learning to read like a reader, dream like a searcher and weed-out manipulation masquerading as art. Share culture is also playing a welcome part in amplifying beautiful words.

Reverse engineer but design from the heart

Please don’t stop speaking to the experts in SEO and meta-whatever. They know their stuff better than us creatives ever will. And maybe some might still argue the case for keyword waffle. But here is what I think, based on what I see happening in the online world today.

Identify your ideal reader – the person whose attention means the most to you and who is most likely to want your help in the future. In commercial terms, that means your perfect customer. Describe them in detail, picture their life, give them a name and imagine the shape of their hopes and fears. Remember – if you correctly identify your perfect customer, the things they need, want or are striving to overcome should be the same as the solutions you bring.

With that person in mind: write to them as an individual. Inspire them with stories like Roald Dahl did for his granddaughter Sophie. Or comfort and teach them like AA Milne when he introduced Christopher Robin (his son) to the world of Winnie the Pooh. The greatest storytellers wrote to a single person, then sold their stories to a worldful of others who couldn’t resist their magic.

I believe that writing with relevance and feeling will now attract the attention of search engines as much as it will the heart of the right reader. But I also live in the real world. So, my advice is to write well for readers first: then go back through your prose and add a few keywords to make sure Google takes note too. But be careful it doesn’t dull the ebb and flow of a good story.

So, I am going to do that before inviting you and Google to read this post. See if you can spot the changes I made…