In defence of SEO copywriting

by Tom Albrighton 25 March 2010 Popular, SEO

In his review of Andy Maslen’s Copywriting Sourcebook, Ben Locker approvingly notes that Andy ‘hasn’t fallen for the fashionable bullshit about online copywriting – that it has its own rules, techniques and formats that exempt it from being treated like normal sales writing’. Following up, Andy wrote this post, endorsing Ben’s appraisal and developing the theme. Later he also tweeted a link to this article, where Paul Boag casts doubt on the faith that firms put in SEO as a marketing channel.

I don’t know Paul, although his article is readable, cogent and well argued. I have huge respect for both Ben and Andy, both of whom I do know (slightly). Their copywriting experience and knowledge far exceeds mine, and they’ve both helped me out with invaluable advice and support. So this post isn’t intended as a smackdown of their opinions – it’s just a different view. And my view is that online or SEO copywriting is very different from ‘traditional’, ‘normal’ or ‘old media’ copywriting – and, furthermore, that SEO itself is a worthwhile (or at least inevitable) marketing discipline.

The user journey

Ben and Andy were right to reaffirm one of the fundamental truths of our trade. It can never be stated too often that copywriting is about communicating with people, and selling. And this is exactly the same online. Web pages should connect with people, convince them of benefits and convert interest to sales. A site built purely from an SEO perspective might be a powerful traffic magnet, but how many visitors will go on to make a purchase?

So web pages must sell. However, we have to guard against regarding them as standalone conversion tools that can be compared like-for-like with other media such as direct mail. In fact, they must do much more than just retaining and converting interest, because they form just one part of an online journey (as I’ve argued in this post). Online, the user’s voyage from search to sale extends across many sites and, potentially, multiple browsing occasions too. It’s a journey where the user is a driver rather than a passenger, and the content of web pages along the road has a direct influence on how – and whether – they play a part.

Pushes and pulls

In other media (print advertising, direct marketing) the copywriter creates messages that are then ‘pushed’ to readers through certain channels. For example, they might write a sales letter about dentists’ chairs that is then sent to every dentist on a mailing list. In this model, there is no causal relationship between content and audience; the copywriter defines the content, while the audience is determined by the distribution list or channel. Simple.

Moreover, the audience is passive; they don’t have any control over what they read, beyond the option to disregard or stop reading it. So we can use whatever terms we like, within reason, to describe what we’re selling, provided we get the message across. We can also place adverts for our dentists’ chairs in Fisherman’s World, if we want to, and be confident that at least some of the readership will see them. If we feel like it, we can mail our letter to milkmen instead of dentists; our response rate will be low, but the audience will at least have contact with the message. In short, we can push our message.

Online, the picture is completely different. It’s a ‘pull’ medium – or, to put it another way, a much more passive one for the marketer. The audience decides where to go and what to read, shaping and controlling their own experience. If they don’t click, they don’t visit – and they don’t read.

Since search engines account for the bulk of traffic to web pages, and since they prioritise those pages based on a combination of content and popularity, the content of a page has a direct, causal relationship with the type and volume of traffic that it receives. In other words, the content of a web page defines its audience.

We cannot ‘push’ a web page onto an audience that does not want it. We can’t even decide the context within which it will be viewed (it could be from the home page, directly from search results, from a bookmark, etc). In the absence of any traffic-driving backlinks or PPC activity, all we have to attract traffic – and customer interest – is the content on the page.

Keyword destiny

That ‘pull’ paradigm puts online copywriting centre stage when it comes to marketing online – not just in terms of conversion, but in terms of building a web presence with the power to get itself in front of relevant visitors and give them what they’re looking for. So while online writing certainly should include all the traditional skills of selling with words, it goes further. It has to.

The implications go far beyond achieving a particular keyword density on particular terms. Selling online is (or should be) about creating a user experience that resonates with the way customers think, how they want to find things out and how they want to buy. It touches every aspect of online marketing – domain names, site structure, navigation, internal links, content. And online copywriting and SEO are at the very heart of that.

Imposing discipline

The knock-on effects can even extend offline. I’ve had several serious discussions about changing a company’s name because the existing one, as reflected in its URL, would not click with potential customers searching online. Any startup looking to sell online would be foolhardy not to at least consider such issues.

When you can no longer ‘push’ your chosen terms on to customers, you’re obliged to use theirs; that’s how firms who aspired to provide ‘affordable HVAC solutions’ end up writing web pages optimised for ‘cheap central heating’. SEO imposes both discipline and humility; online, you must operate at the customer’s level.

But immersing yourself in your customer’s interests, priorities and thought processes is a very good idea anyway, regardless of how you’re going to reach them. Honestly appraising SEO keywords could easily be the starting point for a root-and-branch rethink of an entire value proposition. Does that often happen as the result of writing a press ad, or a mailing?

Why invest in SEO?

Moving on to Paul Boag’s post, we move beyond copywriting to the broader question of whether SEO merits the effort and investment that firms put into it.

Any search affiliate who had made their living from search for the last five years might be bemused to see that question being asked seriously. And the many search agencies who run highly profitable businesses by increasing sales and conversions for their clients through search would probably echo their sentiments. But let’s give the benefit of the doubt and presume that, behind the façade, SEO isn’t actually ‘all that’ in terms of business results, and that therefore we need to make a persuasive case for it.

Paul’s points (picking up his subheadings) are that there are no guarantees of success with SEO, that it’s about gaming the system, that it can damage the user experience, that it’s is passive (i.e. customers must seek you out) and that it lacks the weight of personal recommendation (i.e. you’re taking Google’s word on the worth of high-ranking sites).

I’d like to deal with these points in turn.

No guarantees of success

First, it’s true that there are no guarantees of success. Paul contrasts SEO with PPC and newspaper advertising, observing that both of these offer guarantees of position and therefore exposure. But this isn’t really a fair comparison.

As I’ve explained above, organic SEO is not about ‘pushing’ messages in a straightforward cash-for-exposure way, but about finding a way to figure in your customers’ thought processes, as expressed through their online activity. Google, for all its faults, has done the best job so far of building an algorithm that matches thoughts in your head with things in the world. So it follows that ranking highly with Google is the most direct way to link up with people thinking about your product.

The search experience is not perfect. It offers no guarantees, either for advertisers in terms of ROI on SEO or for searchers in terms of satisfactory search results. But it’s still clearly worthwhile for advertisers to consider it, at the very least. After all, it usually represents the most cost-effective way to link up with potential customers who are actively searching for your product. Worth a punt, surely?

A further point is that organic search activities such as link-building are investments rather than overheads. High-quality links will pass linkjuice to your site for ever. PPC adverts stop driving traffic the second you turn off the money tap.

Gaming the system

Is SEO about gaming the system? Yes, but no more so than any other form of marketing. Marketers do whatever is necessary to get exposure for their brands. If a marketer can get their message on a football shirt, or a carrier bag, or a hot-air balloon, and it makes sense to do so, they’re going to do it. PPC is mercilessly gamed through brand bidding, much to the chagrin of the brand owners affected. Everything is fair game for the gamers.

It would be nice if we could all just ‘provide high-quality content’ (as we’re endlessly advised to) and let benevolent Uncle Google sort out the nice sites from the nasty ones. I’m sure that’s what would happen if Makka Pakka set up an online shop in the Night Garden. Unfortunately, back in the real world, Google’s search algorithm is not perfect, meaning that some ‘spam’ techniques can be effective (although the line between content and spam can be fuzzy).

So as a website owner, you may be contemplating a rank of #35 with solid gold, user-oriented content, while a competitor rockets to #3 with 100 cheaply produced spam pages. Their traffic is likely to exceed yours by many, many multiples. Yes, Google will change its algorithm eventually, but will you still be in business by then?

So Google does what it can to improve the system, while marketers do what they can to game it. And, in the end, it’s only through the interplay of these two interests that the search experience evolves. The ‘game’ develops continually through the efforts of both ‘sides’, who are in opposition in one sense but also share the common goal of matching up customers with products they want.

User experience

SEO certainly can damage the user experience, but it shouldn’t. A good SEO copywriter or web developer is looking to combine the two goals of a website – to be visible online and appeal to visitors once they arrive. That may entail some compromise (on either side), but that doesn’t mean that SEO and user experience are irreconcilable, polar opposites. If they were, sites of proven worth such as Amazon and Wikipedia would not consistently rank #1 for many thousands of terms.

SEO is passive

This really comes back to the ‘no guarantees of success’ point. Yes, SEO is passive, but that’s its strength. You’re trying to link up with a motivated, proactive set of web users. Your aim is to smooth their path as much as possible.

No personal recommendation

This is perhaps the strongest of Paul’s points. When you use Google, you’re putting your trust in its algorithm. However, that algorithm determines the value of websites largely by the number of links they attract, which is at least partly determined by their popularity with humans. So Google ranking does, to some extent, reflect a kind of recommendation.

And, as I’ve argued in this post, and my guest SEO commentator argued here, Google is practically certain to integrate some sort of social-media popularity gauge into its results over the next few years. Once that’s done, user opinion will loom much larger in the search profile of every site –  and many currently effective SEO tactics will fall by the wayside.

Is it all worth it?

In his post, Andy notes that ‘You can’t spend PageRanks. You can’t invest Google top spots. You can’t bank visibility. It’s a new version of the old canard we got so used to hearing as a justification for masturbatory advertising. “It’s there to raise awareness”… Awareness is worthless.’

It’s certainly true that awareness is worthless in itself. But investing in achieving a Google top spot is a very long way from splurging millions on a brand-building campaign aimed purely at building ‘recognition’ or ‘penetration’. As I’ve argued, search visibility remains the prime way to figure in users’online journey, and therefore in their journey towards a sale.

Providing you’re targeting the right keywords, it’s by far the easiest and cheapest way to attract relevant visitors. With 80% of users clicking the first three natural results, and the vast majority never looking further than the first page, it’s hard to argue otherwise. Of course, there’s more to it than that – most notably, converting the resultant traffic to sales and delivering the promised experience. SEO certainly isn’t the whole story, but it is the first chapter.

Also, in some ways, rank is reputation. It provides reassurance. And that can certainly help a sale; it’s about something much closer to customers’ hearts than just ‘awareness’. When you conduct a search in an unfamiliar area, you’ll generally find it easy to believe that high-ranking sites are pre-eminent. But you’ll have a far harder time convincing yourself that a site you found buried on page 7 is actually the right choice. As long as search results are presented as a hierarchical ‘Top 10’, it’s human nature to adopt the mindset implied by the format, which is that rank reflects quality. Only more confident, informed or search-savvy web users go much deeper than that.

I hope I’ve succeeded in making a few points in SEO’s defence. It’s not that I particularly love it, or feel duty-bound to proselytise for it. Although I do a lot of search work, I can easily see why people dislike the search industry. But there’s no getting away from it and, for the copywriter, it does require some very special skills and thought processes – at least until Google finds a way to evaluate websites the same way people do.

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