Know thyself, wrote the Ancient Greek philosophers. To thine own self be true, wrote Shakespeare in one of his greatest creations ever. Authenticity and honest storytelling – keeping the author’s voice clear and true, has been the holy grail for writers/poets and storytellers since writing began. Yet the message must not put off the very audience it is aiming to educate, entertain or inspire. It must stand out, it must be remembered beyond its performance. It’s got to have some level of mass appeal.
So this is not a new conflict. This constant pull and tug between authenticity and popularity, keeping a fine balance between people pleasing and being true to nature – creative writers have faced these dilemmas since time immemorial. Prophets and saints haven’t been able to dodge it either – that’s the reason the holy books are full of poetry and parables, to keep the spiritual lesson intact but help make it memorable. It is an age old problem, only the arsenal has changed recently.
Things have become rather complex with the advent of technology – SEO and Google Analytics add a further twist to an already explosive mix. Algorithms are screening the options available, and unless your content makes the first page it is unlikely it will be read. We are at a juncture where millions of pages are uploaded daily, most of them jostling for attention, using the same analytics and keywords research.
So how exactly are creative folk supposed to be authentic if they are to pander to the algorithms and think only in terms of SEO? Or will AI writers understand their SEO cousins better and make human writing unnecessary.
Algorithms reassuring humans ‘this is our family matter; we will take care of this!’
Is there any way to tell the story you want to, in your own words? How do you stop your unique language and style, your singular voice getting stifled by the hashtags and trends? If everybody’s writing to the same few subjects then how do you stand out, let alone make the writing memorable and impactful? How in heaven’s name do you keep creativity alive in a world where it has been boiled down to a few keywords?
The following are some guidelines.
The 7 Cs of SEO for Creative Writers
1. Creativity first
Creativity does not happen in a vacuum. And much like Rome, it cannot be built in a day – there’s no crash course on it. It needs to feed off a diet of observation, interactions, ideas and imagination – stories and non-stories, visual and mental images, words written, spoken and recited, also a good healthy dose of silence and reflection. It grows with curiosity and lived experience. To be a writer one must be a reader first.
Remember that quote from Mark Twain? There is no such thing as a new idea…We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages. An uncanny resemblance to exactly what AI does, turning ideas indefinitely. Unbelievable, we trained them to do that. But it is still too early to allow paranoia to set in.
To make sure you have that creative mojo to decisively turn the kaleidoscope and make a striking new pattern, you must know at least some of the old pieces of glass as well as the events now. That gives you the perspective to juxtapose the past and present and come up with fresh combos.
So read and keep all senses and mind open. Read widely from all genres but read deeply in the ones you wish to specialize in. Make reading and writing a habit. It keeps your creativity quotient stable and ticking. Frequent writing and writing at length also help develop your unique voice and style. These must come first and foremost, before any attempts to navigate SEO.
2. Communicate for the audience, not algorithms
The first thing any SEO expert will advise you to do is to forget the algorithms – don’t write for the bots. Know your audience, research them, find out what they want and write for people. Engage the humans and ignore the ‘spiders,’ ‘crawlers’ and ‘trawlers’ – that sounds like a sure shot pathway to not make the crucial top page results. A recipe for disaster?
But before we get into that, let’s just take a shufti at the SE players. Google has a whopping 92% of the global SE business, it handles a stunning 8.5 billion searches a day. This overwhelming dominance cuts across all devices – computers, phones and tablets. Bing, which is the default SE on MS machines, trails by miles with a share of 3% only – teeny tiny. The rest of the players are strong in pockets, such as Baidu in China and Yandex in Russia, but vanish from the scene on a global scale.
Now here’s why you should write for living people – Google algorithms have in built guards against robotic-sounding keyword-stuffed writing. Also, if the writing sounds too SEO oriented few people/websites will want to share its links. A page with a higher number of shares/external links automatically ranks higher in the search results. Therefore it makes perfect sense for the writing to hook humans rather than the algorithms. Where humans flock, there will the rankings get higher.
3. Craft and Combine
So that’s alright then – get the creativity habit, write what you want and devil take the SEO? Well, unfortunately no, and yes. Yes to retaining your own voice. No if you want to show up in the SERPs. This is that tricky, persistent challenge of writers – the balancing act between writing what you want and getting noticed.
Just as there is no crash course, there is no right or wrong way of achieving this. The starting point must be the keywords for the particular topic or genre you are writing to. Build your piece around one or several of them. Go to Google Trends and look up what people are searching for and use those terms to craft your unique piece. The same principle can be transposed to creative non-fiction too. Figure out the keywords and challenge yourself to use them as writing prompts to craft your piece.
Avoid keyword overload though, the algorithms can detect that and push the piece down. Be judicious. And keep abreast of the changes, keywords change over time and regions.
4. Concede some, create some
Another bit of advice from the SEO gurus is to write SEO driven content once in a while. Figure out the topics and keywords that people are searching for at a fixed interval – every month or six weeks or quarter, whatever feels right for your creative frequency, and use them to devise your piece. Keep your other writing SEO light if not SEO free.
5. Careful with the Cutthroat Competition
Competition for the first results in the most popular keywords is way beyond intense. Use the second or third rung keywords and choose topics which less people are writing to.
Find the questions that are not being answered because everybody’s too busy chasing the top spots. Easier to carve out a place with a lower level keyword.
6. Canny headings and subheadings
Readers look for a smooth read and easy comprehension – blocks of undifferentiated text is hard to understand. Writing that is grouped into sub headings, instructions that are bulleted and numbered are therefore ranked higher by the SE. Use subheadings in your writing to group similar ideas together or differentiate chapters.
A pro tip is – making sure the title is chosen carefully with SEO considerations. You want to make it as precise and as descriptive as you can. No clever puns, no one-word wonders, no coined terms – the wordplay will likely confuse both readers and algorithms. A single or even a pair of words aren’t long enough for the SE to pick up. Google has no limit on the characters used, but will normally display around 55-60, so make smart use of that allowance.
For instance, did you know that the search term ‘story’ is nearly 25 times more popular than ‘fiction?’ If there are two shorts, one with the word ‘fiction’ and the other with the word ‘story’ in the title, which do you think will the SEs rank higher? Precisely.
Similarly, the word ‘sonnet’ is half or a third as popular as the term ‘poetry.’ These are just random examples to show just a tweak in the title can help to with the rankings. This does not in any way cramp your creativity in the piece itself. You can write the sonnet or the flash exactly as you desire and use the words ‘Poetry’ and ‘Story’ somewhere in the title for better visibility.
Also, use the meta description, displayed as the first few lines in the search results, to hook the reader. The algorithm will craft a description if you don’t, but that may not be as impactful as the one you create. So do your own, do not leave it up to the bots, exploit every tool to the hilt.
7. Call to engagement
Remember, the more the engagement with your content the more its chances of getting pushed up the rankings. So invite interaction. End with a question – ask the reader to comment on some aspect of the piece, how the story compares with their own life experience, do they agree/disagree with the essential message, could it have gone differently. Encourage discussion. And ensure there are plenty of other links to click and read other, related content at the site.
At the end of the day, much of the SEO driven writing rules apply to any good writing – use unique ideas, create titles that describe the content accurately, use subheadings for clarity, group similar ideas together, make instructions easy to follow with bulleted lists. These are as true for print reading as they are for online reading. Write it as smoothly as you can so the reader does not stumble anywhere. Write short sentences, keep your language choices accessible and not esoteric. All of these principles of good creative writing hold true for SEO writing also.
It is the writer’s choice ultimately how and if they incorporate SEO into their online writing life. Most creative writers/bloggers seem not to use SEO content on their websites/blogs. There is an implicit impression that SEO content and creative writing cannot overlap. That the algorithms reward only keyword-rich, undifferentiated content. That the hits go to those that produce standardized, mass scale quantity and not necessarily nuanced, individualistic and authentic, quality creative writing. This needs a thorough evaluation by individual writers and each needs to make their own minds up.
Essay/Article commissioned by: TDLM Editorial
Written by: Nilanjana Bose [Author; Chartered Institute of Marketing, UK; Mathematics]
Graphics/Art/Illustration by: TDLM Design Team
‘Hey Google! – Writing for Your Attention’ First Published in The Daily Life Magazine on February 17, 2023