Content strategy

I’m an SEO cynic. Here’s why.

When you’re a content strategist you spend a lot of time explaining what you’re not. No, I’m not an editor, nor a copywriter. Not a marketer. Not a project manager either. And I’m definitely not an SEO guy.

Ok Google, tell me reasons not to go overboard with SEO

I take a long view of search engine optimisation, and am more than happy to leave the details to people who know more than me. Sometimes though, I get the feeling that those details are taken way more seriously than they should be. This post is my attempt to explain myself (and not make too many enemies in the process).

Web writing

Seven things new web writers need to know

A lot of people are interested in, and passionate about, writing but there’s not often a clear way to take that hobby and turn it into a career. One the best parts of my job is finding people in that position and helping them turn writing into a skill they can sell.

This list is lesson one. It’s seven things that I introduce to already well-practised writers who are starting in the web world. Without them they’ll never go from being spare-time writers to earning pay cheques that say “web writer”.

1. Web accessibility

This is almost always new to the writers I work with (which isn’t surprising, given how lowly accessibility rates within large parts of the web industry.) Writing accessible web content isn’t difficult but it can be the difference between silence and conversation.

Accessibility isn’t about disability, so I avoid the old example of “the blind man and the screen reader”. Separating out part of the web-using world as “people who need accessibility” infers that there’s no gain (or maybe even a cost) to the majority of users, which is wrong.

Accessible web content is inclusive. We’re not bolting an “extra” audience onto the side of our core audience. We’re making our core audience as large as possible by letting you be a part of it no matter how you navigate or read the web, or how well you see (if at all), or how you use assistive technology. And that makes our content easier to use.

Even better, the techniques that make written content more accessible overlap other things on this list. (My post on good link text gives an example.)

2. Search engine optimisation (SEO)

This is an easier “sell” than accessibility, even though both increase your audience. A little bit of SEO knowledge can be a bad thing – if you don’t believe me spend 3 minutes reading a keyword-stuffed content farm – so approach SEO with caution.

I’m against anything that strays too close to algorithm-chasing. If you’re writing for the robots first it doesn’t take long for human readers to work out that something’s not quite right. Your writing should make it clear to search robots what you’re writing about without being inhuman.

Writers need to know:

  • the basics of keyword research
  • how and when to use keywords (and when not to)
  • how to write metadata – title, description and keywords for a page.

3. Our in-house writing guidelines

Almost all of the writers I work are already publishing words in one way or another – usually they’re helping with things like brochures or letters, or they have personal blogs. Some are even freelancing on weekends. But so far none have had a style guide they need to stick to.

Like every other corporation we have an in-house guide that solves a lot of grammatical or stylistic things that would otherwise come down to preference, and so differ between authors. For example we keeps things consistent by preferring contractions (“isn’t” over “is not”) and using commas to divide thousands (as in 5,000). We also have additional web writing guidelines.

Referencing every stylistic quibble back to a pair of documents takes time and isn’t an easy habit to pick up, but once you have a feel for a given style it makes writing faster.

4. Our brand voice and tone

Another staple of the corporate world. As well as our style guides we also have a particular brand voice – a way that everything we say should sound. MailChimp’s Voice and Tone is a fantastic example.

Getting brand voice and tone right takes time and practise. Reading examples helps but nothing beats writing, failing and succeeding for yourself.

It’s a big change for a hobby writer, no matter how skilled, to have to sound like someone else. Writing the same thing in different voices can be a good start. (For example: explain your job in a paragraph or two. Then write that explanation like your boss would, then like a bored cynic, then like a hyperactive child.)

5. (Very) basic HTML

I haven’t found a better way to introduce and demystify HTML than to share Mandy Brown’s wonderful article “Markup”. She explains how HTML creates a relationship between your words and their appearance, and then puts designers and readers in control. Writers need to know what meaning HTML can give text (“this text is a heading” means a lot more than “this text is big and bold”), and how to mark up their own text.

Fortunately, there’s a plus side to all this: HTML is easy to learn. Even if you never peeked at the source for a website, never so much as authored an anchor tag, you already know most of the principles behind it, because they emerged from the texts themselves.

Update, May 2013: If you’re hungry for more, the wonderful Karen McGrane has written the main course to follow Mandy’s appitiser: WYSIWTF

6. Writing for scan reading

This starts with a hard truth: people aren’t going to read every word you write. Web users are time poor and task-focused, and they have the whole internet to choose from. They scan read and you need to work with that habit. More than anything else in this list, this shows you the difference between the hobby of writing for yourself and the work of writing for others.

7. Plain language

Plain language fits in with accessibility, SEO, and our company’s writing guidelines and brand voice. (If your company doesn’t encourage plain language, why haven’t you quit yet?) But it’s too important, too underappreciated, and sadly too rare to leave between the lines, so it has its own place in this list.

Without wanting to reduce plain language to the mechanical scoring of reading grades, that at least gives us a starting point.

More posts:


This post is 991 words long with an average reading grade of 8.5.

Content strategy

Sharing, not searching: The Atlantic’s new strategy for being found

A week ago this popped up on my Twitter feed:

Having collaborated with people who were happy to sacrifice anything – clarity, accuracy, grammar – just to please their Google overlords, I took notice. If you haven’t already followed Erin‘s (well, Stringbot’s) link, here are the abridged guts of the Mashable story “Why the Atlantic No Longer Cares About SEO”:

The Atlantic is adapting its editorial strategy to the growing importance of social networks, rather than search engines, as sources of traffic.

“Sixteen months ago we received the same number of monthly referrals from search as social. Now 40% of traffic comes from social media,” Scott Havens, senior vice president of finance and digital operations, said. “Our writers are not really thinking about SEO anymore. It’s about how we can spin a story so that it goes viral.”

Bob Cohn, editor of The Atlantic Digital, says that “assigning stories based on search returns was a cynical approach to journalism. We’re no longer writing to get the attention of Google algorithms. We’re writing to get you to share it.”

I’ll admit upfront that I don’t know a lot about The Atlantic. I doubt I’d even spent a cumulative hour on before I saw the tweet that kicked this post off. But I love the way that the people who call the shots there are following data (40% of traffic coming from social) to new strategic ideas for content.

Know how you’ll be found

No matter how many pairs of eyeballs you want on your site, the important thing isn’t being searched. The important thing is being found. For a lot of us the way to get found is through search, but The Atlantic’s shift shows that there can be more to it than that.

Earlier this month I posted what you need to know before you write. I know it’s wanky to quote yourself, but in that post I asked:

Where’s your audience coming from?
[…] Could they come in from search? Is this content that we might share through social media?

These questions are about your audience’s expectations (where are people looking for the stuff you make?) as much as they’re about your content’s strengths (for example, is it fun?).

The Atlantic have spotted a trend in their traffic data, and made what sounds like a site-wide decision. You might be able to use one approach as well, or you could need to work out what works for separate sections or pages on your site.

Either way, you need to know how people will find your content (and how you want them to find it) before the writing starts. A shareable version of your content would look and feel different to a search-optimised version. So which, if either, should you make?

When the social scene isn’t for you

In my day job I work for a big bank. I’ve written about how to find an ATM, what to do when you forget your credit card PIN, and your options when you can’t afford your bills. These aren’t subjects that people are going to share. They run the Gambit of Social Silence, from “mundane” to “embarrassing”.

There’ll always be topics that your readers need to know about but don’t want their friends or followers to be in on. I’m willing to bet that you’ll never see an ATM location in someone’s Facebook updates. And if you do, I’ll go double-or-nothing on advice about what your bank calls “financial hardship”.

SEO becomes more important as social sharing becomes less likely. Knowing when your audience will be indifferent or shy is knowing when Google is more likely to be their first point of call.

Going social and getting shared

So when will social trump search? Not until you’ve earned it.

Before social took the strategic place of SEO for The Atlantic, a buttload of time and effort went into it. Facebook timeline tells me that The Atlantic joined that network on 6 August, 2008. Twbirthday and How long have you been tweeting are a small time zone disagreement away from agreeing when @TheAtlantic started tweeting, but it was some time in late April 2009.

So it took around two-and-a-half years of Facebooking and 19 months of tweeting to get to the point 16 months ago when equal traffic came from search and social. That was one hell of a milestone: I hope there was a decent office party. To get regular people sharing as many click-worthy links as the giant server farms of Google (yes, ok, and Bing) was a massive piece of work. But it still wasn’t enough.

Since then it’s taken another 16 months – five quarters, in business-speak – to build a robust enough social standing (and social community) that it’s earned the job of “main route to findability”. That’s not a couple of Tweet buttons and one or two stories going viral every few months. It’s been carefully built and steadily earned, and it would certainly have needed a lot of likeable content.

This social strategy depends on:

  • people and trust, both of which are a hell of a lot harder to find and hold onto than keyword research
  • content that people want to share, which is only a subset of content that people want to read.

Switching from SEO to social – how does the strategy change the content?

Like any new strategy this thing still has to survive and thrive in the real world, which means making the jump from “business strategy” to “content strategy” to “ways to make content” without turning off the audience.

The first changes to the content should free writers up. Keywords become less important, for example, which makes a web writing gig feel less like you’re working as some sort of weird engineer of reverse-Google software.

Above the page level, though, things aren’t necessarily positive for keyboard tappers. One of the Atlantic suits says that “it’s about how we can spin a story so that it goes viral.” This could be a badly-worded version of a good intention or a threat to good journalism. That embarrassing or mundane, but nonetheless important, content that people sometimes need but don’t want to talk about becomes less important. In a journalism context this could revalue deep-thinking political analysis relative to, say, something about a horse that paints.

Ideally The Atlantic will aim to publish stuff that’s so good – rather than so cute or unique – that people want to share it. But it will be tempting to just make stuff that sounds like something people on Twitter want to read about. This would be the first banana peel at the top of a slippery slope to becoming the social media version of a content farm.

As I write this the most prominent article on The Atlantic home page looks encouragingly like real journalism:

Why Barack Obama Needs to Keep Joe Biden

But then it rolls over to something which reads suspiciously like a story built for Twitter:

Should you worry about 'Smartphone face'?
So congratulations to The Atlantic for your big new idea, and for having the sort of social media reach that lets you seriously prefer people-based sharing over search rankings. I like it. As for your execution, the jury’s still out.


This post is 1,239 words long with an average reading grade of 8.7.

Web writing

Making link text good for the reader, good for accessibility, and good for SEO

It’s easy to create hyperlinks that say “click here”, or “find out more”, but you need to do better. Writing links that say more about themselves is better for your readers, makes your content more accessible, and makes your page more appealing to search engines.