How Writing for Readers Appeals to Search Engines

If your business is online, chances are good you want your website to rank well in Google. It can drive new customers to your site, enticing them to buy from you. And those leads can be warmer leads than others you might have simply because they’re already searching for you or what you offer.

Ranking well in search engines depends on on-site factors (your content and copy) as well as off-site factors (like links pointing to your site). Today I want to touch on a key issue with on-site search engine optimization, or SEO.

Writing for Readers vs Writing for Search Engines

In the past, writing to rank well in search engines could lead to atrocious-looking content that could be borderline unreadable to visitors of your site — you know, the people you’re actually hoping to sell to.

That’s because old school SEO relied heavily on keyword phrases, which turned into “keyword stuffing.” SEO folks would encourage business owners to cram keyword phrases into their copy or blog content over and over again, in an effort to prove relevance to sites like Google.

Now some of us saw the writing on the wall from Day One. We knew that the best “writing for search engines” would always be strong writing for readers themselves. It was common sense. And those more responsible business owners embraced that.

Many others, however, didn’t. They wanted quick fix results even if they had no chance of lasting long-term, and there were plenty of SEO snake oil salesmen happy to sell it to them. So copywriting and blog content took two distinct paths:

  1. Writing for search engines — Often keyword-stuffed drivel that didn’t help or convert readers (and sometimes was designed to entice them to click off-site onto ads; yes, lousy content was sometimes intentional)
  2. Writing for readers — More traditional writing designed to inform, educate, entertain, and convert the reader

If you were a serious business owner and came to me for help, I’d tell you to go with Option 2 every single time. Not only did I know as a PR professional that shoddy content could hurt your reputation and business, but I knew as a web publisher in my own right (and editor for large online media properties at the time) that quality content mattered.

In this case, I was right from the beginning. 

My own sites ranked well. I didn’t see massive fluctuations every time Google updated their algorithm. My clients’ content ranked well similarly. And SEO pros I worked with (where I taught them how to keep the focus on quality for PR benefits without giving up the SEO benefits they were looking for) also earned similar bragging rights with their own clients.

What tended to happen to those who focused solely on writing for search engines? 

They got stuck in the algorithm-chasing game. Every time Google would change their algorithm to go after lousy content and bad practices they’d engaged in, they either went under or they had to overhaul things. Instead of focusing on fresh ideas and new content, they would have to update a large portion of their older content to bring it up to current standards.

And there’s a good reason some SEO folks pushed this content and sold it as “quick and easy” money and traffic…

They didn’t care if that content got penalized by Google later. To them, it was an excuse to sell clients additional services to update all of their old work.

Unfortunately I still know SEO people who operate this way. They employ low-level content producers (I hesitate to even call some of them “writers”). They may or may not speak your language well. They may or may not know anything about the subject matter you need them to write about. And chances are very good you won’t get something original. It will either be stolen or it will be pieced together from other sources.

Side note: These are the SEO folks who promise things will “pass Copyscape.” That just means they’ll rewrite enough words from someone else’s work so that a plagiarism detector can’t pick it up. Quick tip though: That doesn’t make it legal. Here in the U.S. rewriting an article is a derivative work, which only the copyright owner of the original is authorized to do or license. So you aren’t protected.

Basically, you would hire this low-priced “writer” or SEO firm to create your content or copy. And while you would save money up front, your results wouldn’t last, you’d have to pay even more later to have the same content fixed, and you’d put your reputation at risk in the process.

Readers vs Google: You Don’t Have to Choose

None of this is to say updating old content is a bad thing. (This very post is a new version of a much shorter older one where some information was outdated.) Many topics have evergreen appeal but will need updates to reflect current statistics, trends, or more recent experiences.

That’s okay. You should do those updates and keep making those pages work for you by attracting new readers.

But here’s the thing. You should only do that when it benefits your readers.

The visitors of your site — in most cases your target customers — should always be your priority. Businesses that don’t serve their customers’ needs well often aren’t around for long.

That doesn’t mean you should neglect search engines though. Fortunately Google’s gotten better at weeding out keyword-stuffed garbage in favor of higher-quality content (though they still have serious issues distinguishing between true authority and simple popularity, but that’s a topic for another day).

Every page of content or copy you write should still be well-optimized. You should have a target keyword phrase in mind. You should build links to each page that you want to rank well. Basic SEO practices aren’t inherently bad as long as you don’t abuse them to the detriment of actual people reading what you’ve written.

Here’s the thing I’ve been telling my clients for the past 17 years or so though. And it’s still true today:

Writing for readers is writing for search engines.

The higher the quality of your content, the more likely it is your site will become a trusted source people happily share and link to. And that goes much further toward earning you high Google rankings than any amount of shoddy keyword-stuffed copy ever could.

Things have changed a lot (mostly for the better) over the years. But there’s still a long way to go.

If you want to get the most out of your budget, the key isn’t hiring cheap or letting your SEO firm handle your content. It’s in hiring a pro who can get the job done right the first time creating something that people want to share and, more importantly, creating copy that converts.

Need help with your web copy or blog content? Get in touch with me any time.


Jennifer Mattern is a freelance business writer, professional blogger, consultant, and publisher.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and more than 20 years' experience in marketing and PR, specializing in digital PR and new media (with significant experience in social media, online marketing, SEO, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience, including web development, mostly in the WordPress environment.

In addition to offering client services, Jenn also developed and runs numerous online publications including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

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