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Writing for SEO: Dumb Robots, Smart Robots, and Hungry Humans

When I was 13 years old, most of my days looked pretty similar. Got up, went to school. Same class schedule every day. Lunch at 10:20 am because apparently that’s something humans do sometimes. Off the bus and at home no later than 3:00 pm, then it was downstairs to the family Hewlett-Packard to fire up AOL Instant Messenger to chat with the classmates I didn’t say a word to in person earlier that day. Back then, I’d spend hours chatting with people on AIM, or updating my profile, or finding the next cool animated Buddy Icon. It was a social network before anybody really used social networks.

Enter SmarterChild

And back then, like today, it wasn’t uncommon to find fake user accounts online. Bots. Except today when you find a bot on Facebook, it’s a fake profile looking to scam someone or something. On AIM, the fake accounts came in the form of things like SmarterChild, a ridiculously stupid chat bot that everybody just screwed with all the time.

I’m not sure what SmarterChild’s expressed purpose was, other than to be a nifty little program you could talk to. Maybe it was supposed to help you look up movie times or check the weather. It didn’t work well, but I’m probably being too hard on it. For the time, this was super advanced stuff. Think Siri, but somehow even worse than Siri is now.

I’m thinking about SmarterChild today because in the last few years, despite all the advances in search algorithms and changes in the way companies like Google evaluate and rank content on the web, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been given an assignment from a client that felt less like writing a blog post with any value and, well, more like writing something for SmarterChild.

See, when SmarterChild was still a thing, that’s when the ancestors of today’s mature search engines were first really getting their start. It carries, then, that the two systems were fairly similar in their ability to parse and understand text input from any random user. Take the above image of SmarterChild as an example of this. Clearly, the program’s algorithm is designed to search for a few commonly used phrases to react to. In the absence of those phrases, it would search for patterns that would suggest the subject of a user’s input, which SmarterChild could then mindlessly repeat back in the context of pre-programmed placeholder text.

So at its best, SmarterChild talked like this:

SEO Writing for Dumb Robots

When Metonymy Media first got off the ground, we did a lot of SEO writing that had a very similar feel to it. We’d be told to write an article, 350-500 words in length, with approximately three uses of a pre-determined keyword phrase (which had to be used in the title and in at least one headline), plus three links to include (one of which being a link to the end client’s target landing page for this campaign. Sometimes, the client would even underline or italicize those keywords just to be absolutely sure the search crawlers would pick up on them.

We had one client just a year and a half ago–and I promise this is not an exaggeration–tell us to write them blog posts for their clients that were exactly 350 words in length and used their keyword phrases eight times per article. Do the math there. For a four-word keyword phrase, that was 32 words of mindless keyword usage. Almost 10% of those articles were freaking keywords.

And while the robots might have been so dumb at one point as to have needed that kind of direction, I can’t help but feel like anyone who tackles SEO in their writing like this, with all the mindless keywords and backlinks and giant, flaming signals, is writing for the wrong robot.

Wall-E and the Human Connection

Consider this: In the first 20 minutes of the Pixar film Wall-E, there isn’t a single word of dialogue. Instead, we follow around this cute little robot, apparently the last operational machine left on the face of the polluted and used-up planet Earth, as he goes about his business of compacting garbage. When he finds something he likes, he keeps it for his home inside a large shipping container.

Every night, Wall-E goes home with his cockroach pet and watches a VHS copy of Hello, Dolly. He watches the people sing and dance. Watches the way they talk to each other. The way they kiss and hold hands. In a particularly poignant moment, we see him reaching his own hand out to the other to hold it, just to know what it feels like.

We don’t need words to connect with this robot. This robot doesn’t use words. He’s more interested in feelings, in connections, in being social.

So when a far more advanced robot shows up from outer space on a scouting mission, Wall-E is understandingly curious. Of course, as happens in these kinds of movies, something goes wrong and the new robot, Eve, ends up locking up after the two of them make friends. We’re then treated to a montage of Wall-E parading Eve’s frozen body around, mimicking everything he’d seen in his movie. They dance, they row a boat, they cuddle together. It’s super cute.

Now, if you ask me, I think it’s a real shame people still equate Google’s search crawlers with something as outdated as SmarterChild. Sure, there was a time when the tech needed clear signals within the text itself in order to understand and rank web content. It had nothing else to look at, after all. So people who write with a certain number of keywords make it easier for the crawlers to match up user queries with content. And people who use the right balance of backlinks get a higher authority, and get ranked higher. But that’s not how it works anymore.

Go into Google and search for any random service you might need in your local area, like a malpractice attorney. If you were from Indianapolis and were to search for an “Indy malpractice attorney,” Google is now smart enough to show you results that may only include the phrase “Indianapolis medical malpractice lawyer” because it knows what you meant. To that end, while keywords are important in much broader content strategies (where you’re trying to organically win keywords that are too expensive to buy with PPC, for example), if you think about your content from the reader’s perspective, it starts to matter a whole lot less which specific keywords you use, or how often.

Fittingly enough, thinking about content from the reader’s perspective is exactly what Google is doing these days. As the tech allows for it, new algorithms are consistently focusing less and less on keywords and simple backlink witchcraft, and focusing more and more on things like the amount of time a user spends reading an article, or how many other pages on a website they go to after reading that article, or how many people are sharing it socially. In other words, the algorithms are thinking less about the text itself, and more about the reader. Like Wall-E, the robots are now examining the cultural qualities of human readers, learning what they’re hungry for, and following their lead.

And that makes sense, doesn’t it? What better way to rank a piece of content’s value to a reader than to consider how other readers value that piece of content?

The New Rule of Writing for SEO

With that in mind, I tend to boil down the new list of rules for good SEO writing down to one: Write for humans. Write so that your real life human audience will want to read. Write in a way that keeps them on the page, and leaves them wanting more. Write so they feel something, so they are spurred to some kind of action, even if that action is just clicking a link to another page on your website.

There are plenty of other best practices you’ll find out there about how to win the SEO game with your content. People will still tell you to only write articles around 500 words, for example, because readers only have a 500-word attention span. While that advice is at least coming from the right place–think about your reader, not about the tech–I tend to take offense to the assertion that your average reader won’t stick with you past 500 words. Maybe, if your strategy is based solely around keyword research, the problem is you really can’t say anything interesting in more than 500 words. If you write good content (whatever that means to your target audience), word count doesn’t matter. Keywords, apart from global marketing strategy, don’t matter so much as far as reader engagement, either.  What matters most of all is that you write good content, or you hire trained, experienced writers.

At Metonymy Media, we’ve even put that to the test. We took our own blog for 10 months and threw out all strategy, all best practices, all advice the man has to give about good SEO writing. No keywords, no word count restrictions, not even a general topic requirement. We let our writers do whatever they want with the content, so long as the content was well-written and engaging.

The result? Our average time on page for these pieces skyrocketed to 7, 8, even up to 9 minutes in some cases. Some of those pieces were over 1,500 words long. Those are unheard of numbers throughout the industry, and that’s the sort of writing that turns readers into engaged, informed, and compelled customers.

That’s what SEO is all about, right?

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