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Writing For People, Not Search Engines

Writing for SEO

Recently, we urged marketers to remember to write their articles based around larger concepts, not just nitty-gritty keywords that might be off-putting or awkward fits for your content. Today, we’re going to broaden our focus to the way you write for your intended audience.

This is relevant because the crush of advice on the Interwebs today urges us to sound exactly like every other marketing writer, or at least one of a handful of personas. Boiled down they are:

  • High-minded, analytical marketing blogger who dispenses advice and swears a fair amount
  • Winking, sly marketing blogger who loves gifs (hey, wait…) and enjoys the use of punchy subheads
  • Breezy, news-style blogger who translates complex marketing topics into digestible bits

Whichever you’re trying to emulate, the goal is generally stated to be the same: Write to reach the largest possible intended audience, and write so search engines will pick up your content. There’s a little wiggle room on style, but chances are, most of the articles you read will be recognizable within those three types.

But what happens if you don’t fit into one of those buckets? What if you’re not scrutinizing every sentence for delicious SEO goodness? Chances are you feel like you should be, regardless of the audience you’re serving, and that’s what we want to talk about today.

Writing for search engines = not great

There are certain tradeoffs we writers all make to please Google. That might mean shorter sentences, more subheads than we’d normally use, or an emphasis on more digestible words that are SEO-friendly. It almost certainly means sprinkling in keywords, longtail and otherwise, that are relevant to the article.

To a certain extent, that’s just part of writing for a business. You start to steer into trouble when you build your content around your SEO, rather than starting with a key concept in mind and optimizing later. That leads to stilted sentences, awkward phrasing, and other jarring elements that take a reader out of your content.

It’s useful to remember that even if readers can find your article more easily because of extreme SEO-friendliness, they may not actually want to read it after all your effort, and search isn’t the only way you’re going to reach your audience anyways. Resist the temptation.

Greenlight syndrome

Of course, we’ve already given you pro tips for how to get that little light green for Yoast, and trying to nail the SEO focus of your article has genuine benefits. The readability, though? Less so.

Take the Flesch Reading Score that Yoast provides, and other similar metrics that are supposed to determine readability. The idea is to tell you if your writing is accessible enough, but it’s a very generic baseline that does nothing to take your actual audience into account. Consequently, chasing that little green light means following some very arbitrary guidelines.

What if your core audience is made up of professors and other academic professionals at Ivy League schools? Yoast is going to stubbornly refuse to give your dense, descriptive prose the desired green light, but your audience is likely to appreciate that you’re not dumbing concepts down for them. Even an audience without a Ph.D. reading level doesn’t want to feel pandered to.

Always keep your audience in mind

In other words, don’t forget who you’re writing for in the first place. The company you work for and the people you’re speaking to ultimately matter much more than what experts will tell you online, even if their advice is ultimately sound. Part of being a writer means being interesting, and not every audience has the same interests.

If you’re not a creative writer and your audience primarily comprises engineers, chances are your long-winded jokes won’t appeal to them as much as straightforward technical information. If you’re a creative professional writing for fellow creative professionals, an aptitude for drilling into highly analytical posts isn’t a job requirement (or even recommended). And so on.

Most audiences appreciate a little levity and creativity, but ultimately you know who you’re writing for more than we do. If your readers respond to a particular voice or style, and it’s a style you’ve honed and grown comfortable in, chances are you don’t need to change it.

Use your best judgment. The preferred marketing personas, expert advice, little lights, and SEO best practices are useful signposts on the road to content creation, but only if you know who you’re writing for.

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