Nitty-Gritty SEO Truth Telling

I am a proponent of SEO. I think, in theory, it’s a great idea. The internet is so flooded with content that there has to be a systematic approach to organizing, validating, and promoting better content. Here’s the problem though: SEO is kind of like outer space. We know it’s there, we know it’s doing something, but aside from 20 or so concrete theories, we don’t really understand it.

Google’s algorithm is complex. So complex that we (SEO enthusiasts) really do only know about 20 or so out of the 200 factors that influence it. I’ve worked with a lot of clients on optimizing their sites, and I’ve spent a good deal of time floundering around with it myself. Here’s what I’ve learned:

The bone-chilling problem with keywords:

Fine, I’ll admit it: keywords matter. I hate it, but they do. I think of them like tiny anchor points. Words that Google can scan, register in a jiffy, and place into their massive index.

Programs like MOZ hail under the belief that if you find a keyword sweet spot — meaning it’s searched for, but not too much — you can optimize for it and steal away all those aimless searchers, looking for “taco takeout Paris Texas”. The problem with that is if you plug in a million keywords you’re going to find quite a few that hit that sweet spot. You’re going to land on one, and hopelessly devote yourself to it like it’s the only way anyone will ever find your website.

Now, this is where my true writerly habits and hates come into play. Have you ever tried to write content around a keyword or long tail keyword like “taco takeout Paris Texas?” Even if you can somehow shove that exact phrasing into your landing page 3–4 times, you’re going to end up with something entirely illegible.

Instead, if you tailor your work to reflect what your company does, and delivers, you should be optimizing naturally. Keywords still matter in the sense that knowing your product matters. Optimizing for certain keywords helps ensure that you’re using the right language to describe your company. Language that customers will inherently understand.

How SEO Makes for Shit Content:

I write web content for a living. Which means, more than once, I’ve had to see content I’ve worked on crucified for the sake of SEO. This is entirely the wrong mindset. SEO is designed to deliver good content to people who are searching for it. If we’re suddenly tailoring all content to fit SEO standards one: Google will inevitably shift their ever-shifting algorithm to account for that, and two: the internet will be comprised of truly awful writing!

I don’t use exclamation points often, and I don’t use it lightly here. Writing is important. It is our only means of concise communication. For all the people who continue to believe “content is king”, thank you. And for those of you who don’t believe that, you’re wrong. Here’s why:

SEO is the draw, writing is the hook:

Say you test 10–20 long tail keywords for your homepage. Of those 10–20, two hit the sweet spot. Instead of optimizing for both, because you’re already short on substance, you choose one. Let’s say the keyword is “unique flight experience.” You choose a ridiculous long tail keyword because your competitors who are ranking for the keywords you actually want: flying, flight, unique airplane, etc. are Boeing, Airbus, and a bunch of airlines. You know that ranking for a keyword they’re already using means you’ll never show up ahead of them.

So, you stick with “unique flight experience,” because every time someone types this incredibly specific string of words into a search engine your site is going to show up. Woohoo!

According to SEO guidelines there are a few things you have to change right off the bat:

  1. Your keyword needs to be in your title and H1 (or you can wrap your title into your H1)
  2. Your keyword needs to show up within the first 100 words
  3. Your keyword needs to show up ~2–3 times for every 400 words (this is argued so often, I’m not really sure where the number has landed)
  4. Your alt tags, meta description, and meta title all need to contain your keyword
  5. You need to say your keyword 17 times throughout the day otherwise Beetlejuice will appear.

Alright then. You did it, you optimized the hell out of your website. Now you enjoy typing in “unique flight experience,” because without a doubt there’s your site, numero uno. There are going to be some stragglers who find your site through this keyword, and every time you see that on Google Analytics you’re going to feel a rush of success. SEO is confusing, and you’ve mastered it. But you’re a little concerned about your conversion rate, and your bounce rate is loitering around 87%.

So, here it is again in case you have a habit of skimming over headers: SEO is the draw, writing is the hook. Your keyword optimization may be bringing people to your site, but your relentless use of an incoherent long tail keyword means that once customers get to your site they have literally no idea what your selling, talking about, and will probably assume that your content was written by a robot.

SEO that destroys legibility is not only useless, but damaging.

What to do about SEO:


SEO forces you to write with direction. It makes you identify a subject, and stick with it. It’s not new. Writing with direction is a fundamental principle of writing. Headers are just a hierarchy of information or… an index. Out bound links are just proof of sources. None of this is new. It’s just good writing.

So, use SEO as it was meant to be used — to optimize content not detract from it. Don’t run a post through a program like Yoast, and assume that because you get the green light there, your content is sound. Take a critical, editorial look at everything you write.

I believe in SEO. I think it’s here to help us sift through the mountains of content, and I think you can use it in a smart and effective way. Focus on building an audience, a loyal following, and organic growth. Optimize for things that really matter: your url, your meta tags, and meta descriptions. And use keywords that are actually relevant to your subject.

I’ve been reading a lot about this subject lately, here are some good posts to check out if you want to hear what other people are saying:

Yoast’s shocking exposé on how homepage SEO doesn’t exist and then MOZ’s subsequent rebuttal, and finally Yoast’s backtracking, and this fiery post about a healthy dose of SEO skepticism.

Also, I find this site quite helpful. It shows you how Google sees your site. Pretty valuable information there, particularly for headers.




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