How to Write Great Content for SEO

The current wisdom is that we should be writing content for our website’s visitors, and not for search engines. That great content is great, no matter what we do for SEO.  I agree with that – for the most part.

The point that that particular wisdom is missing is that search best practices, by and large, are a checklist of how to write articles that are great for web users.

Search Engine Best Practices Are Meant for Web Users

Where best practices are concerned, they are talking about making content user-friendly, meeting user intent, answering a question completely, and having the design of the site be so intuitive it doesn’t cause friction in the user’s understanding.

The title of this page is wrapped in an “H1” HTML tag, which should be used to signify the title of a page.  The bold subheading above is wrapped in “H2” which says that’s a section break, subheading, and less important than the title.  Were you, the reader, at all confused by this use of H1s and H2s on this page?  Nopity nope. In fact, it made perfect sense to you.

I tend to type in short bursts of sentences and paragraph break more often than I would in fiction or academic prose.  That’s really common for web writing, because we are using a different visual medium, and internet users tend to skim.  In fact, they skim a lot. They will jump to bold words and bullet points!

How People Really Read the Web:

  • Skim titles, things in bold
  • Read the first few sentences of the first paragraph
  • (Or the TL;DR if there is one)
  • Jump to pulled out quotes, photo captions and bulleted lists
  • If they are really interested, they might go back and read the whole thing
  • … but probably not.

Writing your content to get the maximum depth of understanding based upon people’s web skimming tactics is a great way to ensure you’ve covered all of the topics you need to cover.  Oh, and before I forget to mention it, all of these things are also on that list of best practices that your SEO person gave you.

Don’t Be Intimidated By the Word Jumble Game, Please

Google has read everyone’s content, and they have graded all the papers. They know which content includes all of the details necessary to show a complete answer to a user query.  That’s their job.

If we want to compete, then, we need to also use all of the pieces of a complete answer to a question.   Tactically, an SEO whiz can tell what words, phrases and questions should be included in an article by gazing at Search Engine Result pages, the pages of top-ranking competitors, and by brainstorming all of the things we need to know about a topic.  They then hand a list of words to a writer.

This is like the writing exercise in school where you have to fit those words into a page. It’s a creative challenge, not a constraint.  Synonyms are our friends, and we don’t need every one of them jammed on a single page.

What the word jumble does is allows us to ensure – checklist style – that we’ve answered all of the facets of the questions that people have about a topic.

But What about Keywords?

You know how we call it “rolling down the window” in the car, but we’re talking about pushing a little button. Or the meaninglessness of the “save” icon to a kid who has never seen a 3 1/2″ floppy diskette?  What about the phone receiver icon that we press on our smart phones to pick up or “hang up” a call?  Those symbolic anachronisms are about as relevant to modern SEO as the word “keyword”.

Yes, we still research volume of queries to specific topics, and make prioritization and decisions based on that.  But we don’t use a single keyword or phrase to be the end-all-be-all for the questions that web users have about a topic.  Often, you’ll here “topic” or “semantically related” ideas being bandied about in the SEO world way more than keywords.

The problem is that everyone knows that word, and just like the save icon being a relevant symbol for an obsolete technology, the word lives on.

It’s a Tool – Like a Checklist – Not a Formula

An obsolete SEO joke:

An SEO walks into a bar, tavern, pub, drinking establishment …

A more current SEO joke:

Q: How many SEOs does it take to change a lightbulb. 

A: Well,  it depends. 

Search is holistic, fluid, and really specific to each site’s industry, goals and visitors. Much of SEO is about finesse and improvisation.  The problem comes in when people still mistake it as being formulaic.  “Put this keyword here, and here, then synonym 1 goes here.”   I find that people who want to reduce search to always-do and always-don’t sorts of rules end up being frustrated by the job.  It’s always about trade-offs.

So how do you write great content for SEO?

Well, it depends. What are your visitors asking questions about?

The Princess and the Pea: My Sensory Diet Does Not Include Peas

Last week, I got accepted to pursue graduate studies at the Pacifica Graduate Institute. I start in the fall. One of the things that I’ll do in my Mythological Studies program is the archetypal analysis of fairy tales.  As I’ve also been seeing a Jungian analyst, and I’ve been a geek about these things for years, I’m not shy to say I’ve been playing with a fairy tale that’s bubbled up in my personal life.

With the psoriatic arthritis, I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts that I tend to lay under electric blankets on top of heaps of memory foam.  It doesn’t take a huge amount of imagination to understand why this reminded me of the story of the Princess and the Pea.

First, here’s the most common rendition of the tale:

The Princess and the Pea


Hans Christian Andersen


Once upon a time Image result for princess and the peathere was a prince who wanted to marry a princess; but she would have to be a real princess. He traveled all over the world to find one, but nowhere could he get what he wanted. There were princesses enough, but it was difficult to find out whether they were real ones. There was always something about them that was not as it should be. So he came home again and was sad, for he would have liked very much to have a real princess.

One evening a terrible storm came on; there was thunder and lightning, and the rain poured down in torrents. Suddenly a knocking was heard at the city gate, and the old king went to open it.

It was a princess standing out there in front of the gate. But, good gracious! what a sight the rain and the wind had made her look. The water ran down from her hair and clothes; it ran down into the toes of her shoes and out again at the heels. And yet she said that she was a real princess.

“Well, we’ll soon find that out,” thought the old queen. But she said nothing, went into the bed-room, took all the bedding off the bedstead, and laid a pea on the bottom; then she took twenty mattresses and laid them on the pea, and then twenty eider-down beds on top of the mattresses.

On this the princess had to lie all night. In the morning she was asked how she had slept.

“Oh, very badly!” said she. “I have scarcely closed my eyes all night. Heaven only knows what was in the bed, but I was lying on something hard, so that I am black and blue all over my body. It’s horrible!”

Now they knew that she was a real princess because she had felt the pea right through the twenty mattresses and the twenty eider-down beds.

Nobody but a real princess could be as sensitive as that.

So the prince took her for his wife, for now he knew that he had a real princess; and the pea was put in the museum, where it may still be seen, if no one has stolen it.

There, that is a true story.

The copy from the reader’s digest anthology my grandmother gave me for the Christmas of 1982 – the set that still bear my Garfield the cat bookplates and careful cursive – says “a true princess” rather than a real princess in the tale. Otherwise, the details are all identical, right down to the numbers of mattresses and eiderdowns, and the single pea.

Other Versions, In Other Cultures

Marie-Louise von Franz says in The Interpretation of Fairy Tales that “Fairy Tales are the purest and simplest expression of collective unconscious psychic processes.”  They are stories of the soul’s journey toward wholeness – toward individuation.

If that’s true, then the archetypes themselves should carry across cultures. They should be the realities of human experience, and not just isolated to one frame of reference or language.

I found this link to be the most useful – Listing the Danish story above along with the Italian “Most Sensitive Woman” and the Indian story “The Three Delicate Wives of King Virtue-Banner.” More on that in a bit.

Other Interpretations

Of course, I’m not the only person to read this fairy tale with the psyche in mind.

My Brief Attempt to Analyse

In the first paragraph of the story, the thing that is missing is a “real” princess.  None of the princesses are real enough.  The story begins with the prince and his search.  (This is why I don’t mesh with MaggieAnn’s idea as the princess as protagonist.)  The prince – the masculine or the conscious ego – knows that he’s missing the feminine / unconscious and he goes to seek her out.   He meets many princesses — aspects of the feminine – but none of them are quite right.

Perhaps this is because none of them are his.  To me, this sounds like the process of projecting the subconscious onto people around us – they look and act like what we want, but until we accept that aspect of ourselves, they aren’t quite right. The thing that he doesn’t have is an accurate way to measure their “rightness.” He knows the other princesses are wrong, but he can’t articulate what right is.

It’s interesting, because this is articulated in the Italian “Most Sensitive Woman”. The prince goes out to seek his wife, but only will accept “the most sensitive woman in the world.” He uses this measure to judge each of the women he comes upon.

Without explanation of why she’s in a torrential downpour without protection or entourage, the princess arrives and knocks at the gate. It’s a terrifying thunderstorm.   I’ve written about the process of ego-death, and the fear that that stirs. It often comes with chest-beating and sobbing. It often comes with tears.

The water runs down her hair and down her clothes and into her shoes and out the heels. It’s interesting that the imagery of the cold water traces her entire figure. In a lot of symbolic interpretations, water has the same impact as a mirror – allowing the self to be seen. Perhaps this is a glimpse of the prince’s shadow self outlined in the door in the dark of the night.

The old king – perhaps a representation of wisdom – opens the gate to admit the girl.  The old queen – the wily subconscious intuition – devises a test.  This is the subconscious knowing how to prove itself to the prince without a doubt.

There is only one trial, only one test. The sodden girl must sleep upon the most luxurious pile of mattresses ever described… where they hide a single dried pea.

I’ve been thinking about the pea. A pea is a food. It’s not ever meant to be eaten just one at a time. It even grows in pods. So something that is meant to nourish – and something that is meant to be taken in a large group – is placed in a place meant to annoy, irritate and test the princess. It’s out of place, to be sure, but a very innocent and small item. In the “sensitive woman” story, it’s a jasmine petal that falls on the woman’s foot and injures her.  In the Indian delicate wives tale, it’s jasmine petals, moonlight and the sound of a mortar and pestle several rooms away.  None of these are things that any typical person would see as problematic.

In the morning, the princess is black and blue from having spent the night atop her luxurious trap of a bed. The Queen – subconscious intuition – has provided an accurate measure of the sensitivity that only a true princess could possess.  The Prince happily marries this woman, because she’s clearly the right one, just as the prince agrees that the woman whose foot has been injured by a petal is the right one for him.  In both cases, the truly aristocratic and worthy measure was sensitivity.

At it’s most basic, I think the whole thing can be summed up that the prince needed to get in touch with his sensitive side.  Of course, that’s a bit of an oversimplification.  What he needed to get in touch with was the sensitive parts of himself that he had previously rejected. (What if the girl in the rain had been among the scores he had already sent away?)  He needed to have an accurate measure and understanding of that sensitivity, and he had to understand how it was valuable to him.

I’m sure I’m projecting a lot onto this – as I said, this is the story that is living in my psyche right now. There’s still something to be said about making sensitivity conscious.

A Sensitive (Sensory) Subject

From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

sensitive (adj.) late 14c., in reference to the body or its parts, “having the function of sensation;” also (early 15c.) “pertaining to the faculty of the soul that receives and analyzes sensory information;” from Old French sensitif “capable of feeling” (13c.) and directly from Medieval Latin sensitivus “capable of sensation,” from Latin sensus, past participle of sentire “feel perceive” (see sense (n.)).
Meaning “easily affected” (with reference to mental feelings) first recorded 1816; meaning “having intense physical sensation” is from 1849. Original meaning is preserved in sensitive plant (1630s), which is “mechanically irritable in a higher degree than almost any other plant” [Century Dictionary].

One of the things I’ve mentioned is that I’m learning to embrace my sensitivity.  I’ve written about the experience of overstimulation, and I’ve even mentioned this story before in prior blog posts. I’m definitely more mechanically irritable than a lot of people I know, even if I’m not a plant.

While I knew that I processed things differently, it never occurred to me that there were ways to work with my nature instead of against it until very recently.  I came home and collapsed in an exhausted heap for years after having a too-stimulating work day.  I was in a near-constant state of overwhelm.  My body’s extreme stress reaction was as much to the modern “open workspace” office layout as it was to the actual workday stress.

As I learn more about “sensory diets” – ways to adjust sensory input to enhance focus and improve performance along with daily tasks and routines – it’s incredibly useful.  There are three categories of sensory inputs: Organizing, Calming, and Alerting.

In terms of my life before the arthritis, I would say that I most valued the Organizing function. This included housework, clearing visual clutter, heavy workouts, fidgeting with stress balls, and weighted blankets. A deep massage would fall under this category.  I did often feel scattered by the world around me, so the organizing inputs were necessary – but I may have given them too much priority. Now, in my new world, I use these to transition between one part of my day and the next, or to recover from unexpected interruptions.

Since the arthritis, I long for and cling to the Calming activities and inputs. Warmth. Cushioning. Softness. Sweetness. Good smells, Long, rhythmic, easy music. Dim light. No surprises. Nothing unexpected.  One of the things my therapist and I have discussed is that I’m less reliant upon sugar as a source of solace when I have other calming sensory inputs.   These were needs I saw as “too sensitive” and “lazy” and a “waste of time.”  Because I judged them so poorly, I didn’t value them or make time to prioritize them.  Now, I probably weight my day more with these than anything else. Aromatherapy for my office, my memory-foam-float naps, and lots of time petting spoiled cats.

I have habitually avoided Alerting inputs for the last several years. A pea under my mattress would be alerting.  This includes unexpected sounds, loud sounds, bright lights, interruptions, strong flavors, coolness or coldness, crunchy food.  This includes unexpected touches – which I tend to reflexively wince away from.  My old office was chalk-full of these suckers. Now, because I am structuring my day mindfully, I use these for the times when I actually need to be made a little more alert!   For example, right before I start working for the morning, I walk barefoot in the dew in my back yard and toss the ball for the dog.  It’s cold! And wet! Boy, am I awake!

So, yeah, I really don’t like peas. Not including them in my plan. But more than that, I’m noticing that the calming activities have been in my own shadow for a long time, and I’m embracing them.

Story Structure: East v West (Yin v Yang?)

I’ve been thinking about endings a lot lately. About twists, and how to end a story in a way that satisfies me, and satisfies my readers. I’ve been reworking and rewriting the ending of Salvaged, and I really wanted to get it right – not just in terms of the story, but in terms of the story’s structure.    I was not convinced – until much deliberation was undergone – that I absolutely positively HAD to end the book with a big fight scene. I held this internal argument that much of the character’s arc is internal, and her “long dark night of the soul” was perhaps enough.  It wasn’t. I wrote the fight scene. But not until after I did a lot of research on the subject.

East v West Story structures

What I found, when I started digging around for the structural bits about plot writing was that there are really only two major schools of thought about this.  Most of the Western story-tellers will act as if the Western escalating-tension arc is the only way to write a story.  I could go on a little feminist rant that ends with “down with the patriarchy!” but I think you get the idea.

There is more than one way to satisfy the needs of a moving forward plot and a twist at the end of a book.

Eastern “Haiku” Story structure

The technical term which I will not repeat is called Kishōtenketsu story structure.  The linked post does a good job of explaining the structure in terms of plot, but honestly, it’s exactly the same thing I’d learned about how to structure haiku. Two related lines, one unrelated line that makes no sense, final line that resolves the conflict in understanding between two and makes the whole thing feel complete.

I really want to try to write a story in this form. It’s common among Anime and Manga, of course, but less common in works that originate in the US.  I also think it’s more Yin, less confrontational, and possibly perplexing to an average reader.  I desperately want to dig into this arc. I just need to find the right story for it.

Alas, Salvaged is not that story.

Western “Male-ejaculatory arc”

Let’s talk about the narrative arc that is more common (and often touted as the only way to move plot forward) the standard rising-conflict 3 or 5 act arc (this outstanding piece is full of swearing and brilliant).    I felt like I learned more about this story structure from watching the film Gravity, than I have reading a thousand how-to articles.  Of course, there are dozens of fantastic examples of this structure, because it’s the predominant form of storytelling.

It requires there to be conflict – like actual trouble and problems and bashing in of skulls. There has to be a “winner” and a “loser”.  It is combative, war-like and sometimes violent.  Contrast this with the Haiku version that creates tension in the reader’s mind by introducing a non-sequitor element.

Art mirrors life mirrors art.

Metaphors we live by

This reminds me of the book Metaphors We Live By and the fact that English words and metaphors for argument are equally warlike and combative.  There are winners and losers of all spoken confrontations and debates in the ways that the English language wraps around the concept.

I really want to explore some stories where the nature of the thing is not war, but perplexity. That the resolution is not one of winning and losing but of understanding and clarity.  I think it might be a lovely brainspace to explore….

Extreme White Hat

In a conversation with another SEO last week, my personal philosophies surrounding SEO were called “Extremely White Hat”. I really couldn’t tell from his tone of voice whether he thought that was a good thing, or a bad thing.  I had a hunch that if it showed results, he wasn’t too averse to a little smudge of dirt on his cowboy hat.

Not me.

Here’s what I said back to him, and what I stand by:

SEO is not a short-term strategy. It’s a long-term strategy.

If you want search engine traffic in the short term, you buy pay-per-click adwords.

If you want to have long-term rankings in the organic search results, you plan on it taking anywhere from six months to a year to do it the right way.  When setting goals for the business, you don’t plan on it reaching its peak potential until two years out.

Then, you don’t take any shortcuts, you don’t do anything that “might be grey” with the hopes that it will sneak past undetected. You do the work. You do it right. You make the website a good place for users and for search engines.  You create good content.

This is how you maintain rankings at the 2.5 year mark when the next Penguin update rolls out. This is how you see your traffic increase after a Panda update. This is how you can sleep well at night about doing your job well.

Yes, my hat is squeaky-clean white. That’s because I want the site I’m working on to do well three years from now as much as I want it to do well today.


Social Media Tip: Play before Work

This bit of advice surfaced in a discussion at an in-house SEO event I attended last weekend, and I think it merits a note. We were talking about companies selecting people to run their Social Media campaigns and what criteria they should use.  My experience at the car dealership immediately sprang to mind. I selected people who already used each platform.

The best Social Media marketers and salesmen are the ones who are already playing in the medium.

Social Media is not really one easy part of the sales / marketing funnel. It’s better used for building brand-love, and for connecting with fans and customers. Someone who has been on Twitter for a few months for their own purposes knows this. Anyone who scrolls past fan page content on their Facebook newsfeed understands that intuitively.  Casual users understand the culture and the social rules.

I’m following a bunch of authors who get this right. Who let their personalities shine through, who chat with other people. Then, sometimes (and only sometimes), they toss information out there about their books.  This is appropriate. And expected.

I’m also following a bunch of authors who get this terribly wrong. They seem to have a lot of followers, and they seem to be retweeted often, but this is deceptive. They are followed by people who follow-back automatically. They are retweeted by people who use their accounts exclusively to push their own books or retweet others.  No one is reading this. No one is responding to it. No one cares.

If you want to schedule a whole bunch of repetitive tweets that will get lost in the noise and never generate a sale. By all means, build your platform that way.

If you want to actually have fans and people who care about you and your success, it’s time to change the game.

My advice: Don’t try to sell anything – yours or anyone else’s anything – for two months.

Log in every day. Send out notes and @-replies every day. But don’t try to sell anything.  Make friends. This will help you learn how the medium works. It will let you see examples of what not to do in your own feed, because they will irritate and distract you.  It will help you intuit how to improve your own interactions.  You’ll learn the culture.

After two months, you can start selling again, but I guarantee that if you try this experiment, you will change your tactics.

Related post: Why I’ve Unfollowed You On Twitter