Copywriting: Playing Nice with the Search Engines

When What’s Sexy in Graphic Design Isn’t Sexy in SEO

copywriting When I first began commercial website copywriting, there was a lot of brochure-ism on the web. That’s the ill-advised practice of writing web pages as though they were brochures. Brochure-ism is not a real word, of course, but if I keep using it, and you start using it, and we tell all our friends, and they tell all their friends, and everyone starts using it, it could make its way into the dictionary within a few years. The Internet is that dynamic. (Just ask the first person who said selfie.)

It is precisely because of this dynamism that brochure-ism has never worked. Brochures are inert. They may compel action, but they don’t invite interaction. Using brochure-style copy on a website is like showing up to a poker party and playing solitaire.

Over the years, I’ve seen brochure-ism dwindling. In its place has come a trend toward minimalist copy. More web pages look like magazine ads, where images tell the story while the copy is pithy. Take Apple’s current home page. It has beautiful images and one sentence of real copy: “You’re more powerful than you think.”

I personally find such pages aesthetically pleasing. I love their simplicity. They’re alluring. The copy exudes confidence and makes me want to stay. But they obviously aren’t written to please search-engine bots. From Starbucks to Lexus, just about every major brand is using this same minimalist, screw-SEO approach to copywriting. No wonder everyone wants to follow suit. Unfortunately, smaller businesses can’t get away with that, not if they want to get found. They don’t have the site authority to get away with that.

Search engines rely heavily—not exclusively, but heavily—on a web page’s copy in order to ferry end-users to the right places

Current SEO wisdom advises using several hundred words of copy, with just the right keywords in just the right volume and placement, to get noticed by the engines. This means that a minimalist page, no matter how appealing, can get buried in no-man’s land. That presents a little problem: What’s currently sexy in overall design for marketing is butting heads with what’s sexy in SEO.

In a sense, SEO makes some businesses feel forced to keep one foot in the land of brochure-ism. This is when getting found can conflict with getting read. Remember, nobody wants to read brochure-like copy on the web. By focusing too intensely on things like minimum word counts, you might get more traffic, but you won’t engage that traffic long enough to capitalize on it. What to do?

Mid-West Digital’s approach has long been to focus on natural writing first and worry about things like target keywords later. Often the pieces fall into place anyway as the writing unfolds. When they don’t, we reverse-engineer for those target keywords in a way that search engines can’t miss but end users won’t even notice. Of course, we take pages on a case-by-case basis to strike a balance between what users will enjoy and what the search engines think they want (not always the same, try as the algorithms might). After all, as part of a marketing family with roots decades deep in advertising, we know good content comes from creativity not rigidity. And when content isn’t good, people snub it.

Fortunately, like the Internet itself, search engines are dynamic, so their algorithms are constantly being refined to give them the finesse they need to replicate human desire. That’s really what they’re meant to do—show us the things we want. In the meantime, we play nicely with them and use heaps of creativity into sometimes saying with more words what we all know could be said with less, if only the client were Apple…or Starbucks…or Lexus.