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The Poetry of SEO

It IS possible to write with both your audience and search engines in mind. Learn how to find your voice within the limitations of SEO here.

In SEO and inbound marketing, the big buzzword of late has been ‘content.’ Everybody is concerned with developing and marketing great content. But the word itself, content, doesn’t mean anything more than something that fills something else. Content, on its own, can be quite an ugly word. But if we’re interested in breaking away from the vapidity of the word, we’re going to have to do something about it. (Fellow content strategists, I’m looking at you.)

W.B Yeats, in his poem “The Fascination of What’s Difficult” – written, actually, about writer’s block – describes the feeling of being emptied of the “natural content of [his] heart.” While ‘natural content,’ in this context, may be a rather cold expression, it is also an anomalous one. What is natural content? It surely must mean something to marketers, to whom everything means something.

And, by extension, what is unnatural content?

Natural content is, naturally, what we feel. So unnatural content must be what we say, and especially what we write. We, as inbound marketers, ever concerned with the production of content, busy ourselves mostly with the unnatural variety – especially because we create for the web, arguably the most unnatural and demanding platform ever made available to publishers. And yet: We must feed the beast.

Content marketing – Finding naturalism in the domain of the unnatural

Poetry

Ever the binarist, Yeats also wrote, quite famously, that “the intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work, / And if it take the second must refuse / A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.” Those of you reading this on the glow of your office computer at 9 pm can likely confirm his thesis.

Coincidentally, Yeats was quite fond of working by the steady glow of late-night candlelight. Unnatural content, it must be said, always overwhelms us when we let it. Sometimes it can be hard to look past the keywords in metadata, and examine our copy as actual user-driven content.

The key for inbound marketers is to re-establish the connection between the work – unnatural content, our shaping of the external world; and the life – natural content, our own internal world. A disconnect between these two concepts results, generally, in lackluster content, which causes marketers to fall into the habits that have made ‘SEO’ a troubling bit of nomenclature.

So as inbound marketers, we must – if we’re interested in the intellectual legitimacy of our industry – must reconnect our content with legitimate passion. We need to make our content great while always keeping the needs of the client or brand we represent front and center. This is our challenge.

Why we want natural content

Search engines seem to love natural content, probably because users love natural content. As latent semantic indexing becomes more and more complex, search engines reward a diversity of language – rather than a repetition of keywords.

Inbound marketing agencies are becoming more and more prominent in the branding space as our services continue to expand outward from SEO. If we can create content from a place of honesty – and for marketing this boils down to honest interest in the product or brand we’re marketing – we can potentially pull ourselves up to the heights of commercial artistry generally reserved for our cousins in the ad agencies.

And because the limitations of commercial content are, even in the digital space, rooted mainly in subject (i.e. what we can get away with writing about), innovations are generally found in the vertical axis of style. Therefore natural content is not what we say, but how we say it.

And how we say it is (or at least should be) how the user is searching for it. How we are saying it, if we’ve done our market research, should be a reflection of the very people we’re trying to reach. But we certainly won’t reach them by boring them to death. It’s not a coincidence that the golden age of advertising was coterminous with the rise of post-modern art – the art of style over substance. Or rather, style as substance.

That is the conceit we’re working with. We are not bound by the limitations of search, but rather our creative obstacles are informed by the fact. The challenges of creating content within a narrow framework encourages ingenuity – or, if we’re lazy, replication. It inspires us to imagine new ways to circumvent the rigidity of the medium – or it allows us an excuse to produce derivative content. The choice is ours, but overcoming obstacles should always make us better at what we do.

Chess game

Finding voice within limitation: the real poetry of SEO

Once you start talking about voice you have to begin making some distinctions. First, you have to understand the difference between voice and tone. Your writing voice is like your singing voice: it may get better with practice, but it’s not really going to change. If you’re a baritone you’re a baritone. Your agency or your clients gave you a job because (presumably) you have a beautiful voice. Stop worrying about that. The challenge, really, is to apply your naturally good voice to work within a given brand’s tone, and that comes down to a willingness to wrestle with yourself.

The Shakespearean sonnet is by no means an easy thing to write – if any poem is actually easy to write. But the sonnet is certainly one of the hardest. Though its rigid structure, while somewhat restrictive in the drafting phase, is ultimately an empowering form. So, I posit, is SEO.

It’s a matter, one, of distillation. The nature of solid SEO copy disallows irrelevancy. You have to stay on point. It is essential that you employ natural language in a way that feels slightly unfamiliar to readers – just enough to make them curious. Just enough to drive their response, generally in the form of a click. That’s what we’re hired to do, though that may not be the language we use when describing our services to clients.

Secondly, the very nature of overcoming challenges to get your point across will make your point sharper. No kernel of an idea grows into anything worthwhile from not being challenged.

Our dedication to SEO , or Inbound Marketing, deserves more than copy that just hits keywords. We need copy that hits keywords and then transcends them.

SEO is a demanding structure, but I argue that it is ultimately one that can make us stronger. It is the self-correcting diagnosis of the web. It is the organization of our content. SEO is, ultimately, a reminder to write well.

I say utilize it.

Creating Passionate SEO Content

The meta description tag is Google’s gift to the copywriter. When Google kicked meta descriptions out of the community of factors influencing their search engine rankings, copywriters were given a free pass to write whatever they wanted. The focus could finally be on users, not keywords. It was like the old days of ad copywriting.

For a good example, let’s take a look at how the folks at Old Spice do it. Now, Old Spice always has great content and bold social media campaigns, and they generally tend to sit right at the forefront of their game. Take a look at how they use verbiage from their current ad campaign in a unique twist for their meta description tag, which contains only one major keyword:

Old Spice SERP

Awesome, right? Deodorant is not an easy subject to write about. Seriously. But this copy covers 4 major points:

  1. Hits the target keyword once, so it pops.
  2. Integrates the feel of their ad campaign all the way down to the metadata (a major part of the new SEO process).
  3. Creates a call to action that is charming and inviting, and undoubtedly drives conversion.
  4. Most importantly, (as I said in the previous section) disarming and then intriguing the user with unfamiliar, poetical language: mansmells. That word sounds like it could have leapt right off the pages of Joyce’s Ulysses

In the wrong hands, promotional copy can read a bit like the meta description from this Speed Stick landing page:

Speed Stick SERP

Typo aside, this uninspiring copy does almost nothing for the user. It’s a passionless, 2003-era blurb – a relic from the time that keywords actually mattered in metadata. And it’s not like Speed Stick doesn’t have a pretty strong advertising campaign to pull from. They do, kinda. They just haven’t really given their digital properties that much thought.

It’s no wonder that Old Spice continues to be a leader in the brand space – and not just in their vertical. Their efforts (along with those of their ad agency Wieden+Kennedy) are putting creativity, absurdity, and irony (the good kind) back in the advertising forefront – particularly in their most recent spot featuring a man and his wolves, which aired (only in Alaska: wolf country) during the recent Super Bowl.

The Responsibility of Inbound Marketers

As creators of online content aimed at mass appeal, it is our responsibility to do everything we can to make the content we produce great, and artistic, and poetical. We will often fail, especially if greatness is our objective. But since, quite frankly, people interact with sponsored content significantly more often than they read books of poetry and high literature, we owe it to our audience and our art to at least make an effort.

Inbound marketers: what are your ideas to add more art to our industry? How important is creativity to you and your clients? Join the conversation in the comments section.

 

  • http://twitter.com/JamiePend Jamie Pendergrass

    They say Ulysses, tired of wonders, wept with love on seeing Ithaca, humble and green. SEO is that Ithaca, a green eternity, not wonders…

    Or apparently not!

    • Devin Asaro

      Ithaca wasn’t the same when Odysseus made it home. Time had taken its toll. (Best not to stay adrift too long.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=888490174 Elizabeth Joss

    What a beautiful blog post. Very inspiring words.

    • Devin Asaro

      Thanks Elizabeth. I’m glad this resonated with you.

  • Jorgen Johansson

    I’m an SEO content writer myself and I second this motion. My background is in journalism, but I dare say that SEO writing is far more challenging because it’s results driven in a way covering news isn’t. The “natural” style of writing is something I started advocating from day one in the industry.

    • Devin Asaro

      Great feedback, Jorgen. I admire the directness of journalism, and I think SEOs have a lot to learn from news reporters as well. Our industry has a lot of room for growth and influence.

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  • Guest

    Devin, what you posit here is exactly what I’ve been thinking. My first love is literature and the kind of fiction that emphasizes style as substance, where wordsmithing and sentence design matter. But by profession I’m a trade rag editor / journalist and content marketer, and I’ve always loathed lackadaisical writing of any kind, much of which I encounter in my own publication and industry. I’ve had people tell me, “Just make sure to have this much keyword density and kind of say something along these lines, but focus on the keywords.”

    It pains me when that happens because I care greatly about sentence design and wordplay. To me, restrictions aren’t roadblocks, they’re invitations to flex creativity.

    I’m always looking for an opportunity to inject style into what I write to make it enjoyable for both me as the writer and my audience of readers. I have met several people who think along the same lines as you, and it’s refreshing when I do.

    Anybody dealing in words should read this. And then pick up a story by someone like Barry Hannah and experience what it’s like to encounter fresh, innovative combinations of language that pop out stylistically while conveying a message with clarity that can only be achieved by such craftsmanship.

    Let’s hope more literary-minded people flow into the ranks of content marketing and elevate it to the artform it deserves to be.

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  • http://twitter.com/SEO_cutie_pie YouLee
    • Devin Asaro

      Thanks for pointing that out. Link is fixed!

  • http://www.facebook.com/eve.demange Eve Demange

    Love this post ! Totally share your ideas (even your first remark about this curious word “content”, I actually wrote a post about that on my own blog). I have been working as a SEO web copywriter and a web content strategist for 15 years now in France. At the beginning, I used to have a very serious and strict approach to web content, “hey you’re not here to laugh, the content is a very serious thing, bla bla bla”.
    Well, it seems the older I get, the more sensitive I become to the creative part of our job. After years of SEO search and keywords auditing, I think content should remain the land of emotion, the core of humanity, written by SEO poets :-)