Heather Lloyd-Martin on the Do’s and Don’ts of SEO Copywriting

Heather Lloyd-Martin is considered a pioneer when it comes to SEO copywriting. She has proven experience and an in-depth understanding of what works and what doesn’t. In this interview, she shares some of the most important things that copywriters should – and shouldn’t – do when writing online sales copy.

CI: How did you come to be a copywriter?

Well, actually it was something I fell into. I was, once upon a time – this is years ago – working as an advertising sales manager. And every once in a while, I would have to create the copy. I wondered how to do it in a way that would be better for the clients, because I realized that the more the ad sold, the more they would want to advertise with me, and the more money they’d spend.

So I started reading a lot of books about how to do it. I read a lot of Bob Bly and a lot of other folks. Eventually, I started honing the craft from there. I had a sales background, and my family had always had a sales background … so there was some stuff that I kind of intuitively picked up.

But it wasn’t until I got to test my skills that I figured out what worked and what didn’t.

CI: And how did you come to specialize in writing copy for search engine optimization?

I pretty much fell into it. It was about 1997, and I was starting to write copy for websites. I was freelancing at the time, and I was doing some Web writing, though it wasn’t a whole lot back then.

I was on a discussion list called WTB (Women Talk Business). It’s funny, because that is where a lot of female Internet marketers got their start – on that discussion board. We would swap stories, and talk about what worked and what didn’t. A woman who was working in search engine optimization – Jill Whalen – contacted me and said, “I have these clients. They always need copy. I’m wondering if you can come in and learn how to put the key phrases into the copy to make it work.”

At that time, nobody was talking about the content. Nobody was really considered to be an SEO copywriter. It was just sort of a service that she was offering. She knew that the quality of the content helped her customers do better. It helped them make more money. So I started working with her. About six months after that, we started a newsletter called the Rank Right Newsletter.

Rank Right was sort of the coming out of SEO copywriting. Jill would talk about how to do things in terms of the optimization and coding, and I would address the same question, but in terms of the content and what they could do from a copywriting angle to reach whatever goal they wanted to reach.

It all flowed from the Rank Right Newsletter. Danny Sullivan, who is considered a guru of search engine optimization, had a conference series. (He was a journalist who reported on the engines a lot back in 1995.) It was called Search Engine Strategies, and he invited Jill and me to come speak at it.

That launched an entirely new career for me. It started a brand-new niche that I wasn’t even expecting to get into. It really was the “right time, right place.” I became an SEO copywriter and started figuring out what best practices were – and now it’s an established part of search engine optimization. It’s really wild when I think about how it all happened.

CI: So, what are some of the fundamental and enduring rules of search engine copy?

A big, overarching one is that you’re always writing for two masters. You’re writing to your customers, so you’re writing good, persuasive, direct-marketing copy in order to get them to take action. But the search engines need to see the copy presented in a certain way, with words in there in a way that makes it possible for them to find that page relevant for whatever your key term is.

So, the first rule is to know that you’re writing for both your customers and the search engines. You probably want to default more to the customer side, because they are the ones who are paying the bills. But if you don’t do what you need to do for the search engines, they are not going to position your copy well.

There are other basic rules, too. For example, when you are writing copy, don’t pack it full of key phrases. Always do your key phrase research first, so you know how people are searching. But from that, you write in a way that still fits direct-response copywriting standards. You don’t take those phrases and just shove them in the page and figure they fit. There’s a way to do it so you get the conversions you need to have, but also make it good for the engines.

That’s where I see a lot of people having a disconnect. They think, “Oh, you just stick a bunch of key phrases in the content, and that’s all you need to do.” But it’s a lot more complex than that, because you are writing to sell. People forget that when you’re writing to sell online, you still need to do everything you did for a sales letter, everything you did for any other type of sales-oriented writing. But you have to keep this other target market in mind – the search engines – and you have to understand how they think.

CI: Tell us about the process you go through to research keywords.

That is the first thing I do … keyword and key phrase research. There are a lot of tools online that are helpful. What these tools do is aggregate all the searches that are done in one search engine or various search engines, and it helps us get inside the customer’s head and figure out what they’re thinking at any given time.

What we know is that people may start by using general key phrases, like “Florida vacation.” But as they get closer to making a purchase, they start using phrases that are more specific. So they might have a specific place where they want to stay, like “vacation Delray Beach, Florida.” And they might look for activities in Delray Beach or hotels at Delray Beach.

With key phrase research, we can see if people are searching one key phrase over another. You can even see how many times a phrase is searched in a given year, or even a given week.

Then, when you’re writing your copy, you can make sure that the words you’re including in the copy are the exact same words people are using to search for whatever it is that you’re talking about in the copy. So if you’re writing about hotels in Delray Beach, you know what people are searching for to get to a page like that. You can make sure you’re right there, front and center, when a customer is looking to make a purchase decision off of a search engine results page.

Keyword research is a really good tool to give us psychographic insight into the way people are searching, the words they are using to search at any phase of the buying cycle, and sometimes related words that you might not have been thinking about for the website, but that could be a really good idea.

For example, if you’re selling a product like digital cameras, you might find out that a key phrase like “digital camera reviews” is very popular. So you could look at the research, and realize, “Wow, if so many people are searching for that term, maybe I should have something like that on my website.” And so you could build a page around the key phrase “digital camera reviews,” and know that’s what people are looking for.

CI: Are there specific keyword research tools that you recommend?

There are two freebies that have been around for a long time, and there are two that cost money.

The two that you have to pay for are http://www.keyworddiscovery.com and http://www.wordtracker.com. They are subscription-based, so you pay every year to get access to this information, but it is a good investment. It’s incredibly valuable information that allows you to not only research key phrases, but to access a lot of really cool stuff. For one thing, you can review key phrases in a number of different ways, so you know that you’ve chosen the best key phrases for that page or for that site.

The search engines have their own freebie tools. Google has theirs through AdWords, their pay-per-click program. You type in “key phrase research Google,” and it comes up with a Google key phrase research tool. There’s also one through Yahoo. You type in “Yahoo key phrase research,” and they provide the same thing – another tool you can use to identify trends and see how many people are searching on a given term.

The only disadvantage with the search engine key phrase research tools is that they report only on their own engines. So you don’t get the information across a number of engines. And sometimes the information is not quite as accurate. It’s always best to double-check it with a subscription-based tool. Buying one of those tools is one of the best things you can do for your career as an SEO copywriter – but if you don’t have the cash, the free tools from the search engines are a good way to start.

CI: You hear a lot about the search engine algorithms, and how they change fairly often. How important is it for a copywriter to know about those changes?

That’s a really good question, because the algorithms do change – and that can make rankings bounce up and down, depending. As a copywriter, it’s good to be aware that the algorithms might change. But that doesn’t mean you have to do what’s called “chasing the algorithm.” Every time there’s an algorithm change, you don’t have to suddenly go through and revise everything you’ve ever written.

It is good, though, to check your results and see how your pages are doing. Things have to be written a lot more tight and wired these days.

For example, it used to be that you would be able to create just one page about a particular topic – and if you wrote it really well, that one page would be enough to gain you a position for the key phrase you were targeting. Now things are so competitive that you have to pretty much write multiple pages, using that same key phrase somewhere on the page, in order to build up relevancy so the search engines will position it well.

Once upon a time, you could have a key phrase not in a hyperlink but just near to it, and that would help build relevancy and get that key phrase to position well. Now, it’s gotten to the point where that’s not enough. Let’s say you are targeting something like “hot water pressure washers” that you want to position well on the term “pressure washers.” In that case, “pressure washers” has to be hyperlinked and not “hot water pressure washers,” because you’ll get different results depending on where and how the hyperlink is placed.

That’s part of how the algorithm has changed. It’s also part of how competitive online marketing has gotten. It was a lot easier just five years ago to write copy that positioned really well right out of the gate. Now you have to pay attention to all these little things along the way in order to be able to get the best possible results for your client. It’s not like anyone can actually read the algorithm and see this change and that change. You just pick up on general statements that come out in the industry.

From the copywriter’s standpoint, it’s good to be able to look back on content you’ve written and say, “This used to position, and it’s not anymore. Why?” And to be able to look back and figure, “I’m seeing people do this with their copy and they’re positioning better than we are … so maybe that’s what we need to start looking at too.” So then you include the key phrase on more pages, or maybe you structure the hyperlinks a little bit differently, or maybe you write content geared toward generating more incoming links.

It’s important to know that the algorithms change, and it’s important to know that the search aspect of copywriting is becoming a lot more detailed than it used to be. But that doesn’t mean the copywriter should chase the algorithm or try to go back and reengineer everything about their past copy. That’ll just drive you nuts. At the end of the day, a lot of the content that I’ve written, even from years ago, is still positioning really well. I might have had to tweak it along the way, but I’ve never had to do anything really extreme. So even after all the algorithm changes, it’s still considered by the engines to be good, quality content.

CI: In the last year or two, the term Web 2.0 has been thrown about quite a lot. Does that affect SEO copy?

Ah yes, Web 2.0. It does affect copy – and, in a way, it doesn’t. With Web 2.0, a lot of new and cool technology-based things are coming out. That doesn’t really affect what you’re doing with copy.

But if you think about it in terms of social media and social search, copy has a lot of different definitions now. There’s the copy we create as copywriters. We create it, we upload it, and we wait for the search rankings to come in. But there’s also a lot of community-based copy. So if you look at a site like Zappos.com, they’ve done what they could do with the copywriting – but they also have a lot of customer reviews about their shoes, and those customer reviews are actually getting indexed by the search engines and are positioning. Same thing with Amazon. With blogs, and again with social search, you have people who are talking about different types of sites to link to and are building more of a community rather than a one-sided “I write copy and you read it” communication.

There’s a lot more emphasis now, for example, on creating resources for people to learn from, and having other people link to those resources. If you look at a brand like Sephora.com, they have their typical, normal product copy – but they also a ton of other resources for people, like the hot makeup trends or the cool colors for winter 2007 or what this or that designer is doing. When people are creating blogs, they will naturally link to that kind of content because it’s good, informative, and customer-centered. It helps us as copywriters get the word out in a different way. We’re not just relying on the search engines to be able to push our content, we’re also relying on other people to link to our content and bring in new audiences.

It’s always been like that. This is something that is not 100% new, it’s just got a fancy Net term now. But it’s something that is happening more and more. So when people are thinking about what to write content about for a site, it’s not just products. You might want customer reviews, you might want video, you might want to have a place where the client reviews things rather than the customers, you might want to have articles. You want to build sites out naturally like that, and open a communication with your customers rather than just talking at them.

CI: What are some of the biggest mistakes you see copywriters make when writing SEO copy?

The big one has to do with the key phrases – and it can go one of two ways when you’re learning. Most people shove the copy too full of key phrases, and then they have to learn how to cull it down so it doesn’t sound like it’s stuffed or like they’re repeating the same key phrases over and over. The other extreme is when they don’t include as many key phrases as they should because they’re afraid of pushing the envelope too much. So in the very beginning, the trick is to figure out where that middle ground is. You need to have enough in your copy for the search engines to take notice, but you don’t want to stuff it to the point where it’s obvious to the customer that that’s what you’re doing.

Another thing that I see a lot is that copywriters forget direct-response principles when they write for a search engine. For example, headlines and sub-headlines, which are typically in bold type … those are great opportunities for key phrases, because the search engine consider emphasized text a tad more relevant and so it may help you get a better position. But as direct-response copywriters, we know that headlines and sub-headlines are also an awesome place to put benefit statements. What I see is a lot of copywriters who haven’t bridged that gap yet. They might add key phrases to their headlines and sub-headlines, but they forget that they need to express a benefit, too. You have to make it easy for people to quick-scan your headlines and sub-headlines and see what it is that you’re offering and understand the benefits.

In effect, you’re leaving money on the table by not including a lot of really good benefit-oriented stuff in your online copy.

Another mistake that I see copywriters make – and this is something you naturally get over once you get more experience – is to go with what the client wants … even if it’s wrong. For example, the client might want a key phrase that no one is searching on. Or the client might say, “We really want to have this misspelling in the content because we think people are searching on the misspellings and they could find us that way.” The copywriter’s job in a case like this is to educate the client about how the process works _ to say things like, “Well, I understand that this key phrase is really important for you, but if you look at the research what we find is that no one is searching for it.” Or, “I do understand that you want to have your company name front and center all the time for search engine purposes, but you’re already positioning well on your company name. We need to focus on other key phrases.”

As you get more experience as a copywriter, even though you are not technically consulting, you’re always still kind of consulting with clients and educating them so they can make the best choices. Whether they’re small mom-and-pops or Fortune 50 companies, clients don’t necessarily know what’s best. It’s a weird feeling to walk into a big corporation and think, “Wow, I know more about this than you do!” But if you get to that point where you are being hired by those companies, chances are, yes, you do know more about online marketing than they do. You need to be ready to speak up rather than tell yourself, “Okay. It’s whatever the client wants, so never mind.” At the end of the day, if the client isn’t getting the results they want, even if it’s because of their poor choices, it’s going to be your fault.

Be confident in your knowledge. Recognize that you do know a lot, and that not a lot of people understand the nuances of SEO copywriting. So it’s okay to tell clients, “Here’s what I can and can’t do with this copy, and here’s why.”

CI: One final question. If you want our readers to take away one single point today, what would that be?

Probably the single biggest thing is to understand how important copywriting is to the entire search engine optimization campaign.

We know three main things about rankings and the algorithms that search engines use. The first is how the site is laid out, which we can’t control as copywriters. The other two things are the links that come to the site and the actual content of the site. The content of the site drives the links that come in. So copywriters have an incredible amount of control over the process. You can have a site that’s technically perfect, but if the copywriting isn’t good, or if it isn’t maximized the way it could be, that site’s not going to position well. Copywriters need to know how important they are – and know that they can learn and master SEO copywriting and create great pages that position well.

The second biggest thing to remember is that, at the end of the day, you’re writing for your prospects. Even though there are all sorts of things we can do from a search engine optimization perspective – tweak and massage and see if we can make a difference by adding a few more key phrases or doing a few more things – you never want to do anything that will compromise the sales message. So although you’re serving two masters – the search engines and your prospects – the people who pay the bills are the prospects. You want to make sure they are happy and that they understand the benefits of your offer. You want to draw them into the copy and get them really excited about working with your client, whether they are buying a product or a service. Those are your priorities.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

At last, a professional organization that caters to the needs of direct-response industry writers. Find out how membership can change the course of your career. Learn More »


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Published: December 19, 2007

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