Where can search engine optimization go if the time-honored technique of stuffing a page full of keywords no longer works? Fran Molloy discovers how search engines are beginning to understand the meaning and context of our words – and how we’ll need to adjust.
Five years ago, search engine optimization (SEO) was an arcane and boffin-like science; these days it’s so mainstream that SEO scammers are up there with Viagra sellers in the junk-email stakes.
No longer the domain of the über-geek, SEO now even has its own voluminous, trademark-yellow Search Engine Optimization for Dummies book, co-authored by a well-known search guru, US online marketing consultant Bruce Clay.
And it’s no wonder SEO is so hot right now; if you run an online business, your company is going to live or die by the place your website ranks in Google.
Search engine specialists have long stood by the mantra ‘keyword, keyword, keyword’ when talking about the way to max out your page rank.
Years ago, web experts came to the fairly obvious conclusion that by getting the keywords included in your web copy, you’d be well on the way to search engine nirvana; and so, the SEO expert copywriter was born.
“We discovered last month that the US site redsox.com ranked very well for ‘baseball’ – despite no use of this keyword on the site”
Plenty of smart commercial writers-for-hire put themselves ahead of the game years ago by learning to write copy that catered to the whims of Google – and was peppered throughout with target keywords.
But copywriter Glenn Murray caused something of a storm recently when he suggested that search engines are now so smart, that there’s no need for specialist SEO copywriting.
Murray’s recent blog post on the high-ranking Australian search engine industry blog Science for SEO was titled ‘SEO Copywriting is Dead’. In it, he said that a good copywriter could just forget about keyword optimization.
“All we copywriters need to worry about is writing helpful, informative, engaging, compelling copy,” he wrote.
Keywords are, like, so last year
Murray, who has managed to carve out an influential web presence from his home office on the NSW Central Coast, says that five of his seven years of copywriting experience were spent as a specialist SEO copywriter.
Despite predicting the death of SEO copywriting, Murray’s webpage, divinewrite.com, still lists his services as a web copy and SEO copy specialist.
“Google now is looking for more natural sorts of copy,” says Murray.
“It’s my belief that in five years, even customers will not be really searching for an SEO copywriter anymore when they want someone to write their copy, they’ll be looking for just a plain copywriter again.
“Right now, mainstream clients are just coming on board with the whole SEO thing; many think that they’re pretty cutting-edge early adopters by looking for an SEO copywriter, but I think that the term ‘SEO copywriter’ is already outdated.”
To test out his theory that keyword stuffing didn’t improve search rankings, Murray compared some material he had written for print brochures with some copy that he had optimized for search engines by targeting particular keywords. He found that, just as he had begun to suspect, a natural-sounding, helpful, on-topic copy was just as search-engine-friendly as the copy that had been optimized for keywords.
“I believe that most businesses, particularly smaller businesses, can get away with just writing good quality, helpful, informative copy around the subjects that are important to their business,” says Murray.
He says that we naturally write using words that are associated with the main subject rather than repeating a keyword; and these days, that’s what Google is looking for.
“If you just focus heavily on one particular keyword or phrase and bang that across your copy everywhere, you’re stuffing your page at the expense of related words that you should be using,” he says.
“That might deteriorate your page ranking instead of boosting it.”
Keyword stuffing is stuffed
Kate Gamble is a search manager with Bruce Clay’s Australian office, advising plenty of heavy-hitting companies on how to improve their site rankings.
“People have always tried to stretch the limits with Google,” she says. “A few years back, the algorithms were less discerning than they are now, and you would often get high-ranked sites that were not useful, just portals and links full of keywords.”
Gamble says that writing copy over-stuffed with keywords has the reverse effect and is usually penalized by search engines. However, rumors of the death of SEO are pretty baseless – for now.
“I would argue the opposite; SEO is just getting started in terms of levels of sophistication,” she says. “Having relevant content on the page is still probably one of the best things you can do to get your page to rank well.”
Gamble explains that the latest algorithms driving Google have around 200 factors, many of them driven by the number of keywords on the page and what other words are on the page.
“Google picks the best websites based on the sample of websites they have available that use a particular keyword, so that suggests you can’t possibly rank for a term if you don’t have that keyword on the page, right?”
But then Gamble throws in a wildcard.
“We discovered about a year ago that the US site redsox.com ranked very well for baseball – despite no use of the keyword ‘baseball’, not once on the entire website. The site mentions Red Sox, players, sponsors, coaches, past games – but never mentions baseball.”
The Red Sox site was reaping the benefits of the many, many thousands of other websites that had used the term ‘red sox’ on pages littered with the word baseball; Google had somehow absorbed the ‘brand building’ of the century-old club name.
Gamble adds that this was a pivotal moment, when SEO experts started to realize that page ranking wasn’t just about what’s on the page – there was far more sophistication involved.
This is why search engine optimization often includes extensive social media support and link building. Writing copy that attracts search engines is still just one part of the overall optimization process, says Gamble.
“Keywords are critical for SEO and picking the right ones is the most important part of the process.”
Is SEO a lost cause?
Glenn Murray is quick to point out that, while focusing on keywords in the site copy is no longer critical, keyword analysis and identifying keywords are still an important part of topic selection.
A long-standing debate continues to rage among copywriters in the SEO space about ‘keyword density – that is, what percentage of the words on a web page should contain the keyword.