Do you really need to write for search engines?

I talked to a prospect the other day who asked, “Do you have to write for search engines? Would it be cheaper if I asked for “regular” online writing services instead?”

And I thought, “‘Regular’ online writing services? In my mind, online writing and writing for search engines (otherwise known as SEO copywriting) are almost one and the same.” Hmm…

Here’s why I think that:

If you’re hunting around for online writing information, you’ll see a lot of forums, training classes and books promising to teach you how to “write for the online market” and “drive traffic to your Web site.” That’s great – it really is. It’s important that copywriters and site owners understand the online writing basics, such as:

  • How to create scannable text that’s easy to skim and assimilate
  • How to ruthlessly edit your writing so you’re not saying more than you need to – and making your copy hard to read online
  • How to develop benefit-rich headlines and subheadlines that instantly capture your reader’s attention
  • Proven ways to tell a compelling story online
  • When to split your writing into multiple pages
  • How to use layout strategies, like bullet points, to break up lists and make them easier to read (oh, wait…) :)

But there’s more than just that (although “just that” already encompasses a lot of writing “stuff.”)  In short, if you want to be found when prospects are Googling for your specific products or services, that means “writing for search engines” – not just “online writing.”

Site owners and agencies requiring anything less than SEO copywriting are playing a dangerous game. What they’re asking for is for their writer to create a Web page without any “signals” to help it be easily found in the search engines. They may think that this strategy allows them to save costs across the long-term. Or, they’ll go back and optimize the page later. But really, as my father would always say, they’re “cutting off their nose to spite their face.” It’s not a smart tactic.

I also think that some copywriters are guilty of offering a choice without explaining the pros and cons. They’ll tell their client that it’s $X for “regular” online writing and $Y for “SEO copywriting.” If a client doesn’t really know the difference between the two options (and really, who would unless they’re in the industry) which one are they going to choose? You got it – the cheaper one. Which is typically “regular” online writing.

What’s sad is that people may love the page when they hit it. But if the page wasn’t written with SEO copywriting best practices in mind, there are many, many folks who will never see the page. Instead of having a chance to position, the page will sit there, all lonely and dejected, in Google’s and Bing’s database. It will be like the wallflower at the dance – everyone else will be having a fun time, and no-one will notice the silent page sitting in the search engine corner.

There are three exceptions to this rule:

  • If you’re writing a long, direct-response sales page for a microsite – and the only goal is to to drive sales  – SEO copywriting won’t do you any good. You won’t have enough content “meat” with a one-to-five page site to get any search engine game. That’s fine.
  • Same if all you want are leads, and your page is a form geared to capture names, addresses and phone numbers – and that’s it. In that case, it’s more important to focus on direct response rather than SEO.
  • Finally, if your content is behind a password-protected firewall that the search engines can’t access (such as a membership site) writing for search engines is useless. In this case, consider writing abstracts that are keyphrase-rich and spiderable (that is, they appear in the “free” area of your site.) That way, folks can see what great content you offer for a fee – and will be more inclined to sign up.

The good news is – writing for search engines can snag you some social media love, too. A hot keyphrase-rich article can generate scads of incoming links. It can be commented upon in blogs and forums. It can have a life outside your Website.

But not if people can’t find your Web page first.

What say you? Are there any other times when “writing for search engines” is less than appropriate?