Why content optimization is key – thoughts about the InboundWriter report

Recently, InboundWriter released a report called The Impact of Real-Time Content Optimization: Does Access to Search and Social Intelligence Make You a More Effective Writer?  Of course, you can guess that I’d be all over an SEO content writing study, so I definitely had to check this out.

The report discusses three different content scenarios – category landing pages for eBeanstalk.com, a new blog network (Link Orbit,) and new and rewritten blog posts on Jay Baer’s Convince & Convert. Users were provided InboundWriter’s tool to help them optimize Web content, and the results were measured over a certain period of time (the report outlines the exact methodology and study steps.)

The results were impressive…

Just a quick snapshot of a few statistics from the report shows some impressive results. ebeanstalk.com saw a 29 percent increase in their search engine rankings, and their time on page increased 153 percent. Link Orbit’s readers spent 112 percent more time on the content-optimized domains. Even Jay Baer’s posts got higher search engine rankings and an average 33 percent traffic increase. It’s important to note that none of these pages were optimized prior to the report, so the users were starting the optimization process from scratch.

…but were the results that surprising?

Well, no. If you’ve been in SEO for more than five seconds, the results make perfect sense. Adding keyphrases to content is a basic SEO step. Of course the pages saw higher rankings (and more search engine positions.) That’s exactly what good SEO content optimization is supposed to provide. The tool just facilitated the process.

Additionally, the time on site increase didn’t surprise me either. SEOs have been talking about “search scent” for a number of years. The concept of search scent grows out of information scent, which was developed by scientists at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC.) Kevin Lee says in a 2007 ClickZ article:

The research illustrates that humans forage for information on the Internet in much the same way animals follow scent and visual cues to find food. Scent is essentially an application of user interface optimization best practices, and search scent is a specific niche based on the fact searchers are even more wedded to a particular information-gathering mission than surfers or casual browsers.

Say a searcher is looking for blue widgets. If the landing page has the words “blue widgets” in the copy, as well as pictures of “blue widgets,” searchers should engage with the page for a longer period of time.  If a page doesn’t have this “search scent,” readers will hit the back button and boogie out. Shari Thurow wrote about this in a 2009 Search Engine Land article.

On a website, orientation is a behavior where searchers determine their position with reference to another point, establishing a “sense of place.” In other words, searchers quickly establish whose website they are visiting, and what section of the site (if any) they are viewing. If searchers do not believe they have “landed” in the right place, they will leave the website. Web searchers orient very quickly, sometimes within 1 second after a page loads.

Landing pages should always validate searchers’ scent of information, both textually and graphically. For example, if an online shopper wants to purchase a pink Burberry cashmere scarf, then the product landing page should contain a product photo of a pink Burberry cashmere scarf. The product page’s title-tag content should contain those keywords as well as other on-the-page text.

So, does this study tell us something we don’t already know? Not really. Does it help validate how important content optimization is to a site’s success? Definitely.

SEO copywriting isn’t just knowing how to write well

There’s one thing I love about this study. For folks who still don’t “get it,” or who don’t want to “ruin the content with keywords,” this is a fantastic wake-up call. If your company has held off on SEO content optimization, this study proves that you should jump in with both feet – and jump quickly. Otherwise, your unoptimized content is costing you money, no matter how fantastic your content is. After all, If Jay Baer saw a rankings and engagement improvement when he “SEO’ed” his blog posts, so will you.

As one of the authors of the study said:

“Good writing is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient for increasing content reach and engagement,” said Pelin Thorogood, managing partner at Schulman + Thorogood Group, a business consulting group. “What we observed is structuring an article or webpage around the words readers use while searching and sharing increases content relevance for both search engines and target audience – resulting in significantly higher online visibility and reader engagement for the writers who participated in our study.”

This makes perfect sense. Think about all of the fantastic sites out there with great content – but those sites are almost “invisible” in the engines. If you want to play the SEO game, that means optimizing your content. It’s as simple as that.

Here are some things to consider…

Of course, InboundWriter’s angle is that their content optimization tool is simple to use – so writers can produce the content faster and easier. At the same time, I would argue that any writer with access to reliable keyphrase research (and who understands the SEO copywriting fundamentals.) can achieve the same (or better) results without a real-time content optimization tool. Having said that, if InboundWriter helps you optimize your content, cool. I’m all for it. I’ve checked out the tool, and I can certainly see how it could help someone master the basics – especially someone who doesn’t know much about SEO.

Secondly, any tool – even one that’s easy to use – isn’t going to suddenly transform bad content into high-performing content. Or a so-so sales page into a top-converting superstar. It’s still important to work with talented writers who can make your site shine.  If your copy doesn’t connect with your readers before the optimization process, adding keyphrases isn’t going to make it any better. Or, as my father used to say, “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”  A recent Vertical Measures blog post by Barry Feldman discusses this very point:

Forgoing copywriters is not the answer. It’s a formula for failure. Copywriters specialize in persuasion. You can make the case (as many spectacular authors have) that in the inbound era effective marketers wisely choose not to cram their content full of product-centric messages. However, if building a relationship or connecting with the customer trumps generating an immediate sale, you’d be crazy to suggest persuasion is disposable. Or at least you’d be wrong.

At the end of the day, it’s all about providing your readers high-quality, relevant content. If using a tool like InboundWriter makes sense to you and your team – go for it. At the same time, a tool will only get you so far. If you want to rock the search engines and get people talking about your content, you need good writers, engaging content and an air-tight strategy. It’s as simple as that.