Beyond Keywords: Copywriting Should Answer Questions

What’s wrong with this picture on the left? It’s not just that it has too many keywords, it’s that it has too little MEANING for the reader. What makes the example on the right better is not just that it’s easier to read, it’s more meaningful.

This may come as a surprise to some of you reading this because my own blog is so sparsely populated, but I do a lot of SEO blogging–I mean a LOT, it’s about 90% of my business. Clients come to me with a list of keywords, and a topic, and ask me to write posts for their companies to boost search engine rankings. I love this work, I really do, but it can be tricky too, and here’s why…

Users Don’t Read to Find Keywords

Human beings aren’t search engines. In fact, I think we only isolate keywords because that’s how search engines work to find us what we need. We know that in the immense data-warehouse that is the Internet, the more precise we can be with the keywords we use, the more likely we are to find anything remotely close to what we want. At the same time, we’re hoping we don’t just get pages and pages of announcements or facts about those keywords either.

Let me give you an example:

Let’s say I want to get a massage. I’m going to think of all the keywords I can think of associated with massage, starting (duh) with “massage.” Then I’m going to enter my location (assuming I’m not using a a device with location services turned on), and perhaps any other qualifying information to help me narrow my options. In this case, I don’t just want any massage–I want the “best,” so I add that too.

My search ends up looking like this:

“Best place to get a massage in Gulfport MS”

When I’m done, up pops this page of results:

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 4.32.13 PMLook for meaning in the messages below the links. How is it connected to my original search?

Remember I looked for “best?” Now look at the content below the links. The first time I see the word or anything with the same meaning is in the content below the second link: Review STARS.

Google thinks this link is second-most relevant based on my search terms, but based on what matters to me, it’s really first. I’m not reading to find my keywords, I’m reading to find the meaning behind them, that is, to identify which location is likely to have the “best” massage.

Users Look for Meaning

The reality is that users judge the quality of the content they find based on the  meaning it conveys, not the words the writer used. So “massage” and “Gulfport” matter only insofar as they helped me find those businesses in the first place. Next I had to eliminate options that didn’t indicate they met my criteria for offering the “best” (those without lots of positive reviews).

Like most people online today, I’ve come to the conclusion that most of what I find on the Internet is noise of limited value to me personally. Also like most people, I’m information-overloaded, and pressed for time. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that research shows most users give a site 7 seconds to meet their needs before bouncing. What that means is, I am going to look for every possible clue that I’m choosing the right link in the first place before I click. I’m going to search the headline and the excerpt below it, and I’m not going to commit until I find the link that seems to promise the most meaning on the other end.

When I get to that content on the other end, guess what? I’m scanning again, looking to see if this source lives up to the promise it made in those search results. I’m still not scanning for keywords though, I’m scanning for phrases, for answers to questions or solutions to problems.

Conversely, if I click a link that takes me to a bunch of nothing, a page chock full of keywords that merely announce a bunch of “information” in front of my eyeballs, I’m OUT, leaving the cyber-equivalent of skidmarks in my wake. The Internet is not meant to be a giant bulletin board.

Meaningful Content Speaks to its Target Audience, and Helps Narrow Choices

So what makes content meaningful? Well let’s take another look at my example. The best results don’t just announce the facts (“You can get a massage here.”), they tell me why those facts matter to me. “Massage” and “Gulfport” are just words to narrow things down, to meet my baseline minimum requirements. What was my real question? What was the crux of the problem I was trying to solve?

Answer: “I want the best massage I can find.”

Every time we search for something, click on a link, and read what’s on the other end, we are trying to decide how to best spend our limited time online. We are asking the following questions:

  • Where should I go?
  • Why should I be here?
  • Why should I stay here?
  • Where should I go next?

For businesses producing content, the desirable answers are:

  • To our site!
  • Right here.
  • Because we answer your questions and solve your problems.
  • To another page of our site; To our contact form; To our product catalog to shop; To share this with your social network!

At every stage, the content needs to help the user continue to find value in sticking around, reading more, engaging with the brand to buy something, communicate feedback, share contact information, or share the content with others via social networking.

Write for Meaning, and the Keywords Will Appear

Yes, you have to use keywords, there’s no way around it. Web content writers are certainly damned to oblivion if we ignore them outright, but at the same time, we’re also damned if we rely so heavily on the so-called “high-ranking” keywords that we lose sight of producing meaningful work target users want to read! Google will even penalize us with low rankings if their spiders detect too many of the same keywords in our work, so it’s to our benefit to make the most of each instance by making sure its surrounded by meaning.

There is a happy medium though. There is a way to creatively use the high-ranking (by SEO standards) keywords in combination with other lower ranking words and phrases associated with our topics: write like a reader, then read like a writer.

If you consistently start with your target user, brainstorm the questions they have, and the problems they’re trying to solve, you’ll find words and phrases you can use, and the resulting content will be much more meaningful. I realize most clients start with keywords, and tell you to write around them–that’s what they do for me too–but I don’t. Here’s what I do instead:

  1.  I think about readers in my target audience, and ask questions they’d likely ask. I use as many adjectives, qualifiers, and differentiators as they might use, or criteria they might list, and write them down too.
  2.  I jot down the questions and the answers as the readers might ask them in their heads, or as if they were asking me face-to-face.
  3. I think about problems the readers might have, or solutions they might be looking for, and I write those down too.
  4. I think about the answers I have, based on research I’ve done, or the brand promises of the company I’m writing for, and I write those down in natural language, as if I’m having a conversation with my readers.
  5. I look at all I’ve written and start circling the words that show up repeatedly, and compare those keywords to the list I was given.

Guess what? Nine times out of ten my words overlap the client’s list. After all, I can’t write about my topic at all without using the most prevalent words associated with it–such content would be utterly meaningless, right? What I also notice are new keywords not on my list. In fact, I only found them because they show up repeatedly in this imaginary discussion with my audience.

Then I sit down and write my post or article, and it’s much easier to get it to just flow. I know the client’s keywords will show up, and so will the ones I’m pretty sure my audience will include in their searches, or that will at least ensure that my content meets their needs, and very rarely do I need to go back and add listed keywords to the finished product. I do always read through it though, just to make sure I’ve included enough instances in the right places–like headlines and titles–but other than that, I try to leave the meaning undisturbed.

Writing meaningful content that search engines will find can take some time, but following this process has helped me tremendously. I think it’s well worth the effort because today’s information overloaded users are more interested in meaningful, high-quality content than ever. They just don’t have time to waste being bored, or misdirected.

How do you write for meaning in a keyword/AdWord driven world? Tell me in the comments below!


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