Learning the ropes of SEO content writing can be a difficult adjustment for a journalist. To those who’ve spent their careers carefully obeying the grammar police at every creative turn, the effort to coexist with both an editor who demands correct usage and a digital demand generation department that has SEO content writing priorities can feel like cats and dogs living together.
This can be particularly nerve wracking for those of us who have to be the grammar police in such a menagerie. What’s a conscientious editor to do when one of her writers wants to bend a grammar rule just to make sure more people can find his latest blog via Google or Bing?
Since 1953, the Associated Press Stylebook has not only served as a grammar and style guide for American reporters, it has become the gold standard of rules for usage and styles for capitalization, abbreviation, spelling and numerals in American English.
Indeed, most American writers can’t go too wrong by relying on the AP. But for those of us navigating the challenging new terrain of SEO content writing, it’s worth asking: When is it OK to break the rules?
Making sure your content can be found by the people searching for it is perhaps the most important rule of the brave new world of SEO content writing. For example, abbreviating terms like “flu shot” because they are more commonly searched terms instead of using the by-the-book “Influenza vaccine” will allow more readers to find your work.
Similarly, and frustratingly for grammar and usage purists, using frequently misunderstood terms can also work in your favor in SEO content writing. For example, people are much more likely to search for “language translation” when they mean “interpretation.” While a writer and subject matter expert know the correct term, the searcher's intent trumps correctness. Once you get them to your blog post, you can explain the difference.
Using acronyms or industry-specific jargon when AP style advises against it—but when you know it will be more easily understood by a specific audience—just makes sense. It comes down to knowing your reader. Are CRO and CFR in your readers’ lexicons? These terms are widely understood among clinical researchers, even though people outside the industry might have to look them up, so using them is fair game. Like trade journals, industry-specific blogs can assume their audience accepts certain terminology as common parlance.
In fact, blogging on behalf of a company often means embracing its unique style guide using exceptions to AP for capitalization, terminology and acronyms. For example, if an audience of medical professionals is familiar with new concepts like “robotic surgery,” there may be no need to explain that it is "robot-assisted" surgery or elaborate on how it works, as though you were speaking to a curious student or a nervous potential patient.
Further, as technology evolves, so does terminology. In my first years as a professional reporter trying to explain the internet to a general audience, most of whom didn’t even own computers, I remember groping blindly to explain terms like “Web page” and “hyperlink” and “World Wide Web”. In my lifetime alone, “Web page” has become “web page” and, finally, “webpage.” While it would be tough to find someone under the age of 60 who doesn’t know what a “link” is in the context of the internet, a lot of people might look at you funny if you said “hyperlink.” And this near-universal understanding and usage didn’t come about when the Associated Press issued an edict. Rather, the AP updated its rules to reflect common usage in the tech community and by the people who write about it.
The online world has enabled more—but different and constantly evolving—social interaction. In the early days of the internet, to the chagrin of traditionalists worried we were talking more to computers than to one another, we found ourselves talking less and typing (and then texting) more. But with the advent of voice search, are we coming full circle back to “normal” conversation? According to Search Engine Journal, as of early 2018, 39 million Americans own a voice-first smart speaker like Amazon’s Alexa . So the new-new thing is—the more conversational your writing, the more relatable, engaging and searchable it is.
So because people’s searches don’t look (or sound) the same as they did when I was a reporter, we need to adjust the way we respond to these inquiries through our SEO content writing. For instance, you wouldn’t voice search by saying, “Thai restaurants 44011”. You’re more likely to speak in full yet casual sentences. “Hey, Siri. Where’s the nearest authentic Pad Thai?” The Thai restaurants with long-tail keywords and within driving distance of your office will be the options Siri offers first.
But this recognition of new realities of expression is in no way an endorsement for burning all the AP manuals. Excellent grammar and spelling improve the reader experience.
In efforts to become more authoritative, Google has been working hard to remove low-quality, duplicative content and spam-filled pages and websites from its search results. Content free of spelling, stylistic and factual errors stands a much better chance of surviving this spam purge. As Google gets smarter, it favors well-edited, authoritative information over both sloppy and keyword-stuffed pages.
The basic aim of SEO content writing is to make your work visible to search engines and to attract visitors who want to read it. Correct grammar and spelling can also make it more likely visitors will stick around once they reach your website, instead of backing out screaming as soon as they notice an error-riddled page.
So the two work hand-in-glove: User rating and usage are the fruits of high-quality web content. And so, grammar ensures the aim of SEO is fulfilled.
While “textbook” grammar and style may be fully appropriate for press releases and official communications, they can sometimes be counterproductive when trying to hook your audience through a search engine or when incorporating industry-specific terms into your writing—or just when trying to sound human. Grammar isn’t useless or unimportant. But the degree of “correctness” you use should speak to your readers in a way that registers. In the age of SEO content writing, don’t be afraid to break the rules.
So what are the “new rules” for effective SEO content writing that allow grammar and SEO to coexist in harmony? First, SEO has to be a high priority in your digital content marketing strategy. Yes, wordsmiths and grammar cops, defer to SEO at the outset of writing. Your content should start with user intent and the keywords they type or say to find information. By understanding what they search, how they search it and why, you can create a content strategy that specifically answers their questions, aligns with the context of their search and addresses their needs and interests.
But if your webpages aren’t listing well in Google, you might also want to check your spelling and grammar. Yes, SEO geeks, your editor is still there to save you from sounding like you don’t know your stuff. It’s no accident that demand generation leaders have found a link between the quality of a website and the quality of spelling. When they looked at the page rank, or reputability, of webpages, they found that it tied in with the quality of the author’s spelling. In other words, pages and websites with a higher reputation within Google tend to have better spelling. And it makes sense. Would you put much stake in a webpage that has poorly written content riddled with errors of either style or substance?