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SEO vs. Content Writing: The Eternal Battle and How to Win It

Let’s start by defining our terms.

SEO” is search-engine optimization, which is really just shorthand for a buffet of tactics you can use to improve your website’s visibility in search (read: Google search) results.

“Content” is everything on your website — the words, the images, the buttons and animations and icons and countless little interactions.

These two warriors — SEO and content — have been locked in a ceaseless battle for supremacy.

“The best place to hide a dead body is page 2 of Google search results.” -Dharmesh Shah

How Search Works, Briefly

In the early, pre-Google days of the Internet (when Mighty Citizen, then known as TradeMark Media, was founded), search engines were crude little monsters. They rewarded their top spots to websites that were stuffed with keywords.

But searchers were annoyed. They’d search for something like “facts about foxes” and, instead of getting a well-researched, credible website about fox life, they’d be sent to some random site that had filled itself with the words “facts about foxes” as a way to get visitors — only to then try to sell them a fox fur coat (or some other nonsense).

Then came Google. What set Google apart from its peers was, in part, the savviness of its search engine. While Google’s competitors were blunt, shallow tools that rewarded keyword-stuffed websites, Google returned search results that were based on a far more sophisticated algorithm. The result is that keyword-stuffing can no longer trick Google (or the other search engines).

The Content Glut and Importance of Search

Every 60 seconds on the Internet, the following content appears:

In other words, by the time you’ve finished this article, there will be billions of new opportunities to distract your users online. You’re not competing for user attention with your direct, professional competitors; you’re competing with everything. And everything is growing at light speed.

Which means that Google’s importance will continue to expand: Search is how people will weed through the irrelevant content to get to their goal (or discover a new goal along the way).

If you aren’t optimizing your website content to be rewarded with high search result rankings, not only will you miss out on opportunities, you’ll actually see your rankings decrease over time as more and more (optimized) content muscles its way ahead of you.

When SEO and Content Clash

But can you go full SEO with your website? Can you give Google what it wants and still have a readable, interesting, compelling website?

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This is the eternal struggle between content and SEO. On the one hand, you want to be able to say whatever you need and want to say on your website. On the other hand, sometimes what you want to say isn’t as SEO-friendly as it could/should be. At Mighty Citizen, we work to develop content strategies that also have excellent SEO, but there are situations when one must be prioritized over the other.

Here’s an example from one of our clients (details changed to keep it confidential):

A national professional association had two options for how to title their webpages:

1. The SEO-heavy approach would be to include the association’s members’ job title in most page titles — e.g., “How to Find a High-Wire Acrobat” (not the real title or association). Because “high-wire acrobats” is how the public actually searched on Google, using this phrase in page titles would improve search rankings.

But this association had recently made the decision to begin referring to their members’ job title — High-Wire Acrobats — by initials, e.g., HWA. This was a comprehensive decision that would apply to all of the association’s public-facing communications. So their second option was to…

2. Be more consistent by title-ing their webpages with the initials version — e.g., “Member Benefits for HWAs.” This approach would keep the association’s branding in line and would begin to reinforce this shift in the public’s vocabulary — i.e., we call them HWAs now, not high-wire acrobats. But this would hurt search rankings because the public doesn’t (yet) search the term “HWA.”

The association had to pick between valuable branded content and valuable search results. This is a prime illustration of when SEO and content butt up against each other.

How to Balance SEO and Content

This particular association decided to take approach #2: They would use “HWA” in most page titles. They felt it was more important to reinforce this shift in the public’s mind than to earn some extra visitors through Google, and the acronym makes page titles less bulky

Why did we make this decision?

First, because, believe it or not, some things are still more important than search results. This was one such case. Getting the world to refer to “high-wire acrobats” as “HWAs” was critical to the organization’s long-term messaging strategy.

The association had to pick between valuable branded content and valuable search results.

Second, we understood that the association was primarily focused on members, and members don’t use search to find these pages as much as the public might. So we were able to use more SEO-friendly content on public-facing pages, while keeping the titles and language on member-focused pages more “insider” (i.e., less concerned with SEO).

And third, in our attempt to mitigate the potential damage to their Google results, we decided to continue using the term “high-wire acrobats” on certain pages’ body text. It wouldn’t appear in the page title, but it would appear just below.

A sample page might read something like this:

Business Resources for HWAs

As a high-wire acrobat (HWA), you have to balance your artistry with your professional goals. On this page, we’ve gathered a number of members-only resources to help you grow your career, make more money, and expand your influence in the industry.

Remember, search engines place extra value on the content near the top of the page. So you can strike a nice balance between page titles and body text. And while less SEO-friendly page titles will ding you on your ranking, you can help keep it from plummeting by putting the keywords in the opening lines (especially the opening 50 words) of the page’s main body.

We also included “How to Find a High-Wire Acrobat (HWA)” in the page title tag, an HTML element giving search engines more information about the page. The title tag is a significant factor in Google’s search algorithm, and Google often includes text from the title tag as the clickable link in their search results.

But What Are People Searching?

Of course, you can’t please Google if you don’t know what people are actually searching. Fortunately, you can do your own, free keyword research using the Mighty Citizen resource: How to Do Free Keyword Research Using Google’s AdWords Planner.

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