For the past two weeks, my girlfriend has been knitting a scarf as a Christmas gift for her mother (who, fortunately, doesn’t read this blog). Doing so has reacquainted her with her love of craftsmanship; last night, in a fit of ambition, she decided to knit a hat to match — something she’s never done before. She decided to look for instructions on the Web, and found herself in a less-than-encouraging situation on one of the more popular DIY sites.
“It was ridiculous,” she said. “Step One was ‘look through knitting books.’ Step two was ‘find an appealing color of yarn.’ Then they tell you to buy needles and a basket to hold your yarn, and by about step ten the tutorial finally got around to explaining how to knit. Or so I thought.”
Step ten in this tutorial was — seriously — “Learn to knit and purl.” There was no further elaboration, other than a note explaining that learning the knit stitch and the purl stitch are fundamental to knowing how to knit. There were no diagrams, no videos, no instructions on how to actually achieve a knit stitch, or a purl stitch. There were no links to outside sites that provided this information. I should reiterate that the title of this particular tutorial was “How to Knit.”
I’m not kidding. I looked it up myself. It reminded me of those frozen pizza instructions, with idiotic steps like “remove pizza from packaging,” but minus the part that explains how long to cook it, and at what temperature.
It smacked of something that’s far too common on the Internet: The Post That’s Just Slapped Up There Because You Wasted the Day Playing Bejeweled and You Need Some Content Quick. It’s also common with the various methods of SEO copywriting. There might be lots of sentences full of rich, creamy keywords, but there’s very little in the way of meaning.
Take article marketing, for instance. Browse through any of the article marketing sites like iSnare or Phantom Writers, and you’ll have a hard time finding articles that are actually written to be read by people. Most of these are written simply as an excuse to have keyword-rich copy on a page or blog post somewhere, with very, very little thought given to creating a piece of content that draws in and informs the reader.
OK, maybe I’m just a snob. A bitter former English major. A latte-swilling, Prius-driving Left Coast elitist. But I see too many copywriters on the Web who could benefit from a remedial high school composition class. I see too many blog posts and SEO-driven pages that do little more than avoid black-hat practices. But here’s the thing: To me, this is awesome. Because as a guy who writes copy that’s optimized for search engines, this is my chance to shine.
Search engine spiders aren’t stupid. They have algorithms that can tell a good resource from a jumble of sentences without a thesis. I’m not entirely sure how they do this; I assume some arcane manner of sorcery is involved. But even that doesn’t matter. Mastering the basics of SEO isn’t terribly hard. Mastering good writing is a little trickier, but the fact is that there are very few people who go this far. And if you have good SEO and good writing, you’ll be like Ken Jennings at the Washtenaw County Elementary School Quiz Bowl and Steak Fry.
For instance: I was recently tasked with writing some SEO articles for a company that sells modular, pre-fabricated buildings. I could have written some unresearched pages, full of marketing language, about how affordable and durable pre-fab buildings are, with a bulleted list of reasons I came up with off the top of my head.
But I sat for a few moments and thought to myself: What do I know about pre-fab buildings? I remembered reading about how a lot of modular structures are better for the environment (they produce less factory waste and create less soil erosion during construction), and how they’re being embraced by the green movement worldwide. I remembered reading about, for instance, the Loblolly House and other pre-fab wonders. And with the world’s population exploding the way it is, buildings that can go up quickly, with less of an impact on the environment, are probably a great idea. So I looked up some information on green technology in architecture and population growth, adding that to what I’d learned about the buildings my client sells.
In a half hour, I’d come up with a thesis and an outline. It wasn’t hard-sell — it wasn’t even entirely centered on the kinds of buildings my client offers — but it was, I hope, an enjoyable and educational read. And it was chock full of keywords, with links to other places on the client’s site. It was, hopefully, something a visitor might remember. Of course, a lot of my work rested on information I had come across in passing. But a good writer is a good reader. And a good marketer can never read enough about what he’s marketing.
It all boils to one simple rule: Write only those things which you would enjoy reading yourself. Nobody ever went wrong creating well-crafted copy that stuck in readers’ memories.
Stay tuned: Perhaps my next post will be a step-by-step tutorial on writing fascinating copy. Step one will be “Buy a Computer, preferably with a reliable word-processing application.” Steps two through eleven will deal with ISPs and desktop wallpaper.
Step twelve will be “Learn to Write Fascinating Copy.”
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