Why I hate "SEO content," why you shouldn't hire "SEO writers," and what to do instead

Why I hate

In the content world, I see a lot of managers talking about producing “SEO content” for clients or a brand’s own website.

They mean content that is being written with the express purpose of ranking in search engines, to drive more organic traffic and thus more customers and revenue.

While the intent is good, and I myself have produced millions of words of content meant to do just this, I then see these same people looking for an “SEO writer” to produce the content.

There are many problems with this. And in this post, I am going to tell you what those problems are before I attempt to persuade you that I am correct and you should think differently about hiring writers and ranking content that is meant to drive traffic, customers, and revenue.

Before I get into that, let me tell you quickly about my background so you know why I am writing about this, why I am qualified to write about this, and so on.

I am John, the founder of EditorNinja. I am also the founder of Credo, where we’ve helped 7,000+ companies looking for a digital marketing agency. I am also a professional SEO, having done it professionally from 2010-2015 agency-side and in-house.

From 2015-2018 I consulted with brands on SEO while self-funding Credo. I have worked with brands like Intercontinental Hotels Group, Travelex, The New York Times, Zillow, Trulia, Dribbble, and many more over the years in a formal SEO consulting capacity. I have also worked with 400+ SaaS founders via Dan Martell’s Growth Accelerator, and I have driven hundreds of thousands of visits and millions in revenue to my businesses mostly through SEO and content marketing.

More than that, I have blogged on the internet since 2001 when I built my first personal blog on Xanga. From 2011-2015 I had a well read SEO-centric blog at johnfdoherty.com, where I still occasionally blog but moreso about entrepreneurship than SEO.

So I have the expertise and background to write about this topic, and it is a topic I am passionate about and want to see change.

One of my largest pet peeves about content marketing is the recent obsession with “producing content at scale,” which has led to a lot of low-quality AI-written content being published. Until recently and even still some today, if you Google searched for a topic like “how to create a content style guide” you’d receive a bunch of results that all had a similar pattern:

While on the one hand it met the query and wasn’t a BAD result, writing like this makes the top 10 organic results extremely uniform and frustrates readers because they are just getting the same information. Research has shown search engines that users want a variety even within the same search results, which is why they are increasingly bringing Featured Snippets, images, and videos into search results.

Recently, with Google’s Helpful Content Update, we’re starting to see Google once again reward content that may not follow a strict pattern but does cover the topic and provides a slightly different take than everything else out there on the internet.

Ultimately as writers, we should write for humans, not primarily for search engines. While content can drive a lot of search engine traffic, the goal should always be to educate the visitor that you’ve worked so hard to get to the site and then get them to take the next step, if they are ready for that.

Content drives traffic but it should also and primarily drive the business forward. “SEO content” doesn’t aim to accomplish the second half, which is really all that matters.

It’s not just me that “SEO writing” seems to have increased in popularity recently. Google Trends shows the same:

“SEO writing” should not be a thing at all though, because writing should primarily be done for humans. Also, “SEO writing” is a complete misunderstanding of what “SEO” even is.

For those who don’t know or who need a reminder, SEO stands for “search engine optimization.” It is the practice of optimizing websites so that search engines can discover them and rank individual pages for the proper keyword searches in that search engine. Think a top barber shop ranking for “best denver barber” typed into Google.

If you agree with the above three pillars, then you’ll see that content is an instrumental part of SEO but just that – a part of the whole. And ultimately, the goal is to attract site visitors who read and take action so that a subset of them become customers.

I want to expand a bit more on my statement above that “SEO content” “is a complete misunderstanding of what “SEO” even is.”

Good rankings with content are informed by a few things:

SEO does not exist in a vacuum. Sure you can write a piece of content that is “more optimized” than everything else currently in the search results for that query, but without a thought towards promotion and what the visitor is expecting, it’s all going to be for naught.

That said, just hiring subject matter experts isn’t the answer either.

I have found over the years, as I have hired many writers and editors, that subject matter experts don’t often tend to be great writers. They know their subject. They’re not writers.

But, hiring a non-expert to write content can be challenging too and ends us up just in the realm of “SEO content” that anyone can research and write about with some strong paraphrasing skills. This isn’t adding any new insight to the market though, and your brand will just end up looking like everyone else and not standing apart.

For all the talk of “scaling content” out there in the marketing world (I’ve even produced a piece or two about this), one thing remains the same:

Good content will set you apart AND drive traffic at the same time.

“SEO content” will only MAYBE do the second.

Content that sets you apart is:

It’s content with a voice. It’s the way Brian Clark from Copyblogger wrote back in the day. It’s how Rand Fishkin built Moz. It’s how Ryan Holiday writes his books and his Daily Stoic and Daily Dad emails.

It’s not content written by a machine, content written just to rank. That’s not the kind of content that Google wants to rank either, so it will be short-lived at best in my opinion.

If you want to avoid looking like everyone else writing about the same topic and just writing the same stuff, it’s not just creating briefs with some “SEO AI tool” and hiring cheap freelancers to paraphrase others.

It’s also not trying to find the unicorns in a haystack that are subject matter experts who can write exceptionally well. And it’s also not hiring a subject matter expert who is a bad writer and then trying to get a writer to “make it good.” At best, they’ll be polishing a turd or putting lipstick on a pig. Pick your metaphor – the end result won’t be what you want.

So what is a brand to do?

The brands doing content the best, writing stuff that drives both traffic and revenue forward, are working with content marketers who understand how to craft a narrative, leverage the expertise of experts for completing that narrative, and who are always keeping in balance the needs of the human user that they want to become a customer and the search engines who want to rank the best content possible.

These content marketers also understand that not all content is for SEO or has to be “SEO optimized” (another term that makes me shudder, by the way. It’s like “ATM machine”), and they know that if you’re just chasing an algorithm, you will eventually get caught by it.

There is a reason why, when the Helpful Content Update was announced, I shrugged. We’ve not been doing anything to unfairly game the algorithm. We’ve been publishing good content consistently, building a brand and an ecosystem around our services, and doing the basics right time and time again.

There was no need to worry.

“Now John,” you might be asking, “shouldn’t writers have a base knowledge of SEO practices?”

My answer to this is “absolutely yes.” But they’re not doing the technical SEO, the backlink building, the brand building, and all of the other things that go into real SEO.

They should write content that is keyword-rich simply because it covers the entire topic. They should use headlines to break up content so that it reads better and so that search engines can better understand it.

But they should not be writing primarily for “SEO.” They should be writing for readers, for those who are looking for that content to satisfy their query, and ultimately to convert those visitors to customers.

THAT is the role of content for business. Humans, not search engines.

If you’re creating content for your brand or for clients, hopefully you’ve been following good sustainable SEO practices and have continued to see results even through the recent Google updates. If so, I hope you’re also seeing your clients increase content production because what you are doing is obviously working.

If so, you might need help with scaling editing. That’s why EditorNinja is here. Let us take care of the editing so you and your team can focus on strategy and the creation of the content. In fact, we find that an agency producing 35,000 words of content per month can find an additional $19,216+ in revenue by working with EditorNinja instead of editing in-house.

If you’re ready to work with a professional editor in an affordable and scaleable way that removes the challenges of hiring and management, let’s chat. Schedule a free editorial assessment and let’s see if we’re a fit to work together.

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