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Writing For Google. Or Not.


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Is this “good copy”?

From an actual Phoenix area blog post (I’ve changed the city and redacted the agent/brokerage to “protect the innocent” (?):

When it is time for you to purchase Phoenix luxury homes, turn to a professional Phoenix, Arizona real estate agent at [redacted] to handle the transaction in a skillful manner.  With recent economic trends affecting real estate prices, it is a buyer’s market in Phoenix, and your Phoenix, Arizona real estate agent will make sure that you are getting the best deal on Phoenix, Arizona real estate.  You need a REALTOR® with the knowledge of local realty markets who is ready to represent you and procure quality Phoenix luxury homes.

That little snippet contains 89 words, 21 of which are Phoenix this and Phoenix that.  That would be a whopping 24% “keyword density”. The remainder of the article was just as keyword laden.

Maybe it’s just me, but I find this excruciating to read, and it comes off as being written for one thing and one thing only — search engines.

I’m not writing this to pick on one individual (hence the lack of a link and the altered text). The reason for writing this is twofold: 1) Selfishly, I find the practice of writing for search engines incredibly annoying and this helps me vent my frustration; and 2) I see this practice occurring with greater frequency — a trend I find most disturbing.

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Google is smart

The folks that work at Google are a very bright bunch of people. Trust me, you don’t need to make 24% of what you write a key word for Google to figure out what your post is all about. In actuality, the title is probably enough (and yes, this post had “Phoenix Luxury Homes” as the title lead).  If you really feel compelled to shove “CITY REAL ESTATE” down your reader’s throat, toss it in a few more times. But 24% of the time? Puhlease.

Ask ten SEO experts what an optimal keyword density is, and you’ll probably get twelve different answers. But I challenge anyone to find an expert that feels 24% of your copy should be keywords. The general consensus seems to range from 2 – 5%, depending on the search engine (here is a good article on keyword density). At a 2 – 5% rate, our little example would need the keyword used 2 to 4 times. 21 blows it out of the water and is far more likely to do harm than good.

I’m no Faulkner or Hemingway

Occasionally I’ll write something and sit back and say, “Hey, that’s pretty damn good!” Then a Kris Berg / Jonathan Dalton / Jeff Corbett type will come along and write something and I’ll say, “Wow, apparently I can’t write worth a crap”. Such is life. The simple truth is, you don’t need to compose prose like Hemingway, Faulkner or Berg/Dalton/Corbett to have an effective blog post and engage your readers. Sure, it helps if your grammar is decent and you can string together a coherent thought or two. But highly skilled writing is not a prerequisite for effective blogging.

There has always been much discussion within the real estate blogging community about “your voice”. The advice I give to those that will listen is to write for your readers, not the search engines. Write like you speak. Write like your reader is sitting next to you and you’re talking with them.

Do you think whoever wrote the above talks like that in real life? I seriously doubt it. Odds are they are a nice, warm and friendly person. Why not write that way? Write to and for your readers, not the search engines. The search engines will find you, they are good at what they do, they really don’t need incessant prompting.

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I leave you with this little nugget from Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Think about it…

Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?” (my emphasis)

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Hat tip to Steve Belt

Written By

Jay is the Broker / Owner of Thompson's Realty in Phoenix, Arizona. A self-professed "Man with a blogging problem" he can be found across the Interweb, including at the Phoenix Real Estate Guy blog where he opines on all things real estate and tosses out random musings.

37 Comments

37 Comments

  1. Tom

    July 31, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    The key is not to write for Google, but after writing make sure that it is optimized for Google. Look at your title and instead of writing something witty, make sure it has the terms that people looking for the meat of your post will use.

    The example that you used is obviously crap, and should be judged as such. However, for the novice blogger, making sure that your content has the correct keywords that will help readers find your posts is a very smart move, and one that Google heartily endorses.

  2. Jay Thompson

    July 31, 2008 at 3:53 pm

    Great point Tom. I didn’t mean to imply that keywords and a little tweaking here and there aren’t important. They definitely are. It’s not terribly difficult to put a keyword in a natural context occasionally. In fact, I find that easier than making every fourth word a keyword!

  3. Chuck G

    July 31, 2008 at 4:33 pm

    Let’s not forget the whole reason that you’re blogging in the first place — to allow people to “warm up” to you before they ever meet you …. They get a feel for who you are by how you write, and what your opinions are about real estate (or whatever you happen to be blogging about.) They can feel passion, sincerity, humor, or sadness from what you write. They can also peg you as a pushy, used-car-type of salesperson (which is the feeling I get from reading your example above.)

    Don’t get hung up on writing for Google. Google isn’t going to buy a house from you. Don’t even worry about stuffing a few keywords into the first paragraph — do that in your SEO plug-in and let it do the heavy lifting from there. Just worry about what you do best…being yourself.

    And don’t forget this — what you write in that first paragraph is possibly first impression that people will get of you. So think hard about who is more important to impress…

  4. Matt Thomson

    July 31, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    Google rankings are great, and search engine presence is important, but consider these numbers from my blog. I get about 2100 visitors per month…not incredible but very good. About 1500 of those come from Google and Yahoo (according to my analytics). That means about 600 find me through other ways (my email signature, comments on other blogs, word of mouth, etc). I’m guessing that those who find me directly are more apt to stay on my site than those who find me looking for something very specific on a search engine.
    Definately write in a manner that will get folks to stay on your site. Finding you is great, but if they find you and determine you stink, that doesn’t do much good.

  5. Rich Jacobson

    July 31, 2008 at 5:28 pm

    Jay: I totally agree. You do write like CRAP!

  6. Rich Jacobson

    July 31, 2008 at 5:41 pm

    Seriously though, we can really over think all this stuff, ad nauseum. It’s supposed to be ‘conversational’ blogging – where real people engage with real language. I can just hear the other side of the discussion:

    “Dear Phoenix Arizona Real Estate Agent: We’re absolutely ‘thrilled’ that you know the Phoenix Arizona real estate market so well. And no doubt, you possess all the necessary skills and abilities well suited for the Phoenix Arizona area. So when we do decide that it’s time to purchase our Phoenix luxury home, we’ll no doubt solicit your services as the premier professional Phoenix Arizona real estate agent to handle the Phoenix Arizona transaction in a skillful manner. And with recent economic trends affecting Phoenix Arizona real estate prices, it being a buyer’s market in Phoenix Arizona, you, our Phoenix, Arizona real estate agent, will make sure that we’re getting the best deal on Phoenix, Arizona real estate!”

    As they say in the Valley, “Gag me with a Big Spoon!”

    “To Thine Own Blog Be True!

  7. Jonathan Dalton

    July 31, 2008 at 6:10 pm

    Dum-dum-dum-dum-de-dum-dum-de-dum … sorry, Jay. Have had a tune stuck in my head all day.

    I’ve been probably annoying readers by putting Phoenix real estate in the title of many posts. But I also changed URLs and killed my SERP and am working to recover. Once there, I can cut back. The key, as Tom said it, was to optimize but not write for Google.

    And I’m honored to be in the same sentence as X and Kris. Not sure I belong, but I’ll take it.

  8. Larry Yatkowsky

    July 31, 2008 at 6:13 pm

    I don’t have that many key words on my new roll of toilet paper.

  9. Steve Belt

    July 31, 2008 at 6:39 pm

    I know the post for which Jay writes, and it is indeed a gag fest for me. In fact, I couldn’t get through the entire post, and it was only 2 paragraphs long. If a search engine brought a human being to that post, I can’t imagine they’d stay there long. And if they don’t stay, what’s the point? If they don’t stay, they don’t subscribe, they don’t read other posts, they don’t call or email, they don’t do anything that would be of value to a business owner.

    But anyone reading here already knew that. Clearly, not enough people are reading here.

  10. Mariana Wagner

    July 31, 2008 at 7:21 pm

    My mantra is always, “Write for your audience first.” After you have written for your audience, then “optimize” it – like Tom mentions.

  11. Elaine Reese

    July 31, 2008 at 7:54 pm

    I’ve seen a blog that does that exact thing, and it’s a tough read. I write like I talk, then I try to clean it up a bit to remove those “idioms” that Ohio tends to use or possibly change some words that might help match a phrase a client might use. As Matt T noted, my numbers aren’t incredible (~ 6K visits/mo) but the majority of my Google hits are the result of long tail phrases – not the “city, state, real estate” type of keywords.

  12. Jeff Corbett

    July 31, 2008 at 9:25 pm

    I wish you were one of my creative writing and/or English teachers through my formal edumacational years Jay 🙂

    I’ve never written for Google, always for the human audience…’SEO experts’ must privately laugh themselves to tears at my stuff. Maybe that’s why they’re always emailing and offering to help me ‘get to page one on Google for _______ key words in 30 days or less..?

  13. Kris Berg

    July 31, 2008 at 9:32 pm

    Jay,

    Gratuitous comment aside (and thank you, by the way), I couldn’t agree more. I continue to do this on-line thing all wrong. I write what moves me in a way that I would tell the story to you over coffee. I couldn’t give a rat’s hind quarters about what Google thinks of my posts, although the experts will tell you I am misguided and failing to capitalize on my true potential. I am not writing for the casual reader in Omaha or Great Britain or even Phoenix; I am writing for the potential client who lives in my county and my neighborhood. If Google finds me, so be it. My potential client four doors or four miles away doesn’t search for San Diego Real Estate, but they do search for “Kris Berg,” and I do just fine, thank you, for those keywords. My real would-be clients come to my blog or website because I sent them there through other marketing efforts. And, go figure, I am getting a more than a little organic success through my train wreck, true-to-myself approach.

    My Father-in-law liked to say, “Don’t fight the feeling.” I like this approach. I simply do not want to think that hard or obsess because, like anyone who has obsessed over a deadline, the thoughts, meaning and geniousness get lost when one overthinks the problem. The result is maybe a valid message, but it is so mired in unreadable, self-serving tripe that the message gets lost.

    In other words, I am just a San Diego Realtor writing about the San Diego home buying and selling market in San Diego for consumers wanting information on San Diego properties. But if you ever catch me using the words “San Diego” out of context, you have my permission to write a blog post about it AND use my name.

  14. Kris Berg

    July 31, 2008 at 9:34 pm

    By the way, in my second paragraph, third sentence, “maybe” should be two words. Now, THOSE are the things that really bug me!

  15. Bill Lublin

    July 31, 2008 at 10:00 pm

    Jay , When you mention Berg/Dalton/Corbett were you working on an alphabetical listing or are they ranked in order of their beauty? (Sorry Jeff – not my ordering, though Jonathan vs Jeff is a tough call for anyone)

    I was put in mind of the Keavin Nealon character on SNL (Philadelphia real estate) who would insert (Philadelphia real estate) his subliminal message (Philadelphia real estate) during his regular conversation, Like this

  16. Bob

    July 31, 2008 at 10:02 pm

    Kris, why do you buy adwords for “Scripps Ranch real estate”?

  17. Benn Rosales

    July 31, 2008 at 10:23 pm

    if you come up organically from 1-10 whats wrong with some insurance that you’re also seen 10 – 100 in the results? I’m not getting why a little insurance with gooogle ads has anything to do with packing a post with crap to cheat the system…

  18. Jim Duncan

    August 1, 2008 at 4:34 am

    We’re all writing for Google, whether we like or admit it or not. A difference is that some like your Phoenix friend are writing specifically for Google and others are writing with Google as a third- or fourth-level goal or even as as afterthought. There is a blog in my area (happens to be AR) that does just what you speak of; the keywords are the primary content and the content is secondary. Ugh.

  19. Jennifer in Louisville

    August 1, 2008 at 4:57 am

    Echoing others sentiments: If you actually generate traffic to your site (through SERPs or whatever), you need to have something compelling to keep them there. But, by the same token, I can sympathize with the other guy – who feels that he has to do something to try to become more visible in the searches. Its an act of desperation. I’m not saying its right or even good – but I do understand their desire to get seen.

  20. Kris Berg

    August 1, 2008 at 6:33 am

    Bob, I don’t buy “adwords” for anything.

  21. Eric Blackwell

    August 1, 2008 at 6:46 am

    I think the most difficult task is teaching the words MODERATE and APPROPRIATE to Realtors (grin).

  22. Ginger Wilcox

    August 1, 2008 at 9:28 am

    Come on Jay. The best way to hire a Phoenix real estate agent when you are buying Phoenix real estate in Phoenix is to hire a Phoenix expert who knows Phoenix like the back of his Phoenix born hand.

  23. Bob

    August 1, 2008 at 9:31 am

    Kris, I meant the sponsored ad in Google for Scripps Ranch real estate..

    The reason I mentioned it is that your site could easily rank well for Scripps Ranch real estate without having to compromise your writing style at all.

  24. Eric Blackwell

    August 1, 2008 at 9:37 am

    Benn;

    Since you brought the point up, I think it is worth mentioning that studies have found a synergistic effect in having both good organic ranking AND simultaneously running PPC ads.

    In other words, it is better than insurance…doing both X + Y often will yield even more traffic to your site than the sum of either one.

    And Bob is correct. For a term like Scripps Ranch real estate, you do not need to compromise your writing style Kris. I like the way that you write and to change that would be uncool. 😉

  25. Bob

    August 1, 2008 at 10:13 am

    Benn, I didn’t ask because it was insurance. I asked because Kris isn’t showing up organically 1-10 and could/should be. The myth that gets perpetuated ad nausem with real estate bloggers is that they rank primarily because of what they write or how they write.

    Kris has written several times that she won’t be found for certain keywords because of how she writes, so she is writing off an opportunity for greater exposure because of a misunderstanding of why her stuff ranks or doesn’t rank.

    Question: Does the NY Times write for readership or search engines?

  26. Diane Cohn

    August 1, 2008 at 12:34 pm

    OMG, barf. Just write for your audience.

  27. Cheryl Allin

    August 1, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    If you read your blog post out loud and it sounds weird, you need to fix it. I love the Kevin Nealon analogy, perfect! What you can do to a well worded, conversational blog post is ensure your url has keywords, title has keywords, H1 tags have keywords, images have alt tags and links have good anchor text and titles. But if you really want that page to have some google goodness, get some links pointing to it. People have teensie attention spans – they’re going to skim it unless it’s amazingly compelling. I can tell from my stats I don’t often write anything terribly compelling – but I keep working to improve.

  28. Bob

    August 1, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    i asked earlier “Does the NY Times write for readership or search engines?”

    It wasn’t rhetorical. Would it surprise anyone if the answer was search engines?

    A few years ago the NY Times brought in one of the best SEOs out there. The assumption was that he would work his magic and they would own Google, after all, they are the NY Times. He did his thing with site architecture, etc, but what they didn’t expect was that he required everyone from copyboy to editor go thru his training on writing for an audience that includes search engines.

    The end result was subtle changes that most would never pick up on that generated some pretty big positive results.

    The point is that the concept of “just write it for Ma and Pa kettle and they (Ma, Pa and google) will come” isn’t true. But the notion that you have to write keyword stuffed crap isn’t true either.

    I dont write a lot of blog posts, and when I do, they are geared to the consumer who doesnt know me and isnt looking for me. They are looking for specific answers. They find those via a search engine because it seemed to me that, this being a numbers game, that would be the easiest way to get in front of the most numbers.

    The end game is I get search engine results that bring traffic that continues to generate business (over a dozen listings with offers pending), and close to 1200 comments in 14 months, even though only 2 posts were written in 2008.

    The thing is, it will be what you are willing to make it. You don’t need to write everyday, every week or even every month, and you certainly don’t need a ghost writer. However, learning how to leverage the exposure of what you do publish seems obvious to me.

  29. Matthew Rathbun

    August 1, 2008 at 3:54 pm

    Writing to get found on Google and writing to attract a consumer to come back after the first article are the two steps (IMO) that should be considered. However, I think writing many posts with the same key words is much better than writing one post with all the key words repeated.

  30. Kris Berg

    August 1, 2008 at 4:36 pm

    >OMG, barf. Just write for your audience.

    That is hysterical in its simplicity and brilliant in its eloquence, Diane. I think you may have just come up with the title of the opening panel session at Inman NY. 🙂

    Just so there is no misunderstanding, Bob, I like Google, and I like Page Ones. I wish I was on more of them. And, yes, I know I suck at SEO and would probably (certainly) enjoy more success, however it is that we are measuring that this week, if I used my noggin a little instead of thoughtlessly typing whatever thoughts happen to pop into my head. It is a matter of priorities for me, and I place a higher priority on the readability once I am found than being found in the first place. This is admittedly foolhardy, but I’m stubborn that way.

    I think it could be argued that we have sufficiently beat this horse.

  31. Bob

    August 1, 2008 at 7:01 pm

    “It is a matter of priorities for me, and I place a higher priority on
    the readability once I am found than being found in the first place.”

    I understand that. However, readability, or the lack thereof, has very little to do with being found.

    You’ve written the same thing about quality vs results before, most recently on Inman, so it’s my goal to dispel the belief that a writer of your caliber would have to compromise to compete. A site like your castles site with your local content could and should be more readily found for Scripps Ranch real estate, and it’s certainly better for the user than what is currently on page one now. SanDiegoCastles.com at #1 would be the map to the treasure
    you mentioned
    .

    As for the horse, no way I’m giving up. When you speak, people listen, but this is the one thing where I don’t want them to believe you. I don’t even want you to believe you on this. You don’t have to change a word. It isn’t all or nothing. You really can have it both ways.

  32. Mike Taylor

    August 2, 2008 at 5:01 am

    I think if you write for you audience your writing will naturally contain enough of you keywords to satisfy the search engines. I don’t see a problem with tweaking your copy slightly to target certain words or phrases, but not at the expense of sounding like a idiot.

  33. Suzanne Gantner

    September 22, 2008 at 9:56 am

    I wonder if people think we/clients/others are actually going to read bad redundant crude like your Realtor above. To me it is offensive because he/she thinks we are stupid. Good information is what we want, it doesn’t have to be written by Hemingway, it needs to be informative. Give me good substance!!

  34. Tyler

    January 20, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    It’s not that you have to write for google, you just have to write was is natural because that is ultimately what google likes imo.

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