How to Succeed in SEO Without Really Trying

Reading a profile of Pritzker Prize-wining Swiss architect Peter Zumthor in The New York Times Magazine, I was struck by this quote, explaining his aesthetic philosophy:

“I think the chance of finding beauty is higher if you don’t work on it directly.”

He went on to explain that you should try to “do what you should do,” by which he meant design in a practical way, with use and users in mind (my emphasis).

Sounds kind of like Matt Cutts, don’t you think? You know, Google’s oracle of SEO. He’s always advising SEOs to do the right thing. To develop content with users in mind; to design websites with real-world use in min.

The promise: create good content for users to enjoy and good site structure that helps those users get to your good content, and success will follow.

And here it is succinctly in Google’s Webmaster Guidelines (quality guidelines section):

“Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.”

Of course, many (and not just black hat SEOs) have taken issue with this advice, such as SEOmoz founder Rand Fishkin in this Sept. 2009 blog post Terrible SEO Advice: Focus on Users, Not Engines.

And some websites, such as the, have parleyed search-engine-specific tactics to outsized success.

Where do I stand?

Primarily with users.

Search algorithms have and will continue to change, rewarding and punishing different tactics over times.

The one constant will be content. Quality content.

And search engines will always want to reward sites with high-quality content. The kind of content that real people really want. And real people will continue to value and validate real content with their traffic and attention.

But the word “primarily” in Google’s guidelines is an important one.

In his blog dissent, Rand really takes issue with user-only statements without the “primarily” qualifier and acknowledges “users should absolutely be the focus of your efforts.”

My advice: Write and design with pure user intentions, trying your best to produce the content that people really want, content that offers real value and enjoyment.

But then you should put on your SEO hat (white, of course). And dot your i’s and cross your T’s. Which means you make sure all the technical stuff that the bots want to see is there.

I think it’s ideally a writer/editor paradigm.

The SEO is to the content producer as the editor is to the writer.

Writers should write fluidly and freely, without the sometimes-stifling pressure to get it all right immediately.

Then the editor steps in (even if it’s the same person). And he or she looks at the work critically and makes sure everything is optimized. Editors don’t typically use the term optimize, but in reality it is what good editors and SEOs both do.

And in ebb and flow of search algorithm updates that periodically reshape the best practices of SEOs, we are in a period where this advice is even more important.

Google’s Panda update was meant to penalize many popular sites that rose to prominence by focusing overly on the search bots and not the real needs of people. And, while not perfect, the update largely worked.

In addition, social media signals are becoming an increasingly important ingredient in the SERP recipes.

Those amplifying signals – Tweets and Likes and other forms of social sharing – are coming from real people responding to content that was meaningful to them in some way.

So stop trying to make the search engines like you.

Make pages, primarily, for people to like.

How to Write Copy That Sells by Channeling Your Customer’s Voice

I recently bumped into a writer friend of mine. She thanked me for helping her out.

Smiled. Tipped my head to the side a bit. Smiled. Huh?

See, it had been a while, and from my perspective at the time, it wasn’t memorable advice I had given her.

But thinking about it now, I know it is a good tip for copywriters and other marketers involved in creating messaging for a brand or product.

Here’s what her problem was…

She had just transitioned from a journalism job to one in PR. And she was really stressed out about something she had to write for her new boss. She said the piece needed a lot of energy and enthusiasm, and a different perspective that she just couldn’t find her way into it. She was stuck.

She said that the owner of the company would be able to do it perfectly…but it was her job.

And here’s the writing advice I gave her…

Write in Your Customer’s Voice.

In this case, her boss was her customer. And this customer wanted to hear his own voice. His real passion. His genuine enthusiasm. His world-view.

Imagine, I told her, you are him. Internalize his emotion, channel his energy, and inhabit his perspective. Hear his voice as you write. Try to use the words and expressions he uses.

Then, afterwards, use your writing and editing skills to polish it up if you need to.

Evidently it worked.

He was sold. She was happy.

In this case, there was essentially just an audience of one, but this writing tip works for broader marketing challenges as well.

Personas vs. People

Sometimes marketers and copywriters are encouraged to create “personas” that they keep in mind as they develop and market products. (David Meerman Scott calls them buyer personas in this excellent post.)

Personas, which are archetypal or composite personalities meant to represent real customer segments, are a huge step up from just pulling stuff out of your…you know.

But, if not animated by your knowledge of a real particular person (or a few that you can combine), personas can end up being another well-intentioned but hollow marketing tactic that falls flat in execution.

Personas can merely be a name you put on a “category” of people leading you to write more generically to a general abstraction, rather than writing more authentically and powerfully to a specific individual (or even a simple composite based on a few real people).

People are not categories. They’re not summaries of boxes checked on a survey.

The 1.2 million real people represented by a persona I create don’t all think the same, have the same worries, share the same sense of humor, or have the same voice.

You might not be able to decide if your assembled persona would use a particular word or phrase but you probably could if you were thinking about a person.

People are individuals and it’s best when you can pick a real live one to represent your buyer or customer or target audience.

I also think it’s great when you can leverage the voice of a real individual in your work.

The fear, of course, that some marketers have is the fear of limiting the appeal of the message by basing it on one person. But the opposite, in fact, is true.

Great art has long been praised for illuminating universal themes through the carefully observed individual.

Personal, done extremely well, becomes universal.

Politicians since Ronald Reagan have tried to use individuals to represent voter blocks whenever possible: Joe the Plumber, for a recent and memorable (if not ultimately successful) example.

The same can be true for copywriters and other marketers engaged in messaging.

Being able to tap into a customer’s voice can help your message sound and feel more authentic and resonate with your wider target.

Good fiction writers are adept at writing from different perspectives and adopting the individual voices and views of others.

Good actors often observe real people and look for the speech pattern, hand gesture, posture or gait that helps them create an authentic/believable character.

Many copywriters, however, even good ones, have trouble with this. You can have an engaging voice as a writer that’s perfect for your blog or a certain set of similar clients but struggle to get out of your comfort zone.

But the good news is it’s not hard to make your writer’s voice more versatile.

Listen to People. Very Closely.

Note their word choice, their sentence types, their sentence patterns, their perspectives and orientations. What are their passions, their pain points, their hesitancies and confusions? Imagine how you would talk to them if you really wanted to engage them. What would they respond to?

If you own a business, start listening at work. If you have a customer support or sales line, listen in. If you work at a larger company, try to attend (or listen to recordings of) focus groups. (I don’t always believe people in focus groups when they say what they want, but I’m a big believer in listening to what exactly they say and how they say it.)

Engage people you know in the real world about your products, the product category, or the customer needs your product is supposed to meet and hear what they say.

You can also pick up some information in online forums but people’s writing in those places is often not as true and authentic as their speech would be.

Copy Good Copy

A more solitary, less social way to exercise your copywriting voice is to find writers or brands whose work you like (you can use print ads, web pages, emails, whatever you like) and use that as a model for your writing.

You can start by literally copying the ad or page word for word to get used to the style, but you should soon be able to internalize the work enough that it can inform your sentence structure and length, word choice, punctuation, and sales strategy without copying anything directly.

You can also try imagining you’re the person who wrote the copy you like. Even if you don’t know the writer, think of a real person as you try to write in that style.

Don’t worry about getting it all right. There is no perfect here.

Sometimes just dropping a couple of well-observed and well-timed colloquial expressions into an otherwise conventional sales piece can transform it.

However imperfectly you can do it, being a bit of a mimic or ventriloquist, being able to tap into a person’s or a brand’s voice (remember good brands are like people with distinct voices) can help make your writing more dynamic and versatile.

It will equip you to win a wider range of clients.

And make you more persuasive with your customers.

Have at it.