I’ve been lucky enough to stay busy doing corporate web writing for over ten years. I started SEO focused writing in 2002, and have been able to see it change over the years due to what Google wants.
You could argue that Google always want the same thing: quality. I think that is too broad a stroke hiding behind too blindingly white of a hat. Don’t drink the kool-aid – it’s spoiled.
My client base has been pretty diverse during the last decade so I have seen what works in different niches and talked to others every step of the way, too. We all usually agree, ranking is simply not that easy and hasn’t been for years – the best sites don’t just rise to the top. And quality is much too cerebral of a concept for an algorithm anyway…it’s a large part of why they relied so heavily on links.
It made me start considering what Google’s influence has done to the niche industry it pretty much created…the one I have been in, happily, all this time.
I started thinking about it all in terms of milestones, and randomly picked four year chunks to grab a little insight into how things have changed, at least as I have seen it go whizzing by from down here in the cave.
When I started, Google was only four, and hardly well known. Not yet a verb. I had been using it since ’99, when a librarian’s aid at college gushed about it, and I too, was a quick devotee. It was awesome.
One of my early copywriting clients at this time sold restored vintage Vespas, and I made his site rank and maintain a top 2 for “Vespa” with very little effort, fighting with Piaggio’s International site for the top spot and often winning it. That I was doing it mostly on-page against a big company was something I noticed immediately (they had a mostly Flash site – ha!), and I began testing the limits of what I could do with it. I was link-stupid, too, which didn’t help…rather, it made me believe that content was king. Because it was.
That was the way it worked then – websites were all built by hand, no real impact from open source yet, so no blogs. Dreamweaver3 was the newest toy and still horribly inconsistent and wrote bloated code. FrontPage sites were all over the place. The ability to rank a site was pretty much synonymous with the ability to build one, which took days or even more.
I cry now, remembering how easy it was to rank…you simply had to have it in the page. If you had competition, a lot of times, you could simply have more instances of the keyphrase, and win – density actually did matter, for a minute. Or, you could use meta tags, titles and copy better than them, and win, which was easy because most sites were built by tech guys who guarded their code ferociously but didn’t care about Google, so biffed it.
It was harder in competitive verticals of course and links were already necessary there – but long tail (still an un-coined term) was amazing, and that included local then too.
No one knew much about the re-born corporate internet. The first bubble-burst was still in the air, many smaller businesses were actually reluctant to get on the web. Money was great (vendors were few and far between), and you could write almost anything and make it work.
In 2002 the web and its technologies were weak but the people in it were generally passionate, so the quality was strong. I was having a blast, personally. I was an official white-hatted Google-phile then, too: a card-carrying sign waver, dyed in the wool and frothing with praise at the mere mention of them.
I was just starting to call myself an SEO copywriter, and no one much knew what it was.
Aging faster than a dog, the web and the writing in it was exploding exponentially. By 2006, two important things were changing everything: ads, and the blogs now holding them.
Open source code made blogging platforms a free way for anyone to get online, and ads made even hollow copy suddenly valuable. A match made in Google’s heaven.
The effect this had on the trade was that the bottom fell out of the market – you could almost hear it whistling past you on the way to the basement. When still virtually anything would work on a page and pages were suddenly free to build, suddenly everyone became an SEO copywriter, too. Lots of them would ferociously undercut norms to get the projects-or simply didn’t know any better and undercharged, because they did it all wrong. Per page and project prices fell thru the floor almost overnight, as did the ability to trust someone brandishing this professional title. Quality was harsh.
Clients started becoming suspicious, because cheap writers were also super aggressive marketers. Seeing pages going for a fraction of normal market prices made lots of business owners blanch, or question established providers (like me!). Cost structures everywhere started to change….affected by the rise of easy.
A page of content was typically boiled down to be just that: a page. Expertise was a tougher sell, because price was immediately understood, quality and depth were more esoteric concepts that were generally only realized in time. Bulk was working a charm in Google, as were more strategic domains (needing filler content), so a lot of people were getting on the web and hiring writers to get them going.
SEO copywriting gigs were most often based on pages churned and words counted, with keyphrases expected in specific densities. Mechanically measured bulk work. That keyword density had already become negated as a true impact was lost on the general public, and many people were using density as a sole measure to determine a page’s value. Ugh.
It was the time of the SEO rockstar, where people were talking about making money everywhere. And they were, even though some claims were no doubt inflated.
Work was everywhere, but suddenly so were self-proclaimed SEO copywriters. Market and quality standards were all over the map. There were still great paying gigs and challenging stuff – but it definitely got harder to find. Word of mouth gigs became cherished because everything public was becoming a zoo, and the monkeys were real turd-flingers.
The web was getting filled by a content is king strategy gone awry. Instead of seeing it as I did, that it meant quality and depth of content trumps all, people applied it with a more-is-better brute force mentality. And Google never stopped them – instead, making it super easy for next to nothing to suddenly start paying ad revenues.
This would continue for years, and the mechanical aspects of deriving web content were proliferating. In this time, it was mostly spun content and mash-n-scraped stuff of a very primitive level, because many people could see that simple noun+verb was all it took to start earning money.
It is fair to say as well, that there were ALWAYS people willing to approach things in a reasonable, clever and calculated way that knew they were never going to find that in a $5 page. But I can also say $5 pages can be stacked into $50/hr jobs, as I saw it done quite often.
The relative ease that was still in the ranking mix made SEO copywriting a pretty coveted thing, and the corporate world started to pay attention to what SEO meant a little more. In-house positions were created, and healthy salaries attached to a lot of them. While there may have been more people claiming to be in the trade and trying for gigs, if you could prove it and handle a meeting or two to explain a spread sheet, you were definitely in demand.
The content in general though, was starting to get thin really fast, because it had better margins for the owner/publishers. It wasn’t limited to any niche or sector – this slow erosion in what went into the page was handed off silently from passionate site owner to opportunistic web builder, and was seen most anywhere, spreading quickly.
People were climbing over each other to get better ranking in Google. Web barons and service shops were proliferating at a rapid clip, and with them is always an opportunity for a writer to get some more work going…I never saw a dip in demand by any means.
2006 echoes to me, of blogs and ads, and the more-is-better concept driving almost everything. Really good time for work – finding it was easy, big fat paychecks were still out there in freelanced corporate gigs, and they even started creating jobs for us and respecting us a bit more. Content was definitely king.
Ironic too, because it coincided with the rise of truly lame, empty-effort webpages in much larger numbers than ever before, with non-writers actively making people start to really distrust a job title being flung around like monkey shit. But there was money changing hands as the cesspool grew, because ads from Google made it all possible. More than that: the money made it pretty attractive.
By 2010, SEO copywriting was a pretty well known idea, even in more common areas. The rise of the job title in corporate circles lent enough credibility to make it a good career. The pay scale ranged based on experience, and a lot of freelance corporate gigs were sucked up by low level in-house SEO copywriters.
I think this was a good thing for most folks because they could get an in-house position where none or fewer had existed before. It made it easier to concentrate on the job itself if you didn’t have to worry about finding the next client, so writing across the web got better in spots as a result, for sure.
Problem was that it had been multiplying in so many places in so many ways, that the bad stuff far outweighed the meaningful stuff just about everywhere. Good sites were certainly out there and getting better all the time but they were typically drowned out by a glut of pushy, thin – but effective – pages spit out by someone trying to cash-in on the professional-in-his-pajamas bonanza.
Google was getting some grief for the rise of all this thin content (the same kindling that fueled their ad sales), so started ratcheting down. Long tail started getting more difficult as every algorithm update seemed to demand more than a thin page to do the job.
The cash flowing into Google was changing it at hyperspeed too – thru acquisitions and internal growth, they were now everywhere with tendrils in lots of pies. In 2002, they were still emerging in to the public consciousness, in 2006, were making an amazing amount of money, and by 2010 they were arguably unlike any company before it in terms of reach, impact, and influence.
Plus, they continually changed their SERPs, so the idea of having a webpage that effectively answered a query was no promise it was going to show above a video, a local result, paid stuff or something else Google put in there in place of the old-fashioned organic results. Complexity was getting even more complex every month.
In terms of the craft, there was of course still a lot of work to do. The onslaughts of cheap writers were still going pretty strong, yet demand for better-than-that was also in play, allowing the median price levels to stabilize.
This was really the last year of a lot of cheap efforts working, so there was about to be a pretty big shake-up…Panda was coming soon. But again, this time period was much like all the others, in that there were good jobs and cheap work out there to do, and you could find both pretty easily. Article marketing, emails, blog posts, ebooks – there was a lot of new types of copywriting coming into the norm, opening up many fun directions.
I did a phenomenal amount of work during this time. I was hooking up folks to gigs, and writers to ongoing client work – it was literally more than I could keep up with many times. It was wonderful though, as it was really kind of cresting – all of these different strategies, working in some degree. It meant lots of stuff to do every day.
I moved my office from my basement to the second floor of my house – and huge windows offering a spectacular view (comparatively) made a nice living analogy of what was happening to me, professionally. The amount of work in 2010 had me considering expansion, and more.
But the scale that everything was moving was soon to be thwarted by years of more intense Google changes – leaving the fate of the SEO copywriter a little less certain than in years gone by…that is, if you haven’t been paying attention.
Wrapping It Up
The one constant I have seen over the decade plus I have been doing this for people, is that there is, and will likely forever be a need for someone who can write well, that also understands a thing or two about optimizing the work for search engines, especially Google. It makes a potent combination in any niche, serving every vertical. It’ll never diminish in value as long as there is some sway.
There is still a glut of folks that call themselves SEO copywriters simply because they have churned out a ton of pages for someone somewhere. And by definition they are – but they are not representative of what I consider an experienced SEO copywriter. They are aspiring copywriters who worked on an SEO project, but there is a big difference between that, and knowing why words should go where they do, or what to do with analytics or how things have changed in the last 18 months. The tactics need to be understood in a larger sense for the smallest pieces to fit.
Success in Google drives a majority of what clients need from an SEO copywriter…it always has, in the decade that I did this so far. Quality is certainly one part of a solid, effective page – but the best written page is no guarantee. Google has also allowed different strategies to work at different times as they grow and change, so client wishes tend to follow suit.
What being an SEO Copywriter has come to mean today, loosely, is someone who can write about a variety of topics with an understanding of the strategies that go beyond burping assigned keyphrases every 73 words. At a minimum, an SEO copywriter, to me, is someone who understands the use and necessity of analytics and power of synonyms, related words, and how to use writing to make an idea more inclusive and engaging.
The work is still here, just like it was when I was starting out in 2002. It may be more competitive, but great clients and challenging work still abounds. Google has never been crappier, and as a counter-balance my clients and my work have never been better.
Despite how it may sound, I was happy to see bulk efforts get the Google hammer because it was a waste of everyone’s time. I did not do a lot of it (But some favors were called on), but I did arrange it for folks…and it simply stopped being requested when the penalties ramped up in early 2011.
But funny thing is that as the penalties got stiffer, the work got better: people were more willing to listen to ideas that were not a pinpoint map of keyphrases and opportunities. The rates never suffered, because cheap work (scaled and stacked) was replaced again by less, but more intelligent work at better rates.
I have disagreements with friends of mine who are much smarter than me about content truly being king. They argue, without links and engagement, content can’t rank any longer – but I remind them, the content caused the engagement and links, not the other way around. We are both right, so it never gets far.
A great piece of content is not enough to rank on its own merits, I concur – too many examples of really bad stuff ranking, and awesome stuff not to make it that simple. But great content engages…the problem is trying to figure out ‘great’ in the eyes of your visitor’s needs, not Google’s. Creating a power that Google can’t ignore is the best long term strategy – and it has always been the same.
But try explaining this to a starving small business owner who sees their last chance as a handful of articles or a hopeful press release to bump up a page for a specific keyphrase. They read about these tactics on Google and need help…they always need help. They don’t want a long term strategy: they need an immediate way into the game, or long term is simply off the table.
It is easy to preach to not write for the search engines. It is simply illogical, if you want the work to do well in the search engines. The algorithm has always had a preference for certain types of writing, so thinking you can always ignore them and still show up where you wish is naïve.
Google, in my decade of doing this, has usually represented more than 70% of all organic incoming traffic to any site. This means, doing well in Google means doing well with the page – maybe even doing well in business. Thinking that an SEO copywriter does not need to understand and write to appease Google is also very naïve.
People using SEO copywriting don’t have to be launching seedy campaigns, where $3 pages are flying off the presses faster than people can dictate them. It is (or can be) about nuance, and strategy, and understanding more of the many parts that affect a ranking than simply noun+verb+earning intention, or a good idea scaled to the moon with the cheapest labor on the planet.
It is no longer easy or even possible to simply write a page, and have it rank. It certainly was, but it ain’t no more. But as always, this deceptively simple-seeming task makes a pretty sensible place for most people to start. Still. Always.
SEO copywriting will be around as long as there is a chance of one page organically ranking better than another one, based on some measure of value from above. Chances are pretty good that until I topple, my old ass will still be in the chair, hands on keys…looking for those answers.
Well this was fun. I’ll be sure to check back in in about nine years or so, and see how we’re coming along.