Back when I started copywriting for a living, I had to use a phone book to find leads. Cold-calling, 101. I was convincing people that they wanted to bring their businesses to the web: and yes Virginia, it is a conversation that I had back then, daily. I used to have to explain what SEO was, and why it was important. I am Old Man River, like the tired old guy in the pic above.
Luckily for all you young writer pups out there, this is not the case any longer. Work is now simply a screenshot or an email away from you, always.It is pretty wonderful, comparatively.
And work, that was something I once had to explain to potential clients is now more prevalent than ever. Platforms are springing up that all require some form of communication and copywriting to effectively maintain. Blogs, feeds, Press Releases, features, interviews and more await the able scribe of today.
The role and importance of a copywriter in a successful corporate environment may have a slightly different assumption (online proficiency) swaddling it today, but the copywriter has not lost any footing as the years tumble by.
So the question then becomes, how do you find work as a copywriter in today’s climate?
Find The Source
One thing that is the same-same, always, is finding the true source of the work. You need to locate the people who actively hire writers and then try to understand a bit about why they are looking for strength in their ranks.
If you have companies you admire or want to be a part of, these are actually what I consider to be the best targets. A natural passion to be a part of things is easy to see, even from a distance, and can sometimes be the extra juice that carries you into the first client meeting.
But if not a personal target, there are often professional reasons to pursue one type of copywriting more than another. As an example, I personally have a specialty in alternative finance from years of doing it, so I tend to start there. However, I have passion (and experience) in education, SEO, music stuff, and dog-related writing too…so you can see in just a matter of a few minutes, I can narrow down the places where I am aiming. I should be increasing my chances of success as well, as I am going where I am stronger.
You might be surprised at how many larger/successful businesses use freelance copywriting to bolster their efforts. The diversity offered by “proper online application” feels almost limitless. Certainly they hire for specialized pages (like SEO stuff or expertise), but many businesses will also hire for more routine blogposts/site pages. Why? Because their own staff is often overwhelmed with conflicting agendas, so newer things get pushed back – or, maybe they need the spark of a new voice to warm up their cold, tired copy. Maybe they need a professional steering the effort to keep it moving.
There are many reasons why a business might look to outside help to strengthen their efforts. Your job, immediately, is to become an unconscious option for them to consider when it is time to get busy.
I am assuming too, that the area of expertise that you are after is one where you have both work samples and satisfied clients under your belt. These things certainly make it easier to have potential clients perk up on the value of your services – expertise in both a specific niche AND a foundation of better-than-general writing (seeing it as an art form), works together incredibly well.
Target the places/niches where you have shined before, and it is ALWAYS easier to suggest why this is a trend you can replicate. Cherish every connection made; be quick, available, and to the point – you never know when the person you are dealing with becomes the one who needs help or makes a decision on future project specifics.
Keep your communications VERY brief, and right to the point. Understand that the only things folks REALLY want to know, is 1.Are you capable of the work and being self-sufficient, and 2. When will the finished product/next milestone be ready? Not to say clarifying points are not welcomed (they almost always are greatly appreciated), just that the more you understand clients are seeing only the project and associated timeline, the more your communications stay focused on the point.
Who, Exactly Do You Try To Find?
So who actually hires copywriters? Usually, in medium to larger organizations it is the marketing team…but it is not limited there by any means. In one company I worked, we did direct mail, lots of website (company-focused) material, had a bustling Intranet, HR-fodder and a wide range of consumer-focused stuff…yet the marketing department was where most of the creative originated. I soon became the gatekeeper for all corporate messaging – a position I hold in a lot of places I work. Over the years, I have been thru intense legal reviews and have developed an eye for detail that makes me pretty valuable in language control.
If a business is smaller, they won’t have a whole department for marketing, but someone in there will surely be responsible for it. These types of situations are actually easier to find work – though it is usually harder to get long-running contracts out of smaller businesses. They simply don’t have the cash flow and budgeting options you’ll find in a larger place, but they are often more harried and stretched thin, so may be more eager to find writers to help ease the strain and drive the agenda. My personal focus has been more with web developers, so I look in forums and places where multi-site owners seek-out people like me.
I have also seen a trend in the last few years where more businesses are bringing in lower level copywriters and “media kiddies” to handle ongoing efforts. Not unusual for me now to plot out a long range direction and get the first few pages written as a guide – then the business hires someone else to take it over, more cheaply, in-house.This should alert you to the opportunity here – it is real.
For example, in smaller businesses or for the webmasters/web lords I tend to work with, I have been that answer for them in ongoing relationships…remember above, when I suggested becoming the unconscious choice for copywriting needs as they arise? I am that guy for many business owners I know, and though their needs are not always as regular as a larger company, I can be the answer time after time, which all just adds to my own small, but constant stacks.
Once you have targeted a few businesses in the niche(s) where you are experienced, look at the corporate structure of the companies. Many sites have a “Meet the Team” page where you can get a feel for the hierarchy…maybe even get the name of the person you want to reach out to. Look for Creative Directors, Marketing Managers/Directors, and Online/Web Teams. If a company is smaller, you can target the owner – dictatorships in small business are the norm, so one guy will make more of the important decisions.
It’s your job to take the time to make your first impression a solid one…don’t use an email blanket and mass-send it. A template is fine, but modify it to be a specific pitch to the place you are reaching-out to. If you are polite, eager, talented, and experienced, it is pretty hard to go unnoticed. Remember too that people talk, so every relationship is gold, even when all you see is the shaft.
Bring Your Own Party
As media diversifies across many channels, sometimes copywriting gigs today have an additional promotional or audience-generating aspect to it. Meaning, it may not be enough to be able to create something noteworthy: you may also need the skillset, time, audience and/or resources to promote it after it is published.
Personally, I find this a blessing and a curse. I am a ghost writer, so my name has not often been attached to anything I have written. I simply can’t bring an audience with me as so many other writers are able to do. However, I am well versed in promoting content through outreach and other means, so my lack of visibility can become a strength, as I am able to more nimbly and aggressively go after the prize.
If you are in the earlier stages of your career, whether to be a ghost writer or to consciously build your own following is something important to consider. Your ability to create and maintain an audience who listens to your writing can lead you to things where you do not rely as heavily on client work. You often develop a more powerful sway on your own. I have seen this work very well for people – but personally, I have never regretted being a ghost either.I have questioned it occasionally for sure, but over time am remaining very happy where I am going.
It is more of a personal choice these days, whereas I felt it was definitely more strategic for me in the early aughts to be the ghost, the invisible support businesses were seeking. There is a different feeling today, and the web/internet often brings its own levels of celebrity. I have seen shrewd copywriters turn their attained celebrity into personal earning power…it’s up to you. Building a following is not like falling off a log or anything, but passionate voices emerge every day, and a strong message can find followers more easily and quickly than ever before.
The main point being though, assuming you understand how things are shared/promoted online, if you can include that as a value-add or part of the gig itself, it is super attractive to potential clients. Know too, that clients today can see how well something works more clearly than they ever could. Writing projects with no decent measure of success are a thing of the past – analytics and tracking have become adept at seeing the true efficacy of each effort, often in realtime.
Nothing sells success like previous success, or the promise of an engaged audience for every post written. If you have the people or the skills to bring this outreach/connectivity to each project, your perceived value increases greatly over run-of-the-mill copywriters.
I will warn though, see promotion (at least in budget/billing) as a totally separate thing from the copywriting part – because it is. Though tightly related, they really involve 2 different skillsets, and each should be compensated justly. I have done promotional jobs that were tied to outreach success rates – however, I tend to go for jobs that are more black-and-white based on outputs, because it is hard to predict how people will react. Just saying, you don’t want to bundle the services of writing and promotion and not get paid decently for each – they are definitely separate areas of subject matter expertise.
Get Out There
The other main difference between when I started and today, is the ease in getting something self-published. You can start a blog or a website, contribute to someone else’s or offer opinions/catch attention in ways that make my old phone book and a cold call seem archaic, indeed. So maybe the best plan, like it always has been, is to get out there and work.
This blog post is a great example – I don’t write it for people to read it necessarily, I write it because it helps me in some manner to get to my next place. But who knows who sees it, and what they think or do with it – I did my part in getting it out here. And if there are some nuggets to glean, awesome.
More to the point, is I am writing because I like to write – it helps me work for others, to write whatever I want to first. It doesn’t always have to BE something, as much as it has to be.
I came up with an acronym to keep my writers focused: AICHOK. Ass In Chair, Hands On Keys. I consider it like a soup base in cooking – generally makes the rest come easier, and brilliance is perhaps in the offing. You can’t be brilliant if you aren’t typing, and you won’t typically find work either. However, being active and passionate about whatever it is that floats your cakehole, you will often be pleasantly surprised at the results.
I was lucky this week, in that one of my favorite teachers, Dr. Margaret Walters of Kennesaw State University asked me to come and talk to her careers in writing class.
The pic here, shows just how intense I was…we were solving most of the world’s problems. 🙂
They were very nice folks, and I was happy to be able to get out of the cave for a while, and talk.
One thing I loved, was being able to sit in the class and hear Dr. Walters tell the folks what to do, in prepping themselves for a career. I agreed with everything she said- except one thing, regarding samples…
See, when you are young, and/or just starting out you need to collect samples of your work to share. That, with testimonials is how you find new clients and keep going. The problem is, as a student, you aren’t around a ton of “professional” types of writing- so they encourage you to use academic papers until you can swap them out. That is the thing I don’t exactly agree with, but let me explain why.
In my personal experience, I did just what they suggested – I did not have many professional samples after graduation, so I made up some. I did a couple mock articles (this was long before blogging was around), had a story or two, mocked up a couple ads and thought I had a decent little pile to share. I was pretty aggressive, so I was trying to get interviews with the agencies in Atlanta that hired freelancers. I was good at it too, and got in there…landing an interview with a leading agency here.
The agent was warm, and happy to meet me- we hit it off right away. We talked for a little bit, and things were clicking well…then he asked to see my samples. I had them all in a branded folder (I had all my stationary and folders branded, to look the part), so I handed it over to him.
I will never forget it- he opened the folder, looked at my top sample, and looked right up at me with a totally new, not pleasant look on his face. He thumbed thru my samples, and looked at me again, with the same expression (tired, bored) and said: “You’ve never really done any professional work, have you.”
I think I crawled under the table- maybe the rug…he definitely was not interested in me anymore – handing back the folder and standing up…our interview was immediately over. I was saying all the things I thought would help but it did not matter at all to him. I was under qualified, and now I was creating a bad impression in the agency I wanted to get work from. The agent simply eased me out of the office, clutching my folder that would never again see the light of day. It was embarassing, and pretty awful.
Learn from My Mistake(s)
So as you young ‘uns get out there to start hammering the keys for cash, know that people want to see PROFESSIONAL work. It is a lot easier today, than it was when I got into this simply because of the online options.
If I were doing the same kind of thing today, I would go after professional writing gigs while still in school – not for pay mind you, but to get the clip published. I would do a newsletter article, a feature piece, blog posts – I would be getting posts/pages online, where a link could be shared with a prospective employer. I would donate my time and writing to organizations (on and off campus)I liked, for free, in exchange for the publishing and a testimonial.
I promise you, there are many easy places for you to offer work for free- free, sells. I always suggest to stay with something you love- I went to the Humane Society because I love dogs, so wrote some holiday newsletters for them and that started it all for me. I used the articles and testimonial to get more clients…each time, able to charge a little more, each time ensuring I could get work samples and testimonials.
The good news is, I did eventually work for that agency, too…though the agent who I interviewed with the first time was no longer there. I did a couple gigs for them, and then went my own way because I earned more without them. But I needed to work there a bit, or I would have had that albatross following me around more than I like.
So thanks again to Margaret Walters, and the class that let me come in and babble for a bit. That was a wonderfully influential class to me – so being on the other side of the desk when I can be is very special to me. If any of you guys need anything at all along the way, you have a friend in me. 🙂
P.S. I did ping one of my favorite authors, Dave Eggers, to see if he’d chime in for us- got an email from his assistant today, saying he is sequestered off writing…so we’ll get him next time! But I did an interview with another great writer I know, who self publishes young adult fiction…see my interview with SR Johannes here.
Been a while since I have talked about how to find good copywriting gigs- be they for SEO or otherwise. But of late, I have been talking with writers emerging into it all – all the splendor and the glory – so thought I would do a post to be more of a conceptual overview of finding work…how to think about and approach it.
Assumptions here for proper perspective, do include that you are not pursuing writing in a part-time or full-time position in a specific place: you are approaching it from a more standard issue freelancing POV. I may do another post later, about the benefits of going in-house…because different times of your life may find different things attracting you one way or the other. Today though, we are focusing on independent freelancing.
So let’s just dive right in, shall we?
Step One: Identify the Work, and Your Own Power To It
This one, is really dependent on where you are in your career. Much more important to you when you are just starting out- but certainly something that you will consider multiple times as you march through the perpetual madness of professional copywriting. You need to target a type of writing, and see why you have power to bring it.
If there is a specific type of writing or a niche in which you are prolific, this makes the most natural and reasonable starting point. You have to be reasonable – if your passion is model airplanes, it is going to have a smaller range of professional options than if you are into women’s fashions or marketing. But passion always drives a tough bargain, in most areas…don’t discount your own power through passion.
Maybe you have a few years experience in shipping, or customer service and can write about it – or spent some time in a restaurant (much more common). In any case, you can use most any kind of experience and flip it into a more powerful position to find writing gigs. Since I spent a number of years in restaurants, we’ll use that one here as our example du jour.
Let’s say, you worked in a restaurant for 8 years- both back and front of the house. Then you went to school and started writing. Or maybe you got a degree in English, or had a knack for writing and the degree never quite panned out, so you went to restaurant work, and just stayed there. In either case you are emerging with no true experience (but talent and training) as a writer, and lots of relevant industry experience in restaurants and hospitality work.
To find reasonable work then, you are not going to focus on the weak point, being your lack of pro writing experience…you are going to build more on your strengths as a knowledgeable industry insider and ability to weave the power of professional writing under it. You offer perspective the audience will see immediately, but your voice is better trained to communicate than most. So build up the portfolio while also getting more entrenched in your niche.
Staying reasonable, means knowing the potential of your reach. The well established, leading voices in the industry are not going to listen to you (as a rookie), unless you have something truly remarkable to share. That is really, really rare- and not something you plan for or can build upon. So maybe consider it a long term goal for reaching the top dogs- and never any harm in thinking like that, but do properly count the eggs you are putting into that basket. You should not expect to jump into a field and be at the top of it simply because you have industry experiences.
Yet the restaurant industry has so many diverse parts to it and it offers a very rich and thriving community both online and offline. Sticking to the example: if you have the restaurant experience and drive/skill to write about, find the places where people are publishing about restaurant issues. Right? Simple stuff.
It might be wine service, pairing foods and beverages, managing liquor costs, handling drunk clientele, hiring wait staff, doing fun promotions, menu planning, scheduling – there are a wide range of options for you to explore, and use as search queries. It would start with your own expertise or desires, and be loose enough to follow the paths illuminated by your queries. Refine, rinse and repeat.
By the time you go through this kind of free-thinking research a couple times, you will tend to find a direction coming out in your notes if it was still murky to you. And of course, you should be writing daily – if you want to get paid for it, you’d better start doing it.
Step Two: Identify the Places and Faces Publishing Work, and Buzzing
Knowing we are looking to write about our restaurant experience, we find the publications, websites, forums, online groups and anything else where they are talking about the things that interest us and allow the expertise to shine. Keep track of it- use something online, even as simple as a text file or spread sheet, where you can keep URLs, links and other notes of the community research.
In addition to finding the specific places where restaurant experts are discussing pertinent issues, we will find certain folks who are sparking discussions in certain parts of the topics- idea leaders, typically with passionate followers. Plug in to the ones that make sense here- start becoming more active within the community in which you hope to become a writer. Follow them. Key idea here, is to go out softly…and carefully, and truly add to the discussions. Become a part of the groups where you feel comfortable and can add value.
While you are gently but affirmatively participating within your communities, you are going to be able to see and follow (through links and referrals) different folks within them. Here are the seeds of networking- and getting your work out there. If someone has a great share, go see what they do in their own world- chances are good, you will find more things you like. Not always of course, but it can open up more diverse and active thinking in your subject matter.
The important thing is to not go after the top folks and push your pieces on them and ask for review – they get that a lot, and don’t pay any attention to folks who present their work that way, believe me. I have seen it- and it is sad, because the writer always has an earnest heart: just no experience. I did the same thing to Joyce Carol Oates once- she sent me a very nice postcard, and I learned not to do that again. You can nip it sooner than I did, haha.
Better is to study them- see how they interact, how they communicate and work- and why they are leaders. Emulate them, don’t inundate them. Don’t force your art on someone. Put your work out there for sure: but let them find it, not be backed into evaluating it on-the-spot. The top folks will see anything in their niche, so you simply need to make it good enough to be better than most all of it, and the rest often handles itself. They will tend to come to you, if you write right.
While you are studying the top, and long term planning the reach of it, you need to keep busy. Plus, you need to be building up that portfolio, so when the top dogs do turn to look at you there is something there for them to see. We’ll assume you have a bunch of written stuff, and are looking to get it placed. We’ll also assume you have a little site with some samples or ways to get work in front of clients, and booked – because a freelancer needs that.
The type of work you are submitting and trying to get published matters a good bit here. Online work is much different than offline stuff and the folks who process it are typically different in the marketing department, depending on the size of the business. Let’s say you want to start blogging about restaurant work, but get paid to do it.
The target now, narrows further and you find the blogs and forums and websites chattering away about it all. You may even already be involved in some of them as your gentle community-joining outreach continues, but now, you begin to seek out the places where a LOT of work and a LOT of writers seem to be cycling.
As an example, I went to Google and typed in “Restaurant industry” and got a few good ideas in the first page alone. The NRA is an association of restaurant professionals – thru its site, you could find paths to more, similar minded sites and writers for sure. Or, aim at the NRA – they are a huge organization, and there are many places they will be needing fresh content and ideas. It may not be a place a rookie finds an easy in, but it likely depends on where you are trying to get in there. FohBoh was up there too, and had a ton of featured blogposts about all kinds of industry topics.
Let’s say that is not turning up what you want- add “blogs” to your query to refine the results, and boom – lots more to look at, and evaluate. You now find individual blogs in addition to more organizations – so the rest should be a matter of trial and error to find great, active places to target.
Step Three: Join In the Conversations
OK- now you have a variety of industry-related places where people like you get things published. By people like you, I refer to someone with the experience and training necessary to be considered – just because you WANT to write, is not enough reason for them to ALLOW you to write for them. Not for the better targets, anyway. You are better than that; you are above the rabble.
But start paying attention to your thought leaders, and watch how they are presenting ideas. See which of them have sparks that ignite deeper discussions. Join in when appropriate, and comment- but again, be wise here and add depth and meaning to the discussions. If you have nothing to add, just read.
In many places, the commentors actually have wonderful insights, and get their own traction from being a part of it all. I can speak to that from personal experience- I have both followed folks and had folks come to me, due to comments somewhere. Very, very powerful thing if you are not abusive with it. I think most of the folks I respect today, I found thru a comment somewhere. Or rather, a bunch of comments that helped illustrate deeper things they believed.
If you have a site, which as we said for an aspiring freelancer is not really an option, you can link to it in your comments. If you are adding value, people will follow the links, and look at your site. This makes a very subtle way to bring prospective clients to you- organically, as it should be. You are not actively trying to get the clients, per se, rather, you are simply being involved, honestly, in the discussions in the industry. If you have a strong voice and solid opinions you will be noticed much in the same way you are noticing others.
Granted, a passive approach like that may not be getting you work though, at least not right away, and this is in fact the goal. So you again, just count the eggs you put here, in this one basket. It is one strategy and pretty passive, but not the only effort you are gonna do.
Dig a little deeper on the sites where you are finding the best conversations and activity. Find out more about them and their editorial policies. Many times, there is a page or some content dedicated to explaining how they handle outside submissions, sometimes there is simply a contact form- sometimes there is only an organizational chart and you have to do a little sleuthing to figure it out.
You can often reach out to the successful leaders in the niche too, and ask them for any tips. If you are not an oaf, this can be very effective, depending on the people leading your niche. Simple rules of etiquette include to respect people’s time, and be to the point. They don’t have to give you any help, so don’t act like they owe you and you will find most people respond very favorably to being asked how they did something well.
Rinse and Repeat
The idea now, is to be landing some exposure on one or more of the sites you found, so your own voice can start to ring out more. Your activity and comments should have seeded the clouds well, and if not, then a more direct approach in the content of the site (not the comments) helps it to rain.
I would not look at this task as one where you are seeking the paid part of writing as your only goal. More, this is the means to find exposure, and bring new and interested people to your work, which is actually showcased better on your own site. You simply want to be heard, and put forth your ability to write/blog well about related topics. Your site holds the page(s) with the pitch so you don’t need to worry about having it in your work, which should be standing on its own merits.
This kind of interaction then, will simply continue for you- you will be putting out pieces showing your experience and insight, and have a site of your own to present work options to new clients.
I am not going to sugar coat it: these earliest times are financially tough. But you are building up your portfolio, increasing your trust and visibility in a niche so be reasonable. If you want to get paid to blog about restaurant issues, you have to prove you can do it before anyone will offer you compensation for the efforts.
However it is not all bleak, either. If you are entering a niche for which you have a true passion, your ability to write about it is a natural extension of your passion. Putting a saddle on that, is not always easy but if you persevere, and keep on writing it can work out for you for sure. I see it happen all the time.
Writing is about communicating, so if you want to do it for a living you have to get involved in it and build up experiences. The first ones may not pay much if anything, but they have a purpose because no client likes to be the first one you have. Showing them (not telling them) how you have worked in the past, helps you show your value and helps you hammer the keys for cash more often.
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. 🙂
As an SEO copywriter, you should be well aware of all the changes Google has been releasing – especially in the recent past. The fact they now give these algorithm changes cute animal names does not mean they cannot wreak a lot of very un-cute havoc on your (or a client’s) web business. There are penguins and pandas throwing out monkey wrenches in some of the older (?) content development and content promotion areas – the two things directly affecting an SEO copywriter’s daily efforts. So how do you create content these days, and appease the animal farm those Orwellians keep throwing in between us, and the SERPs?
Identify the Filters
In both Panda (which is believed to be content-related) and Penguin (which is more link-related), how you present and promote your content determines a lot about whether or not you get whacked. So this means logically, there are going to be thresholds and limits that will signal whether you are a good witch or a bad witch.
It gets very difficult to isolate individual aspects of what makes one site or page rank over another – but this is in fact, your job, so suck it up.
In Panda, the larger target Google seems to go after are the sites known as content farms, where (as one example) an algorithm determines new topics and cheap writers fill it in as fast as possible. Basically, in my opinion, Panda looked to clean up all the crap Google had caused for itself by making it possible to get paid to rank really crappy, MFA (made for AdSense) sites. The SERPs were getting heavy with these low-rent middle-man specials, so Panda uses some pretty broad strokes to cull some of these sites out.
Though properly identifying the specific aspects of Panda are (of course) Google-shrouded, it is generally believed that thin, excessive content that is unsupported on a site makes it vulnerable…and this drove a lot of sites’ growth over the last 5 years for sure…it was very common to take a list of keywords and build out a page for each to try to bring that power in.
So here is an obvious signal for you to use: if thin pages in bulk on your client sites don’t work so well any longer, no more thin, unnecessary content that makes a page out of every keyword. Instead, look to consolidate the ideas and erase the thin from the approach. Research – both the subject matter and the audience, so you can find better ways to connect. Spend more time on each page and with each topic, and make something that actually answers to a visitor with a face.
Instead of looking at one or three keywords that a page is answering to, look to the larger ideas and let it spin out a little more freely. Use synonyms and all related terms liberally – you want to increase conceptual context. In doing so, you will tend to open up new long tail possibilities, which is nice. Spend more time and money on creating less, but infinitely better content.
Is this a sure-fire defense against a Panda penalty? No way – but it should help you to defend against it. As more signals become clear (or more clear to you), you can refine your approach further, incorporating these new signals into every page you develop, sidestepping the critter poop along the way.
In Penguin, (with a broad stroke for brevity) excessive (or even just overtly purchased) link tactics have shown to be a detriment that can get your site aggressively filtered. Obviously, this means if your link strategies used tactics that were against Google’s terms of service, the risks for doing so have grown to be a huge risk. If you only know of strategies that employ purchased links or publicly advertised processes, chances are pretty good that you are inviting Penguins into the compound. Whether or not they do any damage to your sites is dependent on lots of moving parts no doubt – but again, here is a pretty well accepted signal to fold into your approach.
In the same way you can bring your on-site efforts to a higher shelf with just a little effort, the same holds true for link efforts. It is easy (and deceptively affordable) to blast links out in groups of hundreds or even thousands at a time. Slow and steady may not get you tons of links every week or even every month – but if you target better sites and make the process manual all the way, you are going to separate your efforts from those who do not go the extra distance. You may have less sites linking in, but if they are of a higher caliber than the competition, you are sending out a signal about your site that clearly sets it apart: we have a quality level our competitors can’t touch.
Ignore the Critters
It is never really going to be a good idea to ignore the search engines when creating content that you want to work well in the engines, but it does help you to create better content to conceptually start from there. In my experience, people get really obsessed with keywords, and SERPs, and traffic reports, and potential…and they forget that it all stems from user engagement. Sure, they need keywords to associate the context and connect the dots, but believe it or not, I still get occasional comments about the keyword density…and some people still use this measure to evaluate a page’s effectiveness. C’mon people – they are moving quick out there, let’s stay with them. I will lend you a chalkboard if you need it.
Keywords need to be natural, and most people struggle here. Instead of allowing them to flow out naturally, they more often have an article that they like and want to add their keywords to it, or increase the power of the page by increasing the number of times the keyword happens (density, you whore). So it comes off stiff – the flow and natural feel of the page gets waylaid for some hopeful SERP bump, be it client or vendor inspired. I know you have read these pages before – they are everywhere…because mechanically gaming the engines is WAAAY easier than engaging the people, for realzies. Zoo or no zoo. But true engagement resonates, and carries on its own power.
When you are creating new content, the engagement should be focused (as always?) on the user…ignore those Googley zoo beasts as best you can. Like I said up top, be aware of the signals they are using (TEST!) so you can ensure you are not crossing the line unknowingly (which is getting tougher, so good luck), but focus 100% on that end user and your content should improve, and work better for you and your clients.
I am up to my nipples in work right now – mid-stride in the busiest month I can remember for a long time. It’s very exciting for me – I have lots of really interesting projects, none of them even remotely related to each other. I am working on sites all over the world, with some really fantastic people. Articulayers itself has more writers in-house this month than ever before – we’re in the middle of the most aggressive content strategies I have ever been a part of. And my guys are nailing it – if I don’t say it enough, my hat’s off to you, brothers and sisters.
But this is not a means to trumpet about anything I am doing specifically or what my good friends here at Articulayers are cranking out, as much as reflect on the fact that all of this great work is not coming to me – I am going to it, and engaging. I am pursuing that which I’d like to do – though grateful that I do get many solid requests for projects from intelligent clients. But I am not waiting for them to come to me – I go after what I want to do, and starting consciously working toward it.
Work begets work.
Many of my writers on board now are just starting out. This isn’t their first writing gig, but I am willing to bet that for most of them, it is the first one where they were assigned 100 pages to write. This will keep them all insanely busy – hammering away at the keyboard, turning out the prose like champs. Working on a heavy deadline, answering the client’s needs.
During these 100 page assignments, they are going to come to know things about how they work best. Do they need it quiet to get focused, or is music a good motivator? How many pages can they do in a day? How long does it take to edit and finalize the copy? All this and more will be dealt with – and they will all emerge stronger as a result.
But then, this project will end, they’ll get paid and they’ll need to get more work. Some of it might come from here, certainly, but it might not be enough for them. So they can take the lessons learned from creating 100 pages, and roll it over into a pitch for doing something similar for someone else. They’ll now have samples they can share of what they do and can use the work they completed as the tangible means to establish new working relationships. They can prove they got paid to write in the past and I will be right here to confirm it for them. They are experienced professionals by definition…and this is valuable.
Work begets work.
Not every one of these writers is going to like doing this work – it is inevitable. But this is not a bad thing to realize – this is actually a positive thing, too. Because writing for a living is not glamorous very often. If hammering out 100 pages, or doing a tri-fold, or writing a website is not your cup of tea, then look into other kinds of writing, or other kinds of work – but knowing what you won’t do is just as important as knowing what you will do. It is important to try though, to not make a judgement call from the cheap seats without first getting in there yourself and slugging it out for real.
The one thing (besides awesomeness) all of my writers share right now, is a willingness to jump in. They are all committed, and trying their best and that does matter, it counts. Not just to me as their boss right now, but it matters to them – because they are learning things about themselves, how they work, and getting a taste of what it means to be a writer for a living.
Work begets work.
When my awesome month is done, another will take its place. Followed by another, and even more after that. But I am not going to be standing here, looking at my reflection and murmuring Abba songs, I am going to be using the lessons learned to be creating more great big piles of work to do. I have a roster of clients that is comfortable, yet challenging. There is diversity in what I do, and I seriously love it, every single day. I have had LOTS of jobs, and know really well what I don’t want to do any more…and I am not even close to it.
I won’t have to look for anything that is not writing-marketing-internet focused. I have the benefit now of being able to create projects on my own, or I will gladly do whatever one of my clients wants me to address. I take none of it for granted, and am grateful. I want to give back, because the people who have helped me find success were so good to me, it needs to continue. The best way I know how, is to keep working, to stay plugged in, and to be here – ready and eager for the next project.
My newer writers might wonder about what it is like to write all the time, but when we talk about it next time, we will have a common frame of reference through this project, and be able to take the conversations and understanding further as a result. This is important, and meaningful. And it happens this way, because they are willing to work first, then talk about what it means – they get in there and start typing , and hand in 100 pages before we start talking about forever.
I have a great deal of respect for people willing to work. It is fine to understand that some work is not for you, but typically only when you are pursuing the work you champion, and have some experience or relative logic behind the things you shoot down. I don’t like to say no to work – and normally, only other work stands in the way of working on something.