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. 🙂
I have been spending time with some good friends in the past couple weeks, and we’re all sharing thoughts of what 2013 may have up its sleeve to offer and challenge us with. I thought I’d take a minute here, and share four things regarding what I think I see in store for SEO copywriting, and how it may affect those of us who are offering this service to others.
1. It Ain’t Getting Any Easier – the ability to look up keyphrases and squirt them into $5-10 pages that rank on that merit alone is a pretty dead idea. A short-lived loophole that Google essentially closed-up with Panda and Penguin. Unless your multi-worded term has shown no history of monetary value, you are not generally going to rank for something simply because it is on the page. The risk now in putting out really thin pages outweighs the potential gains (even in the short-term these days, more than in the past) by a lot. Penalties are more common, and harder to shake. All of this adds together to mean that plunking out unsupported volume in pages drenched with specifically placed keyphrases, is definitely not the way most people are going to be heading. Those that do, are behind. If you are a copywriter and you are specializing in cranking out a ton of low level pages, I would probably start seeing what else you can do for income, as this is going to get tougher to sell to anyone reasonable in 2013. Negative SEO is about the only outlet left for cheap pages – so if you are creating them, know that you are likely helping the spread and perpetuation of negative, useless garbage.
On the flip side though, it should mean the work that is there collectively, should be of higher quality and offer more depth and challenge to you – and better pay-per-page. Now may be a good time to specialize – if you have a leg up on something that makes you a specialist, put it in the stirrup. One challenge is going to be, that clients are going to be demanding more of what they pay for and they will be looking for new and creative ideas. An ability to resonate should start to take over the ability to simply churn and burn in 2013 – thankfully. See it as a positive, because it will make it harder for non-writers to be able to fake it. Work will be harder to secure, but better to deliver.
2. Leveraging the Toolbox Will Mean More – in the past, simply putting decent sentences together could keep you pretty busy. I don’t see this becoming stronger in 2013, but really, see it going the opposite direction. Clients are going to be even more interested in leveraging your network and your skill set to make each effort a bit more powerful. This means, the more experience and diversity you can bring to the table, the more tables you are going to find waiting for you with a warm, welcoming seat. Can you blend your writing skills into something that reaches a bit farther? The idea that “content” is simply words on a page, is pretty passe in today’s web. This doesn’t mean solid SEO copywriting does not drive it, whatever “it” is – think of socially-minded sales copy, video transcripts, interactive ads, etc… So as “content” as a concept reaches out to become more inclusive, so too, should your own skill set. In 2013, experience is going to matter more to clients, as will offers that use SEO copywriting in more creative and expansive ways.
3. Brand Building Will Escalate – As Google trims the organic opportunities and limits the landscape to what they consider “brands,” an ability to discern and produce brand-worthy signals is going to become coveted. This means in 2013, you should be studying the winners (when it isn’t you), and see what they are sharing as potential brand signals. You should be keeping a finger on the pulse of discussions about branding, and any insights being shared in popular forums (though of course noting, most public sources are slow w/relevance). You should be testing theories, and collecting data. The signals Google uses to determine brand are still shrouded in all kinds of mystery, however, this is going to stay important through 2013, and likely become even more important as additional changes and filters are applied to the algo. If you are not paying attention to the importance of establishing brand in 2013 and beyond, you should be.
4. Organic Opportunity Will Continue Shrinking – recent FTC findings are giving Google a big green light to keep trimming out the organic results as they see fit. Less space to grab as verticals are shaved and the longtail is broad-stroked upwards (by Google interpreting what you”mean” in your search query), means a lot of panic and chaos will ensue. Or continue. Since penalties are being handed out for the same things that made up a lot of public strategies in the past five-seven years, the piles of the dead will only continue to rise. Immunity will come only thru proper alliance with Google’s narrowing terms; and as a result the web will become much more sterile, because small players no longer have an equal chance at reaching an audience. A lot of lesser-trained, and less experienced SEOs will go bust, because there are no easy answers to help you grab at shadows in a disappearing landscape. Organic was a way that anyone could get something noticed and sustainable on the web, but if you are paying attention, you have seen the beginning of the end of organic 2.0 in search. If 1.0 was simply cranking out a page, and 2.0 involved strategically linking to it, the new direction is blending these and adding in social and branding signals to help establish more validity in the content. In the past you could lob an anonymous page, ghostwritten, on an anonymous site and get it in the SERPs. This is going to become increasingly more difficult, as Google looks for confirmation that the content being created has some sort of legitimacy and merit. They will require increased levels of corroboration in author status, site relevance, and brand/social signals…making the winners fewer and larger, simply by the nature of criteria being used. Mom-n’Pop, good luck to you. The glory days are gone, and the Easy button has been taken away – so knowing how a page/site/project uses keyphrases without abusing them is going to continue to appreciate in value. However, this is all changing so quickly and is so overlapped, you cannot rely on the things you are reading out there: you need to be actively and passionately doing it, so you see for yourself what is really working or not.
Oh, I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom here or anything. Sorry if my thinking for 2013 is not all that rosy and positive for our industry. But I do think that SEO copywriting was a service that got killed by too many non-skilled people doing it, and forcing changes that result in increased difficulty. Google caused a bunch of bad writing to proliferate, and now they are scrambling to clean up the mess they caused. Broad stokes are going to make it really tough on a lot of people who were not doing more than simply hurling verbs.
I do think, as always, that any solid copywriter specializing in SEO and actually knowing what they are talking about is going to find plenty of work. Still. Forever. Yet I think that in 2013, the ability to get work as an SEO copywriter is going to become more demanding and difficult, as clients become skittish from past brushes with less-than-stellar efforts. (I am looking at you, India)
I’ll be right here again anyway, starting in on another year (I think this makes my 12th, yipes!) of trying to keep writing while I try to unravel life’s secret sauce. Cheers!
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.
If you are a freelance SEO writer or other type of freelancing professional, you are probably going to have to create a statement of work at some point along the way. So this post is going to look at these things a little bit: what statements of work are, why they are important, and how to create one.
Why On Earth Do You Need a Statement of Work?
A statement of work is like a contract. It is a written agreement between two parties regarding a project or deliverable – something along those lines. It is a document stating that one party agrees to perform services for another and it typically defines some of the parameters of the project and its scope. Importantly, it also often contains things that are NOT involved in the project.
You need a statement of work sometimes because it clearly states what you and the client are mutually agreeing to – what the project definitions are. By having a single outline document to which you both agree, it reduces the potential of scope creep, missed deliverables, or other potential misunderstandings along the way. You might look at them like a contract – but they are typically lacking some of the starch and legalese that contracts imply. Plus, they’re probably not as binding…I can’t say to that, as I have never had to take either through a court battle. But it seems that the omission of the legally binding terms found in contracts makes it less enforceable.
But you’ll often need a statement of work if you don’t have a contract, or you don’t have relationship with the client (you don’t know if they will flake on you or not) or you feel the need to protect yourself as a project begins – you want to define your understanding of it, clearly, and define the responsibilities of all involved parties.
So if you freelance with any regularity, it is a good idea to get one together whenever you need it – and then keep it around as a template for any more that may come along. Less and less of my own clients ask for this kind of document to get something going these days, but knowing how they work and how to use them allows me to be attractive to those clients who are more used to this approach – like agencies, and larger corporate clients. Some folks ask for it in an initial consultation, so I can answer: “Sure – let me get that right over to you.”
What Should a Statement of Work Template Include?
I am sure there are some formal guidelines to these documents out there somewhere, but I go with what works. So apologies if this is not the “correct” way – it has been correct enough for me. It likely varies a bit, depending on the nature of the project you are covering.
Typically, I would section it off, so you can include a brief look at all relevant aspects of the agreement. This generally includes an overview, a list of deliverables, a list of any tonal/branding considerations, a list of technical considerations – e.g. how each deliverable will be sent, a timeline or calendar of scheduled events, a list of other considerations or details, a list of projected delivery dates and payment milestones, and finally, a list of things defined as being “out of scope” for the effort.
Overview/Executive Summary: A generalized look at the intentions of the effort – such as “to build content bringing more visits to this site because of XYZ.” Usually about one to two paragraphs, explaining the overall effort – used to indicate a full understanding of scope.
Deliverables: This is the heart of this document really, which are the items you’ll be creating to answer to the needs outlined in the overview. Bullet out each deliverable, stating what it is and why it plays a part in the overall strategy.
Tonal Considerations: You want to spec out details of the tone that you identify as important to the voice of the project. This may be from info the client sends, research you perform independently or most often a mix of both.
Technical Considerations: These are details about the deliverable files – any specs on the way they need to be delivered. If you are writing, identifying in it is a word document or a coded html snippet would be something you clarify here. Again, this is a point where you clarify that you and the client are talking about the same thing, and share the same expectations.
Timeline: a calendar-related schedule for deliverables – this avoids issues later, and gives a nice foundation for everyone to rely on and trust. It also alerts all teams involved of expected due dates – this is crucial to better coordinate larger efforts.
Other: It is important for a workable template to have an “other” category as a catch-all for the details a project might carry with it. Each project is certainly unique, so in this section, you can add the oddball details and let them be what they are. You might add what the client’s expected role is, or anything required here to keep the project on schedule. A brief mention of dependencies can help to illustrate the need for ongoing communication throughout the project.
Out of Scope: This is a crucial part of the document, allowing you to define things that you will NOT be doing during this effort. Not so necessary on smaller things, it can certainly save your ass in bigger projects. I do like to address this – it is also a place to feed ideas to the client about future work…you mention cool ideas that you will not be doing here, but make sense.
Budget: I always like to ensure my budget for the details will be clearly written as a shared reference point -again, it helps to avoid confusion. Talk about exactly what their money is going to cover – and specify how you’ll calculate any overage (be it hourly, flat rate, etc.).
Signatures: The whole point of this document, is two parties agreeing on something – so you need both to sign-off on it. A signature page does not always require a physical signature (entering: sig on file and having the info elsewhere works) but it give you a place to stop the project – make sure you are both agreeing to its terms and conditions (signing off on the shared understanding of each here). Have offline contact info listed in the document, so you can correct anything that hinders the signing and enactment of it.
So that’s it really: just start with a good template that points out milestones and understood specifics in direction and production, and fill in the blanks. It does not have to be too overly formal – but I do find a cross between formal writing and casual tends to hit it well for most things on these docs. When in doubt, lean toward the more formal approach than a casual one: it is always better to spell it out, clearly and deliberately. I also find that the section on “Out of Scope” items is essential to a lot of projects – stating clearly what you are not doing can be a great way to avoid issues. Let’s say you are assigned half of a marketing effort, for example, you’d want to define the items in the other half as being NOT your responsibility, even though they are required for the project to be successful…it shows you and the client agree that these are not your tasks.
Finding Statement of Work Templates
OK – you probably got a good handle on what they are, so now where can you find them? You might start here:
But really, if you uniquely brand a Word document (use a logo in the header and add footer contact information) you could literally copy the bullets above, and simply make them work for your project(s).
In case you are still struggling to see what I mean, I created a little template here from an old one I did back in 2001…Free Statement of Work Template. If you use this one, at a minimum replace all the CN references with your business name, and use it to create something specific to your efforts. Be careful to look it over really well, so any information in it is specific to you and not a holdover from this template.
A semi-formal statement of work shows you are considering the deeper details of an effort and are a professional, so even if they are not requested, most people are not going to mind if you want one used. They do serve as protection against misunderstandings that can get tense and costly for either side or both.
Use Them as You Need Them
The idea behind creating more paperwork here is, by having a single point of reference in a SOW document (as they are often called), you can stay focused on the project and avoid issues for both you and the client. You can deflect scope creep. You can stay on budget, or know when it is OK to bill more and how much to charge (a good detail to add under the “Budget” section – “This project is budgeted for $X for [deliverables]; with any extra time being factored in at a discounted rate of $X/hr/day, etc.”). You know what they want their deliverables to be, in what format using the proper tone and on which calendar dates.
In a nutshell, it protects you both to honor the project by spelling it all out, and allowing you to sign-off on agreeing to it.
I personally, have not had to use them in a looooong time (most of my clients have been here with me for years) – but a conversation with a friend recently and a close shave on a project brought them to mind, so I thought I would share my experiences with them anyway.
One time, I had a fine SOW in place (as well as a contract), but the client jumped mid-stream anyway…and the amount was too small for me to justify pursuing in small claims (where I am sure I would’ve won)…I simply let it go. Not so sure I would let it go today, but I know more now, and am a bit more protective of my time than I have been in the past. Luckily, as I said, I hardly ever bust one of these out any longer – most of my work is arranged in an email or Skype call with people I trust a lot.
If you are trying to sort these out, and found this post but need more help – just shoot me an email or comment below, and I will do what I can to help you sort it out.
It may be a hassle-ly bit of paperwork, but ultimately, it can save you from heartache and can keep your work life much easier to deal with. It is definitely a document you need to be familiar with and comfortable producing quickly as needed – some clients do ask for them, so you want to take it in stride, and say “Sure: let me tweak one out, and I’ll have it to you this afternoon.”
If you have a decent template that has worked for you, you will find it only takes an hour or so to make sure something like this is complete and accurate to the new effort, with all the new client details (be sure to edit it well!). The difference in having it later on can be illustrated in something simple, like a date or tone expectation to be reiterated or re-established in some way – but many times, it is used as the basis to argue why you won’t do something – because it is clearly out of scope from the stated plans. A project likes to bubble all over the place sometimes, so this is one document that helps to protect both parties involved from the effort spinning out of control.
Editors? EDITORS? We don' need to show you no steenkin' editors!!
So I was surfing around for images on a couple editing gigs I have going, and out “there” saw couple examples of why it makes sense to never use an editor. That I just watchedTreasure of the Sierra Madre again is beside the point. The following examples clearly illustrate why you don’ need no steenkin’ editors.
Example A: A Clutrual Experience
The image here was on a photographer’s bio-links on a well known photo site. The thing that impressed me on this, was just how many rules of English are abandoned in so small a space. Time is money after all! You can clearly see how an editor here would have simply screwed things up, and distorted the clarity of the message. Better that this artist handle it alone. You go girl!
THANKS FOR BUY! MORE CHOICE IN MY COLLECTION: is a really great way to lead off. It immediately expresses gratitude for buy which hadn’t even occurred yet, so this was right on the money. Buy is the heart and soul of all e-commerce, and it it is made perfectly clear that there are thanks involved.
Following this strangely effective expression of gratitude, the user knows they can also have more choice in collection. Hemingway would be proud – the copy here is so terse it does not even waste time with plurals or clarity. Well played, ma’am, well played. You had me at “thanks for buy.”
All of this is really just leading users naturally and effortlessly into the glorious cluture on display. Then and only then, all becomes clear. Having more choice in a cluture collection for buy brings us all one step closer to conversion, and this artist knows it. She feed us with good, long time.
She was not one who was going to waste valuable resources on an editor for something going out as her portfolio, because this was of course note-perfect as it is. The potential clients are ready for buy more choice in collection, so get those cash registers ready, honey: there’s a cluture stampede coming! No steenkin’ editors needed here, gringa!
Example B: The Chef’s Dick
This next example shows us that it is difficult to run a restaurant and the potential disasters that occur when you don’t maintain strict standards in uniforms.
The chef was evidently having difficulty with his trousers, but how the staff was involved, we don’t really know for sure. We might assume that they had to take turns holding the pants closed for the chef who was obviously busy cooking and couldn’t do it himself. Maybe it was a problem due to an unusual shape he had, or a slope in the kitchen floor where he worked.
I like the idea that the owners are genuinely concerned about the chef’s uniform and working environment, and are doing all they can to protect his dick. I want to eat here!
What really gets me about this one though, is the cryptic way the omission of the last verb pushes it back on us. “We can’t ____ any staff to stay,” can be answered in so many ways – I am glad they understood to leave that up to the reader to figure out…as if we didn’t have enough on our hands with the chef’s dick falling out all over the place! An editor would have suggested making this more rigid, so the restaurateur is correct in expressing it more openly and pulling the reader in.
I came up with a couple options, kind of like Mad-Libs to help figure out what might be going on in this restaurant. We can’t — any staff to stay:
afford – they spent all their money on new pants and faulty zippers for the chef
force – they are afraid the chef’s dick may interfere with proper dinner service
train – the waitstaff has developed a sense of wanderlust (inspired no doubt, by the chef’s dick)
hypnotize – hypnotists are expensive
find – the staff are all hiding from the chef’s dick
trick – everyone knows that restaurateurs routinely trick waitstaff with shiny things
I know if it were me coming to the restaurant’s window and seeing this, I would hope they could work out whatever problems the chef’s dick keeps causing. Maybe they could buy him some special equipment, or a custom made harness. Maybe some duct tape or paste or a helmet would help.
Just seems like his dick inspires and unlocks so much mystery, it would be worth trying a few more things before you just give up and apologize, locking the door. But wait.
Through this sign’s editor-less artistry, we leave (hungry) and are intrigued by the chef’s problems, and made all the more curious by connecting ethereally with the staff. I may leave now, but I am coming back later to find out more about the chef’s pants, experience more connections with the staff and maybe get some lasagna. Very sneaky, and shrewd – and only possible without an editor in there, hell-bent on ruining everything.
If you think this post is going to be filled with clumsy, juvenile double entendres, I hope I do not disappoint. But if you are squeamish at that thought, this post is really about editing text. Dirty, filthy, slutty text.
It’s the Story, of a Lovely Project…
In my daily travels, I often connect people to writers. If someone comes to me looking for writing help, I am not always able to jump in there myself, much as I’d like to. But I do know lots of writers, so I can often connect the dots. Such was the case recently, when a good client came to me seeking some content on getting paid to take surveys online.
I was booked solid (yay!), but had a good fit (I believed) so I connected the client and the writer. I actually worked as the go-between here, telling the writer what the client wanted in this site’s copy, and working with them both. I even wrote the home page to get things started.
The writer I connected here does fine work – she’s a very smart lady from the deep South who always hits the mark. She got the brief specs from me, and wrote her 5 pages. I gave her drafts to the client, and he coded them and posted them. Because I sent the client her unedited drafts, I also offered to edit these pages if the client wanted me to do so…I paid the writer, and cut her loose after she drafted the basic content for us.
Coining the Term: Big Sausages of Text!
The client thought her copy was well conceived – but the way he received it was not exactly what he wanted. He referred to her pages as having “great big sausages of text.” I thought that description was pretty funny, but when I went to the site, I definitely saw what he meant.
You can see it pretty easily…these are swollen fat things for sure.
Again, there was no issue here with the content itself, but these sausages of text needed squeezing.
Some clients use me time and again simply because they know I am an expert at squeezing the sausage.
So it was on.
Handling Your Sausage
The best way to handle your big ol’ sausage, is firmly. The time to be gentle is over once it is fully drafted – it is then time to really wank it and make it work harder for you. Slap it around a little. My writer would have done this herself if we had asked, but we had already sent her on her merry way…off to make other clients happy.
Fixing a piece of sausage text takes all kinds of forms. Sometimes, you need to just rub it a little bit, putting-in or taking-away some simple stuff to make it work better. Sometimes you need to get more drastic in the presentation to achieve something that works as well visually as it does cerebrally.
Because the client here liked the copy but not the general sausageness of it, I knew I simply needed to squeeze this a little to bring it off.
The first thing I did, was read it thru and edit it a bit. I made sure the ideas were fluid, moving logically down the pages, supported when appropriate…which they were. Made sure there were no errors or grammatical gaffes, but again – the client was fine with the writing, the writer was experienced and solid, so I just made sure more than actually changing anything.
Space – the Final Frontier
The next thing I did, and one of the most important steps here, was to insert some space. Web readers don’t like to see a big sausage of text – they can get intimidated, and often leave without touching it. We can’t have that.
So I look for logical places where I can bust-up the blocks: I find where I can really squeeze that sausage. Like most articles, these had lots of spots where I could put in a line break and not ruin it.
Web readers are good (generally) with about 2-3 lines at a time, so this is often my loose target. I give audiences credit for having no attention span whatsoever, and work from there. However, this is a text-driven and very text heavy site so I knew the paragraphs were going to be longer naturally (unless I edited much more deeply). Given that the goal was not to re-edit everything here, I stayed with what was on the page…but I also knew that size matters.
I also searched for places in the writing where I could use bullets or a blockquote, knowing these are other easy ways to create space. Again, most often you will find any well-constructed article will suggest some of these callouts to you – they feel very natural.That was what I found here, too – a few natural places to utilize this tactic.
So in a very short time period really, I was taking advantage of many simple ways to make my content work harder.
With the text broken-up more on each page and some bullets, I looked for places where the ideas changed a little bit and added-in some headers. Normally, I create headers as I am writing – but as this was a editing gig, I was seeking kind of “obvious” places where I could accent shifts in textual or conceptual nuances with a simple header.
Headers allow a reader to scan a page quickly and see what it’s about – making them another simple way to work the content harder. Additionally, headers are a fine place for a little SEO, so with minimal effort you can make them contextually relevant as well as strategically crafted.
I should comment too, that this is one area where new writers tend to need work – in the ability to create headers that tell the story, entice the reader to read, and answer SEO needs all at the same time. It does seem easier than it is, but it is an area where many new writers can actually step up their game, in terms of how their work will be received.
In this particular case, I was not overly concerned with the SEO but it is certainly never too far from my mind when working on a website. I was more about the visual here – I had this sausage now well in hand, and was eager to finish-off. I was about done spanking and squeezing it, so getting my headers in there brought this off beautifully.
The Finished Page
That was really about all I did to squeeze the sausage from these five pages – but the difference in them is pretty clear to see, even at a distance.
The client liked the changes, and posted them.
The difference in her text and mine is only space, bullets and the headers – otherwise, they read almost exactly as she submitted them.
Since the site is new, there is really no analytic data we can compare, to see what effect this has, if any. If I were to do this on an existing site, I would look at the time spent on the page before and after you squeeze the sausage. It should increase, you would hope. You also might look at paths into and out of the content, and bounce rates – the measures of engagement.