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Writing for Search Engines: Optimize for Robots or People?

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Writing for Search Engines: Optimize for Robots or People?

The author’s views are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.

Google processes more than 8.5 billion searches every day. That’s more than 100,000 searches per second, thousands of which could lead a user to a purchase.

It’s no wonder, then, that 60% of marketers list SEO as their number one inbound marketing priority.

But generating organic traffic comes with challenges. Google has hundreds of billions of webpages in its index, competing for the top spots on search result pages. Not to mention, when you’re writing for search engines, you technically have two audiences: bots and humans.

Let’s look at how these audiences compare and see who you should be writing for.

Writing content for SEO: who to write for

Bots and humans are the chicken and the egg of search engine optimization. You need humans to make a sale, but you can’t get the humans without the help of bots.

The question is, which one comes first on your priority list? To answer that, let’s define each of these audiences.

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Writing for humans

Human readers are the ones that can eventually make a purchase and become a customer. When making purchase decisions, humans need product details and pricing, but that type of information usually isn’t enough.

If you want to create content that resonates with a human audience, your content needs empathy, storytelling, and emotional reasoning. Studies show that storytelling, in particular, releases oxytocin in the brain, a hormone associated with positive feelings such as happiness and trust.

A story framework for marketers, starting at setting the scene to ending at the resolution of the problem.

Storytelling also helps you structure your writing in a way that’s easy for human readers to follow and understand. Ultimately, when you write for people, you want to have a clear message that connects with humans.

Writing for robots

In this case, the robots we refer to are search engine crawlers or spiders. Unlike humans, web crawlers can’t buy a product from you, no matter how great your marketing.

But bots influence your position on Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs), which impacts whether or not human readers will see your content.

Search engine spiders respond to optimizations around indexing technical SEO. In other words, you want to use your keywords and heading structure to make it easier for bots to figure out the context of your content.

How to pick your audience

An analysis done by FirstPageSage found that the top-ranking article on Google’s SERPs receives an average CTR of 39.6%. And by the time you get to the 5th position, the average CTR drops to 5.1%.

If your goal is organic traffic, you need the help of search bots to get more human eyes on your content. But you never want to sacrifice your human audience. After all, they’re the only ones who can become your customers.

So, the answer to our question of which audience to choose is: Both.

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This sounds like a bit of a cop-out, but the good news is they’re not mutually exclusive.

Google has continued to update its search algorithm to better process natural language and measure performance metrics that affect the user experience. These updates have made it easier to create an SEO content marketing strategy that works for both audiences.

How to write SEO content for humans and robots

Writing SEO-optimized content that works for crawlers and people is all about balance. You need to understand which elements impact each target audience the most and include them without ruining the experience for the other group.

Here are some steps to improve your SEO content strategy and drive more organic traffic.

Word choice

Word choice matters most for your human readers, but there are some aspects that apply to search engine bots.

For bots, you want to stay concise and make your content easier for Google to read and establish context. To do so, remove fluff terms, choose strong words over adjectives, and avoid long, multisyllabic words.

Here are some examples of how you can tailor the word choice for Google bots.

  • “Open the app” instead of “simply open the app”

  • “We’re thrilled” instead of “we’re very excited”

  • “Required” instead of “mandatory”

Choosing words for humans requires a little more nuance. First, avoid language that insults your reader’s intelligence, such as the word “clearly”.

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Second, opt for specific terms instead of general ones. For instance, “50% of respondents” is clearer than “many respondents”.

Finally, use inclusive language. Words such as “humankind” and “they” encompass more people than “mankind” and “she”.

Reading level

People search Google to find answers, not to read college-level explanations. Lowering your content’s reading level gives humans a more pleasant user experience.

Reading level doesn’t impact SEO rank directly. However, it can affect page experience metrics like dwell time and bounce rate, which impact SEO.

The Flesch Reading Ease score is a tool you can use to analyze the readability of your text. For instance, you can benefit from online tools like the Hemingway Editor that use Flesch score to test your writing.

The Flesch score uses average sentence length (ASL) and average syllables per word (ASW) to get your score, ranging from 0 to 100. The higher the score, the easier your content is to understand. Your score can also be connected to a Flesch-Kincaid reading level, which compares your writing difficulty to a school grade.

Here’s how the scores are divided by grade level:

  • Any score above 70 is easy for 7th grade or lower to understand

  • Scores between 60 and 70 are 8th to 9th-grade reading level

  • Scores between 50 and 60 are 10th to 12th-grade reading level

  • Scores below 50 are at college and professional reading levels

The Flesch-Kincaid reading level means someone at that reading level could easily understand your content. Try to aim for a score of 60 or higher, even if you’re writing for a college-level audience. Remember, your reader came to Google to find a clear answer, not read a dissertation.

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Best practices to improve readability include adding transitions, writing shorter sentences, and using active verbs.

Content structure

Your content structure affects humans and bots. Headings and subheadings should make your post easier to read. If you include a table of contents at the top, a reader should be able to understand what your post is about and find the information they need.

Furthermore, your section titles are opportunities to capture your reader’s attention. So descriptiveness is not enough; you have to have a hook. For example, “10 Ways to Improve Your Time Management” is more personable and specific than “Time Management Tips.”

As for the search bot, structure helps it figure out the context of your article. To optimize for bots, include primary and supporting keywords in your headings. You can even use GPT-3 AI Tools to help generate outlines once you’ve done the keyword research.

Remember that AI tools are great for pointing you in the right direction when it comes to ideation, but you should ensure your finished text still makes sense to a human reader.

Visuals

Using images and other media to break up large chunks of text helps improve the user experience. Similar to structure, visual elements matter for both of your audiences.

When it comes to your human audience, you want to choose visuals that help readers understand the text they complement. So ensure you include images near relevant text and avoid generic stock photos.

Instead, try:

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  • GIFs

  • Embedded videos

  • Infographics, statistics, and graphs

  • Screenshots with annotations

  • Expert quote images

To optimize images for search bots, Google recommends using high-quality images and compressing the files, so they don’t lower your page speed. Furthermore, you should add descriptive metadata (such as title, caption, and file name) that includes keyword phrases when relevant.

Attachment details page on WordPress where you can add alternate text.

Finally, pay attention to your alternate text (or alt text). The alt text describes images for search engine bots and screen readers for people who can’t see. Writing descriptive alt text is an essential part of accessible content writing.

While bots scan this text, you ultimately want to create a description that helps your human reader picture what’s in the image. In other words, avoid keyword stuffing and opt for a description of what’s going on in the image instead.

For example:

  • Keyword-stuffed alt text: “shoes trainers sneakers fashion shoes footwear women’s shoes accessories athletic shoes”

  • Descriptive alt text: “pair of women’s sneakers in white”

Grammar, spelling, and capitalization

Proper grammar and spelling help you build trust with your readers.

According to Google Search Central, grammar is not a direct factor for search engine rankings. But, if a search bot can’t crawl your website because of errors, that’ll harm your search performance. On the other hand, proper spelling can improve your page’s authority score.

Spelling is especially important when it comes to brand names. As Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, states, “A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.”

This might seem like a minor factor, but the brands you write about care if you spell (and capitalize) their names correctly.

Here are a few brands that people commonly misspell:

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  • WordPress, not Wordpress

  • HubSpot, not Hubspot

  • Mailchimp, not MailChimp

Some word processors might not have brand names included in their spell check, but you can use Grammarly’s style guide feature to autocorrect for brands you frequently write about across a team of writers and editors.

Content length

Although Google has confirmed that word count is not an SEO ranking factor, that doesn’t mean you should ignore it.

Google does prioritize comprehensive answers to search terms, so long-form content may perform better. In other words, content length can indicate how well your writing meets a user’s search intent compared to the competition.

SEO optimization tools like Clearscope provide word count suggestions based on the length of the top-ranking pages. That said, don’t sacrifice quality content to create longer articles. Adding meaningless content to meet a word count goal can hurt the reader experience.

Page titles

You should write your page titles for bots and people. Writing for bots means including the target keyword in your SEO title tag and meta description. Doing so gives search engines more context and improves your chances of ranking for the right keywords.

Page titles for people should include keywords, but they also need to pique the reader’s interest so you can increase your click-through rate. You can make your titles click-worthy by including emotional words, adding urgency, and making them personal.

Screenshot of CoSchedule headline analyzer results.

Here are some examples.

  • Emotional: “5 Proven Ways to Fall Asleep Easily

  • Urgent: “How to Stop Procrastinating Right Now

  • Personal: “Resume Template to Land Your Dream Job”

Titles are one of the main factors affecting how much traffic your page receives, so they’re an excellent place to A/B test.

Writing for search engines: optimize for robots or people?

When it comes to writing SEO-friendly content, it’s not a question of humans vs. robots but rather how to optimize for both. The actionable steps in this article are an excellent place to start if you want to create content that ranks on SERPs and resonates with potential customers. 

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To read more about creating consistent brand style guidelines and copywriting for an online audience, check out my book Writing for Humans and Robots: The New Rules of Content Style, available in print and Kindle on July 18, 2022.

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MARKETING

8 major email marketing mistakes and how to avoid them

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8 major email marketing mistakes and how to avoid them

As email marketers, we know we need to personalize the messages we send to subscribers and customers. I can’t think of a single statistic, case study or survey claiming an email program of one-to-everyone campaigns outperforms personalization.

Instead, you’ll find statistics like these:

  • 72% of customers will engage only with personalized messages (Wunderkind Audiences, formerly SmarterHQ)
  • 70% of consumers say that how well a company understands their individual needs affects their loyalty (Salesforce)
  • 71% of customers are frustrated by impersonal shopping experiences (Segment)

But what marketers often don’t understand, especially if they’re new to personalization, is that personalization is not an end in itself. Your objective is not to personalize your email campaigns and lifecycle messages. 

Rather, your objective is to enhance your customer’s experience with your brand. Personalization is one method that can do that, but it’s more than just another tactic. 

It is both an art and a science. The science is having the data and automations to create personalized, one-to-one messages at scale. The art is knowing when and how to use it.

We run into trouble when we think of personalization as the goal instead of the means to achieve a goal. In my work consulting with marketers for both business and consumer brands, I find this misunderstanding leads to eight major marketing mistakes – any of which can prevent you from realizing the immense benefits of personalization.

Mistake #1. Operating without an overall personalization strategy

I see this all too often: marketers find themselves overwhelmed by all the choices they face: 

  • Which personalization technologies to use
  • What to do with all the data they have
  • How to use their data and technology effectively
  • Whether their personalization efforts are paying off

This stems from jumping headfirst into personalization without thinking about how to use it to meet customers’ needs or help them solve problems. 

To avoid being overwhelmed with the mechanics of personalization, follow this three-step process:

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  • Start small. If you aren’t using personalization now, don’t try to set up a full-fledged program right away. Instead, look for quick wins – small areas where you can use basic personalized data to begin creating one-to-one messages. That will get you into the swing of things quickly, without significant investment in time and money. Adding personal data to the body of an email is about as basic as you’ll get, but it can be a start.
  • Test each tactic. See whether that new tactic helps or hurts your work toward your goal. Does adding personal data to each message correlate with higher clicks to your landing page, more conversion or whatever success metric you have chosen?
  • Optimize and move on. Use your testing results to improve each tactic. Then, take what you learned to select and add another personalization tactic, such as adding a module of dynamic content to a broadcast (one to everyone) campaign. 

Mistake #2. Not using both overt and covert personalization

Up to now, you might have thought of in specific terms: personalized subject lines, data reflecting specific actions in the email copy, triggered messages that launch when a customer’s behavior matches your automation settings and other “overt” (or visible) personalization tactics.

“Covert” personalization also employs customer preference or behavior data but doesn’t draw attention to it. Instead of sending an abandoned-browse message that says “We noticed you were viewing this item on our website,” you could add a content module in your next campaign that features those browsed items as recommended purchases, without calling attention to their behavior. It’s a great tactic to use to avoid being seen as creepy.

Think back to my opening statement that personalization is both an art and a science. Here, the art of personalization is knowing when to use overt personalization – purchase and shipping confirmations come to mind – and when you want to take a more covert route. 

Mistake #3. Not maximizing lifecycle automations

Lifecycle automations such as onboarding/first-purchase programs, win-back and reactivation campaigns and other programs tied to the customer lifecycle are innately personalized. 

The copy will be highly personal and the timing spot-on because they are based on customer actions (opting in, purchases, downloads) or inactions (not opening emails, not buying for the first time or showing signs of lapsing after purchasing). 

Better yet, these emails launch automatically – you don’t have to create, schedule or send any of these emails because your marketing automation platform does that for you after you set it up. 

You squander these opportunities if you don’t do everything you can to understand your customer lifecycle and then create automated messaging that reaches out to your customers at these crucial points. This can cost you the customers you worked so hard to acquire, along with their revenue potential.

Mistake #4. Not testing effectively or for long-term gain

Testing helps you discover whether your personalization efforts are bearing fruit. But all too often, marketers test only individual elements of a specific campaign – subject lines, calls to action, images versus no images, personalization versus no personalization  – without looking at whether personalization enhances the customer experience in the long term.

How you measure success is a key part of this equation. The metrics you choose must line up with your objectives. That’s one reason I’ve warned marketers for years against relying on the open rate to measure campaign success. A 50% open rate might be fantastic, but if you didn’t make your goal for sales, revenue, downloads or other conversions, you can’t consider your campaign a success.

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As the objective of personalizing is to enhance the customer journey, it makes sense then that customer lifetime value is a valid metric to measure success on.  To measure how effective your personalization use is, use customer lifetime value over a long time period – months, even years – and compare the results with those from a control group, which receives no personalization. Don’t ignore campaign-level results, but log them and view them over time.

(For more detailed information on testing mistakes and how to avoid them, see my MarTech column 7 Common Problems that Derail A/B/N Email Testing Success.)

Mistake #5. Over-segmenting your customer base

Segmentation is a valuable form of personalization, but it’s easy to go too far with it. If you send only highly segmented campaigns, you could be exclude – and end up losing because of failure to contact – many customers who don’t fit your segmentation criteria. That costs you customers, their potential revenue and the data they would have generated to help you better understand your customer base.

You can avoid this problem with a data-guided segmentation plan that you review and test frequently, a set of automated triggers to enhance the customer’s lifecycle and a well-thought-out program of default or catch-all campaigns for subscribers who don’t meet your other criteria. 

Mistake #6. Not including dynamic content in general email campaigns

We usually think of personalized email as messages in which all the content lines up with customer behavior or preference data, whether overt, as in an abandoned-cart message, or covert, where the content is subtly relevant.

That’s one highly sophisticated approach. It incorporates real-time messaging driven by artificial intelligence and complex integrations with your ecommerce or CRM platforms. But a simple dynamic content module can help you achieve a similar result. I call that “serendipity.”  

When you weave this dynamic content into your general message, it can be a pleasant surprise for your customers and make your relevant content stand out even more. 

Let’s say your company is a cruise line. Customer A opens your emails from time to time but hasn’t booked a cruise yet or browsed different tours on your website. Your next email campaign to this customer – and to everyone else on whom you have little or no data – promotes discounted trips to Hawaii, Fiji and the Mediterranean.

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Customer B hasn’t booked a cruise either, but your data tells you she has browsed your Iceland-Denmark-Greenland cruise recently. With a dynamic content module, her email could show her your Hawaii and Mediterranean cruise offers – and a great price on a trip to Iceland, Denmark and Greenland. Fancy that! 

An email like this conveys the impression that your brand offers exactly what your customers are looking for (covert personalization) without the overt approach of an abandoned-browse email.

Mistake #7. Not using a personal tone in your copy

You can personalize your email copy without a single data point, simply by writing as if you were speaking to your customer face to face. Use a warm, human tone of voice, which ideally should reflect your brand voice. Write copy that sounds like a one-to-one conversation instead of a sales pitch. 

This is where my concept of “helpful marketing” comes into play. How does your brand help your customers achieve their own goals, solve their problems or make them understand you know them as people, not just data points?  

Mistake #8. Not personalizing the entire journey

Once again, this is a scenario in which you take a short-sighted view of personalization – “How do I add personalization to this email campaign?” – instead of looking at the long-term gain: “How can I use personalization to enhance my customer’s experience?”

Personalization doesn’t stop when your customer clicks on your email. It should continue on to your landing page and even be reflected in the website content your customer views. Remember, it’s all about enhancing your customer’s experience.

What happens when your customers click on a personalized offer? Does your landing page greet your customers by name? Show the items they clicked? Present copy that reflects their interests, their loyalty program standing or any other data that’s unique to them?  

Personalization is worth the effort

Yes, personalization takes both art and science into account. You need to handle it carefully so your messages come off as helpful and relevant without veering into creepy territory through data overreaches. But this strategic effort pays off when you can use the power of personalized email to reach out, connect with and retain customers – achieving your goal of enhancing the customer experience.

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

Kath Pay is CEO at Holistic Email Marketing and the author of the award-winning Amazon #1 best-seller “Holistic Email Marketing: A practical philosophy to revolutionise your business and delight your customers.”

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