File: DMNCOL36

Topic: DM News -- column #36

Date: 9-29-05, revised 11-10-05

Approximate length: 1,250 words

Topic: SEO copywriting

Why I Don’t Believe in “SEO Copywriting”


By Robert W. Bly



            “SEO (Search Engine Optimization) copywriting” requires that the copywriter concern himself with strategic placement of key words, tags, and the like within his Web copy to optimize search engine rankings of the pages he writes.

            The problem is that to create really powerful copy, you have to have a single core audience in mind … and concentrate all your effort on writing to that one audience.

            When I write copy, that audience is the prospect … the potential buyer of the product I am selling.

            But with SEO copywriting, you are pandering to another “audience” … the search engines … and not the reader.

            And by creating copy that’s optimal for attracting search engines, you are, to some degree, weakening that copy’s power to sell. You dilute its strength, because you are worrying about two audiences -- the reader and the search engines -- instead of focusing every word squarely on the customer. 

            And that’s not how to write copy that sells.

            Here, in my opinion, is a much better approach to writing Web copy:

            1. Write the strongest selling copy you can aimed at the human reader … and forget the search engines.

            2. Once that copy is finished, go back and check to make sure key words are appropriately placed, but….

            3. Never change a word of strong selling copy if that change will make it even one iota weaker … even if SEO best practices would endorse that change.

            4. Once the page is up and working (i.e., generating strong conversion), then you can optimize for search engines by experimenting with word changes – testing to make sure those edits don’t reduce conversions.

            In other words, write for the customer … and not SEO.

            A small informal survey I conducted shows that top copywriters – writers with proven track records of really making the cash register ring – agree.

            “I’d rather invest my time and energy in proven factors I can control, such as a potent headline and interesting, informative, and fact-filled copy,” says copywriting legend Gary Bencivenga (

            “Write your sites using the exact words that match the extremely narrow and specific way people search for information online. Nobody searches for ‘automotive accessories.’ Way too broad. They search for ‘leather steering wheel covers’ or ‘fuzzy device.”

            “Much SEO advice comes from people who peddle it for a living,” he adds. “I’ve heard that search engines modify their methodology regularly, to thwart those who try to ‘fix the race.’ So I view SEO as a mechanical rabbit I’ll never be able to catch.”

            And when I asked copywriting great Parris Lampropoulos whether he concerned himself with search engines when writing Web copy, his answer was “not at all.”

            “When I’m writing the copy, I’m working at one task and one task only: to get whoever is reading it to place the order,” says Parris. “Later on, after the copy is up and pulling orders, the client may test changes to see if they can increase SEO without hurting response.”

            “I agree in principle. You should always write for your audience -- in this case, the people who visit your web page via search engines,” says direct marketing consultant Bob McCarthy.

            “But let’s be practical. If you don’t appease the search engines, you don’t have an audience. If optimizing your web pages for search engine marketing is going to multiply your visits by let’s say 10 times, wouldn’t some copy trade-off be worth it?”

            Dianna Huff, a recognized expert in business-to-business marcom writing with extensive knowledge of SEO, takes pains when writing copy to optimize each page’s search engine ranking.

            “As a marketing writer -- one who is trying to get a prospect to take action -- I write to that audience,” says Dianna. “But I also write with the search engines in mind. It takes just as much talent and strong writing to write meta titles and descriptions that people will click on in the search engines. There is no point in writing good copy on your site if no one can find you.

            “According to a survey by Enquiro and MarketingSherpa on the role of search in the B2B buying process, over 60 percent stated they research products online anywhere from 2 to 12 months out in advance of a purchase, and 69 percent choose the organic listings first. If your company isn't listed due to poor SEO, then you're not getting that click. And then, if someone gets to your site and it is lacking in content, as many B2B sites are because they are just brochure-ware, then you've just lost a valuable lead.”

            “Most of the good SEO things you can do have to do with page structure and linking relationships among pages, not the copy,” says Don Marti. “Getting incoming links from reputable pages is much more important than having copy that is somehow ‘search engine friendly’ on its own.”

            John Ford, a top copywriter for Agora Publishing, says he doesn’t give any extra thought to search engines when writing online promotions.

            “It's certainly true that you can kick your ranking up in the Google search by focusing on the right keywords and looking at lists of keyword usage,” says John. “It's amazing, actually, how easily this can be done. And shocking, I think, that some people get paid quite a bit of money to do only this.
            “I've got two thoughts on SEO copywriting. First, one has to question the business model. I have yet to see anyone show that high rankings in the search engines directly correlate to greater sales.

            “The major successes online, that I've seen anyway, have all been from people who have found some other way to actively drive known prospects and repeat customers to their online sales promotions.

            “This might mean e-newsletter-driven sales, print advertising or inserts, well-placed endorsements, or editorial mentions. But, not to any great degree, the randomness of a search engine search. This is not to say there's NO money to be made with SEO marketing. Just that there are much more lucrative ways to increase your response rates.
            “Second, a lot of what counts for success in SEO marketing seems so obviously connected to just hitting the right ‘hot buttons’ for your prospect in the first place. A good direct response copywriter writes very specific and, usually, benefit-oriented headlines and leads. This means using words you believe your prospect is most likely to respond to when he or she reads them.
            “What's the secret to good SEO copywriting? Figuring out the specific, benefit-related keywords your prospect is most likely to type into a search engine. That is, the words he or she most likely connects to your product. What's the difference between that and standard copywriting? Not all that much, in my estimation.
            “Want to be a great SEO copywriter? Then just be a great copywriter period. When you're done writing, match your lead against an online list of the highest related keywords, and maybe you'll end up tweaking a word or two. But that’s it.”

            Of course, I’m sure you have your own opinion on SEO and copywriting. So: what say you? Do you put the reader – or the search engine – first? Is there a conflict between writing to attract search engines and writing for people? Or are the two activities complementary?


            About the author:

            Robert W. Bly is a freelance copywriter and the author of 60 books including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Direct Marketing (Alpha). His e-mail address is and his Web site address is