Thursday, April 16, 2009

Freelance Writing and SEO

I figured it was a good time to start working on a little SEO education for our new freelance writers! Web content is the easiest market to break into and can put some cash in your pocket while you are building a reputation - but you have to understand SEO.

Short definition: SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. For illustrative purposes, we will pretend that the only search engine out there is Google. Our goal when writing web content is to optimize what we write for search terms that people type in the search box when they 'Google' something.

The search terms are made up of keywords or keyword phrases. A person looking for a pair of brown lace-up hiking boots could type in the keyword 'boots' - or if they are smart, they will refine their search by using a keyword phrase such as brown boots, hiking boots, laceup boots, brown hiking boots, laceup hiking boots,brown laceup hiking boots - do you get the picture?

If the site that specializes in hiking gear hires you to write content for their site, they may wish to 'target' some of these phrases. This is called optimizing the content, and you do it so that the 'spiders' Google sends out to 'crawl' the 'web' will be able to tell what the webpage (and by extension, the website) is all about.

A word about Google. Google is an index of the world wide web. When you Google something, it returns search engine result pages, or SERPs. A website's or webpage's spot on the SERPs is determined by how valuable Google thinks that result is in relation to the search term typed in.

Google assignes ranking based on several factors - one is how many other places on the web have linked back to that result, and the other is by the content of the page or site. They determine content by 'spidering' the page and looking for words that will tell them what topic it is most relevant to.

Websites want their webpages to rank highly in the SERPs - in other words, to show up in the top ten, or five, or three. This means they need keyword rich content, so the spiders will think they are a good match to certain search queries. Some keywords are highly competitive - there are big sites with huge amounts of money to spend on marketing, thousands of links, and a team to provide plenty of content. How do small sites compete?

They go for the more complex keyword phrases. Instead of 'boots', which might be typed into the search engine a thousand times per day, and which they can't hope to be competitive with, the specialize in a niche. They optimize for a 'long tail' term, such as 'brown laceup hiking boots'.

This might only get ten searches a day, but if only you and a few others are optimizing for that phrase, you could end up in the top few spots of the SERPs. If you are near the top, you get more clicks from people searching, and they come to your site. 50% of ten is way more than a tenth of a percent of a thousand - and a tenth of a percent is what you wuold be lucky to get if you are buried on page ten of the SERPs for the keyword 'boots'.

In addition, even if someone did dig down and find your site by searching for 'boots', you have only a slim chance of having the kind of boots they want. However, if you pop up near the top in response to the search term 'brown laceup hiking boots', the people clicking on that result are already more predisposed to buy from you since you have exactly what they are looking for. This is called a niche market, and the visitors are targeted traffic.

Back in your character as a writer - what does all this mean for you? If you are hired to produce keyword rich content for a website, you will probably be given a list of keywords or keyword phrases to include - often one primary and several secondary ones.

Usually if you use the primary in the title, the first sentence and the last paragraph, you are on the right track as far as the spiders are concerned; and you can sprinkle the secondary ones in where they fall naturally. Some buyers will have a specific format to follow, and others will be stuck on the idea that more is better - making it an interesting challenge to produce readable content!

Hopefully, you can learn to stare at the keywords for a few minutes, then block out your articles by using one or two in each paragraph depending on the density required. This can be fairly easy work once you learn how to do it, and while it doesn't pay a whole lot per word, it is an excellent way to stretch your writing skills and break into the freelance market. If you are fast, you can eventually knock out enough words per hour to even make a decent wage at it. The nice thing is that often buyers want several article on the same or similar subjects, meaning that research time is negligible.

Questions about SEO or freelancing for a living? Comment below :)



  1. Another freelance writing puzzle piece to clip and save. As always, well done, Grace.

  2. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I had no idea what SERPs stood for until reading this post. *blushing* Thank you, you taught me something :)

    I have a project writing the homepage for a new shampoo company and know I'll have to dig deep to find some niche keywords.... Your post gave me some ideas!

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  4. Well, since you asked, how does one know when they are "ready" to break into freelancing? As you know, I've been editing my stuff on Helium, and I think I might be ready to learn what should come next.

  5. Hi Shelley,

    Are you writing for any sites other than Helium? You might want to apply to Demand Studios if you haven't already. It's not as easygoing as Helium- you face editors and potential rejection, but it's a great place to make some money and branch further into freelancing.

    You can also apply to if you have a niche topic. It's penny revenue, but it builds up much faster than it does at Helium.

    Both places will familiarize you with specific style guidelines and add goodies to your portfolio.

    My guess is that only you know if you're "ready" :) I go into temporary shock each time I'm hired for something or awarded a project! Ha ha.

  6. Kristina is too modest - she has been landing jobs left and right :)

    Shelly, Kris is right - start small and learn as many different styles as you can.Study AP style and read press releases - these are in high demand in the freelance market - and keep learning about SEO for web content.

    Keep writing, keep honming your skills, and look around Elance on their free membership - you can bid on a few jobs a month and start getting a feel for how to draft a proposal.


  7. Grace, this is some great information. It is true that SEO writing to break into. I am doing this myself and living my dream of working at home writing. :)


  8. How to draft a that is where I get hung up. Maybe some fine person here wants to write a blog entry on that topic?

  9. Coming up, Shelley - That's my next project come Monday. I live to serve! :)

  10. Ooh, I look forward to that post! I'm finally getting the hang of writing proposals, but it was a nightmare to figure out. I still have one problem with proposal writing: the first sentence. I can never find the first sentence, but it flows from there.

  11. Excellent, thanks. I look forward to it. I hate to walk into such a thing completely ignorant. At least knowing what I should be doing is good. That way, if I still mess it up, I will have at least had some direction going in.