Compare the two posts below, both written by the exact same SEO expert and each containing around the same number of words. Without knowing the subject, can you guess which post earned more links?
Try 378 to 6. In addition to its visual appeal, the left post was more timely, useful and informative – all hallmarks of copywriting grace.
The “secrets” of copywriting have existed since before the ancient Greeks. Generations of Don Drapers have perfected the craft. Today we use computer analysis and data mining to uncover the most effective SEO practices. Rand’s early peek at the Ranking Factors hints at some of these factors. My colleague Casey Henry conducted a study of link-worthy material that included elements such as title length and word frequency. Fantastic stuff and I hope he does another such study soon.
So why don’t more authors take advantage? Why all the cardboard looking blog posts?
Here’s the takeaway. To earn links, use copywriting to organize your content.
1. Write for Power Skimmers
Steve Krug’s words of wisdom for website usability in his book Don’t Make Me Think ring true for all elements of SEO copywriting.
“We don’t read pages. We scan them.”
Krug advocates for a billboard style of design. This means using language, images, layout and color to make your material stand out and shine. Think of motorcycle riders speeding past billboards. Which one will they remember?
To be fair, prettying up mediocre content won’t make it any better. But does your best work look like it belongs in an encyclopedia?
Unless you are Wikipedia, don’t look like Wikipedia.
2. Why Headline Formulas Work
Headlines organize your content by making a promise to the reader. The body of your content delivers on that promise.
Check out this recent cover for Wired Magazine.
Using the “who-what-why” formula isn’t the only way to format your headlines, but it works. Another technique I like is to ask a question, e.g., “Have You Been Secretly Penalized by Google?”
Don’t be scared of headline formulas. Instead of “gimmicky,” think of them as a framework for the promise you make. When I’m stuck for headline inspiration, I surf the fantastic resources over at Copyblogger.
There are literally dozens of effective headline formulas out there, so you need never worry about repeating yourself.
3. Get 20% More with Numbers
I made that number up. Why?
Numbers grab our attention. Look at the titles to some of the most linked-to posts on SEOmoz.
- 21 Tactics to Increase Blog Traffic
- 8 Predictions for SEO in 2010
- Launching a New Website: 18 Steps to Successful Metrics & Marketing
- 17 Ways Search Engines Judge the Value of a Link
It makes you want to click one of those links right now…
Whether in a headline or a list, numbers light up the ordered, mathematical part of our brain to make content more attractive. It also provides you with a way to structure your material in a way that makes sense.
4. Free and Easy Power Words
My writing life changed when I read Robert W. Bly’s seminal work, The Copywriter’s Handbook. He introduced me to the power of choosing the right language for successful communication.
Although some of his “power” words belong in the back of a Sunday newspaper advertisement, their effectiveness can’t be denied. These include words like quick, easy, guarantee and free.
“Free is the most powerful word in the copywriter’s vocabulary. Everybody wants to get something for free.”
-Robert W. Bly
Words are magic. The opposite of power words includes language like try, maybe, might, possibly andperhaps. These “halfway” words kill your writing.
The point is not to use a rote list of words like a checklist in your copy, but rather be conscious of the power (or lack of) your language. Don’t hedge your bets with weak prose.
5. A Picture is Worth 1000 Clicks
Rethink your visuals. Visuals are essential to any story and include:
- Charts and Graphs
The wrong way to add images is to buy stock or steal them off of the web. Instead, make every effort to include original media in your content. A simple, 100% original hand drawing attracts more interesting any day of the week than using Parked Domain Girl.
Original Pineapple Artwork by Dawn Shepard Graphic Design
It doesn’t matter what you use, just make it original.
6. Use Sub-Headlines or Die Trying
This is a no-brainer. Imagine the front page of a newspaper with just one headline. All other text is equal. You wouldn’t read it, or you would tire quickly if you did. Our brains don’t work that way.
We want things broken up and organized.
If your text is longer than 250-400 words, you must use sub-headlines. No exceptions.
7. When in Doubt, List it Out
This entire post is a list. Try these numbers on for size:
- 75% of the top 20 post on SEOmoz contain a bulleted list
- 60% feature a numbered list
Why do lists work so well? Why is David Letterman’s Top Ten the most anticipated part of his show, even if it’s not as funny as the rest of the show?
Lists are the building blocks of ideas. When we go to the grocery store, we don’t write a story – that’s ineffective. To communicate your thoughts quickly and effectively, nothing gets to the root of the matter like a list can.
Humans crave order. Use lists to create structure and build your content from the ground up.
My all-time favorite use of effective quoting comes from Michael Crichton’s science fiction work Timeline. He juxtaposes two ideas against each other to explain a single concept about quantum theory.
“Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory does not understand it.”
NEILS BOHR, 1927
“Nobody understands quantum theory.”
RICHARD FEYNMAN, 1967
Utilize quotes to set your ideas apart.
9. The Bold and the Italic
Along the same lines, use bold to emphasize important points. If you don’t have important points, you have bigger problems.
Italics do the same job but sound more European, like this guy.
10. Be Honest
Effective SEO copywriting should never alter or misrepresent your work. Indeed, its purpose is to help you communicate your core ideas more clearly and effectively.
“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
— Ernest Hemingway
Writing from the heart is always the best copywriting technique.