SEO copywriting: an interview with Heather Lloyd Martin
Look up the phrase “search engine marketing” in the dictionary and you’ll see a photo of Heather Lloyd Martin.
Okay, not really. But her photo ought to be there since she’s a pioneer in SEO Copywriting.
I asked Heather if she’d share her wisdom with us and was thrilled when she said yes.
Dean: How long have you been a freelance copywriter? Everyone has a story. What’s yours?
Heather: Once upon a time, back in 1995 or so, I was working at a “real job” and hated it. My dream was to be a writer — and for whatever reason, I wanted to be an online writer (and no, I don’t know why working online seemed so fun to be back then, but it did).
So, I quit my job, bought a new computer, and set up my website. Back in the day, there were a number of us on a discussion forum called Women Talk Business (WTB), and we often worked with and for each other. One thing led to another, and suddenly I was writing SEO content, way back before anyone really paid attention to SEO copywriting.
Then, I started a newsletter with Jill Whalen (another WTB member) called RankWrite … which was the first newsletter to discuss writing and how it related to SEO. Suddenly, both of us found ourselves on the Search Engine Strategies conference circuit. And the rest is history. It’s been a wild, fun ride, and I am incredibly grateful for every second of it.
Dean: You specialize in SEO copywriting. Can you explain what that means?
Heather: SEO copywriting is writing for two masters, search engines and prospects. Unlike “traditional” online writing, SEO content writing (SEO copywriting is the more recognized term) contains well-researched keyphrases that are woven throughout the copy.
The writing structure is designed to do two things. First, engage the target audience, and compel them to take the next action step. Second, “help” the search engines find the page highly relevant for a keyphrase query, which results in a higher search engine ranking.
So, SEO copywriting is a combination of technical, geeky strategy and laser-targeted persuasive storytelling, paired with some killer writing skills.
Dean: There seems to be some confusion about SEO copy. Is it a different kind of writing, a skill, or what?
Heather: That’s a good question. The “roots” of SEO copywriting go back to what we know about direct-response, readability, and usability. At the same time, writing for search engines is quite a different skill set. It takes a special kind of writer to “get” how to research keyphrases, figure out how to insert them into the copy, develop a fantastic, clickable title, and create an overarching strategy.
I’ve trained enough journalists and “old school” copywriters to know that even the most experienced writers tend to have a learning curve. But once they master how to do it and see how keyphrases fit into the writing equation, they become masters of the craft.
Dean: Of all the specialties out there, why did you choose SEO?
Heather: It chose me. I had been working as a online copywriter prior to starting my SEO copywriting career. Then, as SEO started to become a tad bit more mainstream (this would be the late 90′s), I was already positioned as the leading expert in the field.
Turns out that I really enjoy doing it. It’s a great mixture of creative and technical. I love figuring out what will make people buy/convert, and I enjoy the geeky aspects of programming and keyphrase selection.
Dean: What sort of things do you write for your clients? What do clients want most?
Heather: Right now, clients are clamoring for training. Granted, they may have pages they need written, and I love conducting “content makeovers” where we completely revise a site’s messaging, tone, and feel. However, clients with on-staff copywriters have realized that bringing their SEO copywriting in-house makes sense. It saves them money. It allows them to control the writing experience. They don’t have to rely on a freelancer or an army of freelancers. I recommend training often. It’s a smart business move.
I also certify a number of freelancers and in-house copywriters through my SEO Copywriting Certification program. That has really taken over the majority of my time, and I love every minute of it.
Dean: Describe your typical work day.
Heather: Every morning starts with a Starbucks latte. Without fail. Otherwise, I don’t feel “normal.”
I typically have a lot of email waiting for me first thing in the morning, so I get up and start tackling that first. After that, I hit my boot camp exercise class and sweat for an hour. I used to resist exercise first thing in the morning, as I felt it took away from “work time.” Now, I know that I’m a much calmer person when I work out.
I’m still a very active writer and I usually have at least one project going on per day, whether that means creating a blog post, working on a client webpage, or developing content for my SEO Copywriting Certification training. In between, I monitor my SEO copywriting LinkedIn and Facebook accounts and send out some tweets.
Of course, there are those “travel weeks” when I’m on a plane. I could be heading to an industry conference, or maybe an in-house training. Soon, I’ll be holding in-person SEO Copywriting Certification seminars, so that will add to my travel load. But that’s only one week a month now, rather than traveling two+ weeks every month. That’s much more manageable!
Dean: With the search engines getting smarter all the time, do you think SEO will be as important years from now?
Heather: Yes. It’s been important for the last 12+ years, and I think it will still be important. Granted, SEO (and the various opportunities associated with it) will change and morph and evolve. That’s OK. Smart SEO copywriters can keep up with the latest and change their service mix accordingly.
And something else to consider: Good, customer-centered writing has always been crucial in every medium (direct mail, email, journalism, copywriting.) Writing to sell, persuade, and inform has been around for many, many years.
Dean: How is SEO related to social marketing? Do you SEO copy for Twitter, Facebook, and other social tools?
Heather: It’s a different medium, yes, but it’s all about the writing. For instance, I often weave keyphrases into my tweets, whether it’s a hashtag, or I use a keyphrase within the body of a tweet. The challenge/opportunity is to tweak your messaging for different marketing mediums. What’s appropriate for Twitter and Facebook is not as appropriate for a corporate website, although when both work together, it can be a powerful combination.
For instance, Alaska Airlines has their corporate site, plus they tweet frequently and often handle their customer service issues via Twitter. They leverage the immediacy of Twitter with the “tried and true” sales copy on their site. It’s a good mix.
Dean: Can I use “SEO” as a verb as I did in that last question?
Heather: It’s more commonly referred to as “optimizing,” as in, “Do you optimize copy?” But certainly, the term “SEO” is used in many weird and wondrous ways. Just like “Google.” Who knew that it would be used as a verb?
Dean: What is the hardest thing about writing SEO copy?
Heather: For me, SEO copywriting isn’t hard. However, I think the biggest challenge (and I use the word loosely, because it’s not a huge challenge) is client education. Whether the client is a mom and pop, or a Fortune 50 brand, they’re very attached to their copy (as they should be.) They “know” the best keyphrases to use. So, SEO copywriting takes them out of their immediate comfort zone.
I find that a good amount of my time is spent educating clients about how we may need to revisit their customer persona, or why their main “money keyphrase” may not actually be the best choice, or why I’m adding those “pesky keyphrases” to the content. Once the client understands the process, they’re fine!
Dean: What would you say is the biggest mistake novices make when they’re trying to write copy for the search engines?
Heather: “Newbie” SEO copywriters typically “keyword-stuff” their first few attempts. They don’t mean to, it’s just that they’re trying to write copy in a brand new way and they don’t realize that they’ve inserted their keyphrases a few too many times. Once they realize that they’ve overused their keyphrases, they then will often pull back too much and underuse them.
Finally, after some trial and error, the copywriter figures out the perfect balance. I always suggest that new copywriters work with a SEO copywriting mentor/consultant. That way, someone else can review your copy, tell you when you’re using too many or too few keyphrases, and help you shorten your learning curve.
Dean: Okay, I assume you’re not doing SEO copywriting all the time. What other interests or activities do you have in your free time?
Heather: I work out. A lot. Other than that, I LOVE travel, reading and being outdoors.
Dean: Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
Heather: I have my highly outgoing public persona, and that represents a part of my personality. At the same time, I love being home, reading books, hanging out with my hubby, and embracing my introverted side. I can spend days being by myself and not talking to anyone, especially right after travel. My friends call it “hermiting.”
Dean: You sound a little like me. I like spending time with people, then I turn into a hermit for a while. If you could give freelancers one good tip for writing SEO copy, what would it be?
Heather: Always focus on the reader’s needs before the search engine’s. That is, if you’re reading the copy and it sounds funny because of all the keyphrases, don’t leave the keyphrases in there to “help the page rank better.” Delete some. SEO copywriting is more than just getting a high ranking. It’s more important that prospects are drawn into your “story,” whether that’s an article, sales page, or blog post, and take the action that you want them to take.
Dean: Thanks, Heather. I think we’re all a little more SEO savvy now.
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