Two things happened to get me into Search and, as a consequence, Semantic Copywriting. One overnight, the other by way of gradual happenstance.
A hip operation went haywire. I loathed my 9-5 job. I’ll leave you to work out which was the catalyst to which.
Irrespective of how I got here, the result was conclusive. It, too, brandished a double-edged sword:
- lack of mobility + HSE non-compliant prescription drugs ruled out returning to a normal job;
- if I was to retain dignity after the insurance ran out, I had to seek a job working from home.
As a purveyor of short stories and poetry, I had a smidgeon of a clue about the latter. I was, after all, an active member in critique forums and I’d had poetry published Stateside.
My only doubt lay in the earning potential of such a career. Turns out, that itchy sphincter feeling had roots buried in much deeper soil.
Everyone online’s a poet, critic or author
You’ve never meet one in real life, but online it seems everyone’s a poet. Every other person you engage is the next Stephen King or J. K. Rowling. The market is thus saturated. Any chance of replicating the income that 15 years in one industry had amassed seemed remote. And so it proved.
I’d toyed with blogging. I had a couple of my own, on Blogspot.com, and a Google ‘Site’. When the Adsense on the ‘Site’ informed me of the opportunities on oDesk, I thought:
“Wow, what happy fortune is this?!”
I’d no idea back then that Ads render based on scraping third party cookies placed on your hard drive. The Gods, for all I could tell, were smiling upon me.
So, off I popped to oDesk and began applying for freelance writing gigs. The first assignments I won paid the princely sum of $10/500 words.
Each 500-word article would take approximately 3 hours. This netted down to the handsome remuneration of £2.50/hour in proper money. Ish. A little less, after commissions.
The 5-Star ratings started flooding in, until one day I received an “Invitation to Interview”. Wow, how cool was that?
I got the gig, for a UK webmaster, and my rate trebled overnight. By now, I’d cut down writing a 500-word article to an hour and a half. In reality, my income had multiplied six-fold.
Why working to an SEO template is so wrong
Back then, SEO was nothing like it is today. The client had an SEO template that gamed keywords, anchor text and both internal and external links. I knew nothing of how links worked or what they meant. Depending upon to whom you speak today, many may venture that little has changed. Bless little me.
Anyhow, I was to write content, add keywords and embed links in the appropriate volumes. Relevant anchor text would contain the link, which would in turn point to specific pages. On site, this was primarily the Home page; offsite, they’d point to relevant non-competitor pages. Easy enough, right? Well, I found it to be.
As it turns out, this webmaster had a whole network of sites. Some were his own. Others, he’d built for clients, but had agreed to continue providing the content to the SEO template. And, to be fair, that spec saw the absolute majority of his websites on Page 1 of SERPs.
We’d risen to position 3 for the biggest industry term for which the website he’d engaged me to write was targeting. That was over the Christmas 2012 holidays. We’d also achieved a respectable spot on the first page for his second key phrase.
These were both 60k/month search terms in the UK. Huge! And we’d reached Page 1 SERPs on the bones of a WordPress template that didn’t yet have its commercial feature attached.
Only two instantly recognisable brands with unrivaled marketing budgets outranked us. Fifteen posts per week and a simple anchor text-oriented linking strategy was all it had taken.
The King of SEO – Completely
This combination of actions and results had to vindicate his methods to a naive copywriter, didn’t it? And, as a consequence, I assumed that I must be the King of SEO Content. They seemed reasonable assumptions, based on Search ‘evidence’.
To further that belief, it wasn’t long before he commissioned me to write for the majority of his online real estate.
Including his client’s properties, I was churning out 54 blog posts, over 30,000 words, per week. Every article possessed a bespoke industry voice. I approached each topic or news story from a unique angle.
To those ends – adopting a specific voice and adding value – little has changed in the way we write today. However, disambiguation has become more prevalent since Google released Hummingbird.
Google now has the ability to extract entities with more confidence. Apart from that, it appraised the actual content back then in a similar way to today. Only now it uses other means besides links to gauge authority. But more about that in Part 2, the progression from this introductory piece.
In the blink of an eye, the SEO landscape changed forever. I’m not talking Hummingbird. Although I wouldn’t bet against some of the semantic update’s elements being present back then.
Hang on; let me clarify that. Whichever algorithm was in use for disambiguation back then may now have become more prominent. Better make sure I don’t get my correlations and causations confused, eh? The SEO Police will be on my back otherwise.
Anyway, I’ll never forget the way the changes happened. Twice. In a year.
Who invited Mr and Mrs Monochrome?
We went to The Canaries three times that year, so serious were (are) we about moving out there on a permanent basis.
On two of those occasions, during our vacation the webmasters received new visitors to their sites. Not customers. Oh, no. These fellas drained the colour from our cheeks to match their own monochrome makeover.
Mr Panda raised queries about the volume of valueless content websites were publishing. Mr Penguin took offense at unnatural linking strategies. The effects on the websites – and my subsequent income – were devastating.
After the first penalties, the number of articles the webmasters commissioned to write dropped to 29 per week. In hindsight, given their quality, this may have been an overreaction.
Following the second wave of penalties, all but one webmaster surrendered hope of recovering. Again, ignorance didn’t help. Nevertheless, once I’d deleted the cancelled orders, my weekly editorial calendar displayed only eight assignments.
Boy, did I hate Google back then? But I’d soon find out, I was misdirecting my ire. Flipping it all on its head, the webspam team probably held a low opinion of the strategies we’d used to rank, too.
What does Google want from authors, then?
It wasn’t until I met a real SEO that I understood why the template we’d been using had miffed the Panda and Penguin so. Through his study of patents, my new Sensei also helped me understand what Google wants.
Why such penalties were (are) so severe became apparent at once – a true “D’oh!” moment, if ever there was one.
Google wants a disambiguated web. It wants authors to publish clear, concise content. It wants us to reference place names, people names and brands; entities, in other words.
We no longer have to emphasise the context in our content with anchor text. At least not for Google to understand what we mean. Indexers (bots, crawlers) can work that out themselves.However, if we could tell Google what we think of an entity – how we rate it – it would find that useful.
As the semantic web unfolds, our opinions count. How we’ve interacted with others on social media counts. How we disseminate entities that (could) appear on the Knowledge Graph counts.
One day last week, I had a revelation, an epiphany. It came as I sought to clarify a document’s “targeted sentiment”. How Google could assign a ‘category’ to content without even mentioning it, per se, intrigued me.
The reasons, it turns out, owe much to advancements in Artificial Intelligence. How algorithms can ‘learn’ as they process information is key to glimpsing where Google’s gonna be at in a few short years from now.
But – and it’s a big but – we can help speed up that process. We can help bots/crawlers/spiders/indexers learn faster.
Is Hummingbird as new as all that?
I alluded above that elements of Hummingbird were present all those years ago. Why did Google receive my content so well and reward it with so high rankings? The topic’s newsworthiness was no different to the articles from whence I’d taken my cue.
My theory, then. If you approach the news from a different angle, Google can index topics with greater confidence. Or rather, if you build a story around the entities within the content, you add a new dimension.
In my experience, book authors writing for the web are prone to wordiness. However, if we isolate entities by using them in shorter sentences, we can help Google understand. The problem is, there are too few writers who:
- understand semantics well enough to convert the masses;
- can format content to a standard that will prove disambiguation’s advantages in SERPs.
Right now, there are thousands of webmasters posting content writing jobs on freelance websites. 99.99% of them are wasting their money.
All over the world, webmasters want cheap content. Well let me tell you, webmaster: Google doesn’t!
For sure, you can hire a writer to put together a 1,000-word generic article for $10. But you may as well take that tenner and place a bet on a 33/1 outsider for all the good that content will do you.
Sorry, who told you not to write for the search engines?
Without testing for Readability, you’re in danger of Google exiling you from its results pages. If you’re reliant on its traffic, that’s a pretty big deal.
Examining sentiment, taxonomies and entities within content is just as important as avoiding plagiarism. These tests (NLP, LSI and Readability) will tell you how well you’ve disambiguated your entities.
If you don’t edit under the microscope, how can you give Google the confidence it needs to rank your content above the rest?
I’ll finish Part 1 with a word about “unique”. According to the Free Dictionary, it means:
“Without an equal or equivalent; unparalleled.”
So, unique content doesn’t refer to copy that squeaks past plagiarism detectors. It means that nothing of the same ilk exists online.
The challenge – disambiguate your entities
Before you come back for the sequel to this article, I issue you a challenge. It goes like this.
You know that piece of online content you’ve found that you’re about to rewrite? Tell me, how will your version differ from the original?
Are you going to swap a few adjectives, change the tense and rearrange the content’s chronology?
If that’s all you intend to do, the end product will not be unique. Instead, why not consider:
- How can you approach the subject from a different angle?
- What benefits can you give to your readership that the content’s progenitor missed?
- Will you reference any known brands or businesses that are ‘known for’ one service or another?
- How will you make who your brands are/what they do stand out in your article?
- What reason does Google have to rank your content above your competition?
Write for your readers, edit for search and social. Write first, edit second.
Ignoring either part of the process will consign your content to the unexplored chasms of cyberspace. Get stuck out there and no one will ever find you…