Search Engine Friendly Copywriting - What Does 'Write Naturally' Mean for SEO?

SEO Question: Many people say write naturally for SEO, but what does that mean?

SEO Answer: About a month and a half ago the New York Times published an article by Steve Lohr titled This Boring Headline Is Written for Google. The article flits with the idea of writing newspaper articles with Google in mind. That story got a decent amount of buzz because newspapers usually do not put much consideration into search engine marketing.

Old School Search Engine Optimization:

A few years ago you could do SEO like this:

  • start your page title with your keyword or keyword phrase
  • include that keyword phrase on most every heading or subheading on that page
  • link to the page sitewide with that same keyword in the anchor text
  • build a ton of links from external locations, with most (or all) of them containing that keyword phrase

Does Old School Still Work?

For MSN (and, to some extent, Yahoo!) you could still use a somewhat similar keyword stuffing philosophy and see outstanding results, but the problem with the stick my core phrase everywhere SEO method! is that Google does not want to show the most optimized content. They want to show the most relevant content.

As noted above in the New York Times article, most news articles (and likely most quality web documents) are not heavily focused on concentrating on optimizing for a keyword. Instead they use the natural language associated with that topic.

If too many of your signals are focused on just one word or phrase and you lack the supporting vocabulary in your document you may get filtered out of the search results for your primary keyword targets. It has happened to me several times, and it is a pretty common occurrence, especially for websites that have few authoritative trustworthy votes and try to make up for it by aggressive use of a phrase in the page content.

Here is an example of a snapshot of a spam page I saw ranking for a long tail keyword

The problem is, that page was ranking for Michigan Smoker's Life Insurance when it targeted a way different phrase. The page will never rank for the main phrase it was targeting, so unless they redirect searchers to a more relevant page it is going to be hard for them to convert any visitors that land on a page like that.

Read a bunch of SEO forums and you eventually come across threads with titles like Non optimized pages higher in SERPS than optimized ones???

How to Optimize for Google:

So if old hat optimization is considered overoptimization and/or is potentially detrimental to your rankings what do you do?

You could

  • say screw Google they will eventually rank me if I get this keyword on the page 1 more time ;)
  • say screw Google I am pulling in plenty of money from Yahoo! and MSN
  • not worry about SEO at all
  • evolve SEO to a more productive state

Onward and upward I say. How to mix it up to become Google friendly:

  • Start the page title with a modifier or couple non keywords instead of placing your primary keyword phrase as the first word of the page title. Example... instead of search engine marketing company start your title with professional search engine marketing...
  • Stemming is your friend. Use plural, singular, and ing versions of your keywords. I have seen pages that used a bunch of the plural version filtered out of Google for the plural version but still ranking for the singular version. If you mix it up you can catch both.
  • Mix up the anchor text, subheaders and page content. Use semantically related phrases, and, in some cases, write subheaders that are useful for humans even if some of them do not have any keyword phrases in them.
  • Make sure each page is somewhat unique and focused in nature.

Semantically related phrases:

If you think of words as having relationships to one another and you visualize optimizing for a keyword as optimizing for a basket of relevant related keywords it will help you draw in relevant related search traffic while also making your page more relevant for its core keywords.

For example, the acronym SEO would have the following as some semantically related phrases

Now you wouldn't necessarily need to get all of those in your page copy, but if a person was writing naturally about the topic of SEO it would be common for many of those kinds of words to appear on the page.

Where do I Find Semantically Related Phrases?

GoRank offers a free semantic research tool. You can also find semantically related phrases by using a Google ~ search, the Google Keyword Tool, clustering engines, or concept pairing tools like Google Sets.

I link to all those tools on my keyword suggestion tool, and here is a background post on latent semantic indexing.

An Over Abundance of Modifiers:

In addition to using words that are semantically related it makes sense to use words that are common modifiers. For example common buying / shopping searches might include words like

  • Free shipping
  • Coupons
  • Coupon
  • Deals
  • Deal
  • Cheap
  • Expensive
  • Budget
  • Bargain
  • Bargains
  • Affordable
  • Low Cost
  • Free
  • Find
  • Get
  • Buy
  • Purchase
  • Locate
  • Compare
  • Shop
  • Shopping
  • Search

I created a keyword modifiers spreadsheet with free keyword modifier ideas for a few different search, transaction, and classification types. I might try to expand it a bit if people find it useful.

If it All Sounds Like a Bit Much...

If it seems complex or complicated then don't focus too heavily on the modifiers or semantic related phrases or even your core keyword that much.

First write your article about your topic without even thinking about the search engines. Then go back and tweak it to include relevant modifiers and semantically related phrases. Make sure that you use multiple versions of your primary keyword phrase if it has multiple versions.

To make the page easy to read and to make it easy to add related phrases and alternate versions of your keywords break up the page using many subheaders. Also add leading questions that lead people from one section to the next. For example, I could say did you find this search engine marketing article helpful in your website promotion quest? Do you think it will help you do a become a better search engine optimizer and more holistic internet marketer?

I am a bit tired and I think this was a bit verbose, but hopefully it helps somebody. If not, arggggg... hehehe.

Published: May 25, 2006 by Aaron Wall in Q & A


August 27, 2006 - 5:03am

Aaron, the stemming part alone is worth the time spent reading, but the entire post helped me realize that I'm making some serious mistakes on some of the sites I write for.

Thanks for an incredibly informative article.

December 14, 2006 - 12:26pm


Thank you for the post. A hypothetical question comes to mind that might be of interest:

If someone attempted the stick my core phrase everywhere SEO method! on a quite a few pages on a large site, and this caused the previously enviable rankings to drop not only for those pages but dozens of other pages on the site, what is the best method of damage control?

My boss seems to think that if we remove all of the extraneous keywords all at once that it will hurt us even more.


December 14, 2006 - 5:46pm

Hi Eric
I can't give much good advice on that hypothetical situation without more background. All I can say to do is test.

July 7, 2006 - 7:31pm

I think writing naturally and trying to include keywords as much as seems natural when reading what you have written is essential.

Also, submitting articles and press releases to credible sources (PRWeb, EzineArticles, etc.) with link backs is, in my opinion, a great way to improve your credibility with Google and, ultimately, will have a favorable impact on how your site is indexed.

Links are still a must but, again, they must come from credible, relevant sources. I have no proof, but I think having the robots see your URL listed in cheap, spam-style link exchange directories hurts your ranking. I also advocate linking to sites that don't link to you and trying to include links to well-established, reputible or informational sites relevant to your industry.

For my clients who are new to the game and say, "I want to be at the top of the Google page" (which I'm sure none of the SEOs here have ever heard before), I say "Great, then I suggest you invest at least X amount of dollars in a solid AdWords campaign until we can slowly but surely build your site's credibility and thus increase your rankings naturally." My rule of thumb is that if it seems sleazy and cheesy, it's gonna eventually hurt your rankings.

I'd love some feedback:

January 14, 2007 - 12:27am

Aaron, I was pleasantly surprised to find you again after digging for keyword modifiers. Of course your site was #1 on google for the search "keyword modifier". My Coach: Dan Thies referred me to you a few months back and I am very pleased to say the least.

Your resources are a must for anyone striving to conquer the Search Engines... on any level!

Thank You... Thank You...

July 19, 2006 - 7:54pm

I'm of a very different opinion from Mr. Miguel above but I come out the same in the end. I agree that copy should always be written for humans, but not because word of mouth draws more traffic than search engines. The benefit to writing content for humans is that Google hires thousands of monkeys who spend their days trying to figure out how to make useful pages written for humans appear first. If that's you're goal in creating the page, you have all those monkeys crafting an algorithm to put you first.

That said, until they "get it right" (which can't happen) it seems the name of the game is trying to write content that appears to Google to have been written for humans, and will continue to appear that way as Google continues to fine tune its secret receipe.

May 25, 2006 - 8:32pm

Nice post Aaron! I particularly liked the part about "stemming."

Stemming is your friend. Use plural, singular, and ing versions of your keywords. I have seen pages that used a bunch of the plural version filtered out of Google for the plural version but still ranking for the singular version. If you mix it up you can catch both.

May 25, 2006 - 8:50pm

Great article Jon! Recently I tried explaining this kind of approach to my wife when I was working out content on a client site and she laughed at how something so common sense can actually work. And she's right, people will either try to spam the same keywords to death, or just downright forget that the copy is geared towards humans first, then the SE's. Great piece! Keep up the good work.

May 25, 2006 - 9:16pm

Never thought about using modifiers as you laid out...thanks for the tip.

May 25, 2006 - 11:33pm

Thanks for that Aaron. Two points I would like to make:

1) A detail: From my research, it seems Google is still favouring keyword at the start of the page title. But the research is done on a Danish website in Danish language, and the keyword is of the "nigritude ultramarine" kind, with no semantic related phrases.

2) I think you might be right, Google is starting to favour the "write naturally" style, at least in the English language. Now, if you take your point a little further, SEO for the future would be not to have SEO in mind at all. When that time comes (in 10 years), Google will have achieved one of their major goals for search: Relevans rules.

May 26, 2006 - 2:38am

Great article Aaron. While reading the archive, I noticed that you don't include related keywords in your page file name. Do you think that there is any benefit in this?

Louis Swingrover
May 26, 2006 - 2:47am

Thanks Aaron, all your stuff is helpful. In response to TSK: my personal philosophy of mind brings me hope as an SEO (whether it can be chalked up to wishful thinking). It seems that there is something unique in humans that disqualifies non-humans (ie search engines) from ever being capable of judgment. In other words, no algorithm, no matter how complex, will ever transcend itself such that it will undestand meaning and intentionality. If I'm right (and I've been wrong plenty of times), then there will SEO potential for a long time (knock on wood).

May 26, 2006 - 4:16am

I could change the filenames, and that would have some benefit, but I don't mind leaving them as they for now.

May 26, 2006 - 10:28am

Louis, I agree about the human edge. Still, I think we eventually will come to a point, where the benefit of traditional SEO work will not justify the investment.

SE's like Google moving towards "write naturally", major CMS's will soon be SEO friendly and the average webmaster will be able to make websites SE friendly, following basic rules of user friendlyness.

And don't worry about the SEO trade. It will take a long time to get there and SEO will move towards marketing in general, focusing on brands, visitors, relations and conversions.

May 26, 2006 - 11:56am

I think we eventually will come to a point, where the benefit of traditional SEO work will not justify the investment.

For many people just starting out in hyper competitive markets and lacking longterm business plans or a solid marketing plan I think it is sorta almost already there.

Yahoo! and MSN are still low hanging fruit. MSN probably has at least 2 to 3 good years of easy manipulation to it. With the search box going into the browser on the next version of Internet Explorer that should have many SEOs drooling.

July 14, 2007 - 1:21am

If getting Google rank requires optimizers to write naturally, I'd say googlebots are developing. That's how they should work.

January 3, 2007 - 5:17am

It is quite amusing to see how you say 'write naturally' and then add 'for Google'. If you write naturally, you write for the humans, right?

I have to agree that you need to include synonyms, the right modifiers, lots of derivatives and such in your site text to be well accepted, but this diverse copy will appeal to the humans first, to the SEs second.

Not to mention, as it was mentioned above, that Google does want to value human-friendly text best.

June 1, 2006 - 2:11am

Are you also suggesting that soon submitting sites to directories won't be important as only the content on the page will be important and perhaps "natural" links.

June 1, 2006 - 2:48am

Well some directories may be seen as the types of sites that provide natural links, while others are selling link authority without any sort of editorial control.

June 19, 2006 - 3:50pm

I'm sorry to say that for once I agree with Google.

We never firstly write copy or design for search engines but for people and are not worried that much about page rankings. If you are good at the business you do - word of mouth is much stronger.

Ricardo Miguel
Senior Designer
G3 Creative, Glasgow.

July 14, 2011 - 5:25pm

I have struggled with KW research since forever because of modifiers. Mainly, because many KW tools do not include many, or any of them as part of a viable option. I literally had the light bulb go off last night, and now I see that modifiers lead to writing in a way that makes sense, while still pleasing search engines.

No more will I have to "crowbar" in stupid phrases into places just to hope to please an engine, because writing in coherent sentences should be the most pleasing.

I know....this is elementary stuff, but for me, it was the last thing holding me back from fully understanding something that so many people say is "simple"...KW research and implementation.

Now, it is truly much more simple indeed.

Great post!


July 14, 2011 - 7:29pm

I remember when the same lightbulb went off for me about 8 years ago. :D

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