As a writer, you may be concerned that AI writing tools will replace you. The answer is no, at least not just yet.
I've tested multiple tools, and while they're helpful and save time, they won't help if you are writing something complex or requiring creativity or in-depth research.
What they can do is help overcome problems like writer's block. They can help you figure out topics you need to cover in your articles and content. They can also help you develop headlines, meta descriptions, and other elements that you should include to help your content rank.
Now, I wanted to catch up with someone who is an expert on the topic, and so in this episode, I talked to James Scherer, the VP of Growth at Codeless.
In the first half of the interview, we talk about James's SEO approach and recommendations for somebody who is starting a site from scratch and his approach to link building.
In the second half of the interview, we get into AI, and James provides some practical tips which will help you get started using AI as part of your writing or content publishing workflow.
In this episode, we discuss:
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James: The answer there is to go after different key phrases, you know? There’s a lot of people on the web searching for a lot of stuff. There is, no matter your vertical, a bunch of keywords, a bunch of target key phrases that you can still see success with even if your space looks to be dominated by massive, you know, the behemoths of your vertical.
Introduction: Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: AI content generation for writers and content publishers, what does it look like and how can you get started? Hi there. My name is Bryan Collins. Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast. One of my goals on this podcast is to help you learn more about futurist topics. Writing content with the help of AI is something we’re all going to be doing more of over the coming years, especially if you’re publishing content online or if you want to build a website or any type of platform.
Now, if you’re a writer, you may be thinking to yourself, “Are all these AI writing tools going to replace us?” Well, the good news is no, not just yet. I’ve tested multiple tools over the past year or so and while they’re helpful and can save you time, if you’re writing something that’s complex, that requires a bit of creativity or in-depth research, these type of tools won’t replace the work of a writer. What they can do is help you overcome problems like writer’s block, if you’re unsure how to start an article. They can help you figure out topics that you need to cover in your articles and in your blog posts and in your content. And it can also help you come up with things like headlines, meta descriptions, and other elements that you should include which could help your content rank more easily.
Chances are you’re already using some of these tools. For example, Grammarly, which many writers use, has an AI-powered writing assistance, which enables you to find and fix errors in your work at a click. That’s AI in action. And, actually, if you’re interested, I’ve got a discount for Grammarly and you can claim 20 percent off every month for 2022. You can just use the link in the show notes becomeawritertoday.com/try-grammarly-today. Another example is Gmail. If you use Gmail and it offers a response that you can use to an email and send at a click, that’s another example of AI content writing in action.
These tools can do a lot more than that. Some of the ones I used include Clearscope and, earlier on last year, I interviewed Bernard Huang who’s the founder of Clearscope. I used it to optimize content for the Become a Writer Today site and also to prepare content briefs for other writers. I’ve also been experimenting with tools like Writesonic or Wordtune and jarvis.ai. I find these are quite helpful for writing that’s a little bit formulaic, for example, headlines, meta descriptions, and even finding an introduction that I can then edit. It’s good practice to use these tools as well because they’re only going to improve over time.
So the next time you’re working on an article, take a few minutes to use one of these tools and to see if it can help you write a headline or help you with your meta description or figure out if you’re missing a section in your work. Now, I mentioned Clearscope which can be a little bit expensive for new content creators so more affordable options include Frase and topic.io. I’d also encourage you to spend time using these tools because, over the next few years, they’re going to become part of any writer’s workflow. And if you’re a freelance writer, understanding how to use these tools will give you an edge over other freelancers and help you provide more value to clients. On the other hand, if you’re a content publisher, understanding how to use these tools will help you rank your content faster and build a bigger content publishing business.
Now, I wanted to catch up with an expert on the topic. His name is James Scherer. He’s the VP of Growth at Codeless and in the first half of the interview, we talked all about James’s approach to SEO and his recommendations for somebody who’s starting a site from scratch. We also talked about his approach to link building. In the second half of the interview, we get into AI and James provides some practical tips which will help you get started using AI as part of your writing or content publishing workflow.
Hope you enjoy this podcast episode. If you do, please let me know on Twitter, @bryanjcollins, or, alternatively, please consider leaving a short review on iTunes because your reviews and ratings will help more people find the Become a Writer Today Podcast.
Now, let’s go over to this week’s interview with James Scherer.
Bryan: Welcome to the show, James.
James: Thank you so much, Bryan. Happy to be here.
Bryan: So I’m excited to talk to you today, James, because you’re an expert in content marketing, worked in content marketing for a number of years, so I wanted to ask you about your approach and, in particular, SEO. Before we get into that, could you give listeners a flavor for who you are and how you got involved in the space?
James: Yeah, for sure. So I started in content back in 2013. I worked for a tech startup in Vancouver, Canada, which was a fun experience, you know? The startup community is always an interesting one so I kind of like dipped my toe and then got thrown into the deep end relatively quickly within content. So I was a writer and then moved to editing and then became head of inbound there until 2018 so that was kind of where I got my start with content strategy.
And then freelanced and traveled the world for a little while. My wife and I kind of did a bunch of exploring. And, in that time, I was freelancing for a content agency called Codeless and when we settled down again, I joined them as an editor and then director of editorial and now VP of growth. So, throughout that kind of that ladder step with Codeless, it’s been a bit of writing but primarily around working with our clients develop content strategies and how best to grow their businesses through inbound. So, yeah, my focus currently actually is more on like how can I grow Codeless as a company through content and through all other kinds of growth strategies, but my background is definitely in broad spectrum, multiple vertical content strategy.
Bryan: So, when somebody is listening to this and they’re wondering is it too late to use content marketing for their business or is it too difficult to do it, what would you say to them?
James: That’s a hell of a question, Bryan. It depends on the vertical. It depends on their competition. The short answer is actually no longer an easy, “No, you’re fine. You can just jump in, you know, throw some blog articles up and you’ll see success.” That’s not the answer and actually hasn’t been the answer for a while. Is content marketing still worth investing in? Absolutely. It still delivers one of the best ROIs of any kind of marketing campaign or like marketing endeavor or branch of your business that you could like invest in, but it does require investment.
I would say it requires more investment in 2022 than it did when I started, for sure, and even more in the past couple of years. The idea of mediocre content, which is, I don’t know, you know, we used to be able to throw something on the web, throw an article together, a thousand words of some random whatever and have it actually perform, it could rank, that’s no longer the case.
So, for the mass majority of industries, the competition is so fierce that unless you have a considered approach to targeting the right key phrases and attacking those key phrases with very high quality content, internal links, and then like a really compelling and heavily invested in backlink strategy, it’s quite difficult to rank content organically in the short term.
No matter what, content is a long term strategy. But a lot of what we’re doing now also requires investment. However, I’ll say all of that, once you make that investment, you take those steps, you create high-quality content, it does deliver one of the best returns on investment, because once the article goes live, say you spent a thousand bucks on it or whatever, you set it and forget it and it continues to drive traffic for you for months and years on end without you really messing with it. Once you do that initial investment though.
Bryan: Yeah, I’ve noticed that with my own sites, when I publish an article, it can take several months for it to gain any traction and then it can perform for several years. And, similarly, when I was on a content marketing team for Sage, I saw similar things with content that would have, you know, a life span of several years. I guess the challenge is, if you’re doing something and you want to see results this month or this quarter, content marketing can feel like a long-term game so how can somebody get around that or how can they speed things up?
James: Links are probably the clearest variable between successful content and non-successful content, which is, you know, an odd answer coming from somebody who is on the content creation side of things, you know? Creating — the foundation should be high quality, you know? It needs to be pretty long-form, thought leadership, bringing something true to the table, custom images, really good graphics, an intelligent internal linking strategy so, you know, you’re creating content that links to other content and vice versa within your blog, within your site. So getting that foundation right is key.
Once you do that, it’s kind of like the “Once you do everything, what is there to do?” and that’s about getting referring domains and getting backlinks to that URL in order for it to rank. And the more quickly you do that and the more you get, the more quickly it’s going to rank, period. It’s still the number one SEO variable.
Bryan: I get an awful lot of spam emails from outreachers, completely irrelevant requests, telling me that they need link insertions right now. Find it quite annoying so I just delete them all. How do you go about getting backlinks or how would you recommend somebody gets a backlink in a way that captures the attention of a publisher?
James: You can have it be somebody’s job to do the outreach that you’re talking about. I would say the challenge there is that getting on — so, readers and listeners may be very aware, the quality of a backlink is far more important than the number of them. So, if you are able to get placement of a backlink on a site like Forbes, The Economist, Mashable, whatever, those very high domain authority publishers, that link is far more valuable than two or three or five from lower domain authority sites.
So, the easiest way, if you have a bit of money, is to invest in links. There are linking agencies out there and linking businesses out there who already have those relationships. They already know the publisher, like the editor at those sites, and so they can get a link on them far more easily.
Starting from scratch to develop the relationships with those publishers and those publications is very difficult, which is why a good linking strategy is very time-consuming for early-stage businesses because it requires you to first develop the relationship and then pitch something that is worth doing.
So, you and I both, like we have a thousand of those kinds of like emails all the time from backlinking agencies or whatever pitching us to publish stuff. The vast majority of those companies are kind of sketchy. It’s like grey hat, black hat, kind of like, “We’ll pay you for a link,” or, “We’ll do whatever for a link.” There are a few agencies out there, however, who are legit and they have those legit relationships.
And the way I would do that if you’re in the market, is to review the domain authority of the sites that you’re buying from. So, make sure that you’re almost paying for the domain authority that you want, not a number of links.
Bryan: Makes sense. I was talking to somebody, he said domain authority can be a little bit of a vanity metric when you look at that score in Ahrefs.
James: It can be but it’s the best metric we have for link value. I mean, traffic is up there, for sure, but there are a lot of sites with inflated domain authority simply because they have a lot of content that ranks for high volume search terms, even if the content’s not great, because a lot of like the most domain authority in the Ahrefs domain ranking is based on number of ranking key phrases, but as far as we know, Google does use domain authority as like a factor in their SEO algorithms. It’s one of the clearest metrics that we have.
Bryan: When it comes to keyword research, there are like dozens of different approaches somebody can use. What would be your preferred approach for somebody starting a content site from scratch?
Bryan: Yeah, cheat.
James: Essentially, go into Ahrefs, go into SEO or Semrush, go into Moz, look up your primary competitor’s URL, like their domain, and see what they’re ranking for and — well, first do the URLs that like they’re outperforming the most and then go into organic keywords and see what they’re ranking for and you should spit out a long list.
If you find a competitor or a brand that you believe is ranking for the stuff you want to rank for or is creating content about what you want to kind of create content around, export their list. Like there’s no reason whatsoever why you couldn’t target some of the secondary key phrases that are like really competitive keyword competitors is ranking for.
Even if like if you’re in the SaaS space, target HubSpot’s, you know, lower volume secondary keywords that some of their articles are ranking for coincidentally but not necessarily targeting. Those ones are going to be the ones that are like more attainable for you. And in like broad stroke rule of thumb, if your site is showing up as having like less than 50 domain authority, I wouldn’t mess with writing anything that has more than like 35 KD, KD being like competitiveness on Ahrefs and Semrush.
If your domain has more than 50, you can go up to 50 KD, but for the initial kind of few months of creating content or the first year of creating content, don’t push it because what you need to be doing is driving ranking positions even if the volume is low, because Google is going to start seeing you and giving you a little bit of momentum and that’ll make it easier for you to rank content on the line because your domain authority is going to start building up, but it won’t build up unless you come in at the bottom and start climbing.
Bryan: Yeah, it can be difficult when you’re starting a content site and you’ve published a couple of articles and you’re not gaining any traction and then you publish a few more and the same thing happens. What I found is it can take up to 12 months for some articles, even on competitive ones, to rank for newer sites. Has that been your experience?
James: Yeah. I mean, we have a client who is very early-stage business, they did have a bit of a linking strategy and we found that it took — so we were doing eight articles a month for them, 2,000-word articles, they’re in the fintech space. It took eight months for us to see 5,000 unique visitors on monthly basis from publishing eight pieces of content a month to like reasonably competitive, pretty high volume search terms.
By the end of the year, we were doing 12,000 and I think we’re at 15,000 ’cause like once you get ranking content, like if anybody’s familiar with like, you know, the keyword research tools, a single URL is showing up in the top 100 ranking positions for hundreds, ideally, hundreds of search terms. So, as soon as you get a good URL, good article, you’re not just on the first page for the target key phrase, you’re on the first page for 10, 15, 20 key phrases. They may be lower volume, but very quickly, a good URL search might mean for other stuff so that’s what happens with that is that once you do get some momentum, I guess what I’m saying is I agree with you that the first 9 months, 12 months, you may not necessarily see a lot but if you’re keeping a close eye on your ranking positions across the board, you may see that like a lot of your content is on the second and third page.
And then once you get a little bit of a win, that first, you know, after the 12-month period, suddenly all those URLs go to the first page and suddenly you’re seeing significant traffic. In like a single month, everything changes.
Bryan: You mentioned you have a client in the fintech space so there are some niches or niches that are more competitive than others, that would strike me as one of them. Are links more important for somebody in finance or health?
James: Yeah. I mean, the competitive spaces are actually SaaS, probably still one of the most competitive spaces, because they’re the most publishers out there creating content. You know, you’re also competing with some serious brands out there, HubSpot being one of them, you know, anyway. But fintech is a funky one because there are a lot of banking domains, this is when we’re talking about domain authority, KeyBank and US Bank and Bank of America, they may not necessarily publish a huge amount of content but their domain authority is just massive, because of who they are and how large the organization is.
The total number of pages on their site and the multiple different sites they have all connecting together and stuff, huge domains, even if they’re not necessarily publishers, you know, a blog content so that’s very difficult to compete against. But the answer there is to go after different key phrases, you know? There’s a lot of people in the web searching for a lot of stuff. There is, no matter your vertical, a bunch of keywords, a bunch of target key phrases that you can still see success with, even if your space looks to be dominated by massive, you know, the behemoths of your vertical.
Bryan: When you’re starting anew, working with a new client or you’re starting a new project, do you focus on a single topic and then map out a series of articles for the month to cover that topic or do you publish on several different topics and see which one gains traction first?
James: So, yeah, I do follow a kind of a pillar and post model so when we get a new client, we do, again, I cheat a bit. I look at the competitors, see what they’re ranking for. I also look at the site to determine kind of what are the categories of content we’re going to go after. You know, say they’re in the financial — we have a client who recently came on who’s in like helping students get financial aid so we do financial aid as a category, student loans as a category, student banking as a category, and the FAFSA in general, like as a category of content, and if those are kind of — we have a couple pillars within each category so pillars being the most competitive, highest volume key phrases within that category tends to be like a, “What is the fastest —” like a complete guide to student loans, whatever it is, and then you have support content so lower volumes, like lower search volume, lower competitiveness key phrases that still can be like complete articles that then support the pillar. Idea being that those will rank more quickly and as soon as they get on the first page, the internal link juice, as we call it, to the parent or to the pillar has a higher impact and increases the chance of that pillar ranking.
So that’s the kind of the pillar and post structure. As far as whether or not we do — I actually, and this is kind of controversial, we attack multiple categories in any given month. There are other agencies out there and other content marketing strategists who swear by doing a single category, like do the whole category, do all the support content, then move on to the next one. I’m far more in the, as you say, kind of like the let’s throw it against the wall and see what sticks model and especially with early-stage lower domain clients, I don’t know what Google’s going to like them for and I’m not going to know until we throw a bunch of content at Google, like optimized high-quality content at Google and see what’s working and then we do come back in and optimize content after the fact. And then we use tools, like Clearsope, MarketMuse, whatever phrase to do that.
Bryan: Yeah, I’ve used those tools as well. I was gonna ask about that in a moment, actually, when I was gonna talk about AI generation, but after using Ahrefs and Moz and a couple of other smaller keyword tools, just huge discrepancies in search volume and competitiveness scores and I’ve been reading a few different blogs online where people are questioning the accuracy of the tools in the first place. So, I mean, are they reliable?
James: Again, like domain authority, it’s all about giving us the best chance at accurate data. Domain authority is a good way for us to figure out if a link is going to be valuable or not and Semrush, Ahrefs, and Moz are as good as we have. They’re good platforms for understanding likely opportunities for content growth and content success.
What we tend to do is I compare Semrush and Ahrefs and take the average, which I recognize not all clients and listeners will be enthusiastic about paying for two SEO tools but, in general, if Semrush is saying something has pretty good volume and pretty low competitiveness and Ahrefs seems to agree, I’m going to call that an opportunity for our clients, yeah.
Bryan: For content optimization tools, I’ve tried software like MarketMuse Clearscope, Frase, and Topic, find it’s helpful for some articles if the sites got traffic but it can be overkill for articles and if the search volume is low, it’s not quite as accurate.
James: I would agree.
Bryan: They’re also quite expensive. So like are these tools necessary if you’re not — are they only useful if you’re publishing content at scale?
James: That’s an interesting question, because it’s always that like, should a small business invest in a CMS? Should a small business invest in these types of tools? Because of the high initial investment and what is the return when you’re not, you know, at large scale. The challenge, though, with content is that like it’s not worth it at all to publish subpar content, you know?
It’s not — there’s no point in publishing an article that isn’t optimized for search and these tools tell you pretty comprehensively and I think pretty accurately if your article is or isn’t. A lot of businesses use freelancers for content creation, a lot of them use like relatively junior marketers for content creation.
It takes a long time, if ever, like I’m creating content for almost 10 years now and I still would run all my articles through one of these tools to determine if I’m optimizing it for search, because what these platforms are doing is analyzing the ranking content and telling you what you’re missing and if you don’t include that stuff, you’re not writing as comprehensive an article, you’re not including the semantic and secondary key phrases that Google does seem to be looking for in order to say, “Yes, this URL is optimized.”
And if you’re not doing those things, then you’re going to have a lower chance of ranking that content, you’re not going to see any traffic from it, you’re not going to get domain authority boost, etc., etc., etc. So it’s kind of like, yes, it may be expensive, but the alternative is like having a way harder time to see results. So it’s entirely up to you. I mean, you can try to create content that’s optimized like from your own experience and best practices and stuff and you can do that and that absolutely worked 10 years ago. I don’t know that it does anymore.
Bryan: As a content creator, the tools can be quite prescriptive about what to include in the headings, subheadings, and what sections to cover. It can almost feel like some of the creativity has been taken out of written content, at least. Has that been your experience?
James: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that’s, if we’re going to talk about AI-generated content in a sec, for sure, the problem with these tools is they are explicitly, they are regurgitating the model of existing content. So, by definition, you’re not adding anything to the content pile, you’re just kind of digging, you’re putting your hand in and then saying, “Yeah, that one’s mine down there somewhere.” So what you do is you take what they’re recommending as a starting place, as a foundation for like, yeah, this is the content that — or this is what readers seem to be rewarding in terms of subject matter for this topic. I should be hitting, you know, these few things.
And then once you have that foundation, which is why I think that the primary value that these tools bring to you is optimization after the fact so like a bit of the outline, the content brief, the outlines that they can deliver, is valuable to get like a, “Let me make sure that I’m including a benefit subsection, because Google does seem to be like rewarding articles that focus on the benefits of this strategy,” whatever it is. But once you have that foundational kind of structure, it’s like, “Okay, I’m gonna go away from this platform. I’m gonna write in Word, I’m gonna write in Google Docs, and I’m gonna bring whatever I have to actually say about this to the table,” ignoring the tool entirely, and then once you’ve done that, once you’ve brought your own thought leadership and your own expertise to the subject, then you plug it back into the platform, and say like, “Okay, I use the words ‘project management' here, I should have used ‘project lock.’ If I replace that with ‘project planning,’ then semantically I’m going to be more accurate in terms of like keyword volume.” And that’s not going to hurt my content in any way. It’s not like I’m no longer able to be a thought leader or bring a comprehensive like approach to this, it simply means that I seem to be aligning with the existing ranking content. And that would be my approach.
Bryan: That brings us nicely to AI-generated content. So, I’ve experimented with some of the tools out there, Writesonic, Wordtune, jarvis.ai, Clearscope has some AI.
James: Yeah. MarketMuse has a bit as well, yeah, some stuff built in. A lot of ’em are playing around with it, like kind of dipping their toes into it a bit.
Bryan: My opinion is that the software is on par with hiring a writer for about two to three cents per word. Like it has to be quite simple and it has to be something that you’re, you know, it’s not gonna be literary fiction, you know? It’s gonna be fairly basic, but it can be challenging if you have a complex topic.
James: We’re 100 percent on the same page. Absolutely agree. I’ve reviewed a few AI-generated like articles and stuff from a few of the platforms you recommend — or like you talked about there. My consensus is that the technology is not there yet. It’s getting better but it’s not there yet. That said, it is closer for financial content. I think it will get there for like ecommerce and retail verticals and I think kind of the medical and fintech space, it can do pretty well, because that is kind of the recitation of data and facts and just — like, you know, I think The Economist, I don’t know if Forbes does but I’m pretty sure The Economist uses AI to create like the stock analysis kind of stuff, like X company has gone up in the stocks as a result of whatever, whatever, whatever. That kind of quite formulaic, very data-oriented content, I think the AI can do relatively well. I think that probably will correspond to if you plug in your ecommerce or, you know, B2C product directory and like some lines about those products, it’ll probably be able to adapt that into pretty okay like product descriptions.
I think that for SaaS, B2B, and anybody who wants to bring thought leadership to the table, the AI is not there yet. As a writer of complete pieces, right? I mean, when we talk about AI-generated content, it doesn’t, at least to me, just mean an entire piece is generated by an AI.
I mean, Grammarly is AI helping you create content. Hemingway app is, you know, is doing that. Clearscope phrase, they are all AI pulling some ideas from existing content and recommending you include them and then when you draft that piece, you put it back into the software, the AI, and it says, “Here’s what you’re missing,” or “Here’s what we recommend you add.” So, I mean, no, AI-generated content as a complete piece is not there yet by any stretch the imagination but those listeners who ignore AI helping them create content are missing the trick.
Bryan: What tips would you offer somebody who wants to try some of this software for the first time?
James: Well, start with the tools that you think you’re going to need most. If you’re not creating a huge amount of long blog content, then don’t necessarily invest in a tool like — MarketMuse is relatively expensive, Clearscope can be relatively expensive, Frase is more affordable so if you’re early stage, that might be helpful for you there. I don’t work for any of them, I’ve just tried all of them so that’s been my experience.
But, I mean, there’s tools, you know, like Grammarly is an extremely helpful tool that is technically AI that helps you write content that can be as a plugin, it’ll help you write better emails. I think Frase has a subject, like has some options as well for that kind of stuff. I guess the short answer is that dip your toe into the more affordable platforms, get used to the idea of creating content with the help of AI, and then if you ever do significant content at scale or even really blogging at all, I would say play around with a couple of those tools.
They all have free trials, or most of them have free trials. See if you’re able to appreciate what they’re giving to you. Another really quick note for small businesses, for instance, like these tools also help you do it more quickly, you know? Like if you are coming to blogging relatively — like now or you’re a newbie to this stuff, getting some insight into like, “Okay, how am I putting an article together? What are the headlines it’s recommending?” will make the content creation process smoother and faster.
So, from a cost perspective, that may actually be beneficial as well. So, I guess what I’m saying, dip your toe into some of the more affordable plans or the more affordable software, start with tools like Hemingway or Grammarly and maybe Frase and then if you’re finding that you’re finding value from them and they’re making your life easier, your quality of your content better, and everything to be done more quickly, maybe play around with some of the more costly and advanced ones.
Bryan: Yeah, I’ve been using Grammarly for years but I’m quite impressed with the AI writing assistance and how I can auto-correct sentences at a click. I interviewed Bernard from Clearscope several episodes ago, find that’s a great tool for briefing freelance writers because there’s a shareable link you can give.
Bryan: And of all the tools that you mentioned there, I find it’s the most intuitive. MarketMuse is quite good if you have a site that you want to do an analysis on already. I think they’ve lowered their pricing recently too.
James: Yeah, I mean, from the ability to like share optimization URL is really, really handy for businesses working with freelancers, for sure.
Bryan: James, where can people learn more information about you or your agency?
James: You can hit me up on LinkedIn, for sure, to find out a little bit more about me, just James Scherer on LinkedIn. I’m, again, VP of growth at Codeless, codeless.io would be the homepage. If you want to get in touch, just throw a message my way on LinkedIn would probably be the easiest way.
James: It’s great to talk to you today, James
Bryan: Thank you very much, Bryan
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