How can search engine optimization help you write?
If you’re starting a blog, a content publishing website, or writing online, there are two things that you need to do, spend time actually writing and then figure out how people will find and read your work.
You can do this in many different ways, from social media marketing to paid advertising, using your email list, and using search engine optimization.
Every writer working online today could benefit from search engine optimization simply because you can use relatively affordable and even free tools to figure out what your readers are searching for. Then you can use this information to create and write articles on content that ranks.
This week, I have an exciting guest. His name is Kevin Indig. He runs a popular newsletter that’s all about search engine optimization. He also likes to experiment with the latest SEO tools and has a research and writing process that any writer will recognize.
In this episode, we discuss:
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Kevin: Whenever I use an SEO editor, the results from an SEO perspective are always better than not using an SEO editor, so I suggest using these tools and using them with a lot of common sense and a little bit of critical thinking and not over obsessing about the score but aiming for a high score in these tools.
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: How can search engine optimization help you write? Hi, there, my name is Bryan Collins, and welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast. If you’re starting a blog today, if you’re starting a content publishing website, or if you’re writing online, there’s two things that you need to do. You need to spend time actually writing the articles and writing the content. The second thing you need to do is figuring out how people will read them. Lots of different ways that you can do this, from social media marketing to using paid advertising to using your email list to using search engine optimization. Every writer working online today could benefit from search engine optimization simply because you can use relatively affordable and even free tools to figure out what your readers are searching for and then you can use this information to create and write articles on content that ranks.
Now, sometimes, it can feel like search engine optimization is a mysterious art. I worked for a corporate company in a content marketing team for a number of years and we worked alongside the search engine optimization team. And I learned a lot about how search engine optimization experts think about using data to figure out what types of content to create. Now that’s actually quite easy to do and, funnily enough, a lot of search engine optimization experts look at writers and think that what they do is some sort of mysterious art, that is, turning data into words that are populated on a website or on the page, because people forget that writing can be quite challenging if it’s not something that you’re used to doing.
So this week, I have an exciting guest. His name is Kevin Indig. He runs a popular newsletter that’s all about search engine optimization. He’s also somebody who likes to experiment with the latest SEO tools and he has a research and writing process that any writer will recognize. In other words, he’s covered both disciplines. My key takeaway from talking to Kevin is that SEO enables writers to become more creative because it gives us a constraint within which to work. And although it may feel like writing online is getting more competitive than ever thanks to all of the big brands and companies that are now publishing blogs and investing in content, Kevin explains how writers can find an audience with their content online and what way you should think about search engine optimization. Basically, it boils down to using long tail keywords for your content. If you’re not quite familiar what long tail keywords are, we get into that halfway through the interview.
If you like this week’s interview with Kevin and you want to learn more about search engine optimization for writers, there’s a couple of other interviews on the topic on the Become a Writer Today Podcast archive that I recommend you check out. Check out my interview with Jon Dykstra. He also explains how he uses the long tail keyword strategy to build his six-figure content websites. You’ll also enjoy my interview with Mushfiq. He describes how he builds content websites and then flips them for a profit. And, of course, if you find any of those interviews helpful, please do consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store or share the show with another writer or another friend because your reviews and ratings help more people find the Become a Writer Today Podcast. And if you have feedback about this week’s interview with Kevin, I’m on Twitter at @bryanjcollins.
Bryan: My guest today is Kevin Indig. He’s a search engine optimization expert for Shopify. He’s also the host of the Tech Bound Podcast and he’s the author of an excellent newsletter that I read about search engine optimization which is called Growth Memo. Welcome to the show, Kevin.
Kevin: Thanks, Bryan. It’s great to be here.
Bryan: I love nerding out about search engine optimization but I think you know far more about it than I ever will. What I wanted to talk to you all about how content writers should think about search engine optimization today, what skills they should have, but before we get into that, how did you get into the SEO game? What’s your background?
Kevin: Like so many people, I kind of stumbled into the whole thing. I was a very avid computer gamer in my teens and part of kind of internet becoming vast, like broadly available and affordable and so I spent a lot of time online, I spent a lot of time playing online with my friends and, at some point, I wanted to register for tournaments, we needed a website for that, and I became the guy to figure out how to build a website and one thing led to the next and, 15 years later, here we are and making a living from this.
Bryan: Interesting you say that you played a lot of games and so on. Search engine optimization could feel like a game because you’re looking at all the numbers and the rankings and leveling up with your articles.
Kevin: Absolutely, yes. It started with gaming the search results, literally gaming the search results. It was very dark art or dark science. And, today, the game is more the competition and executing better and faster than everybody else.
Bryan: Did you always wanted to work for our brand or in B2B search engine optimization or have you at any point worked for smaller companies?
Kevin: I have started my career on the consulting side. I was fortunate to get an internship as a start in an online marketing consultancy and then very big clients and then, of course, a couple of smaller clients so I would say I was lucky to focus on large clients very early on in my career. But, of course, some friends with smaller businesses, my family has some smaller businesses, so my strength is on the largest side but I have some exposure to smaller business too.
Bryan: You have a deep technical background in SEO, you’re very knowledgeable about the topic as anyone could tell who reads Growth Memo. For people listening to this, is SEO a hard skill to learn? Is it something that you can pick up even if you’re not necessarily analytically driven?
Kevin: I think you can definitely pick it up. It’s very similar to other professions like lawyers or doctors insofar that there are many specializations, there are many different areas of SEO, and I think one very prevalent area that’s, I would say, easier to get into is probably the skill of content marketing and creating unique content, differentiated content, whereas maybe some of the more super tactical things might take a little bit longer, but nothing’s impossible. You find very, very strong SEOs from all areas of life. Some have been former philosophy students, some former economists, former writers who then turn very technical and the other way around. So I don’t think there are like any hard limits and I would say that you can pick up all the SEO knowledge online. There’s really no secret that is only available in a book or in a course or on a video. The difficult thing about SEO is less knowing what to do and it’s more getting it done, especially when you work for larger companies.
Bryan: Plus, SEO keeps changing, so if it was in a book, it’s probably out of date.
Kevin: Yes, yes. That’s why I haven’t written one yet.
Bryan: I was in a content marketing team for five or six years and my takeaway would be that if you know how to create great content, then SEO can be a nice way to get people to see that content. Even if you learned the basics, it’s a good way to get some traffic to some of your articles. But it can feel like when you’re starting out with a new site or a new online project that it’s just very competitive out there, a lot of big brands with lots of income or revenue to invest in content so how is a scrappy content publisher or writer supposed to compete? What would you say to them?
Kevin: It is very competitive. I think your assessment is 100 percent correct here. I think all platforms are somewhat competitive. I mean, even something like TikTok, which still feels relatively new, even though it’s not that new anymore, has over a billion users. So, let’s put it this way. There are — when we talk about competition, there’s a lot of content out there, for sure. The biggest question you have to ask yourself, no matter whether you write for yourself or you write for a company, is how can you differentiate your content. There’s a lot of commodity content out there, a lot of cases where some marketer or some person was tasked to write about a topic, they have no idea about that topic so they go through the search results and they synthesize what they learned from like maybe a couple of hours of research, if you’re lucky. But that doesn’t create deeply insightful content and the difference between content from experts and amateurs is often very quickly identifiable. So, the big question is how can you differentiate and how can you bring your expertise to topics that you really deeply understand something about, and that is something that Google is getting better at understanding from many different viewpoints and that is something that starts to crystallize itself as one of the most important factors when it comes to search engine optimization.
Bryan: I’ll dig into that in a moment but you mentioned an interesting statistic that I’d love to get your thoughts on, which was TikTok, and I know you shared a recent startling statistic that 40 percent of Gen Z search on Instagram and TikTok over Google, which I couldn’t quite believe because can’t imagine search in those platforms is not intuitive versus Google.
Kevin: Yeah, for sure. I shared that statistic like tongue in cheek, I wanted to provoke a little bit because reality is that this statistic comes from a high ranking Google executive, I mean, Prabhakar Raghavan, he’s like very influential at Google and one of the top five leaders, probably the company has big impact on search so he’s someone. So he mentioned that statistic at a conference and the context he mentioned it in was that 40 percent of Gen Z used TikTok and Instagram when looking for lunch options, so it’s a very narrow use case and, of course, it kind of got hyped up and exaggerated a little bit by the media and I kind of jumped on that bandwagon, but the point that I wanted to make that’s really important to me is that Google is not bulletproof against competitors and there’s this interesting cognitive bias that humans fall into, they think that the status quo can never change. And that is kind of the meta message that I wanted to tickle a little bit in this context because Google is not unbeatable. It can be beat. And I’m not saying that TikTok is the one that comes for Google, I don’t think that’s the case necessarily, but technology evolves and things change and environments change and so if you see younger generations adopting a different technology, that can be a hint at a future disruption to come, whatever that may look like. I think to bring that back to the topic that we’re talking about, today, I think one of the realities out there is that when people read on the internet, they tend to prefer snackable content, and over the last 10 to 20 years went through this kind of evolution where went from long-form blog writing to shorter form video, tweets, and now we’re like really short-form video so it’s kind of interesting to see that everything gets kind of distilled down to a narrower and narrower window of time.
Bryan: Yeah, I would certainly agree that people’s attention spans are shorter. I know mine is.
Kevin: Yeah, it’s so interesting. Sorry to cut you off there but I think this might be sort of interesting to your audience because, on the one hand, I noticed my own attention span also getting shorter, or let’s put it this way, my own quality bar for what I consume getting much, much more sensitive. But then I also read books and sometimes like sit down for hours or I binge Netflix for hours or YouTube videos for hours, so it’s not the attention span, per se, it’s much more than that kind of — I feel like humans have two modus operandi right now. They have either kind of the mode where they just want to snack and they just want to like read through tweets and don’t want to go deep, they just want to get like a couple of scoops or summaries or some quick entertainment. And then there’s this other mode where we want to research and dig deep into something, we’re open about consuming longer form. And that’s very interesting, in my mind.
Bryan: It sounds like the first version is the too long didn’t read version.
Kevin: Yes. Yes, that’s probably the hook. I feel like a lot of cases, there’s this kind of this inverted pyramid style of writing, which is really successful in the internet where you first give people the punchline — that’s also what, by the way, the big consulting agencies are doing — and then you dive deeper into the why and to the context. And I feel like to catch people’s attention these days, and if you want to write on the internet and be successful, you have to lead with a punchline and then dive deeper into the context and what it means, but people do not — they don’t want to bring up the attention or the capacity or energy to first read through all the context and then end with the punchline.
Bryan: Yeah, I would agree with that. So, on social media, we mentioned shorts. The social media platforms have basically changed our algorithms to deprioritize links and taking you off the plat— anything that takes users off the platform so you need to create native content to succeed there. And I’m wondering, is Google doing the same thing, based on your analysis, with page one to surface everything on those quick snippets and answers and the carousels and click-through rates are going down, so are we going to spend even less time clicking through to page one and to position one or two? Because it’s all right there after our search.
Kevin: That’s a very smart question, Bryan, and there’s certainly some truth that we can already see in the data today. I’ve recently discovered — not discovered, noticed, I would say, I was one of the first people that the first page on desktop doesn’t show ten results anymore and instead, most often, it’s eight or nine results, sometimes even seven or six, and I’ve seen some cases where it’s five, which is very rare but it happens. And so I think that there’s a lot of truth in that platforms are becoming more walled gardens and they’re less inclined to send people away, which I think is bad for the web, just to put my opinion out there, and so Google is very adamant about either giving you the answer right away or keeping you in the search results by helping you get to the to the answer faster, whatever that means. And so that is very similar to LinkedIn and Twitter and other platforms making it either really hard to post links, like in Instagram’s case, if you post a link in the description, it won’t show as a hyperlink, or they will significantly decrease your reach and visibility on these platforms if your post includes a link and that makes a lot of things very difficult. But in Google’s case, as I mentioned, there are kind of — it all kind of becomes more of a winner takes it all situation where if you want to rank or appear with a classic blue link, with a classic organic result, you have less and less playground to win and get actual clicks and you have to compete against a lot of direct answers and visuals that Google uses to enrich the search results and get people to an answer faster. So, I would say that observation is correct and, in that sense, it probably gets harder to compete on organic search and the remedy to that, I would say, is then to shoot more for long tail queries, meaning longer keywords that make clearer what people are looking for where Google shows fewer direct answers and visual results and you have more real estate for classic blue links.
Bryan: These are longer, more specific search terms rather than “best credit card,” for example, which would be a generic term.
Kevin: Yeah, that’s exactly accurate. I guess like in this situation, it could be something like, “What is the best credit card with a certain ARP?” or, “What is the best credit cards with a certain credit score?” or “Best credit card to do X, to fly, to collect miles,” those kind of things. That’s really where you have a lot more competition in the classic sense of organic search. And then, for all these shorter queries, like “best credit card,” there will be a new way to do SEO that is much more driven by visual, it’s much more driven by maybe video even, and a “more holistic” strategy that even factors in how strong your brand is, and that’s when SEO starts to become a very different way of thinking, because that’s when we talk about large companies that put a lot of money into ads, that build brands with campaigns, and that they embrace SEO in their DNA from a different angle than those companies that now go after the long tail with unique and differentiated content.
Bryan: Yeah, it can be hard for a small blogger content publisher to compete with somebody with a company doing a brand building campaign but they certainly can’t compete with long tail keywords because there’s millions of them. They can’t possibly all be covered. There’s so many new search terms that are found every day.
Kevin: Yeah, that is so true. And there are new ones coming all the time. Fifteen percent of daily searches that happen on Google are new to Google, and if you think about, I have to look up the exact stat but I think it’s at least a billion searches on Google a day so that makes for many, many millions, 150 million of new search terms. So the ecosystem is vast, search is growing still, and new topics arrive every day. I mean, the last two and a half years are a pretty good example of that. And so the bigger question or the key question on that is much more how do I decide what to write about, what gives me the confidence, and that’s where I think a lot of SEO thinking is, I want to say, limited because as SEOs, we’re trained to look at the search volume of keywords but there are many problems with search volume as it is, I wrote a lengthy rant about this, but to summarize it into maybe three or five key points, search volume is a backward looking metric so it doesn’t really — it tells you what happened but not what’s going to happen. Also, search volume is only reported for a few keywords because it’s a metric that stems from paid search. It was originally used to help marketers who want to spend on paid ads decide what keywords to bid on. And then also the idea of monthly search volume is usually — or the way it’s reported is usually average over the last 12 months, which kind of doesn’t — or kind of seasonality skews this metric. So, there are all sorts of problems with search volume and it’s still one of the best metrics that we have for market demand but as good marketers and modern marketers, we want to look at other indicators as well. For example, how’s that topic covered on YouTube? Are there any hashtags that are often used for a certain word? And I think that’s a great indicator to write about something that “traditional” SEOs might overlook, and that in the context of 100 million new keywords a day makes for a lot of niches that are probably untapped right now because people are too focused on search volume. And I want to encourage people to step out of that box and consider other factors as well.
Bryan: I get what you mean about the search volume, because I’ve experimented with a couple of different tools like Ahrefs and a few other keyword tools and one thing I immediately noticed is the metrics are all different from one tool to the next.
Bryan: I just use them as a guide rather than as something that’s set in stone. But if I was looking for a long tail keyword today on a particular topic, let’s say, health and fitness, for example, if you were tasked with that as an SEO expert, what tools would you use or what process would you use for that initial research?
Kevin: Yeah, that’s a great question and I love the context of the framing that you set with, “If you were tasked to,” because I do think it matters whether you’re “writing for a company” or if you’re writing for yourself. With my blog, I’m free to write about whatever I want and that gives me a lot more freedom and flexibility to maybe uncover long tail keywords that I wouldn’t have otherwise because I can just decide to write about something and then use something like Google Search Console to see, hey, do I get impressions for any keyword that maybe I didn’t thought of that I can then readjust my articles for or re-optimize my articles for, and I think that’s maybe a bit more of an artistic or free flow way of writing but that’s probably one of the best ways to serendipitously find new long tail keywords. And that doesn’t really fly when you write for a company because you probably have a manager who wants to get an understanding of what the potential is or the potential returns of how you spend your time. So telling your boss — there are very few situations where the boss will tell you, “Yeah, sure, just write about whatever you think is important,” or maybe allow you to do some audience research and talk to some of the target audience members and see what topics are top of their mind. That is always a great way to uncover long tail keywords that you might not uncover with tools. But say you are in this situation where you write for a company, whether as a freelancer or in-house, and you have to kind of “make your case” or at least show some potential traffic behind the topic. Some of the things you can do, I like to actually start on Google and just type in the topic and then see what kind of related search pop up or what search refinements pop up. So, sometimes, Google will show you a module in the search results that says Refine Your Search and that will longer queries or queries related to certain brands or use cases or categories, usually I’d take like maybe five or ten minutes to just explore that a little bit. And then there’s still ways to use tools like Semrush or Ahrefs or some of the other tools out there and filter for a minimum amount of words. So if you can, within a topic, find queries that have more than five words, that’s typically a pretty good way to start. And then the last thing might be to — the tools out there that will just show you topics that increase in search demand, like a Google Trends, of course, but then also stuff like Exploding Topics or Treendly with two e’s so there are a couple of these tools that try to factor in different sources like Google Search but also YouTube, Google Trends, Amazon search, and a couple of other platforms to kind of make a good educated guess based on data about what long tail topics might be interesting.
Bryan: This is where, as a writer, you will have an advantage because you can go ahead and write that article. Because when I worked for a corporate company, some people thought writing was like a mystical art. They come up with the data and they were like, “Right, go create the content.” So it was quite challenging.
Kevin: Yeah, I can imagine. It sometimes still is, but similar to SEO, I think there’s an art form to it and there’s a science forum to it and you dial the volume up too much on either one of those ends and it’s not kind of suitable anymore, it doesn’t serve a purpose anymore in the way that you want to, but if you keep some sort of a balance to it, then good things start to happen.
Bryan: Any thoughts on content optimization tools that are becoming increasingly popular, whereby you take content and plug it in and rewrite it based on what the software says?
Kevin: Yeah, that’s an interesting one. There are some SEO content optimization tools, and the theory behind them is often not waterproof but the practical results are often much better than not using an SEO editor. So there are tools like Frase, Clearscope, Surfer SEO, probably forgetting one or two others that are really good, and the way that they usually operate is they look at the top search results and try to analyze the content and give you a recommendation of what to write about. So, again, in theory, we can go down a rabbit hole for hours to talk about how they might work or might be flawed but whenever I use an SEO editor, the results from an SEO perspective are always better than not using an SEO editor so I suggest using these tools and using them with a lot of common sense and a little bit of critical thinking and not over obsessing about the score but aiming for a high score in these tools. So that’s kind of my general heuristic for how to think about them. And then there’s this kind of new category of tools that’s now coming out about, it’s basically using machine learning to write some of the content or maybe write a whole article for you and that’s a very interesting new development. I was very, very skeptic in the beginning and now I’m seeing a lot of results that are actually pretty surprising and stunning and the verdict is still out about whether this will perform well or not in Google Search. There are some very early case studies that show that this AI content can perform really well but it can also happen that Google figures out a way to understand when content is created by an AI or when it’s created by humans. And, yeah, I think this is still a very kind of open playing field that is developing very quickly and it’s very interesting to watch. Of course, every writer is asking themselves now, “Hey, am I gonna be redundant? Am I gonna have a future or not?” and I don’t think either extreme answer is true. I don’t think that AI tools won’t play a role and I don’t think that writers will become redundant, but there’s probably going to be some kind of gray area that AI content might fill that writers don’t have to carry anymore. That could be a good thing. I’m thinking specifically about like ecommerce product descriptions that are just boring to write. That is not even copywriting. Or meta descriptions or those kinds of things. So these kinds of use cases will probably go away and it’s going to be very exciting to watch where human writers will stand out from machines.
Bryan: I’ve used some of those AI tools to write but I used one to write an article, the article wasn’t very good, I just rewrote the article myself, it just wasn’t worth the time to edit it. And then I used it for a YouTube description, which it was quite good at, so I do continue to use them for YouTube descriptions. And then for headline suggestions, because headline writing for online work is quite formulaic, as in there are certain types of headlines that work depending on the type of article, so I find it can be helpful for that as a type of prompt. My takeaway is kind of what you were saying there, Kevin, it’d be interesting to see what happens over the next few years but I don’t think writers will have to worry about being out of work anytime soon, especially if it’s a topic that requires any kind of expertise or personality.
Kevin: Yes, absolutely. Humans are really good at finding good questions and AI is generally good at giving answers but they’re not good at coming up with new questions. So, I do pretty much agree with you, right now, the use cases are the cases where the AI delivers really good results and is very helpful are these kind of “boring” synthetization tasks like certain descriptions or summarizing, that’s what it’s great for, saves you time, makes your life easier, but then when it comes to some of the new stuff, which I really try to spend all my time on, like, “Hey, there are actually fewer search results,” or, “What is the impact of SERP features on your organic traffic?” that’s something that I won’t just come up with. You might use an AI to get some of the data or better understand some of the data but there is no tool that just finds something interesting and that’s, I think, where the human mind really excels and, ideally, we land at a scenario where humans just use AI like a tool, like a doctor uses maybe a knife or a carpenter uses a hammer.
Bryan: Your case studies about SEO, you touched on some of the topics there, Kevin. They’re very detailed, lots of data metrics. I can tell you spent a lot of time using the tools and the spreadsheet. Does it take long to write those for the Growth Memo newsletter?
Kevin: Sometimes, yes. I will say like once a year, I probably spend about 30, 40, maybe 50 hours on one big thing that I go really deep on. And these are 30, 50 hours spent over a couple of weeks, maybe a couple of months, so it’s not all in one go. The typical Growth Memo episode takes me anywhere from two to four hours to write but where I spend a lot of time on is just observing, consuming, and note taking. And I feel like that’s really ingrained in my day-to-day routine, like whenever I write an article, I typically take notes or try to take something away from it and then see how that can fit into Growth Memo. Same with podcasts and YouTube and books, I read a lot of books and I take a lot of notes and so I would say that the actual time to write the Growth Memo is not long but what I spend a lot of time is just in kind of taking in information and then kind of writing that down into something so there’s kind of this constant habit of information capturing and then synthetization.
Bryan: Oh, interesting. I’m always fascinated to hear about note taking processes. Do you have kind of a system or are you just putting it into a notes app and just reading through it or do you have some other way of organizing your notes?
Kevin: Yeah, I was very inspired by Ryan Holiday’s and Robert Greene’s way of notetaking, which is much more oriented to books and, for a long time, I thought about writing a book and it actually became the Growth Memo so that is kind of my ongoing book, in a sense, and so I whenever I read, I have a pen and Post-its in my hand and whenever I find something interesting, I will highlight it in the book, I love paper books, add a Post-it and then once the book is read, I will transfer all of my notes into Notion and then the topics covered in the books are then being combined into their own pages. So I kind of build like a little digital brain, if you will, from all the notes that I take from books, from all the other stuff that I consume, and that makes it then much easier to write about something because you can just open Notion and look for a topic and then see all the stuff you ever learned about it. So I’m super diligent and I love grooming that digital brain, it’s almost like a hobby.
Bryan: Yeah, their process is the commonplace book. I experimented with that. There’s something called zettelkasten method, perhaps you’re familiar with it. That will be worth checking out, if not.
Kevin: Yes, 100 percent familiar, was born and raised in Germany myself so there is the connection there but, yes, it’s all the same methods, commonplace books, zettelkasten, they all funnel to the same idea, which is to track the information you take in by topic and not by time, and then we can talk about how that relates to content on the internet as well. There’s certainly a principle that applies in content hubs versus blogs but, yeah, I think there’s something to be said about making sure you have all the knowledge that is important to you that you want to keep categorized by topic, not by time.
Bryan: Yeah. I mean, the benefit of writing online is key principle for the commonplace book or the zettelkasten, excuse my bad German pronunciation, is that you turn it into something that’s public facing and that’s what you’re doing with your newsletter, Kevin, about SEO. Where can listeners go if they want to read more of your work or learn more about you?
Kevin: Yeah, thanks so much, Bryan. I appreciate it very much. You can just go to my blog or to my site, kevin-indig.com. That’s also where you find the Growth Memo. And then if you want to follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn, I use my real name and on Twitter, it’s at @kevin_indig, so just search for my name, you should find me.
Bryan: I’ll put the links in the show notes. Thanks for your time, Kevin.
Kevin: Thanks so much for having me on. Great conversation.
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