Search engine optimization used to be all about keywords—researching them, placing them, even stuffing them into your work. While keywords are still important, the art and science of SEO in 2021 has become much more sophisticated.
“A lot of old SEO concepts, such as keyword repetition or even keyword density, have fallen away,” said Joe Youngblood, founder of Joe Youngblood SEO & Digital Marketing Consulting in Dallas, Texas. “Search engines, especially Google, are a lot smarter [now]. While using appropriate keywords is important, overusing them could cause problems.”
Understanding what search engines want is essential for anyone who deals with digital content. According to BrightEdge research, more than 53 percent of all website traffic comes from organic search. While freelancers usually aren’t responsible for optimizing copy before it gets published, knowing SEO best practices could help out their clients—and ultimately lead to more work.
Here are a few salient SEO trends that freelancers should keep in mind.
Content, then keywords
Keyword “stuffing,” or overuse, has fallen out of favor as a mainstay of SEO, in part because it can make content less coherent or downright unreadable. Search engines are smart enough to detect and downgrade content that employs this tactic. Instead of jamming as many keywords as possible into a story, writers should shift their focus to longform content and semantically related keywords, according to online marketing expert SEMrush.
Youngblood suggested that freelance writers produce great content while “only tangentially considering SEO.” That side-eyed approach doesn’t mean keywords no long matter. Rather, writers should start with the content, then step back and research related keywords. (You could also ask your client if they have any target keywords in mind before you start.) Free services like Google Keyword Planner, Keyword Guru, and Moz Keyword Explorer may help with this process. Rank tracker is another all-in-one SEO solution that starts at $6 a month.
“This process usually creates a great piece of content that an SEO expert only has to do minimal amounts of work optimizing later on,” Youngblood said.
Craft unique, expert-informed stories
With so much new content added to the internet every day, writing stories that rank on the first page of search engine results is challenging. The competition for many popular keywords is so intense that even top-quality content with all the SEO bells and whistles may not make the cut.
Aim for your work to be thorough but not bloated.
With that in mind, Youngblood recommended some strategies that may help—with the caveat that content still needs to be tailored to the client’s target search queries. “Some obvious things are: Content being an appropriate length, formatted nicely, flowing well, and being unique—unless it’s quoted or cited,” he said.
Your content should also explore as many aspects of the topic as possible to strengthen its search engine position. Aim for your work to be thorough but not bloated. Quoting a subject matter expert can help your content stand out.
For smaller clients, think local
Breaking out in search engine page rankings can be especially challenging for small businesses that don’t have the budget for a big website. Smaller companies may do well to avoid highly competitive keywords and try to rank for less popular but still relevant words.
Staying up to date with “local flavor” can also help small businesses stay competitive. For example, one SEO tactic for small and regional companies is embedding a Google Map into stories. This can directly impact rankings on Google Maps. That could be a golden strategy for a small business with a local presence.
Additionally, using local keywords, such as the name of the city, metro area, state, or region, alongside a longer description of the company’s products or services, may help a local business rank higher in search results for that location.
SEO is about more than content
It’s worth remembering that great content and the right keyword(s) aren’t the only ranking factors you can influence. While freelancers don’t have control over a website’s download speed or mobile optimization, they may be able to help clients with other content-related factors:
- Research and include longer, question-style keywords that may be used in voice searches (e.g. Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant)
- Add internal website links
- Add links to other trustworthy websites (conversely, don’t add links to questionable sites or research)
- Write titles, title tags, and meta descriptions that include top keywords
- Use subheads and bullet-point lists to highlight content and break up large blocks of text
- Suggest or include ancillary materials, such as infographics, images, and videos
Writers should also consider the type, style, and length of content people may prefer for specific search terms. That’s why standard word counts are tricky. For example, simple questions may be answered in snippets, while complex questions may suggest ideas for longer articles.
Adopt a mentality of continuous learning
It may seem like a lot to keep up with, but there are a number of excellent resources you can turn to do learn about SEO. A few highly recommended ones include:
- Moz: Beginner’s Guide to SEO and SEO blog
- Ahref: Beginner’s Guide, SEO blog, and Blogging for Business tutorials
- SEMrush: SEO Toolkit, video courses, and webinars
And if you really want to get serious about SEO, check out Google’s SEO guidelines for web developers. Resources include Google’s Overview of SEO Guidelines, SEO Starter Guide, and Webmaster Guidelines.
Lastly, tracking and sharing the content you write can help you secure new clients, as well as build trust and loyalty with existing ones. When your byline ranks high for a how-to, local query, or other prized search term, take a screenshot of your search results to share on your social media accounts and website.
In today’s competitive content marketplaces, even the most experienced freelance writers need to know more than just the basics about SEO. Following the trends, mastering the latest strategies, and understanding the finer nuances can help you write content for clients who value your SEO input in addition to your creative skills.