Stylish websites show up at the top of search results.
When I say stylish, I don’t mean minimalistic websites with a black-and-white color scheme. I’m talking about websites with great, stylish writing. These sites feature a strong, unique writing voice that showcases their organization’s identity and help it stand out to readers and search engines alike.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is important because some studies suggest that organic search can drive more than 50 percent of web traffic. Showing up on the top page of search results is key to getting that traffic to come your way. To do that, you need style.
William Strunk Jr. published the first edition of The Elements of Style, the premier English writing style manual, almost 100 years ago. E.B. White later expanded and modernized the manual, and the advice is still relevant today. Search engines are looking for some of the same things that readers have been for hundreds of years: clear examples of great content. (Whether search engines’ oh-so-secretive algorithms do a good job of assessing quality is another debate.) But for now, let’s see how writing by the The Elements of Style will get your blog post/web copy/etc. in the good graces of Google.
1) Active voice
Search engines analyze a variety of things in the 0.33 seconds it takes to display search results, but the most important is what your website is about. The clearest way to convey that is by writing in active voice.
Always make sure that your subject is the one doing the action. For example, you would want the headline on your page to read, “Organization lobbied Congress,” rather than “Congress lobbied by organization.” (Organization is the subject.) The latter might lead the search engine to believe your post is about Congress, rather than the efforts of your organization.
Search engines also assume that the most important keywords in headlines and titles come at the beginning, so writing in active voice will ensure that the subject is at the beginning of the headline.
In general, it’s good practice to do all of your writing, not just the headline, in active voice because it’s easy to understand on the first read and it cuts down the word count.
Which brings us to the next one…
2) Omit needless words
Strunk and White are huge advocates for concise writing. Not only does it make for a stronger argument; it also makes a strong case for your post in search results. Search engines usually display a snippet, or description, that helps people discern which site has the information they’re looking for. Many of these blurbs are pulled from the meta-description, but sometimes, if a few sentences of the post particularly match the search query, those sentences might be used as the snippet instead. Those descriptions are usually truncated around 150 characters, so omitting needless words will help make the most of that character limit.
Here’s an example of a snippet that didn’t follow The Elements of Style:
Why Printed Books Matter
Jan 16, 2013 – There is no doubt that people love printed books. The question as to whether these books will survive in a world of electronic readers is…
Now, omit the needless words and another complete thought now fits in the blurb.
Why Printed Books Matter
Jan 16, 2013 – Without a doubt, people love printed books. Whether these books will survive in a world of electronic readers is up to the students who…
It might not look that different from the first example, but being able to fit the extra words, particularly “students” gives the audience a better idea of what the argument will be. Perhaps they are a student, so they’ll be more likely to click on this link to find out why they are important to the future of printed books.
3) Put statements in positive form
People rarely search for things they don’t want. That’s why you should follow Strunk and White’s advice to only use the word not when you really mean it. “Why Latin is Useless” is a much stronger headline than “Why Latin Is Not Very Useful.” Plus people who are searching for others who feel disillusioned with the ancient language will not be searching for keywords that include “useful” and “Latin”” in the same sentence.
More proof: positive-form keywords are searched for more frequently. According to Google’s keyword planner, “useful” and “uselessness” average about 33,100 searches per month. The keyword “not useful” only averages 320 searches per month.
4) Do not overwrite
“When writing with a computer, you must guard against wordiness. The click and flow of a word processor can be seductive, and you may find yourself adding a few unnecessary words or even a whole passage just to experience the pleasure of running your fingers over the keyboard and watching your words appear on the screen.”
White and Strunk perfectly described my guilty pleasure. Make sure your content is focused. Search engines not only look for the search query within the body of your post, but it also looks for keywords that are commonly related to the search query. For example, if you’re writing about e-books, the search engine might also look for words like “e-reader,” “download,” “authors.” Keep that in mind next time you want to take a couple paragraphs to go on a tangent about pineapples. The search engine might get suspicious of the lack of related keywords and rank your page lower.
5) Write with nouns and verbs
This is a pretty much a theme throughout the entire Elements of Style guide. Be specific. Those adverbs like “really” and “very” don’t add meaning to your sentence. Using too many pronouns can make it confusing as to who’s doing what.
Now, let’s say you’re writing a sentence to link to a video somewhere else on your blog. You may be tempted to write a link that says, “Click here.” Not only is that language bad for usability, it also does nothing for your SEO.
Instead of interrupting the flow and style of your writing with a “click here,” use specific nouns and verbs to indicate where the link really takes you. “Download file,” “Sponsors list,” and “Video of epic snowboarding fail,” are all much more useful links.
People want to know what they’re clicking on, and the more people that click on your links, the better SEO for the video. Those specific anchor tags will also help put more keywords in the blog post and help establish link relevancy, all important factors in SEO.
The Elements of Style was never meant to be a bible of SEO hacks. It provides guidelines for good writing, and that’s the real way to get an audience.
Strunk, William, and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.