The Conflict Between SEO and Authentic Writing

SEO and authentic writing

It can be difficult to strike a balance between search engine optimisation (SEO) and writing authentically. On the one hand, writing with SEO in mind increases the likelihood that what you write will generate organic traffic – views that you might otherwise miss out without paying attention to SEO. But these views aren’t just validating and dopamine-inducing; they translate into people who might be the perfect audience for your content, who would appreciate it and benefit from it the most.

On the other hand, there is such a thing as being hyper-focused on SEO – to the detriment of a writer’s authenticity. This would include always having keywords in mind when writing and editing, putting the priority on optimal keyword density and placement rather than writing naturally. I’m often aware of this tension between SEO and authentic writing, more so in the writing assignments I do but in blogging as well. 

I don’t think, however, that SEO necessarily has to mean a sacrifice of authenticity, and for several reasons. Firstly, there are many SEO techniques that bloggers will unwittingly follow purely in the act of writing. Typically, when a specific topic is written about organically, primary and secondary keywords will inevitably appear throughout the text and in the title. Since many bloggers naturally want to cover niche topics, this can translate into using low competition keywords, which can make it easy to rank well, even with little domain authority. 

In addition, many bloggers and writers will write long-form content, not because they know that longer content ranks better than shorter content but simply because they have a lot to share and enjoy deep dives into certain subjects. So again, ranking high on search engine results could happen unintentionally as a result. 

Bloggers tend to use images to go along with their content, with multiple images enhancing SEO over just a single main one. Many writers are also interested in writing original and unique articles – focusing on novel ideas, underexplored ideas, and synthesising different subjects – because this is enjoyable in itself, and not solely or primarily because unique content ranks better. 

As we can see, authentic writing can easily, albeit unconsciously, be optimised in various ways. But what about consciously optimising your writing? Does that always mean an inevitable and noticeable loss of authenticity? In some cases, yes. If you force all of your writing to meet an SEO quota (the keyword has to appear here and this many times, no matter what) then the content could appear, in places, clunky or unnatural. This would give viewers the impression that you care more about traffic than the subject itself or their reading experience. 

While generating more traffic can feel rewarding, this sometimes might mean producing content that is out of step with how you would normally write, which can make your writing look more like marketing material. Trying to add in keywords, which might mean repeating a keyword several times in the same paragraph or creating awkward sentences, can affect readability; and even if this content performs well in search results, this doesn’t mean readers will appreciate the content and continue reading. Overusing keywords, known as keyword stuffing or over-optimising, can also get you punished by Google, negatively affecting your ranking.

The connection between readability and SEO is complicated, nonetheless. There is research suggesting that the Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) score – which measures how easy (or difficult) your text is to read, based on people’s level of education – does not have a direct impact on SEO. But FRE is a proxy for readability, the latter of which can obviously influence a user’s experience and, in turn, SEO. As the marketer Michal Pecánek writes:

If searchers find your content hard to read and understand, they’ll probably leave. This leads to negative user experience signals like a low dwell time, time on page, and a high bounce rate, which may signal to Google that your page isn’t a great result.

Even worse, because fewer visitors actually end up consuming the content, fewer people will link to it—and we know that backlinks are one of the most important ranking factors.

Therefore, writing for a broad human audience – making your content very readable – can often help you rank better than using verbose language and writing complex sentences, long paragraphs, and in a passive rather than active voice

But if you are forcing yourself to write in a more readable way than you would normally write, are you giving up your authentic voice and style in favour of SEO? This is a difficult question, as I don’t believe that authenticity has to mean writing as you’ve always written or feel comfortable with; if that was the case, then no writers would ever improve. And often, improvement means becoming more readable and clear in how you write. 

At the same time, this does mean you have to ‘dumb down’ your writing and try to appeal to all reading levels, which could involve giving up your preferred voice, style, and choice of words, as well as the sense of full freedom and creativity. You can improve your readability, without making any of these concessions, through basic steps like breaking up walls of text and learning to use active voice over passive voice. Also, writers (and I’ve been guilty of this myself) can be inauthentic through their unreadability, trying to impress readers with flowery language, which can feel pretty ingenuine.

There are other ways to actively improve SEO without, I think, having any real impact on the authenticity of one’s writing. Some techniques that come to mind are adding relevant internal links, including high-quality external links, keeping permalinks concise and with the main keyword included, adding meta tags, and having useful subheadings (that naturally include keywords). 

Personally, when writing blog posts, I don’t write with keywords in the back of my mind, as I feel this would get in the way of the organic flow of writing. Once you’ve written something that has been authentically expressed, you can make some basic changes to the formatting and in the content management system (CMS) you’re using that can massively help with SEO, without feeling like you’re distorting your writing for the sake of rankings.

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