SEO content writing and traditional essay writing


Why do instruction manuals on how to write good SEO content tend to avoid the subject of how to actually write? Apparently it’s all about shiny new tips and tricks which apply more to copywriting, but what is omitted is the fundamental skill of how to hold your content together as a writer. Perhaps content writers are hiding the fact that there is nothing new to say about writing. To misquote Ecclesiastes, is there nothing new under the sun?

Following the form of a short academic essay, this “how to” article will start out with a comprehensive introduction clearly stating the main question it will address. The question is whether there is any difference between good SEO content writing and good classic  essay writing.

During the body of the essay, the argument will be presented. The first four sections will address attributes of SEO content writing often raised in “how to” SEO writing manuals. The aim of these manuals is often to explain what ranks well with Google’s algorithm. They focus on the use of subtitles, additional tips and tricks, length and, most importantly, writing for keywords. The final section of the body argument will explain how to structure a traditional academic essay.

In conclusion, a discussion will follow identifying if and how the two forms of writing overlap. The best lessons will be drawn from both of them for the purpose of writing good, coherent SEO content and other kinds of online content.

Breaking with tradition, a final paragraph has been thrown in, cheekily extolling the virtues of my own particular training. Also, it will also be made clear why this content, written in Africa and using bicycles as a metaphor for the technology of writing, is illustrated with pictures of the River Thames.

Subtitles in online content writing

Subtitles which carry the keywords you are targeting are noted and valued by Google’s algorithm. However, that is not the only reason SEO content writing has plenty of subtitles.

Academic writing will, if it is very long, be ordered into chapters, at most. Pages and pages may go by without a single subtitle to break things up a little. There won’t be subtitles every few lines, as there are here. Academic writing is aimed at scholars who have made a life choice to pay attention to what they read. If they have a short attention span, they will soon leave academia. Moreover, they are not in it to buy a product, but to gain an overview of intellectual thought in their field of study.

Online content, on the other hand, has a much more short term aim. It sells a product, or sells the culture surrounding that product. Here, for instance, to keep people reading about a subject most are likely to find tedious, we are shamelessly invoking the culture of cycling to sell the information in this post. Content writing aims to keep people reading, not to turn them away if they lose concentration.

Online content is aimed at most people, and most people have a short attention span. Subtitles are there to help people to skim-read effectively. They should therefore make sense as abbreviations of the content to follow. So, go easy on your reader and use sensibly written subtitles to break things up.

More layout tips and tricks

Like regular subheadings, these are all ways to make reading easier for people with short attention spans.

  • Bullet points
  • Infographics
  • Boxed text
  • Colours
  • Layout flow
  • Pull quotes
  • Lots of lovely empty white space
  • Update regularly

These tend not to occur in academic writing about philosophy or history.  They may be included in more scientific fields where graphs and maps are a crucial part of the information being conveyed.

What both forms of writing have in common is that to be relevant they need to keep up with the times. While this may not apply to a writer like Plato, it certainly does to contemporary philosophers. The reality that everything is in constant motion is respected by the creators of Google’s algorithm. While the algorithm may not be able to discern cutting-edge philosophical critique, it can tell when last a website was updated with current information. It can also tell when old blog post links have become obsolete. So, keep an eye out for checking that your information is current and updated.

People with short attention spans are not less intelligent, though. They may even be the same academic professor when she goes online looking for a bicycle and wants to get the point because she doesn’t have much time. She might scan swiftly through the text, picking up only on subtitles and diagrams.

How long is the perfect SEO blog post?

There is some controversy about what the perfect length for an SEO blog post is. Some argue it could be as little as 300 words, and others insist that it needs to be at least 2000 words, which is as long as a classic academic essay by a university student.

The argument centres around what is most effective for the client – the website owner who commissioned the post. If writers charge per word, as I do, 300 words costs way less than 2000 words if they do the same job. The question is, do they?

SEO blog posts are written, in large part, to increase the number of times a valuable keyword is associated with a website, thus allowing visitors to find the site easily. Presumably this could be achieved with a short blog post. It is generally agreed that this is true.

Advocates for longer posts are arguing about a different aspect of SEO. Apparently Google’s famous algorithm doesn’t just sniff out the pertinence of your website to search terms or keywords. It also attempts to sniff out good, coherent writing.

Whereas in the past the algorithm could be bamboozled by keyword stuffing in a short post, it has since been adapted to seek out coherent, good writing about a subject which the writer understands well. Advocates for the 2000-word blog post argue that Google values such long posts as it is impossible to write such a long post about a subject one doesn’t understand.

As someone who has done a lot of writing, I concur. One could do enough research to pull off a 300-word blog post in a matter of minutes, but a post twice that long requires exponentially greater amounts of research. If it’s 6 times longer, it takes exponentially longer to research collate and write a good blog post.

Writing with keywords

If you’re not clear about what keywords are and why we prioritise them in SEO content writing, read more in our post explaining keyword research.

Keywords are, of course, crucial to SEO content writing, being a primary reason why it is commissioned in the first place. The keywords in content writing will add to the keywords a website is optimising for, and help it be found by Google.

Still, keywords are not completely dissimilar from what the subject of a traditional essay is in academic writing. Is writing about “bicycle adventures in South Africa” so very different from writing about “the Thames as a metaphor in postcolonial literature”? Having written about both, I can assure you that there are vast similarities. Also, once having written extensively about certain key phrases, one gets that much better at writing about more phrases. One’s ability to meld a key phrase seamlessly into a lovely sentence without a hint of awkwardness becomes refined. And that refinement is exactly what Google’s algorithm loves to see. “See” in the sense an algorithm can see, of course. Slightly spooky, but let’s move on.

The structure of traditional essay writing

If we accept that a really good blog post is the same length as a traditional academic essay, it makes sense to describe how to write an essay. A good academic essay has a particular structure which has evolved over hundreds of years. It has evolved this way to give the maximum of clarity to the argument being proposed in the essay.

The essay will consist of an introduction, a body-argument and a conclusion. The introduction will briefly explain the argument that is to be made, the body will make the argument, and the conclusion will sum up the argument for the last time. There are no surprises, no deviations, no flights of fancy. The structure imposes a rigour which cannot be side-stepped or escaped.

The only way to do it, is to do it properly. It requires careful planning of what the argument will be, and how the reader will be led logically, point by point, from introduction to conclusion. The final version of introduction can only be written afterwards, once the whole argument is clear.

The only way to make it interesting is to make an interesting argument. The only way to develop an interesting argument is to read widely enough to gain a deep understanding of your field of study.

Conclusion: both have their place

Is there any difference between writing a good SEO blog post and good classic academic essay writing? The conclusion I would draw is that there are surface differences but the substance remains the same.

The difference is that SEO blog post writing, which is addressed at online users who are often busy and impatient, needs a lot more in the way of techniques to break the text up into shorter sections that are easier to grasp. It works for long posts to be interspersed with interesting foci like infographics, bullet points or subheadings.

The similarity is that the age-old formula for academic essay-writing is critical for any kind of writing, as it insists on a rigorous presentation of a clear, understandable argument. No matter how complex and contradictory your field of research is, you need to make coherent sense of it in order to explain it to others.

All writing is, after all, about writing. So, you may as well take your tips from the very top. When it comes to informative writing, I can think of no better description of the classic academic essay than this passage about the Thames:

““The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth.”

Excerpt From: Joseph Conrad. “The Heart of Darkness”.

Good training saves time in the long run

Wide reading and rigorous training, whether at a university or self-taught, mean that one can work faster and save one’s client precious time. One learns to find the kernel of an argument quickly and accurately. Having read widely the best writing of the world’s foremost thinkers, one gains an overview of what is of lasting human value. This is very helpful when selecting which facts to include or exclude when comparing anything, especially bicycles.

As stated in the introduction, this final point extols the virtue of my own particular training and is thus shamelessly self-promoting. This is very common in SEO content writing. After all, it is written with the aim of selling skills for hire. Unlike the word-eat-word world of online writing, selling oneself is frowned upon in academic literature. Perhaps, though, the ivy-walled context of academia is a more subtle but more powerful sales pitch. To unravel more layers of this argument, look no further than reading the above-quoted novel by Joseph Conrad. Take note of the heavily underscored parallels between the two great rivers, one of which is the Thames.

Best wishes for your writing.

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