I've been looking at the content on airline websites the last week or so as one of the clients I work with at iCrossing is a major UK airline. Here's content from one page I came across on KLM's site. It's the first paragraph of the country guide to The Netherlands (where KLM is of course based).

Book airline tickets to
The Netherlands
for the laidback lifestyle of its canal-strewn capital Amsterdam or the bustle of port town
Rotterdam. Countryside enthusiasts
catch a flight to The
for the beauty of prime tulip-growing region Haarlem.
Travel to The Netherlands
to visit historic Utrecht, famous for its canals and
restaurants. Airline
tickets to The Netherlands
open up a diverse world, from international
affairs at The Hague to windmill-spotting in Kinderdijk.
A ticket to The
takes travellers to Amsterdam's
Anne Frank House
and Van Gogh Museum. In Rotterdam, take a flight up The Netherlands'
Euromast for far-reaching views from the city's highest tower. 

It's not the most flowing of pieces of prose is it? Note the phrases I've highlighted.This is a classic example of what's known in the trade as SEO content. SEO (if you didn't know!) stands for Search Engine Optimisation. By ensuring phrases like 'airline tickets to The Netherlands' and 'flight to The Netherlands' appear frequently in the copy the writer is trying to make sure that Google and other search engines rank the page highly when people looking for flights to The Netherlands type these phrases into the search engine.  

I've been wrestling with this problem myself for weeks now. What should come first when you're creating content for a website? Quality writing that engages and inspires the reader or carefully written text that hangs off a set of specific search terms that will rank highly on search engine rankings?

Here's another page of content from a well known hotel brand in the UK, Thistle. It's similar content - an introduction to Brighton - where there's a Thistle hotel.

Until the 18th Century, Brighton was a quiet fishing town, much as it
had been 700 years earlier when it appeared in the Domesday Book as
Brighthelmstone. Everything changed in 1750, when Dr Richard Russell
promoted the health benefits of his Brighton sea-water cure: the Prince
of Wales (later George IV) became a convert, fashionable London society
followed, and the rest, as they say, is history.

These days, Brighton is famously relaxed and easy-going. Which is very
much the atmosphere you’ll find at Thistle Brighton. Literally a
stone’s-throw from the beach (we do these things so you don’t have to)
and a short stroll from the Pier, it’s the ideal base for a weekend
break, or a full-on seaside holiday.

Nice piece of copy. Well written, balanced, upbeat and engaging. I know which of these two pieces I prefer as a reader and as a writer. Unfortunately Google prefers the former. An SEO specialist would suggest inserting terms like 'cheap hotels in Brighton', 'hotels Brighton' and 'hotel in Brighton' into the content. Which would decimate it, completely ruin it.

But there's stacks of research around that people tend to only look at the first 5 or so results when they use a search engine. If you're not ranking that high, people won't visit your website. So no matter how flowing the prose, far less people will see it - and book a flight or a hotel night as a result.

That piece of KLM copy is probably quite old now (at least in internet terms anyway!). You probably don't need to stuff your content quite so full of search terms for Google to get the message these days - the search engine is being continuously refined and is getting better all the time. And it's not just the content on the page that determines a page's ranking too - links to it from other sites, certain technical elements and more all go into the mix. But it's led to some weird content nonetheless - stuff that if we're honest does no good for the brand of the company using it. If you didn't know what was going on with that piece of KLM copy you'd think the company employed school kids to write its destination guides.

So I'm looking for the ultimate website copy - writing that is engaging, nicely balanced, witty and interesting AND that incorporates key search terms so it ranks highly on search engines too. I wonder if it's possible to create such a thing? Maybe by the time someone's managed it, Google will finally have created a search engine that's sufficiently sophisticated to rank content for its quality of writing too? Now that would be a fine thing.

6 thoughts on “SEO content v. flowing prose – there’s only one winner

  1. Jeremy,

    Your comments are spot on, but it is possible for good copywriters to find a balance that will appeal both to search engines and - most importantly - humans.

    For example, here's a page that optimises the term "tours of Russia":
    http://www.exeterinternational.co.uk (full disclosure: I wrote it)

    This piece of copywriting, plus the use of the term in the page title and h1 headline, took the site from outside the top 100 on Google UK to No2 spot:

    I don't think it reads too badly. What do you think?


  2. Hi Mark

    Thanks for your comments... I agree, it reads well... and it is all about striking a balance I guess. Would be nice if one day we didn't have to because Google was smarter! A few thoughts (and I am no SEO expert - yet!)
    1) What also helps this page rank well is links... lots of them to credible websites and to elsewhere on their website too
    2) It's easier to write SEO optimised content for intro pages like this one where the content is fairly general. Harder to do it well for pages that are more specific. My Thistle example being a good one... How do you insert 'Cheap hotels Brighton' into that kind of content without really devaluing it in terms of quality and usefulness of writing.


  3. The answer is you don't (try to insert the term "cheap hotels Brighton" into a page about the history of Brighton). You write another page about cheap hotels in Brighton, which is what somebody using that search term would surely want to find.

    If that's not practical (because you don't want to write about the competition, for instance), you could restrict your use of the term to your page title, image tags, headlines and anchor text both on and off that page. That should send the right message to the search engines without causing your visitors to cringe.

  4. God... I've seen pages created simply to stuff them full of phrases... creating sites that are like a pile of spaghetti. Unfortunately... the practice works in terms of getting you up the rankings... ;-(
    Yes, it's offpage stuff that you probably need to consider here, but as I understand it, you'd get better rankings if you have the terms on the page in the copy too... another trade off... and from our perspectives as primarily content people one that's not worth making as it just completely undermines the content...

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