“My writers are inconsistent.”
“How do I know if a writer ‘gets’ SEO?”
As someone who’s deeply immersed in the world of search engine-optimized (SEO) content writing, I hear these statements quite a bit.
What I find is that there seems to be a gap between the data-focused SEO pros and the creative copywriters they tend to hire. That is, it’s hard to find that sweet spot where a writer both understands SEO and how to write in a way that sells.
It’s essential that you have both pieces of the puzzle. Yet, SEO agencies and consultants often struggle to:
- Find ‘good’ writers and
- Train them how to write SEO-friendly content.
So, what’s the secret to getting your web page copy just right?
It all comes down to the magic of a well-organized, descriptive and mission-focused style guide or Standard Operating Procedure (SOP).
In this article, I give my “10 Essentials” for creating an effective style guide, as well as an example template that you can use for your own business.
What is a style guide vs. an SOP?
I often use “style guide” and “SOP” interchangeably, because what you really want to create for your writers is an all-encompassing guide on how to write SEO-friendly content for your site or your clients’ sites.
Many people separate these two, but that doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, I recommend being as concise as possible and not overwhelming your writers with too much “fluff.” They often don’t need to know all of the ins and outs of your entire brand (or robust SEO strategy, for that matter).
So, what is this document, really?
An SOP (aka Standard Operating Procedure) is a set of instructions on how to do something.
This can be used for SEO, writing, project management, onboarding clients or what-have-you. In our case, an SOP outlines how you want your writers to write you content.
I also tack on the style guide because there is a creative element to writing (something that other types of tasks often lack). Writers need to have an idea of what the brand is about, what kind of language should be used, who the target audience is and more.
That’s why including a style guide is an essential add-on to your typical SOP.
Why do you need a style guide for your content writers?
One of the biggest complaints I hear from SEO agencies and consultants is that they struggle to find consistent writers. Additionally, they feel that their writers don’t really understand SEO.
Well, I’ve got some news you may not want to hear: part of the reason your writers are inconsistent and don’t get SEO is your fault.
But let’s be honest — the typical SEO/writer engagement goes something like this:
- Find a writer online
- Send them the website URL, word count, topic, focus keywords and due date.
- Let ‘em loose.
- Receive the content.
- Edit the heck out of it.
There is a crucial step missing here, and that’s instruction.
Your writers can’t (and shouldn’t have to) read your mind.
If you give them limited information and direction, they are left to their own devices. The end result may be amazing, or it may be way off from what you expected. You can’t afford to have that kind of hit-or-miss engagement in your business.
It is your responsibility to outline your expectations, brand details, procedure, SEO strategy and desired writing format. This gives your writers the information they need to do the job right the first, second, third, fourth time… and so on.
By giving them a style guide, you set them up for success. You also help prevent the headache of receiving inconsistent work that you then have to edit on your own, which can be a huge time and money suck.
If you are struggling with getting consistent content from your writers or don’t know how to teach them SEO, then creating a style guide may be the best solution for you.
What information do you need to create a writing style guide?
Recently, I have done a couple of Facebook Live tutorials on what matters in SEO content writing, and I have come to recognize a common theme in the SEO space: Many SEO agencies haven’t done the front-loaded work of market research to adequately understand their audience or the audiences of their clients.
This means that, aside from the typical SEO data, they are essentially going in blind when it comes to writing content that sells.
And we all know that writing content that is SEO-friendly is only one part of the equation. Your content also needs to be able to drive conversions.
This realization was the main reason I decided to write this article. Many SEO pros struggle to write conversion-optimized content themselves, or to find writers who can write it for them. The information in a style guide should help you zero in on a successful approach.
So, I have outlined what you need to know before you can create a writing style guide.
The ‘10 Essential’ questions you need to answer before creating a style guide
- Mission: What is the brand’s mission?
- Words: What key taglines, words, phrases, tenses or perspectives are used and associated with this brand?
- Purpose: What is the purpose for the content?
- Audience: Who is the focus audience, and what are they like?
- Solution: What is the problem the audience is facing, and how is this content a solution to that problem?
- Tone: What kind of tone does this brand convey, and how does that resonate with the audience?
- Style: What style of writing does this brand use?
- Organization: How does this brand organize its content? Does data support this approach?
- Platform: What platforms will be used to drive traffic to this content?
- Conversions: What kinds of conversions are we trying to make through the content?
Having answers to these questions for your own brand and every client you work with will both help you understand the brand better and communicate it with the people you work with, particularly writers.
If you don’t know these essentials, it’s likely that your content will fall flat. SEO and competitor analysis is not enough to go on when it comes to cultivating a message that truly resonates with the focus audience. In other words, it just won’t sell.
Note: If you are struggling to answer these questions, I suggest looking into the concept of the Ideal Client Avatar (ICA) or Persona. Developing these descriptions will help you paint a clear picture of what the brand’s audience looks like, what they want and need and what message relates to them best.
Applying the ‘10 Essentials’ to your writing style guide
With this information lined out and organized, you will be ready to start creating a style guide that you and your writers can use to write content that’s made to sell.
A good writer will know how to incorporate these elements into their writing. If they don’t, it may be time to find someone else.
Most writers will be able to pick up on the basics of SEO (what will be outlined in the next section), but it is much harder to teach the psychology behind persuasive copywriting. That’s why, when looking for writers, you should focus on their ability to cultivate an on-brand message instead of their knowledge of SEO.
Creating an SOP for SEO content writing
The next element that should be included in your style guide is how to structure content to be SEO-friendly.
If you are an SEO expert yourself, your strategy may be different from mine or that of other SEO agencies. That’s OK. What matters here is that you are creating a document that effectively outlines how you want your writers to organize their content.
The easiest way to do this is with a template.
While I don’t recommend adhering strictly to a template, this can be a good starting point for writers who have little to no knowledge of SEO.
Then, this template can be altered down the road, once your writers come to understand the basics and even advanced strategies of SEO content writing.
What to include on your SEO writing template (SOP)
- Title: Formatting for page/post title.
- Metadata: Formatting and length for title tag and meta description.
- Words: Word count.
- Keywords: # of keywords per page (roughly),
- Keyword Implementation: Where and how to use focus keywords.
- Internal Linking: How many internal links to use per page.
- External Linking: How many external links to use (if applicable).
- Headings: Amount and formatting of H2 and H3 tags.
- Organization: Above- vs. below-the-fold content; outline of sections of content.
- Length: Number of sentences per paragraph (e.g., for mobile optimization).
- Calls-to-action (CTA): How many CTAs and where they should go.
- Other: Formatting for featured snippets, anchor links, bullet points, etc.
What you include in your SEO writing template will depend on the purpose of the post or page, the structure of the site and your SEO strategy.
Here, I try to be as concise and possible, knowing that my writers may not understand SEO jargon or the purpose behind some of the formatting. An overwhelmed writer is not a happy writer.
This may be a learning curve for them, so be patient. However, you can rest easy knowing that you will reduce the need for hours of editing. Minor edits are to be expected. Regular, major edits may reveal that you need to hire someone else.
Outlining writer and client expectations
One last thing that I like to do in creating a style guide is to clearly outline the writer and client expectations.
Oftentimes, people do this in the contract, but it can be helpful to add it to the style guide. It helps ensure that everyone is following through on their responsibilities and that the process goes off without a hitch.
For example, if the expectation is that you or the client will be including the focus keywords, you may want to note this on the document. If, however, the writer is expected to do their own keyword and SEO research, this should be on the style guide as well.
Again, the focus here should be on providing essential information to help your writer do their job better and be consistent, without overwhelming them with the ins and outs of your advanced SEO knowledge.
Example of a style guide for SEO content writers
Below I have included a simple outline of what I include on style guides for SEO content writers, especially when it comes to sales pages, lead generation pages and the like. Feel free to revise this based on your own approach and needs.
SEO Content Style Guide for (Client)
Client Name: (client name)
URL: (client URL)
Mission: (Client) mission is to be a resource for local contractors in (location) to outsource their digital marketing and generate high-quality leads for their business.
- “Digital marketing done right.”
- Hassle-free, trusted, family-owned.
- “We” (brand name).
- Avoid: “cheap” or “easy.”
Purpose: web page; to generate leads for (client).
Audience: local contractors in (location); $10-20K per month budget; family-owned businesses.
Solution: A complete outsource for local contractors that are tired of being nickel-and-dimed by other digital marketing agencies or don’t have the time/knowledge to do it themselves.
Tone: Approachable, understanding, not sales-y, authentic.
Style: Conversational with persuasive edge.
Organization: Short, concise sentences that hook the reader; (data to prove it).
Platform: Landing page for Google AdWords; local SEO traffic.
Conversions: Sign-ups for free consultations with a digital marketing expert.
Title: eye-catching; contains focus keyword.
- Title: (focus keyword) + call-to-action + brand name; 65 characters or less.
- Description: focus keyword and related keyword included if possible; at least 1 CTA; usage of “free consultation” and brand name; 160 characters or less.
Words: 1200-1500 words.
Keywords: (include list of keywords).
Keyword Implementation: Use focus keywords in H2s and throughout content where applicable; run through (SEO tool) to check for over-optimization.
Internal Linking: link to (page) and (page) using (anchor text) and (anchor text), respectively.
External Linking: no external links.
Headings: 4 H2s and 3 H4s (maybe specify what these are and where).
Organization: (include an outline of the content if you wish. Optional.)
Length: 2-3 sentences per paragraph.
Calls-to-action (CTA): 3 CTAs at top, middle and bottom of page; callout to “Sign up for free consultation” or “Call us today.”
Other: Include bulleted list in (section) with at least 6 bullet points.
- Keywords provided by client.
- Writer will submit first draft via Google Docs.
- Writer will run content through (SEO tool) for (purpose).
- Writer will be available for making revisions up to 2 days after submission.
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