The Evolution of Search Engine Copywriting
In the early 1990s, with the introduction of the search engine, website owners and self-proclaimed search engine optimization specialists began to look for ways to manipulate their positions in the search results. In this infancy stage of SEO, copywriting really played little or no role at all. The simple addition of keyword-rich META tags to each site page would easily get you positioned for even the most competitive terms. But then things began to change... quickly!
Beyond META Tags
Like most good things involved with the Internet, the addition of META tags was soon widely abused. Site owners would place keywords into their tag sets that had little or nothing to do with their site's purpose. Comment tags and other elements of the HTML coding were also manipulated in an attempt at tricking the engines to drive more traffic to a site. Still another abuse was the addition of keyword-stuffed descriptions in the Image Attribute (or ALT) tag. Originally designed to assist disabled Web surfers with identifying images on Web pages, these tags soon also fell victim to foul play forcing the engines to respond. Eventually, most of these tags were all but eliminated from search engine algorithms. The engines began to consider more efficient and accurate ways to determine the topics of the pages they indexed. As engines looked for ways to deliver better results, they realized that the copy was the best indicator of what a specific page was about.
SEO copywriters came into their own with the revelation that engines paid a great deal of attention to on-page text. Eventually, keywords and keyphrases began popping up in every corner of a Web page. The general thinking was that the more times you could use a keyphrase within the copy, the higher your page would rank. It doesn't take much thought to determine what happened next. Keyword density ratios soared on Web pages as copywriters gave their best efforts to use keyphrases as many times as possible. Header tags were incorporated, bold and italic formatting was used and font colors were changed in an attempt to get the engines to sit up and take notice of keyphrases. With the advent of keyword density however, came the decline of copywriting quality. It wasn't long before people began to draw a grand distinction between SEO copywriting and customer-focused copywriting. Because of excessive levels of keyword density, copy began to sound forced and stiff. Keyphrases were stuffed into URLs, anchor text, link names, header tags, ALT tags, bullet lists and any other places that came to mind. The site visitor was left out of the equation as writers took their best shots at impressing the engines exclusively. Once again, a technique was abused and things changed. However, this time, it was not only the search engines that responded. It was also the site visitors. As conversion ratios began to fall, site owners realized that writing solely for the engines was not the way to go. Coincidentally, the engines came to the same conclusion.
Search Engine Copywriting and Natural Language
While no one but the search engines knows what their algorithms contain, it is believed today that the spiders are taking notice of pages that use keyphrases in more natural ways. I believe they are starting to assess keyword placement, page relationships and sentence structure in an effort to find copy that naturally identifies its subject matter. There has been talk over the past five years (or longer) about a movement toward a semantic Web where spiders can read and "understand" what pages are about. While I don't feel we are to that level of sophistication yet (at least not for public Webs), I do believe spiders and bots are getting adept at gathering clues that lead to more accurate assessments of content. This would benefit everyone. Copywriters would be able to write more freely; the engines would improve search results and - most importantly - the visitor would regain their place as the primary focus the site.