Writing for Search Engines: Optimize for Robots or People?
The author’s views are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.
Google processes more than 8.5 billion searches every day. That’s more than 100,000 searches per second, thousands of which could lead a user to a purchase.
It’s no wonder, then, that 60% of marketers list SEO as their number one inbound marketing priority.
But generating organic traffic comes with challenges. Google has hundreds of billions of webpages in its index, competing for the top spots on search result pages. Not to mention, when you’re writing for search engines, you technically have two audiences: bots and humans.
Let’s look at how these audiences compare and see who you should be writing for.
Writing content for SEO: who to write for
Bots and humans are the chicken and the egg of search engine optimization. You need humans to make a sale, but you can’t get the humans without the help of bots.
The question is, which one comes first on your priority list? To answer that, let’s define each of these audiences.
Writing for humans
Human readers are the ones that can eventually make a purchase and become a customer. When making purchase decisions, humans need product details and pricing, but that type of information usually isn’t enough.
If you want to create content that resonates with a human audience, your content needs empathy, storytelling, and emotional reasoning. Studies show that storytelling, in particular, releases oxytocin in the brain, a hormone associated with positive feelings such as happiness and trust.
Storytelling also helps you structure your writing in a way that’s easy for human readers to follow and understand. Ultimately, when you write for people, you want to have a clear message that connects with humans.
Writing for robots
In this case, the robots we refer to are search engine crawlers or spiders. Unlike humans, web crawlers can’t buy a product from you, no matter how great your marketing.
But bots influence your position on Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs), which impacts whether or not human readers will see your content.
Search engine spiders respond to optimizations around indexing technical SEO. In other words, you want to use your keywords and heading structure to make it easier for bots to figure out the context of your content.
How to pick your audience
An analysis done by FirstPageSage found that the top-ranking article on Google’s SERPs receives an average CTR of 39.6%. And by the time you get to the 5th position, the average CTR drops to 5.1%.
If your goal is organic traffic, you need the help of search bots to get more human eyes on your content. But you never want to sacrifice your human audience. After all, they’re the only ones who can become your customers.
So, the answer to our question of which audience to choose is: Both.
This sounds like a bit of a cop-out, but the good news is they’re not mutually exclusive.
Google has continued to update its search algorithm to better process natural language and measure performance metrics that affect the user experience. These updates have made it easier to create an SEO content marketing strategy that works for both audiences.
How to write SEO content for humans and robots
Writing SEO-optimized content that works for crawlers and people is all about balance. You need to understand which elements impact each target audience the most and include them without ruining the experience for the other group.
Here are some steps to improve your SEO content strategy and drive more organic traffic.
Word choice matters most for your human readers, but there are some aspects that apply to search engine bots.
For bots, you want to stay concise and make your content easier for Google to read and establish context. To do so, remove fluff terms, choose strong words over adjectives, and avoid long, multisyllabic words.
Here are some examples of how you can tailor the word choice for Google bots.
“Open the app” instead of “simply open the app”
“We’re thrilled” instead of “we’re very excited”
“Required” instead of “mandatory”
Choosing words for humans requires a little more nuance. First, avoid language that insults your reader’s intelligence, such as the word “clearly”.
Second, opt for specific terms instead of general ones. For instance, “50% of respondents” is clearer than “many respondents”.
Finally, use inclusive language. Words such as “humankind” and “they” encompass more people than “mankind” and “she”.
People search Google to find answers, not to read college-level explanations. Lowering your content’s reading level gives humans a more pleasant user experience.
Reading level doesn’t impact SEO rank directly. However, it can affect page experience metrics like dwell time and bounce rate, which impact SEO.
The Flesch Reading Ease score is a tool you can use to analyze the readability of your text. For instance, you can benefit from online tools like the Hemingway Editor that use Flesch score to test your writing.
The Flesch score uses average sentence length (ASL) and average syllables per word (ASW) to get your score, ranging from 0 to 100. The higher the score, the easier your content is to understand. Your score can also be connected to a Flesch-Kincaid reading level, which compares your writing difficulty to a school grade.
Here’s how the scores are divided by grade level:
Any score above 70 is easy for 7th grade or lower to understand
Scores between 60 and 70 are 8th to 9th-grade reading level
Scores between 50 and 60 are 10th to 12th-grade reading level
Scores below 50 are at college and professional reading levels
The Flesch-Kincaid reading level means someone at that reading level could easily understand your content. Try to aim for a score of 60 or higher, even if you’re writing for a college-level audience. Remember, your reader came to Google to find a clear answer, not read a dissertation.
Best practices to improve readability include adding transitions, writing shorter sentences, and using active verbs.
Your content structure affects humans and bots. Headings and subheadings should make your post easier to read. If you include a table of contents at the top, a reader should be able to understand what your post is about and find the information they need.
Furthermore, your section titles are opportunities to capture your reader’s attention. So descriptiveness is not enough; you have to have a hook. For example, “10 Ways to Improve Your Time Management” is more personable and specific than “Time Management Tips.”
As for the search bot, structure helps it figure out the context of your article. To optimize for bots, include primary and supporting keywords in your headings. You can even use GPT-3 AI Tools to help generate outlines once you’ve done the keyword research.
Remember that AI tools are great for pointing you in the right direction when it comes to ideation, but you should ensure your finished text still makes sense to a human reader.
Using images and other media to break up large chunks of text helps improve the user experience. Similar to structure, visual elements matter for both of your audiences.
When it comes to your human audience, you want to choose visuals that help readers understand the text they complement. So ensure you include images near relevant text and avoid generic stock photos.
Infographics, statistics, and graphs
Screenshots with annotations
Expert quote images
To optimize images for search bots, Google recommends using high-quality images and compressing the files, so they don’t lower your page speed. Furthermore, you should add descriptive metadata (such as title, caption, and file name) that includes keyword phrases when relevant.
Finally, pay attention to your alternate text (or alt text). The alt text describes images for search engine bots and screen readers for people who can’t see. Writing descriptive alt text is an essential part of accessible content writing.
While bots scan this text, you ultimately want to create a description that helps your human reader picture what’s in the image. In other words, avoid keyword stuffing and opt for a description of what’s going on in the image instead.
Keyword-stuffed alt text: “shoes trainers sneakers fashion shoes footwear women’s shoes accessories athletic shoes”
Descriptive alt text: “pair of women’s sneakers in white”
Grammar, spelling, and capitalization
Proper grammar and spelling help you build trust with your readers.
According to Google Search Central, grammar is not a direct factor for search engine rankings. But, if a search bot can’t crawl your website because of errors, that’ll harm your search performance. On the other hand, proper spelling can improve your page’s authority score.
Spelling is especially important when it comes to brand names. As Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, states, “A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.”
This might seem like a minor factor, but the brands you write about care if you spell (and capitalize) their names correctly.
Here are a few brands that people commonly misspell:
WordPress, not Wordpress
HubSpot, not Hubspot
Mailchimp, not MailChimp
Some word processors might not have brand names included in their spell check, but you can use Grammarly’s style guide feature to autocorrect for brands you frequently write about across a team of writers and editors.
Although Google has confirmed that word count is not an SEO ranking factor, that doesn’t mean you should ignore it.
Google does prioritize comprehensive answers to search terms, so long-form content may perform better. In other words, content length can indicate how well your writing meets a user’s search intent compared to the competition.
SEO optimization tools like Clearscope provide word count suggestions based on the length of the top-ranking pages. That said, don’t sacrifice quality content to create longer articles. Adding meaningless content to meet a word count goal can hurt the reader experience.
You should write your page titles for bots and people. Writing for bots means including the target keyword in your SEO title tag and meta description. Doing so gives search engines more context and improves your chances of ranking for the right keywords.
Page titles for people should include keywords, but they also need to pique the reader’s interest so you can increase your click-through rate. You can make your titles click-worthy by including emotional words, adding urgency, and making them personal.
Here are some examples.
Emotional: “5 Proven Ways to Fall Asleep Easily”
Urgent: “How to Stop Procrastinating Right Now”
Personal: “Resume Template to Land Your Dream Job”
Titles are one of the main factors affecting how much traffic your page receives, so they’re an excellent place to A/B test.
Writing for search engines: optimize for robots or people?
When it comes to writing SEO-friendly content, it’s not a question of humans vs. robots but rather how to optimize for both. The actionable steps in this article are an excellent place to start if you want to create content that ranks on SERPs and resonates with potential customers.
To read more about creating consistent brand style guidelines and copywriting for an online audience, check out my book Writing for Humans and Robots: The New Rules of Content Style, available in print and Kindle on July 18, 2022.