Having been a content writer for around seven years now, I am very familiar with writing in line with SEO-driven briefs. Sometimes, these briefs can be highly structured and detailed, which is often a relief — especially compared to more basic briefs — because it makes sitting down to write and the writing process itself a lot easier and more straightforward.
However, there is a trade-off between the degree of instruction given by an editor and the creative output of the writer. Detailed briefs created based on SEO research are, it goes without saying, beneficial for SEO — that is, they maximise the chances of the content doing well on Google search rankings. But I’ve found this can lead to some costs for both the organisation and the writer — in terms of content quality and engagement, respectively — and, moreover, prioritising creative freedom can provide unique SEO benefits.
The first thing to note with SEO-driven briefs is that they are often designed to compete with similar content on other websites in the same industry. By maximising the optimisation of this new content, you can increase the chances of gaining a higher rank on Google searches compared to competitors, thereby improving visibility, traffic, brand reputation, sales, and so on. This kind of content strategy is standard, and I don’t intend to criticise intentional competition with other sites (providing the new content is actually offering something new and useful), but an over-reliance on such efforts stifles originality. Speaking from personal experience, it also makes the prospect of writing less interesting and motivating, because the goal is to produce much of what has already been said before.
This is one reason why writers, including myself, both appreciate but feel uninspired by SEO-driven briefs. But also, as already mentioned, allowing room for creative freedom in content creation can benefit SEO. This is because producing original content is an effective SEO strategy, and it is a form of ethical SEO, whereas rehashing existing content — even if SEO-enhancing techniques are applied — can be viewed as a form of unethical SEO. This is not to say the new content won’t benefit readers. But if the writer and reader’s interests were prioritised, rather than just climbing search rankings, this would lead to more engaging work and original content, respectively — and, it should be said, this would still be an effective SEO strategy.
Furthermore, this doesn’t mean that original content can’t or shouldn’t be SEO-driven (it both can and should be). You can have creative freedom while applying optimising content through keyword strategies. But when everything about an SEO strategy is based on out-competing other websites based on keywords, then you lose out on opportunities to publish truly original content — the kinds of ideas that either don’t exist elsewhere or which aren’t getting enough attention. This is why writers should be given more creative freedom when it comes to the content they write, including in terms of topic suggestions (whether or not this is based on keyword research), style, tone, and voice.
As I’ve explored previously, writers often face a compromise between writing with SEO in mind and authentic writing, but the picture is a bit more nuanced than this since authenticity — whether in writing style or through honest self-expression — is engaging for readers and conducive to unique content. While readability and particular writing styles are reliable in terms of engaging readers, the kind of content that truly stands out is that in which the writer’s authentic voice, views, and ideas come through. By blocking the writer’s desire for creative freedom and, in turn, the reader’s interest in seeing the fruits of that creativity, organisations are seriously limiting their potential.
Additionally, forcing writers to stick to rigid briefs prevents the most talented and creative writers from applying for positions (because they may perceive the work as bland) and it can lead existing writers to feel unmotivated and view their work as meaningless (even if it is still interesting in some respects). This will ultimately lead to lower-quality work, owing to the writer’s lower levels of engagement and motivation. When I feel I have creative freedom in my work, I’m more excited to start writing, enjoy the writing process more, feel that the work is more valuable, and feel a greater sense of accomplishment when the work is done. Crucially, however, I don’t think these gains for the writer have to involve losses for the organisation. It’s worth stressing again that SEO techniques can still be applied (either during the writing process or after by the editor or SEO expert), without sacrificing authenticity.
Based on writing articles and essays for my blog for the past 10 years, I’ve found that my most popular content — the content that does well in terms of rankings (making it on the first page of Google for keyword searches), steadiness and levels of traffic, the number of comments, the number and quality of backlinks, social media shares, and virality — is purely based on creativity. None of my blog post ideas are based on keyword research. They’re just ideas I feel like writing about. What tends to happen is that a specific idea — corresponding to a specific keyword — emerges, and my desire to write about it is shared by many readers’ desire to read about it. We can call this an organic form of SEO. It’s completely unintentional.
Also, since I have some basic knowledge of SEO, I can apply optimisation tricks to the content — either while writing or when scheduling posts in WordPress (the Yoast SEO Plugin helps a lot with this) without sacrificing how I naturally wanted to structure and write the piece. These are simple tricks related to keyword place, such as having an optimal keyword density, including the primary keyword in most subheadings (but not all of them, and ideally higher level ones), having the keyword appear at the beginning — or near the beginning — of the title and permalink, including the keyword in the first paragraph of the text, including the keyword in the image alt text and file name, using high-quality and relevant images, and adding relevant internal links and high-quality external links to the text.
There are no doubt writers out there who have highly original ideas and personal stories to share. Their originality could lie in novel concepts or in the novel synthesis of existing ideas, as well as in their writing style. Readers want to find ideas and personal accounts that they’ve not yet come across but which actively engage their interest because of the content’s novelty (humans love novelty) and which resonate strongly with them for perhaps a variety of reasons (e.g. feeling a perspective or experience confirmed, having a preconceived notion challenged, being convinced of a new position or attitude, feeling less alone, and so on). When writers are afforded creative freedom, they can feel like they’re writing for themselves — for their own edification and satisfaction — but they may also want to write about something because it may benefit readers. And I find that even when I don’t write for anyone in mind, but only write for myself, this can unintentionally lead to content that others find useful.
To summarise: by stimying creative freedom, editors are missing out on an effective SEO strategy — that is, prioritising originality and, therefore, the engagement of many more readers. Giving writers more creative freedom in terms of what topics they cover — and how they write about them — is a win-win situation, benefiting writers, readers, and website owners. Rigid, SEO-focused briefs may be an industry standard and effective, but content strategies may actually be more effective when briefs are made more flexible, informed by a writer’s topic suggestion, for instance. It makes sense that companies want to maintain consistency in the style and voice of their content, but for SEO purposes, important gains can be made when this is balanced by the full potential of a writer’s creativity.