The One Thing That’s Killing Your Writing

Here’s an audio version of this article for your dining & dancing pleasure.

I was talking to a friend of mine, if you’ll forgive me for opening with a Tom Petty lyric, who’s kind of a big deal on the Interwebs. She had a very busy personal service business – we’ll call it that so it makes it hard for you to figure out who I’m talking about – with the occasional celebrity client who’d come to her office in Santa Monica, until COVID moved her practice online and she headed for Texas. The content she was putting online was so powerful that a major – I mean major media player said to her, “Let me know whenever you publish something new, because I want to amplify it for you.”

Now, for pretty much anyone I know who generates content, that’s kind of the golden ticket. Find a champion who believes in you, and watch the eyeballs and the dollar signs come flocking.

Except that my friend hasn’t put out a single piece of content since that offer came. And she told me she may never put out another piece of content at all.


At the top of her list of reasons was the fact that she hates… I mean actually hates writing copy for SEO.

For the uninitiated, SEO is short for Search Engine Optimization, and here’s what it means: It’s possible, through meticulous attention to detail and careful research, to write an article with words chosen in such a way that Google will not only find you easily for a specific search term, but also rank you very highly for that term – maybe even on the first page of results.

Here’s a quick example: If you Google the term, “top songs about sleep”, as of this writing you’ll see that the #1 result on Google points to an article I wrote a few years ago called, “Songs About Sleep – The 15 Best of All Time“. It’s the #1 result for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the inclusion of the exact phrase, “songs about sleep”, used often enough and in exactly the right places to make Google consider it to be the Internet’s most authoritative take on the subject.

The trouble is… writing SEO copy is hard work. And it’s not fun. And, in my opinion, it’s a massive waste of time.

Wait, what?

If you Google the term, “best Motown group of all time”, Google will probably tell you that it was Diana Ross & The Supremes. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s talk about Diana Ross & The Supremes as though they were not a band, but a brand, and their songs and albums are simply products manufactured under that brand.

Diana Ross & The Supremes in an early black & white publicity photo.
You don’t really need me to tell you who that is, do you?

Here’s what I can almost guarantee you: No one ever bought a Diana Ross & The Supremes album because of the search results on Google. While it is possible that someone who wanted to learn about Motown could enter the same search term I just mentioned and that’s what led to them discovering Diana Ross & The Supremes, that doesn’t translate into a purchase, and it certainly doesn’t lead to fandom.

Everyone who’s a fan of Diana Ross & The Supremes became a fan because of another fan. Whether that fan gave them an old album, sent them a YouTube link, or in bygone days took them as their “plus one” to a concert, fandom is, more often than not, viral. A friend will tell you about a new Netflix series they discovered. Someone at work found a new book they absolutely love. Your partner tried that new little Greek place downtown at lunch, and they want to go there with you on a dinner date.

Nobody goes to the little Greek place over and over and over again and pretends to like their souvlaki just because Google told them to. Okay, maybe those desperate, tragic people who measure their value as a person by the number of Likes they get on Instagram. But besides those people, the little Greek place grew their fan base because they’re terrific. The food, the service, the ambiance, whatever it is, something about the place keeps people coming back, and it has nothing to do with where they rank on a Google search.

Google doesn’t get you fans. The best Google can do is get people to try you once. The quick hit. If you will, the one-night stand. There is absolutely nothing Google can do that will make people who had an underwhelming experience the first time come back and try you again. If I found your car repair place because of a Google search, but I showed up and you forgot to put the drain plug back in my oil pan, no amount of search engine juice will get me anywhere near your shop ever again. And if your business model is based on having a steady stream of one-time-only customers, I can guarantee you this: You don’t have any outside investors. (I mean, unless you rank highly in Google for “heart transplant surgeons”. I would hope you only see those customers once.)

For big ticket items and small purchases, from real estate agents to baristas, the real gold is in cultivating a fan base. Your realtor doesn’t expect to see you nearly as often as your barista, but places just as much importance on being the one you call for your next transaction. And even better, impressing you enough that you tell your friends, so she can add them to her list of fans, too.

No one ever became a fan of Diana Ross & The Supremes because Google pointed them there. Somehow, one way or another, they found them, and the product turned them into fans. And if we’re being honest, the number of people who would have never found the group had they not Googled “best Motown group of all time” probably makes up less than one one hundredth of one tenth of one percent of their global fan base.

And if you’re hoping to be a rock star, you know there’s a world of difference between having a hundred disappointed Google searchers buy your ridiculously bad first album and promptly deleting it from their playlist, versus having a dozen fans who will buy everything you ever put out for the rest of your career. Your albums. Your remixes. Your box sets. Your T-shirts. Your lunchboxes. Nobody ever Googled Diana Ross & The Supremes and went straight to Amazon to buy the t-shirt. They had to fall in love with the product first, and Google can’t do that.

About an hour before I sat down to write this episode, I had a conversation with someone on Reddit about pretty much the same thing. They were getting tons of positive feedback from their customers, but none of that feedback was showing up in the form of online praise; so they were asking how to get more Google reviews and I pointed out that businesses who live by reviews, will also die by reviews. Especially when the bots show up and start flooding your reviews page with negative spam and fake incidents of poor customer service until you pay them the equivalent of ransom money to stop. I recommended instead that when a customer gives them positive feedback, grab a pen, ask if you can quote them, and then put that quote with the customer’s first name and town on your website. Put it in your newspaper ads, your radio commercials – put that positive feedback everywhere you can.

So here’s my recommendation, both to you and to my once prolific friend: Stop. Writing. For. Google. Go back to writing for humans. Write stuff that humans like to read, instead of things that Google likes to point to. Because the Venn diagram for “inspiring writing that reaches people on a visceral level” shows very little overlap with the circle that represents “keywords and keyword synonyms”.

None of the Harry Potter books were written to rank highly in search engines. Neither was “Freebird”.

Google will never buy anything from you and have such a great experience that it recommends you to its friends. Only your fans will do that. And your fans don’t care how many times you can work “Diana Ross & The Supremes” into an article.

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