15 Years as a Freelance Writer – What Has Changed?

In March 2006 I left my marketing job. I was fed up with commuting, tired of the same old 9-5, irritated by not having the freedom to work when I felt like it and stop when the time felt right. This is my 16th year as a freelance writer. So how have things changed?

Stuffing keywords like there was no tomorrow

Keywords. Back in the day, we stuffed the buggers in without a thought for how it sounded or how much it messed with the marketing message. Because Google’s search algorithm was in its early days, it was easy to play fun games with keywords. A freelance writer didn’t bother with subtleties like user intent, and didn’t take targeting seriously. There weren’t any long-tail keywords to complicate things.

Back in 2006 I had a holiday client. I wrote literally hundreds of web pages for them, each stuffed to busting point with a single head term keyword, a proper blunt instrument as basic as ‘book holidays’. The final sentence of each page went something like this:

Book holidays with XYZ Holidays

Book holidays with XYZ holidays, the best way to book holidays around the world, from Antrim to Australia. Book holidays with us and get great prices, great support and all the help you could possibly need to book holidays.

Urgh. You get the picture. It was fairly awful and as you can imagine, as a freelance writer it hurt to generate such rubbish. But that’s what clients wanted, and that’s exactly what I delivered. My work was often short on audience value but it had an excellent algorithmic impact. The pages I wrote turned up at the top of page 1 Google SERPs like magic, and my client was thrilled.

When keyword stuffing went wrong

Then Google twigged, and rebelled, and keyword stuffing quickly became one of the biggest digital marketing no-nos around. The content that had previously pinged joyfully onto page 1 with no effort plummeted, and my holiday client lost almost all of their natural search visibility within a few weeks.

Soon afterwards quality content quickly became the by-word for online writing. And hard on its heels came the concept of longtail keywords, which helped the user rather than hindering them and tended to surface much better quality pages.

It’s easy to see why. The ‘head term’ book holidays was of limited use to marketers. It didn’t signal a user’s intent. But a term like book holidays in East Anglia for September had a much better impact. Someone using this term obviously had intent – they intended to book a holiday in East Anglia during September. A page that allowed them to do exactly that, which also contained lots of relevant information and knowledge about everything great about East Anglia, proved very useful to punters. The world of digital writing had changed in an incredibly short time, as had my freelance writer career.

Writing contemporary content for the web

These days things have become even more sophisticated in parallel with developments to Google’s search algorithm. It’s vital to use good English, punctuate properly and understand grammar. Someone like me is often given a list of maybe 10-20 longtail keywords to subtly weave into a 1200-word piece of content, which helps the client capture a variety of user intents.

Most of the time I’m asked to create content that’s better quality than the content already surfaced in response to a query. I often answer questions within the content, in the specific way Google loves, to encourage the search engine to provide my answer in response to a user asking the question. Today’s web pages, articles and posts are intelligent, in-depth, detailed, and written beautifully. My job is more novelist than marketer, and that’s fine with me.

The bad old days? You can keep them! There’s no pleasure in creating crap content stuffed with keywords, but there’s huge pleasure in turning out something good enough to eat, better than anyone else’s, and more likely to please Google than anything else out there.

If that’s what you fancy, let’s talk.

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