SEO for Copywriters: Key ranking factors to watch out for

by , Writer and Content Strategist

Does the phrase, “Put more keywords in it” make your blood boil? Me too.

Whenever I hear some marketing executive who learned SEO back in 2005 talking about the importance of keywords I throw up in my mouth a little. Don’t get me wrong, keywords and phrases are still an important part of helping Google correctly recognize the relevance of your content to a given search (as you’ll see below), but the tyranny of the keyword is over.

Today the Google algorithm is much more complex and, frankly, better than it was just a few years ago. Google doesn’t rely on such a simple measurement as “keyword density“ to determine search relevancy. But, if keyword density is over, how is Google determining what your content is about? How can it tell the difference between quality content and keyword-stuffed gibberish? Let’s take a look at the ways Google is actually rewarding quality copywriting and how you can use them to your advantage.

1) Term Frequency-Inverse Document Frequency (or TF-IDF)

TF-IDF is a part of the algorithm that determines how important a word is in your document based on the number of times it is mentioned relative to the amount that it is used across a corpus of documents. In other words, TF-IDF is about looking at the words you use and comparing how often those words are used in general across the internet.

For example, let’s say you write an article about “Elmer Fudd’s hat.” You mention “Elmer Fudd” four times and use “hat” twelve times. Google will compare the usage frequency of those terms across hundreds of thousands of documents across the internet to determine how often those words are likely to appear in normal usage. In this case, it will probably find that mentions of “Elmer Fudd” are fairly infrequent in normal usage and mentions of “hat” are very common. So, even though your article mentions “hat” more than “Elmer Fudd,” Google will probably determine that your article is about Elmer Fudd and not hats. As a result, your article is much more likely to appear in searches for “Elmer Fudd” than “hats.”

In a way, I know this sounds like keywords density; however, it’s more like “smart keyword density” or “keyword density in context.” In fact, there are safeguards built into this system to identify when a word is used more than a “normal.” amount. If you are overusing words or repeating words in unusual ways, the algorithm may determine that you are keyword stuffing and you could be penalized.

What you need to know:
Include terms in your copy that you want to rank for, but use them naturally and don’t stuff your content full of them.

(For more on how TF-IDF works, here’s a great article by Ian Lurie)

2) Novel Content

No, Google does not reward you for writing a novel (although, if you’ve finished your novel, well done!). What Google has done is engineer part of its algorithm to compare multiple documents on the same subject to determine which document is unique.

Keep in mind, Google wants to deliver a diverse set of search results to users, not a homogenous set of articles in the top five results. By comparing the language, length, depth, and usage of each document, Google is able to create a “novelty score” for documents of the same subject. If the algorithm can determine which article—out of a pack of articles on the same subject—stands out from the crowd, it can give those stand-out articles a better rank.

What you need to know:
Bad content has neither a point of view nor a perspective. Make your content stand out by having a unique perspective and a recognizable voice. If your content is more interesting than other content on the same subject, you’ve got a leg up on the competition.

3) Phrasing, Context, and Co-occurrence

Google is getting pretty good at textual analysis. So far we’ve seen that it can determine if your copy uses language in a normal way and if your copy is unique. The algorithm can also compare your content against the vast corpus of the internet to determine if your content fits within the general context for your subject.

Google analyzes your content to determine if it uses words and phrases that normally appear together for the context of your subject. Part of the way it determines this is through an aspect of the algorithm called co-occurrence.

Co-occurrence is a method through which Google takes apart the text of a given document, throws out all the most common words used in the language (like articles, prepositions, conjunctions, etc.) and then analyzes the remaining words to determine which words occur together often across many documents of the same type.

For example, let’s go back to our Elmer Fudd article. Through co-occurrence, Google may determine that “Elmer Fudd” is often mentioned in the same context as “Warner Brothers,” “Bugs Bunny,” and “Hunting.” If Google analyzes your article and sees those words co-occurring in your article, then it can determine that, yes, your article about Elmer Fudd’s hat is consistent with other documents that talk about Elmer Fudd. Thus, your article is relevant to searches for Elmer Fudd. In this way, Google weeds out documents that are irrelevant or not contextually consistent for a given subject.

What you need to know:
When you write about a subject, use the words and phrases that one would likely use when talking about that subject. I know this seems like a no brainer, but the more you can clue Google in to the fact that you know what you’re talking about—through your consistent use of contextually relevant words and phrases—the better chance you have of Google recognizing your content as relevant and trustworthy for its users.

4) Good spelling and grammar

Lastly, Google checks your spelling and grammarwhich shouldn’t come as much of a surprise (and frankly, you should already have a handle on this). Correct use of the English language is a sign of quality content, so Google wants to make sure the results it is serving up to users is fairly error free.

Keep in mind, Google won’t de-index you for misspelling Connecticut. If you have a few errors, you won’t be penalized. Rather, it simply checks that your content correctly uses language and avoids excessive errors.

What you need to know:
Make sure you are using current grammar and spelling. This should not be a problem. However, some organizations in an effort to save money, outsource content creation. Cheap content is not always error free. I know you would never do this, but if you have low-quality legacy content on your website, this might be motivation to go back and clean it up a little.

Just Be Natural

The conclusion to all this Google mumbo-jumbo is that you’re probably already doing a great job of copywriting. If you have error-free copy that competently discusses a topic in-depth with a unique voice and perspective, you are already doing your part to optimize your content for search.

Keep in mind, the ranking factors mentioned above are only a few of the over 200 active ranking factors in the Google search algorithm. Writing good copy is not only thing that will boost your ranking—but it is an important first step. So, just keep writing clear, concise, interesting prose and you’ll get your organization off on the right foot for better ranking.

About the Author

Writer and Content Strategist

James Gunter is a writer, content strategist, and recovering SEO. You can contact him at or follow him on Twitter.

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