I was working with a client yesterday (Hi, Mike!) on some final edits of a publication-ready story. I really liked how the article turned out. But just as it was about to leave the door, Mike wanted to add the word “business” in front of “performance” in an early sentence, as in “business performance,” instead of just “performance.” I disagreed, because “companies” were the subject of the sentence, so the extra word wasn’t needed. That’s because most (if not all) readers will rightfully assume for-profit companies aren’t in the business of “philanthropic” performance or some other kind of performance. It’s all business all the time for them.
This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered keyword stuffing while working with clients. It certainly won’t be the last. While “search engine optimization” has made keyword stuffing worse, I believe there is another root cause of word stuffing. Executives, marketers, and copyrighters spend the majority of their week working hard to build and promote their products and services. For them, it’s very important work. So they often view the exercise of writing as the greatest, latests, and sometimes last chance to tell their story. So rather than let their sentences breathe and sound human, they try to add every extra word they can to get the story straight.
Problem is, readers don’t care. They consider all writing as unimportant, at least until a headline catches their attention. Once that happens, they’ll scan the first few sentences to see if an article is worth their time. But if these early sentences seem dense, wordy, clunky, or desperate, they will quickly click away. Not only are concise sentences easier to read and understand, they exude confidence. And readers will always reward confident writers with higher read-through rates, whether they agree with them or not.
“But Blake, doesn’t keyword stuffing work?” Not really. Certainly not in a sustainable way. That’s because search engines prioritize and rank articles that humans click on, read, and share. Since humans don’t click on, read, or share wordy, keyword-stuffy articles, the effort is largely futile. So just write things that humans want to read, and the search rankings will take care of themselves. I’ve been doing this for 18 years and know this to be true. In fact, I only sneak in a keyword maybe 1% of the time, but only when it doesn’t detract from human readability. It is the exception, not the rule.
That said, Mike is actually a really good writer. He thinks in headlines, is playful with his tone, and makes bold and confident assertions, which are fun to read. He even takes the “high road” more than I do, which in turn makes me a better writer. But when working with subjects that are important to him, he sometimes lets a little fear get the best of him, and he keyword stuffs a little too much. Which is why I have a job.
I don’t want to put myself out of a job. But if you want to write better, use fewer words (and syllables) when saying something. Resist the temptation to keyword stuff. Value readability and quality over quantity of words. Your readers really don’t care. It’s up to you to prove them wrong. And you can’t do that if you insecurity use a bunch of added, unnecessary, and clunky words.
“But Blake, what if readers don’t get my exact meaning,” you might ask. My answer: if you grab and keep a reader’s attention with fewer words, they will stay with you longer and even reach out sometimes to ask clarifying questions. Driving interest is exactly what all good writing should do. Wordiness is the enemy of interest. Don’t do it.