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My love-hate relationship with SEO: balancing creativity with content marketing

Is SEO friend or foe?

I’ve written previously about how I’ve been relying on search engine optimization (SEO) and content marketing to help spread the word about my business, as I’ve stepped away from social media like Twitter.

I’m a huge fan of how SEO has helped people discover my blog posts without me spending money on ads or time and effort creating ephemeral content as grist for the mill in a social media setting. It’s been an amazing tool that keeps working even when I need to take a pause from content creation during busy seasons of life.

But— and I hate to say it— sometimes I find SEO highly constricting.

The downsides of SEO

Instead of just opening a new note and writing the post I want to write, I feel paralyzed with the wish to “optimize” and be as strategic as possible with my topic choice.

I’ve figured out a way to do fairly effective keyword research and keep my keywords organized and easily accessible in a Google Doc. But the mere presence of this list of keywords makes me feel pressure to maximize their use, to include them wherever possible in my writing. To use the words that other people are searching for, rather than my own words.

But when I feel slavish devotion to having to structure my content around these keywords, I start to feel tied down. Resentful. Constricted. Claustrophobic. I open a draft post, work on my outline for the post, and it feels mechanical. Dull. Predictable.

So I close the draft and never get around to posting it at all.

Resenting the boring, mechanical tone of SEO-driven writing

The problem for writing with SEO in mind— that is, writing to match the preferences of a computer— is that the posts can sound rather mechanical. Predictable headings, the same structure as other similar posts, a listicle here, a roundup there. It’s a formula because it works, and it ranks. But it can feel a bit less than human. And with the advent of ChatGPT and other AI-driven content creation, writing this type of SEO-driven content feels even more empty.

I don’t want my writing to sound like a computer. And yet— at least for now— ranking highly on search engines tends to follow a predictable pattern which is quite repetitive and robotic.

Boring to write. Boring to read.

The upside: being of service using SEO

At the same time, I absolutely recognize the benefit of using these keywords to help people find relevant content. Using the words that other people use (i.e. type into a search engine) is kind— it’s of service. It can feel like I’m reading their mind– I’ve written a resource solving the exact problem they typed into Google in despair.

If I use only words that I prefer to use— but terms that people aren’t actually searching for— they will never find my writing in the first place and my writing can’t be of any use to them whatsoever.

Aiming for balance

So what’s the solution? I’m not sure yet. I want to make more space for more personal, narrative posts but I’m also practical— when I have limited time and energy to spend on my business, and I rely on each blog post to drive traffic and leads, I also need to be strategic. And I want to meet readers where they’re at— I need to use keywords that people actually are searching for, to answer questions people actually have (instead of the questions I wish they were asking, instead).

My experiment going forward will be to aim for a blend. To have some of those keyword-driven (but more mechanical) posts mixed in with more personal, essay-driven content. We’ll see how it goes.

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