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In this week's episode, Jack Chambers-Ward is joined by Maddy Osman, the founder of The Blogsmith and best-selling author of Writing for Humans and Robots. Jack & Maddy discuss:
Jack: Search with Candour is supported by SISTRIX, the SEO's toolbox. Go to SISTRIX.com/SWC if you want to check out some of their fantastic free tools such as their SERP Snippet Generator, Hreflang Validator, checking out your site's visibility index, and of course, the all-important Google Update Tracker, and SISTRIX have been doing some fantastic blog posts recently, specifically around the recent updates. I know Steve Paine, the wonderful Steve Paine at SISTRIX, has done an analysis on the kind of fallout from the September 2022 updates. We had three of them, I don't know if you've been counting recently, and of course, we've recently had the spam October update as well. So, yeah, we'll have more analysis on that from the team at SISTRIX I'm sure in the near future.
Something I wanted to highlight on the blog this week is a recent post by Johannes Beus talking about the new snippet layout that is including site names in SERPs. Now we haven't really covered much of the news because I've had a lot of guests on recently. So, let's dive into the news a little bit and a little bit of information before you go off and read Johannes's blog post in full, essentially Google is now including site names in the SERPs themselves. If you don't include a site name, which you can control using schema, by the way, if you don't include one, it will include your domain name by default. But now you can include your favicon which is now bigger than it was before, 48 pixels by 48 pixels, and it will include the site name at the top there, and I think this is part of Google basically trying to say, "Hey, we know where the information's going from and this is a verified source essentially."
So, you'll be able to tell which site you're getting your information from on the SERPs just at a glance straight away, and hopefully, that's kind of tying into the themes we've been seeing recently of helpful for content and EAT and all that kind of thing. You'll instantly get an idea of which domain you are looking at on the SERP without even clicking through to the domain itself. Hopefully, that will clarify, and if you do want information like I said, go to sistrix.com/blog and the latest post at the time of recording from the 20th of October is there for you to get a bit more information about how site names are being included in SERPs. That's sistrix.com/blog for all the latest information.
And we recorded this episode a little while ago, but actually coming up on the 29th of October, a few days after this podcast goes out, is actually Maddy's birthday. So, please do go and say happy birthday to Maddy on Twitter on the 29th of October and share the love essentially and say, "I enjoyed your episode on Search with Candour and happy birthday," because Maddy was awesome, and yeah.
Without any further ado, welcome to the show, Maddy Osman. How are you?
Maddy: I'm doing great. How about you, Jack?
Jack: I'm good, thank you. Yeah, yeah, doing well. I know it's a lot earlier for you than it is for me right now, so I appreciate you hopping on a podcast this early in the morning.
Maddy: No problem. It's a productive start to my day.
Jack: Nice. Have you got a coffee or a tea or anything to kickstart your morning?
Maddy: Got some green tea.
Jack: Nice. Kicking off with a green tea.
Maddy: Passionately pear.
Jack: Oh nice. That sounds good actually, that sounds like a good combination.
Maddy: It's actually quite lovely.
Jack: I'll take your recommendation. Maybe that'll have to be my new podcast drink.
Maddy: There you go.
Jack: I feel like warming the vocal chords and stuff is good for doing voiceovers and stuff like that.
Maddy: We'll hope so.
Jack: But just in case the listeners don't know who you are, first of all, shame on them. Second of all, give them a little intro to who you are and what we're going to be talking about this week.
Maddy: Absolutely. So, I would say my main gig is as the founder of The Blogsmith content agency. We're a data-driven content agency that focuses on B2B technology brands, and I would say our focus is to translate developers-speak into something that the layperson can understand. That's my favourite thing to do. And my new title is best-selling author of the book, Writing for Humans and Robots: The New Rules of Content Style which you can think of as kind of a modern-day update to the elements of style for the global internet audience. So, those are kind of my main things these days.
Jack: Nice. That's a very nice title to be able to add on is best-selling author. Living the dream right there.
Maddy: Put a lot of effort into my Amazon launch, I will say.
Jack: I can tell. It was all over my Amazon.
Maddy: Oh good.
Jack: I know a few of my friends who have checked the book out as well. So, we will actually be diving into that as a topic as well, covering some of the stuff you talk about in the book and then going around to talk about more the SEO side of things, more the writing side of things, and dive it all around.
Jack: But I think we need to kick things off with what my initial thought was when I saw the book on my Amazon listing which is the title. I think this is a very common question for you at this point, but it has to be the place to start.
Jack: As an SEO, I'm like, "Hold on a minute. There's an and in that sentence. Why is there an and there?" The Writing for Humans AND Robots is the key there. I think that's why it kind of caught my attention, certainly when I saw it on Amazon, and why I kind of found it so interesting diving through and understanding the structure of the book and all that kind of stuff. So, what was your thought process, initially, first of all, coming up with the title, and then building that as both a writer and an SEO yourself?
Maddy: Absolutely. Yeah, it's quite a polarising title, I would say. It's interesting, when I was trying to decide on the title, I was really drawn to that one, and I don't think I even realised how much people were talking using that similar language in tweets, on LinkedIn in conversations about SEO. And so, these conversations have been happening for a while about what's the difference, the or, right, but we're talking about the and, Writing for Humans and Robots. And so, I think that there is a way. I think that the human is the most important reader and user ultimately, no question about that, but I think that there is a way to kind of balance the needs of the user with the technical needs of, for example, a search engine spider, the quote, unquote, "robot" that helps to surface relevant content to the human when they're searching for it.
And so, I think the difference between these two users and how we negotiate the difference is first of all, humans, they're the only ones who can buy from us, right? They're the ones who have empathy. They're the ones that we have to use our humanity to appeal to. Whereas robots, they respond to things like descriptiveness, like keywords, specific language, and intent matching where somebody's typing something in and they have something in mind that they're looking for at the other end of that search, and I think that we can optimize for the robot that is trying to index and classify things for that human reader in a way that is natural enough that it doesn't affect the reading experience. So, I think that's what the book is about. It's about balancing the needs of both of these users, but understanding that the human is ultimately the only one that's going to buy from you, so you have to keep them kind of first.
Jack: Yeah, definitely, and I think you do that in a really interesting way. Like I said, when I was reading through the book a few weeks ago, it was really interesting understanding the structure. You start with the human side of things, and then we move on to the robot side of things, and then we bring it all together in that third and final part where I think it's so key to understand the differences like you said, and then the similarities and how it can all work together. And again, polarising, controversial, whatever. I totally agree with you. There is a balance there, right? There is a right way of understanding, using grammar and all that kind of stuff, and specifically like you were saying, making technical details and information more accessible to more people is so important nowadays. But also having your site be readable by Google or whatever search engine your users are using, understanding crawlability and indexability and all that kind of stuff, and the more technical side of things I think will really benefit a lot of writers, and understanding the writing side of things will benefit a lot of SEOs who are more on that technical side of things. So, I think you've done an amazing job there of balancing the two and bringing them all together and hopefully being a positive influence on a lot of people.
Maddy: Yeah, thank you for saying that. And what's kind of interesting is I wrote all the book chapters before deciding on the title and even before deciding on the order of the chapters.
Jack: Oh, interesting.
Maddy: So, that's something that came about really at the end of edits, and that's when it became clear to me. I knew that I wanted to write about... I wanted SEO to be a part of what I was writing about and I wanted to do it in a way that wasn't super timely. It wouldn't be untrue quickly. I wanted it to be something that would be relevant for as long as possible, and so, that's why I tried to stay away from talking about really specific tools or really specific tactics. But it's just interesting because it's like that's just the way that my agency, how we look at things. It's all about the storytelling and the word choice and the visuals and things like that, but it's just as important to make sure that we're doing that keyword research ahead of time and understanding how people are thinking about searches so that we can connect them. So, yeah, it came about after the fact, after writing the draft.
Jack: That's really interesting because for me opening to that, I read it on my wife's tablet, so I read it on a Kindle thing, and opening on that contents page and seeing the structure there, that was so clear to me, like, "Oh yeah, that's the obvious way to do it." You start with the more accessible stuff. Everybody has learned grammar. Everybody studied English and all that kind of stuff when they were in high school or whatever it was. And then you introduce the more technical stuff as you go forward and then you bring it all back together on the third part. That makes so much sense to me, and I really appreciate you mentioned the timelessness of it as well. I think that was pretty clear in me reading through it as I've done a bit of writing myself, and I've done a bit of SEO myself as well, so trying to come at it from both ends as well. You mentioned the element of style earlier on. I know you referenced the AP Stylebook quite a few times throughout the book as well.
Maddy: Oh yes.
Jack: Those have lingered on for so long in so many writers' bookshelves. Fingers crossed, there will be now copies of Writing for Humans and Robots slotted next to them for the next hundred years or whatever it is.
Maddy: I hope so.
Jack: Wherever we are in the next hundred years.
Maddy: Right, right.
Jack: But do you think there are still influences and lessons we can learn from like Strunk and White, the original publisher which was Strunk back in the... It was the 1918, something like that, a hundred years ago or so and then republished in the '50s and '60s and updated. Is there lessons we can still take from The Element of Style now that you think are still applicable in 2022 even as we're, as you were saying, very digital, very online these days?
Maddy: Oh yeah. No, I think most of the things that were written in The Elements of Style are still relevant, and as you brought up AP style, I think that too. I mean, style changes. That's true no matter who tries to write about it. And so, there are aspects of it that they have to be re-examined, but I think some of the things that I was thinking about from The Elements of Style that are still relevant and to some extent even in The Blogsmith style guide, which is what the book is based on, are things like using the active voice. When I used to be more focused on the writing side of things versus running the business, I mean, that's something that editors always edit for, active voice, active voice. And so, coming up with mechanisms for identifying when you're not doing that is really important I think as a modern-day writer. It's things like omitting needless words in The Blogsmith style guide.
We have a couple of different ways to try to catch this, rules or things that we can go by, but it's where it's simply or just, they don't really add a lot in value or saying something like obviously which might insult the reader's intelligence. It doesn't add value. And a couple of other things are things like avoiding fancy words. That's also in The Elements of Style. It makes a lot of sense for an internet reader who's trying to skim, and the fact that in general an internet audience is about a seven to eighth-grade reading level, so you have to consider that as well. And then the last thing that I noticed when I was flipping through the book yesterday, The Elements of Style, is use figures of speech sparingly. So, in The Blogsmith style guide, we have a section on common cliches and ways that you could simplify and get away from that because it's just like, what's the word, it's almost like it's like trite or something, see the same language over and over again. It's like a crutch kind of for a writer.
Jack: Yeah, definitely.
Maddy: And people understand what you're trying to say, but it's just that it kind of comes across almost like lazy. Whether it is or not, that's just how it comes across. And so, for example, instead of saying can of worms, you could say problem. Instead of saying get your feet wet, you could use try.
Jack: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I think that ties really nicely into like you were saying about the eighth-grade reading level there and talking about accessibility especially. So, my background coming from working international schools and working with a lot of non-native English speakers, coming on to then learn to write in English and also do SEO in English, and I know some of the best SEOs in the world are non-native English speakers who working in English. So, huge credit to them first of all.
Jack: I think it's really interesting. That ties into, just inherently brings up accessibility, right?
Jack: That there is an average reading level. As you were saying, working with your tech-based clients and stuff, not everyone is going to know what you're writing about, and depending on your target audience, of course, some of them, I've worked with clients whose audience are specifically very educated and then I have to brush up on stuff. Oh right, okay, I need to know about your niche and your industry because your audience is already at that level.
Maddy: Right, it's respect.
Jack: Yeah, exactly. You'll so often find the audience is coming in completely fresh because organic search results are so often at the top end of that funnel, right? There's the initial research stage where you're discovering this topic for the first time or you've just discovered this problem, like you said, you now need to find that problem and solve it. So, you're coming in not knowing anything ahead of time and going in with simple, straightforward language. I think you are totally right, obviously, and other adverbs just drive me insane sometimes just people chucking in adverbs all the time-
Maddy: It doesn't help.
Jack: ... just to seemingly buff out word count because people think word count matters in SEO and all that kind of stuff.
Maddy: Yeah. I think it's interesting too, you bring up accessibility. I think that the other big change between The Elements of Style which is written fully a century ago and for a different world, for probably a small subset of the world because E.B. White is probably thinking like, "Oh, this is going to be for people in the US, maybe even his local community," or something. And of course, it exploded, so now everybody has access to it. But I think one thing that maybe he didn't consider when writing it is the global, certainly internet audience and the fact that you're talking, whether intentionally or not, to people from all these different cultures and backgrounds. So, beyond just being smart with grammar or whatever, it's also about addressing people with respect and using inclusive language. So, one thing, we're working on a bigger update to The Blogsmith style guide that is a style guide just about inclusiveness. Right now we have a small section, but it's things like when you're talking about people, instead of saying a blind person, it's a person who is blind, people first language. That's just one example.
Jack: So, you're not defining them by their living conditions or their health conditions or whatever it is.
Jack: Yeah, absolutely.
Maddy: Yeah, or if somebody's being tried for a crime, they're not guilty until they're found guilty. It's like an accused person, not like a murderer or something.
Jack: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Maddy: So, things like that, I think it's really important to think about how you may be unintentionally alienating your audience, whether it's words with obviously that insults their intelligence or it's something that maybe makes them feel bad about just a condition that they live with.
Jack: Yeah, it's something I talked a lot about with Chloe Smith a little while ago talking about how to be more inclusive in SEO, but now bringing it into writing. Chloe's obviously a writer themselves as well, talking about their poetry and crafting all of that kind of stuff, understanding using gender-neutral terms and things like that. 99% of times you can get away with using pronouns that are they them in your writing.
Jack: And a lot of it's rooted in that old fashioned like all machines are female and your cars a good old girl and all that kind of stuff. And it's like, really? Are we back... Again thinking about until like 1918, cars have just started... Now we're in the age of the internet. I think we can get used to just using the correct pronouns, even in writing, even in speech, all that kind of stuff.
Maddy: I think so.
Jack: Moving away from the humans for a second, talking about robots, let's get into another controversial topic which is AI content generation and production. As I said, it is very controversial. I know some of the writing staff here at Candour are very against it, and some of the more for more technical staff, we'll use it to irritate people online basically, and I find it fascinating. How do you think it has affected writing over the last few years since it's become more prevalent now? Basically, everyone has access to things like GPT2 and GPT3.
Jack: How do you think that has affected the writing style and the inspiration for you, I guess, for Writing for Humans and Robots?
Maddy: Yeah. No, it's so interesting that this question comes up often in tandem with this subject, and I didn't bring it up in the book at all, even though I have opinions. Okay, so how it's affected the state of affairs with writing, I think that one thing that we can say for sure is that people are a little bit freaked out, and I get it. I mean, the idea that a robot can take your job I think is something that scares anyone in any industry, starting with manufacturing, but certainly now.
Jack: It's been around in science fiction for decades at this point, right?
Maddy: Exactly right. We have many stories to try to navigate this, somewhat unsuccessfully. But yeah, so I'm personally not worried about it, and it comes back to what I said at the beginning. Humans have empathy. Robots, at least at this point, are not capable of it. I think if we get to Westworld robots who may be conscious. If they dream, right, then they might be humans at that point or close enough for the fact that they could probably take our jobs. But that's a whole nother, if we get to that point, we have other things to worry about.
Jack: We're spinning off into a Westworld review podcast right now. Let's just go talk about Westworld.
Maddy: It's our blog so we could do that. But yeah, I think at this point a robot is nowhere near capable of resembling humans in the way that we are uniquely human. And so, to give a couple of other examples, I think that robots such as these GPT3 tools, they can't format things thoughtfully. They can't art direct. We have seen AI tools that generate images. It's fun, it's goofy, but you never know what you're going to get. It's kind of a crapshoot, whenever you type in and what you get as a result, even if they have a bunch of different levers that you can change and different styles. So, they can't art direct yet. They don't necessarily understand tone of voice. I think they can detect it, but I don't think they can generate it, not to a fine-tuned point. And then I'm trying to think if there was one other thing that they can't do, but I think mostly it comes down to that lack of empathy.
And just to take that one step further, people do tests. I haven't done this myself and I'd be very curious too, but something a human writer wrote next to something a robot has created and just seeing in a split test what performs better. I think that even if they look almost exactly identical, I think that that's the thing with these AI tools is that at first glance they look really smart, really well put together, whatever, but when it comes to actually converting action, whether that's a buy or a click to a website or whatever, I don't think that they perform well because they don't have empathy.
Jack: Yeah. We were talking about this in the studio the other day and thinking about can AIs detect AI-generated content and therefore can Google understand what is AI generated and what isn't, and we had some examples where we just used GPT3 to generate a sentence. We were doing fake wedding bells and horoscopes and all the kind of short pieces of text, so like a paragraph or two, not going too crazy, but long enough that you kind of get that sense of tone of voice and stuff so it's not just a sentence where there's no context, but as soon as you changed even one word or one letter, the whole thing completely dropped out, and it was like, oh no, this is totally written by a human, and you literally had to change one word in 150 words and the AI could not tell it was written by AI.
Jack: And I think that is really interesting because it was clearly following the logic and the algorithm, sentence by sentence, word for word.
Jack: And as soon as you essentially, to use a turn of phrase, I know we're trying to avoid that, but throw spanner in the works, throw a wrench in the works, it suddenly doesn't know what it's doing and it's like, oh, then it's not following my pattern, therefore somebody else must have written it, and it's this really interesting thing. Just the smallest little changes and then... I think that's what a lot of people are using it from my experience is to get the gist essentially, to lay down the foundation for a lot of stuff. I've seen it in a lot of ad copy, for a lot of page search stuff, people using it for PPC, short ad copy and stuff like that, generating on mass, this client needs a hundred ads and we need to go live in the next two days, all this kind of stuff, and then you can generate them super quickly and then fine-tune them and tweak them and all that kind of stuff.
Jack: Do you think you can spot a lot of AI-generated stuff at first glance? As a writer, as an SEO, you've got both sides of your brain working there, are you able to spot it straight off or have you been fooled a couple of times by AI stuff? I know I definitely have because I know news sites have used it before and then revealed it at a later date, that news story was written by AI and stuff like that.
Maddy: Well, first of all, I think just to address what you said earlier, all grammar rules fall apart in spoken language, or at least this is what I try to tell my mom when she corrects me, but I'm like, "It's vernacular."
Jack: Your mom's an English teacher, right?
Maddy: She is, yeah. So, she's very particular. Yeah, to get back to the AI subject, so yeah, and I've tried to find a tool that can detect it, and there's just not really a great solution for that yet which is probably why it's kind of a wild, wild west on AI tools right now because until Google figures out how to detect that, and maybe they can, we just don't know, but until they can figure it out and until that detection tool software is available for others, it's kind of like, yeah, it's open season on AI-generated copies. So, it's kind of the perfect time to experiment because it won't get penalised necessarily. They do say Google in the quality reader guidelines that AI, robot-generated copy, however they phrase it, is considered spam. So, that is something to think about in the back of your head if you're playing with these tools. But to your point, Jack, if you don't just end with what the robot generates and you add to it, you edit it a little bit, then maybe Google can't detect that anymore.
Jack: Yeah, yeah.
Maddy: So, I think that's really the key is that you don't start and stop with what the robot says. I do think that there is a benefit to using it. I would say for me, the benefit that I see is using it for inspiration. I'm looking at a blank page, maybe I could generate a very basic outline, so that sends me down a path of research and discovery or whatever, or maybe I wrote a great article, but I'm really struggling with the title, and so, using a title generator tool, and then fine-tuning and maybe using some headline analyzer tools to come up with some power words or whatever, that's another great potential use case. To answer your question, can I detect when it's robot written or not, not necessarily. Certainly not at first glance.
Jack: Yeah, I agree.
Maddy: No, it's tough. But I think the real question is does it do its job and also what part does it play in your process? Is it the be-all and end-all, or is it just one piece? Another AI tool that I actually really love is this, it's like a Google Docs extension called Wordtune, and the way that that works is that you have to already write a sentence and then it suggests ways to rewrite the sentence. So, it's like it's still coming from me, right? I wrote the original sentence, I'm just trying to make it better.
Jack: That's really interesting. Yeah, I think like you said, that's almost coming from the other end of it, right? So, you're not tweaking the AI content. AI is tweaking the human-generated content.
Jack: Yeah, and using different words, and again, being able to adjust reading levels or turns of phrase or whatever it is.
Jack: That is fascinating. And I know something you touched on in the book as well is making things, as you were saying, more conversational is such a difficult thing I think from a lot of the robot-written stuff I have seen.
Maddy: Oh, for sure.
Jack: Because it follows such a strict structure, you can really kind of tell, like, "Wow, that was really blunt. It's almost like it was written by a robot. Of course." I find that fascinating. Yeah, you touched on tools there, I know Wordtune is something I'm definitely going to go and check out now and I know you've mentioned on a few other shows before, so I will definitely leave a link for that in the show notes. You want to go and check that out, listeners. I know I definitely will. Are there any other tools you'd recommend in 2022 as a writer, as an SEO that are essential to your day-to-day as founder of The Blogsmith and as a writer day-to-day as well?
Maddy: Totally. Yeah, I have a couple of suggestions that are SEO specific and then I have a couple that are not SEO specific. So, I think one of the main categories that comes to mind just asking the question is content optimisation tools which kind of bridges that human-robot gap, I would say. So, tools like Clearscope, Frase, MarketMuse, Surfer, these are all really great options. We at The Blogsmith, we primarily use Clearscope and Frase, Frase more at the beginning end of creating something because it's more of like a brief. It's got a lot of research statistics to look into, things like that. And then Clearscope more at the end to make sure that we're weaving in... The way that they work, I guess just for anybody who doesn't know, is that in general, they go and they kind of look at the top 10 to 30 search results and what they do is they extract entities. So, like nouns, people, places, things. So, those are kind of like your semantic keywords. It's like what do we expect based on what's already ranking which again, you don't want to end with the robot here. You still have to think of ways that you as a human can make this data that you find unique because you don't want to just add to the void of what already exists. You want to create something that adds new value, otherwise what's the point? So, yeah, Clearscope, Frase, those are great tools for basically taking care of the research side of things or a huge chunk of it and curating in a really nice-to-use format. I think that you also need some sort of all-in-one SEO tool in your stack if this is your main job. If you're a small business owner, probably doesn't make sense to get a subscription to Ahrefs which is what we use, or Semrush which is another really great option. Maybe another link we could add too is I have this search engine journal article about free keyword research tool, so I'll share it with you.
Jack: Yeah, yeah.
Maddy: So, that might be a better solution if this isn't your whole job right, but if it is, then it definitely makes sense to spend the hundred-plus a month on an all-in-one SEO tool because the way that we use, for example, Clearscope or Frase is that we're doing our keyword research first. We're identifying a primary keyword because that's then how you generate the reports. You shouldn't do that without doing some background keyword research. Otherwise, you're probably just going to be wasting the credits that you're paying for because you're just guessing. I think it's important when you're creating content especially, but I mean, probably really any job, to have a project or a process management tool, and so, this is a big thing for me was realizing that project management tools don't actually work that well for me.
I could never find something that was the perfect fit for how I work, all the little teeny things that I care about and that I want the people who work for me to consider as they're doing a task. And so, that's why I use a tool called Process Street which allows me to build my ideal workflow and basically have people on the team come in at the most relevant time so they're not waiting on somebody else to do something that they don't have something burning a hole in their inbox or whatever, and Process Street's really great for that. It has a lot of advanced features and I'm actually going to do a webinar with them in the very near future about that. So, by the time this comes out, that might be available and you can learn more about my content production process because that's what we're going to talk about.
I think you also need to think about how you're documenting your processes so that they can be repeatable so that people on your team can understand what your intent was in creating them and how they should execute them. So, for us, it's a really simple notion, just having a place where you can just add information. One of our customers which is also a tool that we use is Scribe, and it's a really great Chrome extension that basically you hit record and then it takes a screenshot of every click that you make and you can add useful detail on top of that in terms of creating a process document. So, that's another great way, an easy way I think to document the ways that you do things. And then the last thing I was going to mention are just thinking about graphics, and so, tools Canva, a lot better than nothing. There's a lot of great things you could do if you're not a designer.
Jack: It's a lot better than using Paint, right?
Maddy: Certainly an upgrade from Paint, or if you're like me and you realise that you appreciate art but it's hard for you to create it, then maybe working with an agency. We use Design Pickle. So, it's kind of that mix of tool and service, but what's really cool about Design Pickle is that even though they're a service, you can hook their tool up to Zapier, and so, you can create forms and stuff for your team to make it really easy to communicate with them. So, those are my main suggestions.
Jack: Nice. I'm taking notes as we go. I'm definitely going to go and check some of these out after we finish this podcast.
Maddy: Do it.
Jack: To tie it into some more SEO stuff, I guess outside of the more obvious things, I'm sure plenty of our listeners know about typewriting, optimising for titles, and meta descriptions, and getting your H1s right and all that kind of stuff, is there anything that brings to your mind when you think of content SEO that doesn't get talked about enough or that goes underutilised or flies under the radar for a lot of people?
Maddy: Sure. My answers are going to be quasi-SEO and maybe mostly user experience which with the core web vitals update, I mean, many other updates before it, but certainly with that one, I think we realise user experience is pretty important, hard to quantify-
Jack: But definitely something you shouldn't neglect, right?
Jack: Yeah, exactly.
Maddy: So, I think it's things like having a clickable table of content. That's a big trend that I've seen lately. Not even just beginning of the article, but sometimes it's like a floating bar to the side of it.
Jack: I saw that the other day. I literally saw a table of contents, like you said, that expands at the beginning and then is hovering at the sidebar, and then each of parts is a jump link.
Maddy: So good.
Jack: So, you anchor-link through to each section. I was like, "That's really nice. I like that."
Maddy: It's so good.
Jack: As a user and as an SEO I was like, "Ooh, that's very tasty."
Maddy: Yeah. So, people like that and it helps them, and I think it speaks to that internet reader who's a skimmer. That's just what they do. So, that's a big one. It's things like using descriptive alt texts that incorporates a keyword but without compromising the utility of that alt text. So, what I mean by that is not keyword stuffing or not putting in a keyword and leaving it at that, but making it truly descriptive since the purpose of the alt text, it's to help somebody using assistive technology like a screen reader.
Jack: It's almost like you're writing for humans and robots, right?
Maddy: Almost. Yes, so the robot, not just the screen reader, but also Google's search engine spiders use that alt text to understand the context of the content because they can't see it, right? That's another limitation of robots. They don't have retinas or whatever, so they rely on us to explain things. I think another thing, this is kind of more of an engagement thing, but it's things like embedding videos in your content, and it doesn't necessarily have to be your video, as long as it's relevant to the content itself, but that's something that tends to increase time on page which keeps somebody around on your site longer, helps to just build that relationship with them, I think.
The last thing I was going to say is just in general “skimmability”, what can you do to create headings that are truly descriptive and useful so that if there is a specific question you have, you can jump right to the correct heading? It's things like in The Blogsmith style guide, we talk about paragraphs being three lines or less in general so that there's a lot of white space, using bullet points, and having sentences that are no more than about two lines because otherwise, you start to get into run-on sentence territory. So, a lot of these things are more about user experience but also readability which has kind of an indirect effect on SEO.
Jack: Yeah, definitely. And from the other side of it, what are, I guess, some of the common SEO practices you've seen do with the opposite and make things less readable and more difficult for users to then actually impact that style guide essentially?
Maddy: Sure. No, that's a great question. I think most of that comes down to over-optimising for keywords. So, one thing that we've recently been talking about at The Blogsmith is having a maximum for how we use keywords which is something we should have done honestly a long time ago, but everything happens just out of a need.
Jack: Optimising for “stuffability” or whatever you want to call it.
Maddy: Exactly. I think that's mostly where people get into trouble is when they think about that more than the reader experience and not thinking about maybe the synonyms that you could weave in when it is starting to feel a little too stuffy. Yeah, I mean, even just what we're talking about with images and incorporating alt tags, just using the same alt text for every image or something like that. I think that's the main thing. I'm trying to think of if there's anything else super notable about how SEOs mess it up, but it mostly comes down to following the data without considering the human.
Jack: Yeah, I think the really common one I've seen is people really holding tight to the title length, all that 70 characters, that 500-pixel thing, and then making the title actually read in a really weird way and completely breaking that sentence. But like, "I've got to get it down to 70 characters, it's got to fit within the title restrictions." And you get almost like the classic headline stuff you see in all the newspapers where they get three or four words on a big tabloid front page, and it's like, okay, I get it, it's a tagline, but that sentence is not, that's not how English works.
Maddy: Yeah. That's a fair point. And I think one thing that we've created some guidelines for writers that's along the same vein of what we're talking about is if you're trying to use a keyword and it's truly awkward, I think that Google is at the point and probably because of the BERT update back in 2019 which for anybody who doesn't know, it just made it so that Google could understand a query reading it from right to left and from left to right. So, it understood what each word in the sentence meant compared to the next word next to it. So, I think that because of the BERT update now, it's not the same as in the past when it was exact matched keywords and you have to fit it in no matter what or else Google's not sophisticated enough to understand that that's what you're getting at, that's your main keyword, but now they do because of BERT. So, say for example, taking out an article like A or an is going to improve readability, just do it. I don't think that Google is going to penalise you for that at this point. That's not been my experience.
Jack: Yeah, I totally agree. Well, thank you for the fantastic advice and tips and all that kind of stuff along the way. How could people find out more about you and Writing for Humans and Robots?
Maddy: Sure. So, very happy to be here. Thank you for extending the invitation. Really great questions. And as far as after this, I'm probably most active on Twitter, so it's @MaddyOsman, theblogsmith.com is where you can learn a little bit more about what we do at my agency, and then writingforhumansandrobots.com, you can learn all about the book. You can download the first chapter for free which is my favourite chapter. It's all about word choice in writing. So, it is from the human side. And then you can grab the book on Amazon if you're intrigued. It's available on Kindle and in print, and interestingly enough, the print has outsold the Kindle so far.
Jack: Oh, interesting. That's cool. Very, very cool.
Maddy: For a book about the internet.
Jack: The fact that all these thinking forward and digital, but we want a paperback book in our hand. We need a hard copy.
Maddy: Just like every writer has The Elements of Style on your shelf. So, I'm happy that it worked out that way.
Jack: Exactly. Like I said, we'll see that next to the AP Stylebook and Elements of Style on every bookshelf in the future. Fingers crossed.
Maddy: Fingers crossed.
Jack: Well, thank you so much for joining, Maddy. It's been an absolute pleasure.
Jack: And that about wraps us up for this week. Thank you very much to Maddy Osman for joining me. It was an absolute pleasure to talk to Maddy and talk about her fantastic book. Like I said at the top of the show, links for everything we've talked about, including some of the tools Maddy recommended, her website, the book website, and all of her social media links will be available in the show notes at search.withcandour.co.uk. I've got some more fantastic guests coming up, including Jamar Ramos, Daniel K. Cheung, and Jeff Grill coming up in the next few weeks as well. They're already recorded and ready to go.
So, yeah, Mark and I will also be back with some live LinkedIn Q&A, stuff and we're working on doing some more live streams and expanding our capacity there. Without revealing too much, we've got big things planned for the new year, so stay tuned, and if you would like to get in contact, of course, you can find me on social media. I am JLWChambers on Twitter and LinkedIn. If you'd like to come on the show, if you'd like to be a guest, you have something interesting to say about SEO or PPC, please do let me know. But in the meantime, thank you very much for listening and have a lovely week.