How to Leverage SEO While Still Writing Creatively (Without Going Insane)


It’s often said that ‘content writers write to please humans, while SEO writers write to appease search engines.’ That can be true in so many ways but shouldn’t be. As a writer trying to debunk that logic – to please and appease both humans and search engines – you might find yourself in a state of cognitive dissonance.

“Cognitive dissonance is a theory in social psychology used to describe the internal conflict that occurs when a person’s beliefs and behaviours do not align.

People tend to seek consistency between what they believe to be true and what they do; when these two are contradictory, there is a feeling of unease and mental discomfort that follows – hence cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance: SEO vs Creative Writing

Content creators, with a focus on SEO, are constantly trying to find the balance between using words to take our readers on an amazing journey (what we believe we should do) and getting search engines to see our content as worthy enough to appear on the coveted first page of search results (what we know we must do).

From a cognitive dissonance perspective, this could look like this:

  • Belief – writing should be free of constraints, enjoyable and engaging
  • Behaviour – written content must be keyword-focused and search engine optimised

A writer may feel compelled by the demands for SEO-friendly content but also have a strong desire to write naturally without worrying about keyword density or other constraints brought on by the rules of SEO. The result could be cognitive dissonance because of conflicting beliefs and behaviours – writing in a way that doesn’t match their beliefs.

We all want to get our content on that first page (SERPs) – like getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for content – and to be seen by (potentially) millions of people. This is the common denominator between creative writers and SEO writers (if there even is a difference) – this is what SEO helps with.

Google’s little robots are bound by a duty to show searchers exactly what they are looking for, so they set rules and send their minions (spiders) to crawl sites for content. The ones that obey these rules are deemed worthy for the first page. 

Hence, obeying the rules of SEO is important but that doesn’t mean the needs of the readers should come second.

When asked about the importance of content on a website to rank on Google, John Mueller, Google Search Advocate, said:

High quality and Relevancy

The content itself is something that really needs to be high quality and relevant for the user.

John Mueller, Google Search Advocate

Consider here, that he never mentions keywords – quality and relevancy are key. Knowing this, a writer’s belief and behaviour should be:

  • Belief – writing should be free of constraints, enjoyable and engaging – high quality
  • Behaviour – writing for SEO should be concise and contain only effective keywords – relevancy

I have found that to avoid the cognitive dissonance of search engines vs humans, it is important not to think of writing for ranking as walking your creativity to the guillotine.

Creatively written articles can be search engine optimised and vice versa – the trick is to find the balance.


4 Cognitive Dissonances Writers Face (& How to Find Balance)

Cognitive Dissonance - Beliefs VS Behaviours

1. Keywords vs Natural Language

When writing for SEO, there is often a lot of pressure to obey the rules of keyword usage – inserting certain words and phrases that will trigger algorithms to give the page more visibility. Some writers might find that their beliefs are contradicted by these rules and that their creativity is stifled.

Conflicting beliefs:

  • Writing keyword-rich content is important for SEO.
  • Using keywords can make your content sound unnatural and awkward.

These conflicting beliefs can create cognitive dissonance, which can lead to bad writing habits. For one, you may find yourself adding keywords in the middle of sentences and paragraphs that don’t fit the flow of your content and end up with a low-quality piece that reads nothing like you.

So, how do you find the balance?

1. Carry out keyword research first

Before you start writing, it is important to know what keywords you want your article to rank for. Use keywords as a guide – these are the topics you need to cover, not necessarily specific phrases. If you’re a newbie to SEO, tools like Ahrefs and Semrush will be the best platforms to begin your research.

2. Plot out your content around your keywords

This way, you don’t go on writing to your creativity’s content only to realise that you haven’t added any keywords in the last 7 paragraphs. Group related keywords together into one article, so you can easily build out your sections. This will allow you to fit in keywords naturally, freeing you up to be creative when writing. 

3. Keep it natural

Don’t ever force in a keyword because it’s been identified as a target. If a keyword phrase doesn’t fit naturally into your sentence, either remove it or re-write it. Remember, the way people search isn’t different to how they read and write. You might search for ‘white t-shirt large’ but using that phrase verbatim would sound unnatural.

2.    Search Volume vs Relevancy

Search engines have a big role to play in how people find content online, but they aren’t the only ones. People also have a say in what they spend their time reading. That’s why writers need to keep in mind that readers are also doing their research and will be looking for answers to their questions.

Conflicting beliefs:

  • I want my article to rank – write on a topic with a high-search volume to entice search engine algorithms.
  • I want to educate my audience – write on a topic that your target audience will find relevant to their needs.

How do you find the balance?

The best way to stay out of this cognitive dissonance is to regard both sides of the equation when writing your next piece of content, otherwise, you’ll end up with something that doesn’t resonate with either the audience or search engines.

1. Research the search intent

It isn’t a bad thing to know the search volume around certain topics, but it is good to know why people (your audience, assuming you know them) will be searching for them.

  • Is it to learn about a general topic?
  • Answer a specific question?
  • Find out how to use a product?

Knowing what you want your content to accomplish will inform why and how you write. Try Googling the term you’re creating content around and you’ll see what specific answers Google is surfacing – this is usually a good place to start. 

If you’re still unsure about the relevancy of a particular topic, run it through Google Trends or Buzzsumo. Both tools show how often a topic has been searched for over time and how many times it’s been shared on social media networks.

2. Consider the brand

As a writer, it is important for you to consider the brand you’re writing for and where its relevance starts and ends. Let the topics you pick, regardless of search volume, be relevant to the brand and its audience – what does the brand want to have topical authority on? What topics do their audience consider them a credible source on?

For example, a restaurant selling vegan foods shouldn’t be writing about ‘Top 5 non-vegan foods you should try’ regardless of high search volume – alternatively, consider that you can create cognitive dissonance in readers who are looking at your content and finding inconsistencies with what they know about the brand.

3. Titles – Relatable vs Keyword-focused

There are SEO rules for titles and headings, some of which may encourage cognitive dissonance.

Conflicting Beliefs:

  • I should use keywords in titles to help my content rank higher in search engines. But then it might not make sense!
  • I should ignore keywords and instead create titles that are necessary and will keep my readers engaged. But then my content won’t rank!
  • I should make titles descriptive but also include keywords. But then it might be very long and not ideal for mobile-first users. 

These beliefs might be difficult to navigate, especially if you’re new to SEO. And in truth, there is no one right answer. ‘Relatable’ and ‘Keyword-rich’ are not mutually exclusive when talking about titles; instead, they are complementary.

A good title will keep your readers engaged (Relatable) and will help your content rank higher in search engines (Keyword-focused).

To find the balance, ensure your title is:

  • Relevant so it guides the readers through the piece
  • Descriptive so users know what to expect
  • Keyword- optimised so Google knows the full structure and content of the page
  • Sensible so that it sounds natural when read out loud
  • Concise so it fits in with design best practices and can be viewed on mobile without taking up the whole screen
  • Fulfilling so that readers get exactly what the topic promises in the body copy

4.   Content  – Lengthy vs Bite-sized

‘What is the ideal length for a search engine optimised content?’ Now that’s a million-dollar question with answers that change like the seasons. Some will say 1,000 to 1,500, others will say 2,000 to 2,500. 

It’s difficult to say exactly how long or short the content should be as there are so many factors at play –  such as topic complexity, audience needs, or writing style. 

Personally, I have chosen to disavow this contemplation and instead say “Write with intent”. Write only as much as it takes for your reader to reach their desired outcome. So, if you’re trying to get them from point A (not knowing about your product) to point B (buying something from you), then don’t waste time on filler words or phrases that will only make your piece longer.

Ask yourself:

  • Have I covered all aspects of this topic?
  • Could the article be broken up into smaller pieces (check SERP results) or would they fit better as a long-form article?
  • Have I repeated myself at all? If so, delete!
  • Does my audience need a lengthy or bite-sized article about this topic? If someone is looking up how to fix a leaking pipe, they won’t want a 2,000-word piece that covers ‘what a pipe’ is.

Finding the balance will cancel out the cognitive dissonance.  

In Summary

Being good at SEO is not just about ranking higher in search results; It’s also about engagement and user trust. In the end, remember that your writing should be true to what you want to write; try to keep your voice (or your client’s voice) in your writing as much as possible. By all means, adhere to SEO rules, but do so without compromising your sense of self as a good writer.

Now, go forth and publish creative, relevant, and high-quality articles that will please and appease both people and search engines.

Learn more on how to write relevant & high quality content

If you want some more tips on how to write for people and search engines, check out our article on 6 Copywriting Tips That Boost Conversions and How to Create Relevant Content.

If you’re new to SEO, our article What Is SEO? Your Questions Answered can offer you a full intro.

And, if as a brand, you find SEO copywriting and content marketing to be too much work for your team, you can always take advantage of our all-inclusive content marketing service. Contact us today for high-ROI content that will keep your readers coming back for more.

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