“My blog has been with me in various formats for twelve years. Each time it changes it is because I want it to. It is a place I have complete control, where I can back up my words and pictures, it grows with me and it doesn’t do things on its own accord.”—Helen Redfern
Please note: To help you plan your time effectively, I’ve summed up how long I think it will take you to read each lesson and watch any videos the lesson contains.
READ: 10 minutes
Welcome to Intuitive SEO: A Creative’s Guide to Telling Your Story & Growing Your Audience
Before we get started, I want to share something important with you, something that you hopefully already know: SEO isn’t a magic trick, or secret formula to fast-track you to success (whether that’s X number of sales, subscribers, readers, and followers, or X number of sales).
SEO is a mindset that involves a habitual focus on quality, clarifying your purpose and message, and serving your ideal audience to the best of your abilities. It’s about taking an intentional approach to your website and all of the work that you do online.
You’re probably here because you want more people to visit your website. Everyone will have a different reason for wanting more website traffic that’s unique to them; maybe you’re working on promoting a cause you believe in deeply and you want to have more of an impact, maybe you want to share your art with the world and you’re looking for an audience who will connect with (and benefit from) your work, or perhaps you make and sell a product, offer a service, or want to build a community of like-minded people.
Or, you might be like me: a writer researching what people need, what they’re turning to Google for, to inform your content plan for your own blog, as well as for your article pitches and work as a freelance writer. Teaching yourself SEO as a writer is a great way to up-level your skills, stand out from the crowd, and have a higher day rate.
Whatever it is that brought you here, I’m hoping that as you work through these lessons you’ll start to see how SEO is connected to every aspect of your work and its promotion online. I want to encourage you to see SEO as a mindset that helps you to elevate what you have to offer the people you’re online to serve, and a tool that you can use however works best—and feels most natural—for you and your work.
Every website exists to be visited and used by real living and breathing people; to meet a need, and to serve someone somewhere. Really, at the heart of it, SEO is all about understanding why you’re sharing what you share, who it’s for, and using empathy to research and meet the needs of your ideal audience.
Before we get started, I wanted to share a bit of my own story; I hope that understanding how I’ve used SEO in my work as a creative in the online world over the past few years will help you to visualise the bigger picture role it could play in your own work.
Finding new ways to grow
Verily magazine was founded by a group of women in New York city, with the mission of giving women something uplifting and empowering to read, something that promoted healthy relationships with ourselves and each other (it was one of the first women’s magazines to have an official no-Photoshop policy).
In 2014 (a few years after I graduated from my MA in Magazine Journalism) they hired me to write the headlines for their articles while they transitioned from print to being a digital-only platform. I poured my heart and soul into those headlines, and took every opportunity to learn how to hone and improve them. I studied what worked and what didn’t, and analysed why that might be. I made mistakes, I learned from them, and got better.
After reading an article about how to optimise headlines to attract search traffic, I started reading anything and everything I could find on the subject, hoping to help get Verily’s articles in front of a wider audience. I put together a proposal for a rudimentary SEO strategy, and tentatively suggested to my boss that I try it out; she was all for it. Slowly, my hours expanded, and my job description evolved from simply writing headlines to also include SEO and growth.
Discovering the power of SEO
Nine months after implementing my SEO strategy, I looked back at our website traffic analytics and discovered that our search traffic had increased almost five-fold since the month that I first started working on our SEO.
It was then that I realised that knowing how to grow a website’s audience through SEO is a skill that can help every creative flourish online.
I fell in love with SEO as a means of connecting with readers online in a sustainable way on my own terms, a way to continue getting steady and reliable website traffic at a time when social media was letting publishers and small businesses down. I discovered that SEO is not about numbers and complicated code; it’s about people, language, psychology, empathy, and stories… the very things that I love about being human.
I also realised that understanding SEO can actually help you to improve your website and social media presence—basically, all the work you’re already doing as a creative person, sharing your work online—by helping to clarify your ideas and focus on how you’re serving the world with what you create. Ultimately, learning SEO can have a positive impact on every aspect of your work, both online and offline.
Since first learning about SEO in 2014, I’m still constantly learning and testing. I’ve been a regular contributor of SEO articles for publications like House & Garden, WIRED, Career Contessa, and Sustainably Chic. Understanding how SEO works helps me to hone my article pitches as a freelance journalist, securing me a higher rate of pay as a content writer, and informing my work as a freelance Digital Content Manager for small, sustainability-focused businesses who align with my values.
Why SEO is refreshingly different from social media
While I was working on growing Verily’s online readership, social algorithms started to shift and change, and we saw a dramatic drop in the traffic that Facebook was sending to our articles. When I started working with Verily in 2014, Facebook was our main driver of traffic to the website, and by the time I left the team to go freelance in 2017, that Facebook traffic had more than halved, despite our best efforts to keep reaching our fans on that platform.
It wasn’t just us: businesses everywhere were suffering. From late 2013 onwards, Facebook kept gradually introducing more and more algorithm changes, requiring publishers and brands to pay to show their own followers content. As a result, a lot of people have become very disillusioned with social media (and, particularly with Facebook) as a way of promoting their work.
While social media is undoubtedly still very important, its direct impact on a website’s traffic has significantly dwindled over the past few years. Its greatest strength isn’t necessarily in driving a lot of traffic to your website, but in the more intangible task of helping to build awareness, momentum, curiosity, and community. Some people find that they can build a successful business based around a popular Instagram account. But, the fact is that social media platforms are generally designed to keep you on that platform as long as possible—just think about how Instagram limits the links you can share to one in your profile.
Ultimately, search and SEO are closely connected and should work well together in any intentional marketing strategy; when someone discovers your website via search and enjoys your work, they’ll often go and follow you on social media to get to know you better. So, we’ll be exploring the relationship between SEO and social media some more in module three.
But, the joy of search is that it’s all about connecting with the people who are already interested in what you have to offer, who are actively turning to a search engine to look for it—the “lowest hanging fruit”, as it were.
SEO gives us back the power to reach our audience on our own terms with something that we own and can control: our own websites.
Getting a baseline, reliable, steady amount of traffic to all of your work, not just the pieces that blow up on social media, is vital. SEO is a way to grow steadily without burning out trying to stay on top of every latest change that the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world decide to make to their social platforms.
Traffic and growth without the overwhelm
Sure, Google has its own complicated algorithms, and it’s a business too. But what I love about it is that, unlike social platforms, Google is specifically designed to help active users to find what they’re looking for, rather than being a social platform where people passively scroll.
This means that it’s actually in Google’s best interests to show people high quality, relevant content when they’re looking for it, which should be great news to every creative soul out there who just wants the right people to find their work.
Search ended up being Verily’s highest driver of traffic, and also our fastest and most consistent channel of growth. By doing my research thoroughly, training our team, and implementing a super simple and easy-to-follow strategy, we were able to keep growing our search traffic without a lot of struggle. It felt almost effortless, in fact, compared to other parts of the editorial creation and promotion process.
And, the best thing about the search traffic was that it kept pouring in, even when we weren’t publishing new content.
There are thousands of people out there actively searching for what you have to offer, and SEO is one of the most powerful ways to help them to find you, for free.
Doing creative work of any kind is hard enough; you’re throwing your heart and soul into creating amazing things, and so often getting the end result seen by the wider world can feel like such an uphill battle. But it doesn’t have to be that way; as I discovered, mastering the art of SEO can help take some of the overwhelm of promoting your hard work off your shoulders.
Consistent growth, from consistent quality
I kind of hate that phrase “make money/get website traffic while you sleep” because it sounds like such a spammy and empty promise, implying that you don’t have to do any work to make progress. While of course it’s not true that you don’t have to do any work for SEO (we’ll be learning all about the work in this course!), it is true that once you’ve done the work, you will start to get website visitors while you sleep/eat/go for a walk/spend time with your loved ones.
Unlike social media traffic, where you constantly have to spend time and energy posting to stay on the right side of algorithms and encourage people to click over to your website before your latest post drops off their feeds, search traffic carries on working in the background, even during periods of time when you’re not posting anything new. You can do the work in your own time, at a pace that works for you, and then go offline and focus on other things.
This is why I think of SEO as a “slow living”-friendly marketing strategy; it’s all about quality over quantity, slowing down to think about the bigger picture, spending your time in an intentional way, planning content in tune with the seasons, working smarter not harder, and creating breathing room in your business.
When I interviewed slow living blogger Beth Kirby about her approach to “slow work”, she told me that being super intentional about how you choose to spend your working time and energy, and planning ahead accordingly, is the key to living and working in a way that allows plenty of white space and room for the seasonal shifts in your energy. Beth lived with some mental health issues that mean she couldn’t work at full capacity all year round even if she wanted to—but, even if you don’t have health struggles, none of us are machines, and we all experience an ebb and flow in our energy and attention throughout the year.
She told me that modern small business owners need to “[Focus on] creating things that last [rather than just] creating disposable content… I’m a huge advocate of blogging, because blogging is like slow social media. If you write 10 great SEO posts, those are going to feed your business for years, if they’re highly topical to your business and what you’re selling… I think people are putting all their efforts into the churn of heavy turnover social media and kind of forgetting blogging and SEO.” I couldn’t agree more.
Blogger and slow living writer Erin Loechner calls this “slow blogging”. I think slowing down the pace of what we produce online and being really intentional about it can restore the joy to our work, lessen the likelihood of burnout, and also help us to have a deeper impact in the long run.
Even social media algorithms these days are moving towards their own form of SEO, developing technology that scans for keywords in an effort to show content to the relevant people who might be interested in it. So, by learning about website SEO, you’ll start to think in ways that help you write to get discovered via social media, too.
Seeking opportunities to learn and grow
I called this course “Intuitive SEO” because I truly believe that SEO is a tool that everyone can understand. In fact, it’s so common-sense you may discover as you work through this course that you already know more about it than you think you do. If at any point you feel like I’m covering ground that’s already familiar to you, I’d love to encourage you to use it as an opportunity to consolidate your knowledge and move on.
Similarly, if you ever feel overwhelmed by new information, take a break, celebrate the fact that you’re learning something new and adding helpful tools to your toolbox, and remember, you don’t have to implement everything all at once.
In fact, here’s the truth: at Verily, we did maybe half the number of things we could have been doing to improve our SEO (if that), and what we did still had a huge impact. With SEO, a little goes a long way.
Later on in the course, after you’ve learned all the things you could potentially do with unlimited time, energy, and resources, I’ll teach you how to prioritise and choose just a few key, manageable things to focus on. None of us can do it all—and just a few things done well can move you closer towards your goals without making you burn out.
Because you have lifetime access to this course, I also hope that you’ll come back and revisit what you learn here at different stages in your journey. Experiment, test the things you learn out, make these strategies your own, skip over bits that feel too overwhelming for now and come back to them later, ask questions, dig deeper, and don’t forget to keep an eye on the results so you can see and celebrate your growth.
Please note: I’ve written this course for people who have their own websites and are growing their own audience and community, whether that’s as a creative (writer, artist), or a small business owner, but if you’re a freelance writer like me, you can apply all of this knowledge to your work for other people’s websites.
I’m honoured to be on this journey with you!
Next, I’m going to outline some basic terms and concepts, briefly explain what you’re going to learn on this course and how to make the most of all that I share here, and touch on some of the key tools that it’s helpful to get familiar with. So, I’ll see you in the next lesson!