SEO Fundamentals Every Nurse-Writer Should Know

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I was speaking with a prospective client the other day, and she expressed skepticism about working with a freelance writer.

“The only reason I’m really even talking with you is because of your blog post about ‘if your website is more than four years old, you might have a Google problem.’ That’s our situation exactly – we have a lot of old content that needs to be updated to continue ranking. The post showed me you know what you’re talking about when it comes to SEO, and, honestly, the main reason I don’t work with freelance writers is because they not only don’t have a clue about SEO but seem to feel it’s ‘not their job’ to understand SEO.”

I was shocked. Floored. Not their job to know SEO?? I told the prospect I couldn’t believe it.

“Oh, no,” she replied. “I’ve tried working with maybe a dozen freelance writers over the years, and I had to spend so much time editing it for SEO that it made more sense for me to just write it all myself.”

What does this tell us, as nurse-writers?

1. You can differentiate yourself from other healthcare writers by developing your on-page SEO skills

2. You can serve clients better in the digital content world by learning basic SEO

Today I want to give you a primer on the basic SEO skills every nurse-writer should develop.

What is SEO?

But first, some background. SEO stands for “search engine optimization.” All search engines (Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, etc.) robotically read web pages and then assign them a “ranking” in terms of how they relate to specific search criteria entered by the user. I’m going to focus on Google in this post, because it’s by far the largest and most influential search engine.

So, for example, if I visit Google and type in the query “what is seo,” you’ll see from the screenshot below that Google has indexed 438,000,000 pages that relate to this question. Some of those pages will answer my question admirably. Some of them probably will not.

To guide me to the most relevant pages, Google uses a proprietary algorithm to evaluate how each page answers my search query. In this case, Google crowned Moz.com’s content the winner. Search Engine Land’s page came in second. Wikipedia got a mention in a separate box, to the right of the organic results, and several videos also made the cut.

This is how search engine ranking works, in general, and SEO is the process that drives high rankings.

SEO consists of dozens of elements – many of which occur “behind the scenes” through things like how a URL is structured and how many backlinks a site garners. Those “backend” elements generally do not involve the writer.

But “on-page SEO” definitely does involve the writer. In fact, it’s incumbent on the digital writer to consider SEO for every page she writes. It’s not enough for your work to convey information (such as the articles I write for Healthgrades) or to entice a reader to purchase a product. Any time you write something that will live on the web, you need to consider how to help it rank well on Google.

What is On-Page SEO?

When Google’s web spider, Googlebot, crawls a web page, it looks for various features – like the URL structure I mentioned above. But it also looks at the words on the page, categorizes them, and then ranks them relative to other web pages that seem to be about the same topic.

Using our example above, Google ranks Moz.com’s content highly because, for one thing, the words on the page make it abundantly clear that the content is about SEO by using the term “SEO” throughout the copy, along with different versions of the primary search term (aka: “keyword”), such as spelling out “search engine optimization.” The page also uses terms related to SEO, such as “organic,” “traffic,” and “title tags.”

As a digital healthcare writer, you need to understand the basics of how the words you write influence the Googlebot. Honestly, I thought all digital writers knew this. Based on my conversation with the prospective client, I guess I was wrong.

What Every Nurse-Writer Needs to Know About On-Page SEO

At a minimum, you should understand the following concepts:

  • The general principles of SEO

  • What keywords/key phrases are

  • Proper length of a meta description

  • How to structure title tags

  • Appropriate content length

Having said that, please be aware Google frequently changes its search ranking algorithm…which changes the “rules” for how to use these elements in the digital content you write.

For example, a decade ago Google favored long web page content of 1,500 words or so. Then the search giant switched to favoring very brief content, 300-500 words. Now Google apparently has gone back to favoring very long content, in excess of 1,700 words.

And that’s just one example of how dynamic the SEO environment is.

Let me go over each of the on-page SEO elements above to define them and provide the current situation, at least as far as Google is concerned.

What keywords/key phrases are

These are the terms that people type into the search box when they want to find something. In my example, I typed “what is SEO?” Whenever you write a digital asset (any content item that will live on the web), you should understand the main keyword or key phrase involved, plus related words and phrases.

Generally, your client will provide you with the keywords/phrases they want to optimize for. If they do not, you can ask for them. If they don’t know, you can develop your own basic keywords simply from the assignment details. For instance, if I’m asked to write an article on Raynaud’s phenomenon, then I should know, obviously, that a main key phrase will be “Raynaud’s phenomenon.” And from my research, I might also be able to glean that I should include terms like “Raynaud’s disease” (because that’s how the National Institutes of Health list it) and “attacks” and “fingers” – because these words not only describe Raynaud’s but also represent terms someone might logically type into the search box.

If a client gives you “keyword density” guidelines, you see this as a signal they’re not up to date on SEO best practices, because keyword density hasn’t been relevant for several years. Basically, you should simply incorporate two or three keywords as naturally as possible in the content you’re writing without worrying about how often they appear.

That said, always do what your client asks you to do.

Also note that keyword research generally falls outside the scope of a writing assignment. If a client expects you to perform keyword research, be sure to add that into your proposal for an additional fee.

Proper length of a meta description

The “meta description” is the text that describes the search result Google shows you. In the screenshot above, the Moz meta description is obscured, but if you look at the Search Engine Land result, you’ll notice some text below the URL that starts, “SEO stands for search engine optimization.” That section is the meta description, and clients frequently will ask you to provide this. (If they don’t, you can suggest it as a value-add.)

The current preferred length of a Google meta description is about 140 characters. That’s characters, folks, including spaces. As you can tell, crafting a meta description that incorporates the main keyword and also entices the reader to click on that particular result is an art unto itself.

The length of meta descriptions changes regularly, so be sure to stay current on best practices.

How to structure title tags

The “title tag” is the name of the web page as it displays in the search results. In our example, Moz’s title tag is “What is SEO? Search Engine Optimization Meaning.” That might sound clunky, but it works. And part of the reason it works is because:

  • It front-loads the main key phrase

  • It contains an additional, long-tail keyword (spelling out “search engine optimization”)

  • It’s under 60 characters long

Use those three principles to optimize the page title tag.

Appropriate content length

Your content should be as long as it needs to be and no longer. Sounds simple, right? But it’s oh, so tricky sometimes.

As I said, Google currently favors very long content. But do you think you could spin 1700-plus words on how to remove skin tags at home? What about 1700 words on how a hospital can improve nursing culture throughout the organization?

If you said “no” to question one and “yes” to question two, then you get the idea. Some content lends itself naturally to a longer form. Never try to “write long” in an attempt to improve search rank. Google will always value high-quality content over length or any other attribute.

Caveat: Again, always do what the client asks. If they commission a 1700-word article on hangnail care, do your best to produce it.

How a Nurse Writer can Stay Current on SEO Trends

You do not have to become a stone cold SEO guru to be an exceptional healthcare writer. But you should stay abreast of changes to Google’s algorithm and other trends that affect the content you produce for clients.

As a first step, I invite you to download my free ebook, 7 Deadly Sins of Healthcare Content Writing that Kill SEO and Turn Off Prospective Clients. I hope you’ll find it useful – and if this is all you learn about SEO, you’ll still be ahead of other writers.

Second, I follow these resources and recommend you do the same:

  • Google Webmaster Central Blog – regularly provides updates to webmasters about algorithm changes, etc.

  • Moz blog – intended for SEO ninjas, but you can glean excellent intelligence to help you serve clients better

  • Neil Patel’s blog – a little click-baity, which I don’t prefer, but Neil is a genius, nonetheless

I also recommend you set up a news reader app to capture SEO news. I use News360 for this, and it enables me to simply scan the headlines quickly to keep current on major SEO events.

What questions do you have about your role in SEO? If you’ve been doing this for a while, what tips would you offer beginners about optimization?

Elizabeth Hanes

Elizabeth Hanes

Elizabeth Hanes BSN RN is known professionally as "the nurse who knows content." By day, she uses her nursing knowledge and creative writing acumen to produce content that drives results for clients. By night, she teaches other nurses how to achieve their dreams of a professional writing career. In between, she takes frequent breaks to drink Cosmos and walk her dog, Mitzi. Elizabeth lives in Albuquerque, NM. She has never met Walter White or needed Saul Goodman.

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