Writing for Search: Where Meta Tags Meet David Ogilvy

Is it possible there was a time when we weren’t chasing algorithms and we were focused purely on engaging our audience? When the goal for ad agencies was writing great copy that was memorable and that spoke to the (human) reader?

If you read David Ogilvy’s book, Confessions of an Advertising Man, the answer is “yes.”

Over the December holiday break I decided to expand my horizons by reading through some books, including the great works by David Ogilvy and Claude Hopkins, pioneers in advertising and direct marketing. As I sat in front of the Christmas tree and read Ogilvy’s book, I came across his best practices and tips for writing effective ad copy (chapter six, “How to Write Potent Ad Copy”). While they don’t generally apply to my digital day-to-day life (the book was published in 1963), I was struck by what I read.

I remembered what I had taught my paid and SEO teams back in the “dark ages” of 2002, in a time when algorithms where much simpler, and Web analytics data was very limited. Fast-forward to today’s methods, when we are driven by data, rankings, and click-through rates (CTRs). Don’t get me wrong – I love data. But somewhere along the way we lost our direction as we moved away from engaging the consumer as our primary marketing focus. A light bulb went off in my head. I thought, “If Google no longer considers meta tags and titles as a ranking factor, and organic search is truly all about semantic relevance, context, and signals, why do we still have the search teams (often SEO technicians) write meta tags and titles? Is a technical SEO person really the best one to craft them?”

With the latest updates from Google we have finally and officially moved away from a keyword-centric approach to focus more on context. Similar to what Ogilvy posits,

I realized that at this juncture in search marketing, the meta copy should be crafted with ad copy principles in mind.

What are meta tags? Are we talking about code? Just to clarify, what we are talking about is the meta title and meta description. Those are the little snippets that you see in the search results pages, for example:


A Brief History of Google Search

  • In the old days we would optimize our title and meta descriptions by inserting keywords and phrases into them in order to achieve higher rankings and increased CTR on a keyphrase level.
  • Then Google introduced safe search and took away some of that keyphrase-centric data.
  • With its latest overhauls and transitions into Hummingbird it made itself very clear that the future of search is not around keyphrases but around relevance, context, and situation (local, time of day, etc.).
  • Now with the natural integration of search, social, and content, we are using a multitude of channels and paths to steer eyeballs onto our brands’ content and amplify the overall message.

That means that the new form of content marketing requires good writers who will speak to their audiences, in their language. So it’s time for a change of approach and possibly, the people who create content for our search needs.

david-ogilvyOgilvy on Headlines

In his book, Ogilvy writes:

“The headline is the most important element in most advertisements. It is the telegram which decides the reader whether to read the copy.”

“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”

“If you haven’t done some selling in your headline, you have wasted 80 percent of your client’s money. A change of headline can make a difference of 10 to one in sales. I never write fewer than 16 headlines for a single advertisement.”

He goes on to say:

“”The headline is the ‘ticket on the meat.’ Use it to flag down the readers who are prospects for the kind of product you are advertising. If you are selling a remedy for bladder weakness, display the words BLADDER WEAKNESS in your headline; they catch the eye of everyone who suffers from this inconvenience. If you want mothers to read your advertisement, display MOTHERS in your headline.”

“Conversely, do not say anything in your headline which is likely to exclude any readers who might be prospects for your product. Thus, if you are advertising a product which can be used equally well by men and women, don’t slant your headline at women alone; it would frighten men away.”

The following best practices on titles are heavily based on Ogilvy’s words, but updated to apply them to SEO.

1. Meta Titles

In the average search results page, your listing has to compete for attention with up to 20 others (paid, local, images, etc.). Just as in traditional advertising, research has shown that readers travel so fast through this digital jungle that they don’t stop to decipher the meaning of obscure titles (headlines). Your title must telegraph what you want to say, in plain language. Don’t waste your readers’ time. Therefore, the title element is the most important part of the search engine results page (SERP) entry.

Taking a cue from Ogilvy’s headline principles, let’s apply them to titles:

  • Highlight what you are trying to sell. Eye-tracking studies from the Nielsen Norman Group show that people scan the title and then make a solid decision to either read the description or move onto the next title. Therefore, if you are selling a specific product, say it, if you are offering a product targeted at a specific demographic, identify it. Call out the brand name where appropriate.
  • Appeal to your audience’s self-interest. What is the benefit of your product to them? What problem does it solve? Tell them! And don’t write a title that excludes any prospects.
  • Make titles current, authoritative, and relevant. Today’s consumers are always looking for the greatest and latest so try to inject news-like wording into the titles. Ogilvy said that the two most powerful words in headlines are free and new. Stuff might not always be free but it is often new.
  • Other Ogilvy-favorite words and phrases to trigger consumer interaction include: how to, suddenly, now, announcing, introducing, it’s here, just arrived, important development, improvement, amazing, sensational, remarkable, revolutionary, startling, miracle, magic, offer, quick, easy, wanted, challenge, advice to, the truth about, compare, bargain, hurry, and last chance.
  • You can often trigger emotions and reactions by including emotional words such as love, fear, proud, friend, and baby.
  • People are more likely to read your body copy (or click through to a website) if your headline arouses their curiosity, so you should end your headline with a lure to read on.
  • Never use negative language or wording in your title tag. As Ogilvy says: “If, for example, you write ‘our salt contains no arsenic,’ many readers will miss the negative and go away with the impression that you wrote ‘our salt contains arsenic.'”
  • Avoid blind titles – the kind that mean nothing unless you read the meta description’s copy underneath them. Most people don’t.

Ogilvy on Body Copy
Ogilvy also had some great insights about working with body copy; his guidelines include:

  • Don’t beat about the bush – go straight to the point. Avoid analogies of the “just as, so too” variety.
  • Avoid superlatives, generalizations, and platitudes. Be specific and factual.
  • Be enthusiastic, friendly, and memorable.
  • Don’t be a bore. Tell the truth, but make the truth fascinating.
  • Give the reader helpful advice or service to increase engagement (about 75 percent according to Ogilvy).
  • Avoid bombast. (In other words, don’t be a boastful boor.)
  • Unless you have some special reason to be solemn and pretentious, write your copy in the colloquial language which your customers use in everyday conversation.

2. Meta Descriptions

With all that in mind, think of your meta description as Ogilvy body copy. Taking his example:

  • Your meta descriptions should be straightforward, positive, factual, and memorable. 
  • Avoid using lots of hype in your meta descriptions. Just be truthful.
  • Write the way your audience speaks, in language meant for your target consumers. 
  • Spell out what your product or service will do. Provide direct information consumers will act on.

A Real-World Application…and It Works!
I decided to start implementing this concept of applying traditional copywriting and direct mail best practices to a few small brands I work with. Historically, the SEO managers owned the creation of title tags with search goals in mind; however, for this test, I decided to follow Ogilvy’s advice and reached out to the direct mail and copywriting teams and asked for their input on the copy. I have only been running this test for about a month now, but the preliminary findings have been very interesting.

Overall, the click-through rate in the SERPs declined but the actual engagement and conversion rate increased significantly. So although the overall traffic dropped we saw a boost in sales/conversions. That means that by implementing meta copy written with the consumers’ needs in mind, by writers who understand the business, and consumers’ tone and triggers, we reached a much more targeted audience with stronger intent to buy.

Based on these findings I am proposing that many of our account teams consult the direct mail/copy teams for recommendations on writing “advertorial short copy” and to start using these proven tactics to tie this into social short content (such as tweets) as well.

Related reading

Brand Top Level Domains