When Should You Use A Pen Name Online?

When should you use a pen name for your online content and is it a legitimate white hat SEO tactic?


I was reading an excellent article earlier today on Daily SEO Tip about SEO ghost writing (have a read here). The article was focused mainly on writing as another ‘real life’ person, i.e. ghost writing a business blog for a Company CEO, or a guest post for a client.

What really struck a chord with me though was this paragraph: –

This, for me, is where the main moral grey area of link building lies. I’ve come to terms with it, however, by always making sure to inject a little bit of myself into the pennames I create. They become elaborate characters with quirky back stories.  They are no different than the Lemony Snicket’s or Harry Turtledove’s of the world, except maybe less popular. In that way, the pennames are authentic, likeable (hopefully), and aren’t strangers to me.

For me this is going to be extremely important for us SEOs going forward.

As author rank/google+ becomes more and more of a ranking factor over the next year or so (if you don’t think it will I suggest you read this and this), it is clear that google wants to know exactly who they are dealing with.

It is no longer enough just to write great content; the person originating the content has to be (or be seen to be…) a real life, well rounded, flesh and blood individual with a significant digital footprint (i.e. twitter, g+, facebook etc).

Now this is all well and good if you are writing for your own site on a topic you are actually an authority about, but as Gabriel Stephens puts it in his Daily SEO Tip article: –

I can’t have my own name being all over the internet as an authority on hair bows, government policy, and clocks, that’d be ridiculous.

So, to my mind certainly, we are left with one option. Any SEO/content writer worth their salt will have to have a few different online ‘personas’ that they can use for different types of content.

And for maximum benefit, those characters should have their own complete digital world. So, this raises a few questions…

1) Is It Immoral?

Some might say, ‘so what, we’re just doing a job’, but I certainly don’t like to feel I am purposely misleading people.

I guess the key here as that pen names are nothing new.

J.K.Rowling recently hit the press when it was revealed she had published a book under the pen name Robert Galbraith. Looking back other famous authors who have used pen names include Agatha Christie, Michael Crichton, Stephen King and Isaac Asimov and this list on wikipedia has loads.

So, it is certainly not a new evil introduced by the SEO industry and if it’s ok for J.K.Rowling, then it’s probably ok for the likes of you and me.

Good… so….

2) How Do You Create A Convincing Pen Name Character?

Well, let’s break this down… first you need…

A Name

Your pen name has to have… em… a name, so how should you choose this?

Well, don’t make it ridiculous. Plain names work well.

Or you might want to be a little bit (but not too!) clever and use your initials or something like that.

Just please don’t think of doing anything crazy like using your keywords in your pen name. Jimmy Ipad is going to raise some suspicions! Apologies to any genuine James Ipads out there…

Ok, so you have a name. Next you need…

A Photo

Your pen name character will obviously need a lovely smiling photo for all those lovely search rankings you are going to be getting. The fact that your character doesn’t exist in a physical form poses somewhat of a problem here.

Now you can go down the old route of having a cartoon style avatar, which will be fine for comments, posts on site etc, but google won’t allow that on a g+ page, so you’re going to need an actual person.

Speak nicely to a friend or family member and ask them if you can use their pic. There is of course a chance that someone might spot this at some time, but the internet is a *big* place, so hopefully not!

A Social Media Presence

You’ll need to register social media accounts for your character. I wouldn’t worry too much about facebook, but twitter and google+ are absolutely essential.

Start building up your networks, but only when you have…

A Voice

Who is your character? What makes them tick? How do they write? What’s their favourite type of cheese?

This is where I go back to J.K.Rowling again. It’s the fun part of content writing that engages the creative side of the brain (the best side).

To make the best use of your online pen names you should be able to effortlessly jump into your characters world and write as if you were them. Become them.

I’ve written before about how to create great content you need to find your own voice in your writing and it is exactly the same for your pen names. They should have their own distinct turns of phrases, style, quirks, flaws and passions.

3) Isn’t This A Little Spammy? Could You Be Penalised In The Future?

As I mentioned above, pen names have been a staple of literature for many years.

Google wants quality content for its index and it wants to see a ‘name’ behind that content that has an established online reputation (other good content, social presence).

Unless they decide that they need you to upload a passport picture when you register a google+ account (hopefully not!), then as long as you are creating well written compelling content there is no reason to think you would be penalised.

It goes without saying that if you are creating rubbish content, then expect rubbish results.

4) When Should You Use A Pen Name?

Examples of when you might use a pen name would be: –

  • Blog posts on SEO clients site
  • Guest posts for SEO clients
  • Niche sites on topics which you don’t have an interest/expertise in

5) When Should You Not Use A Pen Name?

Any website which is based around you as an individual. This site is a good example! I am me… honest!

So What Do You Think?

Do you agree with me that SEOs, and in particular, content marketers should have 2/3 goto characters for writing in different topics/niches? Is this wrong?

It’s certainly an interesting topic, so I’d love to hear your thoughts!


About the Author

I'm a web developer, programmer, blogger and SEO expert from Glasgow, Scotland, with over 15 years experience in the industry. When I'm not writing about marketing and SEO you'll find me strumming the guitar in my band or listening to Revolver on repeat. Follow me on twitter, connect with me on google+ and add us on facebook to keep up with all the latest trends in SEO and online marketing.

Cole Wiebe - September 13, 2013

Thought provoking… As an SEO/content marketer, I’ve only begun to grasp the full implications associated with Google+ authorship and AuthorRank. I have wondered if our role will have to shift more towards coaching clients that write for themselves. Most of our clients have reservations over us ghost writing in their name, but there may be more of that happening. Will companies emerge that sell fully set up and established pen names with AuthorRank to content writers? Hmm…

– Cole

    David McSweeney - September 13, 2013

    It’s an interesting thought and definitely something that could be on the horizon. Perhaps we will be talking about the google flamingo update next year, which went after sites who had been buying author rank…

Denis D. - September 30, 2013

This is very debatable. Now I’ve got something else that will make you think, what if Google develops an algorithm to figure out who is exactly writing what based on the people’s style of writing. Everyone has a unique style of writing and no two are alike just like finger prints. So what if Google puts together an algorithm and then matches all of the content to the person that has actually written it, that might be pretty crazy. Any thoughts on this?

    David McSweeney - September 30, 2013

    It’s an interesting thought, however, if this was the case then would it not be possible to mimic someone’s style to get more weight for your links? It would be pretty easy (certainly for a professional writer) to study someone’s writing style, pick out their quirks, manerisms etc and then write as them. I think the good thing with authorship is it is 2 way, i.e. the author box in the bio and then the link back from the g+ profile.

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