In the last few years, Google has really stepped up its game when it comes to the algorithm its search engine uses. The company has made enormous improvements in its ability to (mechanically) discover the quality of the content its serves to its users.
For many SEO experts, this trend has been the source of much stress — they've seen techniques that were widely used by the community become ineffective in a very short timespan.
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However, for those professionals who sincerely want to add value to their customers, these changes are actually positive. With the decline of murky SEO techniques, those who invest their effort in producing high-quality content are going to find it easy to win the search engine optimization game.
Why Content is the New SEO
I admit this is a rather bold statement, so the weight is on me to back my claim. In my view, there are two major developments that change how SEO is going to work in the next few years:
The way in which content is discovered is changing
There are numerous trends taking place which have been hard for search engines to capture and incorporate in their algorithms. One such trend is the use of social signals — although for years the experts have speculated that Google is already using them, there are two factors that prevent wide adoption.
First, Google (and other search engines) do not own the information published on the main social media networks (although Google signed a deal with Twitter to use their data a while ago, which gave rise to rumours that a full-blown acquisition might be in play). Still, the biggest players in the space (such as Facebook, their subsidiary Instagram, LinkedIn, and Pinterest) are likely to remain independent, meaning that Google will make itself vulnerable to their willingness to play fair if they make a bet on using their data.
Second, data from social signals is notoriously easy to manipulate, which makes it hard for search engines to figure out what information to rely on and what to dismiss right away.
An even bigger problem for search engines is that whole new ‘layers’ are appearing, changing the way people use the web. Mobile apps are an example of one such new layer — their rise means that people are consuming content without having to rely on search engines to discover it first.
SEO can (and will continue to be able to) be bought
It’s hardly a secret that there are ways to jumpstart your growth if you have the funds to invest into promoting your business. However, even if you decide to go down this path, your best bet is to rely on content. Here are just some of the reasons why:
Content is the cheapest way
Here is a quick exercise that will allow us to put this statement to the test. We’ll use data from Buffer — one of the companies that really masters the art of content marketing. It’s great they are so open about their numbers — here is a report from July 2014 about their blog statistics. According to it, their blog attracted close to 700k unique visitors in this month.
I am sure you can do the math yourself and figure out how much this is going to cost with alternative techniques such as paid media, buying backlinks, etc.
And we are not even factoring in the positive influence this strategy will have on how targeted an audience you’re attracting, the improvement in conversion rates due to this, and other similar benefits.
What this means is that organic content-fuelled growth, albeit challenging and draining on your resources, is the cheapest way to reach a mass audience.
Content is more natural and higher quality than paid
I’ve already thrown out some terms that should make you break out in a cold sweat. Indeed, buying links and other such techniques are thought of in a really negative light. Unfortunately, the reality is that too many people are still using them.
However, as I’ve been repeating throughout this blog post, Google (and all search engines really) is getting better and better at recognizing these techniques at scale and penalizing people for using them.
Relying on content marketing means your messaging will always appear to be more natural and (consequently) of higher quality to the audience it is aimed at. With this in hand, recognition from the search engines will follow soon.
Content is not easily affected by changes in search algorithms
In recent years we’ve seen Google consistently target and penalize sites that publish low-quality content and use spammy tactics to attract traffic. The search giant has been quick to discover and deal with all new strategies devised by SEO experts on the Dark Side of the Force. Most such strategies are easy to implement and replicate and we’ve seen many ‘experts’ use them.
Content, on the other hand, is hard to replicate because it takes a fair investment of effort. Moreover, since it is better accepted by users, it is less likely that Google is going to target it any time soon. However, for all the movement towards equalizing content and SEO there are still several distinctions remaining that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Content and SEO Still Differ (and Will Continue To)
It is important to understand how content marketing and SEO differ so that you can take advantage of both. Here are several important distinctions:
SEO is more technical
Search engines will continue to be dominated by algorithms, making it crucial for optimization experts to know and follow the technical details. However, since content and SEO are converging, being familiar with the technical requirements of both on- and off-page optimization is important not just to SEO experts, but also to every content marketer.
Content — more natural/holistic
On the other hand, the successful content marketer also needs to understand how her work affects not just search engines, but above all her readers. She also needs to be aware of where each piece of content sits in the wider picture of the customer journey and what purpose it serves.
One can’t be done without the other
It really isn’t surprising that pure SEO/content experts are hard to find. Nowadays, few people who do SEO would say they aren’t content marketers and vice versa. There’s hardly a stronger evidence for the fact that the two fields are slowly merging into one.
How to Make Content Work for You
So what does all this mean to content marketers and SEO experts? Before I leave you I want to give you some practical advice on how to utilize these new developments in SEO and marketing to your benefit:
SEO and Social are all part of content marketing now
When creating content as part of your marketing strategy you have to think both about pleasing readers and search engines. This sounds harder than it truly is since, as I’ve noticed above, search algorithms are becoming better at mimicking human behaviour, so you can be sure that when you’re producing content which is liked by your audience, it will also be rewarded in rankings.
Make sure you have good working understanding of both optimizing for search and getting your content amplified through social media. In fact, while organic search already is one of the major sources of traffic for most websites, social is becoming increasingly important in this regard. The two together will dominate the content marketing world in the coming years.
Focus on one detailed piece of content with maximum benefit for your readers
There’s a raging discussion among content marketers about how often you should post and how long your content should be. In general, the longer the posts (remember, the posts still need to be relevant), and the more often you publish, the better your chances of success.
However, you only need to look at Seth Godin with his tiny 300-word posts or at Brian Dean from Backlinko who has less than 50 posts in total on his blog (each of them is like a small SEO Bible), to find examples of extremely successful content marketers who break this rule.
If you have to make a compromise between quantity and length, I would always suggest that you go for the one that makes the most sense to your audience — usually this means focusing on producing a very high-quality piece that can help your audience solve a problem they have.
Conduct a content audit
If you’ve been running your site for a while, you can definitely benefit from performing a content audit. This will not only help you discover missing elements and errors in your SEO, but also help guide your content strategy — using this technique you can discover what content works for your business, what topics and keywords you need to explore, etc.
Digital marketing is constantly evolving and it will continue to do so no matter how much time we spend debating whether the changes are for good or not. Our best chance lies with embracing the changes coming our way and learning how to thrive in this environment.
Please use the comments section below to let me know what are your biggest challenges with SEO and content and I’ll do my best to help.