Sean Jackson of Copyblogger recently said, “SEO is dead.” He continued, “not the practice, but the term.” Jackson felt, rightly so, that in recent years SEO had come to stand for the spammy, often unethical practices of sneaky “black-hat” SEO practitioners.
As Google has cracked down on these practices and as consumers have moved to other avenues of finding content (social media sites, blogs, aggregators, etc.), SEO has been swallowed whole by a much broader set of necessary considerations.
Jackson readily admits that many legitimate SEO best practices are still not only relevant but are highly effective with the rising importance of all forms of content.
Instead of simply declaring SEO dead, Jackson argues that it should be incorporated into a new, more comprehensive framework for outlining the necessary approach content marketers should take to promoting and building content effectively — a framework he dubs OC/DC, or optimising content for discovery and conversion.
OC/DC is a more holistic and goal-driven approach to content marketing. SEO’s narrow focus not only does not address all the avenues through which consumers now discover content, but its tight constraints also can negatively influence the content creation itself.
The rest of this article will highlight various strategies and guidelines, showing you how to optimise website content for SEO, discovery and conversion in the coming year.
Readers First, Algorithms Second
Google has made it crystal clear that it will always favor content that is valuable to people over content that is written primarily to rank for Google. Not only have they emphasized this over and over on their blog, they’ve made dozens of changes to their search algorithm that reflect this decision.
There are certain SEOs (the ones who don’t seem to heed Google’s warnings) that live in constant fear of the next Google algorithm change. The reason for their concern is that the content they produce and the SEO tactics they use, in large part, pander to Google’s algorithm changes instead of actually suiting and serving real readers.
Creating quality content is hard, and these workarounds and hacks can seem like tempting avenues to high search engine rankings. However, constantly having to pick up the pieces when Google penalizes your efforts is probably more costly in the long run.
That’s because creating quality content from the outset might require more initial effort, but will all but guarantee that you will be immune from Google’s constant updates and very well might be helped by them. That’s because your content will be the material that Google hopes to promote instead of the keyword-stuffed spam their engineers look to punish.
As we will discuss later, many SEO best practices are still very much necessary in ensuring your quality content gets discovered, but these optimisation considerations are much better reserved for after you focus on creating high-quality, targeted content created to serve your audience.
What Is Quality Content?
Before you even begin strategizing on how to make quality content, you need to pin down exactly what constitutes high-quality content in the first place. This is a daunting task, but luckily Google provided a wonderful outline of what they see as indicators of quality content.
The format of the linked blog post is a series of questions, as seen above. The one question of particular relevance to this discussion is:
“Are the topics [on your site] driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?”
This question is so important because any rubric for judging quality content will be intimately linked to the readers and audience you are attempting to reach and appeal to. The first stage of content planning and strategy should be to seriously consider your audience and their genuine interests.
Know Thy Niche
Every business or product has something unique about it. Even if you are competing in a crowded space, if your business has enjoyed any kind of success it’s because you’ve offered something that no one else has. Whether it’s a focus on cost-savings, or a quirky sense of humor, or an emphasis on professionalism. Any one of a variety of factors can be identified as part of your brand’s true story.
As a content marketer, your goal is to create content that appeals to your audience in a way that mirrors the appeal of the product this content marketing is calling attention to. In fact, a smart content strategy can naturally lead to conversions if it is appropriate to your product.
The more you can narrow down the unique appeal of your product or service, the more likely your content is to appeal to the “genuine interest of your readers.” Considering these are the very words that Google used, any content marketing that makes good on this goal will likely be favored by Google’s current and future algorithms.
The Quicksprout blog has put together a wonderful step-by-step guide to developing a content strategy based on a unique set of customer interests. This guide is quite in-depth but the main ideas are fundamentally simple.
- Find a niche that is narrow enough to be unique, but broad enough to meet your business objectives.
- Locate your ideal customer within this niche and discover what blogs they read, what social sites they use, what kind of events they attend, etc.
- Create a persona reflecting this average customer and try to gain an understanding of their demographic makeup as well as their psychology, beliefs, etc.
- Use this persona as a guideline for focusing your content marketing efforts.
What makes this approach so powerful is that it makes discovering and appealing to you customer’s genuine interests a central focus. This aligns your content with the goals of Google and other search providers.
So even though this is not “SEO” in the sense that the term has come to be understood, creating content from a plan that looks like this will certainly go a long way towards optimising your content for discovery by search engines.
Semantic Search and Concepts Over Keywords
Further reinforcing the importance of this kind of content creation strategy, and the SEO benefits it can translate into, it’s important to understand Google’s recent focus on something called semantic search.
Semantic search takes the often fragmented, non-specific search terms people naturally use and attempts to parse them and extract a more robust meaning. In simpler terms, Google has begun to focus on taking a string of basic, broad keywords and teasing out the core concept they all belong to.
This is important for content marketers because it diminishes the overall importance of isolated keywords in determining search rankings.
As Google’s algorithms move to favor concepts, this gives content creators more freedom to tailor content to their audience’s genuine interests without having to worry about this content being buried under results that rank highly for isolated keywords searchers commonly use when they are looking for content.
Instead, focus on covering a few key issues of importance to your audience with each piece of content you’re creating.
“The reason behind it is that Google is trying to work out the meaning of pages and favoring pages that answer several questions a person may have,” he added.
“The implication of this new approach is that, as a marketer, you need to produce longer content that answers several possible search queries, queries that include data points would feed Google’s desire to understand details about the topic,” said Newlands.
Since the incorporation of Google+ and personally tailored search results, a focus on keywords, links, and anchor text has become less important than making sure your overall site, and each piece of content on your site, addresses and has authority on certain concepts — especially multiple topics within your niche.
Building Authority and the Four Vs
Now that I’ve highlighted the importance of defining your niche for SEO, and how to develop and plan quality content tailored to that niche, there is one important piece of the puzzle remaining. The aim of all your seperate pieces of content, as well as your overall content strategy, should be to ultimately build authority for your site in a certain topic.
Authority has always been a component of Google’s search. Even in the most rudimentary iterations of Google’s PageRank algorithm, outbound and inbound links were used to gauge authority.
However, as Google has moved more toward personalization and semantic search, authority on a narrower subject has become not only more important, but actually has become a lot less difficult to achieve. Especially if you define a niche well enough and choose this niche appropriately for your business.
In his book “Google Semantic Search,” David Amerland argues that the “four Vs” that govern big data processes can also be used to inform SEO and content marketing decisions (if you think about it, understanding Google’s search engine is nothing but a big data problem).
The four Vs are:
- Volume. This is the simplest of the four, but the amount of material you put out about your topic of choice will be a big indication to Google of your authority on the subject.
- Velocity. The overall frequency of your content will also give Google a hint as to your expertise. Posting once a week for a year, likely looks better than posting once a month over the course of four years.
- Variety. While you don’t want to venture too far with your content’s subject, covering a variety of areas within your niche of choice will signal to Google that you have authority on the topic.
- Veracity. Having content that is received well by readers (that is shared, talked about, etc.) is perhaps the strongest indication to Google that they should serve content from your site to readers interested in the concept you chose to focus on.
Focusing on making sure your broader content strategy satisfies the conditions of these four ideas will ensure that your individual quality pieces of content end up constituting search benefits that are greater than the sum of their parts.
“Traditional” SEO as the Final Step
Once you have ensured that you have identified your audience, understand what interests them, are producing quality content for your niche, and are doing so in a way that is establishing your site’s authority, then you can start thinking about “traditional” SEO considerations.
Traditional SEO is kind of like rainbow sprinkles. On a vanilla ice cream cone, sprinkles can improve the whole experience and can actually offer people additional value. But if you give someone just a pile of rainbow sprinkles, you won’t be giving them anything they really want and will likely just leave a bad taste in their mouth.
In much the same way, legitimate SEO best practices such as linking to other relevant posts within your blog, providing accurate keywords within headlines and anchor text, and properly tagging and categorizing your content can really offer a lot of additional value to readers.
If these best practices are followed in addition to providing quality content that people want to read, then they will not only enhance the user experience, they will make this great content easier to find. However, if best practices are not incorporated into a broader content strategy they will likely do more harm than good.
In fact, this is exactly what Sean Jackson was saying when he claimed “SEO is dead.” It doesn’t mean that these practices are dead, but if you’re not creating awesome content, they’re essentially useless.