Is Content Strategy the New SEO?

Written by Andrew Kaufman on August 12, 2012.

As humans, we love to put labels on things. It helps us understand our world and make sense of objects and concepts in relationship to each other and our surroundings. Naming things also gives us a convenient way to communicate with others about our experiences and interactions; something which helps us find commonalities, discuss solutions, and work together to improve our understanding of whatever it is we’re trying to understand. No matter how much we might feel compelled to argue that putting a label on something only serves to limit its meaning and box it into a rigid structure of thought, that is exactly what we do each and every day. There’s just no getting around it.

But one of the great things about names is that they can change. They aren’t set in stone. If Ron Artest can change his name to Metta World Peace and Radio Shack can rebrand themselves “The Shack,” then literally anything is possible. Not only is it possible, it’s necessary to keep up with the accelerating pace of change in our culture.

After reading Danny Sullivan’s brilliant rant about the failure of many website owners and SEOs to understand the value of “earned” links over “easy” links, it hit me that maybe this is a turning point in how we think about the craft of increasing exposure for our, and our client’s, websites.

x and y

No matter how obnoxious and cliché it may seem, any time someone tries to declare that “X is the new Y,” what they’re really trying to do is persuade others that a naming convention that is in use isn’t sufficient anymore to describe the current situation. It’s not that X or Y have actually changed, it’s that the characteristics and attributes that we use to assign to X, are now more suited to describe Y. Usually this happens because of changes to some external entity (e.g. changes in clothing tastes, societal norms, economic realities, etc.) that cause us to reevaluate our assumptions and realign our thinking with the new reality.

In the case of Internet Marketing, that external force is Google.

Now those who maniacally follow every algorithm update and search engine trend will rightfully point out that Google changes all the time (close to 500 times a year). But with Google’s recent string of high-profile, cute white and black colored animal-named updates aimed at reducing low quality content and questionable backlinks, I’m starting to think that the term SEO just won’t cut it anymore. I’m not saying that SEO is dead or that its tactics are invalid (although more and more are proving to be every day). I’m saying that what we as online marketers will need to do going forward to stay in Google’s good graces can be better encapsulated by the term Content Strategy.

Now hear me out…

No other term in the online universe carries with it as much baggage and misconceptions as Search Engine Optimization (SEO). To some, SEOs are ethically challenged snake-oil salesmen and scam artists only looking to part snakeoilinnocent webmasters with their money. To others, they are a vital part of their marketing efforts, helping make their online content targeted, relevant, and crawlable. Some SEOs spend hours pouring over analytics and performing tests hoping to reverse-engineer the current ranking factors, while others write scripts to place unearned links on hacked websites. Some preach about minimum word counts, keyword density, and avoiding duplicate content, while others try to show you the easiest ways to get links back to your website.

But one thing that I’ve noticed in my 7 years in the business is that very few SEOs really emphasize the role that quality content plays in developing a successful marketing strategy.

Yes, I know that they all say that “content is king” and that you need to “build great content” first – but it all just seems like lip-service to me; as if having great content is an afterthought. It almost feels like they assume that all of their clients’ websites have high-quality content and it’s just their job to strong-arm Google into thinking that as well.

In reality, though, most sites have crappy content that Google wouldn’t choose to highlight if they had the ability to manually review every site on the Internet. Why is it crappy? Because it was created and optimized for search engines and not for actual users.

  • Quality content is not 300 words of unique content on every page
  • Quality content does not get written at $0.04/word
  • Quality content is not about coming up with ideas based solely on keyword tool suggestions
  • Quality content doesn’t come from worrying about how many times a keyword is used or where it falls on the page
  • Quality content doesn’t get posted on article directory sites solely for the purpose of linking back to your website

Up until lately, however, a lot of this stuff actually worked (and some still does). No matter how much Google preached the value of high quality content and natural link building, it was still just an algorithm, and as such, allowed sites to succeed using these “shortcuts.” For SEO agencies and businesses that relied on organic search traffic to drive revenue, it made perfect sense to use whatever methods worked to increase their exposure.

happy couple

Something your users will never say

Google’s lack of transparency and ever-shifting position on what constituted acceptable SEO helped bring about a culture of pushing the envelope and filling sites with content designed to satisfy the needs and exploit the weaknesses of a cold and unknowable beast. Whether it was the rise of the content farm or the proliferation of services promising to get you links by “whatever means necessary,” the industry had become a wild wild west of people stumbling on something that worked and having everyone and their mother try to replicate their success.

The problem with this approach, as I mentioned above, is that everything eventually changes (especially in the fast-paced world of technology) and that what worked yesterday may not work today. Thousands of webmasters found that out the hard way after Panda and Penguin decimated all of their hard work and rankings. And while I’m sure that a handful of the sites were unfairly penalized in these updates, the majority of sites that got hit were undoubtedly engaging in shady link-building practices and thin content production.

I can sympathize. I’ve worked for companies that got hit. I know the temptation to follow everyone else down the rabbit hole when you see competitors dominating the rankings in your niche with shallow content and manipulative links. In reality, it’s hard to justify NOT doing it. Most websites are businesses, and taking the high road doesn’t pay the bills. So don’t think that I’m blaming anybody here. And while blaming Google might be convenient, as Danny said so eloquently, “You can sit around blaming Google for taking away an easy route to success, but that’s not going to restore the route.”

So what is a website owner to do in this changed landscape where the old methods of doing business just won’t cut it anymore?

A good place to start would be to refocus on Google’s own quality guidelines, especially these parts:

“Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines…Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”

I know, I know…Google has been saying this for years. But just like every other technology company trying to maintain its dominance, it has become better and better at actually enforcing these lofty ideals. With these last two major algorithm updates, I think that Google is really drawing a line in the sand in terms of what they expect from sites that want to dominate their niche.

 

users

Your users need your help

So how do we give them what they want? By not focusing on what they want, but on what our users want. And what users want is content that meets their needs (whatever they may be) and causes them to come back again and again. Those are the metrics that will lead to the type of high-quality, authoritative links that Google craves. Ok, ok… easier said than done, right? That’s where Content Strategy comes in.

According to Kristina Halvorson:

“Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.”

Those last two parts are key: your content needs to be useful and usable. It doesn’t matter whether you run a marketing blog, provide software troubleshooting, own an Italian restaurant, write book reviews, or sell ghost hunting equipment. If your site doesn’t have content that serves your users needs and gives them what they’re looking for, you’re just not going to have success in the long run. It’s that simple.

Employing an effective Content Strategy will make sure that you do. This can involve:

Discovery

Start by trying to understand your users and their needs. Who are they and why would they want to end up on your site? How often do they come to your site? How old are they? Are they technically proficient? Are they coming to your site from a search engine? If so, what keywords are they using to get there? Anything that you can use to get a feel for who your target audience is will give you a leg up.

In addition to understanding your users, you may also want to spend some time doing some deep thinking about your organization and what it stands for. What are your primary business goals? What are your brand’s values? What is your unique value proposition? What are the key messages that you want your users to get about your business and your products? If your company were a person, who would they be and what tone would they use to describe themselves? While it may seem like a pointless exercise to anthropomorphize your business, it’s actually a very helpful tool when it comes time to brainstorm content ideas that fit naturally with your brand identity.

At this stage in the process, you’ll also probably want to do a comprehensive inventory of the content that is already on your website. By doing both a qualitative and quantitative review of your current assets, you’ll be able to get a sense of what you have to work with and identify any gaps in coverage that you need to address.

Analysis

The next step in the process involves identifying the content that will need to be created in order to both:

  • Satisfy user needs
  • Meet your business goals

By taking what you learned about your users’ needs in the discovery phase and aligning it with your business goals, you’ll be able to get a better picture of the content that you’ll need to create to bridge that gap.

The process for identifying content needs will be different for every site since every site’s goals are different. Are you trying to get users to purchase a product, sign up for a newsletter, subscribe to your RSS feed, create an account, or share your content? You’ll need to figure out what content you can provide that will make your users more likely to complete each of these tasks. Does your site have a specific sales funnel? Try to figure out what type of content your users needs at each step in the process that will allow them to get them to the next step.

Another helpful exercise in this phase is the competitive analysis. Take a look at five direct competitors and five indirect competitors to see how they deal with content. How is their site organized? What type of content do they offer that you don’t? If you really want to be a leader in your niche you’ll not only have to match what your competitors are doing but go above and beyond (this is especially true for new businesses and organizations that need to differentiate themselves).

Note: Don’t limit yourself to just brainstorming new content ideas. If you’re website has been live for a while, there’s a good chance that you have plenty of redundant, stale, outdated, or irrelevant content that needs to be revised, repurposed, or eliminated.

Design

Taking everything you’ve learned in the discovery and analysis phases, it’s now time to start putting together the structure that will allow your content to shine.

Some of the questions that you’ll need to answer in this phase include: Where will this content live (Sitemap, Information architecture)? How will your content be categorized (Taxonomy)? How will the content be managed from a technical perspective (Content Management Systems)? How will it be delivered to users (Mobile, Desktop, Print)? When should certain content be published (Editorial Calendar)? Are there any dynamic, data-driven content elements that you’ll need to integrate with your editorial work? Even if you have the best content in the world, if it doesn’t live where and when your users need it (or expect it), it might as well not be there at all.

Since there may be multiple people in charge of creating and maintaining the content on your site, it’s a good idea to create a set of documents aimed at standardizing the process of creating and publishing content so that everyone is on the same page. A style guide is a good place to start collecting these best practices.

A style guide can include (but isn’t limited to) the following:

  • Summary of who the primary and secondary audiences are for the content on your site
  • Breakdown of the proper tone and voice that the content needs to adhere to adequately address those audiences
  • List of the various content types that may appear on the site and how to go about creating them
  • Examples of “good” and “bad” content, with explanations
  • General writing guidelines for content creators

Creation

Now that you have a better idea of the new content that you’ll need to create (and old content you’ll need to revise), you can start figuring out how to get it produced. Again, since every situation will be unique, there’s no easy formula for this.

You may need to hire a subject matter expert to create content that your users will find valuable, or you may just need to get a quality copywriter to create compelling Call-to-Actions and instructional information. Maybe you need to start a blog that covers topics of interest in your industry. Or maybe you need to create a series of videos designed to show users how your product works. As a rule of thumb, though, every piece of content that you have on your site should serve a specific purpose – one that both helps users complete a task and furthers the goals of the site.

Note: Don’t get trapped into thinking that content just means words. Content can be images, video, Powerpoint presentations, or even infographics.

Governance

This is the most overlooked part of the content lifecycle. Unless you’re producing evergreen content, at some point your content will need to be reviewed, updated, and/or revised to meet the changing needs of your audience. It may need to be updated every week, every month, or every year. It all depends on how timely the information needs to be and whether the content still adequately meets the needs of your users. bonsai

In addition to determining how often content needs to be reviewed, you also need to decide who “owns” each piece of content on your site. If you’re a small organization, you might only have one or two people responsible for making sure your content is up to date. If you’re at a large organization, chances are that you’ll have multiple stakeholders responsible for different aspects of your content. To prevent creating orphaned content, you need to make sure that everyone knows what content they are responsible for and how to make sure that the content is fresh, relevant, and updated on a regular basis.

Part of good content governance also involves knowing when a certain piece of content has outlasted its usefulness. As site owners scrambled to reduce the amount of thin-content pages on their site in the wake of Panda, they started to realize that not all content is good content. If a piece of content doesn’t have a specific purpose or address a specific user need, it doesn’t need to be on your site. Think of your site as a bonsai tree; pruning the dead branches will make sure that the tree stays healthy and grows stronger.

Result

Profit $$$

Conclusion

While my declamatory title may suggest otherwise, I’m not trying to paint a black and white distinction between SEO and Content Strategy here. There are plenty of SEO best practices that are still fundamental to having success in organic search, and I’m not trying to belittle or minimize their impact (or the people who offer those services). What I’m suggesting, though, is that these practices are now the very minimum you need to even have a chance at competing for search traffic in high-value niches. If you’re really serious about creating a successful, sustainable online business worthy of receiving those “hard” links that can generate valuable referral traffic AND rankings, you need to look beyond SEO to really focus on creating content that is relevant, compelling, and targeted to your users.

There are no shortcuts here. This stuff is hard work. It’s messy, maddening, and imprecise. There is no universal blueprint or industry standard to follow that will provide you with all of the boxes you need to check off in your content to-do list. But a benefit of this high barrier to entry is that most companies won’t put in the time and effort it takes to really take a hard look at their content. They’ll keep using the same easy tactics that they’ve used in the past.

That leaves the door open for you, dear reader, to take the reins of your site’s content strategy and make it the centerpiece of your online marketing efforts. Because at the end of the day, all the SEO in the world can’t make up for poor content.

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