Great, relevant content is the driving factor behind great search engine results: the gaming of the system is over
In my professional life as a content marketer and writer, search engine optimization (SEO) has always been a parallel skillset, one that I needed to be up to date with, but one that involved elements other than content strategy and creation. This is no longer the case as search algorithms have evolved to serve the user by doing everything they can to surface the best quality content related to their search. And quality cannot be gamed.
SEO is intimately tied to writing and content strategy
SEO maxims that were preached as gospel only a short time ago are disproven every day. For example, the notion that you get traffic by flooding the market with short, easily consumed pieces has been disproven by hard data on what gets read (1000–3000 word articles with long titles and subheads). It is much harder to create solid long form content that is not filled with fluff to fatten it up. And if you try this, the algorithms know where readers drop off by how long they stay with the piece. If it isn’t getting read, it won’t rank.
This is one example of a nostrum that was killed by data. These SEO ‘beliefs’ largely stemmed from self-serving magical thinking on the part of marketers. Self-serving because short empty content was easier to crank out and looked productive to their clients and employers. “We published sixteen blog posts this week! Check out the SERPs*!” But then data began to intercede with facts about reader behavior that told the search engines what readers really were looking for. This is a very good thing.
*Search Engine Results Pages
Lazy content not wrapped in a solid strategy is not going to fly, in fact it will crash
Now Google has announced a major upgrade to their algorithms for ranking content: Search Journeys. Search Journeys are what we all do when researching a purchase or any other goal. We start with basic research for options, prices, reputations, reviews, etc. We assemble this knowledge and our queries become more focused and when we return to search we are not searched for more sophisticated information. We are becoming subject matter experts and Google recognizes this and knows what we have searched for previously. Their logic says ‘others who started here eventually went there so let’s anticipate this and help them get there’. They even help you save your previous related searches for back reference with their new Activity Cards feature which pops up cards during searches that show you your previous related activity. And you can create Collection Cards to curate this yourself. Privacy concerns aside, understanding this model becomes essential to being a very effective content writer and marketer.
Creating marketing content, out of this context, is not useful
The model up to now has been to provide writers with commonly searched keyword phrases relevant to your product or service and have them craft stories around those phrases. This was logical when Google was responding to searches with answers specifically relevant to that phrase. But no, with overall research context being a major consideration we have to design content that anticipates the search journey and provides useful content targeted to each stage of their journey. We don’t brainstorm articles, we create series based on our understanding of buyer processes.
Buyer journeys go beyond the ‘persona’ model
Buyer personas are developed to create a mental picture of the various kinds of buyers. You could have newbies, repeat customers, experts, customers who are solving one specific problem or customers seeking a wider range solution. You theorize their industries, budgets, job titles, ability to make or influence decision-making, etc. These personas are still useful but now we have to follow their likely search journey and make sure we provide ‘signs’ to help them reach the next stage. Ideally the ultimate destination is a contact (lead) or a purchase. Things got more complex for the writer.
Content libraries customized for multiple journeys
I have written about the necessity for developing a content library mindset with planned interrelated content pieces that together tell a story. Now we match those stories to those of the journeys we are tracking. This best done with planning taxonomies that lay out the journey in a linear fashion, not unlike the table of contents in a how-to book. These taxonomies take into consideration existing content and help identify missing pieces. The writing team is then tasked with filling in the blanks.
Providing content creators with actionable information
As a writer, it is incredibly useful to understand the context of the piece I’m working on. Who it is it for? What is their role? How sophisticated are they? How immediate is their need? What is the overriding problem they need to solve and how does it affect them personally and professionally (always write to a person, not a company and understand what drives them individually). These journey models, taxonomies, and personas give me some of these answers. And honestly, if you get them right your SEO will take care of itself. Increasingly, the writer is the SEOer.
The end of ‘secret sauce’?
There are many useful best practices for SEO but there is no secret sauce. Anyone who tells you otherwise is pitching. The only sauce search engines care about is what their users find useful. Yes, you should learn about interlinking, your best keyword phrases (which are really just content categories), and the kind of content your prospects want to interact with. That’s just common sense. And common sense is usually just that: Sensible.