Welcome to the second post in our Contently Labs series, where we answer common questions we hear from current or prospective brand publishers. Today’s question: “What SEO practices are most important nowadays for brand publishers?”
Do a Google search for the term “SEO is dead.” At the top of nearly 45 million results is a post from Copyblogger’s “resident SEO guy” Sean Jackson decrying the acronym.
“The term too often aligns our work with unprofessional practices like link buying and web spamming for article placement,” Jackson writes. He believes that SEO needs a makeover and that, in 2014, marketers should be thinking in terms of “Optimizing Content for Discovery and Conversion,” or OC/DC. Whether or not Jackson’s new acronym picks up steam, he’s not alone. Jackson is just one of many voices calling for the marketing industry to ditch search-gaming tactics in favor of a focus on serving high-quality content that people crave. In other words: Be a publisher, not an SEO-gamer.
That said, publishers do still need to practice sound SEO strategies to get eyeballs on their content. Despite claims that social media has eclipsed it as a traffic driver, search still remains the primary way people find great content. Anecdotal studies from individual publishers have created a sense that social media is eclipsing search as the primary driver of referral traffic, but broader studies tell a different story. While BuzzFeed released data that showed that the site received 3.5 percent more traffic from Facebook than Google, Define Media’s Marshall Simmonds was quick to note that a review of 48 billion pageviews across 87 sites showed that search is still driving 41 percent of pageviews, compared to just 16 percent from social. An extensive study by Shareaholic came to the same exact conclusion.
So how do you optimize content for search today? It helps to first understand how search engine optimization has evolved.
SEO: A brief history
For the past 20 years, search engines haven’t stopped tweaking their algorithm. The goal? Serving users the highest quality and most relevant content possible. And during that time, marketers and publishers haven’t stopped trying to game it, either.
This reached a crisis point in the mid-aughts, when content farms like eHow and Associated Content flooded the search results pages with large volumes of low-quality, highly optimized content. This was a big problem for Google, and in 2011, they responded by implementing the Panda update, which downgraded sites engaging in shady link schemes and implemented algorithm refinements to surface higher quality content.
Google was calling on the publishing world to reevaluate their priorities. “Our advice for publishers continues to be to focus on delivering the best possible user experience on your websites and not to focus too much on what they think are Google’s current ranking algorithms or signals,” they wrote in a still-relevant blog post.
Following the Panda update, other search engines like Yahoo and Bing followed Google’s lead, and since then, search engines have continued to get better at delivering high-quality, contextually relevant search results. People, too, have become more savvy about asking for what they want. Voice and conversational search queries are more common and location-based insights have honed mobile search.
With 67 percent of the search market, Google remains king, and as search and discover tools like Knowledge Graph suggest, it’s getting increasingly more sophisticated at not only returning the richest query results, but also anticipating what someone will want to see next.
Content marketers that want to keep up need to ditch stilted practices, like worrying about how to rank for long-tail keyword phrases, and take a broader view of what’s important.
As Cyrus Shepard at Moz puts it, the difference today from years past is the shift from individual keywords to concepts: “If I search for ‘movie about tiger on boat’ Google will likely understand that I am asking about the movie Life of Pi, not about pages optimized for those specific keywords.”
Dan Bray, director of SEO and content strategy at Meredith Xcelerated Marketing, advises clients like Kraft Foods and Lowe’s to take a more contextual view that goes beyond a simple keyword query and considers a brand’s larger reputation on the web. This includes offsite references, reviews, and social links. “All those signals tell Google a lot about you,” he says.
The jury may be out on social eclipsing search as a traffic driver, but it is nonetheless an increasingly powerful sign of influence and authority. When people share, like, engage with, and link to your pages from social channels, it tells search engines that those pages are ones people want to see.
Inbound links and brand buzz not only signal influence, but also suggests authority, which search engines have been working hard to establish about the content they serve up. Google Authorship is an increasingly valuable way for Google to gauge an author’s subject expertise and rank the content they produce for a site or blog accordingly. Linking pages and posts to an author’s Google+ profile shows that person’s credentials and can verify their topic authority, when set up correctly. If you find doing so confusing, you’re not alone, says Rick DeJarnette in his helpful guide for Search Engine Land. But don’t let that stop you. Pages showing Authorship markup increasingly show up at the top of search results. Bing, too, is apparently using LinkedIn to prove authorship integrity, as Sean Jackson points out in his OC/DC post.
7 keys to successful SEO
At the end of the day, while it’s important to implement smart tactics to optimize your content, don’t lose sight of the big picture: “People often forget to acknowledge that the people who read our content and the searchers who find things on Google are the same people,” says Trevor Klein, Moz’s editorial director. In other words, don’t just worry about getting them there. Make them want to stay.
1. Original, engaging stories always win. This is the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth most important key to SEO. Publishing stories that people are compelled to share, link to, and write about is simply the most organic path to great SEO.
Google’s practically begging you to do so. Last August, after discovering that a large share of users were searching for in-depth, original longform content, they gave high-quality, “in-depth” articles a prioritized place in search results.
2. Keyword and audience research still matters. Keywords may be more than the sum of their phrasing, but publishers should still use the available research to help them determine optimal content themes. Keyword tools like Google Adwords Keyword Planner, Bing Keyword Tool, Übersuggest, and others will help you understand the volume of content already optimized for key terms relative to the amount of queries made for them. Google Trends can also help add context around those terms, based on what themes are popular in a given time and place. It’s simply a good way to gauge what content your potential audience desires.
Another way to gain audience insights: Ask for them. Social media can be a great, low-cost way to do this, as Gary Vaynerchuk detailed at a recent AdAge Digital Conference. Create engaging posts, like quizzes and games, that pull information about what an audience wants from your brand, and then develop content accordingly.
3. Great headlines are key. Boring headlines are poison for publishers; at the same time, racy, misleading headlines may bring short-term traffic volume—especially on the social web—but are not a sustainable practice. After the initial clicks fade away, search engines may no longer see the point in driving traffic to your content.
Even headline masters like Upworthy are moving away from the practice of teasing readers toward a more descriptive approach, as The Atlantic reports. The difference between clickbait and a truly great headline is the difference between a one-night stand and a long-term relationship. Marketers that really want to connect with their audience in a lasting way should establish a process for creating smart headlines and test and optimize them continuously (like Upworthy does infamously). As the gateway to your content, and to connecting with your brand, figuring out headlines that work should be an ongoing effort.
4. Better content > more content. Marketers using their budgets to produce a large volume of content at the expense of quality should rethink their strategy. In his weekly Whiteboard Friday, Moz founder Rand Fishkin urges publishers to be honest about whether their content is actually providing meaningful insights against a specific topic or keyword. If your site has multiple pages with variations on the same content, consider consolidating or updating them. Otherwise, the site’s overall authority, not just the rank of a single page, may be devalued by search engines.
5. Optimize on both the page and platform level. All those pesky details like meta tags and descriptions are more than busy work. They help search engines know what’s on your page. Failing to do so can sabotage your content. For example, Buffalo Wild Wings’ otherwise-appealing March Madness-themed Fandamentals content was virtually impossible to find through a basic query on search or on social channels. That’s a big problem—especially since they teased it in expensive prime-time TV slots. (Editor’s note: The Fandamentals content appears to be locked behind an EpiServer… Oy vey.)
And beyond page-level production tactics, intelligent platform technology is the lifeblood for good content. Dan Bray says the biggest misnomer his clients tend to have is that technology isn’t important. By cleaning HTML code, H1 headers, server errors, URL structures, and how code loaded to their pages, they were able to boost natural search results to one client’s site by 1000 percent in 18 months.
6. Get inbound links. Even if you’re creating engaging, original content, it’s still important to find other ways to get links to your site from reputable sources. In recent years, guest blogging has been a popular way to grow inbound links, but it was recently declared “done” by Google’s head of Webspam, Matt Cutts, after the practice was plagued overrun by spammy pay-for-play schemes. On the other hand, guest blogging can be an effective way to build brand awareness and identity; check out this case study of how Buffer used the tactic to grow a massive audience. Is guest blogging right for your brand? Like all link-building efforts, intention counts. If guest blogging adds value and authority, this will be readily apparent, to audiences and to Google. Just don’t do it to get inbound links at the expense of quality.
Content delivery (or distribution) networks (CDN), like Outbrain and Taboola, are another much-used way to spark a large volume of traffic. This type of automated, data-driven service places a publisher’s content on sites that reach its desired audience. Bray has had good success with CDNs for his clients; not only do they drive highly targeted inbound links, the broad reach can also means greater likelihood of social shares. Sharing content in communities on platforms like Reddit can have the same impact.
7. Social matters to search, in more ways than one. Google and others are non-committal on the exact role social media plays in their complex set of considerations. But if considered beyond Facebook likes and links, social’s influence on search can’t be ignored. Personalized search results are a good example. The results a person logged into Google gets are different and more targeted than someone not logged in. An author in one’s Google+ circle is likely to rank higher in that person’s search results than not. Search, too, is not just about Google, or Yahoo and Bing, for that matter. People search all over Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and other social networks. The circle of influence between social media and search, including and beyond the traffic it drives, is indisputable.
The moral of the story is, well, tell great stories. And do the work to get them discovered. Stay up to date with best practices, but don’t freak out and take desperate measures to drive up your page rank. Be patient. Call it SEO. Call it OC/DC. Call it whatever you want. But as one successful brand likes to say: Just do it.
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