The Ultimate Guide to SEO for Content Marketers


Written by Natalie Burg
September 10th, 2015
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Forget everything you used to know about SEO. The technical tricks used by search engine optimizers back in the day were opportunistic at best, downright shady at worst. But thanks to advancements in Google’s algorithm over the past few years, the veil between SEO and content has officially fallen. SEO may be the future of content marketing, but at the same time, content marketing is the future of SEO.

“The reality is they need each other,” said Stephanie Chang, SEO manager for Etsy. “SEOs need content because it’s the one thing that is valuable to search engines on your site that is totally unique. At the same time, almost every site now has a content team. In order for your content to really stand out, you need data and support from SEOs to make sure that content is getting as much visibility as you can.”

Unique, high-quality content is valuable to search engines in a way that is now translating into better search rankings, which is big news for content marketers. For years, content evangelists have had their work cut out for them when it came to justifying how a well-funded, long-term plan for high-quality content affects the business’s bottom line. But in recent years, that’s gotten easier. Beginning with the first Panda update in 2011 and culminating with this year’s “Phantom 2″/”Quality” update, Google has handed marketers a clear mission: Produce smart, user-focused content, or be condemned to search engine purgatory.

The change has had no less dramatic an impact on the SEO world. According to digital marketing consultant Michael King, the release of Panda was the dawn of Judgement Day for SEOs, particularly those who focused on black hat SEO practices—exploiting loopholes in Google’s algorithm to gain rank.

“People were starting to realize, ‘Oh, this is a problem,'” King said. “And then it just got worse as more iterations came out. Then, when Google rolled out the Penguin update that targeted links, that’s when everybody was like, ‘Oh, wow, okay, this is not a game anymore. We actually have to build brands.’ And that’s when, overnight, SEOs became content marketers.”

But even though the worlds of SEO and content marketing have converged, not everyone has bridged the steep learning gap. What exactly do content strategists need to know about SEO, and why? In this e-book, we team up with some top SEO minds to explore exactly that. Let’s start with the why.

A Changing Paradigm

Marketing folks who have loosely followed the drama of search engine algorithm changes might be tempted to take all of this with a grain of salt. After all, Google makes changes all the time, right? Why bend over backwards to keep up with this one?

In fact, by the time you eat your next meal, there’s a chance the algorithm will have already changed again. Rand Fishkin, founder and former CEO of marketing analytics software company and online marketing community Moz—who also goes by the “Wizard of Moz”—said Google makes more than 600 algorithmic updates each year, even if the world only hears about 10 or so.

“Rather than looking at every individual update and saying, ‘Oh, Google did this, quick we’d better react, you can really look way off in the distance and say, ‘That’s where Google is going. Let’s just head in that direction,'” he explained.

That’s news to marketers, who, according to the June 2015 “Search Engine Optimization Survey Summary Report,” produced by Ascend2, find changing search algorithms to be the biggest challenge to SEO success. Now that it’s clear what Google is looking for—something many SEOs have known for more than a decade, Fishkin added—it’s time to focus on that.

“Content marketers and SEOs should be primarily concerned with keeping up with what their customers want and expect from them, and what visitors and the influencers of visitors want from them,” Fishkin said. “Much more so than, ‘Oh, what did the Phantom update do? Let’s spend dozens of hours analyzing that.'”

Despite the industry’s history of rapid evolution, SEO experts expect this new marketing landscape to be a permanent state of affairs. High-quality content will likely be the most important SEO factor from here on out.

High-quality content will likely be the most important SEO factor from here on out.

“I would put money on it,” said Mark Traphagen, senior director of online marketing at Stone Temple Consulting. “There are subtle details about it that will constantly change. But I don’t see any going back from this concept that quality, rich, diverse content is going to win the day. Because the ultimate goal is that a search engine wants happy users.”

And happy users are those who find the best possible answers to their search queries. The best answers include content that is exhaustive, well-researched, organized, and easy to consume. That’s what readers want, so that’s what Google wants. It’s actually what search engines have always wanted, but only recently did the Google brain get smart enough to evaluate content for quality in ways that penalize manipulative SEO tricks such as keyword stuffing, hidden text and links, doorway pages, and duplicate content.

“We’re coming into the age that many people are calling the time of semantic search,” Traphagen said. “Search engines like Google are now able to employ much more sophisticated algorithms that are beginning to approach almost what we could call artificial intelligence in their ability to learn about the world. That shook up the SEO world, realizing that content is not something that SEOs could afford to ignore anymore.”

However, the issue is a bit more complicated than just kicking SEO tactics to the curb in exchange for whatever an individual marketer might deem high-quality content.

“Writing great content isn’t enough,” Chang said. “You have to make sure it’s optimized for search engines, so having [an SEO] toolbox for the content team to utilize is just one element that they can harness to gain further visibility for the content they create.”

Filling the SEO Toolbox

Despite the determination that Google’s intent is to connect users to useful information, Fishkin believes “create great content” is terrible advice to give by itself.

“I think that is meaningless, useless, non-actionable, and incorrect advice,” he said. “Lots of people can go out and create what they consider—or what many people would consider—great content, and no one will see it and no one will amplify it and it won’t rank in search engines. And [then] their boss will tell them, ‘You know what? This content marketing thing is a pile of crap. Give up.'”

To actually produce results that will get recognized by the c-suite, content marketers have position that content in a way that pleases Google (and other search engines).

Whether it’s minor technical tweaks that content creators can make themselves, or more advanced SEO tactics, content marketers should have a solid understanding of certain SEO strategies and what kind of impact they can have on their work.

“They just need to know the pros and cons of the decisions,” Chang said. “Instead of saying, ‘I don’t know, I’m just trying to squeeze all of this SEO in,’ [they should be able to ask] ‘What am I gaining from these decisions?'”

Here’s how to address that question:

Keywords

Thanks to Google’s Hummingbird update last year, content marketers no longer have to choose between the power of keywords and clunky, robotic-sounding copy.

“This is a fundamental change to the Google algorithm in that they understand synonymy a lot better,” King said. “If I use the keyword ‘Barack Obama,’ Google knows that is the same thing as ‘President of the United States’ or ‘Michelle Obama’s husband.’ You don’t have to shove in the keyword ‘Barack Obama’ 49 times anymore. You can write a lot more naturally at this point.”

Don’t just wing it with keywords, though. Take the time to research terms related to your topic to be sure they align with what consumers are searching. A good keyword will connect common searches with your content. If you’re writing about quilting, for example, knowing that popular searches like “quilting fabric” and “quilting frames” are crucial. These commonly searched two-word phrases are much more powerful keywords than “quilting” alone.

For further research, King recommends tools like Keyword Tool or Google Adwords Keyword Planner, or dropping your copy into nTopic or Alchemy API and editing to weave in the best keywords.

Headlines

Viral content giants like BuzzFeed and Upworthy have proven the power of optimizing headlines for social sharing. But that doesn’t mean you have to choose between a creative headline that appeals to humans on social networks and one that appeases Google.

“I think you can marry those two if you can find that intersection of the Venn diagram of what people actually search for and a title that’s going to get people paying attention and wanting to click and share,” Fishkin said. “Then you can do remarkable things.”

But just as you should use keywords in the text, use well-researched search terms in headers to get the full SEO effect. In order for people to find on search engines that story you wrote about quilting frames, a title like “You’ll Never Guess Which Quilting Tool Made This Incredible Project Possible” won’t be as powerful as one with a commonly searched phrase like “quilting frame” right in the headline.

Moreover, since Google limits the number of headline characters users can see in search results, be as concise as possible. Research indicates users only read the first and last three words of a title anyway.

“We knew that Google showcases the first 50 to 60 characters,” Chang said. “So just be cognizant of that. Is the article about an event? Write the event name in your title, then maybe put a colon and then add a creative headline.”

Remember that people have to click on your headline before they read your content, so there’s no understating its importance. However, don’t let that fact tempt you into creating sensationalistic headlines—or, worse, misleading ones—in order to earn that click.

“One of the things [Google is] looking out for is what they call ‘pogo-sticking,'” King explained. “Do you look for a few seconds and bounce back? That’s an indication of quality.”

If your content doesn’t accurately reflect your flashy headline, you’d better believe users will pogo-stick right out of there, and your search ranking will pay the price. Similarly, strong ledes to your stories are crucial; you need to make sure to grab readers’ attention and don’t give them a chance to leave.

User Experience

If you ask content marketers about user experience, you’re probably going to get a bunch of empty stares or people nodding vaguely while scrolling through their phones. But if these marketers want consumers reading their content, that apathy has to change.

“User experience is becoming a search ranking factor,” Traphagen said. “That’s one of the things SEOs have believed for years, but that there is more evidence than ever that the actual click behavior of searchers is being measured.”

“User experience is becoming a search ranking factor,” Traphagen said. “That’s one of the things SEOs have believed for years, but that there is more evidence than ever that the actual click behavior of searchers is being measured.”

When people search for a question, your content needs to contain the answer at the top of the page so users don’t pogo-stick back to the search results in a matter of seconds. Clean, organized copy with bullet points, section titles, and engaging images also make a big difference. Take this story from Green Living Ideas. It’s the first Google entry for the search “Can you flush a hot water heater with vinegar?” The question is answered right in the headline, and the content is neatly organized with section titles and broken up with both images and video.

For brave marketers, you may even want to learn how to take care of these tasks yourself.

A lot of these things are not that difficult,” King said. “A lot of them are things that Page Speed Insights will tell you to do and give you step-by-step instructions on how to do it, or link you to a resource.”

Rich, Diverse Content

There once was a day when, if you had a site about skateboards, it was beneficial to create dozens of pages with near-duplicate content about every different color skateboard. That doesn’t fly today. Now, to be successful, you’re going to need stories about where to skateboard, famous skateboarders, skateboarding techniques… The list goes on. In other words, you need to have diverse content, or “thorough and complete coverage of your topic,” as Traphagen put it.

“The more thoroughly you’ve covered the same themes and topics that your site is about, the more likely it is that the search engines are going to have an accurate picture what your site is about,” he said. “It’s like triangulation in navigation.”

And rich content is the opposite of thin content—what Google calls “content with little or no added value,” which includes automatically generated content, thin affiliate pages, doorway pages, or content from other sources like low-quality guest posts. (For for a detailed explanation on what these practices are and why they negatively impact SEO, check out this helpful primer from Google.) Rich content adds maximum value to readers, so make every word, video, image, and link really mean something.

Length matters as well. Forget trying to make everything snackable. Buffer found that blog posts of 1,600 words generated the most social shares. The SEO perspective on length is becoming equally biased against brevity. To please the Google gods, write as much as necessary to really cover the topic.

But, as King points out, that doesn’t mean forcing longer word counts without reason. “Thinking about it from an ‘ideal length’ perspective is the wrong way to go about it. Write as much as it takes to be exhaustive. That could be 250 words. It could be 50 words. It could be 1,000 words. It all depends on what you’re writing about.”

Write for Mobile

Optimizing for mobile is no longer optional. Thanks to Google’s so-called “Mobilegeddon” update, content has to pass the mobile-friendliness test in order to rank well. Fortunately, there’s a tool that will tell you what Google thinks of your site’s mobile optimization. And you have no reason not to use it, because there are real consequences for not complying. According to Adobe’s Q2 2015 “Digital Advertising Report,” sites that were not optimized for mobile saw a decrease of up to 10 percent in organic traffic after the update.

Mobile-friendliness is about more than just telling your design team to transition your site over to responsive design or to create a mobile version of a typical site. When creating content, it’s important for marketers to make sure their work translates to mobile before they publish.

“If your content isn’t text-based, can it perform on mobile? If it’s a game or a quiz, can users access it on devices?” said Emily Grossman, mobile marketing specialist at MobileMoxie. “And because things are shared so much on social media, not only should it perform in Safari and a Chrome browsers, but also perform well in the sub-browsers within a network.”

What’s the best way to know? Test it. View your content on smartphones, tablets, and in a variety of mobile browsers in apps like Facebook and Twitter.

Think about how mobile content will appear on mobile search as well. Create titles short enough to be read, and if your desktop and mobile content are different, be sure that the description on the search page is still accurate.

“We see this take place in search results when a user is seeing a meta description displayed in the search results that was culled from the desktop version,” Grossman said. “If they don’t actually get that content, or if they can’t perform the same function that they were promised, they can get frustrated and bounce pretty quickly.”

Finally, it’s important to understand the impact Google’s move toward mobile will have on the entire SEO ecosystem. It used to be that the only way a mobile app would show up in a search result would be if the landing page—an iTunes download page, for example—was relevant. But Google is evolving to include the deep-app content—the content inside of apps—in searches results.

While the function is still limited for now, Cindy Krum, CEO and founder of MobileMoxie, expects that we’ll soon see deep-app content coming up regularly in searches, giving users the opportunity to download the app to access it. That’s a huge opportunity for app makers, and it could be a big change for publishers keeping an eye on SEO.

“It’s definitely an increase in competition,” Krum said. “Websites aren’t just competing with other websites now, they’re competing with apps. The app content has to be good enough to compete. But lots of webmasters have gotten used to just competing against other websites and not against potentially richer, better content that has been locked in apps.”

Know Your Audience—Really Well

“Know your audience” is Writing 101, but content that aims for great SEO takes the mantra to another level. Your audience isn’t some abstract demographic; it consists of real people with real online behavior that can be researched.

“Examine what have other people shared,” Fishkin said. “Why have they shared it? Who shared it? Who linked to it? You can start to develop a sort of a sixth sense, a real sense of empathy for people who have done that amplification.”

You can also reach out directly to members of your target audience and ask them what they’re searching for online. Over time, the answers could become keywords and topics you focus on.

In some cases, knowing where your audience comes from is as important as knowing who they are.

“Understanding the context in which that content should be consumed is a really good place to start,” Grossman said. “Is this snackable? Can they consume this on the go? Is this longform content that is something somebody needs to be in a good place to read? Understanding that is really helpful.”

Chang takes an iterative approach to determining what kind of content to feed audiences. She recommends creating a variety of content—shortform, longform, multimedia, etc.—and testing it on Etsy’s audience. For content geared toward an older audience, for example, she might begin with the hypothesis that visitors will be using Internet Explorer and older PCs, so using lots of images or other factors that affect page loading time will be avoided. After formatting a number of stories that way, that traffic will be compared to similar content that was formatted differently, helping hone in on the best content model for that audience.

“Having a blanket rule doesn’t work,” she added. “For some sites, longform works really well. For other sites, shortform works. It’s what resonates with your audience and what they’re seeking at the time.”

Conclusion

With all there is to keep in mind when creating content, it’s not surprising that marketers have historically looked at SEO as a hurdle, not a tool. Google’s algorithm is so smart, it’s simply become too tough to game. The only option is to create the right kind of marketing that your audience will value.

“If you are producing content because you care about the users, if you want them to benefit from your site and say, ‘Wow, that was useful, I want to come back there again,’ then you’re being rewarded,” Traphagen said. “I think that’s a good thing. It’s nice to be recognized for things you care about and you know humans care about.”

And since what humans care about should be exactly what search engines care about, it’s about time that SEO best practices caught up. Those three letters used to scare content marketers, but trust us: There’s nothing to be afraid of anymore.

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