For many content marketers, organic traffic earned through SEO is like a holiday bonus: It’s cool if it happens, but no one is planning their monthly budget around it.
“It’s not something they go for head-on,” said Dana DiTomaso, partner at digital marketing agency Kick Point. “People think about content and then say, ‘Oh, we’re going to do a social push.’ But really, good content should be driving your organic traffic on a regular basis.”
But what can you do about SEO? You’re just a creative person, right? Wrong. The days of clear distinctions between the content team and the SEO department are long gone. Content marketers should not only be aware of how their work affects search engine rankings, but also actively use that feedback and awareness to optimize their work.
Here are seven things that content marketers should be doing right now, according to some of the most masterful minds in SEO.
1. Jessica Bowman: SEO first, create later
For experienced marketing teams, the content creation process has become a high-level assembly line. The problem, according to SEO management consultant Jessica Bowman, is that SEO is often only considered after the fact. Rather than waiting until a piece of content is complete and then handing it off to the search expert, content marketers should keep SEO in mind from the very beginning.
“The problem I see in content marketing is that it’s after. It’s always the add-on piece,” Bowman said. “Instead, what I’d love to see them start doing is thinking about keyword research before you start brainstorming your content calendar.”
That research can guide content creation in a couple of ways. It exposes both what users want to know and, with a bit of additional digging, what questions existing content has already answered. Instead of retrofitting content to accommodate those keywords, content strategists can then build stories around them, organically incorporating SEO from the start.
“The writers need to incorporate the keywords into their thinking and brainstorming before they write,” Bowman explained. “It needs to be in the creative brief. Then, when they start writing, that needs to be what drives the creative direction.”
The same goes for link building. Thinking about what will inspire people to share and link to a piece of content before it’s created is much more effective than trying to figure out how to make finalized copy more appealing to influencers.
2. Dana DiTomaso: Tap into title tags
According to Dana DiTomaso, if there’s one easy fix content marketers can use to maximize the impact of their work, it’s not some sneaky, newfangled SEO trick.
“[It’s] title tags—which I know are the least sexy thing in content marketing,” she said. “But they actually make a difference.”
Title tags are the headlines that show up in search results. (For a quick lesson, check out this helpful Moz post.) Where so many brand publishers go wrong is making their title tags the same as their headlines. While a great headline is certainly a strong ranking tactic, DiTomaso stressed that it doesn’t serve quite the same function. Rather than rehashing the headline, which is typically engagement-focused, title tags should directly reflect the keywords you want people to use to find the article.
“We have the tendency in our industry to focus on the new shiny,” she said. “How about you just look at the title tags? It one hundred percent makes a difference. We’ve seen examples where literally all we’ve done on the page is change the title tag and then magically things are showing up better. And you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, this SEO thing really does work.'”
3. Paddy Moogan: Canvas your competitors
When it comes to SEO, no one loses points for peeking at their neighbor’s work. In fact, Paddy Moogan, co-founder of digital marketing firm Aira, agrees with Bowman: Checking out your competitors’ content is the first logical step when deciding what you want to create.
“But you have to look wider than your average competitors and find your content competitors,” he said.
For example, consider a travel website that sells flights and hotels and wants to rank for keywords such as “flights to New York” or “apartments in Rome.” Looking into competing travel sites that will also rank for those terms is simply a matter of common sense and basic research.
“However,” Moogan said, “you also need to look wider, and in this example, you’d look at travel bloggers. They don’t compete for these kind of keywords but do produce content that does well online, so you can probably learn a lot from them.”
4. Stephanie Chang: Links are forever
What type of content is more valuable: a topical take or something more evergreen? Is it better to attract lots of visitors right now or build long-term link equity?
Why not both?
“Keep URLs evergreen whenever possible,” said Stephanie Chang, Etsy’s acquisition manager and former SEO manager. “But you can modify the meta title and the H1, so that they are tailored for the audience.”
Take, for example, the link equity of an annual gift guide. According to Chang, the URL shouldn’t be “http://www.xyz.com/2015-holiday-gift-guide”: the extra specificity isn’t worth sacrificing the possibility of using the URL as a long-term content investment. A better option would be “http://www.xyz.com/holiday-gift-guide.”
“This way, we can reuse the same URL year after year, making the page stronger each year,” Chang said. “However, the meta title and H1 can still say ‘2015 Gift Guide,’ so that the content appears to be relevant and timely to its target audience.”
5. Erin Monday: Think SEO while you social
Even marketers who feel at home with both social and SEO can no longer think about the strategies separately. Search and social are colliding, and content’s job is to keep up.
“Twitter is integrating and indexing with traditional Google Search more and more,” said social media marketing expert Erin Monday. “So you better be applying some of your traditional SEO treatments in the Twittersphere.”
Some important actions to focus on include picking keyword-relevant handles, adding keywords to tweets, and thinking about SEO with regard to the names of videos and images being shared.
“If you look at how Twitter handles populate the regular SERP [search engine results page] results, even now, we can see traditional keywords at play,” Monday said. Applying SEO strategies to social media can help give your content that extra attention boost.
6. Stephan Spencer: Use linkerati outreach tools
For content creators, link building can be intimidating. Worrying about making great content is consuming enough, do you really have to spend time and energy wooing members of the so-called linkerati1?
According to SEO strategist Stephan Spencer, you do, but it doesn’t have to be as exhausting as you think. Using an outreach tool—Spencer likes Pitchbox—can make it much easier to connect with the digital elite.
The tools can create a list of influencers according to certain metrics such as MozRank, domain authority, and Klout score. Once finalized, the software can ask influencers to share or participate in a piece of content. And participation, according to Spencer, is always the better of the two options. “You’ve got to get them involved,” he said. “You’ve got to scratch their own itch.”
For instance, if you’re creating some content, asking an influencer for a quotation is far better than asking that person to share one of your existing articles, no matter how relevant it is to their audience.
“It systemizes and provides workflow and pipeline reports for outreach to the influencers,” Spencer said of these outreach tools. “That allows you to scale it. You don’t have to do it all via brute force in your email account one at a time.”
7. Marie Haynes: Go great or go home
“My best advice would be to stop looking for shortcuts,” search engine marketing consultant Marie Haynes told me. “Every piece of content that you produce needs to be the absolute best of its kind.”
Previously, marketers could use SEO tactics like link building, keywords, and title tags to make content perform well in search regardless of the quality. That, however, is no longer the case.
Haynes knows plenty of businesses that crank out a quick, short blog post every single day, believing that the more they publish, the better. “This mindset must change,” she said. “I only recommend publishing content when you are able to produce something that is significantly better than what already exists on the web. If Google sees that a large portion of your site consists of content that rarely engages anyone, then this could trigger a demotion by the Panda filter.”
Essentially, it’s time prioritize quality over quantity. As Haynes put it: “Google is getting better and better at recognizing content that truly is useful to people.”