I’ve been finding myself saying, “You don’t rank for keywords, you rank for content,” a lot lately.
Imagine this. You’re trying to turn a quaint town on the shore (East or West—pick your coast of choice) into a vacation destination. You’ve developed a brand for the location that you’re promoting in all the right travel magazines and websites. You have well-positioned billboards. AAA knows how to help people get there. You make sure the town name is on all the road signs within 100 miles.
People start traveling. But when they arrive, they find a few chain stores, a dingy restaurant and a couple of Super 8 Hotels. No fantastic food or charming overnight options. No pedestrian paths or bike trails through the area. No tours to the nearby nature attractions. Everyone is disappointed, and soon word spreads that the town is not worth visiting. No matter what improvements happen in the future, word of mouth has already taken root. People know this isn’t a place worth visiting. No matter what you do down the line, tourism is low.
You got people there. What went wrong?
In this case it’s obvious. You didn’t get them to a rewarding destination.
The magazine clips and road signs have to support what’s in the town. The attractions will determine if your town succeeds as a vacation destination, not the markers that get people there. And you don’t succeed by first getting people there and then creating something of value.
Why do we lose sight of this seemingly obvious parable in marketing?
I would argue that it’s because there are so many clever ways to approach the “signage” in online marketing. The practice of generating visibility can become consuming. Creating the substance to which that signage leads is simpler, but harder to do well. It’s less easy to chart than those clever tactics until you already have a problem—until visitors are leaving en masse.
The content comes first, then the SEO.
Content Is About Substance
In this example, the qualities of the destination are the content: the food, the entertainment, the lodgings. These provide the substance of a “vacation destination.”
SEO is simply what you set up to help people find the town. Your SEO was awesome. Your content sucked. This gives short-term payoff—you get a first wave of people to the destination—and long-term failure—no one likes it and you acquire a negative reputation.
Not only does this kill repeat visits (to your town), but soon enough the magazines, the travel websites, even good old AAA start to question whether to send any more traffic your way.
Let’s transfer the idea from the metaphorical town to your real website.
An important distinction:
Content is not just a blog post or a product description. It’s not just the restaurant menu in our little town, but the roads a visitor travels to get there.
Content is any information used to convey meaning. It is any information that gives the visitor what they were after when they first arrived.
Information can take the form of words (like that definition of “content” I just gave), pictures, formats (the italicized text told you a word was important), or implicit associations created by structure and layout.
“Words are content” is easy to understand. “Implicit associations” as content is harder to understand. Here’s an example.
A search begins: “big cat yawning in the sun.”
Here’s another picture of a cat yawning.
But in the second example, “a big cat yawning in the sun” isn’t quite what you see, is it?
They’re both cats, they’re both striped, they’re both showing fangs, they both have sun on their heads. Both photos are close-ups of the cats’ faces and upper portion of their bodies.
The data is the same, but visitors were probably looking for one or the other of these images, not both. Good content satisfies a visitor desire. You have to choose the image based on the substance you think your viewer wants, not based on what you think you can get to rank.
You have to provide content that gives something substantial to your audience, not whatever you think will show up in search results. (Don’t know what they want? Learn how to develop a useful persona.)
SEO Is About Content
In marketing’s current obsession with data, we don’t care as much about meaning-making as we do about bigger numbers or line graphs that go up to the right. We want to make tangible, measurable changes to our sites that will get us those charts. We want easy answers.
“How do we rank for this keyword?” Put it in your metadata.
“How do we get this page to rank?” Add some links and a good H1.
I’m oversimplifying, but my point is that these changes don’t get you far if the content on your site isn’t worthwhile.
Search engines serve humans, not the other way around. When we start to serve search engines first, we’ve reached the singularity. Ray Kurzweil might think this is a good thing (and Google employs him—draw your own conclusions), but I don’t. Do you want to work for a machine or make it work for you?
I have the good fortune to work with a smart group of people who understand this. They know content and search engine optimization are fused, that tactics for SEO *must* involve content quality. (Click to tweet.) Sometimes, I also have the good fortune to work with clients who know or will learn this.
If SEO is about content, and content is about substance, SEO is about substance.
If you’re still with me, let’s talk about where tactical SEO fits into Content-First SEO. I sat down with one of those smart people I work with, Zac Heinrichs, to talk about how different SEO tactics can be reframed with the goal of creating substance.
SEO Tactic: Keyword Research
Zac Heinrichs: “One of the biggest stereotypes of SEO that’s persisted over the last decade or so is that it’s all about keywords… over time, that’s slowly changed for the better. With different Google updates, search engine understanding of a page or site has become more semantic. It’s not necessarily about the keywords on the page or the header anymore, but about answering specific questions and presenting valuable ideas rather than keywords to get the right answer in front of the people who are looking for it.”
To paraphrase, what matters is not keywords, but user intent. Read: meaning.
Key questions we should take from this when using keyword research:
- What do people want to do?
- How do we help them do that with our content?
- What are the questions people ask and how do we answer them?
SEO Tactic: Target High-Volume Terms
I get frustrated with marketers who say they just want more search volume or want to target high-search volume terms. More specific ideas may have lower search volume, but focusing on what is most relevant vs. what is most common can help businesses satisfy user intent. Right, Zac?
Zac: “Yes, and that’s the perfect way to build broader authority as well. If you can provide relevant and accurate answers for lots of questions about one topic with pieces of highly targeted content, creating a hub page to organize it on the site helps you build authority and relevance around that higher-search volume term or topic. It’s mutually beneficial.”
Key questions we should take from this when considering what terms to target:
- What subtopics under this broad term is our business ideally suited to address?
- What highly relevant subtopics could we address, but haven’t?
- Have we provided meaning on our site by organizing these subtopics into central hubs?
SEO Tactic: Link Building
External link building is not a tactic. It is a result, an earned benefit of having valuable content. If you set the right expectations and deliver something awesome, getting external links follows naturally.
Zac: “At Portent, we try to rely on making great content and not going fishing for links.” If you have something useful to certain audiences, networking with sites who have those readers makes sense. If you don’t, it doesn’t. Create content that’s worth the link.
Internal link building is often overlooked, but is easier to control. It helps set expectations and create associations. Remember the boring town? The network around it (the brand promotion in magazines, the billboards, the road signs) prepared visitors to find not just a town, but a destination with multiple ways to engage and enjoy. You can set expectations (do the SEO), but if you don’t deliver it will backfire. Make sure you have something substantive on which to base those expectations.
Zac: “Internal links help to provide correlation between pages. Contextual anchor text provides greater indication of what’s on the next page, enhancing trust from people and from a search engine—an expected result happens.”
Again, think of the town. You made a promise by disseminating the messages within your control. You set expectations through context. Now deliver on what you promised.
Key questions we should take from this when considering how & when to build links:
- Is the content we’ve created good enough that we want to link to it from all over our site?
- Have we promoted our best content by linking to it all over our site to increase its organic visibility for those who might link to it themselves?
- Have we created complementary content that provides depth and a great experience when visitors come to check out this individual page?
SEO Tactic: Writing Good Metadata
Metadata is the stuff that shows up in SERPs telling people what they’ll find on the page if they click through: title tags and meta descriptions.
Metadata is a prime ad spot in the most coveted travel magazine. Here, you get to tell visitors who are only one click away why your content is significant. And yet, perhaps simply because search engines will automatically pull something from your page to fill in this text, it gets neglected far too often. Don’t treat it as an afterthought.
You have roughly 160 visible characters to compel a reader to click through to your page. Make a promise the page fulfills. Get specific to pique interest. The best content doesn’t appeal to absolutely everyone, and the best metadata won’t either: It will appeal to the people looking for what you have.
By the way, details matter. Simple spelling errors or awkward phrasing do, in fact, make a huge difference. If you’re not convinced, someone did the experiment to prove it.
Zac: “Moz’s Head of SEO did a presentation at MozCon this year about metadata. Because Moz is an SEO monster, she wanted to see what it would take to actually lose some of the featured snippets they had earned. It turned out to be as simple as adding a typo in the meta description.” [Here’s a summary of the talk, “How to Execute Lean SEO to Increase Qualified Leads”.]
This is my shameless plug for copy editors and proofreaders everywhere. Readers judge words based on their accuracy and presentation. No matter how right the words are, if they’re misspelled or capitalized atypically readers will notice and ignore your site. Having an SEO write your metadata content is not enough. You need an editor or content expert to review it.
A New Approach: Content-First SEO
Much like content-first design, a concept that’s been around for a few years, content-first SEO will recognize that meaningful communication is the key to your online presence. Everything you put online needs to be a conversation between you and your audiences (a conversation they want to have). The SEO tactics you use need to further that conversation by making it more relevant, authoritative, and visible.
Want people to find your town? Start by making it an extraordinary place to go.
Want better SEO? Start with your content. Build out from there. Your content is what ranks.