7 truths about SEO

Is Google search so semantically smart that marketers no longer need to optimize content? Not even close. Here's what you need to know about SEO now.

BY Linda Formichelli
Contributor

SEO sometimes still gets a bad rap.

Many marketers think the practice of search engine optimization is no longer relevant, thanks to Google’s innate ability to just know the difference between good and bad content. Others still think it’s just a fancy term for keyword stuffing, otherwise known as manipulating search rankings by cramming irrelevant words and phrases onto a page. And yet another contingent considers it something like cheating, an unscrupulous way to draw traffic to your website.

Is there even a tidbit of truth to any of these views? Actually, yes. Google is becoming more and more intuitive, constantly. Keyword stuffing is a thing. Unscrupulous SEO tactics, and people who engage in them, do exist.

But overall, the idea that these things define SEO is a misconception—one that can lead to missed opportunities for content marketers. “When you don’t optimize your site, you’re making it hard for people to find your content in Google. This reduces the ROI on every piece of content you put on your website,” says Heather Lloyd-Martin, CEO of the SEO and content marketing consulting firm SuccessWorks.

Have these SEO untruths influenced your content marketing strategy? It's not too late to double back. Here are seven things you need to know about content marketing and SEO to get the most return from your content.

1. Black hat SEO will hurt you.

Dodgy SEO tactics like buying links, keyword stuffing and cloaking—where the search engine is presented with content that’s different from what the user sees—have been around as long as SEO itself, which is at least as long as Google has been around. And there will probably always be people who choose to use them. Reputable companies and websites, however, need to steer clear. “Google is good at recognizing black hat tactics,” says Pax Roberts, SEO manager at Imagination. “Using them will damage your credibility.”

Instead, experts recommend focusing on methods that are not only proven but also honest, like excellent content, keyword tracking and quality backlinking. “White hat strategies do take time, but they're more sustainable in the long run,” Roberts says.

2. Keywords are still key.

Speaking of keywords, don't let anyone convince you that they're passé—or worse, that they're automatically synonymous with the black hat practice of keyword stuffing. The reality is that keywords matter a lot, not only to the major search engines, but if your site has its own search application, they matter there too, says JP Sherman, manager of search and findability at Red Hat, an open-source software company recently acquired by IBM. He says it’s all about using the right keyword. “Keywords are very important because they are the vehicle through which intent is expressed,” Sherman says, explaining that Google is getting better at query structure that has an implied intent, rather than looking at the query as just “a bag of words.”

What’s more, keyword tracking is an effective way to monitor the ROI on your SEO strategy. “I start tracking those keywords we're targeting for a client, and then I tell them, ‘Hey, at the end of this month, you got $12,000 in free traffic from this one article we optimized from these three keywords,’” says Roberts. There are numerous tools, some paid and some free, to help content marketers monitor and manage keywords and determine their effectiveness.

No matter how good your keywords are, though, they’ll be useless if the content that surrounds them is bad. Keywords need to be incorporated into content that is meaningful and relevant to users. “If you don't answer a searcher’s query with the right keywords, your website is not going to be ranking,” says Violette Moussavi, SEO and digital marketing manager for Greendropship, a dropshipping supplier of natural and organic groceries, supplements and body care products. “But it has to be natural, not forced.”

“SEO isn’t a one-and-done thing. Your content will depreciate over time, because one of the ranking factors is timeliness.”

Pax Roberts
SEO manager, Imagination

3. SEO is always changing, so your tactics should, too.

Maybe you’ve got your SEO protocol totally dialed in right now. Great. But SEO is always evolving, and savvy content marketers need to make sure they’re evolving right along with it. Otherwise, you might start to drop in rankings because you aren’t aware, for example, that Google recently started indexing podcasts, or that it’s now prioritizing featured snippets, or that last summer it implemented a “site diversity update” that limits the number of page-one organic rankings for the same website.

"Google is constantly changing their algorithms," says Roberts, pointing out that in 2018 alone the search engine implemented 3,200 changes and engaged in more than 650,000 experiments. Follow the official Google Webmaster Central Blog to keep track of updates Google is making that could impact your SEO—and then put those updates into play if you want to keep (or get) higher rankings. “SEO isn’t a one-and-done thing,” Roberts says. “Your content will depreciate over time, because one of the ranking factors is timeliness. Google doesn’t want to show articles from 2003. They want to show things that are timely.”

4. Good content isn't good forever.

Roberts urges content marketers to perform regular audits to make sure that a) SEO updates are still working in your content’s favor and b) users are finding value in your content. The process can be tedious—as any set of how-to instructions will show you—but is well worth the time spent.

What should you evaluate in a content audit? Roberts suggests looking at:

  • Reads per page
  • Length of time spent on a page
  • Number of conversions per page
  • Number of social shares
  • Whether your sourcing is up to date
  • How well the tone of the content reflects your brand
  • How fresh the format is (for example, maybe it’s time to add some numbered lists or bullet points)
  • E.A.T. (Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness) factors (for example, are you providing an author bio to prove your content is written by an industry expert)

Once the audit’s complete, you can use the information to adjust your methods and your content as needed. An audit can help determine whether it’s time to rewrite, delete or consolidate content, or even just update a fact or two.

It’s also extremely important to use the audit to make sure you are not competing with yourself. “When I start looking at potential clients’ keywords, the majority of the time I’ll find that they’re targeting the same keyword with seven different content pieces, causing keyword cannibalization," Roberts says. This means all seven pieces risk a rankings drop and low organic traffic, because all pages are competing against each other for similar queries. An audit will show you if this is happening, so you can either reevaluate the main purpose of each individual piece of content or consolidate those seven pieces targeting the same queries to create one piece of content on the link with the most search equity.

5. Links do matter.

It’s not what you know, it’s whom you know. In real life, this old adage may or may not be true. But when it comes to SEO, whom you know does matter. That's why it’s crucial to only link to sites with expertise, authority and trustworthiness—known as EAT by industry insiders. In return, those are the sites you want linking to yours. “Google is crawling your page, looking at the links and seeing what you’re attached to,” says Roberts. If your healthcare content is somehow linked up to an office supply store, for example, your expertise, authority and trustworthiness can take a hit because the connection doesn’t make sense.

On the flip side, if CNN links to your infographic, that’s a win for your own expertise, authority and trustworthiness. Links to author pages are also valuable, because they show the reader that the person writing the content is qualified to speak with authority on the topic at hand. Another good move: linking to articles on your own website. This encourages people to click around and read additional content, says Lloyd-Martin, but you should still be careful about the competing-with-yourself dilemma.

Of course, it isn’t always possible to control who or what is linking to your site. But it’s enormously helpful to at least be aware that backlinks are important, Lloyd-Martin says, and then to take steps to get them—using white hat tactics, of course. “When we reverse engineer the elements of high-ranking pages, we find they tend to have high-quality backlinks,” she explains, adding that it’s not uncommon for those pages to become featured snippets.

6. Mobile and voice searches work differently.

Nearly 178 million people used mobile devices for internet searches in 2016, according to Statista, and that number was expected to surge to 211 million in 2019.

Desktop and mobile searches are not one and the same when it comes to SEO. In fact, a recent study by SEMrush found that only 13% of websites maintained the same position across platforms, and 30% of pages with first-page rankings on desktop dropped to at least position 10 on mobile. Content marketers who want to avoid that phenomenon need to create content that provides the type of information people are searching for on mobile devices, which often centers around dining, shopping, activities and general curiosity (How old is Danny DeVito? When does summer begin? What is Vegemite?).

Voice is still new but accounts for 20% of mobile queries, so optimizing for voice searches is important for savvy marketers. Here are three things you can do now to get voice ready.

First, know that optimizing your site for voice search goes back to the keyword analytics we discussed earlier. “The primary way to incorporate voice search strategy into your business strategy would be to look at how users are searching your site,” says Sherman.

Next, start incorporating structured data—information strategically organized and positioned into your content, possibly in the form of a table, chart or list—into your website. That structured data can help you rank for featured snippets, and featured snippets typically rank higher in voice searches than other pieces of information. “Whenever you’re talking to a Google Assistant or an Alexa, they are reading the featured snippets,” says Roberts. Sherman adds that incorporating structured data is one of the most important things you can do to enhance how Google understands your website overall. (Bone up on the benefits and how-tos of marketing through Alexa here.)

Finally, Roberts suggests making an effort to target long tail keyword clusters. This can be accomplished by placing questions and their answers in your content. For example, "How do I peel a banana fast?" and "Who is the world’s tallest man?" are long tail keywords. "It’s how we talk," Roberts says. “When you go to Alexa, you’re not going to say, ‘Alexa—search map, bus, now.’ No, you’re going to say, ‘Alexa, what time does the bus come to my address?’”

“I like to say that SEO is now more about search experience optimization than search engine optimization.”

JP Sherman
Manager of search and findability, Red Hat

7. User experience is everything.

While all of these SEO tips and tricks are vital for anyone who wants their content to rank high in searches, none of it really matters unless the user experience is top notch. “SEO has to be user-focused now,” says Moussavi. This means incorporating basics like good navigation, an aesthetically pleasing design, mobile-friendly features and speed into your content marketing plan.

Formatting your content for Google’s featured snippets is essential, too, Moussavi says. Questions in the heading, for example, tend to appeal to users, as do bullet points and numbered lists, since they’re easy on the eyes and can be read and absorbed quickly.

In terms of the content itself, it’s crucial to zero in on what the user wants to see on your site. Are they looking for information? Entertainment? Customer service? Find out, and then provide it. Moussavi also recommends working with other marketing channels within your company on overall brand-building, rather than allowing your content to live in a bubble. “You need to know your audience and provide content that will help them at every stage of the conversion funnel,” she says.

Sherman actually has his own term for all of this; it’s still SEO, but it stands for something else. “I think there has been a shift of perspective in the industry,” he says. “I like to say that SEO is now more about search experience optimization than search engine optimization.”

Top SEO driver? A+ content

Search engine optimization is, undoubtedly, important to your website rankings. But when the rubber hits the road, nothing will ever beat the importance of good content when it comes to driving traffic to your website, says Lloyd-Martin. In fact, a survey conducted by analytics firm Databox found that 75% of experts consider content the most important aspect of an SEO-friendly site. (Keywords ranked a fairly distant No. 2.)

“If you’re worrying about what Google wants and making all of your writing decisions based on that, you are going about things the wrong way,” Lloyd-Martin says. “At the end of the day, writing good content is all about your reader.”

published: March 09, 2020