Because the search engines like Google have changed their algorithms in the last few years, the role that search engine optimization (SEO) plays in content marketing is causing a lot of confusion.
Just the other day, one of our prospects told us that their SEO company suggested that they write no more than one blog post per week, and it should never be over 400 words. This sort of thinking is where we get into trouble when it comes to our content development strategy.
So before delving into a discussion about how to maximize your page results, we need to define what SEO can and can't do in a content marketing program.
Don’t start with the intent to maximize SEO, end with it.
First and foremost, content marketing IS marketing.
Search engine optimization is an important component of a content marketing program, but not the other way around.
Of course, you want your content to be found by your prospects on the first page of Google or any other search engine where your prospects are typing in questions. They work hand in hand—but it’s not about trying to “trick” Google into telling them what that page is about. You actually have to develop content that your prospects want to consume.
Not to say that keywords and backlinks aren’t important because they still play a big role in helping Google figure out what that page is about. For example, the keywords that you use in your page title, URL, headlines (H1 tag), and occasionally throughout the content are still relevant.
But most importantly, is the quality of the content itself, and here’s how it works.
Let’s say you’ve developed a really light piece, say 150 words, on a topic. You’ve developed it because you know that content is important to the search engines, but in all honesty, it’s not very meaningful. It might be perfectly optimized around the keyword, but it adds little value to the reader.
Therefore, no one links to it, and people immediately hit the back button and bounce from that page.
Google sees all of that, so they’re not going to send anybody back to that page in the future.
Conversely, if Google sees people come to that page and start engaging with the content by browsing around your site, linking to it, starting discussion threads, and so on, it can then extrapolate that this is a meaningful web page on the topic identified by the keywords in the page title, headline, URL, and body copy and start referring the page to more people when that keyword phrase is typed in.
So there are a few technical SEO aspects that you should be employing on a regular basis in your content development, but overwhelmingly it is the content in and of itself—not the keywords—that will determine whether or not you get good SEO juice on a page.
Here's where keywords can be important.
To demonstrate, let's use a common keyword like “software.” The word “software” probably gets searched millions of times per month, and you’re never going to be able to compete for the first page, so we need to add some more specificity.
By adding “accounting software,” now you’re getting a little more specific and the keyword phrase has fewer searches than “software” alone, but it’s still in the millions and difficult to compete for and optimize.
“Buy accounting software”—okay, so now I understand this person’s intent a little more, and we start to get an idea of where the prospect might be in the buying cycle. The post could be used to target buyers that know they have a problem and know that they need a software solution to solve it.
Now what if we add “Buy SaaS-based accounting software”? Now I know this company prefers vendors that offer a software-as-a-service model.
But we’re not done. Now let’s say the keyword is “Buy SaaS-based accounting software for XYZ industry.” Now I have an 8-word keyword where I really know this person’s intent.
So if I had an article titled "Buy SaaS-based accounting software for the XYZ industry," that could be a pretty meaningful article. And yes, I realize that I’m not going to have very many people on the planet searching for that exact 8-word keyword phrase every month. But the people that do come to that page are a pretty good indication that they are a prospect because they’re searching for exactly the business problem that you solve.
When you get into long tail keywords, you can better understand the intent of the searcher and you can then create content that not just matches their search, but more importantly, what problems they are trying to solve.
But we're still not done because you’re probably not going to be the only company that is going to write articles about buying SaaS-based accounting software for the XYZ industry (there might be something like 20 vendors that are competing in that same space).
So if one of the posts is a thinly veiled sales pitch, and another one is a 1000-word article that includes charts, graphs, videos, and third-party references, guess which one Google is going to reward?
So as a content marketer, what do you do with that information?
Again, there’s no question anymore that the most important thing to the search engines is high-quality content, but the strategy for producing that content must come from the understanding of the searcher’s original intent and where they are in the buying cycle. (Do you see why this is a marketing strategy and not an SEO strategy?)
The strategy for identifying buying stages of your prospects starts by understanding the high-probability pain points in each of those stages and developing content (and yes, keywords) that map to it. You can then organize your content topics around those themes.
In the late stages of the sales funnel for example, there are people that are already looking for vendors, and our long tail keyword referenced before—“buy accounting SaaS-based software for XYZ industry”—is an obvious map.
But don’t forget that there are people that might be searching for more top-of-the-funnel problems, such as “how do I solve problem XYZ?” At that stage, they might not realize that solving their problem is going to require them to buy a SaaS-based software solution, so you must develop content that maps to probable issues at the beginning stages of the buying process as well.
So it’s much more important for your content to be awesome for the consumer—for them to read, digest, and consume that content--than to write only for keywords, or write only for SEO. That just looks weird and feels unnatural anyway.
If you can always error on the side of usability while developing your content taking advantage of keyword searches around high-probability pain points in the top, middle, and bottom of the funnel stages, you’ll squeeze every last bit of SEO juice out of your posts.